Fragrant Sand Verbena — June 2010

Sand Verbena Plant

Sand Verbena Cluster

Sand Verbena Flower

Snowballs in Deer Canyon Preserve in June? You bet! Just wander through our sandy-soiled open fields (for example along the trail leading east from the Preserve Center) and you are likely to come across fragrant sand verbena, oftentimes in great abundance. Abronia fragrans is also known as sweet sand verbena, snowball sand verbena, and my personal favorite, heart’s delight. The genus name comes from the Greek word abros meaning graceful or delicate. This attribute can be applied to many aspects of fragrant sand verbena such as the rounded, smooth leaves or the arching purplish stems that bear the new, unopened flower buds (seen to the right of the opened flower in the above photo), but it specifically refers to the whorl of paper-thin bracts that surrounds each developing flower cluster. The species epithet fragrans comes from the Latin word fragere, meaning sweet smelling.

Fragrant sand verbena, despite its delicate appearance, is a very hardy perennial that grows from a substantial taproot. Stems grow upright or more commonly in a widely sprawling pattern that gives the overall plant an open, somewhat unorganized look. Erect stem growth may produce a plant as tall as 3 feet, but usually these rambling plants are about half that tall. Both stems and leaves are covered with hairs that make the plant surfaces somewhat sticky. Oval or egg-shaped leaves arise rather sparsely along the stems in an opposite arrangement. Often the two leaves in each pair are distinctly different sizes with the largest leaves getting about three inches long. Each leaf is connected to the stem by a distinct stalk (or petiole) and the leaf surfaces have a somewhat blue-green color.

Round clusters, each consisting of 25-80 individual white flowers, adorn these plants from May to August. Some flowers may have a slight pink tint and the clusters measure two to three inches across. Each individual flower is a long trumpet-shaped funnel with both male and female parts located inside the floral tube. The flowers typically open in the late afternoon emitting a sweet fragrance and close sometime the next morning. Hawkmoths are the most probable pollinators.

Despite its common name, fragrant sand verbena is not a member of the verbena family; rather it is a member of the Nyctaginaceae, or four o’clock family (desert four o’clock was our July 2009 plant of the month). Tubular flowers that technically have no petals characterize members of the four o’clock family. What appear to be petals are actually colored sepals fused into a tube. The taproot of Abronia fragrans is edible and Native Americans are known to have ground the roots and mixed it with corn meal. The resulting food was thought to stimulate the appetite and keep one from becoming greedy. Eating the fresh flowers was believed to be good for stomachaches. And a cold infusion of the plant was used as a lotion to treat sores, boils, and insect bites. Like an unexpected burst of fireworks, let this distinctive wildflower delight your heart and stimulate all your senses.

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© 2010 Jerry Melaragno

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