In Praise of Triteleia
by Alec McCarter April 2005
The time of year is mid-June. At the feet of shrubs at the edge of oak forests protecting the southern edge of Finnerty Gardens or in grassy fields where the ground is wet in spring, here and there are patches of white flowers; white tufts held aloft by wiry, bare, slender stems. A visit to Mount Tolmie will reward the searcher with views of these graceful denizens of the damp pockets in the shrubs and grasses throughout the park; places in full sun that will dry out until autumn rains come again. After the flowers are borne, the grassy leaves come to nourish the white bulbs at their base. Then the leaves too die down to wait for spring. This widespread native plant of the lily family is found in suitable locations from California to Vancouver Island.
Thrusting up through the low branches of shrubs and supported by the grasses, the stems are so slender that they remain unseen from a distance, and the umbels of wide-spaced, star-shaped, white flowers, float and wave in the soft breeze as if they were free and not tethered to the ground. In a stronger wind, the leaves of the trees, clattering and chattering, applaud the dancing tutus of Brodiaea hyacinthina or Fool’s onion, now named Triteleia hyacinthina. There are other Brodieaes to be found too. Of them, the elegant blue B. elegans is probably the finest. True blue with a deeper blue midrib, it is not so common as its cousin. We have a small patch of this native species that has persisted for nearly a quarter of a century in a sunny dry position in our garden.
It has not spread, unlike T. hyacinthine, which came into our garden years ago, unbidden and unrecognized for what it was. It grew so vigorously that its grass-like leaves, very thickly growing, smothered plants that we tried to establish in the same ground. We dug up and removed handfuls of the small white bulbs from deep in the ground; it seemed that there were indeed bucketfuls of them – but fortunately, the plants seemed to prosper even more through being disturbed and redistributed.
Now, in mid-June, there are patches of them under rhododendrons, near blue-blooming Iris ensatas, wherever the soil is damp. There are a few under R. ‘Letty Edwards’ blowing backward and forward, bobbing and weaving, swooping around in graceful circles, driven by the wind; the long, strong, wiry, bare stems (up to 70 cm high but only 2 or 3 mm in diameter), unseen except on close examination. Each floret of the six to twenty in the umbel is star-shaped, white; each of the six petals having a pale-blue or pale-green central rib. The florets are on long pedicels making the umbels as small as a two-dollar coin or as large as the palm of my hand.
Our opinion of this plant has changed from being one of regarding it as a weed, unwanted as English blue-bells are not wanted where they are not intentionally planted. Now we regard the plant as a great asset in the garden lending elegance and grace, if only for a relatively sort time in June. There is a large patch of them embracing one margin of the pool at the base of the massive rock, growing up among, and towering over, the Lady’s mantle (Alchemilla mollis), Saxifrage ‘London Pride’, and multicolored leaves of Ajuga that also grow there. Gone are my former, foolish attempts to eliminate it.
As a cut flower, it is quite long lasting. A bouquet consisting mostly of brilliant-yellow, grey-leaved Senecio laxifolia, with six or seven dark, scarlet-flowered Lychnis chalcedonica, was enhanced enormously by a few of the slender stems of Triteleia hyacinthine.
It is said that aboriginal peoples used the starchy bulbs for food. We have not tried to eat it – perhaps that would be an adventure. We are glad just to admire it and its happy nature.
(Reprinted from the July 2004 issue of the Finnerty Gardens newsletter).