Sunday, April 12, 2009


What’s blooming in the area: Pink and white flowering trees, Bradford pear, tulips, mossy phlox, purple mustard, hoary cress, one tansy mustard 3' high, first stickseeds, dandelion; Russian olive leafing; new growth on loco, snakeweed and chamisa; ring muhly and cheat grass growing; globemallow coming up Village ditches were running last Sunday.

What’s blooming in my yard: Cherry, sand cherry, few forsythia flowers, daffodils, puschkinia, hyacinth, vinca; purple lilac buds visible; apple, spirea, rugosa rose and red barberry leafing; peach, apricot and snowball leaf buds expanding; St John’s wort, David phlox, sidalcea, speedwell, salvia, catmints, ladybells and fern-leaf yarrow up; first peony emerging red; new growth on snow-in-summer; red leaves on sea pink, soapworts and beardtongue turning green.

Inside: Brazilian bougainvillea, South African aptenia, kalanchoë and rochea weed.

Animal sightings: Miller moth on house one cold morning, more birds out when I leave for work.

Weather: Cold temperatures some mornings, high afternoon winds end of week, soaking rain yesterday; 13:34 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: I had great plans for the garage corner, a climbing Iceberg or rose of Sharon, something tall with white blossoms I could see from the kitchen. I’ve settled for a two-foot high volunteer skunkbush with insignificant yellow flowers.

I first noticed a 2" sprout in late May of 2000, with leaves I thought might be from a white-flowered snowberry that had someone hitchhiked from Oakland County, Michigan. They have similarly lobed edges, but these members of the sumac family come in sets of three with the center leaf broken into three parts and mature into a more intense, more leathery green.

Skunkbush seeds have hard shells that don’t allow germination until they’ve been cracked or softened, often by heat or association with charred wood. The Cerro Grande fire raged for several weeks near Los Alamos in early May of that year. Ash-carrying winds may have dropped a scarified seed when they hit my garage.

In arid climates, where willows are scarce, basket weavers learned to use Rhus trilobata branches for both the upright, structural warp and the twining weft. Basket fragments made from skunkbush were found in Jemez Cave that date back more than 2,000 years. One of the remains had been dyed black. Centuries later the Navajo were still mixing the strong-scented leaves and tart scarlet berries with calcinated piñon gum to produce a black dye for baskets.

Basket making in the greater southwestern cultural area has been dated back 10,900 years with pieces found in Fishbone Cave in Nevada. Twined baskets woven between uprights date back to 8000 bc and tighter laced-together coiled baskets to 5000 bc. Before pottery, wicker ware was used for cooking and portable storage, as well as tools like nets.

Kat Anderson believes the mass production of basket work necessary to sustain a gathering society involved two technology complexes, one centered on production and the other on managing raw materials. She’s talked to people in California who remember when weavers burned their wicker sources several years before they were needed to encourage new, straighter, more supple growth that had time to cure before use.

A full size basket requires 675 new shoots. Anderson notes a mature, unmanaged skunkbush patch produces 6 usable shoots, while one that’s been burned produces 102. When seven patches of a suckering plant are required to produce one essential, easily destroyed implement, she believes burning had to have been an essential activity for hunter-gathering populations in the Sierra Nevada.

The farther one looks back into prehistory and the more perishable the artifacts, the more our knowledge is based on scant, scattered, providential discoveries. Vorsila Bohrer has described a split-twig animal figurine dating back 3,500 years made from a single six-foot strand of this sumac species which normally grows about four feet high including the upper branches. She believes the raw material could only have been produced by fire.

John Peabody Harrington found the antiquity of plant lore embedded in language itself. In the early twentieth century Tewa speakers used descriptive, compound names for plants, but they used single words for 36 species that had no known etymology. They were either very old terms, retained from an older language, or borrowed, or both. They included some of the most common plants like corn, pumpkin, yucca, piñon, and kun for skunkbush.

When any part of an integrated material culture is altered, the other parts may be lost or degenerate. Pottery began replacing baskets in the sixth century, the Forest Service started discouraging fires before World War I. By the late nineteenth century, only the Hopi maintained a strong basketry tradition integrated into their clan structure while the Zuñi were buying fine ware made with ko’se o’tsi from Apache craftsmen.

In the early twentieth century Santa Clara and Jemez pueblos were still using skunkbush for baskets, but they had probably forgotten how to manage their raw material. Mature kun growth hardens and was being used for arrow shafts by the Santa Clara and hoe handles by the Jemez. Today, the Jemez complain no wild sumac grows near their pueblo.

Relics of a pre-Pueblo past persist in the Tewa language, in the traditions of the Hopi, and in feral plants still found in prehistoric fields on the Pajarito Plateau. It’s pure chance that the repetition of the primeval interaction between fire and a refractory, fire-adapted plant dropped a skunkbush seed in my yard when one of man’s earliest tools was destroying the streets of one of science’s most advanced communities.

Anderson, M. Kat. Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources, 2005.

_____ and Michael J. Moratto. "Native American Land-Use Practices and Ecological Impacts" in Sierra Nevada Ecosystems Project: Final Report to Congress, volume 2, 1996.

Bohrer, Vorsila L. "New Life From Ashes: The Tale of the Burnt Bush (Rhus trilobata)," Desert Plants 5:122-125:1983, cited by Anderson, 2005.

Dunmire, William M. and Gail D. Tierney. Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province, 1995, discusses Jemez Cave and pueblo.

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

Standley, Paul C. Some Useful Native Plants of New Mexico, 1912, cited by Leonora Scott Muse Curtin, Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore, on Navajo dye.

Stevenson, Matilda Coxe. The Zuni Indians, 1904, reprinted by The Rio Grande Press, Inc., 1985.

Photograph: Skunkbush buds in front of white stuccoed garage wall, 5 April 2009.

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