a water plant in the desert
Lush, vibrant green masses of leaves, occasionally mottled with reddish purple spots, and brilliant white flowers—a water lover in the desert. Anemopsis californica is found throughout the southwestern U.S. and northwest Mexico in the wet soil of marshes and creek banks. As long as it can keep its feet wet, it can withstand our desert’s heat.
Thick colonies of plants are formed by stolons sent out from the base of plants, with a new plant growing from each node on the stolon (think strawberries). Flowers grow on stiffly upright stems, 4-8” above the foliage. What appears to be a single flower with white petals is actually a dense cone-shaped cluster of roughly 100 tiny individual flowers surrounded by several large white bracts at the base. Each small flower on the cone, or spike, also has tiny white bracts at its base but lacks a calyx or corolla. A closer look at the spike finds bright yellow anthers above the bracts of each tiny flower. When mature, the spike turns reddish-brown and holds the seeds together in this conical capsule that can be carried away by water, releasing seeds along the way. In late summer into fall, the plant’s foliage turns bright red and eventually dies back in the winter.
The common name for Anemopsis californica is Yerba mansa, from the Spanish “hierba”, meaning herb, and “mansa”, mild or tame. One of the most widely utilized medicinal plants of the Southwest, it has been used as a diuretic, disinfectant, and anti-inflammatory. The entire plant is very aromatic, with odors of camphor and eucalyptus.
Anemopsis californica is the only species in the genus Anemopsis. It belongs to the Saururaceae, or Lizard’s-tail Family, a small family of only four genera and seven species in Asia and North America. It was first described by Thomas Nuttall (1786-1859), an English naturalist who, in 1834, began a two-year excursion gathering plant specimens along the Pacific Coast. In the Annals of Natural History, Vol.1 (1838), Nuttall named the plant Anemia californica, but as there was already an existing genus of ferns named Anemia, the plant was renamed three years later by Sir William Hooker (1785-1865), a botanist at the University of Glasgow. Included in Hooker’s flora, The Botany of Captain Beechey's Voyage (1841), are 99 botanical illustrations of plants collected during the voyage of the HMS Blossom to the Pacific Ocean from 1825 to 1828. The engraving of Anemopsis californica shown here is from Hooker’s flora and includes enlargements of (1) a floral bract, (2) a flower with the bract removed, and (3) a flower with the stamens removed to show the pistil.
Lynn Reve’s watercolor painting of Anemopsis californica is one of the works juried into the Sonoran Desert Florilegium in 2016. Her painting of the Mariposa lily, also part of the Sonoran Desert Florilegium, can be seen in the April 2013 issue of The Desert Breeze. Lynn has provided illustrations for the upcoming Legumes of Arizona, and her pen and ink drawing of Mammallaria tetrancistra is included in the Intermountain Flora: Vascular Plants of the Intermountain West, U.S.A. She is president and a charter member of the Southwest Society of Botanical Artists and a member of the American Society of Botanical Artists. More information about Lynn can be found in the artists' section of the Sonoran Desert Florilegium on this site. — Cindy Hartwell
This appeared in the April 2017 issue of the Desert Breeze, the monthly newsletter of the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society.