Sunday, December 25, 2011

Gray Shrubs

Weather: Snow early Monday and again Thursday; warm afternoons defrost top of ground into slippery layer over frozen base that refreezes and heaves at night; 9:43 hours of daylight today.

What’s still green: Juniper and other evergreens, rose stems, hollyhock, winecup, cheese mallow, vinca, sea pink, coral beardtongue, gypsum phacelia, snakeweed, strap-leaf aster, cheat grass.

What’s red:
Cholla; branches on coyote willow, apples, apricots, spirea and raspberry; leaves on red hot poker, coral bells, small-leafed soapwort, pink evening primrose.

What’s blue or gray: Piñon; leaves on four-winged saltbush, snow-in-summer, pinks, yellow alyssum, golden hairy and purple asters.

What’s yellow-green/yellow-brown: Arborvitae, branches on weeping willow.

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

Animal sightings: Small birds, rabbit tracks.

Weekly update: Blame it on Zane Grey.

If James Fenimore Cooper defined the near west where Indians moved through primeval forests, Grey created our image of the far west where men ride horses through fields of sage.

When people see the gray shrubs growing along my drive, they compliment me on my sagebrush. When I demur, they give me that look the cognoscenti reserve for the feeble minded.

The logic is inexorable:
Sagebrush dominates many parts of the far west.
Sagebrush is gray.
These shrubs are gray.
This is the west.
Ergo, these shrubs are sagebrush.

There is no room for winterfat in such a world.

Last week I took a reality check. I drove up route 68 towards Taos through volcanic boulders and uplifted rocks. When you reach the top, a broad plateau opens, covered with sagebrush as far as you can see.

On the way back, I looked for the boundary between winterfat and sagebrush. It’s somewhere around Rinconada.

Above that point, sagebrush grows on volcanic rises on the western side of the river, and in crevices to the east. Between there and the Dixon turnoff, you see a few patches of winterfat. Below that point, it’s mainly chamisa and salt bush. Between Velarde and Española cholla grows with grasses on the eastern open land.

You don’t see much winterfat again until you take route 30 toward Los Alamos and pass through unsettled land between Santa Clara and San Ildefonso. The reason is probably quite simple. Unlike sagebrush, winterfat is quite palatable and doesn’t recover when overgrazed by sheep.

The two shrubs aren’t easy to tell apart at 60 miles an hour. If you stop, sagebrush has three-toothed leaves that persist into this season. Winterfat has long narrow leaves that first turned pink and now are tan, if they haven’t fallen completely. In their place are small, partly opened clusters of next year’s leaves. Both get their color from white hairs.

If you make the mistake of walking too close to either, your clothes get covered with debris that’s difficult to pick off. Sagebrush fragments smell; winterfat’s don’t.

If you happen to drive by either when they’re blooming, you can recognize the sagebrush by its yellow aura. Winterfat flowers are nearly invisible. What you see is light reflected through the fluffy white seed tails.

Artemisia tridentata is a composite with perfect flowers. Eurotia lanata is a chenopod with separate male and female florets.

This time of year, what distinguishes them from a distance are the floral remains. The receptacles of sagebrush are dirty brown in narrow plumes, while the male flowers of winterfat are titanium bumps on bare stems. The larger, redder brown heads you see along the road belong to salt bush. The lighter, more golden ones are chamisa.

If the bracts of sagebrush have fallen off, then its bare stems look no different than the tips of winterfat where the seedless male flowers are concentrated.

Sometimes though you can distinguish them by their habit. As winterfat ages, it sends new stems with shaving brush tops which force the existing stems to spread. Sage, at least the tridentata subspecies, has a main stalk and manages to stay erect, even when decrepit.

I suppose it’s soil that determines which you see. In this area, winterfat grows on recent Quaternary alluvial soils near the river, while the few sagebrush plants I’ve seen were near older, Tertiary badlands. On the road between Rinconada and Taos, the shrubs grow in disintegrating lava fields. The first tend to be finer grained than the second.

In the end, you may only know one from the other by remembering where you are, a local version of “If this is Tuesday, it must be Brussels.” However, if you really must visit the world defined by Zane Grey, there’s a small plateau in the climb north where sagebrush fills a narrow ledge and horses are available to rent. Sniff your pant legs when you leave.

1. Gray shrub and grassland on route 84 north of Abiquiú dam. I didn’t get out to look. It has a single stem but no sign of flowers on 3 September 2011.

2. Winterfat volunteers along my drive, 15 June 2011.

3. Sagebrush, tridentata subspecies, on Taos plateau with river gorge in middle distance, and sagebrush beyond, 11 December 2011.

4. Winterfat along the road north of the Dixon exit on route 68, 11 December 2011.

5. Pinkened winterfat leaves with white seed tails, from a shrub in my drive, 6 December 2011.

6. Sagebrush flower receptacle from Taos plateau, 11 December 2011.

7. Left, sagebrush stem tip with remains of flower receptacles from Taos plateau; right, winterfat stem tip with remains of male flowers and new leaf buds from Embudo valley, 11 December 2011.

8. Winterfat sprawling on Santa Clara land, route 30, 11 December 2011.

9. Erect, but dead sagebrush and shrubs with tan receptacles north of Pilar on route 68; light headed chamisa in the center and more sagebrush and juniper on the back ledge, 11 December 2011.

10. New winterfat leaf cluster with last season’s leaves, from my drive, 6 December 2011.

11. Sagebrush leaves, tridentata subspecies, from somewhere along route 68, 11 December 2011.

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