Monday, April 20, 2015

Plant Identification in the East Mojave

My husband and I signed up for the Desert Institute's field class Geology of the Mojave National Preserve with Ted Reeves. Ken took a vastly different class than I took. While I am interested in geology, and often cocked my ear to hear the lecture, I was more interested in the plants of the East Mojave and usually wandered off a bit (but always under the watchful eye of one of the DI volunteers) to identify plants.

The first day we met at the Hole in the Wall Visitor's Center and I bought Plants of the East Mojave: Mojave National Preserve in the bookstore. I read the entire book in about an hour and began misidentifying plants right and left. By the next day I'd gotten most of them sorted out and now feel much better about what I learned.

The unfamiliar and unusual plants I read about AND saw those two days were: Joshua Tree (another variety of yucca brevifolia), blue yucca (yucca baccata), Mojave mound cactus (echinocereus triglochidiatus var. mojavensis), desert stipa (achnathereum speciosum), desert almond (prunus fasciculata), sandpaper plant (petalonyx thurberi ssp. thurberi), winter fat (krascheninnikovia lanata), wooly brickellia (brickellia incana), California brickellia (brickellia californica), squawbush (rhustribolata), woolly-fruited bursage (ambrosia eriocentra), blue/purple sage (salvia dorrii ssp. dorrii), paperbag bush (salazaria mexicana), turpentine broom (thamnosma montana), palmer penstemon (penstemon palmeri - which I first mistook for larkspur and then milkweed), little gold poppy (eschscholtzia glyptosperma), yellow cups (camissonia brevipes - a primrose that I mistook for a buckwheat), and bitterbush (purshia tridentata var. glandulosa - which I first confused with sandpaper plant).

All the tiny samples I took from plants were taken from private property as it is illegal to remove anything from the preserve.
Little gold poppy (eschscholtzia glyptosperma) tiniest dam poppy I ever saw
Desert Four O'Clocks, (mirabilis multiflora var. pubescens nyctaginaceae)
Turpentine Broom (thamnosma montana)
Turpentine broom is easy to mistake for ephedra, especially early in the year before it starts to bloom. It has many of the same growth aspects of some of the desert ephedras - low, compact, leafless, gray, and some of the branches have the appearance of being jointed. Turpentine broom has small blue/purple tubish flowers and yellow fruits. There were some Native American applications for the plant though none sound very appealing.

Mojave mound cactus (echinocereus triglochidiatus var. mojavensis)
Desert almond (prunus fasciculata)
I have difficulty identifying plants from photographs. Sometimes it's even easier to identify them from a description, but a good description and a good photograph are best. For a month I've been trying to identify the plant above - desert almond. I see it everywhere in Joshua Tree National Park and it was everywhere around Hole in the Wall. I hadn't seen the fruits before and that cinched the ID. What distinguished this plant for me was the almost boxlike shape of the bush and the almost 90 degree branch offshoots. It's very angular. Big, boxy, angular with tiny fuzzy almonds.

Squawbush (rhustribolata
Squawbush was all over the Hole in the Wall area. I touched the berries, which were very sticky, and immediately worried that this was poison oak. I thought about it and figured that the park service would have warned people if there was that much poison oak in the area. I found out later that people do confuse this with poison oak. The difference can be found in looking closely at the three leaves, even in this photograph. The three leaves are not separate but connected to each other along the leaf margin.

Squawbush had many uses among Native Americans, and many interesting stories associated with it, including one about vagina dentata.

From bottom left, clockwise: Little gold poppy (eschscholtzia glyptosperma), sandpaper plant (petalonyx thurberi ssp. thurberi), woolly-fruited bursage (ambrosia eriocentra), and wooly brickellia (brickellia incana).

Wooly brickellia lined the highways going toward Kelso. At first I thought they might be desert lavender but they were rounded, mid-sized silver mounds all along the roads and down the washes. I found the sandpaper plant there, as well, green branches sprouting up through last year's dead white branches.

At the Kelso Station I bought Early Uses of California Plants (California Natural History Guides). We have a copy of this somewhere in the house, but I've misplaced it so was glad to have it again to refer to.

The Mojave preserve is lush this spring and in full bloom. The elevation changes were rapid and the types of plants in any one area change just as fast. The East Mojave is not as lush as the Sonoran Desert but much lusher than the West Mojave and it supported much more biodiversity. It was a rare and wondrous treat to spend two days in this magical land.

A train (the white line) crosses beneath the Providence Mountains.

Mojave Preserve: Rock Springs Loop Trail

The Mojave Preserve is far beyond the services we depend on in our daily lives. There are no stores. There is little potable water, no food, no restaurants, no available electricity, and no gasoline. You have to come prepared, and though we tried we failed and for a large part depended on the kindness of both friends and strangers, which we found in abundance.

The Hole in the Wall, with instructor Ted Reeves explaining the geology of the site.
On the way into the Preserve I texted my son to tell him we'd arrived safely. By the time we reached our campsite, 20 miles farther on, there was no reception. The next day the charge on my phone ran out and I was unable to take more photographs. It's probably just as well as photos fail to convey the beauty and grandeur of the preserve. For the next 36 hours I looked at everything and my eye began to tire of the endless pristine, so unused I was to seeing that kind of startling beauty for such a length of time. It heartened me to see vista after vista, one stacked after another; to know that there remain areas relatively untouched and uninhabited. It was as if I'd hiked into the past and caught a glimpse of what people who lived 400 hundred years ago might have seen. Of course it is different now, it is touched, but it is a glimpse, and it cleansed and heartened me.

I may as well have drawn the preserve on a paper grocery bag for how poor my camera was in capturing anything in front of me. The light was so harsh that I could not see anything on my screen and sometimes I wasn't sure my camera was even on. I kinda just pointed at things and hoped for the best. This was not a good strategy.

We were in the Preserve for the Desert Institute's Geology of the Mojave National Preserve with Ted Reeves. Ted Reeves is an amazing teacher. His enthusiasm is infectious and he is both accessible and personable. I was one of about 30 people in the group and though he didn't know my name he made an effort to check in a couple of times each day with some little personal question or comment and he seemed to do this with everyone, keeping everyone engaged in the subject matter. He seems to have a following of devoted students and I can see why.

A circular petroglyph at the entrance of Rock Springs.
On the first day we did a tour of the Rock Springs Loop Trail. It was a hot day and the sun beat down on us. We hiked past the rock house, previously inhabited by a WWI veteran and later the artist Carl Faber. Farther on we hiked along the top of a wash. There was loud buzzing up ahead. Bees were hovering around the opening in some rocks. It was a honey cave!

I'd read about those  when I was studying family histories and told my trail mates of massive honey caves I'd read about and how idiot settlers had dynamited them. Now that I'm back home I am able to find the story and share it with you.

Honey By The Ton, in the November 1887 issue of Beekeeper Magazine, tells the tail of a man in New Jersey who stumbled upon a vast and multi-chambered honey cave. Instead of recognizing it for the natural wonder that it was - and he might have made more money making it a tourist attraction - he did what any thick-witted man with a hammer for an imagination would have done - gone for the short term profit and applied dynamite.

Read the entire story in all its sad stupidity, if you dare.

We remain fortunate that the honey cave on the Rock Springs Trail is protected.

Farther on we came to Rock Springs, the watering hole, now just a seep. The area was alive with bees and many of our party circled back to avoid them. The more intrepid of our party, and those of us more familiar and less afraid of bees, walked into the tree-lined canyon, rested in the shade and admired the many petroglyphs. Our Desert Institute volunteer (and neighbor) Bob told us that there used to be large pools in this section, but a flood had filled them in.

On one rock remains the grafitti "Stua, 4th Inf. May 16". In the article Mojave Preserve trail offers easy hike, cooler temperatures, the author writes, "I am told this was most likely written in either 1863 or 1864 by Charles Stuart, a musician in Company B, 4th Infantry, California Volunteers." I am charmed by the application of serifs in graffiti.

The Army built forts in the area to protect settlers and later the mail run. The fort at Rock Springs was supposed to have been one of the most dismal assignments in the whole of the army and many soldiers are said to have defected.

It's hard to imagine today someone becoming dispirited by the site. Living in a city like Los Angeles, or even someplace relatively undeveloped like Yucca Valley, or even the relatively undeveloped Twentynine Palms, would make any character not dependent on a personal cache of dynamite long for the silence and connection with nature that the Mojave Preserve provides.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Agave Festival in Banning

A group of us from Wonder Valley met up at the Agave Festival on the Morongo Reservation in Banning. The festival was held at the Malki Museum, produced largely by Daniel McCarthy, and many, many volunteers and participants. I'd met McCarthy at the Desert Institute's Native Plant Uses and at the same lecture at the Old Schoolhouse in Twentynine Palms.

Daniel McCarthy
Agave (not the tequila kind) was a staple food of the Cahuilla and other native American tribes in the area. There are 20+ tribes in the Mojave Desert. The previous week people had gathered for the agave harvest. It takes nearly a week to prepare the oven and cook the agave.

Agave is cooked in a rock-lined pit. McCarthy, an anthropologist, discovered some of these pits during his field work in the desert and reconstructed the ovens and resurrected the practice of roasting agave.

McCarthy was thanked by a tribal elder for his work in preserving the traditions associated with the agave. This was their 20th annual festival.

A community dinner included roasted agave, rabbit stew, nettle tea, pine nuts, corn bread, acorn mush, squash, beans, yucca whipplei,venison, salad, fry bread, corn, and more. It was delicious.

The agave was delicious. Many of us tried pieces of the leaves which we ate like giant artichoke leaves. They were stringy and for the most part you sucked the juice and flesh from the leaf. It was delicious and messy.

The heart of the agave was served at dinner. Agave is sweet. Many describe it as a cross between pineapple and sweet potato and that is an apt description. The flavor resonated deeply and tasted like something from childhood, something you want to go back to. Perhaps it was the context that gave it the strong appeal to the senses.

A young man prepares the roasted agave hearts.
The Malki Museum has a beautiful native garden and I spent a lot of time there familiarizing myself with native plants: jojoba, mesquite, manzanita, elderberry, creosote, ephedra, wild rose and grape, salt bush, sage and more.

This is buckwheat (left). I learned that I have long confused this with rosemary. I have found it cultivated at Sunnynook park on the Los Angeles River in a garden showcasing native and drought tolerant plants.

I was very excited to see that some of my friends from Los Angeles attended. Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne, who wrote The Urban Homestead were there. Erik and I, along with Mark Stambler, founded Los Angeles Bread Bakers. Two other LABB members attended, as well. Erik told me that Joseph Shuldiner, who wrote Pure Vegan: 70 Recipes for Beautiful Meals and Clean Living and who runs The Institute for Domestic Technology, attended the previous week's agave harvest. I was very happy to see the museum, harvest, and festival come to the attention of Los Angeles food authors and advocates.

One of the high points of the event for me was the basket making. A group of teenage men and women stood around weaving simple baskets. They were completely absorbed by their task and doing beautiful work. Next time this course is offered I'm taking it.

Singers and dancers from the Sherman Indian High School performed. I apologize for not taking more pictures. I wasn't feeling well so didn't make it to all the activities. I'll definitely be going to this next year and hope you can make it, too.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Meeting Susan Luckie Reilly

When I first moved to the desert I fell in love. I wanted to know everything I could about the desert. I read blogs, and when there weren't enough to sate my desire for knowledge about the Mojave I decided to write my own, to provide for the next aspirants. I read books - Sand in My Shoe, by Helen Bagley and My Life on the Mojave, by June LeMert Paxton.

Sand in My Shoe, Helen Bagley and My Life on the Mojave, June LeMert Paxton
From both of these books I learned about Dr. Luckie, who opened the area to World War One veterans suffering from exposure to chemical gases. So well loved and well thought of was Dr. Luckie that the city park in Twenty-nine Palms is named Luckie Park.

See Prescription for a Desert Life

The prescription reads, "The thought that came to me when I first saw the valley,
'If scenes like these thy heart can share, then bide a welcome pilgrim here.' Dr. James B. Luckie"
So when my neighbor mentioned that Dr. Luckie's daughter, Susan Reilly, was coming to her house for breakfast, I did what any pushy person does and invited myself over. (All right, I begged.)

Susan is 98, slight, with stylish hair that she'd just had fixed. She was quiet for most of the breakfast and I couldn't stay long. My neighbor Almut told me that while walking Susan to her car she'd talked with her about her early days with the Morongo Basin Conservation Association, which she helped form.

L>R clcokwise: Almut Fleck, Denia - Susan's night nurse, Glenda Berndt,
Marissa - Susan's day nurse, (Center) Susan Luckie Reilly.
Susan was an early and fierce activist fighting against big utilities and people who wanted to use the desert for a dumping ground. So many of us owe her so much and I was very grateful that my neighbor indulged my inviting myself to her breakfast. This land forges strong people who work hard to protect it and I'm so honored to have met and spent time with Susan Luckie Reilly.

Ten days in the desert

My husband, son, and I arrived on the mesa late Friday, April 3 and I stayed through until last night, returning  to Los Angeles on April 14. The desert is a magical place and my stay was packed with so many people and activities that it's a bit of a blur. I'll try to tease out some of the high points. Scrolling through my photographs will help remind me.

Our visit began with the lunar eclipse. We arrived around midnight and set the alarm for 4:45 a.m. so we could get up to watch the eclipse.

The eclipsed moon setting over Mount San Gorgonio.
We were all working the First Saturday breakfast at the Copper Mountain Mesa Community Center so we all had to be there by 7:30 a.m. We were a little ragged, but it's always so fun to be with the community that none of us minded.

The desert is so beautiful right now, color and life everywhere. If you're ever in the desert, this is the time you want to be here, and if you live here all the time, spring is the big payoff. Spring feeds your spirit for the coming hot months, the debilitating, lock-yourself-in-your-cabin with the air conditioner and old movies months.

Beavertail cactus, opuntia basilaris
Meanwhile, in Wonder Valley, our mesquite trees hosted a riot of butterflies, bees and moths drunk on a cloud of heavily scented pollen. Standing in the midst of these trees baffles the senses.

Sphinx moth, Sphinginae 
Ken and I had place a bee box under the tamarisks near the mesquite, hoping that bees would move in. Last week, on the advice of a friend, I opened the empty hive and placed a couple of drops of lemon grass oil on the top of the wooden frames. A few days later we had bees.

Ken was skeptical and opened the top - without his bee suit on, mind you. He quickly dropped the lid back on the hive and high-tailed it out of there as it was humming with bees inside.

All in camera, one shot, no content manipulation.
This was a fun photo. I did resize the photo for this post, and corrected the color, but I didn't alter the content. Let me know if you can figure it out.