Sunday, September 06, 2009

Clammy Weed

What’s blooming in the area: Tamarix, tea roses, Apache plume, trumpet creeper, Japanese honeysuckle, silver lace vine, leather leaved globemallow, alfalfa, white sweet and white prairie clovers, velvetweed, scarlet beeblossom, white and yellow evening primroses, datura, Heavenly Blue and ivy-leaf morning glory, scarlet creeper, bindweed, goats’ head, purple phlox, bouncing Bess, pale trumpet, stickleaf, clammy weed, spurge, purslane, pigweed, Russian thistle, amaranth, winterfat, ragweed, snakeweed, native and farmer’s sunflowers, áñil del muerto, Hopi tea, gumweed, horseweed, wild lettuce, purple, strap-leaf and hairy golden aster, woolly paper flower, goldenrod, tahokia daisy, black grama grass; buds of heath asters; seeds on bittersweet and burr grass; some corn stalks turning brown; grass and alfalfa hay cut; apples falling.

What’s blooming in my yard, looking north: Zucchini, nasturtium, Mexican hat, chocolate flower, blanket flower, black-eyed Susan, chrysanthemum.

Looking east: Floribunda rose, hosta, California and Shirley poppies, hollyhock, winecup, sidalcea, snapdragons, Maltese Cross, Jupiter’s beard, coral beardtongue, large-leaved soapwort, sedum, garlic chive, Maximilian sunflower.

Looking south: Blaze roses, rose of Sharon, sweet pea, Crimson Rambler and reseeded morning glories, zinnia, cosmos.

Looking west: Caryopteris, butterfly bush, Russian sage, catmint, calamintha, lady bells, flax, sea lavender, David phlox, leadplant, perennial four o’clock, purple ice plant, Silver King artemisia, purple coneflower, Mönch aster.

Bedding plants: Moss rose, sweet alyssum; ripe tomatoes.

Inside: South African aptenia.

Animal sightings: Rabbit, geckos, hummingbird, bees, large black harvester and small dark ants, grasshoppers.

Weather: Rain last rain Sunday; 13:05 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: When clammy weed began blooming the end of July it resembled phlox, a round white head topped a tall, straight stem that rose from a bed of three-part, clover-like leaves.

Now it’s been out for more than a month it looks more like mustard. The individual florets terminate maroon stems that reach up and out from narrow leaves. Each flower begins as a collection of four white petals surrounding a purple pistil like ancient megaliths held tight into the head. A fountain of purple stamens towers above.

The central stem continues to grow, and after the flowers are fertilized, the petals fall away leaving the stamens and ovary which become isolated from the head. Soon, they’re replaced by a green pod held out by the pedicel branch dropping under the weight until the plants looks like one of those many armed Hindu gods.

This member of the caper family ranges from lower Canada to the upper states of México, but it isn’t ubiquitous. John Hilty says that in Illinois the taprooted annual occurs on "sand or gravel bars along rivers, gravelly areas and clay banks along railroads, and barren waste areas." In Michigan, Edward Voss reported it grew in the southern counties with glacial till.

To the southwest of Española, the Nature Conservancy reports clammy weed grows with stickleaf species on intermittently flooded, sometimes stony alluvial flats and sandbars in central and southern Arizona where other herbaceous plants are scarce. In southern New Mexico, it’s found with local stickleaf species, datura and agave where shrubs have replaced grasses on the Jornado plain.

The nearby wide arroyo where I see the flowers runs west to the Rio Grande. The south wall is maybe seven feet high and relatively soft clay or sandy loam. A wide plain has developed at its base, edged by chamisa where the water runs. The wildflowers blooming there now include golden hairy asters and hopi tea.

The north bank is higher, with openings carved by wind and water. Bands of exposed gravel spill out, so the near floor is pebbly in places. Russian thistle and stickleaf sprouted in its shadow when the weather warmed. Clammy weed’s only found in this protected area, except for one plant that emerged in the middle of the road cut.

Despite the wide national distribution, the only native groups Dan Moerman reports using clammy weed live in Arizona and New Mexico. The Isleta south of Albuquerque rolled dried leaves in corn husks for ceremonial cigarettes while the cactus fraternity of the Zuñi rubbed chewed a’pilalu roots and flowers on wounds after members were whipped by willow and cactus switches.

It’s limited use by tribes may be a function of the sporadic nature of a summer annual that depends on soil, rain and temperature conditions to germinate, or it may result from the natural protection of the plant. The leaves and stems are sticky and stink.

Qian Shi’s team at the University of North Carolina has been testing chemicals they’ve extracted from Polanisia dodecandra and found at least one is effective against a number of types of cancer cells, and another is somewhat effective. If it weren’t for all these chemicals, the plant that’s growing into a robotic toy soldier might better be known as red whiskers.

Association for Biodiversity Information/The Nature Conservancy. "International Classification of Ecological Communities: Terrestrial Vegetation of the Western United States, Chihuahuan Desert Subset," May 23, 2000 draft available on-line.

Hilty, John. "Clammyweed," Illinois Wildflowers website.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998, summarizes data from a number of ethnographies including Volney H. Jones, The Ethnobotany of the Isleta Indians, 1931.

Shi, Q., K.Chen, L. Li, J. J. Chang, C. Autry, M. Kozuka, T. Konoshima, J. R. Estes, C. M. Lin, and E. Hamel. "Antitumor Agents, 154. Cytotoxic and Antimitotic Flavonols from Polanisia dodecandra," Journal of Natural Products 58:475-82:1995.

Stevenson, Matilda Coxe. Ethnobotany of the Zuñi Indians, 1915.

Voss, Edward G. Michigan Flora, volume 2, 1985.

Photograph: Clammy weed in arroyo road cut, 30 August 2009.

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