Fremont Silk Tassel

As I mentioned in my last post, Leonard and I spent the Easter weekend searching for a few previously elusive species. We found a greater sage-grouse (see “Greater Sage-grouse on 04-02-2018). Another “find” was Fremont silk tassel (Garrya fremontii).

Fremont silk tassel (or silk tassel bush) is a native shrub found in Washington, California and Oregon. Growing in chaparral, rocky areas and cliffs and associated inland forests between 2,000 and 7,500 feet, Fremont silk tassel can reach up to 10 feet in height. Fremont silk tassel blooms very early, often as early as January.

The opposite leaves of Fremont silk tassel are evergreen, leathery, simple, and elliptical to oval in shape. Although the blades are a deep, shiny green on the top, they take on a yellowish hue with age. The leaf margins are entire and not wavy and single veined from the base. The lower side of the leaf does not have hairs.

Fremont silk tassel is dioecious – male and female flowers are on separate plants. The flowers have no petals and occur in dangling catkins. The staminate catkins (male) occur in clusters or are solitary and have a pedicel (stalk). Each male flower has 4 yellowish stamens and a rudimentary pistil. The stamens protrude from the joined, cup-like greenish bracts of the pendulous catkin. Pistillate catkins (female) are born in pairs in the axes of the fused catkin bracts and are sessile (have no stalk).  Each female flower has 2 sepals, one pistil with a one-celled inferior ovary, 2 styles and no stamens. Although the female flowers are obscure, the two styles extend beyond the fused bracts like little strings.

The fruits of Fremont silk tassel are berries which are originally green and mature to purple or black. Initially the fruit is fleshy and surrounds 2 (or sometimes up to 4) hard seeds. As the fruit matures it becomes dry. The arrangement of Fremont silk tassel berries resembles a small bunch of grapes.

The bark, leaves and fruits of Fremont silk tassel contain a bitter alkaloid, garryine, and are made into concoctions used as a tonic (substance that invigorates and increases the function of one or more body systems). The bitter garryine accounts for another common name for G. fremontii – “quinine bush”. It should be noted that several bitter species have this same colloquial name.

The genus name, Garrya, honors Nicholas Garry (about 1782 – 1856), the secretary of the Hudson Bay Company. John C Fremont (1813 – 1890), an American explorer who collected plants on his journeys to the West, gives his name to the species,  fremontii.

These specimens were photographed on the cliffs at the western side of Table Rocks near Medford OR.


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