Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Plants with no names, and other mysteries

It was like being young again. On the road, driving fast, light fading, finally a sign—the wrong sign. Missed the turnoff 40 miles back. Turn north anyway, drive fast, light fading, hit the brakes, back up, take a narrow deep-rutted two-track winding through creosote scrub with no place to turn around. Keep driving, wondering, light fading, rocky hill visible ahead, suddenly arrive and stop. Flat open area, fire ring, fragrance of creosote bush, tiny car lights snaking through the valley below. Far to the east a golden glow edges the jagged mountain crest and the full moon rises—unexpected, unplanned, perfect.

And look what the morning brought:
Morning at the base of Van Winkle Peak.
The desert was in bloom—not the highly-touted “super bloom” of early spring annuals, but rather shrubs covered in flowers. All the moisture had benefitted them too. Most looked familiar, probably because 40 years ago we novice botanists stood before them chanting in Latin. For a moment I hesitated, caught by the reflex. But how absurd! There’s no requirement to name plants to enjoy them.

Of course I recognized creosote bush—I would have recognized it just by its wonderful fragrance (early travelers struggling to cross the Mojave before dying of thirst probably would have disagreed with “wonderful”).
Vigorous creosote bush almost ten feet tall.
Note resinous aromatic leaves.

A yellow-flowered green-stemmed shrub was the main source of color—desert senna, Senna armata, as I later learned from a plant display at the park Visitor Center. It’s a member of the pea family.
Why doesn’t it have pea-like flowers? Because it’s in the subgroup Caesalpinioideae, with flowers only slightly irregular. But it does have compound leaves like many peas, though it took me a moment to see this, with the widely-spaced tiny leaflets on a twisting axis.
Look close – compound leaves!

Next I found a wild buckwheat (Eriogonum sp.) thick with flowers. This genus is easy to recognize, with clusters of small six-parted flowers, but species are often tough. Wild buckwheats are common and diverse in California deserts. During C. Hart Merriam’s Death Valley Expedition of 1891, botanists Frederick V. Coville and Frederick Funston collected 25 species!
Lucky shot—a preoccupied pollinator stumbled into my field of view.

Next to the wild buckwheat was a dead shrub … or so I thought until violet spots caught my eye. This plant’s a total mystery. I don’t know the genus nor the family. It has sharp-tipped twigs, and the stems, leaves and buds are covered in fine gray hairs. Any ideas?

The low shrub below was another a puzzle. It was covered in yellowish fruit, each with two plump locules (chambers) and a persistent style rising between. It had green stems and tiny leaves. Green stems are not uncommon in the desert; they allow photosynthesis to continue after leaves are dropped in response to drought.

Oh boy, chollas ahead! (Opuntia spp.; mid photo below). I spent a fair amount of time among them—I love photographing cactus spines.
Inside the flowers, the stamens were moving, their yellow anthers swaying erratically. Something was rummaging around down at the base of the red filaments. Is there nectar down there, full of drunken pollinators? Finally I caught a shot of one of the culprits.
What is it?

A few annuals were hanging on, the last of the super bloomers. This little beauty was the most common. It’s a member of the aster (sunflower) family.

I spent two nights and two days in the Mojave National Preserve—not nearly enough, not even close. But then I hadn’t planned to go there at all. Seems I always drive across the Mojave in May, when it’s much too hot to stop, but this year things were different, “unusual.” Thunderstorms, heavy rain, flood warnings and finally snow drove me out of New Mexico. I sped across Arizona hoping for dry tolerably-warm Mojave days. Indeed they were.

Continuing on to the coast, I had lots of time to ponder this change. Why are wonderful surprises rare now? Has my venturing into the unknown declined due to age or due to the hyper-availability of information? I thought about all those hours spent on the web the week before I left. Maybe every long trip should include at least one area with little information and no plan. We’ll see if this plan can be implemented ;-)


  1. Oh, those flowering Opuntias are gorgeous! And the flowering Buckwheat ... and the yellow blooms of the Creosote shrub. What a fun experience. Thanks for taking us along!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Beth. I had such a great time, I was hoping the unusual weather would last for my trip back east. But doesn't look like it will, back to hot.

  2. I believe the 'dead' shrub with pink flowers is Polygala subspinosa. Google the name.

    1. Thanks, John. I was going with Polygala until I came across the Calphotos search page while browsing photos, it's pretty neat. Among the results I found Krameria bicolor, which I'm sure is the plant I saw. Good pics here: http://swbiodiversity.org/seinet/taxa/index.php?taxon=154440

  3. I've read the post two days ago and started to laugh at the intro :))
    Hope to get and see the desert in flower one day; it is a most wonderful sight! And, yes, plant names are not really necessary to enjoy nature.

    1. Gabriela, I hope you get to see the desert in bloom, such a treat. I hope I get to see it again! Wish I didn't live so far away.

  4. Nice. Always fun to wake up in the desert to new flora friends. Definitely a Krameria like erecta or bicolor. Your low shrub with the funky fruits is Turpentine Broom, Thamnosma montana. And your last looks like Eriophyllum wallacei to my eye. At least that's what I'd call them if I found them in a CA desert... :)

    1. Thanks, randomtruth! I doubt that I would have arrived at Thamnosma montana on my own! I see it's in the citrus family, wow.

      There will be more ... how are you on NV annuals? (just east of White Mts.)

    2. No problema. That's Eriogonum fasciculatum, btw. Cal Buckwheat. As for NV annuals... If they also grow in CA I might know them, but I haven't botanized east of the Whites.

  5. Hollis - I'm really sorry. I set the link box for the stuck foot post to close itself automatically and intended to go back to change it to stay open but time rushed away . . . and I didn't get it changed in time . . But I've re-opened it . . so do put your link there . . . and I'm really, really sorry that you found the wi-fi and everything and then hit the wall of the closed box . .

    Looking forward to seeing what you have seen!

    Best wishes