Plant of the Week
California Flannelbush (Fremontodendron californicum (Torr.) Coville)
By Forest Jay Gauna
The quarterly journal of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), Fremontia, was named in honor of this plant when its Latin name did not have "dendron" attached to the end; that name enjoyed such use that it has even become another common name for the plant. Obviously, a famous plant of California, it is also rather unusual in that it belongs within the Sterculiaceae, a plant family more well-known from the tropical regions of our world; the CNPS, in fact, tells us that it is a remnant of times, millions of years past, when California was tropical. From this family come chocolate (Mexico) and cola nut (Africa), given as an honorific and highly caffeinated gift to West African heads of households, as well as boiled into an extract and added to a very popular soft drink, Coca-Cola. The Sterculiaceae is closely related to the Malvaceae, or mallow family, and is often placed within that family; a brief glance at the flower of Fremontodendron is indeed reminiscent of the hibiscus, okra, and cotton flowers of the Malvaceae.
Fremontodendron, or, "Fremont-branch," is named after an early American explorer of California, with californicum meaning "of California." The plant itself is a large shrub, able to grow from 9 to 20 feet. The leaves are covered with soft fuzz; they are divided into three characteristic lobes, and rather tough and leathery. The young twigs are also hairy. The flower is interesting in that it has no petals: the five showy yellow petal-like parts are actually sepals. Along the edges of the sepal is sometimes an orangish coloration. The lower portions of the stamen filaments are fused into a tube, giving the characteristic look of plants related to okra and such. There are five stamens and one style coming out from the center of the filament tube.
Fremontia may be found in California (Alta or Baja) or Arizona, in the drier environments where chaparral and chamise grow. They are especially abundant in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains.
This plant is used horticulturally for its flowers are very beautiful and the plant itself has a unique look. Local indigenous people used the bark for making fibres, and used it medicinally.
Enjoy the beauty of Fremontia!