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Sunday, March 5, 2017

Plant of the Month (March) : Wild hyacinth (Blue dicks) – Dichelostemma capitatum

Wild Hyacinth (Bluedicks; Dichelostemma capitatum) - Mother Nature's Backyard: Gardena, California

One of the true joys of spring is the unfolding of the spring ‘bulbs’.  We spoke of gardening with California native bulbs, corms and rhizomes last month: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2017/02/gardening-with-california-native-bulbs.html.  One of the earliest – and easiest – of the local species is the Wild hyacinth (Dichelostemma capitatum).   The scientific name is pronounced dick (dike)-el-AH-stem-uh (or dick-el-oh-STEM-uh) cap-ih-TAY-tum.

Dichelostemma capitatum is known by several common names including Wild hyacinth, Blue dicks, Bluedicks, Common Brodiaea, Purpleheads and School bells.  It is one of the more common corm-producing perennials in California, with a range that stretches from Oregon to Arizona and New Mexico, and south to Baja California and Sonora, Mexico.  Its elevation range is also quite unusual: from sea level to 7000 ft. (2,100 m.) in California.   In fact, it can be found growing in nearly all California counties. 

Currant taxonomy usually places the genus Dichelostemma in the family Themidaceae (the Brodiaea family), along with Bloomeria, Brodiaea, Muilla and Triteleia – all perennials from corms.  But some taxonomists still include this genus in the family Lilliaceae (the Lily family) (1).   The species has two accepted sub-species: the Sparse-flowered blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum ssp. pauciflorum) and the more common Dichelostemma capitatum ssp. capitatum.

The Sparse-flowered blue dicks grows in deserts and desert scrub of Central and Southern California, as well as in Utah, New Mexico and northern Mexico.  Dichelostemma capitatum ssp. capitatum, the widespread subspecies, is native to western Los Angeles County and the Channel Islands, as well as much of California. It grows in a wide variety of plant communities including coastal strand, coastal prairie, mixed evergreen forest, chaparral, valley grassland, coniferous forests, oak woodlands, redwood forests, montane scree and on the fringe of coastal salt marshes and vernal pools.  The plants are more common in sunny openings and after a disturbance (fire; landslide; etc.). 

Wild Hyacinth (Bluedicks; Dichelostemma capitatum) - leaves
Wild hyacinth is a relatively small, herbaceous perennial with fleshy, strap-like leaves.  The foliage is low – perhaps 1 ft. tall or less – and leaves are usually sprawling and somewhat twisted.  The leaves of older corms may be nearly an inch (2-3 cm.) wide and a foot or more long.  Younger plants have leaves that are almost grass-like.  You can see leaves for a range of plant sizes in the photo above.
Wild Hyacinth (Bluedicks; Dichelostemma capitatum) - plants
In warm-winter areas, the leaves begin to sprout in winter, after the rains begin in earnest.  We often see them first in December in our part of S. California. After rapidly growing, the leaves begin to yellow at their tips just before the plants begin to flower.  Flowering usually begins sometime in February (but may be as early as January or as late as March) in the lowlands of western S. California; it’s as late as May or even June in colder parts of the state.  Flowering often commences after a period of warm dry weather.

Unlike some native ‘bulbs’, everything about Dichelostemma capitatum is slightly twisted or wavy – from the leaves to the flower stalks.  In fact, that’s one characteristic that differentiates Dichelostemma from the Brodiaeas, which tend to have straight stalks.  The flower cluster is also tighter than that of most native Brodiaeas.

Wild Hyacinth (Bluedicks; Dichelostemma capitatum) -
leaves and flower stalks are often twisted or 'wavy'
The leaves of Blue dicks are the ‘power plants’ that produce food to be stored underground in the dry season.  That’s why it’s important to let the leaves shrivel and dry of their own accord – after flowering is done and the weather turns warm and dry.  The energy for next year’s growth is stored in an underground corm – a thickened part of the stalk whose function is food storage. 

The corm of Dichelostemma capitatum looks something like a garlic bulb.  We’ve grown this plant for years – can’t believe we’ve never photographed the corms.  For a good photo, see reference 2, below.  When you dig up the corm, there often are offsets (cormels or cormlets), which are immature corms.  These may be attached to the parent corm or loose.   These will become mature, flowering plants in 3-4 years.

Wild Hyacinth (Bluedicks; Dichelostemma capitatum)
 flower cluster
Wild hyacinth has small, old-fashioned-looking flowers. Each plant sends up a single flowering stalk, with flowers in a ball-like cluster at the tip.  Since not all the flowers open at once, a single plant is usually in bloom for several weeks.  And if you have corms in areas with different amounts of light, those in the sunnier areas will often bloom first.     

Wild Hyacinth (Bluedicks; Dichelostemma capitatum) -
 close-up of flower
The flowers are ½ an inch across (or perhaps a little more), with six petals that form an open, bell-shaped flower. The petals spread wider as the flower matures over a week or so.  The usual flower color for our area is violet-purple, though the species may have white, pink or lavender flowers on occasion.   One unusual feature is the ring of pale, petal-like appendages that surround the six fertile stamens (see above).

Western Tiger Swallowtail on Wild Hyacinth
 (Bluedicks; Dichelostemma capitatum)
Umber Skipper butterfly on Wild Hyacinth
 (Bluedicks; Dichelostemma capitatum)
While the flowers have little scent (at least to us), they do attract hummingbirds and butterflies.  The latter range in size from Tiger Swallowtails and Monarchs to the early-flying Skippers (for more on these butterflies see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2016/07/insect-postings-mother-natures-backyard.html).  There’s something utterly enchanting about a butterfly nectaring on the delicate flowers!

After flowering, Bluedicks flowers produce a number of small, black, irregularly-shaped seeds.  You’ll know when the seeds are ready; the seed capsule becomes dry and papery and the seeds start to fall out, of their own accord.  Bluedicks are easy to grow from seed.  If you want them to naturalize, simply scatter the seed  and rough up the soil a bit.  If you’re really pressed for time, just let Mother Nature do the work.  You can also collect seed, store in a cool dry place, then plant it with the winter rains.  For more on growing corms from seed see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2017/02/gardening-with-california-native-bulbs.html.

Wild hyacinth also reproduces vegetatively, producing corm offsets (called cormlets or cormels).  You won’t see these unless you dig them up.  But they will produce new plants the next year.  New plants have grass-like leaves and don’t flower until about their 3rd year.  We’ll get some good pictures of seeds and cormels this spring – guess we’ve just been lazy about photographing this common species.
Wild Hyacinth (Bluedicks; Dichelostemma capitatum) -
 easy to grow in pots
Bluedicks is one of the easiest native ‘bulbs’ to grow.  In fact, we heartily recommend it - even to those who’ve never gardened with bulbs in their life.  This species can be grown in just about any soil – in the ground or in containers.   It likes sun, but does fine under winter-deciduous trees and shrubs.  It can even be grown in dappled or bright shade – though the plants will be somewhat leggy.

The only real trick is the watering.  Like all native ‘bulbs’, Bluedicks needs adequate water in winter and early spring.  In a very dry winter, you may need to supply it.  Once plants begin to flower, or if leaves begin to yellow, it’s time to taper off the water.  This process happens naturally in a ‘usual’ S. California spring. 

But ‘usual’ is rapidly become unusual, and we’re often forced to begin supplemental irrigation in spring.  So just mimic the old days, and water your Bluedicks progressively less as weather warms up.  Once flowering ceases, really taper off; then stop altogether for summer and fall.  Bluedicks can take very occasional summer water, but need a summer/fall rest.  Corms that get regular summer water will rot.

Wild Hyacinth (Bluedicks; Dichelostemma capitatum) -
Madrona Marsh Nature Center, Torrance CA
So, how to achieve summer dry conditions?  Easiest, perhaps, is to grow Dichelostemma in containers that can be stored in a cool, dry place during the dormant season.  If you have a dry area of the garden – perhaps where you grow annual wildflowers and native grasses – Bluedicks would do well there.  Under water-wise trees that are winter-deciduous is another possibility.  But anyplace in the garden that you can allow to dry out between deep waterings can support this garden bulb.
Wild Hyacinth (Bluedicks; Dichelostemma capitatum) -
Garden of Dreams Discovery Garden, CSU Dominguez Hills
If you’re worried about drainage, plant your bulbs along a warm wall, pathway or around rocks or boulders.  Mother Nature’s Backyard has an abundance of ‘urbanite’ (recycled paving concrete chunks; Mother Nature’s Backyard was a former dump site for construction debris and paving from the old Carrell speedway, once located near the site).  We try to use these materials creatively in the garden.  Not only are they useful for bulb-growing, this ‘rubble’ reminds us that native plants can grow in even the most challenging of soils.  Trust us – the soil in Mother Nature’s Backyard contains more debris than we’ve ever seen in an urban garden soil!  Sobering – but encouraging!!!
Wild Hyacinth (Bluedicks; Dichelostemma capitatum)
 benefits from warm 'urbanite' - Mother Nature's Backyard
Like most native ‘bulbs’, wild hyacinth benefits from digging up the corms occasionally and thinning them (either by replanting or preparing a tasty delicacy – see below).  In the old days, wild animals and Native Californians dug up, scattered and replanted native ‘bulbs’ every few years. The digging also served to aerate the soil.  The disturbance helped the bulbs remain productive, and modern gardens benefit from similar practices (3).   Other than that, you don’t need to amend the soil – whatever you have will work just fine.   We add a layer of new potting mix atop our potted bulbs each fall.  Alternatively, give a dose of ½ strength fertilizer when the plants begin to grow.

Chicken wire protects native bulbs from hungry critters
If you have gophers, consider planting your bulbs inside a small ‘cage’ made of chicken wire.  This will keep the bulbs safe and won’t prevent them from growing normally.  If you grow bulbs in pots, we suggest making a chicken wire insert, cut to fit the pot, and laid atop the potting medium after planting.  You can cover the chicken wire with mulch if you like.  This will keep out squirrels, skunks and other pesky urban critters on the prowl for a tasty treat. 

Wild Hyacinth (Bluedicks; Dichelostemma capitatum)
with annual lupine: Madrona Marsh Native Plant Garden
Bluedicks is charming along walkways in spring, paired with annual lupines, California poppies and other native delights.  The purple flowers pair well with the yellows of Goldfields (Lasthena species) and Tidytips (Layia species).  Bulbs can be grown among the native bunchgrasses.  And they tuck in nicely around native shrubs.  We like to plant them close to pathways and seating areas – places where visitors can stop and admire them and their pollinators.
Wild Hyacinth (Bluedicks; Dichelostemma capitatum)
in spring garden: Madrona Marsh Native Plant Garden
The flowers are edible; use them raw as decoration in salads and on desserts.  But the most important edible portion is the corm.  Bluedicks corms were dug by the hundreds by native Californians.  In fact, bulb patches were managed as a food crop and revisited yearly; in some areas, particular patches were managed and harvested by individual families. These corms were an important source of starch in traditional diets.  Corms were usually harvested in the spring.

The corms can be eaten raw or cooked (4). They can be dried for storage or ground into flour to be used in baked goods or as a thicken agent.  They can be fried, boiled, roasted or baked.  Their flavor is mild and slightly sweet; the slower the cooking time, the sweeter the flavor. 

In summary, Dichelostemma capitatum is a great example of a California native geophyte (perennial plant with underground food storage organ).  It’s an easy choice for even the novice bulb gardener.  It comes back reliably, year after year; and it naturalizes, making it a good bargain as well.  The flowers are pretty and attract hummingbirds and butterflies. It’s a wonderful link to our natural heritage in many parts of California.  And the corms are an edible delicacy, worthy of the traditional and modern palette.  So, what are you waiting for?

Wild Hyacinth (Bluedicks; Dichelostemma capitatum)
Mother Nature's Backyard

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


  1. https://plants.usda.gov/core/profile?symbol=DICAC5
  2. http://encinitasnatives.blogspot.com/2015_11_01_archive.html
  3. MK Anderson, and DL Rowney, Edible Plant Dichelostemma capitatum: Its Vegetative Reproduction Response to Different Indigenous Harvesting Regimes in California: Restoration Ecology [Restor. Ecol.], vol. 7, no. 3, pp. 231-240
  4. Charles W. Kane. Southern California Food Plants: Wild Edibles of the Valleys, Foothills, Coast, and Beyond. Lincoln Town Press,  2013.



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


1 comment:

  1. So, how have our changing seasonal patterns affected your outcomes? Big differences noted this year?

    I think that The Theodore Payne Foundation has some of these for sale.