Every morning I look for new signs of healthy growth on the devastated rabbitbushes many of which did not survive the construction of this house. I love chamisa and am dedicated to bringing these mutilated species back to life. I water them periodically and watch the slender leaves turn emerald green in gratitude for such meager attention. During the summer and fall these beautiful plants turn the high desert a brilliant yellow and with their soft gray leaves that sway in the slightest breeze they are a joy to behold. The blossoms last so long that unlike so many other desert plants it is possible to appreciate them over a long period of time.
Behind this adobe structure there are the remains of what was once a chimisa forest that glows in the evening western light. My neighbor routinely hacks his chimisa down much to my dismay. These living plant beings feel pain, and I try to imagine what it must feel like for a plant to be hacked down mindlessly, ignored by so many, or experienced as a nuisance.
I counter this trend with loving attention and delight in the feathery leaves, the cover these plants provide for lizards and mammals, and think about all the good these plants do to help the earth.
Without being able to perceive natural beauty in the world we live in a state of profound poverty, and with so many wondrous plants growing wild, how can it be possible that so few seem to be able to SEE?
What follows is a bit of information on these denizens of the grasslands (around here), even as I give thanks for these wild plants whose bouquets take my breath away.
Chamisa or Gray Rabbitbush
This perennial shrub is a member of the Aster family (Asteraceae) along with sagebrush, with which it is often found. Chamisa has several different subspecies located throughout the western United States. It is typically distinguished by having whitish to green flexible stems, felt-like matted hairs, and narrow, thread-like grayish-green alternate leaves. Shrubs are rounded and generally two to five feet tall, but can reach as high as seven feet. Flower heads are made up of 5 small, yellow, tubular flowers, and are arranged in dense, rounded or flat-topped clusters at the ends of the branches. Flowers bloom from August to October as other plants are fading, providing vivid color and a pollen source for insects late in the summer. The shrubs reproduce via an abundance of small, wind-dispersed seeds and can also sprout from the base.
Chamisa occurs as a dominant to minor component in many plant communities, ranging from arid rangelands to montane openings. It thrives in poor conditions, and can tolerate coarse, alkaline soils. Dense stands are often found on degraded rangelands, along roadsides, and in abandoned agricultural fields. The species is useful in soil stabilization and restoration of disturbed sites. The deep root system establishes quickly and plants produce large quantities of leaf litter, helping to bring nutrients to the soil surface from the deeper rooting profile. Rabbitbrush is also gaining popularity as an ornamental; the white/gray foliage, abundant flowering, and tolerance for poor conditions makes it well suited for desert landscaping.
Native Americans reportedly used Chamisa as a yellow dye, to make a medicinal tea, and for chewing gum. The forage value varies greatly among subspecies and different ecosystems. In some locations, it can be an important browse species for mule deer, pronghorn, and jackrabbits during fall and winter. It also provides cover for mammals and small nesting birds. Livestock generally forage only lightly on this species and it is considered to be of little value to all classes of livestock, a fact that doesn’t bother me at all. We eat too much meat.