The Double Cone Quarterly
Window to the Wilderness
Summer Solstice 2001 || Volume IV, Number 2

Feature Flower


Trichostema lanatum at Arroyo Seco, Monterey County.
Beatrice Howitt. © 1999, California Academy of Sciences.

ROMERO or WOOLY BLUE CURLS
Trichostema lanatum Bentham.


By David Rogers, © 2001

When the Portola expedition entered the Salinas Valley on September 26, 1769, Fray Juan Crespi noted in his diary that "the whole plain is very verdant, and the earth is soft and mellow, producing a variety of fragrant plants, a great deal of rosemary [Trichostema lanatum], sage [probably Black Sage, Salvia melifera], and Castilian rosebushes [probably California Rose, Rosa californica] which are loaded with roses" (Crespi as translated in Bolton, 1927). As the Spanish name for rosemary is "romero," and as the genus Rosemarinus ("dew of the sea") is comprised of only two very similar looking species (officinalis and eriocalix), there is no doubt as to what the conquistadors thought Trichostema lanatum resembled.

Trichostema lanatum at Arroyo Seco, Monterey County.
Beatrice Howitt. © 1999, California Academy of Sciences.

An illustration of Rosmarinus officinalis from "Herbs, a Concise Guide in Colour,"
by Frantisek Stary and Vaclav Jirasek. © 1973, Artia. Prague, Czechoslovakia.

While the genera Trichostema and Rosemarinus are both members of the Mint Family, Lamiaceae (or Labiatae), the natural distribution of the former genus is restricted to North America, and that of the later to the Mediterranean regions of Europe and North Africa. Similarities between Trichostema lanatum and the Rosmarinus species include pleasantly aromatic linear leaves with revolute margins (those of T. lanatum are longer and often have acute tips), and five-lobed bilabiate flowers (with exserted styles and stamens) that are produced in short cymes in the axils of the upper leaves. The inflorescence of T. lanatum, however, is much different, for not only are the flowers much larger and the styles and stamens much more exserted, but it is entirely covered (inclusive of the calyces and the outer walls of the corollas) with a dense coat of colorful woolly hair.

In any case, the name "Romero" for Trichostema lanatum has remained in common use for over 230 years, although in modern times the name "Wooly Blue Curls" is probably more often applied to this species. Some may argue that the former should have precedence, but the latter is an excellent (and poetic) descriptive name for this species. While reviewing literature on T. lanatum I have come across two more common names: "California Rosemary" and "American Wild Rosemary."

Trichostema lanatum along the Church Creek Trail, at the saddle
between Tassajara Road and Wildcat Creek. © 2001, David Rogers.

Trichostema lanatum is endemic to the California Floristic Province, and reaches the northern limits of its natural distribution in the Santa Lucia and Gabilan ranges of Monterey and San Benito Counties. Southward the species extends through the Coast, western Transverse and western Peninsular Ranges, always relatively near to the coast, to the extreme northwestern corner of Baja California. As this is a species of relatively low elevations (mostly below 3,000 ft.), and as previously noted it was common on the floor of the Salinas Valley in 1769, it is certain that much of the former range of T. lanatum has been lost to agriculture and urban sprawl. According to John Romero, a Chumash Indian from Santa Barbara:

As far back as I can remember, in the late 1890s, the Trichostema lanatum grew in abundance along the near coastal ranges, but gradually this very valuable plant became a victim of extermination through brush fires at the hands of careless hunters and the clearing of the land by farmers. The Indians, perceiving how rapidly these plants were vanishing, gathered the seeds and carried them further inland, into the rough mountain country where they were resown (Romero 1954).
In modern times T. lanatum occurs mostly in chaparral, and usually in more or less open areas where smaller shrubs can compete for sunlight. In the Santa Lucia Mountains, shrubs that are commonly associated with T. lanatum include Black Sage (Salvia mellifera), Flat Top or California Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum), Yerba Santa (Eriodictyon californicum) and Chamise (Andenostoma fasciculata). According to Lewis (1945), T. lanatum is remarkable in how little variance there is among plants throughout its range, other than the color of the pubescence of the inflorescence, and this trait has no geographical significance. The flowering season begins as early as April and continues into July.

Trichostema lanatum. Gladys Lucile Smith. © 1999, California Academy of Sciences.

The type specimen of T. lanatum was collected by David Douglas (1798-1834), the well-known botanical explorer of western North America and Hawaii during the 1820s and 1830s. While it is likely that Douglas collected the specimen near Monterey (which served as his base camp during his explorations of California), it is possible that he collected the specimen at a more distant location, for on one his many forays he ventured as far south as Santa Barbara. The species was named and described in 1835 by George Bentham (1800-1884), the eminent English taxonomist and long-time president of the Linnaean Society of London. Bentham named a very large number of the native plants of California.

Trichostema lanatum at the U. C. Botanical Garden, Berkeley.
Robert Potts. © 2001, California Academy of Sciences.

Even though Trichostema lanatum is a very attractive species, it has yet to become a common garden plant, but this may change in time. According to Sanderson (1992), two named cultivars have been developed at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum: "Lion Den" and "Salmon Creek." Both are from plants of the Salmon Creek drainage of the Santa Lucia Mountains. T. lanatum is not long-lived in cultivation, and tends to look good for three to five years, but afterwards becomes "lion-tailed" (i.e., all new growth occurs at the tips while the lower branches become bare). To prolong the life of cultivated plants, Sanderson recommends cutting them back in late summer and not irrigating them. This reminds me of John Romero's account of how Indians cared for wild plants:

The Indians who made much use of this plant a great deal had no difficulty in tracing it through its scent to the place of growth, where the flowering stocks were carefully gathered so that the root and crown system suffered no injury. Extra precaution was taken for the next annual blooming season, for most of the plants were of a delicate nature (Romero 1954).
Sanderson also provides information about two ways in which plants can be propagated: from cuttings (taken while plants are in active growth), and from seeds that should be planted in the fall. An advantage of the seed method is that the natural selection will be based on the conditions of a particular garden.

A page from Charles F. Saunders' "The Western Flower Guide," 1926.

T. lanatum was a highly valued medicinal herb among California Indians, and later on by the Spanish Californians, who considered it to be a panacea for many ailments. After the flowering stems are dried and stripped, the leaves and flowers are boiled to make a tea, the flavor of which Moore (1993) described as "sweet-sour-piney and delightful," and by Westrich (1989) as "truly lovely-tasting and aromatic." Moore states that the tea is a "stomach soother, like chamomile, and it is a mild emmenagogue for late, crampy periods," and Westrich states that in modern times "wild-food enthusiasts, survivalists and herbal buffs alike are quick to extol the virtues of Blue Curl Tea for its unique piney flavor, the wonderfully echoing aftertaste of its flowers, and its remarkable ability to settle upset stomachs." According to Parsons (1907), T. lanatum was also used in other ways. It was fried in olive oil to produce an ointment for pain and the cure of ulcers, in a powder form it was used as a snuff to cure catarrh, and it was also made into a tincture for use as a liniment for bruises. Strike (1994) provides information about how Indians used T. lanatum as means to make fish easier to catch. They would put the wooly hairs of the inflorescence in streams, which then collected in the gills of fish and thus interfered with the respiration process.

An illustration of Trichostema lanatum from Mary E. Parsons' "The Wildflowers of California," 1907.

Description

Evergreen shrubs with erect or ascending (and upwardly herbaceous) branches about 5 to 15 dm. (20-60") tall. The branches, which are covered with short and downwardly appressed hairs below the inflorescence, tend to form rounded crowns. The leaves are sessile or narrowed at the base to short and indefinite petioles, linear to slightly lance-linear and acute at the apex, and about 3.5 to 7.5 cm. long and 1 to 5 (-7) mm. broad. The margins are entire but strongly revolute, and the upper surfaces are green and glabrous while the lower surfaces are gray-pubescent. The leaves are usually longer than the internodes, and normally have fascicles (clusters) of smaller leaves in the axils. The flowers are produced in an interrupted spike-like inflorescence about 10 to 40 cm. long, in short cymes in the axils of the upper leaves. The entire inflorescence, including the calyces and outer sides of the corollas, are covered with a dense coat of blue and/or pink (or sometimes white) woolly hairs. The five-lobed bilabiate (two-lipped) corollas are about 9 to 14 mm. long, and the long, slender and arching stamens and styles are about 25 to 40 mm. long. The fruits are four joined nutlets about 2 to 4 mm. long.

Trichostema lanatum at the Arroyo Seco, Monterey County.
Beatrice Howitt. © 1999, California Academy of Sciences.

Trichostema is a strictly North American genus comprised of about 17 species of shrubs, subshrubs and annual herbs; collectively, the species range from the Pacific coast to the Atlantic coast, and from southern Canada to central Mexico. The name is derived from the Greek words trichos (hair) and stemon (stamen), and refers to the long and very slender nature of the stamens. Although Trichostema is well represented in California (10 of the 17 species occur within the state, and six are endemic to the California Floristic Province), only two species occur in the Santa Lucia Mountains.

The other local species is T. lanceolatum, and although it is much less conspicuous than T. lanatum, I suspect that many more people are familiar with T. lanceolatum. Common names for this species include Camphor Weed, Vinegar Weed, Turpentine Weed and Stink Weed, for it emits an extremely strong and very pungent odor that travels over great distances. At best the odor can be described as "medicinal," and some authors have described it as "dreadful."

Trichostema lanceolatum at the San Felipe Ranch, Santa Clara County. William R. Hewlett. © 1999, California Academy of Sciences.

These are erect annual herbs that range from about 1 to 10 dm. (4-40") tall. The leaves are opposite, lanceolate to ovate-lanceolate, and dotted pungent glands. The flowers are produced in a more or less one-sided inflorescence on axillary racemes, and the corollas are pale blue or pale blue-lavender. Stink Weeds are extremely xerophytic (non-waterloving), for most of the growth occurs long after the rainy season has ended. The flowering period begins in late June or July, and lasts until about November, or until the first rains or frosts. T. lanceolatum occurs mostly below about 3,000 ft., and ranges along the Pacific Slope from northern Oregon (in the vicinity of Portland) to the northwestern corner of Baja California. It occurs for the most part in open, dry and fallow fields (it loves stubble fields), and often along roadways. Like T. lanatum, the type specimen of T. lanceolatum was collected by David Douglas, most likely near Monterey, and it was first named and described by George Bentham in 1835.

An illustration of T. lanceolatum from Leroy Abrams' "Illustrated Flora of the Pacific States."

REFERENCES

BENTHAM, GEORGE.
1832 to 1836. Labiatarum Genera et Species: or, A Description of the Genera and Species of Plants of the Order Labiatae. James Ridgway and Sons, Piccadilly, London.

BOLTON, HERBERT.
1927. Fray Juan Crespi, Missionary Explorer of the Pacific Coast. University of California Press, Berkeley.

LEWIS, HARLAN.
1945. A Revision of the Genus Trichostema. Brittonia 5 (3): 276-303.
1993. Trichostema in The Jepson Manual, Higher Plants of California, James Hickman, editor. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London.

MOORE, MICHAEL.
1993. Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West. Red Crane Books, Santa Fe, NM.

MUNZ, PHILIP A., in collaboration with DAVID D. KECK.
1959. A California Flora. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles and London. Reprinted, with a supplement, in 1968.

PARSONS, MARY ELIZABETH.
1907. The Wildflowers of California. Cunningham, Curtis & Welch. Republished in 1966 by Dover Publications, New York.

ROMERO, JOHN BRUNO.
1954. The Botanical Lore of the California Indians. Vantage Press, New York.

SANDERSON, PARKER.
1992. Plant Profile; Trichostema lanatum: Wooly Blue Curls. University of California Davis Arboretum Review, Winter 1992.

STRIKE, SANDRA S.
1994. Aboriginal Uses of California's Indigenous Plants. Volume two of Ethnobotany of the California Indians. Koeltz Scientific Books, USA/Germany.

TUTIN, T. G., V. H. HEYWOOD, N. A. BURGESS, D. H. VALENTINE, S. M. WALTERS, and D. A. WEBB, editors.
1964-1980. Flora Europaea. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England.

WESTRICH, LOLO.
1989. California Herbal Remedies. Gulf Publishing Company, Houston, Texas.


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