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Living here the last few years, I’ve come to realize just how lacking my knowledge is of California native plant species.  I’m trying hard to educate myself as much as I can, but every once in a while, just as with the Calochortus we found here, I encounter a plant whose identity eludes me for a while.

In early spring I found this remarkable set of leaves growing at the base of a slope here on the property.

Leaves of Clintonia andrewsiana (click any image to enlarge)

This plant was keeping the company of Redwood Sorrel, and Trillium, lurking in the shade behind one of our Coast Live Oaks.

Clintonia leaves next to redwood sorrel

The leaves seemed almost tropical in appearance, and reminded me somewhat of the leaves of my long since dead Phalaenopsis orchids.  (I really have very brown thumbs when it comes to growing orchids).

There was a small cluster of flower buds on a narrow stalk in the center of the plant, but I had absolutely no idea what this plant was.  I’d never encountered anything quite like it.  Without the plant in bloom though, it was difficult to make a positive identification.

A small cluster of flower buds in the center of the plant

After some rummaging around in books and on-line sources, it seemed this plant was most likely Clintonia, but I still wasn’t certain.  Then on our visit to the San Francisco Flower & Garden Show at the end of March, at the Bay Natives Nursery booth, there was a small, identical looking plant, also not blooming, labeled as Clintonia andrewsiana sitting on a shelf in a pot…but I almost fainted when I saw the price.  $50 for a 1 gallon plant!

Feeling a little smug that such a lovely, and rather pricey native plant seemed to have volunteered itself on our east facing slope, I couldn’t wait for it to bloom!  So in the meantime I did a little research to see what I could learn about it.

Flower buds of Clintonia andrewsiana

Clintonia andrewsiana is not an orchid, but is in fact a member of the Liliaceae (lily) family, commonly known as Redwood Beadlily, Western Bluebead-lily, Red Clintonia, or Andrew’s Beadlily*.

Clintonia andrewsiana is native to coastal California, and only found from Monterey county California to southwestern Oregon, primarily in shaded mixed redwood forest.  Although according to the Bureau of Land Management, there is apparently some debate as to whether this plant has been extirpated from Oregon.

This plant typically has 4-5 basal leaves, although our particular specimen is quite large, with 7 leaves.  The single flowering stem ranges from 25-50 cm tall, and sports a showy pink to deep red terminal cluster of flowers between May and July, with up to four supplemental flower clusters borne laterally along the stem.

A small lateral cluster of flower buds below the terminal buds

More than two months after first finding this plant growing here, the flowers finally began to open…

The first flowers of Clintonia andrewsiana finally beginning to open

The flowers of Clintonia andrewsiana have yellow anthers

Clintonia andrewsiana

It’s clear that the flowers on our plant are more toward the pink end of the spectrum for this species.

Clintonia andrewsiana

Clintonia andrewsiana

Following the flowers, stunning cobalt-blue fruits appear in summer.

The blue bead-like fruits of Clintonia andrewsiana (Public Domain Image from the National Park Service)

Thus far, this is the only plant I’ve found, although it’s quite possible there are more that I’ve missed.  It’s certainly not abundant, although I’d love for more of these to grow here, but clearly, as expensive as they are, I either need to be patient and see if more grow on their own, or try germinating them from seed.  Apparently ‘deer relish the flowers and berries’.  This plant is currently not protected from the deer on the property, so it’s quite remarkable it has survived long enough to bloom.

Clintonia andrewsiana

The real question is, will it survive to set seed?  I’m seriously considering fencing this plant off, to afford it the best opportunity to set seed.

If I succeed in gathering seed from this plant, it apparently is best sown in humus rich soil, after cleaning the pulp from the seed.  Much like Trillium though, propagating this plant from seed requires tremendous patience, as it apparently takes four to seven years for Clintonia andrewisana to reach blooming size once sown.

I was curious to see if Native Americans had any specific uses for Clintonia andrewsiana, but I only found that the Pomo and Kashaya tribes considered this plant to be poisonous [1].

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*The specific epithet ‘andrewsiana’ commemorates the 19th Century English botanical artist, Henry Charles Andrews.

[1] Daniel E. Moerman’s Native American Ethnobotanical Database