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.



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." 



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. 




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.