Flannelbush – Look But Don’t Touch!

Flannelbush – Look But Don’t Touch!                                                                               Commuters or citizens traveling southward along Murrieta Drive in Livermore at this time of the year can hardly avoid noticing the parade of flannel bushes (Fremontodendron sp.) that line the west side of the boulevard along the eastern border of the Granada Native Garden.  They announce the arrival of spring at the Granada Native Garden, and beckon the curious to take a closer look at these native California wonders!                                       Indeed, the flannel bushes are among the California native plants most commonly inquired about by visitors to the GNG.  But before you are tempted to fall in love with these beauties, read on!                

          Major General John C. Fremont (1813-1890) was an American soldier, explorer, politician and controversial but unsuccessful candidate for the presidency.  A former governor of Arizona, he is well known for historical discoveries and expeditions throughout California.   Less known is that he also had a life-long interest in science and botany, which led to his name being given to the genus to which flannelbush is assigned.

John Fremont — A Prickly Personality?                                                                                    Fremont’s personality has been described by his biographers as “controversial, impetuous, and contradictory” – a military hero of significant accomplishment, but marred by an ambitious drive for success, self-justification, and passive-aggressive behavior.  One biographer believed that Frémont lived a dramatic lifestyle, one of remarkable successes, and one of dismal failures. One might also describe it as “prickly”, which is defined as “covered with sharp spines”, because this also happens to describe his namesake, the flannelbush.                                                                                                                                   A flannelbush “in full bloom is unforgettable”.  Personally, I find flannel to be soft, warm and comforting, like my winter pajamas!  But brush up against flannelbush and you will soon find yourself itching and scratching.                                                                                  The underside of the flannelbush foliage, as well as other parts of the plant, is densely covered with fine hairs that superficially resemble flannel, as shown in this photo of a petiole by Debbi Brusco.  But a microscopic view of these hairs, as in the photo by Sherwin Carlquist, reveals that the hairs have stiff, stellate (star-shaped) tips that point in all directions.  These hairs easily become embedded in the skin and cause the itching and scratching — so much so that, if you need to work among flannelbush, it is recommended that you save this task for the last, so that you can go home and change your clothes and take a shower!

Stellate hairs photo by Sherwin Carlquist

Petiole photo by Debbi Brusco

Consistent with General Fremont’s alleged difficult personality is flannelbush’s love-hate relationship with water.  It has large, showy and abundant flowers, but it tends to be short-lived and hard to successfully cultivate.  The roots are shallow but wide-spreading, and if they happen to encounter a regularly-watered area, the plant may succumb to root rot.  It is recommended that, once you plant it, water it once, then leave it alone and let seasonal winter rains nourish it.  Water anywhere near the base of the plant risks root rot, and even indirect watering a few feet of the trunk in the summer will kill it.  On the other hand, the tips of the longest roots need to find a water source, albeit sparse.

Flannelbush with two Ceanothus

More Than Just a Pretty Face                                                                                                   The Native Americans of California found many uses for flannelbush.  The branches were used to make harpoons, spears and lancets.  Sierra Nevada tribes burned them to induce longer branches which were used as cordage, string, rope and straps to tie branches and twigs together, to make snares, nets, storage bins for acorns and manzanita berries, cooking tongs and even baby cradles!   Medicinally, the inner bark sap was used for mucous membrane irritation and gastrointestinal disturbances.

Quote du Jour                                                                                                                             “Losing some plants is part of the experience of gardening, and the good experiences far outweigh the few bad ones.  Gardening requires patience, reverence, and staying positive.”                                                                                                                                                                               – Agi Kehoe, native plant landscaper, San Jose

Check out the native plant selection at ALDEN LANE NURSERY, 981 Alden Lane, Livermore, CA 94550

Plants in 4-inch pots

1-gal and larger plants


For reliable certified arborist services, contact STUMPY’S TREE SERVICE, (925) 518-1442, http://www.stumpystrees.com .

Stumpy'sGuided Tours of the Granada Native Garden Are Available!                                                     Are you interested in seeing some of the plants that are described in this News- letter 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!