California Flannelbush
Fremontodendron californicum
Doug Howatt, United States

Forge yellow flowers, revive scorched earth.
The fire destroys but readies rebirth.
Soon, you’ll nurture bees and butterflies,
And Natives will trust your tonics and ties.

You’re named for state hero, heroic state,
when manly deeds and deeded mandates
Were wholly witnessed by holy white men
Who massacred masses for acres of land.

The name now embarrasses and we embrace
Not blindness but kindness to human race.
Our firebrands tell us your label is libel
And sweep you away from steep hill, tall steeple.

But time is on your side not ours.
We scorch the earth, you forge yellow flowers.

As a Californian, I wanted to find a native plant to augment the list from the Wildlife Trusts. Several local horticulturalists suggested options that were popular (California Poppy), obscure (Matilja Poppy), and flattering (Douglas Lily). I was tempted by each of them, but I was drawn to the California Flannelbush for its resilience and its small role in today’s culture.

California Flannelbush is a beautiful plant, known for fuzzy, flannel-like leaves and large, yellow flowers. I learned that it is fire-adapted, able to survive and even thrive after a fire, with vigorous new growth. It quickly stabilizes denuded land for other flora and fauna to return and is a valuable source of nectar for bees and butterflies. The Native Americans of California used the plant for harpoons, spears, rope, straps, snares, and nets. They used the inner bark sap as a salve for skin irritations and even gastrointestinal disturbances.

Its botanical name, Fremontodendron californicum, includes the name of John Fremont and the Latin for “from California.” Fremont was a U.S. Army Officer who explored California in the 1840s, finding and naming many plants. A national hero in his time, he has recently become known for atrocities committed against Native Americans, including massacres of thousands in the Sacramento Valley and Klamath Lake. In light of Fremont’s role in these tragedies, the California Native Plant Society renamed its publication from Fremontia to Flora in 2021. The homage to John Fremont had stood since the magazine’s inception 50 years ago.

The plant’s undeserved connection to the decimation of Indigenous people whom it had supported for generations made me think about shifting social perceptions and the rise and fall of cultures. Fremontodendron californicum thrived before Native Americans occupied the lands of California, thrived during racist settler’s widespread brutalities, continues to thrive among today’s Californians, and will no doubt thrive when we are gone. To the plant, we are simply an embarrassing blip in its long history.

Image: Photo by Björn S. under Creative Commons license (cropped)

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