Blue Dicks

Dichelostemma capitatum

Blue dicks growing next to Black Eyed Susans
Photo credit: Denise Stillinger | Holmwood Canyon | April 2008

If annuals are the laughter in a garden, then bulbs are the magic and promise.”
Bornstein, Fross and O’Brien24

Blue dicks (Dichelostemma capitatum) are pretty native spring flowers with a giggle-inducing name. They are widely distributed within California and are frequently seen in open, grassy areas where the long, leafless stems bounce balls of blue-violet flowers above the surrounding vegetation.

Blue dicks grow from corms (specialized underground stems, much like bulbs), which allow the plant to go dormant during periods of environmental stress such as drought or fire. These corms are rich in carbohydrates and are prized food for a variety of animals, from bear and deer to pocket gophers. They were eaten raw or cooked by native Americans. In some parts of California, blue dick corms may have been a more important food source than acorns.

Other Common Names:

wild hyacinth, cluster-lily, school bells

Description 2,4,11,23,35,59,67,306

Blue dicks are perennials from an underground corm (a modified stem, somewhat like a solid onion) that produces a few grass-like leaves. Leaves may be up to three feet (100 cm) long, arching, spreading and disappearing in the surrounding vegetation. Slim young leaves are triangular in cross section; with age they flatten and widen to 3/4 inch (2 cm) in width; they are often folded along the midrib and dying back from the tip.

Flowers are born in dense, almost spherical heads, roughly one inch across, at the ends of  leafless, purplish stems, less than 1/64 inch (0.4 mm) in diameter and up to three feet long. At the base of each flower head are four or five purple and green bracts. A flower head consists of six to many flowers of differing ages, purple-blue to violet to white, usually several open  at once. Sepals and petals are indistinguishable, together called tepals. Each flower consists of six tepals, fused at base and opening outward into a short bell shape up to 1/2 inch (1.2 cm) long. There are six stamens in two series of unequal sizes. The inner, shorter stamens each produce a pair of whitish, appendages that form a small but conspicuous notched wall around all stamens. The anthers are bright yellow and produce yellow sticky pollen. The inconspicuous pistil is just shorter than the anthers and consists of a three-chambered superior green ovary, a three-sided style and a three-crested stigma. Most flowers occur between March and June.1

The fruit matures within the dried tepals; it is a three lobed capsule, less than 1/3 inch (0.8 cm) long that opens when dry. The numerous dark seeds are tightly packed and angular and somewhat irregular in shape.

Grasslike leaves

Grasslike leaves | Santa Florencia overlook | March 2018

Bushel of purple flowers

White appendages surround anthers | Santa Florencia overlook | February 2015

dried out brown flower

Seed capsules are surrounded by dried tepals; seeds are visible in the lower capsule | Santa Florencia overlook | March 2017

Distribution 7,67,89

Blue dicks are native through much of California and Arizona, and their range extends into parts of Oregon, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico and northern Mexico. They are reported as common below 7500 feet (2300 m), in a wide variety of habitats from grassy openings in coastal sage scrub, chaparral woodlands and forests to vernal pools and deserts. Blue dicks are more abundant after fires and wet winters.59

In the Reserve, blue dicks are usually sparse and unpredictable. After the wet winter of 2016-17 moderate numbers were found in many open areas areas along the south side; a few were found around the Nature Center. The following year numbers  decreased noticeably.

Classification 2,176,306

Blue dicks are perennial monocots (monocotyledon) in the brodiaea family (Themidaceae). Monocots are an early offshoot of flowering plants partly characterized by having a single cotyledon (instead of two), by having parallel veins in the leaves (instead of reticulated) and by having flower parts in multiples of three (instead of four or five).  This family is a small family of western North America with 10, maybe 11, genera.2 In past taxonomic arrangements, species now in the brodiaea family have been placed within the lily family (Liliaceae), the onion family (Alliaceae), the amarylis family (Amaryllidaceae) and the asparagus family (Asparagaceae).341

Blue dicks is a wide-ranging and variable species. In the past, the species has been divided into more than one and several subspecies have been described. At present only two subspecies are recognized; both have been described from the Reserve.48  The plants described here are ssp. capitatum, partially based on the dark purple color of the flower head bracts and the number of flowers in a flower head. There is morphological and molecular information that leads some taxonomists to believe this species should be in its own genus.306

NOTE: In 2002, the Jepson e-flora accepted Dipterostemon capitatus as the new species name.2

Alternate Scientific Names:

Dichelostemma pulchellum, Brodiaea capitata, Hookeria pulchella, Brodiaea pulchella

Jepson eFlora Page
close up of purple flowers

Flower parts in threes | Santa Carina trailhead | April 2010

Blue Dicks flower

Purplish bracts | Santa Florencia overlook | March 2018

Ball of purple flowers

Photo credit: Barbara Wallach | April 2010

Ecology 341

Blue dicks, like many of our wildflowers are geophytes – plants that have evolved underground storage structures that allow them to survive environmental stresses. This adaptation has evolved any times in unrelated plant groups and includes such diverse plants as domestic tulips (Tulipa spp.) and potatoes (Solanum tuberosum), the native wild cucumber (Marah macrocarpus) and the lovely but invasive Bermuda buttercup (or sourgrass, Oxalis pes-caprae). In southern California, geophyte structures facilitate survival during drought and fire.

Because these structures are nutritious, they often attract a variety of herbivores that provide a different type of environmental stress. Some geophytes have evolved toxins to repel herbivores; others, instead, produce easily fragmented storage structures “bulblets” and “cormlets”. Any of these that escape claws and jaws can grow into a new plant. For these plants, the herbivore has become both a stress and a mechanism for species  propagation.

Blue dicks belong to this group. The corm is high in carbohydrates and tasty to a wide variety of herbivores – from pocket gophers and ground squirrels to bears, deer and native Americans. Around its base, each corm may produce as many as 15 tiny cormlets annually. When the hungry herbivore digs for breakfast, cormlets are scattered and some escape consumption, allowing the plant to thrive and increase even in the face of heavy predation.

Multiple bushels of purple flowers

Blue dicks grow from underground corms | Santa Florencia overlook | April 2017

Green leaves

Wild cucumber, an unrelated geophyte, grows from a tuber, occasionally visible breaking the surface | March 2010

3 flower plants with roots exposed on floor

The invasive Bermuda buttercup reproduces by means of tiny bulbs produced along the roots | Seaside Restoration | April 2018

Human Uses 341

The nutritious corms of blue dicks have been used as food in California for more than 10,000 years, since people first arrived during the last ice age, when four of the Channel Islands were joined into one land mass. Indians harvested the corms, often using long digging sticks weighted with doughnut-shaped rocks. Although some corms were eaten raw, small amounts were roasted in cooking ashes or several families roasted quantities in large earth ovens. In some regions, the corms may have been a more important source food than acorns.

The Chumash tell a story of Coyote who was watching children gathering corms. A few children shared their harvest with him, others did not. When Coyote had eaten his fill, he put a spell on the unharvested corms. The corms sought by the stingy children, became small, deeply buried and hard to dig up. The corms of the generous children were large and plump and easily found just below the surface.

Native Americans actively managed the blue dicks like a crop. The corms were harvested after seeds had been shed. Only the larger corms were harvested, the smaller, younger cormlets were replanted for future harvest at a larger size. Sometimes the soil was cultivated to encourage seeds to sprout, and even burned, to reduce competing surface plants.

purple flowers on top of sticks grouped together in a bush

Santa Florencia overlook | March 2017

Blossoming purple flowers

Photo credit: Barbara Wallach

dried out flower that has turned peach colored

Tepals remain around developing seed capsules | Rios trailhead | April 2017

Interesting Facts  

The scientific name Dichelostemma comes from two Greek words: dicha meaning “bifed” – deeply notched, usually referring to part of a plant or animal,  and stemma meaning “garland of crowns”. The name apparently refers to the split appendages that surround the stamens on blue dicks.21,23

The origin of the snicker-inducing common name is subject to debate. The least suggestive explanation is that “dick” is a shortened form of the genus name Dichelostemma. However, the common name has been in existence for much longer than the genus.59 (It might, none-the-less be a useful explanation when it is desirable to avoid a diversion from the botanical topic.)

2 bushels of purple flowers on top of a stick in a field

Santa Carina trailhead | April 2010

lavender and purple flowers bundled together

February 2010

purple flower open in the sun

Santa Carina trailhead | April 2010

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