Dodecatheon: beautiful wildflower, threatened species

Dodecatheon is not only a beautiful wildflower but also a threatened species.

Credit: Flickr / pfly

Over the past few years there has been a growing interest in the creation—perhaps recreation would be a more apposite word—of the indigenous wildflower garden.

In 1762, when Captain George Vancouver first saw the island that now bears his name, he wrote in his journal that he had come upon “a landscape as enchantingly beautiful as the most elegantly finished pleasure grounds of Europe.” He was amazed to note “an extensive lawn covered with luxuriant grasses and diversified with an abundance of flowers … I could not possibly believe that any uncultivated country had ever been discovered exhibiting so rich a picture.”

Alas, today, few are the areas covered with large numbers of the camas lilies, trout lilies (Erythronium) and shooting stars (Dodecatheon) that so enchanted that first adventurer; instead, we are faced with urban sprawl and developments of insignificant architectural interest.

It is for this reason that I so enthusiastically promote the cause, so to speak, of wildflower preservation—in this instance, the Dodecatheon. A cousin of the primrose family, it bears a strong resemblance, with its swept-back petals of rose, ruby-red or white, to the familiar European cyclamen. As with all wildflowers, it has adapted, over the millennia, to mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers, during which it dies back and all but disappears. But, come the following spring—March and April—it reappears with its rosette of leaves and brightly coloured flowers borne on 15- to 20-centimetre stalks. Fully hardy, it prefers partial shade and moist, well-drained soil.

There are 14 species from which to choose. Dodecatheon meadia (shown above) is perhaps the best-known, and bears pink, rose or white flowers. D. jeffreyii ‘Van Houtte’ is a larger plant, more lush than the others, and is able to support a much wetter habitat than, say, D. hendersonii, which, found in California, can grow to a height of 40 centimetres and a spread of 25 centimetres when in flower in early summer—very dramatic indeed. D. pulchellum, found in the mountains of western North America, produces up to 30 flowers per stem.

Allow all varieties to go to seed, let the seed fall to the ground and do not disturb for several weeks after that—ideally they should be forgotten for the rest of the year after they have bloomed. They are to be found in most nurseries, and once you start growing them you will have the additional satisfaction of knowing that you are helping to preserve not only a beautiful wildflower, but also a threatened species.