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Lewisia cotyledon

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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.

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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.

{ 11 comments… add one }

  • tina May 28, 2009, 6:00 pm

    Very interesting and quite savvy of you to hunt it out thru a local nursery. That local nursery sounds like a gem. The lewisia is pretty neat too. I’ve heard of them before but not seen any.

    I think that is a bummer about not being able to search archives. The blogger probably doesn’t realize folks want to peruse them. Is there not a tag feature? That would help if the posts were tagged under lewisia.

  • Pomona Belvedere May 28, 2009, 7:02 pm

    That local nursery is a gem, I’m so grateful for it. We’re lucky here that way. I’ll check for the tag feature. I think the problem lies in default blog designs; archiving by date just seems a silly choice for most blogs, yet that’s one of the defaults. Being an obsessive researcher, I like the site search engines. Thanks for telling me about the tags, I’ll see if there is one.

  • Town Mouse May 28, 2009, 7:13 pm

    What fun! There’s life after tulips after all ;->

  • Cyd May 28, 2009, 8:11 pm

    I have a Lewisia here Pomona. Same color as yours I don’t know its name i bought at my local nursery about 2 years ago. It is blooming now and has been for about 3 weeks. I have it planted with lava rocks under its leaves and try to water it sparingly. I have seen some bigger ones but mine is 6 or so inches. I didn’t know they were named after Merriwether Lewis now I love it even more!

  • Sylvia (England) May 29, 2009, 3:42 am

    Pomona, I saw some lovely lewisias in Wales recently. Wales has a high rain fall but these are planted in a wall and have been there for a long time so they are quiet large. I took some lovely photos and my husband couldn’t resist a plant! I now have to find somewhere to put it. In the UK it is recommended to plant them on their side to aid drainage but with their roots in some good soil. I have a partially shady bank where it would have the drainage but do you think it will get enough sun? The other option is to put it in a pot in the tiny lean-too greenhouse I have.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  • Pomona Belvedere May 29, 2009, 8:17 am

    Yes, there is life after tulips, reluctant as I may be to admit it…Interesting to hear reports of lewisia in such disparate climates as eastern Washington (cold winters, hot summers) and Wales. I like the idea of the lava stones with this plant, and planting them on their sides is an interesting solution to its drainage needs. My own plant gets a good shot of sun maybe half the day or perhaps a bit more, then afternoon/evening shade. I’m not sure how much sun it needs to flower, but that seems to be adequate in this climate.

  • Marnie May 29, 2009, 11:10 am

    An interesting post. I have no experience with lewisias but it reminds me of something my father told me. In mountainous regions of South America birds are specific to one valley or one side of a mountain. Hummingbirds are different in every valley.

    Your previous post was interesting too.

  • Pomona Belvedere May 29, 2009, 2:44 pm

    Wow Marnie, that’s an amazing fact. Makes sense when you consider how high those mountains are, but still amazing. Variations in wildlife really fascinate me. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  • Jan (ThanksFor2Day) May 30, 2009, 7:34 am

    Isn’t that interesting info?! I also think it’s neat to come over here and see you sharing so much of your knowledge on things in addition to your tulips…which of course, are your pride and joy. That little bloom is adorable; I hope it’ll last you a while. Sounds like a hardy little plant;-)

  • lostlandscape (James) May 30, 2009, 8:25 am

    Let me second (or third) your plug for local nurseries. We have a chain nursery 2-3 miles away, but I always drive the extra mile or two to go to the independent one. It’s a little less manicured than the commercial outlet, but the place is about the plants, not shallow appearances. If I were to find lewisias in town, that’d be the place I’d begin to look. Your is a beautiful one–I especially like the white margins on the petals. Even though it’s not a bulb, it reminds me of the simple blooms you find on some bulbs.

  • Helen at Toronto Gardens June 1, 2009, 5:38 am

    To respond to Sylvia’s question with my own experience: I’m in USDA Zone 5, with a dry shade garden on sand (so fairly sharp drainage). Tried Lewisia in one of my sunnier corners and it expired in a hurry. Perhaps the shade had something to do with it? Most alpines like wide open spaces, especially those with fleshy leaves.

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