Sunday, January 06, 2008

Broom Snakeweed

What’s still green: Conifers, rose stems, yuccas, coral bell, sea pink, Saint John’s wort, yellow evening primrose, Mount Atlas daisy.

What’s gray or gray-green: Salt bush, winterfat, snow-in-summer, pinks

What’s red: Cholla, small-leaved soapwort, coral beardtongue, purple aster.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, geranium

Animal sightings: Small birds out Saturday; pigeons threatening to settle on back porch.

Weather: Very cold until Friday when snow melted and drive softened near the gate; a little rain last night.

Weekly update: The cold has set in; whatever was green a few weeks ago is dead or crumpled by still melting snow. Down the road, arborvitaes are turning yellow and some pines are showing a brown epidermis. Maximilian sunflower stalks have been flattened by rain and snow; corn stalks are battered and half-down.

Fields lining the road are gray from bare winterfat, weathered Russian thistle, and dried grass stalks. Tarnished lumps of snakeweed provide the only variation on land whittled by cold winds from the north.

Unloved and unlovely, broom snakeweed symbolizes the final degeneration of the land. It arrives when the range is overgrazed or after fire, often waiting for the first wet season after a drought. It appeared in my yard after dry seasons killed grasses on trampled ranch land to the north. It lingers, unchallenged for years, before finally disappearing on its own.

You can’t remove it without encouraging it. Deep taproots are anchored by extensive lateral roots that cannot be dug out without planting new seeds. Lopping the top simply prunes woody stems that last only a year anyway. Fire kills mature plants, but seeds blow in to colonize newly fertilized land.

Occasionally, a horse will try to eat snakeweed in winter, but resinous glands on the short, skinny leaves protect it from all but the hungriest grazers. In spring, when new branches push up from the woody crown, sheep will nibble. But ranchers worry: saporins in the tender foliage can cause cows to abort, poison some who overeat.

The young, sticky stems grow one to two feet, with dense, dark-green leaves brightened by yellow undertones. Come late summer, the shrubs turn clear yellow from tiny, four-rayed composite flowers grouped into loose, terminal cymes. From a distance, green stems and tips of the tan bracts holding the flowers lend a chartreuse hue. Now those empty vessels provide the golden-moss color. When they fall away, dead branch stubs remain to scratch ankles of the unwary.

Gutierrezia sarofaroe is the kind of plant with enemies even more destructive than itself. It attracts grasshoppers, but I’ve never seen them stop to eat on their way to my garden. Supposedly, mealybugs and aphids will kill it, but they aren’t welcome where roses grow.

Humans usually try to find some justification for a dullard that smells like turpentine, but scientists have done no more than recognize it contains a number of volatile oils. No one seems to have found a use that’s been widely adapted, no matter how efficacious.

An Arroyo Seco médico used it for hemorrhoids, and other Spanish-speakers have tried it for douches and rheumatism. San Juan gave a tea to birthing women or bathed newly born infants, while Santa Clara tried it in sweat baths to cure colds and sore throats. More southern pueblos used it for emetic teas drunk before hunts.

It remains a stubborn, useless intruder that’s tolerated because it’s too much trouble to remove. It thrives on such neglect to leaven the winter landscape with some trace of color, even if it’s as muted and dreary as the season.

Notes: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.

Tirmenstein, D. "Gutierrezia sarothrae", 1999, in United States Forest Service, Fire Effects Information System, available on-line.

United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Range Plant Handbook, 1937, republished by Dover Publications, 1988.

Photograph: Gray grasses and winterfat with a band of bronzed snakeweed and scattered patches of snow, 1 January 2008.

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