Globemallow Binding the Desert's Wounds

Orange globe mallow | Photo: Anthony Mendoza/Flickr/Creative Commons License

One early March morning a lifetime ago, as the rising sun purpled the desert sky, I peered over the walls of my pickup truck's bed and blinked sleepily at the Mojave landscape near Boron. The khaki West Mojave bore a color I hadn't seen there before: a bright sparse orange scattered across the desert, almost as if someone had planted a few hundred thousand California poppies out among the paper bag bush and creosote. I rubbed my eyes to make sure the bright sparks weren't artifacts of the previous day's long drive. They were still there when I looked again.

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It really had been a long drive. Beset by problems I no longer recall while doing my usual landscaping gig in the Bay Area, I decided that I needed to go to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona as soon as I possibly could. I called the woman I was seeing at the time, who would some years later become my ex-wife, and told her I was taking off for a week or two. I left Berkeley in mid-morning. I loaded a few things in my ancient pickup truck, a Volkswagen Transporter with a top speed somewhere in the mid-40s. I was only pulling uphill past south Bakersfield's orange groves around 8:00 p.m. At some unfathomably late hour I turned into the rest area on Route 58 near Boron, rolled out a sleeping bag in the back of the truck, and fell asleep hard.

And woke up to that desert orange. The landscape wasn't exactly carpeted in bloom. It was not a "Banner Year At The Poppy Reserve" orange blanket on the land. It was more an orange that had been deftly intermixed into the desert's usual palette. It complemented and augmented that palette the way white hairs augment a ground squirrel's brown coat.

I crawled out of my truckbed, earning a few puzzled looks from other impromptu rest area campers who'd had the decorum to sleep inside their rigs. I ached a bit more than I wanted to as I limped over to a representative orange-flowering plant and examined it. It was about two feet tall, predominantly gray-green, with fuzzy hairs covering the leaves and stems. The orange petals seemed improbably delicate for the desert, as if a jeweler had set butterfly wings in a base of old wood.

That sparseness of blossoms' orange that I'd seen in the broader landscape extended fractally to the plant itself, each flower clasped in enveloping gray-green bracts that concealed the bright petals for some of their length; each cluster of bracts separated by weedy-looking stems and drab velvety leaves. It was a shy flower. It made me think of the roadside chicory back East, their beautiful sky-blue petals mainly played close to the plants' weedy vests, open for an hour or two in the morning and then shut tight against the world.

It was a desert globemallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua, and I was never out of sight of the plants as I drove painstakingly slowly along my route that very long day. If you went looking for a single plant to symbolize all the deserts of California, the desert globemallow wouldn't be a bad one to pick: it grows throughout the state's three main deserts -- the Colorado, the Mojave, and the Great Basin -- and through Nevada and Arizona into Utah, Sonora, and elsewhere in Mexico.

It's called a globemallow for two reasons: it's in the mallow family, Malvaceae, along with cotton and hibiscus, and its flower petals tend to curve toward one another at the edges, creating the general impression of a balloon. Or at least half a balloon.

Desert globemallows don't all bloom bright, California-poppy orange. Some of them have blossoms that are a more nuanced color that gives rise to another common name -- the apricot mallow. Some, of variety rosacea, bloom somewhere on that non-primary spectrum of color that runs between lavender and pink. All of them share the little hairs on their stems and leaves that give the plants their grayish hue. That's a trait common to a lot of desert plants, in fact; the coating of minute hairs holds a layer of water vapor near the plant by providing the tiniest of windbreaks, and the gray reflects sunlight, keeping the plant a bit cooler.

There may also be a mild defensive aspect to the globemallow's hairs: I rubbed a leaf between my fingers that day back in 1990, and when the hairs that came off on my hand inevitably found their way into my eyes not too much later, they were plenty irritating. Some people are more sensitive, and just touching a globemallow can cause them to suffer something approaching dermatitis. It's by no means as irritating a plant as its fellow mallow family member Fremontodendron, whose hairs can drive even the most stoic native plant enthusiast to distraction in the space of half an hour. But you probably still ought to avoid rolling around naked in a globemallow patch without a very good reason.

A lot of desert animals enjoy eating globemallow leaves and stems, so those bristly hairs must not be all that effective. Jackrabbits and cottontails eat the new growth, as do desert bighorn sheep, and evidence of globemallow has been found in the coprolites of Shasta ground sloths. Researchers studying the diet chuckwallas, the second-largest lizard in the California desert after the Gila Monster, found that the big vegetarian lizards seem to have a serious taste for globemallows, sometimes eating twice as much Sphaeralcea as they did of all other plants combined.

That's assuming globemallows are available for the local chuckwallas, of course. Sometimes they aren't. Sphaeralcea seems to be what's known in the ecological succession biz as a disturbed soil colonizer: it's quicker than many other desert plants to start growing in areas like landslides, the sides of roads, flash-flood-carved gullies and other such examples of freshly uncovered soil. (Globemallow shares that ecological trait with the ancestors of a whole lot of our most common food crops, lettuces and carrots and tomatoes and the like, so maybe it's no coincidence that some animals think it tastes good.)

When a patch of desert soil is disturbed globemallow seeds may already be there, cast down by a parent plant years or decades before. Given a little water the seeds will sprout. Given a little protection from herbivores they'll live and grow for a few years, perhaps a few decades, holding down the desert soil and providing a bit of shelter for the longer-lived desert plants that sink their own roots in turn into the formerly disturbed soil. Eventually a cholla or a creosote will be there, growing up out of the husk of a long-dead globemallow.

I drove for hours that day long ago, my unreliable and painfully slow truck earning me the wrath of every person behind me. From Boron at six in the morning it took me more than an hour on old Route 58 to get to breakfast in downtown Barstow. Then came an eternity on Interstate 40. My pickup, with its six volt electrical system and its 40 horsepower engine and all the sleek, stylish aerodynamics of a sheet of plywood, made maybe 49 miles an hour in neutral on long down hill stretches of road. Mainly I went slower. It took me well over 18 hours to get from Boron to Picacho Peak just north of Tucson. That was plenty of time to examine the contents of my 29-year-old soul, as speckled with fear and doubt as the desert was with globemallow orange.

Without mobile phone or GPS, without really knowing where I was headed other than Organ Pipe via Tucson, without credit cards or much in the way of cash, I was as on my own as I've ever been. The wreckage of the relationship that had consumed my 20s was only a little ways back in the rearview mirror, and the parting knowledge that I didn't measure up to the guy I'd been dumped for had sunk all the way in. I couldn't yet tell where my current relationship would lead, except that we had vague plans to meet in San Diego in two weeks.

I couldn't even count on the truck. Coming down the Mogollon Rim north of Wickenburg, seeing the whole Valley of The Sun splayed out before me in sunset pink, the old truck's clutch started feeling off. At the Casa Blanca Pima Reservation I bought a new crescent wrench, crawled under the truck in the gravel parking lot to try to adjust the clutch cable. It didn't help, and by the time I woke the next morning the clutch was out altogether.

I'd run into the desert until I couldn't run any farther. I was 800 miles from home and broke, grinding my transmission with no clutch down the shoulder of Interstate 10 past the billows of globemallow on the verge, binding the wounded desert as best they could.

About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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