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.
Acaulescent, glaucous: rosulate leaves obovate to oblan-ceolate, somewhat rhomboidal, acute or acuminate, the larger two to four inches long: Flowering branches six to ten inches high, with scattered lanceolate or broadly triangular acute leaves: inflorescence a rather close-spreading compound cyme: bracts small: pedicels three to nine lines long: sepals ovate, acute, two lines long or less: petals lanceolate, acute, five lines long, yellow tinged with red: carpels very short, ovate-oblong, three lines long in fruit. (Brewer & Watson's Flora of the California Geological Survey.)
ONE of our most popular poets, T. Buchanan Read, in a little poem called a "Plea for the Homeless," has a passage which we may well apply to the plant we are about to describe:
" Sweet plants there are which bloom in sultry places,
By rude feet trampled in their early hour, Which, when transplanted, are so full of graces
They lend a charm to Flora's fairest bower. Oh ! ye who pass look down into their faces,
Displace the dust and recognize the flower."
Not only this species, but many of its associates, have much in their histories which may be suggested by these lines. They grow naturally in hot sultry places, and if they are not all covered with the actual dust, many of them are clothed with a powdery material which gives them precisely the look of dust-covered plants. But the neglect which the poet typifies has been particularly their fate, until, still pursuing the poet's metaphor, the dust has been removed, and now they are among the most highly prized of all plants used in modern decorative gardening. They are known to florists as Echeveria, and some species are planted side by side and used as edgings to carpet beds and other artificially arranged plots of flowers, in which they give an unique character no other class of plants could give so well. They were not particularly valued for their flowers, and hence did not force themselves on the florist's attention. Like the "Homeless" of the poet, they had to be sought for by the curious in the collections of those who loved nature for its own sake, and its worth proved an over-match for beauty. When our American poets turn their thoughts on American flowers, as so many Europeans have to theirs, there will be many pretty pages to read and lessons like these to learn from our own wild flowers.
Our Nevada Cotyledon may not grow exactly in places made dusty by "rude feet," but it inhabits dry stony places, where few would think of looking for a pretty flower. The specimen from which our drawing was made grew on the dry rocks at the head of the Yosemite Valley, and below the celebrated Falls of that name, in which place both Dr. Torrey and Dr. Gray had previously found it. Dr. Bigelow, the botanist of the early Pacific Railroad Survey, in the Report of 1856, notices it as being collected by the party on rocks and hillsides in Sonoma, and at Knights' Ferry on the Stanislaus river. Torrey and Gray, in the "Flora of North America," published in 1840, note it as having been found by Nuttall in San Diego, but do not say under what conditions of growth it was found. But the whole tribe like high and dry places, and are emphatically rock-plants.
In the works last named it is spoken of as an Echeveria, and Nuttall, whose collections from San Diego first made botanists acquainted with it, named it Echeveria lanceolata. De Candolle thought there were distinctions sufficient to divide the genus from the old Cotyledon, the chief difference being that, while the petals were slightly united at the base, so that they would all come off together when mature as a monopetalous corolla in Cotyledon, in Echeveria they are wholly separate from one another, and it would be called strictly a five-petalled flower. He named the new genus as he supposed it to be, as he tells us, in honor of Mr. Echeveria, an "eminent botanical artist of Mexico." In these days, however, when the natural affinities of plants arc of more consequence than an artificial line drawn through a slight adhesion of the petals, the species are properly remanded back to Cotyledon, and Signor Echeveri must lose the honor intended for him. Such misfortunes often happen in botany, and it is chiefly in this way that so many synonyms accumulate. Wherever it is possible, botanists who have a dread of synonyms, retain as much of the original name as possible. For instance, in the present case they might call the plant Cotyledon lanceolata, retaining Nuttall's specific name. This plan has the additional value of aiding history, as well as of avoiding synonyms. But here there happened to be already an old-world species named Cotyledon lanceolata; so that on the abrogation of Echeveria, a wholly new name had to be given to it - Cotyledon Nevadensis, by Mr. Watson; and there is nothing left, so far as the name is concerned, to show that Mr. Nuttall had anything to do with its original history. Though reported from San Diego as Echeveria lanceolata, it is probably rare there, as well as in California generally, for only a single species, Cotyledon farinosa, is included in the recently issued "Popular Flora of California," by Volney Rattan.
Cotyledon is a very ancient name, and signifies a wide shallow cup or vessel. As applied to a plant, it appears in the writings of Pliny, the old Roman writer on natural history; and a well-known European plant, Cotyledon umbilicus, is believed to be the species he had reference to. The leaves have at the apex a small shield-like process, at once suggestive of both its generic and specific names, which, in a certain sense, are synonymous. Sibthorp notes that the plant is to this day called Kotyleda by the Greeks of Laconia, the plant being native to that part of the world. The home of the genus is, however, Southern Africa, in which some three dozen species are found. The sections with partially united petals have their home chiefly in Brazil and Mexico, there being, perhaps, a couple of dozen or less, if the limits of the species were accurately determined. Seven species are recorded in the "Botany of California " as being natives to that State, beyond the boundaries of which none have as yet been found in our territory. The genus seems to have been a wanderer northward from a more southern home; and the different species, therefore, will not probably prove hardy enough to stand the winters in the gardens of many of the States of our Union, but will require some slight protection during the severe season. With this slight care, as Mr. Sargent informs us, it is found of very easy culture, and will probably prove a favorite plant for ornamental gardening.
The old-world plant has had in its time a large number of popular names, such as Kidney-wort, Renny-wort, Navel-wort, Hip-wort, Shield of Heaven, etc., and some of these are still retained by various authors as common names for the whole genus. But as these names are in use for other plants, it seems best to refer to them merely as matters of history. The name Cotyledon has become so incorporated into our language through its use in designating the seed-lobes of plants that it is just as familiar as any common name can be. So it is, perhaps, as well to retain it as a common name, as well as botanical, as we do in Dahlia, Verbena, and many other popular plants.
1. Complete plant, natural size.
2. Longitudinal section of the corolla, showing the proportionate lengths of pistils, stamens and petals, somewhat enlarged.