Scientific Name: Chlorogalum pomeridianum
Common Names: Soap plant, Soap Lily, Amole
Plant Type: Geophyte
Environment: Can be found in the plains and open hills, mainly in the coastal scrub, chaparral, grassland and woodland plant communities
Bloom: White with green or purple midvein; Highly branched inflorescence with flowers that open in the evening, closing by the following morning
Uses: Best if planted in partial shady, dry areas
Chlorogalum pomeridianum grows in the coastal valleys and grasslands of California below 5000 feet. Its one-to-two-foot long wavy leaves appear in early spring, arising from underground bulbs after winter rains. It lies seemingly unnoticed – especially as its basal leaves spread along the rocky ground – but despite its inconspicuous nature, this plant served as a valuable resource for native peoples of California and Oregon.
The bulb has layers like an onion, that when crushed exude a soapy foam that can be used for bathing and washing. Both the early Spaniards and Native Americans called it "amole", which is still one of the plant's common names. The coarse brown fibers that cling to the bulb made a fine brush that was used in the process of grinding acorn flour. Though the bulb is inedible when raw, after roasting in the ground for hours it becomes as nourishing as a potato, making it an important subsistence food. In the roasting process, the juice in the bulb develops a glue-like quality which was useful for brush-making, basket-weaving and gluing feathers onto arrow shafts. Native Americans also spread the crushed raw bulb in favorite fishing spots. The bulb interfered with the fish's ability to take in oxygen, temporarily stupefying them for easy collection
The flowers of the dusty-looking, dependable soap plant appear unexpectedly on five-foot-plus stalks at the end of a summer's day. The six dainty, fly-away tepals are white with a purple or green midrib and six golden stamens. They are a vision of loveliness at the end of a hot afternoon and are gone by morning. This species name, pomeridianum means "after noon," from which the term "P. M." originated. The genus Chlorogalum means "green milk", referring to the milky sap that appears when the leaf is broken. We have five species of soap plant in California. One of these, Chlorogalum purpureum grows in Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties with purple blooms and is strikingly beautiful. On your next evening stroll through the California Native Garden, try to catch a glimpse of this ephemeral beauty in bloom.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS:
Text by Kathy McNeil. Photos by Joanne Taylor. Profile by David Kruse-Pickler.