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Umbellularia californica- California bay laurel

Plant of the Month
February 2011

Blue Dicks (School bells, Wild Hyacinth) Dichelostemma capitatum (D. pulchellum)

Type: Bulb Light: Sun to partial shade
Soil: Likes garden soil but can take clay
Water: Drought tolerant to infrequent watering

In their book “California Plants for the Garden” the trio of authors (Carol Bornstein, David Fross, and Bart O’Brien) state; “If annuals are the ‘laughter’ of a garden, then bulbs are its ‘magic and promise’.”  Laughter and promise, what a wonderful description of bulbs that sleep underground and are almost forgotten when seemingly overnight their leaves and flower structures push up through the soil surface reminding you of last year’s beauty! Blue Dicks are one of these wonderful plants that happens to be underused even in native gardens despite being easy to grow. You can find them in nurseries specializing in California native plants, at California Native Plant Society plant sales, and even from some mail order bulb catalogs!

Commonly found in Oak woodlands, coastal sage scrub, chaparral, and grassland plant communities in almost every county in our state, it’s bulb was food for many of the state’s native tribes, sometimes eaten raw but also roasted or boiled to make them taste sweeter. Being one of our most widespread bulbs it makes sense that it will also like growing in your garden! Alone, these lovely flowers can be overlooked from a moderate distance but in groups or “runs” their flowers stand out.  If you have a meadow or grassland component in your landscape this plant is outstanding there. Our new grassland area in the GWC Native Garden has Blue Dicks as one of the bulbs mixed in if you would like to see them in that style of landscape. Of course they are also good emerging next to small boulders, near pathways, or in containers (which can be moved to the side yard when the big show of late winter/early spring is over).

Usually this is the earliest bulb to flower in our Garden, often sending up tall flower stems as early as mid January. The flower is held somewhat erect on this 8 to 20 inch slender stem, which nods and moves in the slightest breeze and adds a note of grace to the garden. When looking at this flower up close you see it is a ball-shaped cluster of up to 20 individual flowers like a small hyacinth bloom, (which is one reason for another of its common names-Wild Hyacinth). Its tight clusters of blue-purple flowers similar to amethyst in their range and depth of color and are a nectar source for butterflies. The grasslike leaves appear only at the base.

Blue Dicks are pretty trouble free-just keep the snails and rabbits away and you can enjoy its lovely flower emerging year after year, announcing that winter is more than half gone and that spring is coming.

Note: Formerly listed in the Amaryllis family it is now in the Lily family due to recent genetic studies. In fact, the entire amaryllis family has been merged into the lily family, though older references still list Blue Dicks as Amaryllis.