Every year I like to grow something new or something I have ignored for a while. It must be 20 years since I last grew Madia elegans.
Seed suppliers usually extol the ‘pineapple’ smell of the resinous, sticky foliage but I am not totally convinced. The common name of elegant tarweed gives a hint of the fragrance which is not quite unpleasant but, to my nose, smells more of polish or some sort of ‘cleaner’ than fruit.
A Californian native, it is unusual in the wild because it flowers later than most wildflowers, taking some time for the main stem to achieve its full height of 1m or more, before it begins to bloom. Because the soil is often very dry by that time in the season the plant has developed a strange way to prevent water loss and the flowers, which are open at dawn close by mid morning and do not reopen till late afternoon.
Curiously the flowers ‘close’ by rolling up their ray florets (petals) from the tip, and the blooms are then barely noticeable. This ‘night blooming’ is very strange for a plant that is so obviously pollinated by bees and butterflies.
The flowers are rather variable and some plants produce red blotches at the base of the florets which, in my opinion, is the more attractive of the variations. There also seems to be some variation in the shape of the florets and some seem to have ray florets that are simple and straplike while others, including mine, have florets that are divided into two or three lobes.
For general purposes this is a half hardy annual. I sowed the seeds in March and they germinated without any problems and the plants were set out in late April. They have reached about 75cm high before blooming and they will then bloom ‘down the stems’ with later flowers on short sideshoots near the base. In richer soil I think the plants would be better branched and taller but the weather has been very dry.
In the past the Native Americans harvested and used the seeds for food and I suspect that birds will also appreciate them if left on the plants till winter. I will make sure I collect some too since it is easy to grow, quite showy and I mustn’t leave it another 20 years before I grow it or it will be while I am pushing up daisies!