Tehachapi's Online Community News & Entertainment Guide

California Flannelbush: lighting up the hillsides

Land of Four Seasons

Jon Hammond.

California Flannelbush plants are currently glowing with yellow flowers.

If you drive through the narrows of Banducci Road these days, between Brite Lake and the Alps Drive entrance to Alpine Forest, you'll see that the hillsides to the south are alight with the bright yellow blossoms of one of the Golden State's most epic shrubs: California Flannelbush (Fremontodendron californicum).

A couple of hundred scattered shrubs, the size of old apple trees in an abandoned orchard, are glowing with the bright lemon yellow of their waxy flowers. The Flannelbush branches are festooned with blossoms, some so densely they look like they were decorated by the crews who make Rose Parade floats.

This spectacle doesn't happen every year. Flannelbush usually blooms even in dry years, since they are extremely drought-tolerant, but it may be much more subdued. This year, the plants are flowering exhuberantly.

California Flannelbush grows unnoticed most of the year, blending in among the chaparral shrubs like Buckbrush, Great Basin Sagebrush, California Buckeye and others. I'm sure that most people drive on Banducci and are completely unaware of the California Flannelbush. Then we have a season like this one and they are impossible to ignore.

If you look at them from up close, the shiny, silver dollar-sized blossoms resemble glossy yellow hibiscus flowers, which is not coincidental -- are both in the Malvaceae or mallow family. What look like five luminous petals are actually sepals, for the flowers have no actual petals.

Jon Hammond.

Flannelbush is in the same family, Malvaceae, as hibiscus, and their flowers show similarities.

The genus name of these shrubs was previously Fremontia, named after explorer, military leader and politician John C. Frémont, who came through Tehachapi Pass with guide Kit Carson and a party of about 25 men in 1844. Many people still refer to Flannelbush as Fremontia.

Frémont was the first outsider to collect a number of different Western plants, and 21 different species incorporate his name into their botanical genus or species names. Flannelbush's former botanical name Fremontia was the name of the California Native Plant Society's biannual publication from its beginning in 1973, though the genus name was later expanded to be Fremontodendron.

In 2021 the non-profit plant group changed the name of the CNPS journal to Artemisia, the genus of sagebrush and some other widespread California plants. CNPS members no longer wanted to be associated with Frémont and his sometimes deplorable treatment of Native Californians.

Flannelbush was called "California slippery elm" by early settlers, because if you peel off and wet the outer bark, it produces a very slippery, mucilaginous material. Early teamsters reputedly used this as a balm or salve on sores on pack animals like horses and mules.

The Nuwä (Kawaiisu or Southern Paiute) people of the Tehachapi Mountains called Flannelbush by the name uuparabü, pronounced "ooh-pah-RAB-uh" and made some of their strongest cordage from the tough inner bark fibers of Flannelbush.

I make Flannelbush cordage, or wü'ivi (pronounced wuh-EEV), to use the Nuwä word. You first cut some Flannelbush stems, and the newer, straighter shoots work best. Then peel the bark off the wood, and then scrape the rough outer bark from the stringy, fibrous inner bark.

After rinsing off the slippery, slimy material, the strands are twisted by rolling under your palm against your thigh while seated, or by twisting with your fingers. Two or three strands or yarns of these twisted fibers are then twisted together back in the opposite direction to form very strong cordage.

The Nuwä used native plant fibers to make a number of different kinds of cordage, including stinging nettle, milkweed, yucca and others, but Flannelbush yields the strongest rope or cord. It was used for cargo nets, tumplines, for forming the smoke hole at the top of the tomo kahni, or winter house, etc.

Jon Hammond.

Cordage that I'm making from Flannelbush bark.

In more recent years, Flannelbush has grown in popularity as a landscaping plant, since it is very drought-tolerant, evergreen, and produces at least some of the beautiful bright yellow flowers each year. Caltrans uses them for landscaping alongside freeways in some areas.

This shrub gets the common name Flannelbush because its somewhat leathery leaves are fuzzy on the underside. You don't want to rub them on your bare skin, because they might cause irritation to your skin or eyes.

Flannelbush can be found throughout the higher elevations of the Tehachapi Mountains, but only in certain locations. They won't grow where there is too much shade from oaks or other trees, for they seem to prefer brilliant sunlit slopes. In addition to the many Flannelbush plants alongside Banducci Road and other parts of Alpine Forest, and there are others in Stallion Springs and Bear Valley Springs.

My friend Toshimi Kristof has taken beautiful photos of blooming Flannelbush while she and her husband Les were on Skyline Drive in BVS, where there are also hundreds of Flannelbush shrubs.

If you don't have any near you, treat yourself to a drive on Banducci Road in the next week or so. The California Flannelbush is puttin' on a show. . .

Keep enjoying the beauty of life in the Tehachapi Mountains.

Jon Hammond is a fourth generation Kern County resident who has photographed and written about the Tehachapi Mountains for 38 years. He lives on a farm his family started in 1921, and is a speaker of Nuwä, the Tehachapi Indian language. He can be reached at [email protected].