Coyote Melon (Cucurbita palmata)

Coyote Melon (Cucurbita palmata)
Coyote Melon (Cucurbita palmata)

Coyote Melon (Cucurbita palmata), also known as Coyote Gourd, is a flowering plant common in the desert southwest and known to produce spherical yellow – green melons. The vine like plant is commonly found is loose, sandy or gravely, dry, well drained soil which is common in Southern California, Arizona, Nevada and exclusively in Washington County, Utah. The primary characteristic is the growth of a green melon or gourd which is quite startling when you first see them in the hot desert climates.

Sereno Watson (December 1, 1826 in East Windsor Hill, Connecticut - March 9, 1892 in Cambridge, Massachusetts) was an American botanist
Sereno Watson (December 1, 1826 in East Windsor Hill, Connecticut – March 9, 1892 in Cambridge, Massachusetts) was an American botanist

The gourd was first described in 1876 by Sereno Waston who was a Yale graduate with a degree in Biology, The Coyote Melon features a sprawling stiff vine with rough, stiff-haired stems and leaves. Cucurbita palmata produces a large yellow bell shaped flower, while the melon itself is smooth in appearance. The striped yellow – green colored gourd is known to be quite hard, however, also thin when mature. The melons are very bitter and not edible. This hearty planet can survive the harsh desert landscape through its use of a large and hearty tap root. This root system can extend several feet into the dry soil to supply the plant with nutrients and water required for survival.

The Coyote Melon (Cucurbita palmata) is extremely fibrous and although not edible to humans is known to be on the coyotes diet during the fall, hence its name. It is quite common to find the seeds of this plant in coytoe scat during the fall months.

Despite the fibrous melon being inedible by man, the native american tribes were known to consume the ground seeds of this plant. Additionally, they used the dried gourds as rattles in various dances and other ceremonies. They also utilized the plant was as soap for cleaning.

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Southern Cattail (Typha domingensis)

Commonly found in the southern half of the United Stats, the Southern Cattail ( Typha domingensis ) is a a wetland plant which may be found in California, Nevada and Arizona. The Southern Cattail will flower in late spring and summer and produces a densely packed seed spike which may grow up to 13 inches long. The Pistillate spike is the identifying feature on this wetland plant.

Southern Cattail (Typha domingensis)
Southern Cattail (Typha domingensis)

This rhizomatous plant is centered around a simple, erect stem which may grow between 5 and 13 feet tall. Each stem may grow between 6 and 9 long and linear leaves. As with many marsh plants, the cattail has an internal tissue adaptation which allows the direct transfer of air between the leaves and roots, which is similar to a vegetative snorkel. The hot dog shaped brown flower is indicative of a female plant, while the male is characterized by a yellowish tapered cone arrangement.

The cattail is typically found between sea level and 6000 feet in elevation. Native American tries were known to use the plant as thatch, and the young shoots could be utilized as a food source. The seed fluff could also be mixed with tallow and chewed as a gum.

Southern Cattail along a water crossing on the old Mojave road.
Southern Cattail along a water crossing on the old Mojave road.

Recent studies suggest that the Typha is very effective at cleaning the water of bacterial contamination. This includes up to 90% reduction of enterobacteria which is common flora inside of mammalia intestines.

Mojave Yucca (Yucca schidigera)

The Mojave Yucca is a small evergreen tree which flourishes in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of California, Arizona and Nevada. The Yucca’s most noticeable characteristic is its large branches and bayonet like leaves. The rigid leaves are typically dark green in color and can reach up to 4 feet in length. I can also personally attest that they are sharp at the pointy end.

Mojave Yucca guarding the Ring Trail, Mojave National Preserve.
Mojave Yucca guarding the Ring Trail, Mojave National Preserve.

The Mojave Yucca can reach a height of 16 feet and that mass is supported by a trunk which is up to 12 inches in diameter. The Yucca is typically found on rocky slopes and below 4,000 feet in elevation. The plant blooms are very similar the Joshua Tree and it will send up a cluster of white bell shaped flowers from the top of the stem. This cluster is short lived, but can reach and additional 120 cm in length.

Also like the Joshua Tree, the Mojave Yucca depends upon the white pronuba moth for pollination. This moth will deposit its eggs in the ovary of the Yucca Flower and there by cross pollinate the tree. The moth lavae hatch and consume some the the seeds in a wonderful example of natures balance.

The Mojave Yucca also provided utilitarian purpose for the Native Americans. They utilized the leaves as a source of cordage, which could be woven into blankets, rope, hats and mattresses. The roots of the Yucca contains high levels of saponin, and could be made into a pulp and used as soap The flowers and fruit were a food source and could be eaten both raw and roaster. The black seeds could be ground into flour.

The yucca, with its sharp pointed leaves offer wonderful defensive habitat for snakes, lizards, rabbits, birds and other desert animals.

California Juniper ( Juniperus californica )

The California Juniper ( Juniperus californica ) is a common tree found in California, western Arizona and southern Nevada at medium elevations between 2,460 – 5,250 ft.  Commonly growing 10 and 26 feet in height, the grayish shredded bark Juniper may reach a maximum height or about 33 feet, although this height is rare.  Growing up in California and frequently camping in the Mojave and High Sierra, the California Juniper has frequents my memory and photographs.

A Juniper bush decorates the Mid Hills Campground in the Mojave National Preserve.
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Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia)

The Joshua Tree was named for the biblical character by the Mormon Setters as they crossed the Mojave Desert in the mid 19th century.  It is told that the tree reminded the early Mormon’s of Joshua who, much like the tree, held his hands up in prayer.  From these humble beginnings, this tree and its undulating shadows have become of an icon of the desert southwest.

Joshua Tree located in the Mojave National Preserve.
Joshua Tree located in the Mojave National Preserve.
Natural distribution of Yucca brevifolia - U.S. Geological Survey - Digital representation of "Atlas of United States Trees" by Elbert L. Little, Jr.
Natural distribution of Yucca brevifolia – U.S. Geological Survey – Digital representation of “Atlas of United States Trees” by Elbert L. Little, Jr.

Joshua Trees are found in the desert southwest at elevations between 1300 and 5900 feet.  A member of the Yucca family, the Joshua can live several hundred years and grow up to 30 feet tall and have a trunk up to 3 feet in diameter.  The tree trunk contains many small fibers and does not contain growth rings as with typical trees.  A top heavy branched tree it can develop an impressive and deep root system which can reach 31 feet deep.

Joshua Tree Bloom are found in the spring month in the Mojave National Preserve. Photograph by James L Rathbun
Blooms are found in the spring month in the Mojave National Preserve. Photograph by James L Rathbun

During the spring months of February, March and April, white flowers signal be beginning of spring for the Joshua Tree.  Flowering is dependent upon both an adequate amount of rain and a freeze.  Once flowered, the Joshua Tree is dependent upon the Yucca month for pollination.

New trees can develop from the roots of existing tree from Rhizomes, however the Yucca moth is required to create new stands of trees from the seeds.

This yucca plant inspired a National Park in Southern CA, which is a favorite location to visit.  The symbol of the high desert, the tree is the name sake of a famous Irish rock band, which is also a favorite.