Monday, May 7, 2012

The Castle Mountains Rare Plant Treasure Hunt - whoot!!!
by Kim Clark

Once off interstate 15 and heading for Castle Mountainss, the Joshua tree woodland (with silver cholla and blackbush understory) spread far and wide, becoming so dense you couldn't see the space in between. The old and stately Joshua trees sported every bizarre configuration imaginable, while the young shot up in naive-green enthusiasm. Not bad for a low-rain year. The 4,200 ft. elevation evaded the low-land heat, and we had the pleasure of botanizing in mid-70s temps with occasional gusty breezes.

Walking a transect across the banks of a wide seasonal wash, club cholla (Grusonia parishii) was our first find. Scattered amongst an old mining-days midden heap, the matted, sprawling cholla looked as dead as described in books, but was firmly rooted and awaiting rains before daring any show of life.

Down the canyon and into the next wash, we were quickly rewarded for our efforts with several showy finds of Pinto beardtounge (Penstemon bicolor) against dramatic outcroppings of rhyolite and basalt. The most enthusiastic specimen was over 3 feet tall.
We stumbled upon the tiny Tragia ramosa, which stung the tips of our unsuspecting fingers as we collected. Several motionless desert horned lizards and a darting collard lizard engaged our cameras on the scenic hike back to camp. 

The desert sun set on our decant feast of fresh cold fruits, cheeses, rosemary bread and dips, avocado and cucumber salad, zesty limed-rice with green onions and cilantro, various proteins and a pear-blueberry galette. Our wine parings toasted the moonrise over Hart peak, as we oriented to the early evening planets and the north star. Later we took shelter under our rain flies, in an effort to avoid an all-night interrogation from an insistent full moon.
Early enough the next morning we headed for the Nevada border, and hiked southwest back into a promising California canyon. The rocks were entirely distracting with geode-like formations, concretions, basalt, worked obsidian flakes, Apache tears and all manner of sparkling gems strewn in our path, making the going much slower than anticipated. Unlike the customary crunch sound of desert hiking, a variety of chiseled stones tumbled and tinkled like melodious wind chimes as we made our way up canyon. 

A fortunate bend in the wash yielded several hoped-for finds of Plains flax (Linum puberulum), Red four o'clocks (Mirabiulis coccinea) and many more hot-pink Penstemons.

We hiked to the headwall, and wondered at the barrel cactus, some with red spines, others with golden, the coyote skull, and the heavily fruit-laden juniper dotting the landscape.

Happy botanizers ended the afternoon with a revival of the previous night's feast, then headed for gas and the 4.5 hour drive home. Volunteers are the nicest people in the world; there because they want to be, bringing their lively spirits, good humor, and their own personal experiences testifying to the endless enjoyment of our irreplaceable native ecosystems and bio-regions. In between the laughter and good times, we learned a lot and deepened our relationships with the precious California desert.

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