Plant of the Week
Ithuriel's Spear (Triteleia laxa Benth.)
By Forest Jay Gauna
Although a somewhat common plant, it has been remarked that Ithuriel's spear is "tall and attention-grabbing." This comment must be understood in the proper context; although the flower stalk may only reach a little upwards of 2 feet tall, it occurs in the grasslands or sunny, open woodlands of California, thriving in the clay soil that tends to stunt vegetation. When I was small, I remember discovering (to my quiet joy) this plant in the backyard of my parents' house in Lincoln, California, a town whose existence and history is credited to the clay factory that still dominates the local skyline, thanks to the local abundance of clay soil. In late spring or early summer, after the thin grass-like leaves have already withered, a slender stem will hold up above the short annual grasses an umbel-like inflorescence: several stemlets (each terminating in a single flower) come out of the end of the flower stem, radiating out in a loose conical shape (thus the name laxa, or loose). The flowers are conical and consist of six tepals (fused about the base), six stamens, and a "weakly 3-lobed" stigma atop a single 3-chambered ovary. These repetitive multiples of three are responsible for the generic name Triteleia, which means in Greek "perfect three." The flowers can number from eight to 48.
Ithuriel was a character in John Milton's epic English poem, Paradise Lost, an angel sent by Gabriel to find Satan in the Garden of Eden. Satan, in the form of a toad, is introducing evil suggestions into the ear of Eve when Ithuriel pokes him with a spear. Satan then returns to his true form, "for no falsehood can endure Touch of Celestial temper, but returns Of force to its own likeness." It is to an unknown but imaginative scholar of English letters that we owe the common name of this plant.
The local tribes had purposes for T. laxa that were more mundane. Although the ability to unmask disguised demons may be handy, the genius of the native Californians disclosed to them a more practical use as food. The plant is also called ‘Indian potato' or ‘grass nut.' Using the ubiquitous California digging stick, people gather the corms of the plant and cook them in a variety of ways. Although a relative of the onion, please note that the gathered underground part is not a bulb, but a corm: a bulb consists of modified fleshy leaves, whereas a corm is a modified fleshy portion of stem. By the way, true potatoes (Solanum tuberosum – Solanaceae) are native to the Andean region of South America, where the Indians living there domesticated them. Thus, the term ‘Indian potato' is seen to be ambiguous.
The Native Californians also recognised that it feeds wildlife. Ithuriel's spear is also used ornamentally: specially cultivated outside California, and within California often simply allowed to grow whenever it finds its way into a suburban backyard.
Although traditionally placed in the lily family (Liliaceae) with other close relatives like onions, recent science has raised questions about this placement, and has tentatively placed T. laxa in a different family, the onion family (Alliaceae), which may be more closely related to the asparagus than the lily. Other species of Triteleia are also used as food, as well as near relatives such as Brodiaea and Dichelostemma.