Gardening with California’s Monocots: Slink-pod

This is the fourth and final excerpt, adapted with permission from Wild Lilies, Irises, and Grasses: Gardening With California’s Monocots, edited by Nora Harlow and Kristin Jakob and published in 2004 by University of California Press and the California Native Plant Society.

Adder’s-tongue or slink-pod (Scoliopus bigelovii). Drawing by Kristen Jakob

Adder’s-tongue or slink-pod (Scoliopus bigelovii). Drawing by Kristen Jakob

Slink-pod or adder’s-tongue (Scoliopus bigelovii), a long-lived perennial herb, is a memorable plant for woodlands, moist slopes, and shady rock gardens along the coast. Visible just three or four months of the year, it is grown more for its showy foliage than for its flowers, and it is an excellent plant for the winter garden. It should be placed so the unusual flowers can be seen. As the tightly wrapped leaves begin to unfold, green, tan, purple, or blackish flowers with narrow, erect petals appear on six-inch stalks above the leaves.

The odor of the flowers, which some people find unpleasant, is not noticeable except when plants are massed in large drifts. Flowers last a week or two, until the sepals drop; then the stalks with ripening seedpods elongate and twist toward the soil, where ants collect and disperse the seed. At the same time, the two shiny green leaves expand to display a peculiar purple brown mottling, like spots on a fawn. A foot or more long and four inches wide in shade, the leaves have a pleated effect, which is pleasing for the remainder of spring until the leaves die down in summer.

Adder’s-tongue is restricted to the coastal fog belt. It is found within the range of coastal redwood forests in California from the Santa Cruz Mountains in Monterey County north to southwestern Oregon. This plant inhabits moist, shaded slopes, mostly in old-growth redwood forests and adjacent chaparral, but also in Douglas-fir or mixed evergreen forests. It is often found in ephemeral springs or seepages, but has also been documented from drier, more open habitats such as rocky outcroppings on coastal headlands. Common understory companion plants include western sword fern (Polystichum munitum), red clintonia (Clintonia andrewsiana), western trillium (Trillium ovatum), redwood sorrel (Oxalis oregana), and evergreen violet (Viola sempervirens).

A rootstock four to five inches deep sends yellowish tan, fuzzy roots down to permanent moisture in humus-rich clays. Adder’s-tongue is propagated by seed collected at the moment of opening and directly sown. Seeds must be kept moist until fall germination. Plants grown from seed require fours years to bloom.

Some authors have placed Scoliopus in the Uvulariaceae, along with Clintonia, Disporum, and Streptopus. Others believe the genus should be placed in the Trilliaceae. Major reference books, such as The Jepson Manual and Sunset Western Garden Book, still include them in the Liliaceae.