Winter Skeletons

by Rebecca Shankland
February 2000

In winter all but the evergreen plants shed their foliage, leaving behind only skeletons made of stems, branches, and the occasional determined dried seed head. They may at first look like dessicated corpses or decayed leftovers from the fall harvest, but look again. Without their leaves, their geometric shapes are revealed, their flower receptacles peer up shyly, and their thorns reach out to beg the passing stranger to tarry awhile.

Winter gives some plants a spare, gnarled beauty like a Japanese bonsai. La Senda road edges have occasional clumps of a 5-foot shrub with the sinister-sounding name pale wolfberry. Not a leaf or berry remains now, but the elephant-gray branches zig-zag against the blue sky like angular icicle Christmas decorations, with a single business-like thorn at each joint. Lycium pallidum belongs to the Solanaceae family-a curious mixture of friends (potatoes, tomatoes) and foes (nightshade, jimsonweed). Evidently Indians used the red-orange berries, and wolfberry is common at pueblo ruins.

Coneflower (Ratibida columnifera) graces the ditches and gardens of White Rock, apparently happy whether brought by the wind or bought from a nursery. Its 1- to 2-foot clumps have lost their yellow Mexican hat flowers, but the tall column of the sombrero remains as a dried seed head. Some heads have the full column, but others have nothing left except a slender sword with a tiny handle at the base. A few dried leaves may persist, resembling those of marigolds.

Skeleton-weed, which looks like a skeleton even in summer, now is reduced to a cluster of fragile pale-brown twigs, about a foot tall, with only an occasional tiny ball of fuzz left over from its pale pink sunflowers. In summer Stephanomeria pauciflora's blue-grey stems have few leaves and scattered flowers, hence the second part of its name (paucus meaning few in Latin). But Stephanomeria--Greek for crown? Perhaps it could be woven into a spindly crown for a poor relation's wedding or be cooked up for the wedding feast, as suggested by another name, wire-lettuce.

The Quemazon Trail has winter delights, too. Most spectacular and abundant is the tall shrub mountain mahagony, now decorated with white downy seed tails that look like snowy corkscrews along the branches (and may be the closest we get to snow this winter). Each seed consists of a tiny pointed drill with a feathery corkscrew tail, not a bad piece of aerodynamic design for getting the seed drilled into the soil as it spins around on its descent from the branch. The scientific name, Cercocarpus montanus, alludes to the fruit (karpos) with its tail (kerkos). In summertime the dark green oval leaves nearly hide the flowers, so enjoy this beauty in the winter.

Fendler's barberry also triumphs in the winter. The 1- to 5-foot shrub is unmistakable with its hairy forest of spines along the stem (often arranged in 5-pointed stars). The newest twigs are red-brown, but the older gray branches may still have a few bright red berries hanging from long stems like miniature cherries, brilliant in the dark forest. Berberis fendleri is associated with the Berbers, who grew it on the Barbary Coast, and August Fendler, a German naturalist who collected plants for several expeditions. He went with an army expedition to New Mexico after Kearney took it from Mexico--hence numerous New Mexico plants are named for him.

For more winter brilliance, the wild rose (Rosa woodsii) with its scarlet rose hips can hardly be surpassed. Its cat-claw thorns are stronger than the barberry's, but less numerous. You can make a tea of the rose-hips and get your daily dose of vitamin C without quite as much risk of being stabbed while you're picking.

My winter mystery plant along the Quemazon grows in a delicate straw-colored cluster of thin but rigid stems. Paper-thin lily-of-the-valley-shaped cups face the sky-these little containers are left along the stem after the petals and seeds drop. Luckily Chick and Yvonne Keller were along to solve the mystery-it's yellow flax, Linum neomexicanum, taller and paler than blue flax, its White Rock cousin, but still recognizable. Look for it where the Quemazon joins the top of the nature trail loop.

Summer and winter alike, the oddest plant of ponderosa woods like the Quemazon is pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea). A foot high, it pops up from the pine-needle floor, a red-brown stalk with flesh-pink flowers that turn red-brown. The flowers are fat coral bells drooping downward on short stems close to the main stalk. Because it's a saprophyte with no green chlorophyll or leaves, it has the same eerie beauty year round. But this plant also has a mystery: its second name refers to Andromeda, the chained princess rescued from a sea monster by Perseus, the Medusa-slayer. What's the connection? Perhaps the flowers reminded a botanist of the ornamental shrub Andromeda, but in that case, why did it get such a romantic name? The mystery remains.