Acourtia microcephala

purple flowers on branch
Photo credit: Jayne Leslie | Santa Carina trailhead | June 2016

A five foot tall sacapellote (Acourtia microcephala) grows beside the trail in East Basin. With with bright pink and orange curly flowers, this is not a shy plant, yet it remains one of the lesser known plants of the Reserve.

Sacapellote is one of a small taxonomic subgroup of plants in the sunflower family (Asteraceae). The individual florets, instead of being disk shaped and/or strap shaped have two lips, resembling two straps that arch away from the floret. The most familiar relative of Sacapellote is the gerbera (Transval) daisy.

Sacapellote is a fire-follower: one of a number of native plants of the chaparral that are more abundant, or more evident after a wildfire. The first season following a burn, sacapellote sends up lush new foliage, and it blooms and sets seeds prolifically. New seedlings emerge the second season and in subsequent seasons, becoming less abundant as the mature canopy of shrubs redevelops.

Other Common Names:

California desert-peony, desert peony, Perezia, purplehead

Description 4,11,35,59,283

Sacapellote is an upright perennial herb with multiple stems up to five feet (160 cm) in height. The leaves are broadly oval with fine-toothed margins and a short point at the tip. They are alternate and sessile, clasping the stem with rounded lobes. The midvein is prominent on the lower leaf surface. Leaves toward the bottom of the plant are eight inches (20 cm) or more in length, decreasing in size toward branch ends to about 1 inch (2.5 cm). Most of the plant is covered with short, glandular hairs; these give it a slightly sticky texture. Leaves turn yellow as the plant goes dormant in late summer, emerging again with winter rains.

Flower heads are generally less than 5/8 inch (1.5 cm) and consist of 20 or fewer two-lipped florets; one hundred or more flower heads are arranged in large domed or flat-topped, multi-branched arrays at the branch ends. The involucre is surrounded by 15-18 brown/maroon-tipped green phyllaries in four to five series. The pappus consists of many whitish bristles, 5-mm long. These are prominent even in the bud stage where, together with the pink developing petals, they give the bud a candy-striped appearance. The florets are neither disk florets nor ray florets, but “bilabiate florets.” Petals are bright to pale pink, occasionally white, coalesced into a two-lipped corolla; the larger three-lobed lip curves outward; the narrower inner lip is two-lobed, and often more strongly curved or coiled inward. There are five stamens, the anthers of which are loosely fused into a column around the style. Stamens are yellow or orange, becoming reddish on the outer portions of the anthers. The pistil has an inferior ovary that produces a single seed and a two-branched style exerted beyond the anther column; the style branches coil outward at maturity. The major bloom time is between May and August.1
The seed is a tiny ribbed cylinder, less than 3/16 inch (4.5 mm) long with a tawny pappus less than 3/8 inch (1 cm) long that parachutes the seed through the air.

purple peony shaped flower on branch

Santa Carina trailhead | June 2015

white bulbs with purple specks on a branch

Santa Carina trailhead | may 2015

green spiked leaves

Sessile leaves | Santa Carina trailhead | May 2015

Distribution 7,89

Sacapellote is native to the west coast of North America between Mendocino and Vizcaino Bay, Baja California, primarily west of the Coast Ranges. It occurs in chaparral and sage scrub under a variety of conditions, often appearing in openings in the vegetation.

In the Reserve, sacapellote is seen in the East Basin, along the trail as it descends the east facing slope between the Santa Carina and Santa Helena trailheads. One plant grows by the side of the trail, several more below the trail, and a sharp eye may see splashes of pink above the trail in gaps among the chaparral shrubs.

Classification 2,11,44,49,143

Sacapellote is a dicot angiosperm in the sunflower family, Asteraceae. This is the largest family of vascular plants in the northern hemisphere. “Flowers” of most Asteraceae are made up of one or both of two types of florets: symmetrical disk florets and strapped-shaped ray (ligulate) florets. These are crowded onto a common base (receptacle) and together are often assumed to be a single flower, which is called a flower head. Other familiar Asteraceae that occur in the Reserve include California sagebrush (Artemisia californica), bush sunflower (Encelia californica), and goldenbush (Isocoma menziesii).

Sacapellote belongs to a small divergent subgroup of Asteraceae that has bilabiate florets rather than typical disk or ray florets.11,59It is the only member of the genus in California. In a bilabiate floret, three of the five petals are joined together into a single lip that arches toward the outside of the flower head (resembling the petal of a ray floret), while the remaining two petals form a narrower lip that curls toward the center of the flower head. There are no other bilabiate composites in the Reserve. Perhaps the most familiar plant with similar bilabiate florets is the cultivated gerbera (Transval) daisy.11 Like a sunflower, a gerbera has a central eye of disk florets and an outer halo of ray florets, but between them is a ring that has a tousled appearance. This is composed of bilabiate florets similar to those of sacapellote.

Alternate Scientific Names:

Perezia microcephala

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
small purple petals coming from seed pod

Flower head with bilabiate florets | Santa Carina trailhead | June 2016

microscopic view of peony petals coming from seed pod

Bilabiate floret | Santa Carina trailhead | June 2016

inside of pink peony shaped flower

Gerbera daisy, another flower with bilabiate florets | Santa Carina trailhead | July 2016

Ecology 14,35,170,281

Sacapellote is a fire-follower, one of a group of chaparral plants that are particularly abundant, or obvious, after a burn. Sacapellote regenerates burned vegetation quickly by resprouting from an underground root. Seedlings are rare the first season after a fire, but the new vegetation flowers vigorously. It is thought that the major reseeding occurs during the second year and in subsequent years until a new canopy of mature shrubs crowds the plants out.170

small white pods all over branches in a bush

Santa Carina trailhead | July 2016

white dried out flowers

Santa Carina trailhead | August 2013

bush with small purple flowers on top

Santa Carina trailhead | June 2016

Human Uses  

We know of no uses of sacapellote by the local Kumeyaay, but the Chumash, to the north, simmered the root into a decoction to treat coughs, colds, and asthma.15,282, 283 The Spanish modified this into a diuretic for kidney and bladder problems.283 The Cahuillas, in Riverside County, mashed the whole plant and boiled it into a very speedy relief from constipation.282, 283

purple flower plant in a field

Santa Carina trailhead | June 2016

Flat green leaves growing from stem

Sessile leaves | Santa Carina trailhead | May 2015

purple flowers with white fuzzy seed pod opening

Santa Carina trailhead | June 2016

Interesting Facts  

The common name, sacapellote, is the Spanish name for the plant,283 which does not really explain where the name came from. There is a similar word in Spanish, sacapelotas which translates as “a nickname given to common people.”284 If we tolerate a small change in spelling, this word suggests that the name was given to the plant somewhere where it was very common.

white fuzzy seed pods on branch

Santa Carina trailhead | June 2016

tiny purple flowers with spiked petals on branch

Santa Carina trailhead | June 2010

bush with many small purple flowers

Santa Carina trailhead | June 2016

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