It’s not quite a tree—except for a specimen belonging to a friend of ours, a monster some twenty-five feet tall, standing, or rather lounging, somewhat angled in the arms of a Hollywood juniper in his back yard. But I can’t resist it; it’s one of Berkeley’s showiest plant citizens, and it’s blooming now, if the rain hasn’t knocked the flowers off between deadline and distribution. It’s even a California native.
There are some public plantings of Fremontodendron californicum, F. mexicanum, or flannelbush, around: one by the tennis courts at Martin Luther King and Russell, one in Oakland, along the green stretch of 51st Street between Telegraph Avenue and Broadway. They also peek over fences from people’s gardens; I know a few right in my neighborhood, at Sacramento Street near Dwight Way, on Allston Way west of Sacramento—and that monster, hidden from public view in our friends’ back yard, except for the lucky residents of the apartment house next door.
This shrub is best known for its flowers—big surprise—but its genus name is a matter of interest too. Like that city to our south, it’s named for John C. Fremont, aka “The Pathfinder,” the 19th-century explorer and promo genius who had a prominent role in the Bear Flag Rising. That event is one of the more comical in California’s history, and left us with a few souvenirs including our state flag, the original of which bears a critter that looks more like an agouti. As we currently have no more grizzlies in the state than we have agoutis—and all of either species must be in zoos—perhaps a revision of emblem, flag, or name would be in order.
We could fly a flannelbush flag; what would be homier? And there’s even a “Don’t Tread On Me” note to it: The plant’s endearingly furry leaves aren’t meant for stroking, as the fuzz can irritate skin. If you plant one, keep it away from paths—it’s tall enough for a good backdrop plant.
Certainly the University ought to be emulating Cambridge and adding a home touch by planting blue ceanothus and gold flannelbush together at every opportunity. As both are famously drought-tolerant, it would be water-thrifty, and the pair are spectacular together.
Fremont’s fate was as oddly hobbled as Prince Charles’ love life. Bernard de Voto wrote of him: “God and events were against Fremont. He tried to be a great man, but something always happened.”
Fremont apparently found the type specimen of flannelbush in Spring of 1846, somewhere north of Sutter’s Fort. This bit of plant survived to make it to the then-brand-new Smithsonian, unlike the bales of specimens that went over a precipice with the mule carrying them in the Sierra, or the ones lost in a flood on the Kansas River, or the others lost in what the publisher of his discoveries, John Torrey, called “the numerous and unavoidable mishaps of such a hazardous journey.”
The genus itself is a northward extension of a mostly tropical family, Sterculiaciae, the same family that gives us the kola nut in Coke and Pepsi. Flannelbush has more benefits, aside from its beauty, to ants, moths and bees than directly to us. Its flower buds support at least three moth species in one location studied—Pine Hill—and give bees a homing signal with ultraviolet-colored nectar. Bees can see ultraviolet, and a flower that still has nectar is a multicolored beacon to them.
It feeds native ants (which are lately imperiled by invasive Argentine ants, the ones most likely in your kitchen) by growing a food structure called an eliasome on each seed. Ants carry the seeds to their nests, eat the nutritious eliasomes, and handily distribute and plant the seeds. In a working ecosystem, everybody pays their way.
Most of the ones in nurseries are varieties of F. mexicanum, from southern California; F. californicum and several varieties (one is even prostrate) are more easily found at native plant sales and more specialized nurseries.
You can get a Fremontodendron of your own at the Tilden Botanic Garden’s annual sale on Saturday, April 16, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the garden—and have a stroll around the grounds some time before that, to get a taste of our home plants. See www.nativeplants.org for a map and directions.