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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.

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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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Apricot mallow: Sphaeralcea ambigua ssp. ambigua, Malvaceae (mallow family)

This is one of my favorite plants out here, but I've always been a little intimidated by the proliferation of the mallow family, and never went so far as to nail down the precise subspecies. Until today! I decided to get nitty gritty and take out the Jepson manual. (Rather, go to the Jepson eFlora online database, which is a really awesome resource that can help determine a subspecies by inspecting very particular parts of the plant, primarily using descriptive language, but also with some illustrations and photographs, ) In this case, I knew this was apricot mallow, one of the globemallows, but which one? By taking apart a flower head and looking at the minute filaments, I could tell it was the subspecies ambigua, not rugosa, because the anthers and filaments have a purplish hue to them, and are not glabrous—as the rugosa filament tube—which means not hairy. I had to look up a lot of names, like abaxially (underside of a leaf), and refer to charts to be reminded of what a panicle flower formation looks like. But now I know, for no real necessary end result, it's sphaeralcea ambigua var. ambigua. 

This was my first true foray into technical identification. I went to art school, not science school. In undergrad, I took ballet and PE classes to bulk up my academic credits. I don't know much about these things, but I know how to look at things. And damn the eyes, because those leaves are awfully wrinkled, as the namesake "rugosa" indicates. So.the plant remains semi-ambiguous....

PS--This plant, subspecies included, is medicinal! As the family name indicates, the plant has a mucilaginous quality, and can be used to treat dry, irritating respiratory conditions, and has emollient properties when used as a skin poultice. Ironically, the plant is covered in microscopic hairs that can be irritating to the skin, throat, and eyes, giving it the nickname "sore-eye poppy." 

 

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Fiddleneck: Amsinckia tessellata, Boraginaceae (borage family)

The desert floor often reminds me of what I imagine would have grown on the bottom of the ocean when the dinosaurs were still around. The smaller, angular parts of coral-esque structures merge to form rounded, fluid contours that give the basic shape of a given shrub or bush. There's a branching curiosity to a lot of these plants, but held in a protective stance; it's not hard to picture the oscillation between unfurling and recoiling under the weight of moving water. 

Fiddleneck is a hairy, flowering stalk that's running pretty much neck and neck with invasive mustards. Which makes sense, since fiddleneck self-pollinates and can quickly establish a field by exponential seed dispersal and germination. These fuzzy little plants bear small yellow flowers along the curling spine. In the hour before sunset, their figures are silhouetted, but the bristly hairs capture the light and illuminate each plant, creating a glowing field—that for some reason, makes me think of seahorses prancing about the ground. 

 

 

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I moved into my house in Pipes Canyon in October, just as the scorching summer sun began to hibernate. The vegetation was skeletal, leaves and green parts absent, dormant until spring. I take daily walks along the dirt roads and through the brush. Everything appeared dead, except the yuccas and joshua trees, which always bear green spikey lances. I wondered if I would ever be able to identify any of the bushes and shrubs, or if the whole landscape would always present as a massive tangle of sticks.

It rained a lot this winter. I didn't really know what to expect in the months that followed, but when the first group of brambles began to produce teeny little green speckles along their angular, almost pattern-like geometric branches, I was overwhelmed with a corny sense of joy that I can't really justify, other than that it was beautiful. Over the course of several weeks in March, the entire ground began to turn. Magnificent shades of green developed, contrasting and complementing one another against the crisp sky and golden rocks. 

Still everyday, I would try to figure out what that one particular plant was, the early bloomer that first notified me of spring, the one that lines my driveway and all the dirt roads leading up to it. It wasn't until it flowered that I easily pegged it as Desert almond, prunus fasciculata, a member of the rose family (rosaceae.) This past week, fuzzy little fruits emerged, green with tinges of red. Supposedly, they are edible...although they contain high levels of cyanide (so do apple seeds), and aren't exactly a choice food. A lot of reputable resources have listed the seed as toxic, and Temalpakh, the go-to native food book that details the Cahuilla Indian usage of plants, mentioned that it was probably a food source; but this was a mere sentence among two pages concerning the Prunus plant genus. 

Through this one plant, I learned to appreciate the flowers, as someone who doesn't normally do so. The flower says a lot about a plant: the color, the style of the sepals, the number of stamens, the arrangement of petals. The buzz of superbloom still gets me rolling my eyes, but while we've got the blooms, I'm going to take advantage of it and identify one plant everyday for the next thirty days. The images will be posted here with a little information about each plant, and an abbreviation of these posts can be found on instagram: @thesarahwitt

So that's day one: Desert Almond (Prunus fasciculata, rosaceae family), the plant that got me thinking that I really would like to get to know what's growing in my immediate surroundings, and that really, it's not that hard.