Calliandra californica; The Fairy Dusters of the desert:
by Cheryl Miller
Members of the Faboideae (Pea Family), Sub-Family Mimosa (Mimosoideae) and a
further distinguished as the Genus Calliandra, our Baja Fairy Dusters or Powder
Puffs are truly a delight to encounter.
Callinadra is a genus containing about 200 species that are native to tropical and subtropical regions of southern Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas. However, three of these species are endemic to Baja California and most are common, right here in the Cape region.
The Red Fairy Duster, Calliandra californica (see photo) is also called Tabardillo, Zapotillo or Cabello de Angel in Spanish. It is probably the most common Fairy Duster variety and is found from the Southern Sierra de San Pedro Martir mountains, located east of San Quentin to the tip of the Baja and our Cape. It grows to about 1-2 meters tall in gravely flats, washes, hillsides and on several gulf islands. It is extremely drought and salt air tolerant. It is characterized by fine double pinnate leaves and a rather shaggy looking, multi-branched growth with gray twigs.
The flowers are as their name depicts like a powder puff of flame red stamens about an inch long. It always draws attention and delight from children and adults alike. And this desert favorite can bloom almost year round.
This plant is a bee and butterfly magnet, and after being pollinated, produces a 2 to 3 inch long seed flat pod that “pops” open with each half curling back, expelling its seeds, sometimes, as far as a meter or two. The plant is easily germinated from seed and is a popular nursery plant in xeriscape communities in Arizona, Texas and California now. Due to its attraction of butterflies and birds, it is also prized in butterfly gardens as well.
Historically, the roots were used to make a red leather dye. There is some evidence that the plant sap was used as an antibiotic, as well. Although many Calliandra varieties from the mainland were heavily used in shaman rites, including packing a person’s nose with the gum of Calliandra to induce a hypnotic sleep, to treat diarrhea, and in Aztec mythology and cosmology, calliandra is associated with concoctions to bring a person to the heavenly realm of the dead (the House of the Sun in Heaven) and with the nourishment for reborn souls; BUT, there is no evidence that similar psychotropic or medicinal uses existed here on the Baja.
Today, there is some research being done on Calliandra California, but very limited. One medical research paper recently claimed to have discovered two new flavones and they were successfully tested in microbial situations for their antibacterial properties. (Flavones are mainly found in cereals and herbs. In the West, the estimated daily intake of flavones is in the range 20–50 mg per day. In recent years, scientific and public interest in flavones has grown enormously due to their putative beneficial effects
against atherosclerosis, osteoporosis, diabetes mellitus and certain cancers. Flavones intake in the form of dietary supplements and plant extracts has been steadily increasing. Wikipedia definition.)
The other species of the Fairy Dusters are Calliandra brandegeei, also called Tabachin, which flowers between August and October and is endemic in the Sierra de la Giganta and the Cape Region. And Calliandra peninsularis, which most research biological sources call a synonym for the C. brandegeei variety, some records indicate that this variety with red to purple flowers between November and March in the Cape Region. Because so many research biologists now consider this to be the same species, so will we. Very little research has been done on the Tabachin, in fact, photos are rare occurrences and very little info exists on the species.
The last endemic species of Calliandra in the Baja is C. eriophylla or simply Fairy Duster in English and huajillo, mezquitillo, cosahui, pelo de angel and cabeza de angel in Spanish. This variety grows mainly on the peninsula from southern Arizona and southeastern California south to central Mexico and northern Baja California along the Gulf Coast. Its flowers set it apart, as they are pink to deep rose in color. Fairy Duster is a 1 to 3 ft. shrub to sub-shrub has 1-2 inch flowers are that are similar to an acacia or bottlebrush. Cattle, deer and horses will browse Fairy Duster if given a chance. Birds love the seeds. Butterflies and bees love the nectar.
To an enthusiast the differences between the varieties are probably too small for a non-botanist to observe and when not blooming on the hillsides and washes of our deserts, probably almost invisible. But when it flowers, what a show!
If you are planning a Baja California garden, what better addition than a native than thrives in the environment and can give you year-long flowers?