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March 14, 2017 > Finding local history with Fremontias

Finding local history with Fremontias

Submitted By Daniel OÕDonnell

Fremont, California, is the largest city in the United States to be named after John C. Fremont (1813 Ð 1890). He held the rank of Major General in the military, ran as the first anti-slavery Republican nominee for U.S. president, was one of CaliforniaÕs first two senators, the fifth territorial governor of Arizona, and an explorer who loved plants.

John C. Fremont led five major expeditions throughout western North America. He identified many different native Californian plant species during his journeys that today bear his name. The fuchsia-colored monkeyflower, Mimulus fremontii, and the silk tassel shrub, Garrya fremontii, are just two of the numerous California native plants that are being used in home gardens and can still be found growing in the wild. He was also the first non-indigenous person to identify what is commonly called the California Flannel Bush, botanically named the Fremontodendron.

Long before Fremont identified the Flannel Bush now named after him, Native Americans used it for a variety of purposes. Mucus from the inner bark has anti-inflammatory properties and could be spread over open wounds to sooth and protect from infections. Taken internally, the mucus was used to treat sore throats and stomach pain. Fremontodendrons resprout abundantly after a fire. Native Americans observed this and used this knowledge to burn and prune the plant in order to cultivate new, stronger, and more flexible growth and make it into a variety of tools such as snares, spears, and rope.

Today, Fremontodendrons, also called Fremontias, are primarily enjoyed in the wild or in a home garden for their fuzzy dark green leaves and waxy bright yellow to orange flowers. Different subspecies can range between four to six feet tall, to well over 20 feet tall. Fremontodendrons provide a food source for bees and butterflies, a safe habitat for birds, and are exceptionally drought tolerant.

There are three species of Fremonodendrons and several hybrids to choose from when deciding which one might be appropriate to plant in a home garden. The three most popular grown in wholesale and for retail nurseries in California are hybrids. DaraÕs Gold grows to about three feet tall and six to eight feet wide, Ken Taylor grows to about five feet tall and eight feet wide, and California Glory will grow up to about 20 feet tall and wide. They all produce a substantial canopy of sunny colored flowers starting in the late winter, into spring, and sometimes early summer.

There are purist gardeners who only want non-hybrid California native plants. There are three non-hybrid species of Fremontias that can be found in the wild, but only one is not critically endangered. Fremontodendron californicum is the non-endangered species commonly found throughout California, Baja California, and parts of Arizona. It is possible to purchase seeds from a reputable native plant seed company such as Larner Seeds in Bolinas ( Fremontodendron mexicanum is found only in San Diego County and Baja California, and Fremontodendron decumbens is found only in Pine Hill Ecological Reserve in El Dorado County. Both are on the federal endangered plant list, making it illegal for even the most ecologically minded seed companies to acquire seeds to sell.

All Fremontodendrons prefer poor soil. No compost or other soil amendments are needed when planting them. In fact, if the soil in a garden is too rich, then replacing it with one less nutrient loaded is recommended. This also makes them the perfect plant to use on Bay Area hillsides. They prefer full sun but can survive in areas that might only have dappled sunlight. They do not require any summer watering once they have been established after about a year.

Fremontodendrons generally need a fair amount of space, however they tolerate pruning extremely well and can be shaped into a balanced shrub or standard-looking tree. Soft hairs on the leaves give the textural impression of a flannel shirt, thus the common name Flannel Bush, will often be released into the air during pruning. These can irritate a personÕs skin, eyes, and throat. Wearing gloves, glasses, a hat, and long-sleeved shirt is a simple way to alleviate much of the potential for irritation. Regan Nursery in Fremont ( stocks at least one variety in the spring and if available, can order others.

It might be fun for gardeners who live in or near Fremont to purchase and grow a plant whose name is rooted in local history. However, even without the Fremontodendron name, the plant still has historical and ecological ties to the area. Native Americans use of it and the natural beauty it has added to the environment over the centuries are equally compelling reasons to plant one in the garden.

Daniel OÕDonnell is the co-owner and operator of an organic landscape design/build company in Fremont.

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