by Matt Gibson
Amsinckia is a genus of wild flowering plants that are commonly referred to as fiddlenecks. The flower stems are adorned with lots of small flowers that curl over the top of the plant, similar to the shape of the head of a fiddle, or violin, from which it gets its name. Though widely considered a weed in many regions, amsinckia is in the same family as the popular garden flowers borage and forget-me-nots (Boraginaceae). Not to be confused with fiddlehead ferns or fiddle-leaf fig plants.
These showy annuals grow in clusters atop a bristly upright stem. The stems grow anywhere between 20 and 120 centimeters in height, and the blooms are most commonly yellow with a touch of orange in most of the different varieties of the genus. If you decide to grow fiddlenecks, know that the plants will need to be maintained by strong borders and careful deadheading and seed removal or you can quickly end up with more fiddlenecks than you ever intended. All that maintenance and extra effort comes with a big payoff. A well manicured bed of a wonderfully strange and unique looking wildflower with a nearly endless blooming period.
Are Fiddlenecks a Good Fit For Your Garden?
Before even discussing how to grow the Fiddleneck, we should discuss why one might even consider such a thing. Fiddlenecks have received a lackluster reputation throughout history for multiple reasons. The leaves and seeds of the plant are poisonous to livestock, particularly cows and horses. This is due to the plant’s high nitrate and alkaloid content.
Not only are the plants toxic to ranch animals, the stems also produce sharp hairs that can irritate the skin of humans if the plants are not handled carefully using protective gardening gloves. Despite the pretty cascade of yellow blooms with a vibrant hint of orange that the fiddleneck plant produces, it has long been considered to be an invasive weed that requires a rigorous removal, not a plant that one would ever intentionally grow, even in a wildflower garden.
At this point you are probably wondering if you should even consider growing fiddlenecks more than wondering how you might go about it. And you may be right to question their place in your garden getaway. Fiddlenecks require quite a bit of extra effort, which may not be your cup of tea, but the fact is, the fiddleneck is an annually blooming wildflower, not a weed, and each plant produces.
However, as long as you aren’t living on a cattle farm and you know how to find the perfect pair of gardening gloves, the fiddleneck flower is an uncommon, but beautiful sight in a garden, and a great candidate for next year’s new additions to your flower beds, as long as you are willing to put in a little extra work to contain it.
In the wild, in less traversed valleys and coastal climates, Fiddlenecks can take over a field like wildfire. The result is magnificent. Fiddleneck shaped flowerheads bud and blossom beginning in March and stretching to June, and in some areas all the way to October.
When the fiddleneck flower takes over a field and the field is in full bloom, a blanket of warm gold or luminous orange hovers over the ground and wavers in the wind for any lucky witness. As a handful of species of fiddlenecks went on the endangered species list, efforts to save the rarer varieties brought the wildflower some positive press, and helped the fiddleneck become a household name and a new face in the gardening world.
History & Origins
Amsinckia, the genus name, is a tribute to the former Hamburg head of state, Wilhelm Amsinck (1752-1831), who donated large sums of money to botany research in Germany. Native Americans used the fiddleneck flower in medicinal and culinary applications, consuming the shoots, stems, and leaves of the plant. The medicinal value and intended usage remains unknown.
The various species of Amsinckia are quite hard to distinguish and many of their habitat ranges overlap. Ranchers consider the fiddleneck flower a weed, as it is toxic to livestock. Though fiddleneck seeds or seedlings are a rare sight in nurseries, the wildflower has received some attention from modern gardeners and is now being cultivated as an annual due to its unique appearance and apt name.
Though you may not be able to find the seeds at a nursery near you, the seeds of several different species of Amsinckia can be ordered online. In the right locations, fiddleneck can easily be propagated in the wild, free of charge. Just dig around in the soil in the areas near the flower blooms looking for hard black seeds sitting just under the surface of the soil, Cuttings could also be taken from mature plants in the wild and then introduced into the garden.
The following list is not every known species of Amsinckia, but some of the more common varieties, as well as some of the lesser known and endangered species in the genus.
A. calycina – This species grows wild in Argentina and Chile and is commonly referred to as hairy fiddleneck or yellow burweed.
A. carinata – This rare variety, which grows solely in Oregon, is an endangered species. It is also called Malheur fiddleneck.
A. douglasiana – Another rare variety found on the southern coast and in the low elevation areas in the western mountains of the state of California. Also known as Douglas’ fiddleneck.
A. eastwoodiae – Found in abundance in the low-lying areas of central and southern California, to the west of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Also called Eastwood’s fiddleneck
A. grandiflora – Commonly known as the large-flowered fiddleneck, this rare variety is found only in the Central Valley of California, and is listed as endangered.
A. lunaris – This species is another uncommon California wildflower, also called the bent-flowered fiddleneck. This variety can be spotted in the San Francisco Bay Area and near the western coast and central valley areas and is listed as endangered by the state.
A. lycopsoides – Perhaps the most common type of fiddleneck, also known as tarweed fiddleneck, this variety can be found all along the western coastal US states. Native to England, this species has spread to nearly every continent on the planet.
A. marginata – Thisversion of the fiddleneck flower can only be found in Ecuador.
A. menziesii – Also known as Rancher’s fireweed, this common variety is native to South America, but grows in low altitude areas all throughout the western US and as far north as British Columbia.
A. spectabilis – Called seaside fiddleneck and woolly breeches, this variety is commonly found on the Pacific coast of North America from Baha to British Columbia in the north, and is even present on several offshore islands.
A. tessellata – This species is present in South America, and throughout Arizona, Oregon, Washington, and most of California. It is commonly called the devil’s lettuce or bristly fiddleneck.
A. vernicosa – Also called green fiddleneck, this uncommon variety has been spotted in the Mojave Desert and the mountain ranges in Southwest California.
Growing Conditions for Fiddlenecks
Fiddlenecks seem to pop up in low-altitude areas near mountain ranges, usually near the coastline. Though very resilient to drought and various environmental conditions, these annuals die out each year, but self-seed and produce four new plants for each flower that was there the year before. Fiddleneck thrives in full sun, light, well-draining soil, and consistently low moisture levels.
How to Plant Fiddlenecks
Fiddlenecks can be propagated easily from either cutting or seed, but by seed is far easier and has a higher success rate. Each flower contains four seeds encapsulated inside a calyx. The seeds ripen during the life of the flowerhead. They turn black and fall out when they become mature. Plant mature fiddleneck seeds under a very light layer of soil and water gently right after planting to encourage germination.
Care of Fiddlenecks
Collect seeds to keep the plant from taking over your garden. Replant them as needed each year after the last threat of frost has passed. Deadhead spent blooms and carefully gather any fallen seeds to avoid unwanted spreading. No fertilizer is necessary and no watering is required after they are established except in cases of severe drought.
Video About Fiddlenecks
The University of California’s Botanical Garden Club decided to save the endangered species A. grandiflora, or Large-flowered fiddleneck. This video is about their efforts to save the California wildflower: