soaproot flower
Image by Far West Bulb Farm

Were one incapable of distinguishing the colors green from brown, one could still tell the winter hills of California at a glance. There is the wet, of course, and the fresh landslides.  Miner’s lettuce throws a blanket of lush salad across the landscape in January, disk-shaped terminal leaves perforated by flower stems, and if that detail is insufficient for identification then the sight of certain bloggers grazing on the plant on hands and knees should suffice. It tastes like home, and spinach. The first few flushes of poppies exalt the hills, the only California gold worth chasing. Manzanita, Ceanothus send out buds. Buds burst into color. Manzanita pink to white; Ceanothus white to indigo. Garrya, the silktassel, sprouts improbable cascades of bell-like flowers, chains of silver flowers, bell-shaped, each one nestled into its neighbor. Winter is the growing season here. Plants unfold, unfurl new growth in exuberance, hastening to drink the soil before it hardens.

Soaproot sends up pallid leaves, rosettes to dot the countryside.

Much of the winter flush lives underground, a redoubt from drought and fire. Winter rains trickle in, caress the bulbs, bathe the corms, and growing tips quicken. Brodiaea laxa sends up stems to hoist starry blossoms, blue as sky. The buds of Dichelostemmas open into small red tubes with bright yellow caps — “firecracker flowers” to tempt the hummingbirds. Calochortus pout out delicate tripartite flowers, untamable as partridges. Gardeners lust after them more than orchids, prepare rocky, droughty beds for them. The plants expire Camille-like from overwatering if two drops of gardener’s sweat touch their soil.

Soaproot grows in sun-baked south slope serpentine, or boggy shade, its leaves frozen splashes around imagined points of impact.

I notice soaproot first, these days. In summer, tufts of crazy hair poke up through the soil, dark brown and wiry. This is the bulb sheath, the skin of the onion. One leaf and then another emerges in the rain. They are long, strap-like, resembling daylilies.  They build improbable fountains of pale green, two hundred to the acre. Chlorogalum pomeridianum is likely the most common native bulb in California. Scarcity would breed greater fondness, but soaproot replenishes the earth without regard to popularity.

There are those who call it “amole,” a pretty name. “Soaproot” better captures its mundane nature. It is likely best assigned to the Agave family, a notion that makes sense if one is familiar with both soaproot and agave. Its rosettes of saponin-filled leaves, its fibrous rootstock, its general aspect suggest membership in that my adoptive family. Five species are described, most of them in California. Chlorogalum purpureum — a painfully rare endemic to the hills above Carmel — bears in season stalks with tiny purple flowers. Were it better known, it would be an object lusted after for smug horticultural bragging. The other four species grow pallid white or beige, or sometimes pink blooms, small and thin-petalled, generally folded closed on undistinguished stems when hikers are about. It is a genus with lackluster aspect, certain to evoke a yawn from the blasé botanizer.

And then the sun arcs low toward the Pacific. The botanizers, the status gardeners tighten their boot laces, hoist their daypacks and go home. Brilliant-striped Mephitis awakes and ventures out. The black-tailed deer bed down.

And Chlorogalum pomeridianum stretches out its petals like tired fingers, splays anthers into the night. Silent moths feast upon them, and the faintest perfume colors the night air. A forest floor bedecked in stars, fading as moon chases sun into the ocean.

By my front walk, an undistinguished sheaf of uninteresting leaves. The men who drive the neighborhood in battered pickup trucks, who toss plastic bags with pebbles and business cards onto our porches, would shear that sheaf to the ground, or root it out with a casual flick of shovel, were I to hire them. I don’t, and the leaves lengthen. Letter carriers come and leave again, and neighbors stop to watch the Ratibida bloom. School kids walk the noisy hill, and then the teenaged pickup trucks and stereos, and then the night.

And Becky falls asleep. I kiss her brow and make soft footfalls past the squeaky floor, open the door as quiet as I can. Zeke joins me on the porch. A block away the sound of engines straining up our hill. My dog and I watch soft, tiny wings sip from a bouquet of stars.

2 thoughts on “Chlorogalum

  1. spyder

    It is so very nice to have these textual pictures of the hidden beauty of California, to remind me of what i loved most about spending the majority of my life there.  Without these, i might even be tempted to visit;  thus these are doubly blessed, i and over an infinity of thanks.

  2. khaulein

    And for me, visits to this url are crisp and enchanted glimpses into a nature I’ve never met, a reprieve. Often these images bring me to question how anyone can get along without cultivating an appreciation of the aesthetics and systems of nature, when they are things that smooth the ruffled, like little else. Wonder is my frequent compainon, and these pages a rewarding trip—thanks for them.