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Surprising Flowers and Herbs

Wild Lilac

Mary, the heroine of The House on Harrigan’s Hill, watches a hawk soaring above the hillside filled with purple wild lilac.

Large clumps of white, pink, and pale purple flowers rise every spring all over North America, but California is the center of its distribution. Wild lilac or Ceanothus, Greek for ‘spiny plant’, has a strong fragrance that wafts over bare hillsides, especially in 1910 Truckee, where the trees have long been chopped down. The leaves are arranged opposite each other on the stem with a shiny upper side. Though they bloom spring to summer, deer, porcupine and quail are attracted to the leaves at the most nutritious time of early spring. Wild lilac grows in the forests up to 9000 feet. Native Americans used dried leaves to make an herbal tea. Miwok used the branches to braid baskets.

Snow Plant

While scuffling down the snowy path from the granite wall with mysterious petroglyphs “unafraid, Mary had time to see fallen pinecones and tiny rabbit prints and bright red snow plants. A blur the last time they’d made their secret journey.”

Snow plant or sarcodes sanguinea, translated to “bloody flesh-like thing,” is a startling sight as you hike in the Cascades and the Sierra Nevada. It is a parasitic plant, getting its sustenance from fungi at the aboveground roots of trees. It can’t photosynthesize, no chlorophyll, but the plant provides fixed carbon to the fungus that, in return, provides minerals and water to the snow plant. It sits above ground, bright red, almost scarlet, wrapped in strap-like pointed bracts with fringed edges. The plant can be small, almost rounded, like an artichoke or stem-like, its striking red color rising from snow in late winter and from matted brown ground cover in early spring to July at higher elevations. There are lovely photos of a hummingbird trying to stick its beak into the open bract, hoping for sweet liquid.


Mary remembers. “Staring at drawings of rosemary in my portfolio, I vowed I’d never grovel for money like my vivid memory of Mama in Truckee, toiling for pennies to take care of four children.”

Rosemary is a woody perennial herb with fragrant needle-like leaves and tiny white, pink, or purple flowers in the spring and summer. It can form a full bush or send trailing stems along the ground. Rosemary draped the mythological Aphrodite as she rose from the sea. Thus, its name comes from the Latin “ros” for dew and “marius” for the sea: dew of the sea. Rosemary can be burned as incense, used as body perfume and shampoo, or its branches can be grilled on lamb and other meats. In the middle ages a bride wore a rosemary headpiece and the groom wore a sprig because it was thought to be a love charm. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia’s famous line is “there’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance.” In olden days, rosemary was used as a symbol for remembrance at ceremonies for those fallen in a war and at funerals. Rosemary is claimed to have pest control effects. Most extraordinary is the legend of Four Thieves’ Vinegar about which it is said that men rubbed the mixture on their bodies as protection when robbing victims of the plague. It’s possible that the vinegar concoction is a natural flea repellant. Fleas bite and introduce the bacteria that causes bubonic plague. Four robbers in Marseilles and Toulouse in France are said to be the authors of the potion made from red or white vinegar and broken up sage, lavender, thyme, garlic, and rosemary.

-original post April 2016

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