This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Brodiaea Coccinea, Gray.
Scape erect; perianth broadly tubular, six-saccate at the base, the tube four times longer than the segments; anthers not winged. Leaves two to three lines broad, one foot long or more; scape two to three feet high; valves of the spathe four to six, lanceolate or linear, deep-red, six to twelve lines long; umbel four to twelve-flowered, pedicels eight to twelve lines long; perianth twelve to sixteen lines long, the tube deep scarlet, three to four lines broad, the lanceolate-oblong segments yellowish, two and a half to three lines long, spreading; anthers linear, equalling the segments, emarginate at the base; staminodia yellowish, very broad, square, toothed, half shorter than the anthers; ovary oblong, stipitate, the cell four to six-ovuled; style eight to nine lines long, filiform. (Watson's Botany of Clarence King's Expedition.)
THE first species of Brodiaa discovered, Brodiaa grandi-flora, had so much in its general aspect suggestive of the familiar plant of our dwelling-rooms and green-houses, that "California Hyacinth" seemed a not inappropriate common name. Though not a true Hyacinth, it comes as near to this famous flower of the poets as does perhaps any one of our wild plants. Miss Louisa Twamley makes one of her characters inquire why so much consideration should be given to these floral fables of the ancients. AEmilia says:
" Then, Leon, tell me why These strange old heathen poets can so win Your admiration, since you know all false, Wiild, and irrational, which they have taught About these innocent things ? "
To which Leon makes answer:
"All this I own, And yet, AEmilia, I have truth to urge; Even the fable linked with this sweet flower
Is truth scarce veiled by fiction: - Hyacinth, Beloved by Zephyr and Apollo both, Preferred the Sun-god to the Western wind, Who, thereat angry, wafted him his death. Is not the sun more welcome that the breeze To all these fragile blossoms ? Doth not oft A sudden gale rend stems and murder flowers? You see the fable's not so far from truth, My lovely sceptic."
It is indeed the mission of real poetry to place homely truths before us in pleasant guise, and to this end few things offer themselves more acceptably than flowers to the true poetic spirit; and when our native flowers shall have received the attention they deserve, our "California Hyacinths" may have as much to tell us of our lands as the ancient Hyacinths have sang to us of theirs.
This pretty species has a little history, which Professor Alphonso Wood, with commendable feeling, endeavored to idealize. The plant was unknown to any botanist till 1867, when Professor Wood, riding across the high hills of the Trinity mountains in California, had it pointed out to him by the stage-driver, who, in admiration of its simple beauty, as he told Professor Wood, had named it "after his little daughter, Ida-May." A botanist is not called on by the needs of science to regard the affections or desires of the common people who may not be botanists; but it is to their credit to regard them when they feel that they may. It shows that even dry science can enter into the heart of humanity. Dr. Wood at that time believed the plant to be a new genus. He named it Brevoortia, in honor of J. Carson Brevoort, of Brooklyn, a regent of the University of the State of New York; and for its specific name Brevoortia Ida-maia, as well to commemorate the parental affection of the driver for his daughter,as that he "saw it first on the ides (15th) of May." In striking contrast with this pleasant effort of Professor Wood are the supposed needs of science. In the " Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences" for 1867, Professor Asa Gray gives reasons for setting aside the name of Brevoortia, and placing the species in the older genus, Brodiaa, and remarks:
"In referring it to Brodiaa, we may venture to discard the objectionable double-headed name given by the stage-driver, Mr. Burk (who showed the plant to Professor Wood), 'in affection for his little daughter." Thus it was renamed Brodiaa coccinca. Double-headed names, objectionable as they may be, are not uncommon in botany; and of this the genus Asa-graa, established by Lindley in commemoration of Dr. Gray, is an illustrious example.
As a matter of interest to the botanical student, it may be here noted that it is often difficult to fix distinguishing characters for many genera of Liliaceous plants. The theoretical type is that the verticils are on the plan of three. The perianth or flower cup is composed of what in most flowers would be a calyx of three leaves, and a three-petaled corolla. In Brodiaa the two verticils are under but one influence, and they are so nearly alike that they seem as if of one verticil of six portions. But the staminate verticils have been separately influenced, and the lower set of three have taken on more the form of additional petals than of ordinary stamens. Indeed, there are but three perfect stamens; the other three arc represented by the little crown around them. It is on the greater or less degree of development of this outer whorl - the third in the floral series - that botanists distinguish genera in some cases. If this set of three appeared like stamens, only lacking the anthers, it would be Leucocoryne; with the apex a little flattened out, a Brodiaa proper; with true petal-like processes, a Dichelostemma; with these petaloid processes cleft, making a six-lobed crown, a Stropholirion; or reduced to broad scales, with no semblance of a stamen remaining, a Brevoortia. But whatever value these particulars may have in systematic botany, these points show an interesting progress in the development of one form to another that few plants will show so well.
As for the great beauty of the plant in its native locations, no better picture could be painted than that by Mr. James Vick, who made a close acquaintance with it in its mountain home. He says: "It is one of the most curious and interesting of Californian wild flowers, and is called 'Fire-cracker Flower,' but its botanical name is Brodiaa coccinea. The flowers are a little larger than Chinese fire-crackers, nearly the same shape and color, though the scarlet is more brilliant. The clusters are very-large, and if my recollection is not at fault, they measured sometimes eight inches across, and at a little distance the resemblance to a pendant bunch of fire-crackers is certainly very striking. The bulb grows deep in the ground, as do nearly all the Califor-nian bulbs. The flowers retain their bright color for a lone time after every particle of moisture has dried out, and I have had them of good color six months after being gathered. From forty to fifty flowers are often found in a single stalk. The root is edible, and sought for by the Indians, and abounds in a mucilaginous or starchy substance, very apparent when a bulb is only slightly bruised. It belongs to the Lily family, and is found mainly along the Northern coast of California, on the tops of the mountains, in gravelly and rocky soils, in open woods, among oaks and conifers."
Professor Asa Gray has characterized it as "a very striking and handsome plant," and every botanist has spoken of it as beautiful each in his own way; but no one has described it as so large and so floriferous as Mr. Vick, who evidently met with it in an unusually favorable spot, and what he has said of it is encouraging to those who may be disposed to cultivate it. Our specimen was taken from an under-sized plant because it gave the opportunity to show on our small page every part of it from the bulb and fibrous roots to the opening flowers; and we are the more glad to have been able to do this as very often the bulb shows better distinguishing characters than any other part of the plant. The drawing has been taken as the flowers are opening, instead of after they have formed the "pendant umbel" spoken of by authors, as in this stage it gives the opportunity of showing how the buds behave before expansion.
1. Complete plant.
2. Flower opened to show the internal arrangement.
3. Stamen, with oval pollen grain.
4. Ground-plan or front view of the flower.