Sunday, January 01, 2012

Sandbar Willow

Weather: Snow has slowly been disappearing on warm afternoons, but persists in northern and western shadows; last snow 12/22/11; 9:47 hours of daylight today.

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

What’s red: Cholla; branches on sandbar willow, apples, apricots, spirea and raspberry; leaves on coral bells, pinks, small-leaved soapwort.

What’s blue or gray: Piñon; leaves on four-winged saltbush, snow-in-summer, pinks, 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.

Weekly update: There should be a guide book called New Mexico at 70 Miles an Hour. In the modern world of expressways and fences, there simply are things one can never see up close.

For years I’ve driven by a patch of brilliant red stems that stretch south from the Griego Bridge in Española interweaving different hued swaths that looked, from a distance, like they’re growing on a sandbar separated from the left bank by a narrow rivulet. By May they’re covered in green, quite indistinguishable from whatever else grows down there.

A couple weeks ago, when I was driving toward Taos, I saw something similar growing between the road and the river. It was early Sunday morning, so I could pull onto a shoulder broadened for customers to a winery that would have been busy at that hour in summer. Traffic was light enough to cross the road safely. The skiers were already on the slopes. The horn maddened drivers weren’t out yet.

As soon as I touched the thin, round branches I knew they were willow. It may have been decades since I’d touched a willow, but there’s something about the pliability and surface the fingers remember.

That’s when I wanted the guidebook that would answer the question - what is the short willow that grows along the Rio Grande with brilliant red stems in winter. Instead, Elmer Wooton and Paul Standley let me know twenty Salix species grow in New Mexico. Two are described as “common shrubby,” one more as “common,” one more as “shrubby,” and two as black. None are red.

The Tewa speakers of Hano knew better. They told Barbara Friere-Marreco another shrub was “like the ordinary willow, jay, but the bark is green, not red.”

Three of Wooton and Standley’s willows occur in the lower Sonoran Piñon-Jupiter belt, but only one, sandbar willow, is found in this part of the state. However, their identification key was no help in winter for a deciduous tree:

- Leaves several times as long as broad, linear to elongate-lanceolate or oblong-lanceolate; capsules glabrous (or weakly villous).
- Scales pale yellow, deciduous
- Stamens 2, hairy below; leaves more or less canescent, linear, remotely denticulate, or sometimes entire; capsules more or less hairy.
- Capsules 5 to 7mm. long, glabrate; leaves 5 to10 cm long.
- Leaves canescent, entire, or sometimes denticulate; capsules smaller, 5mm long, on a short pedicel or sessile.
- Capsules sessile.

Their comment that “Indians and Mexicans use the stripped branches in basketry” was more helpful only because it suggested something about tensile traits I already suspected.

When I went on line to confirm the local plant was Salix exigua, I found others who were more interested in distinguishing different types of willows than with identifying the one that was too common to notice. I appreciated their detailed photographs because they showed me things I’ll never see in person. But, they didn’t make me any more confident I know what’s happening on the river.

The short trees must once have been more accessible. Local Tewa speakers told John Harrington they recognized the flowers existed in catkins. They had separate terms for the willow grains (buds) and the ensuing loose down of a bird (the detached fluff). They even had a separate term for the male flowers.

Similarly, Spanish speakers knew the plant, called it jarita. They told Leonora Curtin they chewed the leaves when their gums became infected. Perhaps ruefully, Rubén Cobos recalled jara de la hoja redonda was “used for whipping mischievous children.”

Neither Harrington nor his botanist, Wilfred Robbins, bothered to find out what species they were discussing. They simply associated the Tewa words with the two shrubs Wooton and Standley called “common shrubby,” one of which had been described as growing in the transition zone near Pecos. Curtin seemed to think jarita and jara de la hoja redonda were different varieties, while Cobos was sure his was sandbar willow.

Assuming the local tree is Salix exigua, I wonder why something described as common should be so difficult to find in an accessible location.

Part of the reason may be the species can be heavily browsed by domestic stock which once would have been kept near the homesteads in the village which edges the river. At least three shaggy head of cattle are in a clover field near the river in the village right now.

Once eaten, willow can resprout from its roots. Single plants spread into dense copses of erect, thin, young branches, each with a fine netting of twigs. The shrubs I see in the river may all be one plant. However, its ability to regenerate after heavy grazing, especially in the fall is limited, especially if the ground is trampled at the time.

If it once grew heavily along both sides of the river south of town, it may be have been exterminated on the populated side, leaving it on remote islets and distant shores. For once gone, it doesn’t often reappear from wind blown or water carried seeds. The seeds have no dormancy. They must settle on wet land within a week and usually germinate within 24 hours. Then they have to survive the first season near a river swollen by monsoons.

Basket makers don’t care about the scientific name - they call it red willow or Rio Grande willow or river willow. They’re more interested in a subgroup of the trees, those with uniformly-sized branches. Many of those growing near Española have young branches that are still too short or too thin for baskets. The growth at the top of the taller trees tends to be curly, rather than straight.

Inaccessibility has been a problem for Carol Naranjo, a basketmaker who recently moved to Santa Clara. She gathers her reeds in winter when the trees are dormant. The desirable ones tend to be on private land protected by dogs or on federal land protected by prohibitions against cutting.

The late Steven Trujillo had fewer problems because he could find reeds “all the same size” along the banks of the river within San Juan pueblo where he lived. His problem was vandalism: a group of boys deliberately burned the willows in the area where he collected his raw material.

Actually, if you want to get to something badly enough you can. This week I discovered people had cut the fence on far side of the river so I could get down to it. On the other side I watched a man who had found a place to park his car so he could walk his dog. The next morning, I followed his example and discovered the view is better standing on the bridge.

Anderson, Michelle. “Salix exigua,” 2002, United States Forest Service, Fire Effects Information System.

Cobos, Rubén. A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish, 1983.

Curtin, L. S. M. Healing Herbs of the Upper Rio Grande, 1947, republished 1997, with revisions by Michael Moore.

Fleming, Tim. “The Basketmaker,” The New Mexican, 19 July 1984, on Trujillo.

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

Southwest Art. “A Basket Maker Pursues a Dying Art Form ,” 1 July 2002, on Naranjo.

Wooton, Elmer O. and Paul C. Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915, reprinted by J. Cramer, 1972.

Photographs:1. Red sandbar willow, cat tails and cottonwoods from opposite bank, 28 December 2011.

2. Red sandbar willow from the bridge, 28 December 2011.

3. Sandbar willow on the point with other grasses and trees of fall from the bridge, 28 October 2011.

4. Red sandbar willow with bits of snow from the bridge, 28 December 2011.

5. Red sandbar willow from the bridge, 28 December 2011.

6. Red sandbar willow behind cattails from below the bridge, 29 December 2011.

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