Bladderpod (Peritoma arborea) is naturally at home on coastal desert hillsides and, with its deep taproot, has been described as being so drought-tolerant as to actually resent watering once it is established. But it also excels in its overall versatility. It produces interesting spider-like yellow flowers that bloom most of the year (but especially in the winter and spring). It can be used as an informal hedge or screen. It is considered a fire-retardant plant. It can be used for irrigation control, soil retention and hillside stabilization on dry slopes and banks. It is a source of pollen for bees, of cover and shade for quail, finches, sparrows and doves, of seeds for ground foragers and nectar for hummingbirds and native bees. Harlequin beetles (at the left) are especially attracted to the bladderpod and may live their entire lives on the leaves or pods. But perhaps its most inter- esting characteristic is the “aroma” produced by its leaves. Just gently surround a cluster of bladderpod leaves with your hand and, keeping an open mind, explore the aroma left behind on your hand. In the interest of full disclosure, the aroma has been unfairly des- cribed as pungent, strange, disagreeable, like burnt popcorn, like bell peppers, pretty stinky, ill-scented, evil smelling, foul smelling, even repulsive. Unfairly, I maintain, because while I agree that the odor of the bladderpod is unlike anything else you might encounter in an otherwise lovely green plant, in my opinion it is none of these things! Instead, I would actually describe it as appetizing, and even savory. I’ll explain later on in this article, after I have whetted your appetite!
Why It Is Called “Bladderpod” The flowers of the bladderpod (formerly also called Isomeris arborea and Cleome isomeris, and still often found in the literature under those names) develop into soft, fat bladder-like pods about an inch or so long. Both the blossoms and the pods remain on the plant at the same time. The pods are filled with a few large, round seeds which look remarkably like peas in a pod, and in fact are edible and can be eaten very much like garden peas (except that they are somewhat bitter, and may need to be cooked for a while to remove the bitterness and become sweet).
Why Plants Have Aromas Many plants have their own aromas that humans can detect (the sages are good examples), and most probably have aromas that only insects can smell. That fact tells you something right away about why plants have aromas. One reason is to attract pollinators – insects, bats and hummingbirds – to transfer pollen and create fertile seeds. The scent of the flower alerts pollinators that the plant is ready to be pollinated; in fact, the attractive aromas in plants are strongest when this time arrives. Plants and pollinators often have a long history of mutual evolution over the millennia. On the other hand, plants also have certain aromas to repel animals that might otherwise eat them. The smells come from chemicals that are often toxic to animals and are likely to taste bad to the animal or make it sick (milkweed, for example). Less obvious to us are plants that release their scents when insects are eating them. The scents travel thru the air and alert other insects that are interested in eating the bugs that are eating the plants (like freshly cut grass and clover). Finally, some of the chemicals in plants have antimicrobial properties. They serve to kill bacteria and fungi that threaten a plant that has been injured by something trying to eat it, or by traffic or some other source of injury. Native Americans recognized the antimicrobial potential of certain plants and utilized them to treat wounds and heal infections.
The Truth About Bladderpod Revealed! A recent visitor to the GNG was invited to experience the aroma of the bladderpod leaves and describe his impression. A curious look came over his face, and he said, “Bell peppers and onions!” As a matter of fact, that is exactly my impression as well as of a number of my colleagues – fresh bell peppers and onions sautéed in a little olive oil! Scrumptious! Another imaginative reader, Aquila, reports that the smell reminds her of new automobile tires! Regardless of one’s ambivalence toward the scent of bladderpod, Native Ameri- cans relished the seeds and flowers for food. In fact, Native Americans aren’t the only ones. In her book California Foraging, Judith Larner Lowry describes the unripe fruits (the bladders) as “sought-after delicacies”. The immature peas inside are fresh and juicy, and can be harvested like garden peas. They can be used as capers. The flowers are edible too, but they reportedly need to be cooked for four hours to remove bitterness and reveal their sweetness. Then “they can then be mixed with cooked onions and salt and eaten on a tortilla”. In her blog, Deborah Small describes making a bladderpod taco in a similar way by sautéeing some onion, stirring in some flour, then adding the cooked and drained flowers with a dash of salt on “a fresh handmade tortilla”.
More About the Diet of Native Americans Lewis and Clark were saved from starvation by some of the Native Americans they encountered. Having no super-markets from which to purchase food, the indigenous people managed quite well using the native plants growing among them. The following excerpt from http://factcards.califa.org/cai/diegueno.html gives us some insight into the food resources of our “almost ancestors”, as Theodora Kroeber referred to them in her book of the same title: “For most of the Diegueño, acorns were the main food. Some of the southern Tipai groups depended more on pods from the mesquite bush, which they pounded into flour in much the same way that the others pounded acorns into flour. Seeds of the sage, flax, and buckwheat plants were also ground into flour, and used to make mush and flat cakes. “In the spring, the women and girls gathered fresh greens such as watercress, clover, yucca stalks and roots, and the blossoms and buds of roses and several kinds of cactus. In some areas they found berries on manzanita and elderberry bushes, wild plums and cherries. Wild onion was used as a seasoning. The agave plant, which provided fibers from which sandals were made, was also used as food. “The Tipai who lived in the Imperial Valley were one of the few early California groups to plant some crops. They learned from people living to the east of them how to grow corn, beans, and melons. Even those who did some farming, however, still got most of their food by gathering wild plants.”
Guided Tours of the Granada Native Garden Are Available! Are you interested in seeing some of the plants that are described in this Newsletter or in past issues? One or more staff of the GNG are routinely on duty at the Garden on Mondays and Thursdays, roughly between 10:00 AM and 12:00 noon. But it isn’t very hard to arrange a guided visit at other times. If you are interested in scheduling a visit, just email Jim at JIMatGNG@gmail.com . Or if you have any questions or inquiries, please email Jim at the same address!
Many thanks to … • Alrie Middlebrook of Middlebrook Gardens for allowing us to use the photo of the harlequin beetles. • Judith Larner Lowry of the Larner Seed Company for her suggestions for the culinary delights of the bladderpod. • Dennis Dowling of the Ulistac Nature Area for allowing us to collect the seeds that have become the bladderpods at the Granada Native Garden. • Rob DeBree of the Elkhorn Native Plant Nursery for donating six Epilobium canum plants, which are now installed near the tables at the GNG.
Check out the native plant selection at ALDEN LANE NURSERY, 981 Alden Lane, Livermore, CA 94550
For reliable certified arborist services, contact STUMPY’S TREE SERVICE, (925)518-1442, http://www.stumpystrees.com .