Originally Published: March 26, 2012 7:53 p.m.
Extremes are what it's all about in Death Valley. That's great for discovering all the joys connected with landscape diversity: views, open deserts, rocky canyons, primitive trails, woodlands, forests, sagebrush, riparian vegetation, wildflowers, alpine ridges, and salt flats. It's probably less than 10 miles as the crow flies from one extreme to the other, but with boots on the ground it's a journey of details and distinctions. The colors hit you from every direction, in the wildflowers, the rocks, and the sky. The austere nature of the Park is unforgettable.
With such extremes, timing is crucial. When it's perfect at the lower end, it's snowbound at the top and vice versa. Therefore, spring or fall is recommended with spring preferred since it's likely to be wetter. I have limited experience with a hike-bike combo trip, or hikeride as by brother calls it, but the distances involved in this hike required a little imagination. Normally, you'd drive a ways up Hanaupah Canyon and then hike either up the south or north sides of the Canyon as far as you liked. The south sides offered an old mine road ½ way then a difficult ridged that stopped me with deep snows and an approaching storm. It's amazing to what lengths people will go to scratch a few rocks from the dirt. The north ridge had a primitive trail but was much more straight forward and a better choice of routes out of the desert. Surface water was fortunately available in Hanaupah Canyon, otherwise this trip would have been a disaster. Don't forget the fee to enter the Park.
The park is bigger than you might expect, making it a difficult selection of which plants to highlight with endemics on one hand and common wonders on the other. We'll zoom in on "big" plants from large families then offer a beautiful endemic as the mystery plant of the week. Locoweeds/Milkvetch, genus Astragalus boasts some 200 species in the Southwest alone. Similarly, there are many Mallows, Buckwheats, and Mustards. But, by learning these representative plants, you will find it easier to pick out other members of the same plant families among the vegetable kingdom at your feet. Have fun.
Freckled Milkvetch, Astragalus lentiginosus (Pea Family)
Loco weeds are difficult to identify to the species or subspecies level. The characters used to distinguish them are difficult to find, but once you learn the group, Astragalus, you'll generally be satisfied with readily identifying them easily to the genus level with an unaided eye. Knowing where certain species grows, will help too in learning the names of some species. These wildflowers have grayish leaves that are divided. The leaves are about 15 cm long. The purple flowers, fading to white, are classic members of the Pea Family, "Butterfly Subgroup." The banner petal stands straight up with its smaller wings spread wide, as if ready to fly. The keel petal resembles the body of the butterfly, folded upon the 10 stamens inside. The pod of this species is inflated like a bag and is a creamy maroon color. As the common name implies, the pod is somewhat freckled in appearance. The group, Loco Weeds, is also well named, being poisonous. So, look but handle with great care. Distributed across western North America, several varieties of Freckled Milkvetch are recognized, with variety micans found only within Death Valley National Park. It occurs with creosote scrub brush in and around sand dunes outside Hanaupah Canyon proper.
Desert Fivespot, Eremalche rotundifolia (Mallow Family)
Mallows are quite a diverse group, from common weeds to stunning, large-flowered hibiscus. Desert Fivespot must be one of the most beautiful jewels in Death Valley. I came across one on the flats below Hanaupah Canyon. It was beside the road, gently waving in the breeze. It looked like a delicate purple ball about the size of a racket ball. I stopped to look inside to find several bright red spots jumping up at me. I was taken aback, as if started by this bold shift in colors. It stands about one-third of a meter tall with roundish leaves mostly toward the bottom of the plant. The leaves have coarse teeth along the margin. It grows in gravelly desert washes where it would be surprising to find anything alive, much less such a glorious beauty. No surprise in Death Valley.
Rixford's Buckwheat, Eriogonum rixfordii (Buckwheat Family)
With nearly 150 species across the Southwest, the genus Eriogonum is diverse but distinctive in general appearance. The flowers are often small and easy to overlook, but when you put the small flowers together with a small shrub that bears striking colors, it is easy to pause and take note of these plants. In fact, this species, restricted to Death Valley and vicinity, is of conservation concern. Its habit is so striking that it is often collected as a novelty. It is rarely common and never weedy. It stands about 20 cm tall, growing in desert washes. It starts out like a greenish tuft of hair with a flat top. There the flowers are borne with delicate white petals, so small, you probably wouldn't think they were flowers. The plant eventually changes color entirely, to a reddish brown or yellow, often in stark contrast to the surrounding soils. You simply must see it to appreciate it, but that's Death Valley for you.
Desert Princesplume, Stanleya pinnata (Mustard Family)
Princesplume grows across the Rocky Mountains and InterMountain West from deserts into pine woodlands with Pinyon and Juniper. Like any Mustard, it has a simple floral plan of four yellow petals arranged in the shape of a plus sign or cross. Therefore, it is described as cruciform and the family is often called the Cruciferae. There are six stamens, four long and two shorter in length. The flowers of Princesplume are crowded on the end of a single, tall stem about 1 m tall. The funny looking "pods" below the flowers are the classic fruits of the Mustard Family, called a siliqua. Most of the leaves are found toward the base of the plant and are grayish, narrow, and about 10 cm long. Since this plant is so widespread, I can imagine someone thinking it would be a good head dress for a princess with its feathery display of showy flowers and fruits.