Plant Profile: Dodecatheon hendersonii

by Veronica Wisniewski, Fourth Corner Nurseries

Ostensible origin of the name: Dodeka = twelve, theoi = gods; refers to the twelve major gods of the ancient Greek Hellenistic religion (which is currently undergoing revival). The ancient naturalist, Pliny, compared the clustered flowers of primroses to an assembly of Greek Gods. Except for one species of Dodecatheon from Siberia, Pliny would not have encountered blossoms of this New World genus from the primrose family. Linnaeus must have been impressed by the comparison in bestowing such a regal name on the shooting stars.

Common Names: Broad-Leaved Shooting Star, Henderson’s Shooting Star, Mosquito Bills, Sailors Caps, and, courtesy of a San Juan Island farmer, Birdy Beaks.

Range: The Pacific coast from California to Vancouver Island.

Pollination: Neighborhood bees on pollen collecting missions. (Buzz pollination)

Notes: Prowling around the greenhouse for signs of life in February, I find the fat green shoots of Henderson’s shooting star poking up slyly through the top dressing of containers. The fleshy roots, which have lain dormant and desiccated all summer, have engorged on winter’s moisture and are growing prolifically. Heralding spring’s arrival, the shoots unfurl a rosette of thick ovoid green leaves burnished blue sporting stems of reflexed pink petals bound by a deep purple ring from which emerge similarly colored anthers.

Although fall dormancy would appear to be an appropriate time to transplant them, I have found that shooting stars survive best when transplanted from December through spring, after the fall rains have refreshed the rootstocks. Often found in thin or well drained soils, dry throughout the summer, Dodecatheon hendersonii thrives on winter rains and dries up and disappears by summer to survive the long drought. In the nursery or garden setting, allow the soil to dry thoroughly at the end of summer and avoid disturbing the desiccated plants as it seems to increase the risk of mortality.