“Oh my god! Oh my god! No way! It’s RIGHT HERE! Holy sheeeeettttt!”
Was I not a witch? Not to overestimate manifestation powers or anything, but had I not just said, barely 15 seconds before, that I was bummed because after three days in Anza-Borrego State Park I’d failed to encounter a plant known variously as Orobanche, burro weed strangler, and broom-rape? It all sounded excessively violent for a pretty, light purple flower reminiscent of a snapdragon from a proper English garden. But after communing with dozens of new-to-me wildflowers, I was still jonesing to see this parasitic weirdo. Woe was me: I never find these strange species that, rather than manufacture sugars from the sun, actually lack chlorophyll and have to instead use their roots to suckle nutrients from neighboring plants or fungi, like the almost transparent “Indian pipe” (Monotropa uniflora) in the redwood forest, the orchid known as “spotted coralroot” (Corallorhiza maculata), and pinedrops (Pterospora andromedea) in the Sierra Nevada. Ever elusive, the mountain lion of the floral realm.
I had already warned my friend, faithful guide, and driver I’d be diva-ly requesting we screech to a halt on the sandy road back from our hike through Alcoholic Pass (yes, Tecate’s were had, which would almost be as good as water if beer wasn’t technically dehydrating). I’d glimpsed too many unphotographed blossoms from the car window on the way in, and these were our last minutes in California’s largest state park. While one eye was scanning the roadside plants, the other was reading about broom-rape from my new Introduction to California Desert Wildflowers book, and thus I lamented. But upon stopping for a patch of desert sand verbena (Abronia villosa), I dropped to my knees and screamed.
Orobanche cooperi is its technical name. The genus comes from the Greek “orobos” meaning “vetch,” which is a common name for several species in the pea, or Fabaceae, family, and “anchein” meaning “to strangle.” Which sensically segues into the common name, “broom-rape,” since plants known as “brooms” are also Fabaceaes. So its not as sadistic as it seems.
Of the over 2,000 species in the Orobanchaceae, or broomrape, family, the majority are at least somewhat parasitic. O. cooperi is a Cali native, and found only slightly outside its borders, growing in sandy flats and washes below 1,500 feet. Though all the ones I saw were only about six inches tall at most, they can grow up to a foot high. Both the federal and state plant authorities consider broom-rape a noxious weed in several states, as it not only takes advantage of asters and brooms, but likes Solanaceaes as well, having supposedly infested entire tomato fields in inland California.
I couldn’t have asked for a better finish to 3.5 days in SoCal’s Colorado Desert. There are about half-a-dozen Anza-Borrego posts to come, detailing the awesome — in the true sense of the word, inspiring some AWE — wildflowers, and other anomalies, lucky enough to live there. Stay tuned.