When the first alder catkins by Eastern brooks are shaking themselves free from the bonds of winter, and hepatic as push furry buds up through the brown leaves in sunny pockets of their native woods, when field and forest are rejoicing in the impulse ,of a re-awakening life, God smiles upon His desert, too. Then for a few brief weeks, the pallid sands blush with a varied floral life of rare loveliness. At least it is usually thus earlythat is, in the first days of Marchthat the Colorado Desert breaks into bloom.
The flowers of the desert are both perennial and annual. The former include shrubs, the yuccas, the multitudinous cactuses and the few stunted treesthe period of their blooming extending further into the burning year than that of the annuals. It is these latter which are responsible for much of the evanescent glory of the springtime wastes. They bloom, mature their seeds, sow them and perish in the oven of the sun’s heat, all within a period of three or four weeks. Then for months their scattered seeds lie dormant upon the desert, buried now and now uncovered, and again caught and borne hither and yon upon the wings of wind storms, until the rains of the latter year quicken them into life. Though there are myriads of these annuals in bloom every spring, so that in places the sands are radiant with their colors, this gray background setting off their brightness rarely, each plant usually stands isolated from its neighbor with much barren space about it. The soil is so deficient in moisture that two might die in dividing what one could live on. Sometimes, to be sure, a few plants in a wide circle of sand form a communal clump of inter-mingled stems about the base of some shrub, and sharing one another’s shadows, make common cause against the remorseless sun. Thus, perhaps though each one’s share of moisture is reduced, the evaporation from the leaves is less rapid. Then, too, the leaf-droppings from these little societies tend to form a humus, by which the life rooted in it is the better nourished. So though the desert in spring is a garden of bloom, the blossoms are but infrequently to be expected thick over the ground like violets or buttercups in an Eastern meadow, but more usually they are dotted about, like separate jewels each in a generous width of setting, enhancing its individual beauty.
One can hardly regard these exquisite creations, conceived and brought forth under a pitiless sun, without feelings of awe, as for purified unearthly presences born of elemental fire. Some of them are of such delicacy of hue and texture that they seem created less for the gardens of earth than for the adornment of that “far, spiritual city,” where only the Galahads of our race may touch them. Of all none, perhaps, is more ethereal than an evening primrose a few inches high, which lives in pure sand and of afternoons spreads to the light its great, creamy white flowers, glowing with yellow at their hearts. Seen from afar, they are like flecks of foam resting upon the long ridges and billows into which the wind whips the desert sands, and their delicious fragrance is one of the few sweet smells of the arid regions. Hardly less delicate are the silky banners of the mohavea, which might be taken by the uninitiated for an orchid’s flowerstwo-lipped and yellowish-white, splashed with purple and with a purple palate. The blossoms of the desert aster, clothed in lavender and gold, belong to the same rare fellowship, in which are to be included, too, certain gilias in tender blue, and one of so shy a shade of pink that your very look seems to make the lowly blossoms shrink into the sand on which they rest. And here in a lilac garb is a larkspur, of all flowers the least looked for in these desolate wastes, associated as it is in our minds with the cool gardens of “God’s country,” with memories of home and of mother’s love.
The abronias or wild verbenas, among the most abundant of the desert annuals, are of a less flue clay. Their trailing hemispheres of bloom are sometimes the daintiest of pinks, but quite often an earthy strain is present, which develops into a dull, spiritless magenta. Quite a, different touch is given to this kaleidoscope of refined color by the waxy fruit of the desert mistletoeberries which are like exquisite rosy pearls, paling to a delicate cream-color.
But in many of the desert flowers it is not so much the delicacy of the tints, as their brilliancy that attracts the eye. On the Mojave in May comes an orange-scarlet tulip, so vivid that no ordinary paint of man’s concocting can reproduce its fieriness. Its glowing cups of flame sit close to the ground, each usually with its one grass-like leaf dead beside it, shriveled up by the persistent sunshine in which the flower luxuriates. The tenacity of life in these flowers is remarkable. Eight days after we had plucked and packed a number of them in a press to dry, we found one perfectly fresh. It had been a bud when packed up, and, in spite of the suffocating darkness of its captivity, had gone on with its work and opened. Only a little less fiery are the blossoms of the beloperone clumps. Early in the year the tangle of their white, sinuous branches bursts into hundreds of narrow tongues of mock flame, all the more realistic, because the stems are then leafless, and in appearance a mass of in-flammable brush.
Composites on the desert are as characteristic of spring as in the East they are of autumn, and are of almost every hue. The yellow of some of these, such as the desert ox-eye, rising out of clusters of ashen-gray leaves, is as a burst of sunshine out of a cloud. Most wonderful of all, perhaps, though not at all showy, is a small composite like a dwarf aster with white rays and a golden disk. It has no common name but botanists have burdened it with the title of monoptilon bellidiforme. Each flower head is composed of perhaps fifteen or twenty florets, each of which produces a single dry seed; and every spring tens of thousands of these little plants come into being, making myriads of seeds thus produced. Now the marvel of it is that on the upper edge of each of those countless seeds is borne one tiny bristle which drops with the seed. No man knows what that bristle is for, though your man of science will learnedly explain it as a degenerate pappus, of which the down of a thistle represents the perfect development; but is it not wonderful that Nature, with all she has to do in this workaday worldcrops to raise and all the machinery of the universe to keep in ordernever forgets to set that solitary bristle on each of those little florets out there on the Mojave Desert?
Many of the desert flowers are odd as well as beautiful, showing forth in this pure wilderness of the desert unlooked-for resemblances to many things of man’s complex civilization. There is the salazaria, for instance, with velvety blue-and-whitehooded corolla emerging from a loose, papery calyx and looking in outline astonishingly like a bonneted Quaker lady of the olden time. And there is calyptridium monandrum (we would write its English name if it had one) a Wild West cousin of the familiar ” pusley.” It does not drop its petals, but when the seed vessel is set, to and behold ! the withered corolla appears like a limp liberty cap swinging at the tip of the slender red pod. There is, too, a remarkable milkweed with blossoms of imperial purple so smothered in white wool that the individual flowers suggest rubies lying in a bed of jeweler’s cotton. And there is nama demissum, which grows in a circle flat upon the sand and resembles a floral wheel with green spokes and a Tyrian purple tire. The list might be continued in-definitely.
The struggle for moisture in the desert leads the roots of many plants straight downward. Those of the spiny dalea, a shrub or little tree whose intricacy of slender branchlets becomes clothed in spring with a royal garment of a myriad purple blossoms, are said sometimes to descend twenty feet or more in quest of water. An old desert dweller once told us that, desiring one of these trees as an ornament near his house, he set an Indian to dig it up, cautioning him on no account to break the tap root. As he rode to and fro on various errands he noticed the Indian patiently digging deeper and deeper, his body gradually getting lower and lower in the big hole, until a couple of days afterward the black head of the child of the desert was just visible at the level of the ground. Thinking the tree had earned a right to its station, he told the red man to let it stand.
The cactuses, on the other hand, those best known of desert plants, have but a scanty root system, an one can without much difficulty topple some sort over with his foot. Their aqueous reservoirs being within their succulent joints and stems above ground, they do not need long roots to fetch an carry for them. There is a great variety of th cactus blooms, and some that are not particularly beautiful in themselves possess a charm in their arrangement. Of these latter the greenish-yellow flowers of the strange, cylindrical bisnagas or bar rel cactus, are examples. They form a circle upon the spiny top of the keg-like planta chaplet se upon those repellent brows by the hand of a Love that must indeed be divine. The spines of the cactuses are a fascinating study. There is much variety in them, and often great beauty. Their placing upon the surface of the plants is no hap hazard arrangement, as might appear to the unobserving, but is in accord with an orderly plan Those of the bisnaga consist of regularly dispose bundles, the central spines of each of which are ver prominent, four in number and transversely ridged one of the four being usually curved in the shape o a great fishhook. These spines are remarkably charming, with colors that hold something of the desert’s own fascinationpinks and amethysts an creamy yellows. Strike them with your finger a you would a jew’s-harp, and they return melody, different tones issuing from different sorts of spines.
Miles upon miles of the desert plains are staked with that strange Ishmael of plants, the tree-yucca, whose shaggy arms, clutching a thousand bunched daggers of leaves, are raised against the world. As one rides across the Mojave, where these trees grow, they outline themselves against the sky in a score of fantastic shapespitchforks, tridents, mailed fists and colossal battledores whose meshes are branches. Sometimes they resemble writhing, misshapen crosses, as though marking the uneasy graves of men whom the sands have swallowed up. A sullen tree, this, which moves stiffly and gracelessly when the wind shakes it, like a stubborn man in the hands of adverse fortuneyielding indeed, but only because forced to yield. Nevertheless, to the tops of this forbidding tree, the gentle doves of the desert trustfully fly and lodge and find comfort there, uttering thence, to the desert’s mystery, the mystery of their own melancholy notes. From the midst of the cruel leaves, too, there rise, in season, panicles of bloom, creamy white bells adroop, pure as the spirits of triumphant mortals who, out of the valley of affliction, have come up into the sun-light of heavenly peace.