Sunday, August 07, 2011

Lemon Scurf Pea

What’s blooming in the area: Rose of Sharon, Russian sage, buddleia, trumpet creeper, silver lace vine, red yucca, datura, sweet pea, purple phlox, cultivated sunflowers, Shasta daisy, Sensation cosmos, squash, alfalfa.

Beyond the walls and fences: Apache plume, fernleaf and leatherleaf globemallows, cheese mallow, scarlet bee blossom, white and yellow evening primroses, whorled milkweed, bindweed, purple mat flower, goat’s head, white sweet and purple clovers, lemon scurf pea, stickleaf, buffalo gourd, silver leaf nightshade, prostrate knotweed, lamb’s quarter, Russian thistle, pigweed, snake weed, spiny lettuce, horseweed, paper flower, golden hairy asters, gumweed, Hopi tea, Queen Anne’s lace, goldenrod, áñil del muerto, sand burs, sideoats grama.

In my yard, looking east: Garlic chives, hollyhock, winecup mallow, sidalcea, baby’s breath, Maltese cross, bouncing Bess, large-leaf soapwort, pink evening primrose, pink salvia, Shirley poppies, cutleaf coneflower; buds on hosta, Autumn Joy sedum and Maximilian sunflowers.

Looking south: Floribunda and rugosa roses, Illinois bundle flower, reseeded and new Crimson Rambler morning glories, sweet alyssum and zinnia from seed.

Looking west: Caryopteris, David phlox, ladybells, blue flax, catmints, calamintha, flowering spurge, sea lavender, lead plant, Mönch aster.

Looking north: Blackberry lily, golden spur columbine, Hartweig evening primrose, Mexican hat, Parker’s Gold yarrow, chocolate flower, blanket flower, yellow cosmos from seed, anthemis, black-eyed Susan, chrysanthemum.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, pansy, snapdragon, moss rose, nicotiana, impatiens, tomato, pepper.

Inside: Zonal geranium, aptenia, asparagus fern.

Animal sightings: Hummingbirds, other small birds, gecko, large orange dragonfly, small bees on Apache plume, hornets, harvester and small black ants, cricket.

Weather: Hurricane Don sent us some rain from the Gulf; not enough to replenish the reserves of deep rooted trees and shrubs, but enough to reach the roots of grasses; last rain 8/4/11; 14:42 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: This year’s drought has been tough on even the plants one assumes are adapted to a dry climate. Buds formed on prickly pear cacti, then shriveled without opening. No flowering stalks emerged from narrow-leaved yuccas. Many summer blooming grasses are still dormant.

Scurf peas have been sparser in some places, produced fewer white clusters everywhere. In a good year all you usually notice are bright green, branching plants that get about a foot high. The usual trefoil is reduced to three long, narrow segments rather like chicken’s feet which overlay one another to give an illusion of bushiness.

From a distance the flower heads look like Dutch clover balls buried deep in the foliage. Nearer, they resemble small locos on stems jutting from beneath leaf junctions. In some parts of the country, especially west of the Rockies, the flowers are blue, lavender or purple.

Psoralidium lanceolatum is native to the Great Plains from Saskatchewan and Manitoba south to Texas and west. In the early twentieth century, Elmer Wooton and Paul Standley said it was found west of Santa Fe and in Tesuque edging the east side of the Rio Grande valley, in Coolidge and Zuñi in McKinley County to the west, and the Mogollon mountains and Plains of Saint Augustin in Catron County to the southwest.

There are two populations near my house. One clings to the gravel and sand sides of the large arroyo and in the sandy feeder above that brings water down from a higher bank. They usually begin blooming in mid-May, and have more bumpy, sticky pods than flowers by the first of July. The florets appeared a week or so later this year; the seeds, so far, are few.

The other group grows in a sunken section that looks like a nascent arroyo aborted by harder soil toward the river. Some plants are growing in the clay and sand bank fill where the road was built to cross the wash, while others are growing along the sandy bank beside the gully where the road was cut to level itself.

The herbaceous perennial produces new growth from both the tap root and root buds. This year, plants in the clay loam wash either stayed dormant or only the main stems emerged from the roots. The plants have been shorter and the stand less dense. There have also been far fewer flowers. The plants in the sand fared better.

The nitrogen-fixing legume is one of the few flowers able to grow in pure sand dunes. In the Chico Basin dunes southeast of Colorado Springs, it grows with sand muhly and blowout grass (Redfieldia flexuosa). In the Great Dunes north of the Rio Grande, it’s found with prairie sunflowers and blowout, needle and rice grasses.

The roots form extensive systems of fleshy branches that reflect the availability of water. John Weaver has a drawing that shows a thin taproot that extends down 4.5' before it expands into a fat tube with more lateral roots. Seven feet down the root branches are dense with many ending in nodules.

In the wetter grasslands east of the Rockies, the fleshy section isn’t buried so low. Cheyenne women used wooden digging sticks to gather mohk ta en in early summer for food. By the 1920's, they had changed to iron rods.

Here, the water conserving organ must be deeper. I used a flat stone to dig around one of the smaller plants in the arroyo, and found only a narrow, pliable white taproot that had no taste beyond what one expects biting into a grass stem. As I chewed, it became woody and broke into strips surrounding a white, flat section. In the drier Great Basin to the west of the Rockies, native people used the available fibrous roots to make string and nets.

The Navajo living in the drylands at Ramah near Zuñi in the 1950's didn’t use scurf peas for food, although Paul Vestal suggests the sedentary herders did still dig some roots like wild potatoes (Solanum jamesii) and mariposa bulbs. Instead, they used the roots with other plants to treat venereal diseases.

They were more interested in the above ground parts whose habit they called winding. The knobby leaves are covered with glands. When you rub them, you release an oil that smells of lemon. Only, of course, they didn’t know about lemons until the Spanish arrived. The Diné thought it smelled more of buffalo water, and used ayani biliz ha-lcin as a lotion for Gameway, a ceremonial relic of a nomadic life dependent on hunting in the far north where drought was rarely so common.

Bovin, Phyllis Pineda. “Plant Adaptations to Active Dune Systems,” San Luis Valley Environmental and Conservation Education Council Natural Resources Education Quarterly Fall 2005; on Great Dunes.

Grinnell, George Bird. The Cheyenne Indians, vol 2, 1928; treated as Psoralea lanceolata.

Kelso, T, N. Bower, P. Halteman, K. Tenney, and S. Weaver. “Dune Communities of SE Colorado: Patterns of Rarity, Disjunction and Succession,” 2004 Southwestern Rare and Endangered Plants Conference; on Chico Basin.

Nickerson, Gifford S. “Some Data on Plains and Great Basin Indian Uses of Certain Native Plants,” Tebiwa 9:45-51:1966, cited by Dan Moerman, Native American Ethnobotany, 1998.

Vestal, Paul A. The Ethnobotany of the Ramah Navaho, 1952; treated as Psarolea lanceolata.

Weaver, John E. Root Development of Field Crops, 1926.

Wooton, Elmer O. and Paul C. Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915, reprinted by J. Cramer, 1972; treated as Psoralea micrantha.

Wyman, Leland C. and Stuart K. Harris. Navajo Medical Ethnobotany, 1941; treated as Psarolea lanceolata; they translate the name as “odor of bison urine.”

Photograph: Lemon scurf pea, 31 July 2011.

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