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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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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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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.