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Our November Plant Of The Month, Ithuriel’s spear Triteleia laxa is a spring flowering geophyte. The statement begs two questions. Why feature a plant that at this point in the autumn has long since died back? And what the heck is a geophyte? The answers are related.
Fall is the time to plant native California “bulbs”. Often when speaking of geophytes we use the misnomer “bulbs” – out of habit or convenience. Geophytes send water and nutrients back down the stem to some form of under ground storage organ. This storage organ can take many forms depending upon the plant species. There are tubers, rhizomes, bulbs and corms to name a few. This is an excellent adaptation to summer drought, poor soils, herbivory (deer browsing) and fire. Many of our most familiar geophytes are plants from the brodiaea family (Themidaceae according to the current Jepson Manual). Ithuriel’s spear, wild hyacinth and pretty face (genus Triteleia) share this family with blue dichs (Dichelostemma) and harvest brodiaea (Brodiaea). Plants in the brodiaea family store starches in a small solid usually more or less oval structure called a corm. True bulbs are made up of rings, called scales, like the cloves in a head of garlic. Our native lilies are true bulbs. Often confused with bulbs, corms have several distinctive traits: all wear a tunic or outer coat which can be fibrous or smooth, are uniform when cut through you see no rings, have a basal plate at the bottom and one or more growing points at the top, have a definite vertical orientation, use all of the food in the corm to produce a flower and tiny new corms called cormels or cormlets. Corms range in size from tiny grains (cormels) to walnut sized if you are lucky.
An individual Ithuriel’s spear flower stem can reach up to two feet in height opening as a cluster of satiny purple trumpet shaped florets on smaller 1-2 inch stems originating super-nova style from a single point. It is often seen poking up through perennial bunch grasses in sunny meadows in late June. Ithuriel’s spear is common in Central California coastal ranges and throughout the Sierra Nevada foothills. In my favorite patch in the North Coastal Range summer solstice blooms are seen growing up through seeding California oat grass all animated by nectar sipping pale swallowtails. Once the florets have been pollinated by passing swallowtails (and others) the plant sets seed and dries down. During late summer and fall you may spot the curious frozen star burst shaped stems holding up papery sun bleached seed capsules.
From oral histories of native people, as well as the ethnographies and archeology of academics we know that the corms of plants from the brodiaea family where an important food staple especially in areas where pine nuts or acorns were not plentiful. On the Channel Islands archaeologists found evidence of roasted brodiaea corms from 10,000 years ago. Groundnuts, root foods or Indian potatoes can be eaten raw but were usually boiled, baked or steamed and then mashed into biscuits or cakes. There has been much written on the way first people tended the land in the act of harvesting geophytes. Digging was done using a straight stick with a fire hardened tip, aerating the soil and replanting cormels, bulblets, and pieces of tuber as the harvester worked an area. In effect the harvesters improved the vitality of plant populations by cultivating as they harvested. If you’d like to read more on this subject I heartily recommend Tending The Wild by M. K. Anderson. To find out more about the culinary ways of contemporary local indigenous people treat yourself to a visit to Cafe Ohlone right here in Berkeley.
At Oaktown Native Plant Nursery we use sustainable practices to grow native corms and other geophytes in bins on site. We harvest the bins in early fall, making them available for you to start your own bin for experimenting with or to add seasonal interest in your habitat garden. Right now we have a diverse selection (including Ithuriel’s spear) for purchase both bare root and potted.