There are more than 70 species of Lomatium growing in western North America. Surely there are people who can recognize each and all, but I’m not one of them. However, I’m currently growing six species in the Medicinal Herb Garden. Some, like Lomatium nudicaule, californicum, dissectum and martindalei are distinctive enough, each in their own way, that even I could probably pick them out of a lineup, though I recently discovered that the flowers of Lomatium martindalei are usually white or ochroleucous (look it up; I did), rarely yellow except in populations from the Olympic Peninsula and nearby coastal islands. Ours at the Medicinal Herb Garden are yellow and I’d assumed that was the norm.
Lomatium californicum looks like a lovage plant (Levisticum officinale) and the leaves have a similar taste, like celery leaves. It does well in average, well drained soil around here and drops enough seeds that some germinate every year. It’s the only species of Lomatium in the Medicinal Herb Garden that reliably produces enough viable seeds which actually germinate outside under ‘natural’ conditions.
Lomatium dissectum also produces a lot of seeds but they have, so far, stubbornly refused to germinate outside in the garden. I’m not sure why. Maybe they need more cold stratification than they get in Seattle. Or maybe they rot in our heavy rains. It’s hard to reproduce the conditions in which they normally grow on the east side of the Cascades.
When I start seeds of any of the six Lomatium species that I grow, I sow them in flats, water them and commit them to the refrigerator, encased in a plastic bag for 90-120 days, then remove the bags and put them out in an unheated cold frame to face the oscillating temperatures of late winter to early spring. It has worked for me. Timing seems important in my efforts to start plants from seeds. For many species, it’s good to have their cold stratification in the refrigerator ending as temperatures are slowly starting to warm up outside. Some seeds can come out of the refrigerator and go directly into the heated greenhouse to germinate, but others are cool-soil germinators, meaning they will start to germinate after a certain (mysterious) period of cold, sometimes in complete darkness in the refrigerator, before the soil warms up. If they go directly into warm temperatures before the mysterious trigger point occurs, they are unlikely to come up. Truly. This has been my hard experience. That said, I don’t discard difficult seeds until they have passed through at least two winters and two spring/summers. Yes, some seeds need to go through more than one period of cold stratification. Even then, before discarding anything, I sift through the soil to be sure the seeds have rotted. If they still look solid, I don’t give up. Some seeds can last for decades or even centuries in the soil. And some need to be abraded (scarified) or subjected to fire or smoke or hot water or who knows what..maybe a little fist shaking or benedictions….or maledictions for that matter. I’d hop around on one leg in my birthday suit, singing the theme song from Sesame Street if it would mean getting the seeds of certain stubborn plants to germinate. And that’s not the half of it. Starting seeds can become an obsession that leads to a very deep, dark rabbit hole. I went down that rabbit hole long ago and haven’t found my way out yet and don’t expect to until I breathe my last. We all need a quest of some kind.
While there is some information on the web about how to propagate wild plants from seeds, much of it appears, in my humble opinion, to be pure hokum, often third party hokum at that, and the number of variables involved is…variable…and mysterious. It helps to imagine the place where the plant grows, the weather, flowering time etc. and think about the conditions the seeds are subject to, leading up to the point when they germinate. How can we replicate those conditions? We can’t, but we can approximate them to the best of our abilities…and keep trying…and keep good notes. Spend enough years starting wild plants from seeds and you will enter a place of paradox: a robust and well earned confidence born of experimentation and empirical validation mingles with a vague but dawning realization that much of the phenomenal world we experience is, functionally, beyond our feeble powers of reckoning. We don’t live nearly long enough to run all the seed germination trials it would take to gain an understanding of the complexities of seed germination. Getting some of the seeds started most of the time is likely about as good as it will get for many of us. And that’s alright with me.
The similar, ferny foliage of many Lomatium species on the east side of the Cascades makes for difficulty identifying them. If they all flowered at the same time and we could see them together at that moment, with our taxonomy books and our thinking caps and some strong coffee, we might work our way through them more easily. Luckily, many are endemics with tiny ranges, so, knowing the precise location of a Lomatium species you’re trying to identify will probably eliminate some lookalike contenders.
It’s Lomatium flowering time in the lowlands. Get out to the east side if you can. April in the lower elevations, with the phlox and balsamroot, phacelia and serviceberry, anemones and so much more, what a treat before the sun dries them up until next year.
on rocky scrublands
soaking up the desert sun
See you in the garden.