Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Gold in Them Thar Hills

or Making Hay While the Sun Shines

Nothing with "nauseosus" in its name should smell so good.  Even if the word does just mean "heavy-scented," it doesn't sound like it means anything pleasant, certainly nothing like the heady fragrance coming from the stand of rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus) on the far side of the parking lot.

The scent bypassed floral altogether and went straight for honey, for thick, musky ambrosia.  No wonder the bees were so giddy—they must have felt as if half their work had already been done for them.

Like no other month, October (in the northern hemisphere, at any rate) seems to show every place in its best light.  Just breathing the air or looking at the sky can be a sonnet-worthy experience.  I always take a week of vacation around mid-month to make the most of the gorgeous sunlight and weather while they last, and try to spend every possible minute of it outside.  Among the short day-trips I took this year was yet another excursion to Elena Gallegos Open Space park in the foothills on the edge of town.

Cholla, juniper, blue grama grass, and rabbitbrush

I'd been looking forward to this visit for months, ever since the first time I drove up the gently curving, suburban road to the park and saw the roadway lined with rabbitbrush (or chamisa, as it's known here) from bottom to top.  Like blue grama grass, rabbitbrush is one of the signature plants of western North America, growing from the panhandle of Texas west to the Sierras, from Mexico to Saskatchewan.  I have loved it since early childhood—Dad used to call it "bunny bush," which for some reason sent my five-year-old self into endless fits of giggles.  Its golden flowers are still among my favorite sights of autumn.

The sky is another.

The park was as glorious as I'd hoped, at least where the rabbitbrush held sway.  It's about the last of the high desert plants to bloom, so it had to hold the fort pretty well on its own.  Here and there on my walk I saw a dyspeptic aster or two, and once a dull patch of mounding peppergrass, but nothing to keep the bees and butterflies satisfied.  Instead all the pollinators descended on the rabbitbrush in droves, making the most of its flowers while they could.

A more or less cooperative variegated fritillary.

I knew that rabbitbrush was an "opportunistic" plant, the kind that colonizes disturbed places.  It's common along roadsides and ditches, and on open range-land it can indicate over-grazing.*  For some reason I didn't expect that to translate into easy photographs, but it did, as the rabbitbrush was wonderfully thick in all the most accessible places—on the edge of the parking lot, beside the paths, near the occasional ramadas.

As thick as the stands of it were, though, they're not long-lasting.  Rabbitbrush sends down deep taproots as well as lateral roots that allow it to take hold fast; they make it valuable for stabilizing the soil and beginning the process of rebuilding.  But for some reason  all those roots and the plant's general sturdiness are not enough to make it a particularly strong competitor.  Once the next phase of succession begins, the rabbitbrush colonies will fade away.  I can't believe I'm saying this with a straight face, but they really do have to make the most of the bad, disturbed, barren soil while they can.

I love thinking back over a day trip later that evening, letting memories bubble up.  A few of them always stand out from the rest and become emblems of the day.  In this case the "signature" of the walk was the fragrance, drawing in the bees and the butterflies (and, less usefully, me) that will help the rabbitbrush set seed.  This winter, those seeds will drift on the wind to the next disturbed place (rabbitbrush:  the Mary Poppins for unhappy soils), where a colony can start over again, and make another autumn day golden in time.  Maybe in a subtler way, too, there was a kinship between the bees and the butterflies and the rabbitbrush and me that drew us together later in my mind—a sense of exuberance, of living it up.

We were all opportunists, making hay while the sun shone.

* It's also a staple in xeriscape gardens and commercial landscapes, and (for what it's worth) it is one of the all-time most spectacular plants ever in a high wind.


  1. Very pretty. I love that next to last photo with the grass. Since it's one of the last bloomers, I bet the pollinators do absolutely love it. I don't really know this plant, but it sure spreads a bit of sunshine. I would love to be able to smell it!

  2. Yep, you do need scratch-n-sniff monitors for these pics, Stacy. What a great vivid yellow too.

  3. I was just thinking how pretty the chamisa has been and need to make some time to take photos of it. It's amazing how the light dances on the flower tips. I can't get to close to it, seasonal allergies and am not as fond of the smell as you are. :)

  4. Your landscape is so different to anything over here. The yellow of the rabbitbrush against the blue sky is very vivid. Can I ask is the "bunny bush" anything to so with rabbits or is it just a local name?

  5. One of my favorite things about NM is the blue sky...that rabbitbrush is stunning with the yellow flowers on almost silver shimmers with the other plants around...

  6. Your pictures truly evoke New Mexico at a time of year when I begin to long for it... Very lovely compositions above.

  7. Janet, me too. Do rabbits eat it?

    That silver foliage, and golden flowers, would make a wonderful plant for a new garden. And perhaps one could coax it to stay a little?

  8. The sky is certainly bluer where you are.

  9. Wow, it looks beautiful! I love the second picture where it sets off the other plants so well. I can just imagine being there on such a lovely day. Wish I could smell it!

  10. I can ALMOST remember what a blue sky looks like!

  11. I think NM was made for color. It really is a painted state. I love your photos in the bright yellows and deep blues. Gorgeous.

  12. What an evocative post. Like others, I can almost smell the honey and feel the Autumn freshness in the air.
    There's a Mediterranean plant called Senecio cineraria that shares the rabbitbrush's colouring - golden yellow flowers on silver stems - yet in the UK's dull, damp climate it always strikes me as brash and rather lurid. Your rabbitbrush on the other hand looks perfectly judged in that dry air against that wonderful blue of the sky.

  13. Holley, I didn’t know whether anyone would like that photo but me—thank you! It really is a sunshiny plant—attractive the rest of the year, too, but more inclined to fade into the background. We used to take Columbus Day driving trips to see my Dad’s family in the TX panhandle, and it was always in bloom then.

    Kathy, I’m surprised Blogger hasn’t developed a scratch-n-sniff gadget yet. Boy, are they behind the times.

    GirlSprout, I could definitely see the smell being a love-hate thing! I love your description of the light dancing on the flowers—hope you’ve been able to get out to enjoy it. Go soon—it sounds like thing are going downhill tomorrow…

    Janet and Diana, from what I’ve been able to gather, rabbits don’t usually eat the rabbitbrush, but they do shelter in it sometimes. I’m not sure where the name comes from—bunny bush, now, that one I do know is the invention of a desperate man trying to keep his children entertained on a 500 mile drive… For what it’s worth, books sometimes call it rubber rabbitbrush, because it was considered a possible alternate source of rubber during WWII. Diana, it makes a wonderful garden plant—if I had enough sunshine and space I’d definitely grow a few. As long as they’re not too thickly interplanted, they seem to last just fine.

  14. Donna, the skies are so wonderful, and more in October than any other time of year, I think—a different depth to the blue. The rabbitbrush really lights up the grasses and those dark junipers.

    Zoe, thank you—this is definitely the best time of year to be in the southwest!

    b-a-g, between the dryness and being a mile above sea level, the sky here (and across a lot of the western US) is a pretty amazing color. I’m a little perplexed at how the third photo ended up that way, though—I mean, the sky is blue, but it’s not that blue.

    Indie, I’m so glad you enjoyed it! It was an amazing day. We seem only to do extremes here—either blah or spectacular, with no in between.

  15. Karen, I have to say, it sure is nice to live in a place where you can count on blue sky almost every day. On the other hand, I can barely remember what greenery looks like…

    Donna, a lot of artists here only do landscapes, and between the colors, textures, and shapes they have to play with you can sure see why. Thank you!

    Jill, it took me a long time to believe that colors could clash with a location or really belong to it. I just looked at some photos of the Senecio, and I could see where it might be a bit much in the UK’s softer light and greenery, but it would be right at home here. Earth tones and warm or intense shades work wonderfully, but the delicate pinks and blues that are so irritatingly gorgeous in British gardening books just look wan and washed out in our sunlight.

  16. Those gorgeous yellows would bring me out from work as well. I can see why you would want to take time to enjoy them...beautiful!

  17. Beautiful! it's amazing how the color yellow can make any scene come alive.

  18. I always try and run over, in my head, the sequence of a special day - especially a day from one of my long walks. I find if I relive, in detail, the day's walk it becomes etched onto/into my memory. I tend to do it as I'm drifting off to sleep. Jim often casts me one of his "Wow, you're weird" looks when I recount some tiny insignificant detail from day three of a seven day hike, five years ago. You need to do it twice, I find, to really burn it into place. (Thought I'd share that with you). Oh, and that yellow bunny stuff against that NM sky. Phew.


  19. Michelle, it is sooooo hard to sit inside a building in October!

    variegatagal, I've never understood why yellow sometimes gets a bad rap. Welcome!

    Dave, that sounds like both a very practical, enjoyable ritual and a wonderful way to drift off to sleep. I'll have to try it--I tend to go over and over the photos, but then find myself remembering only the visual parts of a trip and not all of the other senses and associations that really made it delightful. If that's the worst you do to earn one of those Looks from Jim, then Jim has it pretty easy.