Are you thinking about how much you loved that movie about the cute, stubby-finned fish? Right now, we're thinking about how much we love a hike in a cool mountain forest, which would make us nemophiles: "Woodland loving" is the translation for the Nemophila genus, and these charming, low-growing wildflowers are well-suited to the banks of tumbling Sierra streams and the sounds of mountain chickadees calling, "cheeseburger!”
And if you were reminded of a different word, it doesn't look like you're alone. We accidentally googled "nemophilia" and found the Urban Dictionary definition, which (with weird grammatical errors and British spelling) follows:
Nemophilia is the love of spending time in forests or woodland, particularly at night; going camping in woodland could probably be considered to be the equivalent of sex, possibly this is what John Denver meant when he wrote "Annie's Song." It does, however, make you wonder what woodland survival training, as practised by the armed forces, would equate to. Example: No Malcolm, people who practise nemophilia should not be arrested and jailed.
Anyway, if you get the gist of what that was all about, and you too had a bit of a startle when you skimmed the title, you've got a dirty mind...but if you have even dirtier gardening gloves, all is forgiven. Now, let's get on with it, and back on that mountain trail, shall we?
...Your neck is sore from staring at the towering redwoods (or sequoias, or lodgepole pines) so you decide to pay attention to the plants along the path. You trip over a tree root, and face plant directly in front of a rotting log. You're about to perform a spontaneous impression of Al Swearengen from Deadwood when your eyes catch a flash of white and indigo peeking out from behind the shaggy, decaying chunk of wood.
OK, you say out loud. The sight of that freaking adorable flower made these broken ribs totally worth it.
Nemophila: Wild has never been so cute
There are 11 different species in the Nemophila genus, which itself is a member of the borage family (Boraginaceae). All are native to California, and most have specific ranges within the state. They're cool-climate plants adapted to the glades and meadows of coastal forests, the southern Cascades, and the Sierra Nevadas, thriving best where summer temperatures range between 60°F to 80°F. Nemophila likes chilly summer nights and doesn't handle excessive daytime heat.
Most Nemophila species go by some variant of "baby blue eyes," "five spot," or simply non-italicized, straight-up "nemophila." Depending on the individual species, the flowers may be pale blue fading to white in the center, deep purple—almost black—with bright white edges, or an even, vivid blue throughout. There's even a species that looks like a potential sigil for HAM enthusiasts, with black Morse code patterns against a crisp white background.
While they look vaguely similar, don't confuse nemophila with the rose-colored desert five spot, botanically named Eremalche rotundifolia.
But the flower in front of your bruised and slightly sunburned face is the species known as "five spot." N. maculata has five rounded, overlapping, pure-white petals, each tipped at the lobe with blue or purple dots. The flowers are slightly bowl-shaped, and at their throats, they're freckled with the same deep color. Even the tiny, veins on the petals match, streaking lengthwise like lightning bolts.
The flowers are about 1.75" across, held aloft by delicate stems (or, if you're fancy, pedicels) above deeply-lobed, bright green fern-like foliage. The plants are mounding, each with a dozen or more blooms. As you stand up and brush yourself off, you realize your vision's a bit blurry; from this vantage point, the dark spots on the petal edges seem to blend into the shadows, giving the flowers a more jagged, frilled look.
You consider digging up the plant, wondering how well it will do in your garden, but you're not sure if it's legal to swipe native plants along this trail. Knowing you're just one heist away from the three strikes law kicking in, you make a mental note to call your besties at Seed Needs to find out if we can hook you up. And we can. While it's worth some jail time to swipe a wild plant from the forest, it's only an annual...and it's very easily grown from fresh, healthy five spot seeds.
The right spot for five spot
Nemophila grows in gardens anywhere, from USDA hardiness zones 2 through 11. Choose a spot in full sun if you live in a cooler climate or afternoon shade where it's hot. Nemophila tolerates poor-quality soils and drought but does best in a compost-rich, loose, moist substrate. Just be sure it's well-drained. With a pH preference between 5 and 8.5, you've got a lot of latitude to mess up...or to pair the plant with pickier species. Lean toward the acidic side when you're in doubt.
Their compact size and obscenely dainty flowers make them the perfect choice for patio containers, hanging baskets, and window boxes. We know a bride who grew them to use as centerpieces at her wedding reception, as she met her groom while working at Yosemite National Park. If you do grow nemophila in containers, toss a little peat moss into a high-quality potting mix to bump up the acidity. Remember that potted plants quickly heat up in full sun; consider placing them in light shade, whatever your climate, and don't let them dry out.
Nemophila does well in low-maintenance gardens mulched with finely shredded bark as long as the plant bases have breathing room. The mulch helps to reduce fluctuations in soil temperatures, increases acidity as it breaks down, and visually mimics that "forest floor feel" you experienced when you discovered your new favorite wildflower. Use nemophila in rock gardens, or as pathway borders. While you can't walk on them, they make good accent plants near moss-edged stepping stones. Just don't trip.
Here's the down and dirty:
- Plant Height: 6 to 12 inches tall.
- Plant Width: 6 to 12-inch spread.
- Bloom Period: Early spring until mid-summer, though they'll bloom in winter in frost-free areas.
- Maturing Rate: Nemophila matures quickly, often flowering within a month of breaking the soil surface.
- Pests & Diseases: Watch out for mildew, aphids, spider mites, snails, and slugs.
- Maintenance: Deadhead spent flowers, and discard diseased plants. Remove frost-killed plants at the end of the season.
Five-spot looks great as mounding, upright individual plants, or as mass-planted groundcovers. We recommend them as neighbors to other west coast montane natives, including California poppy, Chinese houses, lupines, columbines, and godetia. Plant them around spring bulbs; their feathery leaves soften the sword-like foliage of emerging—and fading—tulips and crocuses, and their gently cupped flowers provide a visually compatible foreground. Are you hoping to attract butterflies and bees to your garden? Five spots are important nectar sources for pollinating insects.
Growing nemophila from seed
These early-starters are best started outside since they germinate at lower temperatures than most ornamentals. If you decide to start them indoors, do so about 8 weeks prior to your last spring frost. Add peat moss to a fine seedling mix, and keep the substrate in your nursery trays or (preferred) biodegradable pots consistently moist but not soggy. Place the containers in a cool sunny window, an unheated greenhouse, or in a ventilated cold frame.
For outdoor sowing, prepare your beds by removing all clumps and organic debris. The seeds are tiny, so you might want to mix them with fine sand and use a shaker made from a spice bottle to distribute them over the soil surface. Keep the soil damp with a gentle spray.
- Seed Treatment: None required.
- When to Plant Outdoors: Direct-sow in the fall in temperate or coastal climates, or just before your last spring frost in colder zones.
- Seed Depth: Sow five spot seeds on the soil surface, or no more than 1/8" deep. Nemophila seeds require some sunlight to germinate.
- Seed Spacing: Nemophila tolerates crowding. Plant or thin as close as 4" apart.
- Days to Germination: Seedlings emerge in 7 to 30 days at temperatures between 55°F and 65°F.
When growing nemophila from seed under the right conditions, it will reseed itself for a new crop each season, but it isn't considered invasive. We recommend planting anew in different locations in your garden each year, especially if you've noticed powdery or downy mildew in previous years. "Rotating" your beds will break the disease cycle.
Therapeutic uses for nemophila
We haven't found any solid references for anecdotes supporting nemophila's medicinal properties, other than a couple blogs touting its value in emotional healing—particularly in issues relating to abandonment and challenging father/child relationships. Maybe there's something to this plant's relationship to Finding Nemo, after all.
Five spot for less than a five spot
Packaged seeds aren't cheap, but we do our best to keep our prices in line with major seed companies even though we only source our seeds from producers of high-quality, healthy parent stock. Do you have questions about your order? Ask us for help! More than likely you'll speak with the person who hand-packed your seeds from our climate-controlled storage system, or who made sure they were harvested well within the past 12 months.
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