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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. 

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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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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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!