Monday, March 2, 2015

Woolly Blue Curls

Trichostema lanatum

Trichostema lanatum by Cliff Hutson

An old adage says, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. It would seem that a similar comment could be made about the most notable color of some plants, or their scent.

Woolly Blue Curls (Trichostema lanatum) , a member of the mint family  - Lamiaceae, is a three to four foot evergreen shrub with narrow aromatic leaves, and flowers in frizzy spikes. Endemic to the California Floristic Province, it is found below 3,500 feet in chaparral and coastal scrub from Monterey County to Baja California.

The common name derives from the color of its flowers. Typically seen from May to August, attractive blue flowers grow in dense spikes covered with violet or purple “wool”.  Many see the purple as the predominate color and feel that velvet is a better description of how the plant feels. The genus name comes from the Greek words trichos (‘hair”) and stemon (“stamen”), referring to the long slender stamens. The word lanatum also means covered with hair.

The scent of the plant is also open to debate. My field guides variously describe it as pleasantly aromatic, strongly aromatic, or strongly pungent. I think it smells lemony. Elementary school children on my tours at the botanic garden usually say it reminds them of bubble gum. However, based on an informal survey, about two out of ten garden visitors say it just stinks.  

Indians used the plant to catch fish. They would put the wooly hairs of the inflorescence in a body of water, which then collected in the gills of fish and suffocated them. It had further uses as an astringent and a treatment for sores and ulcers.

Woolly Blue Curls are noted for being difficult to propagate and finicky in cultivation. But, that does not deter local native plant gardeners and many find it flowers intermittently year round, as long as the plant decides to stick around.

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