Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Triteleia - The Magic of Ithuriel's Spear

Why does a native plant captivate gardeners afar but remain practically unknown in its country of origin?  I have no good explanation.  But such is the case with Triteleia laxa (syn. Brodiaea laxa), commonly known as Grass Nut, Ithuriel's Spear and Fool's Onion.  Triteleia (pronounced try-TELL-ay-uh) is native to California.

I'm fascinated by names, especially those of plants.  Triteleia refers to the flower parts which appear in threes.  Laxa means "loose."  The common name, Grass Nut, refers to the corm.

The other common name, "Ithuriel's Spear", was probably inspired by John Milton's mention of it in Paradise Lost.  Ithuriel, an angel sent to hunt Satan, was able with the touch of his spear to show the truth of a matter.  Thus, when he touched a toad whispering in Eve's ear, the old sycophant's true form and devilish deceit was revealed.  To be quite honest, I have no idea why this name was given to Triteleia, but it makes for interesting speculation.  Perhaps the magical appearance of the star-shaped flowers had something to do with it, or perhaps its resemblance to Allium flower seemed like a bit of natural deception.

Triteleia is very popular in Europe, and commercially cultivated there.  The most popular cultivar "Queen Fabiola", named for the much-loved Queen of Belgium, blooms late spring to early summer.  Flowers colored light blue last for two to three weeks.  Plant height is 12" or more.  A handful of Triteleia will not make much of a show.  I recommend you plant at least a couple hundred of them.  They're perfect for naturalizing, alpine and rock gardens and containers. Great for cut flowers, too!

Triteleia is hardy in USDA climate zones 6 to 10.  They prefer full sun to partial shade and do well in average garden soil. Ideal pH ranges from 6.1 to 7.8.  Though somewhat drought tolerant during summer months, they benefit from moist soil during the growing season. Leafy mulch is ideal. Use a high quality grade of potting soil if growing in containers.

Before planting, take a sample of your garden soil to your local Cooperative Extension Service office.  For a nominal fee, they will send it to a lab for analysis and return a report to you.

Corms for fall planting are shipped in September or October.  Corms for spring planting are shipped in February, weather permitting.

Unless you are naturalizing them in the lawn, prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 6" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 12" deep.  Common soil amendments include sulfur for lowering pH, limestone for raising pH, sand for helping drainage, clay for slowing drainage, gypsum for breaking up caking clay and compost for enriching the soil.  Bone meal is especially good for bulbs.  Which you should use depends upon your particular circumstance.

Your soil sample report will include fertilizer recommendations based upon the results of the test.  A fine all-around practice for spring-flowering bulbs is to mix 5 tablespoons of 10-10-10 fertilizer and 2 cups of bone meal per ten square feet area of bulb garden.  Repeat the application when shoots appear, but be careful that fertilizer does not come into direct contact with plant tissue.

Triteleia corms should be planted about 5" deep.  Depth is measured to the bottom of the hole.  Recommended plant spacing is 6" to 8", so a case of 250 should cover  approximately 60 to 110 square feet.  Unless snow or rain fall is inadequate, irrigation should not be necessary.

Some suitable companion plants may include the following in shades of yellow and white: Centaurea dealbata, Coreopsis, Digitalis, Hemerocallis, Kniphofia, Leucanthemum, Rudbeckia, Salvia, Verbascum (ornamental mullein).

Planted liberally, Triteleia will make a wonderful, long-lasting show in your late spring to early summer garden.  You'll be glad you found this lovely American native.

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