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Rattlesnake sandmat: Euphorbia albomarginata, Euphorbiaceae (spurge family)

This itty bitty flowering earth-hugger spreads in small patches that make pleasing organic shapes, a little reminiscent of moss in its flatness. The name rattlesnake weed is not derived from the fact that rattlesnakes dwell in its vicinity (although I'm sure they do), but because a poultice from its crushed leaves and flowers were used to treat snake bites, often in lieu of the sucking method. And even snakes may nibble it as a preventative antivenom: "a snake before fighting a rattlesnake always eats some of this weed so as to be immune to the poison." (Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian knowledge and usage of plants, Lowell John Bean and Katherine Siva Saubel, 1972)

Despite that the milky sap is commonly regarded as toxic to humans, the plant has traditionally been applied both internally and externally to treat a range of conditions, from bathing in an infusion of it for chicken pox, to rubbing the plant on breasts to stimulate lactation. 

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Rayless goldenhead: Acamptopappus sphaerocephalus, Asteraceae (sunflower family)

Very little information is out there on this plant, other than when sheep can't find better forage, they'll eat it. Mostly what I found was limited to its physical characteristics and growing habitats. It mainly grows in creosote-bush scrubland, joshua tree woodlands, and pinon-juniper communities. This shrub grows to be about 3 feet tall with abundant, branching budding heads that lack ray flowers (which are the petals we normally consider to be the "flower.") Instead, these cute little bulbs are filled with disc flowers (the center flowers, that if you look closely, look like lilies.) The stems and foliage is a verdant, kelly green, and is extremely common around here. Which is why I'm surprised there's no more info out there—and also kind of nice, a reminder that it's not all about facts and data. I love how slowly the flowers have formed, and the staggering opening of each one, creating a horizon of differently-sized heads that look like a mixed bag of pearls and dandelions that got shorn. Each one maturing at its own pace, kindly evolvement. 

The look and feel and ambiance are just as crucial as anything to our enjoyment and understanding of the plant world.

 

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Pima ratany: Krameria erecta, Krameriaceae (ratany family)

Another day in parasite. Only two species of the ratany family grow here in California, and they both operate by clinging to the roots of host plants, nursing nutrients. 

I've been wondering when I'd stumble across this one, since it's fairly common and has an extensive reputation as a medicinal plant. The rootbark contains the most powerful medicine, and due to its astringent, drying properties, ratany can be helpful for a host of conditions: excessive sweating; gingivitis and other gum diseases; hemorrhoids and diarrhea; topically applied to sooth wet, weepy open wounds; profuse bleeding in women going through menopause.

Despite the fact that pima ratany bears exotic magenta blooms that—alongside their plump seed pods that sport funky red spikes—appear almost tropical, this plant is easily overlooked. Growing fairly low to the ground, the deep pink claw-like flowers get lost in the similarly darkly valued grays of twigs, and the twigs resemble so many other shrubs that they recede into a neutral desert backdrop. A modest mound.

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Chaparral dodder: Cuscuta californica, Convolvuceae (morning glory family)

Driving past wonder valley a few weeks ago, fields of what were storied to be wildflowers were covered in something akin to discarded construction fencing. I thought, what a shitty thing, to trash all this land with neon plastic netting...and then I realized the tangles of orange sprawled for many meters (miles even?), and were fairly uniform, seemingly evenly spaced and only in heaps that obscured plants, never on the ground. My friend and I got out of the car and learned that these twining messes were very much alive, by parasitic means. Dodder doesn't contain chlorophyll, so it uses little suckers called haustoria to latch onto and draw nutrients from its host. But generally, dodder is more a free-loader than a serial killer, so the host plant usually survives. Since I've never seen this one up until now, I'm guessing it'll shrink away once summer arrives?

But I kind of like it. It makes you look twice. The disorganized bright splash brings a little welcome change to the standard branching and budding structures that dominate our understanding of plant bodies. It makes you think, reminds you how weird this world really is.

Note on designating species: even experts have trouble telling the cuscutas apart, and this may actually be C. denticulata, however, I'm situated between the ecological habitats of the two, and elevation and host plants (mainly buckwheats) give cause to think this is C. Californica. C. denticulata can be a little more yellowy on the orange spectrum and tends to grow at lower elevations (<4000'), dominating open desert regions, whereas C. californica becomes more common as the desert stretches towards the California coast, and is capable of growing at elevations reaching over 8000'.

 

 

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Yellow turbans: Eriogonum pusillum, Polygonaceae (buckwheat family)

This ghostly little plant is nearly invisible if you peer at it from directly above. The teeny tiny flowers (we're talking mere millimeters here) wash into pebbles against a backdrop of sand. While picking up one of my dog's droppings, I noticed one the other day, the flowers vibrating in the wind, hovering over the ground as if suspended in midair without scaffolding. Crouching down, I saw the thread-like limbs, and then saw that I was surrounded by an army of these camouflaged p(l)ants.

I went out looking for that same patch this afternoon, but was unable to spot any due to the low contrast resulting from overcast skies. Yet again, tending to my dogs, I noticed a twitch out of the corner of my eye, a little like psychedelic pattern shifting. There they were, those invisible little flowers, dancing their jittery two step back and forth, bringing granules of sand in and out of focus. 

I struggled to pin down a precise classification, so many micro factors that I won't begin to list. I chose this species because the involucre (base of flowering head) is kind of hairy (not smooth like E. reniforme) and fairly wide (2mm vs. 1.3mm in E. thomassii) But if you know it to be otherwise, please correct me! The genus Eriogonum contains over 250 species, so look closely!

 

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Mojave aster: Xylorhiza tortifolia, Asteraceae (sunflower family)

Another purple flowering plant. A poised beauty with lanky stems, clusters of near-whitebut still detectably lavender petals circle and protect a glowing orange center of disc flowers. And even though I generally despise the color purple, I did gasp when I first encountered such a gentle but showy array mingling amidst the sword-like leaves belonging to a family of yuccas. The flower heads are a couple inches across, sizeable when compared to other blossoms in this area. Kind of like a wild gerber daisy.

And still they hang on, mostly in the shade it seems; everything is starting to crisp, the moisture of the last rain (has it been over two months?) has seeped beyond reach and leeches out in minute increments as the plants push through their fruiting phases before dropping leaves and pigments fade.

 

 

 

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Blue sage: Salvia dorrii, Lamiaceae (mint family)

The genus name, Salvia, is derived from the Latin word salveo, translated as "i am well." Which is how I feel when I smell a sage plant. 

The desert is populated with a number of salvia species, each of them breathing their own unique scent, but easily recognized as sages. Not quite a culinary aroma, these wild herbs are fortified with grounding mint-y, almost astringent notes that quiet the mind—it has a sacred vibe to it, and this species is no exception, despite taking the public's backseat to white sage (Salvia apiana, smudge sticks) or chia (Salvia columbariae, it's a sage too!) Native tribes have a deep respect for sages, and similar to creosote, sage has been employed as a catch-all medicinal for a host of conditions, from the common cold to clearing bad energy.

 

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Prince's plume: Stanleya pinnata, Brassicaceae (mustard family)

This is a festive plant if I ever saw one. And the first time I did, I thought it was regular tansy mustard on steroids. Not surprising since it's in the same family, and smells a lot like kale. The plant is enormous, considering the typical low profile of desert dwellers—this one is about my height. 

According to some resources, it is edible, both leaves and showy yellow seed pods, but the plant also soaks up a sizeable amount of selenium from the earth, so is labeled toxic in other circles. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion...but...climate change is real!!!