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.