Nicknamed “shooting star,” Dodecatheon species are delicate spring bloomers that could find a home in nearly every garden. If yours lacks this sweet little perennial wildflower that’s a member of the Primrose family (Primulaceae), by all means get outside now to witness its unusual springtime blossoms, because the plant goes dormant fairly quickly after flowering. And then add it to your shopping list.
How it grows
Dodecatheon hendersonii naturally occurs in much of California, in Oregon and parts of Washington west of the Cascades, and southern Vancouver Island at low to mid-elevations within open woodlands, forest edges, and grasslands, typically in partial shade. In springtime, the plant emerges from dormancy as a modest little clump of soft green, oval or spoon-shaped leaves. A few weeks later, a slim leafless flower stalk grows above the rosette of foliage and, after what seems like a blink of an eye, spectacular little downturned flowers emerge with magenta to pink to white petals swept backwards, looking almost as though they’d been caught in a terrific windstorm, their stamens, stigma, and style protruding forward, collectively, like miniature colorful darts. Following pollination, the flowers turn toward the stars. The ovary essentially becomes a capsule where the seeds develop and, as they mature, any remaining anthers, stigma and petals fall off. Seeds are dispersed by wind or creatures who bump into the dry scape.
Flowers, of course, aren’t just for our eyes. Dodecatheon species evolved to attract certain species of solitary bees, as well as native bumble bees who have the ability to vibrate flowers using indirect flight muscles (aka “buzz pollination”). While they’re collecting pollen for their young (Dodecatheon species offer no nectar), the bumble bees release pollen that’s securely attached to a flower’s anthers and transfer it to stamens with their legs and mandibles. They also do this for other flowers with tubular anthers (including tomato blossoms, so consider growing native pollinator plants to attract native bees to your veggie beds!).
Try it at home
While Dodecatheon hendersonii can handle the wet soils of the Pacific Northwest’s winter and spring, it needs to dry out a bit during the summer and fall, so if you grow this species, don’t irrigate often. Since it will take many years to form a colony, space plants in natural-looking drifts, about 12 inches apart and where they won’t be shaded out by any overzealous spring ephemerals you may have, such as tulips (or even native plants such as western bleeding heart, which is an avid but gorgeous traveler).
Depending on your location and your site’s conditions, you might find other Dodecatheon species to be a better fit. Of the nearly 20 species within the genus, the Pacific Northwest hosts several other species: Dodecatheon pulchellum looks similar to D. hendersonii but has longer leaves and naturally occurs in moist areas such as near streams, seeps, and in wet meadows at low to high elevations; D. dentatum subsp. dentatum (white shooting star) is also endemic to the PNW and the only species with consistently white petals; D. poeticum is found mostly in the arid Columbia Basin and eastern Columbia Gorge, where it prefers to grow in sandy soil that is rich in organic matter, as found in the Gorge; D. alpine grows only in moist meadows and near streams at high elevations. Less common is D. jeffreyi, which naturally occurs in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, and Montana; it is Critically Imperiled in Wyoming. And D. austrofrigidum can be found, tragically, only in small, scattered populations in Gray’s Harbor and Pacific counties of Washington, where it is listed as Critically Imperiled, and in Clatsop and Tillamook counties of Oregon, where it is listed as Imperiled: In lower elevation riparian sites, “threats [to populations] exist due to logging and grazing upstream, which contributes to flooding and erosion that negatively impacts populations.“
To make more of these wonders, collect seed in summer and plant in fall or early spring, or very, very carefully separate bulblets in your garden (that are attached to roots) after flowering and no later than autumn. Or you can simply just let them increase their numbers naturally. More detailed propagation info here.
Grab a partner
Friends and associates of D. hendersonii include Oregon white oak (Quercus garryana), madrone (Arbutus menziesii), California hazelnut (Corylus cornuta var. californica), oceanspray (Holodiscus discolor), snowberry (Symphoricarpos albus), camas (Camassia quamash), white fawn lily (Erythronium oregonum), and many others.