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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Plant of the Month (August) : Telegraph plant – Heterotheca grandiflora

Telegraph plant (Heterotheca grandiflora) - tall upright plant in foreground

Early August and it’s full-on summer in the garden.  Most of our annual wildflowers are long gone.  But several local sunflowers add their cheery notes from now into fall.  One of these is the Telegraph plant, Heterotheca grandiflora.

Telegraph plant is an annual or short-lived perennial native to Southern California and Northern Mexico.   It’s part of many plant communities including Coastal Strand & Bluffs, Coastal Prairie, Coastal Sage Scrub, Chaparral and even Southern Oak Woodland.  Telegraph plant commonly grows on bare, sandy soils at elevations less than 3000 ft (1000 m).   It has been introduced to Utah, Nevada, Hawaii and even Australia (where it’s become an invasive weed). 

Also known as Sticky daisy and Telegraph weed, Heterotheca grandiflora is common in vacant lots, along roadways and on other bare ground throughout lowland Southern California.  The name ‘Telegraph Weed’ hints at this plant’s propensity to spread, which it certainly does (see below). 

Telegraph plant (Heterotheca grandiflora) - Madrona Marsh

Some native plant experts argue that ‘weed’ should not be used for plants native to an area.  The term ‘weed’ refers to a ‘plant in the wrong place’. And ‘weed’ has been used to denigrate significant native plants that have the misfortune to be deemed ‘not showy’.  We, ourselves, prefer ‘Telegraph plant’ to ‘Telegraph weed’; it is both more respectful and more contemporary. 

The origin of the ‘Telegraph’ is lost in history.  It may refer to the tall, straight stems (that resemble telegraph poles) or the spread of the plants (like a line of telegraph poles spreading across the landscape).  Others point to the strong, creosote-like scent – not unlike that of old-time telegraph poles.   All are feasible explanations for the unusual common name.

Older sources sometimes refer to Telegraph plant as Heterotheca floribunda.  In fact, the name ‘floribunda’ (abundant flowers) is arguably a better descriptor than ‘grandiflora’ (‘large-flowered’).  Many a student has scratched his/her head over this plant being called ‘large-flowered’!

Seven species of Heterotheca are native to California.  In addition to Telegraph plant, False goldenaster (Heterotheca sessiliflora), Camphor weed (Heterotheca subaxillaris) and Hairy false goldenaster  (Heterotheca villosa) are native to Los Angeles County (the latter three usually in the foothills of local mountain ranges).   The Heterothecas are members of the Sunflower family (Asteraceae).  They share several traits with other sunflowers, including composite flower heads, wind-distributed seeds, aromatic foliage, importance as pollinator habitat and medicinal value.

Telegraph plant can be an annual, biennial or short-lived perennial depending on local conditions.  It dies back to the ground in the fall after blooming.   In the garden, it’s often treated as an annual, with plants removed entirely each fall.

Heterotheca grandiflora - flowering plant

Heterotheca grandiflora - second year

Telegraph plant has a single stout, erect stem, 3-6 ft (0.5-1.5 m.) tall, with side branches primarily at the top (see above). In fact, it looks a bit top-heavy.  Older plants may have several, shorter stems and bloom earlier.  The leaves are medium to pale green, succulent, oval to lance-like, and may have coarse margin teeth.  The foliage is densely pubescent (see below) with thin, transparent hairs.  

Telegraph plants (Heterotheca grandiflora) - foliage

Heterotheca grandiflora - foliage (note resin glands on leaves)

You can also see the resin glands in the photograph (they look like small dots on the stem and leaves) These glands are actually specialized trichomes (hairs) that produce and release secretions.  Heterotheca grandiflora is one of our ‘stickiest’ natives, with a strong aroma all its own. The sticky aromatic chemicals – and the hairs - deter herbivory, protecting the young leaves and late blooms. Some of the chemicals likely function as growth inhibitors for other seedlings (allelopathic chemicals).  Wear gloves when handling Telegraph plant or your hands will retain the distinctive, camphor-like scent for hours!  Really!!

The photograph above shows another advantage to being hairy.  The dense hairs capture moisture from fog or drizzle, providing natural ‘drip irrigation’ to the plant. It’s an ingenious adaptation found in California natives from regions with periodic fog.   In some years, the water captured from fog is the difference between life and death for such plants.

Heterotheca grandiflora - flower heads

The flowers of Heterotheca grandiflora are clustered in yellow sunflower ‘heads’ at the top of the plant.  Both the ray flowers (the flat, strap-like flowers) and the inner disk flowers are bright yellow-gold.  Each head has 25-40 slender ray flowers and 30-75 small disk flowers in the center.   The flower color contrasts beautifully with the foliage. 

Heterotheca grandiflora - flower head - note resin glands

Telegraph plant can bloom nearly any month of the year in western Los Angeles County.  But the main flowering season is late spring through fall.   Flowers open over a long time – as much as 4 weeks – providing bright color and nectar.  The plants are visited by a wide range of pollinators including native bees, flower flies, butterflies and flower moths.  In fact, Heterotheca grandiflora is a recommended pollinator plant for Southern California gardens.  Finches also love the seeds.

Telegraph plant is easy to grow (unless your entire garden is covered in thick mulch).  Like many wildflowers, Heterotheca grandiflora likes full sun to part-shade. It needs adequate soil moisture until it begins to flower; but in most years can get by on seasonal rains. It forms an impressive root for a short-lived plant.  We’ve grown it in sandy & clay soils with equal success. Like many local wildflowers, Telegraph plant is truly undemanding.

Heterotheca grandiflora - seeds are adapted for wind distribution

Collect dry seeds in summer/fall and save until the winter rains.  Or allow plants to re-seed naturally; once established, Telegraph plant will re-seed year after year.  The seedlings are pale green and fuzzy – easy to distinguish from other seedlings in the spring.  Simply pull up small, unwanted seedlings when the ground is moist.   You can also start seedlings in paper cups and transplant out in spring.  The seeds are small, so barely cover with soil.

Heterotheca grandiflora - seedlings

We simply let Telegraph plant naturalize in Mother Nature’s Backyard.  It provides summer and fall color, and its tall, distinctive stems provide vertical interest.  If used in a mixed flower bed, plant mid- to back-bed, depending on the height of other plants.  Because it’s a late-bloomer, we find Telegraph plant indispensible for pollinator, butterfly and bird habitat gardens.  It is well-matched to the needs of our local wildlife.   Gardens featuring local native plants should also consider this common wildflower.

Heterotheca grandiflora (Telegraph plant) - in foreground
Garden of Dreams - CSU Dominguez Hills

Telegraph plant also has medicinal properties - not surprising for a plant with such a strong aroma.  Heterotheca grandiflora produces chemicals (sesquiterpenes and others) that have both antibacterial and antifungal properties.  A decoction or tincture of the foliage makes a useful cleansing wash for cuts, scrapes and minor skin wounds.  Related California Heterothecas produce anti-inflammatory chemicals.  This likely explains the use of a salve or tincture of Telegraph plant as a topical lotion on sprains, arthritic joints and other joint problems associated with swelling, inflammation and associated pain.  We've made and used a Telegraph plant tincture as a topical treatment for joint pains.  It is quick-acting, long-lasting and amazingly effective!

In summary, Telegraph plant is a local native wildflower that’s not used enough in local gardens.  Its summer/fall blooms, habitat value and medicinal properties make it both interesting and useful.  The foliage can be used to make gold and yellow natural dyes.  And little finches eating the seeds are a sight to behold.  We hope you’ll collect some seeds this summer and scatter them in your garden.

Telegraph plant (Heterotheca grandiflora)
Home garden, Redondo Beach CA

For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html



We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com


1 comment:

  1. Hello,

    I noticed you have a photos of a telegraph plant on your website. If this is an original photo it would be eligible to win a prize in our scavenger hunt photo contest. We have an ongoing scavenger hunt for over 100 items and telegraph plant is on our list. More details on our contest can be found here:

    Thanks and hope to see you in our competition!