I didn’t find Lewisia cotyledon in my Sierra Wildflowers book, but I did find that the genus is named for Captain Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark. It’s in the Portulacaceae, or purslane family.
Of course these plants were well-known to those who already lived where they grew. In the Pacific Northwest, some species were used as food, but they had to be specially cooked to remove bitterness.
There are several different species, and my Lewisia cotyledon is native to a very specific spot, the mountainous pine belt of Trinity and Siskiyou counties, in northern California, where it grows at 4,000 to 7,500 feet (about 1,220 to 2,134 meters). I got it through a local nursery that specializes in unusual plants, including natives, and gears its selection to plants that do well in our area (another plug for local nurseries; for expertise, selection, and quality of plants, they just can’t be beat. The prices are usually better, too.). My own climate is similar enough that Lewisia cotyledon (it doesn’t have a common name) does well here.
But I was quite surprised to find Lewisia on a British blog, Snappy Croc’s Gardens. Much as I love this blog, it only lets you search the archives by the current month, or by the year. I wasn’t willing to go through three months’s worth of 2008, so I don’t know the variety of Lewisia that was grown there; I just remember seeing the picture of flowers that looked awfully like the plant I had just bought, and being amazed it was apparently popular in rainy England. For Lewisia, like most natives here, is used to dry summers and lots of drainage. Perhaps some of the Northwestern varieties are more water-loving.
My Lewisia (and apparently most of them) has a rosette of fleshy, succulent-like leaves, a typical water-saving device for plants.
When it’s not flowering, this makes Lewisia an inconspicuous plant, which is why, I’m hoping, I didn’t know that there is a species which is native to my own county (Lewisia cantelowii). I’ve never seen it in my rambles, but now I’ll look.
The plant is only about a foot tall when it is flowering, according to the books; the ones I’ve seen, including my own, are more like six to eight inches (about 15 to 20 cm). It has a fleshy taproot – another water-conserving device, and a good way for mountain plants to anchor themselves in stony soil.
Supposedly these plants bloom in June and July, but their altitude range means that they are actually growing in several different climates, from hot foothill chapparal to alpine mountains, where you can still find snow in June. In my area, they’re flowering in May.
Given that Lewisias seem to be versatile, they probably fit into a number of gardening climates. They aren’t a showy plant, but they have lots of charm, and make a great, easy-care low-water plant in pots or in the ground.