Monday, February 24, 2014

Wildflower Season Begins...

California's wildflower season is like Christmas to me. It hits its peak in March and April near the coast (a bit earlier in the desert), but it's already beginning. And I am just giddy. Here are some of the photos from my backpacking trip to Noble Canyon.

Noble Canyon Trail

The hike is a 10 mile hike near Pine Valley, CA in the Laguna Mountains. It's a popular spot for mountain bikers, which is a major downside for it for me, because I despise having to repeatedly dodge bikes as they speed toward me on the trail. We did not do the entire 10 miles, but we did do about 7 miles of it. It's a very interesting hike from a plant point of view because the vegetation changes several times. I do not know the elevation where we started, but we camped at just below 4000 feet, and we hiked up to about 5000 feet.

I began taking photos in the parking lot, when I saw a granary tree. Granary trees are trees with hundreds of holes pecked by acorn woodpeckers, each one stuffed with an acorn. In this case it was a large pine tree. If you click on the photo, you can go to Flickr and zoom in to see it in more detail.

Acorn woodpecker's granary tree
Granary tree

Another plant we saw all around us was sagebrush. This plant goes by several names, but its scientific name is Artemisia tridentata. As an Artemisia, it's related to wormwood and mugwort. I believe the tridentata refers to the serrated edge of the leaves, as each one appears to have three "teeth." We arrived at 8am and it was the "golden hour" for photography. The sagebrush appeared illuminated by the sun.



Sagebrush is medicinal. You can drink it as a cold tea to stimulate your digestive system. It's also carminative (helps with gas) and diuretic. When drunken hot, it's good for fevers. It's also antimicrobial and anti-parasitic. According to Medicinal Herbs of the American Southwest by Charles W. Kane, it inhibits Salmonella and E. coli, which makes it good for treating food poisoning. And you can use it for pinworms and roundworms. Also, ladies, it stimulates you to get your period.

In addition to drinking it, you can use it topically for its antimicrobial and antifungal traits. For example, it's good for athlete's foot. It's also analgesic (painkilling), so you can apply it to booboos of all kinds (including menstrual cramps) as a warm poultice. And you can pour hot water over sagebrush and inhale the steam to help clear mucus out of your airways for bronchitis or sinus infections. This is one impressive plant!!!

Also found in the parking lot: pineapple weed. Another name for this is wild chamomile. It smells like chamomile, and it's medicinally very similar too. You can make a tea with it to aid digestion.

Pineapple Weed
Pineapple weed

And then we began our hike!


Despite the pines in the parking lot, we were mostly hiking among oaks until we reached a much higher altitude with pines. We saw coast live oaks, interior live oaks, black oaks, and probably some others too.

Some kind of oak

We also saw a lot of this strange-looking plant, likely something in the genus Keckiella:

The experts among us had an idea of what it was, but I cannot seem to figure out how it's spelled in order to look it up.

Then we came upon an area dominated by Red Shank (Adenostoma sparsifolium). It's common in areas transitioning between chaparral and oak woodland.



On many trees, the bark was peeling off in long ribbons:


We also came across a few wildflowers - paintbrush and monkeyflowers




We also saw a ton of mountain mahogany, a plant in the Rose family, and another plant, which the botanist on our trip thought was likely some sort of Ceanothus, in the Buckthorn family.

Mountain Mahogany
Mountain Mahogany



We also came across a few pools lined with "red stuff." The botanist among us (I love hiking with a botanist!) collected a sample and looked at it under a microscope after we got back. The red color came from a species of green algae that happens to be red.

Pool with Mysterious Red Stuff.

Peonies were just getting started, but weren't blooming yet:


At our camp, our botanist found a stick insect. When he first showed it to me, he also had some bits of dead grass in his hand, and the bug was indistinguishable from the grass.

Stick Bug

After setting up camp, we continued hiking. This part of the hike was from about 4000 to 5000 feet in altitude. We saw these white berries on branches without any foliage. It wasn't poison oak, but I don't know what it was.


More paintbrush:


We saw a lot of large fungi, but all of them were dried up and hard:




And we saw ferns and moss (moss not pictured):



Mushrooms, moss, and fern all tell you that this area has lots of water. Fungi tend to like wet conditions, and moss and fern require water for their reproduction.

Then, the strawberries began. I got very excited when I saw the first plants, but before long, the trail was just lined on both sides by strawberries.


Better yet, some plants had flowers and will soon have fruit:


We came across some California Coffee Berry.

California Coffee Berry

And some really spectacular phacelia:




This flower looks to me like Summer Snow, in the Phlox family.


We saw a lot of California Bay Laurel. If you use bay leaves in your cooking, this is one place they come from. The other alternative is a related species from the Mediterranean.

California Bay Laurel

California Bay Laurel

As we hiked back to our camp, the late afternoon sun illuminated the California wild rose plants that lined the trail in some areas. The plants looked almost like dead sticks but they had just started to grow their spring foliage. (No flowers yet.) In the late afternoon light, they were gorgeous.

Rose in Late Afternoon Light

Rose in Late Afternoon Light
Close-up, edited for me by Eddie C

The next morning, before we left, I walked around near camp and took a few photos of the deergrass by the stream:




Deergrass is a cool plant. The Kumeyaay use the flower stalks (with the seeds removed) in their baskets. When deergrass gets wet, it expands, making the baskets watertight.

I also found quite a bit of mugwort. This is Artemisia douglasiana, as opposed to Artemisia vulgaris, the common form of mugwort sold in herb stores. It's said to stimulate vivid dreams, and it's medicinal for some purposes, although I've heard recommendations that you should not eat it. You are supposed to be able to get the vivid dream effect just by smelling it. My favorite use for mugwort is rubbing it on my skin to wipe off the oils of poison oak. The two plants often grow in the same places.


And, near the water, the willows were in bloom. Here are flowers from a female.

Female Willow Catkins

Another member of our group found Indian grinding stones (morteros) a few feet from here. They would have used the willows for building houses, making granary baskets, and making medicine. With the roses, strawberries, acorns, and more, this area would have been a fantastic home for the Kumeyaay.

Wild flower season has not started in earnest yet, but it's starting. I'm hiking this trail again in a month, and by then the flowers will be absolutely glorious. There might even be strawberries by then. (That is, there will be berries growing - the question is whether they will all have been eaten.)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Kumeyaay Indians' Home in the Desert

My camping trip over the weekend took us to the Anza Borrego Desert State Park. It accounts for one-fifth of the land in San Diego county and it's the largest park in the Lower 48. Anza Borrego includes part of the Pacific Crest trail. The name comes from an explorer (Anza) who came overland to visit the region, and the Spanish word for bighorn sheep (Borrego). But good luck actually seeing a borrego inside the park - they are very shy.

I've found that my knowledge of plants helps in a few unexpected ways. First, I can use plants as landmarks to keep from getting lost. And second, I can instinctively find water if there's any to be found. You know, in case I am forced to be a tribute in the Hunger Games. Besides, I've always got a pharmacy at my fingertips - not to mention a food source.

When we arrived at our campground, I immediately hopped out of the car and went straight over to a strange-looking plant. As I got close to it, I saw it was the very familiar Sugar Bush (Rhus ovata). But what the heck was it doing in the desert? There had to be water nearby.

Sugar Bush, Rhus ovata

Then our trip leader called our attention over to Dos Cabeza Spring, a few feet away.

Where's the spring? It's at the base of the cattails.

Dos Cabeza Spring
Teeny tiny little spring, with cattails growing out of it and lots of bees buzzing around, since they need water too

The presence of water was exciting, considering the rest of the terrain:

A View of the Desert

Cattails are edible, and Sugar Bush is both edible and medicinal. In fact, most of the common plants in the area were useful in one way or another. I did not snap a photo of the creosote bush, but we saw plenty of those, and they have incredible medicinal properties. If you use herbal medicine, they are marketed under the name "Chaparral leaf" and they taste bad.

An ocotillo towering above the other desert plants

Ocotillo close up

Ocotillo Flowers
Mostly dried up ocotillo flower with a new one growing

Ocotillo is edible or medicinal in some way but I've always written it off as too difficult to bother with because it's prickly. As soon as there's a bit of rain, ocotillo grows leaves. It also has lovely red flowers on top that remind me of flames on candles.

Cat's Claw Acacia
Cat's claw acacia

Cat's claw acacia is very valuable as a medicinal plant - but for our purposes it was more of a plant to avoid since it is so effective at snagging your clothes or scratching up your legs.


Brittlebush is a plant in the sunflower family, and when it blooms it has yellow flowers. It's medicinal.

Ephedra (Mormon Tea)
Ephedra, a.k.a. Mormon Tea

Ephedra (Mormon Tea)
Ephedra close-up

Related to conifers, ephedra is another medicinal plant found in the desert.

Mohave Yucca
Mohave yucca, Yucca schidigera

The Mohave Yucca is amazingly cool for its relationship with the wasp that pollinates it. But for the Indians, it was valuable for soap (its roots), cordage (leaves), and food (stalk and flowers).

Desert Agave
Desert Agave

Desert agave is another important useful plant. The Kumeyaay made cordage from its leaves and they ate the heart of the plant. When the plant begins to put up a stalk, they harvest it and roast it for two days in a pit before eating it. The pits used for roasting a four feet deep and a large number of agave hearts were roasted at once time. What wasn't eaten immediate was dried and eaten later.



Cholla, almost glowing in the late afternoon sun

Also known as the "jumping cactus," the cholla was the most common cactus found in this region of the desert. I've heard that "cholla buds" are edible and the plant's sap is useful on sunburns, but I have not tried either.

White Sage
White sage, Salvia apiana

White sage, one of the most important plants to the Kumeyaay. In addition to its ceremonial uses, it has a host of medicinal uses. I like to drink the tea when I have a sore throat - or whenever I want a tasty cup of tea. One thing to note about this plant: it causes women to stop lactating, so don't consume it if you're breastfeeding.

With so many useful plants around, it's hardly surprising that the Kumeyaay Indians made their home here. Odds are they lived in this cozy little rock cave:

Rock Cave

If you go in the cave and look out, this is what you see:

Kumeyaay Morteros
Kumeyaay morteros

The depressions in the rock were used by the Kumeyaay to grind food as well as clay for pottery. Near where I took the photo, I saw plenty of mesquite, a legume with a sweet tasting edible seedpod. The Kumeyaay would have ground the seedpods in these morteros. (They used the mesquite root to make bows and baby cradles too.) They would have also eaten the fruit of the California fan palm. In fact, they might have planted the nearby fan palm oasis.

After hiking along with a view like this:

Ocotillo and Yucca

and this:

A View of the Desert

All of a sudden you see this:

California Fan Palm

You can guess why they call it a fan palm:

California Fan Palm

Keep walking and you are utterly surrounded by an enormous cluster of these massive trees - each of which produces edible fruit.

Fan Palm Oasis
Fan palm oasis

Jim Among the Palms

They provide wonderful shade, and there is absolutely water below the ground here. Perhaps it was once above the ground too - prior to the massive drought we're having. In fact, another artifact you find around here isn't from the Indians at all:

Cattle Trough
Cattle trough

So there was definitely water here at some point. The mesquite is another indication of water below the ground, although mesquite can send down its roots 100 feet to find the water, so it's not as valuable an indication as the palms or - better yet - the cattails.

Wildflower season is not here yet, but it's coming. I spotted a lupine, one of my favorite flowers, that is not yet blooming:

Lupine (Not Blooming Yet)

Fortunately, we were treated to a spectacular display of chuparosa and desert lavender:



Desert Lavender
Desert lavender

Desert Lavender
Desert lavender

The desert lavender is a bushy shrub, and it smells nothing like lavender at all. It's scent is more lemony. One look at its flowers tells you it's in the mint family, and with a scent like that, it's almost certainly medicinal.

As for wildlife, the bighorn sheep eluded us. We mostly saw poop - coyote poop, rabbit poop, mouse poop. Even human poop, which we should not have seen, since the responsible party should have dug a hole and buried it.

We spotted a cool spider web, likely from a Desert Grass Spider:

Spider Web

And, in addition to some ravens and phainopeplas, this was about as good as it got in terms of wildlife viewing:

Desert Wildlife