This month’s humble hero is no lumbering giant like last month’s Laurel Sumac. In fact for a good 4 months a year this is a disheveled tangle of near dead looking twigs, only to be awaken by fall’s first rains. Even its name implies something common and lowborn. I guarantee if you have set foot on any trail in Southern California that you’ve come across this fine fellow, often without having even appreciated the beauty and utility that it provides the other 8 months. Let’s give a rousing heartfelt round of applause to Deerweed.
Also known as California broom, deerweed is a member of the Fabaceae (Pea) family. It is a perennial deciduous shrub found along almost any trail below 1500 feet. Generally a dome shape, about 3 feet tall and twice as wide. Stems are long green and skinny, covered with tiny green leaves and yellow flowers which turn to orange and red once pollinated, blooming from April to June.
Deerweed is a native superstar for two important reasons:
It is a literal smorgasbord for dozens of butterflies and several bee species. The larva count on the leaves and stems for sustenance while the flower’s nectar is a popular meal with beauties such as the Chalcedon checkerspot butterfly.
Second is deerweed’s status as a pioneer species. I have witnessed personally over the past few years as areas that have been damaged by fire or cleared for various reasons are quickly repopulated by dozens of lush thriving deerweed bushes. Remember that the pea family has nodes at their roots which enable them to fix nitrogen and essentially feed themselves and fertilize surrounding soil.
The Chumash had some interesting uses for deerweed. The branches were attached to a wooden handle to create a whisk broom for floors or ovens. Deerweed was also the only plant used for thatching sweathouses as it did not catch fire (Timbrook pg 118). Honestly to me it looks like it would go up like tinder, don’t try this at home.
Unfortunately deerweed is pretty rare in the nursery trade. I think Tony down at Nopalito might have a few, people just don’t recognize it or realize its importance. Books say it is easy to propagate from seed, though my attempts so far have been thwarted. Collect the seeds in June-July as they turn brown and are about to fall off. We’ve finally had some success with cuttings, though I don’t want to jinx it, we’ll see if they survive. They like full sun, good drainage and are generally short lived, usually 10 years or less.
They are blooming right now, get out there and impress your hiking crew with your chops.