Native Plants and Their Uses

Marcia leads a guided hike pointing out native desert plants and explaining how they served the lifestyle of the native Cahuilla Peoples. That’s Marcia below in the green cap.

She is so sweet and knowledgeable. I thoroughly enjoy working with her and learning from her. We’ve repaired trails together and raked and cleaned up fallen palm fronds in the Wilhelm picnic grove. A retired elementary school teacher, Marcia is a Master Gardener and leads a weekly hike Wednesday mornings.

The University of California Master Gardener Program is a public service and outreach program. In exchange for training from the University in home horticulture and pest management, Master Gardeners offer volunteer services to the general public. (mg.ucanr.edu)

Since the McCallum Trail is still closed from October’s flash flood, we walk up Squaw Hill and then head across Thousand Palms Canyon Road to the Indian Palms Trail.


Alkali Goldenbush

This medium-sized shrub is related to the sunflower family. Clusters of small yellow flowers appear in the fall, attracting bees and butterflies. The Cahuilla prepared a poultice by boiling the leaves to help heal sores. They also soaked the leaves in a pan of boiling water and inhaled the steam to remedy colds and sore throats.

Since this shrub grows quickly and the foliage comes in thick, the Cahuilla used the plant as a windbreaker. They often surrounded their homes with a border of alkali golden bush. (ethnoherbalist.com)


Honey mesquite

This was one of the most important plants in the Cahuilla diet, providing pods and beans. The fresh green pods were processed into a beverage and the dried beans were ground into a flour.

 ethnoherbalist.com

  garden oracle.com

Marcia just happens have some flour for us to sample. This gluten-free ground meal is smoky and spicy. It reminds me of a tangy rub or marinade.

The wood was the best, hottest-burning firewood. Larger limbs were used for construction and slender branches could be made into arrows.


Arrowweed

This desert plant needs an ample supply of water year round. It grows around the oasis and desert wetlands.

The roots and sprouts were roasted and eaten by the Cahuilla. Raw roots were a cure for diarrhea. The long slender stalks were woven into walls and covered in mud to build roofs. The Cahuilla also used dry arrowweed stalks for arrows.


Cattle spinach

This plant with very tiny leaves is an important source of minerals and salt for grazing cattle and sheep.

The iconic desert tortoise and other animals depend upon this plant for food and shelter.


Desert holly

This silvery plant is not related to the holly bush we are familiar with, but it’s leaves are similarly shaped.

It is one of the most heat-tolerant plants in North America. The light-colored leaves reflect light and heat, enabling the plant to conserve water. In severe drought conditions desert holly will even shed its leaves. Although there are no recorded uses of this plant by the Cahuilla, the leaves taste a bit like potato chips when chewed. A native snack food maybe?


Golden cholla

Native to the Southwestern United States and Northwestern Mexico,  this species of cactus is found in the Sonoran, Mojave, and California Deserts.

Golden cholla commonly occurs in desert dry wash, creosote bush scrubs, Joshua tree woodland, and Pinyon-juniper woodland communities. Many native cultures ate the bumpy, spiny, tan fruit.


Creosote

Not to be confused with the plant that produces the tar or petroleum product, it is sometimes referred to as Indian Penicillin. It gets its name from the resinous odor of its small and waxy leaves.

The Cahuilla used this plant to treat many common ailments. A tea prepared from the stems and leaves relieved sore throats, colds, stomach, and bowel maladies. The steam from the boiling tea helped relieve congestion. It was also used to help heal wounds, prevent infection, and treat dandruff. Seriously? Dandruff? I can’t imagine why the Cahuilla would worry about white shoulders. An itchy scalp… more likely.

Creosote is THE SMELL of the desert after it rains! There is nothing like that aromatic fragrance that lingers in the air. Marcia keeps a few sprigs of creosote in her shower to enjoy.


Indigo bush

Unremarkable in its dormant state, rains color it with bright green leaves and mauve stems followed by a cloud of purple blooms.

The Cahuilla steeped the branches in boiling water to produce a light yellow-brown dye for staining baskets.


Smoke tree

So wispy and pastel, leaning every which way in hues of yellow and green, this photogenic tree thrives in desert washes.

The seeds of smoke trees depend upon the washing water and flowing debris to open them and encourage germination.


Desert trumpet

This slender, leafless plant grows to 2 feet and bears tiny yellow flowers.

It was once thought that the inflated trumpet-like stem portion was caused by irritation from insect larva living inside. But this is no longer a valid theory. The Cahuilla used the bulge as a means to smoke tobacco.


Brittle bush

The silvery leaves of this plant are covered with insulating white hairs that deflect the sun and conserve water. In the spring it produces yellow daisy-like flowers. During dry spells it will often lose its leaves.

The leaves, flowers, and stems were boiled to relieve toothaches. The Cahuilla also warmed the plant’s sap or resin and applied it to the chest for pain.


Saltbush

A perennial grass found in wet alkaline areas, the Cahuilla scraped the salt globules off the blades of leaves to use as a food condiment.

The stiff salt grass stems were also useful as a cleaning agent and a handy way to scrub off the spines and thorns of cactus.


Desert Wishbone Bush

I thought the leaves were supposed to resemble wishbones, but I have been told that the branches are shaped like wishbones. This plant is a member of the Four O’ Clock family and grows in desert flats and canyons.


The October rains bring early blooms to the desert…

These purplish-magenta flowers of White Rhatany capture our attention.

The stalked puffball below is the Desert Shaggy Mane Mushroom that prefers the dry, sandy environment of the desert.

As we head back across the street to the parking area, an Indigo bursts out in purple flowers.


Jeff and I are becoming familiar with all these desert plants. As we take our hikes we try and identify as many as we can. The desert is a spectacular place!

Hidden Palms Trail

There are at least 10 hiking trails throughout the Preserve and as the name Thousand Palms implies, many lead to palm groves. The McCallum Trail passes through 2 groves, a riparian forest and a large pond oasis. To get to Squaw Hill from the Visitor Center 2 smaller palm groves line the trail. Indian Palms is a set of 2 groves separated by a hill.


Today we visit Hidden Palms tucked into a small canyon across the street and southeast from the Visitor Center.

Harlan, one of the trail guides walks with us as we head toward the ridge of Pushawalla through the wash. Most of the trail disappeared after the recent October 13th flash flood and I take some photos to share with our Preserve Manager, Ginny Short.

The sign below leads to Willis Palms. Can you find the trail? Neither could we.

Instead of hiking up the switchback and cutting through the ridge of Pushawalla to get to Hidden Palms, we follow Harlan to learn more about desert plants and observe new growth and blooms from the recent rains. (We head toward Willis Palms.)

Meanwhile, I practice identifying plants and shrubs, such as arrowweed below.

We head south and pass the hill to Pushawalla Ridge.

Looking back, I take a pic of smoke trees in the desert wash.

Desert trumpet is plentiful here. Harlan explains that the oblong swells along the stem are filled with carbon dioxide and the Cahuilla used to fill them with tobacco to smoke.

The brittle bush below is not dead.

The leafless plant surprises us with its sticky amber resin.

Nearby is a blooming brittle bush.

After showing us his secret off-trail spot to observe blooming plants, Harlan departs and Jeff and I continue south toward Willis Palms. We are taking the roundabout trail to Hidden Palms that takes us parallel to Thousand Palms Canyon Road and Washington Street.

Looking back… Cheese weed thrives among dead smoke trees in the wash. Across the street the palm grove of the Smoke Tree Ranch Trail stands to the left of Squaw Hill.

A babbling brook trickles along the wash beside the trail; the result of the recent flash flood.

Smoke trees…

The artistic effects of salt and sand striations…

Bobcat tracks…

And coyote tracks…

The hills… Notice how they look raked, almost as if a giant hand scraped its fingers down through them.

As we head east parallel to Washington Street, golden cholla cactus glow in the sunlight.

At the road to Covered Wagon Tours we head north toward Hidden Palms.

A cluster of beaver-tailed cactus greets us. Notice the tiny pink bud ready to bloom.

The thick palm skirts create the optimum habitat for desert wildlife.

We walk through the palm grove and take the trail to Pushawalla, cross over the ridge and return to the Visitor Center.

Indian Palms Trail

The 2nd Trail to Re-Open

The first trail to open is Squaw Hill, a short 300-foot ascent with a few gentle switchbacks leading to a great viewing area of the valley surrounded by mountains.

I help repair part of the 2-mile out and back Indian Palms Trail leading to 2 separate palm groves. (Who knew I’d be helping repair hiking trails when I retired? I mean, I read about volunteer working vacations opportunities and always thought, “How cool!” But now I am actually helping restore trails damaged by the flash flood of October 13th in the Coachella Valley Preserve.)

A few days later Jeff and I check it out.


The trail to Indian Palms begins in Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve’s parking lot.

We head out early in the day…

…and cross the street carefully to the east side of Thousand Palms Canyon Road.

The trail is well marked.

The mud in the wash is still wet and riddled with well-preserved bobcat tracks.

We take a left and hike toward the north palm grove first.

The water source is not visible but the California Fan Palms are evidence of its availability.

Barrel cactus, creosote bushes, and sandpaper plant stand watch among the rocks of the Indio Hills.

We follow the loop around the grove. Notice the younger palm trees with their frond petticoats. The taller palm tree looks like it has survived a fire with its blackened trunk and high skirt fronds. But it’s alive and well and even producing palm fruit dripping off its right side.

Here’s a great close-up of four-wing saltbush.

So much palm fruit, too high to pick…

Out of the loop, (hehe) we head to the south grove.

Water rises to the surface…

And lush palm fruit is within reach!

On our way back I finally get close up and personal with a barrel cactus.

With the McCallum Trail temporarily closed, the Indian Palms Trail receives lots of visitors.

Frank’s Guided Desert Bird Walk

Every Sunday Frank leads a bird walk through the Thousand Palms Oasis. Today, however, most of the trails are still closed from the flash flood of October 13th. So we take a short walk around the Palm House. Jeff and I don binoculars and off we go.

Frank wears a perpetual smile and a vest covered with patches of all the places he has gone bird-watching. He carries his viewing scope and sets it up for crystal clear up-close observing. Then he plays the different bird calls on his iPad to attract more birds.

Below is a list of the birds I have seen in the desert oasis:

Cactus Wren

Very common where cholla cactus and mesquite brush grow, this bird has a very recognizable raspy voice. (audubon.org)

 audubon.org (courtesy Brian E. Small)

Song
call

Yellow-rumped Warbler

With its trademark yellow rump patch, this warbler survives the winter eating berries all along the western coast of the United States and Mexico. (audubon.org)

 audubon.org (courtesy Laure W. Neish)

 audubon.org

Song
Call

Bewick’s Wren

Common and widespread in the west, this wren enjoys the habitat of desert washes. (audubon.org)

 audubon.org (courtesy G. Lasley)

Song and call

Phainopepla

In the desert Southwest, this bird arrives to announce the beginning of winter. Phainopeplas and mistletoe rely on each other. The birds eat the berries of this parasitic plant. After the berries pass through the birds’ digestive track, the seeds stick to the branches of the mesquite tree and sprout new clumps of mistletoe. (audubon.org)

 audubon.org (courtesy Bob Steele)

Song
Call

Western Tanager

The western counterpart of the scarlet tanager, this bird often shows up in the desert during migration. (audubon.org)

 audubon.org (courtesy Glenn Bartley)

Song and call

Great Horned Owl

Widespread and common throughout North America and parts of South America, this big bird is aggressive and powerful in its hunting. It is sometimes known by nicknames, such as “tiger owl”. (audubon.org)

 audubon.org (courtesy Johann Schumacher)

Hoot
Alarm

Barn Owl

Preying chiefly on mice and rats, the desert offers a good foraging territory. (audubon.org)

audubon.org (courtesy Steve Young)

  audubon.org

Call
Alarm

Long-eared Owl

This medium-sized owl favors habitats with dense trees for nesting and roosting and open country for  hunting. Streamside groves in deserts make an ideal environment. (audubon.org)

 audubon.org (courtesy Brian E. Small)

 audubon.org

Hoot
Alarm
Bill snap and squeal near nest

Red-tailed Hawk

This is the most widespread and familiar large hawk in North America. An inhabitant of open country, this soaring bird is no stranger to the desert. (audubon.org)

 audubon.org (courtesy Tom Vezo)

call

Gambel’s Quail

The Sonoran desert is home to this distinctive bird, often abundant near desert streams and waterholes. Often found around mesquite thickets, foraging flocks are called coveys. (audubon.org)

 audubon.org

song
call

Costa’s Hummingbird

The desert might seem like a bad place for a creature that feeds at flowers, but it is the favored habitat for this hummingbird. (audubon.org)

 audubon.org (Sid & Shirley Rucker)

song

Bird audio links copyrighted by National Audubon Society Bird Song Collection.

While We Are Away…

The Flash Flood of October 2018

On October 10th, Jeff drives to Denver with our dog Casey to stay with his son, David, for a few days and visit with his son, Andy, and his family. Emjay, Jasley, Jace, and Eliska are off school for the week.

On October 12th, my grandaughter’s first birthday, I fly to Ohio to attend “Reaganfest” on the 14th:

The “Von Kelly’s Estate” is alive with the sights and sounds of celebration, the taste and smells of bratts, kraut, Bavarian pretzels, and warm potato salad, and the feelings of love.

Reagan “Von Kelly” dresses appropriately for the occasion…

…and looks up to her big brother Oliver with anticipation as he sings, “It’s somebody’s birthday!” all morning long.

The boys don their attire.

The cousins… (Leah, Reagan, Lydia, Caleb, and Oliver)

The smash cake…

…gets smashed, sort of. At least it’s all over Reagan! Oliver enjoys a chocolate oatmeal mountain cookie.

Reagan changes clothes to open gifts and I take a pic of the “Von Kelly” girls.

Oliver helps Reagan unwrap presents.

Daddy’s little girl…

Lots of new toys to play with…


Meanwhile, as October 12th turns into October 13th, rain drenches the Preserve. Even though the Preserve itself only received 5/8 of an inch, the Little San Bernardino Mountains that abut the Coachella Valley were hit with 2-3 inches of rain that poured down the alluvial fan plains causing 5 foot flash floods.

I thought Gregg was kidding me when he sent me the text. Then he sent me the following pics that I took seriously:

Notice the mud line on the sign. The water streamed over the boardwalk railing flattening all the salt grass in the wetlands.

Even the Palm House did not escape some damage.

Trails close.

Harlan’s Ecology and Nature Walk

Squaw hill and Mccallum trail

After a short trek up Squaw Hill, where we overlook the San Andreas Fault and line of palm trees stretching across the waterline and where Harlan points out the spot in the Little San Bernardino Mountains where Keys View is located in Joshua Tree National Park, we head back down to the wetlands area he calls Jurassic Park. We take the boardwalk through this riparian forest of water-loving plants that provide food and cover for desert wildlife.

Leaving the wetlands we encounter a new biome: a desert wash. Arrowweed, inkweed, and alkali goldenbush thrive here.

Arrowweed

The Native peoples once living here, the Cahuilla, gathered the roots of young plants to roast and eat. The long, slender, pliable stems were used for constructing roofs and interweaving with stronger materials in the walls of their homes. And, as its name implies, the plant was cut into a shaft, moistened, and placed in the groove of a heated stone to straighten into an arrow. (Bean, Lowell John, et al.  Temalpakh:  Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants = (from the Earth).  Malki Museum,  1972.)

 cal flora.net

Inkweed

This plant thrives in soil containing salt and alkali and where moisture is near the surface. The Cahuilla extracted a black dye from the inkweed for baskets and artwork. (Jaeger, Edmund C.  Desert Wild Flowers.  Stanford University Press, 1941.) 

  wikipedia.org

Alkali Goldenbush

One of the few plants that blooms in the fall, it is a major pollinator buzzing with bees. It thrives in desert drainage areas and salt flats. (en.m.wikipedia.org)

  southwest desert flora.com


Harlan is a gentle, soft-spoken 75-year-old man who taught high school science and literature. He has a wealth of information to share about the animals, birds, and critters of the Colorado Desert as well as the geological features of the San Andreas Fault and the adaptive plant life that thrive in this arid climate. After walking with Harlan you will NEVER look at the desert in the same way again! He will sharpen your senses as you listen, observe, smell, touch, and taste its richness.

(Unfortunately as I took pictures my ears couldn’t catch up. So… I have done my best to explain what I saw supplemented with additional resources.)


Inside the white oblong fluff, circled below, is a desert shrub spider Notice the filmy web draping itself on the bush at the bottom of the photo.

The desert brush spider is a type of coneweb spider. They weave a cone-like central retreat in which they hide and lay eggs. (en.m.wikipedia.org)

This is a picture of the spider, Diguetia canities. (I have not seen one yet.)

 bugguide.net


Smoke Tree

This tree is only found in a desert wash because its seeds must be roughened up by moving water in order to sprout. It photosynthesizes through its pale green stems.


Cheese Bush

Another plant that grows in and around desert washes, the cheese bush smells like old socks or cheese when you crush its leaves in the palm of your hands. The Cahuilla used this plant as a condiment for their food.

 abdnha.org


Creosote Bush

Not the source of the tar-like petroleum product, this bright green bush has small waxy leaves that help retain water. The Native Cahuilla made teas from its stems and leaves to treat colds, sore throats, stomachaches. The steam from boiling the tea helped relieve congestion. (Master Gardener Docent Plant Guide)

Tightly cup a handful of its leaves on the branch with your hands. Take a deep breath and exhale into your hands. Now smell your cupped hands… This is what the desert smells like after a rain shower… a bit lemony with a hint of turpentine and pine.


Brittlebush

The silvery leaves of this plant are covered with insulating white hairs that deflect the sun and heat in order topreserve water. During dry spells brittlebush will often lose its leaves. The sap or gum from this plant was warmed and used by the Cahuilla and applied to the chest for pain. Toothaches were treated by an application of boiled leaves, flowers, and stems. (Master Gardener Docent Plant Guide)


Simone Pond

Named for the man who purchased 640 acres surrounding this oasis between 1942 and 1945, this is the “must see” attraction of Thousand Palms Oasis Preserve.

This oasis pond is the natural habitat for the desert pupfish, a small fish usually less than 3 inches long, that survives an environment of extreme salinity, pH, and temperature, and low oxygen content. (en.m.wikipedia.org)

But today no pupfish live here.

desertusa.com

Unfortunately in the 1950s Boy Scouts, who camped nearby, dumped some red crayfish into the pond so they could fish. Crayfish not only devour pupfish babies, but proliferate beyond control. Then, to make matters worse, a woman released 2 buckets of tropical fish into the pond, as caught on the video webcam.  That’s why orange koi fish and African cichlids, a type of tilapia, live here now.

 pbs.org


Washingtonia Filifera

Jeff poses between the palm frond skirts of 2 California Desert Fan Palm Trees.

These are the only indigenous palm trees to California. Lacking a tap root, these palms have tiny straw-like roots that reach down 10-25 feet for water from underground springs and streams in the Colorado Desert. Calculating the age of palm trees is nearly impossible as they are more of a grass, like bamboo, than a tree with cross-section rings to count. The inside of the trunk consists of tiny toothpick-like “straws” that retain water. Mature trees grow to an average of 60 feet tall and can live between 150-200 years. When the palm leaves die they fold under and become a skirt of fronds creating a “high rise condominium” where birds nest, snakes rest, and rodents best hide to escape the summer heat.

That’s Harlan below:


Honey Mesquite

This thorny tree or shrub produces a dry legume-like fruit with pods. When green and ripe the Cahuilla ate them fresh. When past-ripe and yellow they ground the pods into a flour. Harlan just happens to have over-ripe pods in his hiking vest. We bite into them and suck on the sweet honey essence.


Desert Mistletoe

This red parasitic plant is found on catclaw and mesquite. The berries, available from November to April, were ground and mixed with a small amount of ashes and boiled in a pot. This somewhat sweet concoction was eaten by the Cahuilla like a dessert or occasional treat. The leaves were used to dye basket weeds permanently black. (Bean, Lowell John, et al. Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants = (from the Earth). Malki Museum, 1972.)


Bobcat tracks

It only rained a few minutes at the Preserve last night but it was enough to make for a muddy trail in parts.


Galls

Harlan points out small round masses attached to creosote bushes. These swelling growths are called galls and are really plant tissue controlled by insects. Galls act as both the habitat and food source for the developing insect larvae.  Creosote gall midges are a species of flies which inhabit the desert bush.


Indigo Bush

Notice the pinkish stems on this bush, a relative of the smoke tree.

Unremarkable in its dormant state, it blooms purple after it rains. The Cahuilla used the stalks to start weaving a basket. The branches were steeped in water to produce a light yellow-brown dye. (Master Gardener Docent Plant Guide)


Dyeweed

 abdnha.org

Although the flower blooms purple, steeping the branches of this plant in boiling water produces a yellowish-brown dye that the Cahuilla used on their baskets. (Master Gardener Docent Plant Guide)

Harlan has us crush the flower between our fingers to see the instant yellowish-orange stain left on our fingers.


Golden Cholla


The living desert…

To our un-attuned eyes the desert can look lifeless and beige. Each pastel green bush looks alike. But a wiseman once shared this with me:

Imagine what the Cahuilla saw when they looked upon the desert landscape… food and resources. (Harlan)

Susan’s Oasis Chat

Squaw hill, smoke tree ranch, boardwalK

From atop Squaw Hill the Indio Hills rise up in the immediate background. The California Fan Palms, the only native palm trees of California, wind their way through Thousand Palms Oasis and Simone Pond on the McCallum Trail. The Little San Bernardino Mountains are peaking up in the distance to the right. Joshua Tree National Park lies within these hills and abuts the boundaries of the Coachella Valley Preserve.

The Oasis water line crosses Thousand Palms Canyon Road to the southeast on the Mission Creek Strand of the San Andreas Fault. On the other side of the Indio Hills lies the Banning Strand of the Fault.

The Little San Bernardino Mountains overlook Thousand Palms Canyon Road and the parking area of Thousand Palms Oasis in the Coachella Valley Preserve.

Palm trees are really grasses like bamboo. That’s why they easily bend toward the sunlight they require.

When the green palm fronds die they fold over to create a skirt that provides a habitat for birds, insects, rodents, and snakes.

Palm fruit is edible and delicious, tasting similar to a date or raisin, but like a pomegranate, contains a large seed. Freshly ripened palm fruit is gooey and juicy like molasses. The Cahuilla ate them and ground them into meal. The unripened fruit are light brown or green.

The ripened fruit are dark purple.

The inside of the skirt of palm fronds looks like this…

Looking up from the boardwalk… This view never gets old.

The “elephant trunk”… This palm tree begins some 25 feet away!