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Fiddleheads

A Hairy Plant Family


Not knowing Latin, Greek, or even Old English or Ancient French, one sometimes wonders why plant names have been awarded to certain groups. In this case, these lost languages were used to describe some widespread plant species that are covered with fine hairs. The family name is boraginaceae, and the genus name, Borago, which defines the family, also reflects this characteristic. There is another, even easier-to-see feature of most of the borage group. The flower stalks emerge as tightly curled “fiddle heads” not unlike fern fronds.

As in any family, there are the stars and the black sheep. Across the wildlands of California, a couple of weedy species have spread rampantly in disturbed soil (read agriculture). The yellow-flowering fiddleheads (Amsinckia species) carpet many valleys and the slopes of the foothills. One widespread species, A. menziesii, was used by the Chumash, who collected and processed the abundant seeds.

A couple of other native species may not form large colonies, but they do appear in spring as one of the highlights of the wildflower display. Phacelia was formerly separated into another family, but the distinctive coiled inflorescences are easy to spot. Their flowers in many shades of blue are much showier than some of their “cousins” whose tiny flowers are less than a quarter of an inch across. Phacelia flowers may be up to an inch across, and most of them bloom abundantly for quite a presentation. Look for them along the trails that climb into the chaparral along creek courses. As annuals, if you want to include them in the garden, you will have to sow from seed in fall or earliest spring.

In the garden, some pretty and even aromatic species are good subjects for the drought-tolerant garden. Borage (Borago officinalis) is usually an annual but reseeds itself readily, so once it is in the garden, it will continue to pop up year after year. Although it is covered with fine hairs and may not look very appetizing, borage leaves can be used for tea. Its flavor is somewhat reminiscent of cucumber and is reputed to give one a boost after a hard day. The star-like blue flowers can be added to glasses of iced tea as a delicious and delightful garnish. Their flavor is also reminiscent of cucumber and can be used to replace that vegetable in salads or cold soups, as well.

A very hardy shrub that rewards the viewer with masses of huge flower spikes in spring is Echium fastuosum. Most selections are deep to sky blue, but magenta and paler pink hues may also appear. The rest of the year (after those flower spikes have been pruned off), the gray-green leaves clothe a sturdy mound to anchor the Mediterranean-styled landscape.

Perhaps my favorite in this family is heliotrope (Heliotropium arborescens). It is one of the most seductively fragrant perennials (maybe because its fragrance seems to be a cross between candy and flowers). It has dark green, crinkly foliage and dense clusters of tiny deep purple flowers, although there is a white form called Alba. It is a little sensitive to bad drainage and cold, so if it doesn’t do well in your garden, try it in a pot and move it around until you find its comfort zone. Just one whiff as you walk by will seduce you forever.

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Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to vahayes@lotusland.org.

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