I saw a lot of amazing plants on the desert trip, some with fascinating stories and critical ethnobotanic ties to the region. Yet, with so many to choose from and so many photographs far better than these, even I find it a little bit odd that I chose to begin with one so tiny and insignificant.
I suppose my affection for this plant has something to do with how I found it.
It was our first real day in the Joshua Tree area and we chose to take a short, scenic drive over to Yucca Valley and up to a higher elevation to an old Westerns film set-cum-town called Pioneertown. We parked the car along the main drag and got out to take a few pictures. I looked down and saw below my feet a teeny, tiny silvery-leaved mallow with pretty apricot flowers. I had never seen a mallow like that before and I became curious about it. I saw it again the next day at a lower elevation, on a drive through Joshua Tree National Park.
That night we took an evening walk with a local guy named Steve, a herpetologist who also happens to know a lot about the plants of the region. I took the walk as an opportunity to ask him about everything I could think of, including the tiny mallow, which he identified as Apricot Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua). He didn’t have much to say about it, but I have since looked it up in a few of the many books on the flora of the region that I purchased on the trip. “Flowers of the Southwest Deserts” (only $4 in the gift shop at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument!!) says that it is common to the California and Arizona deserts and that they form a carpet that can create quite a site when they bloom in the spring. I suspect that the few tiny plants I saw were particularly scrappy, hardscrabble stragglers (a trait that I admire in plants) that had managed to hold on through the hottest part of the summer.
According to the book (above), the local name for the plant is mal-de-ojos or sore-eye poppies because the tiny leaf hairs are believed to cause irritation. I found this fact surprising because most of the mallow family plants (Malvaceae) I am familiar with are used for their high mucilage content and soothing properties. Interestingly enough, the same book says that the Pima Indians dubbed it with a contradictory name that translates to, “a cure for sore eyes.”