This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V24", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
Our Fremontia was once known as Cheiranth-odendron Californicum. I revere the name of the man who changed it.
There are probably very few of your readers who have ever seen the Fremontia in bloom; and when gathering its seeds in the fall, I almost wish there were none of them who desired to do so. Yet I wonder why there are no more who undertake its cultivation. It cannot be very tender, for I find it growing so high upon the mountains that no one attempts to raise any sort of vegetables. Where it freezes every month in the year, there it grows, in low bushes three or four feet high. This is the highest locality I know of. Lower down it extends almost to the level of the valley; one bush growing near the mouth of Lytle Creek. A few miles further up this stream it is in its glory ; large spreading bushes, eight to ten;feet high,;clothed in the spring, with dense masses of bloom, which so thickly cover the twigs, that one flower crowds the next. From the ground to the summit one mass of golden yellow flowers, scarcely a glimpse of the little oak-shaped green leaves can be seen through the glow or color. Its large flowers are an inch or two across, and last quite a long time in bloom.
After the fading of the flower, comes along, pointed seed vessel, containing a few small, black, hard, round seeds, with a little golden-yellow dot at one end, where they grow fast to the capsule, the outside and inside of which is covered with a thick coating of short, stiff, sharp hairs, that cause vexation to the spirits, and itching to the skin of the collector. In gathering the seed on a warm day, the irritation caused by these little prickles, is almost unendurable ; on cleaning the seed in the cooler weather in the fall, I find the irritation much less.
Ah, the torments I have endured in gathering Fremontia seed! When arriving hot and sweaty at the bush, you begin gathering carefully, cutting them off with a knife. This does well for a time ; but presently you strike your hand against a twig full of them. How they sting - the villainous things! You become more reckless; the back of your hand is covered with their little prickling points. Gathering with a knife is slow work ; surely one can carefully gather them by hand; to be sure, that gets along faster. But have I got the hives ; or what is this intolerable stinging between the fingers in the tender skin at the junction with the hand ? Why, Fremontia stings! As I live by bread, I would almost as soon be rolled in a nest of ants. And to cap the climax, one or two get down the back of my neck, leaving a long stinging trail as they roll over and over on their long journey to my waist. I never before knew my back was so long.
My belief is that the first Fremontia was white. A prehistoric collector came along hunting for seed, began gathering ; and the more he gathered, the hotter his temper got, until finally, the sulphurous fumes of his cursing became encrusted on the flowers so deeply and indelibly, that their color was changed and their progeny has retained it to this day. I doubt if one could conscientiously remain long a deacon in the church and be a collector of Fremontia seed at the same time.
Perhaps you think if it is such a vile stinging thing, " I won't try to grow any." For your consolation be it known, that it is very likely not to seed with you, and as the capsule alone is the annoyance to be found, this need be no detriment, as it is a shy seeder in its native habitat, and in a new home might not seed at all. Even should it do so, you are under no obligations to go clawing around among them as a seed collector is compelled to do.
I would be sorry to deter any one from the cultivation of this beautiful shrub. When covered in the spring with its spreading wealth of yellow flowers, few can equal it in beauty.
As regards hardiness, I think it could be raised anywhere in the Eastern States ; but it would be in its prime at, and especially south of, Philadelphia. The seeds are hard to germinate, and the plant is not a rapid grower, but, like many good things, requires time to mature. I would recommend the thorough soaking of the seed until swollen, and not too sandy soil to grow them in, as it loves best a red soil with considerable clay in its composition, but not stiff with it.
This is not apt ever to become a fashionable flower, as it is harder to start, and not as easily raised as a florist likes to have plants; besides, it did not come from Japan, which just now seems to be the criterion of the East. Perhaps if it was extensively advertised as the Fremontia California "from Japan," more might be induced to try its culture; but simply an American plant, "why, it must be common." In Europe, the thing is reversed. "From California? why, it must be good," and they buy it.
The time may come when Americans will raise American plants, as well as wear American silks and American watches. Does not the broad sweep of hills and prairies and plains, from ocean to ocean, from the twin gulfs of the South to the land of blue noses and snow of Cousin Johnnie, possess plants enough worthy of a place in our gardens, that we must play second violin to European flower merchants, who furnish us with most or nearly all of our novelties?
Who knows; perhaps my collectoral grapes may be sour. I never expected them to contain over ten percentum of saccharine matter ; but it is provoking after having gathered seeds of some handsome flowers, and written, trying to induce some one to try a few, to receive for answer, " but this, but that, but the other thing." All meaning that they are afraid to risk a few dollars or cents on a new American thing, because people will not buy it. I don't know how they found out; they never seem to try, but go on in their catalogues, up one page and down another, Callirhoe, Calandrina, Candy-tuft, Catch-fly, Clarkia, Collinsia, the same old weary grind of common trash, scarcely worth weeding. Why, there are going to waste on American lands and pastures, or hill-top and mountain valley, and the hot sands of California deserts infinitely, handsomer plants and often as easily raised. Yet they drone over and over the same old stereotyped list year in and year out, both wheels in the rut, and no wish to get out of it.
"Yes, but because it is new is not saying it is good." True for you most sapient florist; but perhaps the collar will fit the off horse. All that is old may not be good; you know everything that is, is not always right.
I fancy the fault is as much with the people as with the florists. They have not the true love for flowers that causes them to hunt for new ones; they desire more a show of bright colors to please the eye, secured with as little labor as possible. Some cheap showy annuals fill the bill for them, and the florists pander to their wishes.
Give us a larger list, Oh ye brothers of the pot and package! Increase your borders and enlarge your catalogues, whistle the star spangled banner, tell the printer to buy a new electrotype with an addenda on it, where a few, ever so few native plants may appear.
Think what a catastrophe a war with Europe would be for seedsmen, so dependent are they on foreign dealers. I wonder how many of them could keep on for six months. I do not wish to be understood as begging custom as a collector, as my bread and butter is secured from another source; but I plead as an American for as complete an independence as we can achieve, as a lover of plants, for the diffusion of desirable species; but chiefly because I love to watch a new plant develop its leaves, see the new growth start, observe the expanding buds and wonder at the shape of the flowers. And, Mr. Seedsman, there are hundreds just like me, simple male and female mortals that love flowers and like to work among them, and try new ones as our means permit; when the opportunity presents itself we buy. Offer us the chance and perhaps we will buy more frequently.
[Perhaps some of our readers will think some of the fuzz from the Fremontia capsules are worrying our friend's back even as he writes. We must say a word for American horticulturists. We do not believe any such a dislike for American plants exists as our correspondent supposes. Nine-tenths of all the plants in cultivation in the Atlantic States are of American origin. Japan trees are only popular because they have 'generally been found to thrive well in the climate California annuals are popular because they mostly do well. California trees and shrubs are not popular for no other reason than that they have not been found to do well. The Fremontia deserves all the commendation our correspondent bestows on it, but we do not know that it has ever been tried under culture in the East. Though experience with so many other things is against it, it would be well worth a trial. - Ed G. M].