Cochise County Plants: The Four-wing Saltbush, Atriplex Canescens

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The four-wing saltbush startled me. I didn’t know it was an Atriplex canescens at the time; I only knew that dusk had come to our Cochise County acreage and the lighter color of the papery flowers stood out against the backdrop of darker mesquite trees in the area. How it had escaped my notice until that precise moment is a mystery, but there it was–a great white blur that made me wonder if a polar bear or abominable snowman had suddenly manifested one mile from the Mexican border.

Not that its dramatic, close-piled winged fruits were truly white, but in that light–or lack of light–close enough.

That was in the autumn of 2009. I’d just begun building the domicile we eventually dubbed the Border Fort. Many a week, somewhere between 200 to 300 illegal immigrants trekked through our area, their preferred Chisholm Trail well marked by all those feet headed north to safe houses in Sierra Vista, a prearranged pickup some miles north to get around the Border Patrol checkpoint Highway 90, or (if nothing else) better cover from aerial surveillance under the trees lining the banks of the San Pedro River.

Naturally, being the sensible sort of fellow I am in the presence of unidentified monsters, the only logical thing to do was to get closer.

Oh. It was a bush, covered with flowers or fruits or something. Pretty.

That first four-wing saltbush wasn’t even on our property when I first saw it. At the time, we owned the westernmost four acres of a twenty acre subdivision. No one else lived on the twenty, though, and we were eventually able to buy all of it. As of January, 2012, that saltbush, the well, and a whole lot of great wildlife cover became ours.

Fast forward to today, November 21, 2013. Tomorrow will be the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination in Dallas, when JFK was eliminated by a magic bullet any comic book super villain would be proud to claim. We’ve got cooler weather coming, or so says my wife (who watches the news, as I generally do not). I was out back of the Border Fort, building the third of four stud walls for the up and coming back porch. Rough carpentry is my forte; it occupies my hands, but my mind is often free to wander just a bit during the process.

What, I began to wonder, should I write about tonight?

A four-wing saltbush growing near the drainage ditch caught my eye. The achenes (those four-winged, densely packed, paper-like seed holders) were on full and glorious display. With a partly overcast sky and the sun nearly down anyway, there was no time to waste. Down went the hammer, on top of the lumber pile, and out came the camera.

The densely packed, paper-like achenes (seed bearing four-winged fruits) on this four-wing saltbush proclaim their late autumn glory in Cochise County, Arizona, on November 21, 2013.

The densely packed, paper-like achenes (seed bearing four-winged fruits) on this four-wing saltbush proclaim their late autumn glory in Cochise County, Arizona, on November 21, 2013.

Identifying the species of this bush was not easy, online field guides for Arizona plants being what they are. In the end, however, the description of the four-wing saltbush at arizonensis.org sounded right and a search of Google Images using that keyword (“four-wing saltbush”) removed all doubt.

Except for one thing. Several authorities mention the willingness of this bush to hybridize with other plants in the goosefoot family. We may never know if the DNA of our local saltbush residents is pure or not…but we can live with that.

The color of the four-wing saltbush's achenes seems to vary dramatically with the angle and amount of sunlight available to the photographer.

The color of the four-wing saltbush’s achenes seems to vary dramatically with the angle and amount of sunlight available to the photographer.

When the late rays of the near-setting sun broke through, the saltbush achenes came out looking rather golden in the photos. On the other hand, when the sun was fully hidden behind clouds, they reverted to their natural color, which is a quiet sort of tan.

When the sun was fully hidden behind clouds, the four-wing  saltbox achenes immediately reverted to their natural calm, light tan color.

When the sun was fully hidden behind clouds, the four-wing saltbox achenes immediately reverted to their natural calm, light tan color.

In that photo (immediately above), one unusual “ring formation” caught my eye–not while taking pictures but after blowing them up on the computer. Here’s a closer look.

Not only is the ring formation of achenes interesting, but another few (lower right corner)  have not yet finished drying out.  Despite this being late November, they're still a little bit green.

Not only is the ring formation of achenes interesting, but another few (lower right corner) have not yet finished drying out. Despite this being late November, they’re still a little bit green.

A few hours of online study (after finally identifying the species of the plant) produced some interesting findings about the four-wing saltbush:

    1. The four-wing part of the name comes from the paper-like achene wings (duh), but this bush is also called chamiso or chamiza as well as fourwing or four wing.

    2. The saltbush moniker is thought to have derived mostly from its affinity for salty or alkaline soils, but it also “sweats salt” through its rather unimpressive leaves.

    3. Native Americans used parts of the plant to make a soapy substance for treating ant bites or stings. They ate other parts.

    4. Distribution is amazing. Per the U.S. Forest Service,

Fourwing saltbush is the most widely distributed native woody species in North America [108,136,185]. Its native range extends north-south from southern Alberta to central Mexico and east-west from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast. Fourwing saltbush is widely planted in temperate regions of North America as an ornamental, and is locally naturalized east of the plains grasslands, its native boundary…Fourwing saltbush is planted worldwide to increase forage production on arid rangelands. It has naturalized on cold, warm, and hot deserts throughout the world.

    5. Four-wing saltbush is also a severe allergen.

That last item may explain a lot. My wife is just now recovering from a massive allergy attack that had her eyes nearly blinded and little granular bumps spreading down across her cheeks. For two weeks or so, we’d endured fierce winds from the southeast–which would have aimed allergens from that first 2009 saltbush square at our front door. We’d originally concluded that she’d been hit mostly from concrete dust, trying to help me with a concrete pour when the wind was active and there was plenty of concrete dust in the air. That’s probably an accurate conclusion.

But the four-wing saltbush may have had something to do with it, too.

This is the exact four-wing saltbush plant that would have donated allergens to ride the southeast winds to our front door.

This is the exact four-wing saltbush plant that would have donated allergens to ride the southeast winds to our front door.

A closer look at the leaves and stems of the four-wing saltbush, Atriplex canescens.  The leaves are rather trough-shaped and wider at the tips.

A closer look at the leaves and stems of the four-wing saltbush, Atriplex canescens. The leaves are rather trough-shaped and wider at the tips.

UPDATE: October 25, 2014. Our four-wing saltbush plants have decided they really like the west bank of our drainage ditch. The colony, which did not exist three years ago, has now expanded to three really healthy specimens–and this year, they caught the camera’s eye early enough in the season to let our readers see what they look like before the blossoms dry out completely.

Four-wing saltbush, Cochise County, Arizona.

Four-wing saltbush, Cochise County, Arizona.

Gray Grasshopper 033

Gray Grasshopper 039

4 thoughts on “Cochise County Plants: The Four-wing Saltbush, Atriplex Canescens

  1. I don’t believe that I have ever noticed one of these before. They are quite attractive though. They would also be a touch of color to an area that does not seem to grow much that is colorful. It is difficult to find something that grows in salt flat soil.

  2. I’m not 100% certain these are capable of growing in hardcore salt flats–certainly can’t seem them flourishing at Bonneville, for instance. One site said they do well in soil that is “more or less salty”. A couple mentioned their preference for alkaline soils. We’ve never had our soil here tested, but I’d bet it would turn out to be significantly on the alkaline side of things.

    I’d never noticed one of these before 2009, either, but suspect I’ve passed them right by on more than one occasion. Besides desert conditions, they’re reported as also favoring places where soil has been disturbed (which perhaps explains the one thriving near the drainage ditch) and also right in along with major sagebrush areas. There’s something tickling the back of my mind, like I’ve been where they were in sagebrush country but simply didn’t open my awareness enough to take note of their presence. In the U.S., according to the Forest Service, they grow anywhere west of the Missouri River, all the way to the Pacific Coast, and from well down in Mexico clear up to southern Alberta.

    They really do add a touch of color, especially because of their achenes developing into the dried, tan, four-wind forms in late autumn and hanging on throughout the winter. We get the bright cactus blooms in the spring and quite a few blossoms of various sorts during the summer monsoons, but these are the only “winter decorations” I’ve noticed here so far.

    Although I’m capable of missing a lot….

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