Cooper's box thorn: Lycium cooperi, Solanaceae (nightshade family)

So I've been holding out, waiting for these berries to burst from their protective sheaths, anxiously anticipating the day the color of the shiny green bulbs would ruddy and reveal to me their true species....would they be the luscious red wolf berries (aka goji berries) that I had been naively rooting for, or the hard orange berries that are no where to be found in the context of consumables? Would I be able to offer guests bowls of delicate, delectable berries to cool off a hot summer sunset? Would I be short on space to store all the jams and sauces I would make with these scarlet buttons? Maybe I'd have birds flocking to my shoulders and we'd all be popping berries into our mouths while singing selections from The Sound of Music.

A bit of a crushed fantasy happening in slow motion, I learned that the leaves on my plants aren't succulent-like and plump, as they are in L. Andersonii, the species most commonly associated with edible fruits. My first taste was back in April, and from a box thorn plant with considerably smaller branching arms than the ones I've been eyeing on my property. In May, I noticed vermillion clusters along the mesas that form the entry to Pipes Canyon, and verified that the swathes of color were tiny juicy bites. With June on the horizon, disappointment set in, my bushes still thickly coated in flat paddles-like leaves, the shriveled trumpet flowers clinging to the emerging green fruits. Yesterday in the afternoon heat, the bushes all seemed a warm wash of color, and peeking under a particularly dense branch, my suspicions were confirmed. No, I will not be plucking and processing hoards of plump little morsels from the magical desert terrain. Yes, these are cooper's box thorn bushes, the ones that seem to be absent from the table. But I'll see it as destiny, I'll trade in my greed for gratitude—how many new plants would I have missed if I were wading knee-deep in berry blood?

This is the 30th and final post in the plant-a-day project. The desert is a rich, mystical playground for plants, and I'm happy to have shared my observations and wanderings. This is just the tip of the thorn, there's so much to explore.


Wishbone bush: Mirabilis leavis var. villosa, Nyctaginaceae (Four o'clock family)

This sweet low-sprawling bush has gentle, supple looking leaves with rounded edges that impart a kindness to it. The fresh buds found at the trailing stem ends have fresh a saccharine sweet scent that fades into a pleasant grassy smell as you follow the stem inwards towards larger, older growth. The white or pale pink flowers that open into papery bells are actually not made of petals; rather, they're fused sepals (generally green supports surrounding petals) that directly encase the reproductive organs. 

The species name, M. laevis, means smooth or free from hairs, which is really strange, since the entire plant is covered in visible hairs that give it a fuzzy warm vibe. But I believe this to be the subspecies villosa, which means hairy, so I guess it all works out. 


Long-spined cottonthorn: tetradymia axillaris var. longispina, Asteraceae (sunflower family)

This one has been on my mind since the early days of spring, and every time I passed one on my walks, I would get tingles and have to pee. I am really REALLY excited to have finally put a name to it. I actually laughed for joy when the match was made, because it was so elementary—this time by browsing a list of common names in the sunflower family, and trying to find one that matched its description—white tidy-tip? No. Squaw waterweed? No. Cottonthorn?  Almost too easy.

The troops of monochromatic upright silvery stalks are armed with fierce, but compelling oversized thorns, and it stands out against the general green foliage of neighboring plants. And even more intriguing—these prickly wands are downy-soft(ish), or tomentose in botanical speak. I just wanted to pick them up like they were my pets and cuddle them, but the tips of the thorns have a legit armature, and will dry out to leave a skeletal shrub frame that belongs in a haunted house. Because it had that desaturated sage hue of the wormwoods, I thought maybe it was a sagebrush of some sort. The yellow flowers—which had finished flowering before I started this instagram project—were reminiscent of some species of rabbit brush, and their feathery fruits poof out like a dandelion dispersing seed. All these characteristics (except the thorny parts) led me to believe I was looking at an Asteraceae offspring. And I was, and I will continue to do so, playing hide and seek with these rare, exciting disruptions to the typical vegetative display.  


Mojave indigo bush: Psorothamnus arborescens, Fabaceae (pea family)

It's a shame this one doesn't photograph well from a distance—the inky buds appear to be almost checkered, or pixelated, making for an 8-bit visual that spans the crown of this three foot tall shrub. The lupine-like racemes of bilateral flowers are elegantly tapered, and The ivory gnarled branches are distinctly pale and appear relatively smooth to the touch. (Nevermind that the scientific name psorothamnus is a greek compound meaning "mangy, scabby bush".)

If you're hoping to dye something a seductive shade of blue, this isn't your indigo—although you may be able to squeeze out a yellowish-brown hue from the branches, as is done with other plants in this genus. Aroma: dusty perfume. Oddly, It smells almost identical to one of the rabbitbrushes that blooms in the fall around here, but they're completely unrelated, other than the fact that they are both seed-bearing, flowering organisms in the plant kingdom that happen to hang out in my neighborhood.


Desert trumpet: Eriogonum inflatum, Polygonaceae (buckwheat family)

Sound the horns, desert trumpet is #5 in the countdown as we push thru the home stretch with this plant-a-day project. I can't wait to post pictures of my dogs. 

Throughout the winter, I noticed patches of dried up desert trumpet, consisting only of the solo foundational inflated stem. They were always rust colored—or completely white, bleached from the sun—and cracked as if dry rotting, often torn open to reveal nothing inside. I thought maybe they were all dead and worried that they were going extinct, since they were kind of rare in my neighborhood, and they do have a rather prehistoric silhouette that could easily be handsome grazing material for the gentle brontosaurus. (Or like I always tend to imagine, underwater creatures slowly bobbing and swaying with the currents at the very bottom of the ocean floor.) But then spring rolled in, and right next to the colonies of sun-baked stems I started to notice skinny green tubes poking out of rosettes of healthy baby leaves. I was genuinely excited to know the trumpet was alive and well, and felt like a nurturing mother everyday on my walks while I watched these little alien plants worm their way out of the ground, growing antenna in pairs atop nascent forms, not yet fully inflated. 

The swollen stems of a mature plant are hollow, a perfect spot for insects to deposit larvae. Trumpets divide at nodes right above the girthy apexes, and have this really intricate, almost geometric branching patterning that feels characteristic of the buckwheats. Which is why I love them so much. (!) They're spindly but intentional in their shape, and seem to be bursting out of the ground, but with a poised restraint that compliments their ability to ghost out into the landscape. Humble beauties.


Blackbrush: Coleogyne ramosissima, Rosaceae (rose family)

This one had me befuddled for the longest time. I thought it was a ratany, based on its small size and thorny branching structure. But the flowers were yellow, not pink like ratany's. These short, scrubby bushes surround my house, and so in a sloppy general visual sweep of the area, I gave the name "mystery thorny bush" to any of what appeared to be similar in shape and size and leaf. I had actually given up on identifying this one until I noticed one of these bushes covered in magenta flowers. I was thoroughly confused, as I had watched this plant move through its flowering phase—and they were yellow. When I got a closer look, I realized the newly blossomed shrub was indeed a ratany, not "mystery thorny bush." So I still had some work to do to resolve the mystery plant that had already exhibited its sunny blooms.

I decided to try keying it out by family, and then remembered I had a document listing all the plants in the nearby Pioneertown Mountains Preserve. Flipping to the page listing all the Rosaceae members; I began plugging them into the Calphotos website. Sure enough, it was in the rose family, and was actually a plant I had browsed by so many times but dismissed due to its descriptive name, blackbrush. The branches of this tree seemed rather light in color when viewed at close range like I had been doing. However, from a distance, these stubby little trees do appear dark, but I didn't notice because they were always mingled in with so many other shrubs and the low-contrast background of green foliage doesn't allow the plant stems to pop, as they would in winter when leaves have dropped and the sand is more visible.

Blackbrush tends to grow in stands, and the seeds don't readily germinate—they require oodles of winter rains. When a plant does establish itself, however, it sticks around for a century or longer. The yellow flowers I had spotted earlier in the season are actually the sepals, not petals. The sepals are greenish on the outside and open to reveal yellow walls that protect the pollinating organs. As the sepals shrivel up, they turn an orange-brick red, which had further confused me. Oh, nature.


Cooper's dogweed: Adenophyllum cooperi, Asteraceae (sunflower family)

I love this gap-toothed sunny smile. Every time I look down at a bush of these, I imagine they're blinking back at me in slow motion and that I'm a cartoon character tripping on acid in marioland. As a cousin to the fetid marigold, and perhaps to the putrid/sacred smelling plant I posted a while back, this brightly petaled little stinker will catch your eye and clear your nasal passages. The aroma is borderline floral, almost with a caraway undertone, accented by a hint of decay. The aromatic glands are visible on the bracts, which, if crushed, will remind you why this plant's other accepted scientific name is Dyssodia, a Greek derivation meaning "disagreeable odor." Still, I waft poetic.


Brown-eyed evening primrose: Camissonia claviformis, Onagraceae (evening primrose family)

In the last instagram post, it was mentioned in the comments that a great deal of information published concerning traditional use of plants may be inaccurate or lacking. If we consider the early trajectories of anthropology, and the imbalanced relationship between observer and subject, it's easy to see how such nuanced, ingrained knowledge could be misinterpreted or lost entirely. If the historical anecdotal information we rely on was gathered by outside observers—presumably academics who would return to their offices to compile and compose, long after leaving the field—then we're looking at a very incomplete picture.

And with this plant-a-day project, I feel that I'm guilty of the same charges—writing and photographing without a complicated and complete understanding. Am I just mimicking the structure of colonial anthropology? Gah. 

I try to diversify my perspective by cross-referencing between several of these types of human-use books, a couple field guides and some web resources I'd consider reputable. But still, I feel that with my background (went to school for art, twice), I'm often in the dark. Where to start? 

As far as this little roadside attraction is concerned, it's a pretty pink-stemmed annual that, when I initially spotted it, thought it was a radish of some sort. The basal leaves were so similar to the radishes I had grown in my garden in St. Louis, that I actually dug one up, wondering if I wouldn't find a bulbous root to slice and salt. Since then, long stems have bolted to form top-heavy clusters of 4-petaled white flowers. Funny hot-dog shaped pods shoot out along the main stalk, and little red okra-shaped pods dangle from the terminus. It's got a lot going on.