Sunday, December 02, 2007

Apache Plume

What’s blooming: Sweet alyssum from seed.

What’s still green: Conifers, grasses, Apache plume, roses, Japanese honeysuckle, hollyhock, winecup, columbine, lamb’s quarter, rockrose, California poppy, coral bell, snapdragon, beardtongues, bouncing Bess, blue and yellow flaxes, sea pink, yellow and pink evening primroses, hartweigii, catmint, Rumanian sage, vinca, tansy mustard, sweet alyssum, white bristle stickseed, baptista, white sweet clover, sweet pea, sea lavender, yuccas, red hot poker, iris, Saint John’s wort, snakeweed, coreopsis, anthemis, chrysanthemum, tansy, Mount Atlas daisy, Shasta daisy, perky Sue, Mexican hat, purple aster, chocolate flower, black-eyed Susan.

What’s gray or gray-green: Salt bush, winterfat, buddleia, loco, snow-in-summer, pinks, fern-leaf yarrow, golden hairy aster.

What’s red: Cholla, soapwort.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, geranium.

Animal sightings: More birds than usual on utility line Friday morning when the storm was in the air; flock of small birds in abandoned road bed Saturday morning, probably migrating; quail and red-sided birds in yard, no see-ums; brown goat down the road, horses in the village.

Weather: Cold early in week, snow lingered until rain Friday night; water in the wide arroyo yesterday morning; balmy in the afternoon.

Weekly update: Anyone who has both rented and owned a home knows there is a difference. In both cases, you enjoy the views and interior layout, but only in the one do you become intimately familiar with septic systems and furnaces.

A similar experiential difference exists between growing a plant and seeing it from a car. Take Apache plume. Anyone can enjoy the five-petaled single white flowers and pink, feathery seed heads in summer. But you only see the leaves and stems if you can get close to the loosely-branched shrub.

Many simply say the leaves are tiny or finely divided. In fact, they resemble small hands with narrow lobes that are shorter on the sides than in the middle. They unfurl much like fists, and often remain cupped rather than opening flat. They no only do not upholster the stems, but are neigh invisible from a distance.

When people can’t routinely see something, they tend to see what they expect. Shaw and Monsen observed new leaves emerge on this thornless member of the rose family in mid-April in Boise and expand in mid-May. Many who see the still green leaves in winter assume they are the same leaves.

In fact, my leaves begin to turn yellow in autumn after morning temperatures drop: last year it was early September, this year mid-October, a week after the first severely cold morning. In the past few week new leaves have been developing where the old ones are turning brown. With luck, they’ll remain on the plant.

New leaves do appear in spring, and this past year they displaced tan ones that had persisted through last year’s snows. It could take several years for me to fully comprehend the pattern, because our climate varies so much from year to year. Now I’ve had the shrubs for 18 months, all I know is what to look for.

The plant grows wild here, but it’s taken three tries to find commercial cuttings that would settle in my yard. Even though Apache plume’s a Chihuahuan desert shrub that has expanded its range, it’s still discriminating. When I’m driving, plants appear randomly along the road and across the river near San Ildefonso. In fact, they prefer the edges of arroyos and other run-offs and the ones I see daily are growing along a paved road that crosses a wide arroyo where their dense rhizomatous roots can reach water stored by both.

It’s cultural range is much smaller than its natural one: all the native usages mentioned by Moerman are from New Mexico or Arizona. Many tribes used the straight, slim branches for arrow shafts, but the Havasupai and Haulapai used roots and branches for cordage. Both the Santa Clara, who talked to men from the Smithsonian around 1910, and Spanish-speaking women, who talked with Curtin in the late 1940's in northern New Mexico, used poñil leaves for hair rinses.

Most pueblo people do not mention an association with witchcraft. The Kayenta Navajo of Arizona believed witches used the plant to induce insanity, but local Spanish-speakers mixed dried poñil plumes with other ingredients to counteract illness fomenting magic. Only the Sandia admit their brooms made from Apache plume branches are kept in the house for their "spiritual presence," while others, including the Santa Clara, simply say the brooms exist for outside use.

The difference between a cultural range and a biological one is like that between the renter and the owner, the grower and the admirer. On its own, Fallugia paradoxa prefers life under trees. In return, its branches shelter piñon seedlings and its roots harbor a cancer-fighting species of penicillium.

In the net of civilization, Apache plume’s reduced to an object of beauty by Idaho gardeners and to raw material by Arizona natives. Still, along the Rio Grande where the pueblos and Spanish settlers exchanged beliefs in witchcraft, it’s been absorbed into views of the world and the origin of things bad that are no more public than the tiny leaves alternating along pealing stems.

Curtin, L. S. M. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.

Dunmire, William M. and Gail D. Tierney. Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province, 1995, includes Sandia.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998, and on-line database includes Lucille J. Watahomigie, Hualapai Ethnobotany, 1982; Steven A. Weber and P. David Seaman, Havasupai Habitat, 1985; and Leland C. Wyman and Stuart K. Harris, The Ethnobotany of the Kayenta Navaho, 1951.

Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington and Barbara Friere-Marreco, Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.

Shaw, Nancy L. and Stephen B. Monsen. "Phenology and Growth Habits of Nine Antelope Bitterbrush, Desert Bitterbrush, Stansbury Cliffrose, and Apache-plume Accessions," in Arthur R. Tiedemann and Kendall L.Johnson, Proceedings--Research and Management of Bitterbrush and Cliffrose in Western North America; 1982, cited by Jack McWilliams, "Fallugia paradoxa," 2000, in USDA Fire Effects Information System on-line database.

Simmons, Marc. Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande, 1980.

Zhan J, E.M. K. Wijeratne, C. J. Seliga, J. Zhang, E. E. Pierson, L. S. Pierson III, H. D. Vanetten, and A. A. L. Gunatilaka. "A New Anthraquinone and Cytotoxic Curvularins of a Penicillium sp. from the Rhizosphere of Fallugia paradoxa of the Sonoran Desert," Journal of Antibiotics 57:341-344:2004.

Photograph: Apache plume leaves, after the snow, 29 November 2007.

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