By Bart O'Brien
Spectacular and beautiful, this native perennial subshrub can currently be seen in great abundance in the central and western San Gabriel Mountains in the aftermath of the Station Fire. Eriodictyon parryi (formerly Turricula parryi) or the poodle-dog bush is primarily a fire follower—its seeds germinate shortly after wildfires and it may even produce flowers during its first year of growth. However, this short-lived plant is typically most spectacular in its second, third and fourth years, when it reaches its peak in both size and vigor. From late spring through summer, large, showy flower clusters appear and the plants may reach up to 10 feet tall. These are composed of hundreds of lavender to bluish, one-half to three-fourths inch long flowers. Poodle-dog bush is an important plant for erosion control and provides abundant food for native pollinators.
In the wild, this species is especially common in Southern California mountains, but it is found from the southern Sierra Nevada, the outer south Coast Ranges and the Tehachapi Mountains through the Transverse and Peninsular Ranges to northwestern Baja California, Mexico. Surprisingly, it is also found in deserts in the Panamint Range and in the Little San Bernardino Mountains.
The name poodle-dog bush comes from the appearance of the dense dried foliage and flower clusters that can look similar to a poodle’s fur. But beware—never pet this plant! It is highly allergenic to many people, causing a severe contact dermatitis in some (similar to that of poison oak), and a feeling of itchiness to most everyone else. Many people describing the plant refer to the fact that it is glandular, sticky and that it smells bad—though some charitable folks say that it has a mint-like scent. These features probably explain why this gorgeous plant is not seen in many gardens and landscapes. Still, it is one of California’s most impressive wildflowers.
Should you want to try and grow the poodle-dog plant, it will require full sun and excellent drainage. This is one plant that you will not find growing on clay soils—it needs decomposed granite or other similarly droughty soils. Seeds are often difficult to germinate, and smoke treatment is recommended. In the right conditions, the plant grows quickly. In nearly all cases individual plants tend to be short-lived, with most going into decline or dying outright after two to five years of producing copious quantities of seed. In the wild, these seeds are extremely long-lived in the soil seed bank, and are ready to grow after the next natural catastrophe.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2011 GardenVariety, RSABG's membership newsletter.