Sunday, December 11, 2011

Four-Winged Saltbush

Weather: Three inches of snow fell Monday with zero morning temperatures Tuesday.

Thursday snow from the south-facing roof melted, then froze again when it landed on the rose leaves below.

Afternoon temperatures didn’t rise above freezing until Friday. Snow stayed on ground where it could sink rather than rise with evaporative melting. The snow also insulated plants from the cold night temperatures. The only places bare yesterday afternoon were south facing ones where it’s always been difficult to get perennials or shrubs to grow.

9:49 hours of daylight today.

What’s still green: Juniper, arborvitae and other evergreens, hollyhock, winecup, vinca, coral beardtongue, clover; new leaf buds visible on Bradford pear.

What’s red/turning red: Cholla; young branches of tamarix, apples and raspberry; leaves on roses, red hot poker, coral bells, pink evening primrose; raspberries and privet dropped leaves.

What’s blue or grey: Piñon; leaves on four-winged saltbush, snow-in-summer, pinks, yellow alyssum, winterfat, golden hairy and purple asters; remaining leaves fell on snow from my neighbor’s Russian olive.

What’s yellow-green: Branches on weeping willow.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, zonal geranium; buds on Christmas cactus.

Animal sightings: Small birds in the shrubs; geese were flying south along the river Monday; rabbits were out in the snow Tuesday in the far arroyo.

Weekly update: Four-winged saltbushes grow nearly everywhere in the arid west from central México, where they evolved, up into Alberta. In the immediate area, they don’t grow on the prairies where they would compete with bunch grasses, but instead prefer disturbed, moister lands near arroyos and wash outs.

I don’t know if this is a consequence of sheep eating the shrubs into extinction, so only relic stands remain, or if they never were particularly plentiful in this area. The closest native group to recognize them in historic times was the Jemez, who used the grey leaves to treat ant bites and revive the faint. Farther south the Isleta used the dark wood for poisonous arrowheads.

The shrub’s primary New Mexico homeland, juniper savannah, is found along feeders to the Rio Grande, including the Rio Puerco from the west. Otherwise, William Dick-Peddie suggests the shrub grows where deep sand and water coexist, like areas along the Rio Chama north of Española, the shoulders of the Rio Grande south of Albuquerque where the Isleta live, and the Great Basin desert scrub lands of the Rio San Juan in the northwest.

Before ranchers arrived, rabbits were probably the principal feeders on Atriplex canescens. They also use the shrubs for shelter and water. The Zuñi, who held ceremonial rabbit hunts, tied prayer plumes to the twigs during winter solstice ceremonies to ensure the animals would be available in large numbers.

House finches lived in my bushes this summer after they abandoned their attempts to live on the porch rafters. In other parts of the country quail, grouse and gray partridges eat the fruits, while pheasant nest under shrubs that provide shelter from winter.

Ranchers soon learned the chenopod’s protein, fat and carbohydrate levels match those of alfalfa for sheep, especially in winter when the leaves are high in carotene and other vegetation sparse. There’s enough evidence that in this immediate area someone ran sheep, because overgrazed sections haven’t recovered.

Not only are there large sections of winterfat uphill from my house and on the river side of the ranch road, but there’s a section of winterfat as you continue down that dirt road toward the ranch. Beyond the fence, pueblo land is still grass and juniper. Salt bushes grow along the boundary, some with rust-colored heads, others simple humps of loden.

You see single saltbushes along the road near the village and can spot scattered ones back a bit, here and there. However, the species has both male and female plants. There must be enough of each sex within wind reach of each other for a copse to develop. Males seem to be more common than females.

The largest stand is in a wash that lies on the other side of a road from land used by the rancher. Until the neighbor’s dogs chased them out, that’s where rabbits lived. The cottontails moved under the sheds and debris in my uphill neighbor’s fenced yard from whence they venture into the wash when the dogs are confined.

The other place the shrubs grow in large numbers is along the top of the far arroyo bank where any animal that tried to eat them would probably plunge to its death when its weight collapsed the bank under it.

The saltbush, at least for a while, would survive with its roots exposed. Indeed, one this summer that lost its footings in the August flood, put out new leaves along the bare root by the end of October.

I often wonder how anything can survive such marginal environments. The shrub itself lets rain or snow through its dense, crisscrossing branches, then hides it from the sun. The snow makes obvious that seeds take root where there’s enough hidden water to support them.

Life on the ridges remains precarious. Nothing can live forever with compromised roots. Sooner or later more of the bank erodes and skeletons, dead and alive, tumble to the arroyo floor.

But, more than dead branches fall. Seeds drift down, take root and grow quickly. A colony has developed at the south end of the far arroyo’s steep bank which is where the rabbits have been heading since Monday’s snow.

Notes: The roots and soil preferences of four winged saltbush were discussed in the entry for 11 February 2007.

Dick-Peddie, William A. New Mexico Vegetation, 1993.

Howard, Janet L. “Atriplex canescens,” 2003, in United States Forest Service, Fire Effects Information System.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998, summarizes data from a number of ethnographies, including Sarah Louise Cook, The Ethnobotany of Jemez Indians, 1930, and Volney H. Jones, The Ethnobotany of the Isleta Indians, 1931.

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

Photographs: Four-winged saltbushes growing
1. on the prairie, 7 August 2011.
2. in the near wash with both males and females; winterfat in front, 2 October 2011.
3. between winterfat and pueblo land on ranch road with males and females, 7 November 2011.
4. in the near wash with rabbit tracks, 8 December 2011.
5. along the top of the right bank of the far arroyo, 12 June 2011.
6. with an exposed root along low bank of the far arroyo, 30 October 2011.
7. along the right bank of the far arroyo, 6 December 2011.
8. with dead plants washed into the far arroyo, 30 May 2011.
9. at base of right bank in far arroyo, with rabbit tracks, 8 December 2011.
10. with exposed roots and few viable branches trapping water along the top of the right bank, 11 September 2011.

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