Plant of the Week
Desert Trumpet (Eriogonum inflatum)
By Charmaine Delmatier (2016)
A member of the buckwheat or knotweed family, desert trumpet (Eriogonum inflatum) is usually associated with warmer climates from northern Arizona to Baja California. Located in elevations between 100 and 5,900 feet, it flowers year-round. Also known as bottle stopper, one can spot the tell-tale inflated stems of desert trumpet in many habitats. At lower elevations, it is located in sandy to gravelly washes, mixed grasslands, and desert landscapes with saltbush, creosote, and mesquite. In slightly higher elevations, you will find it in sagebrush and pinyon/juniper woodlands.
It is a glabrous erect perennial herb, often grayish-green, and up to three feet tall. The perianth, which houses the flowers, is densely covered with curved coarse hairs and yellow with greenish or reddish midribs. The stamens are exerted beyond the flower tube. The leaves are basal with the blades shaped like eggs (ovate) and rounded and are attached to a long petiole (stem) 2 to 6 centimeters long. The flowers are quite small, only 2 to 3 millimeters long, and arranged loosely in a very open inflorescence (cymose). Add to these characteristics an inflated stem, and you have desert buckwheat.
Worldwide, the buckwheat family has 1,200 species of trees, shrubs, herbs, and vines. Eriogonum constitutes about 125 of those species. According to James Reveal in the Flora of North America, Eriogonum is one of the larger genera in the flora. It is fourth to Carex with 480, Astragalus with 350, and Penstemon with 250. However, to compete with Eriogonum in its distribution and range in elevation, habitat, and landscape is close to unrivaled. They occur from sea level to the highest elevations in the United States, in wet areas to the heat and dryness of hot deserts. Most noticeable is that approximately one-third are uncommon to rare, and on the list of federally-protected plants as endangered or threatened. On the other end of the spectrum, some are considered weeds.
An enthusiastic appreciation for wild buckwheats spurred the formation of the Eriogonum Society. Research and activities include cultivation in gardens, evaluating buckwheats in the wild, developing crucial propagation techniques, documenting its distribution, and protecting rare species.
Desert trumpet is a known food source for the desert metalmark butterfly (Apodemia mormo deserti). Other members of Eriogonum are also hosts to a number of butterfly species; including the federally-listed endangered El Segundo dotted-blue (Euphilotes battoides allyni), Smith's dotted blue (Euphilotes enoptes smithi), and Lange's metalmark (Apodemia mormo Iangei).
Besides being residents of several important pollinators, there are several documented medicinal uses of Eriogonum including using the stems, roots, and mashed leaves for colds. The Okanagan washed out infected cuts, the Sanpoil used roots for diarrhea, the Thompson used the entire plant for rheumatism, steam baths, stomach disorders, stiff and aching joints and muscles, and a stronger mix was used to combat syphilis. According to James L. Reveal, in the Flora of North America, there are also reports that the hollow stems were used as drinking tubes or as pipes.