Thursday, April 4, 2013

Globemallows - A Sight for Sore Eyes



mallow mix
Photo taken 4-2-13 in the Cactus Garden. Note how the corollas turn blue-purple as the flowers fade. This location contains a group of five different plants, each with a unique flower color. 
Photo: Kim Stone 
Plants, like people, gain notoriety because of specific qualities that we can't ignore. Attractive, dangerous, irritating, or seductive, certain plants can alter your life for better or for worse. The globemallow, also known as sore-eye mallow (mal de ojos in Spanish), can do both at the same time.

Everyone seems to know this plant, even when their desert plant knowledge doesn't go much past saguaros and prickly pears. It is multiple stemmed, perennial, and ubiquitous along roadsides, dependably shooting up dozens of three to four-foot stalks of flowers in wet springs and dry. On most plants, the flowers are unmistakably bright orange, some say apricot-orange. In one isolated locale in a three to four mile stretch from Florence Junction towards Tucson, a globemallow variety called rosacea morphs into breathy pastel colors, all wispy and light, from white to mauve, peach, pink, lavender, and occasionally deep wine red.

Before the late 70s and early 80s, a plant like globemallow would have been considered a weed in the home or commercial landscape, either snubbed or destroyed, depending on the level of intolerance. This was the pre-renaissance period in Arizona and the southwest, when more water-gobbling plants from China and other distant lands were just about all that were available. When new appreciation for the beauty and sensible utility of native plants began to take hold--and retooled nurseries made these plants widely available--Sphaeralcea ambigua, the globemallow, was reborn and available in a one gallon pot for $4.95.

But this isn't just a rags-to-riches story. After all, plants can go in and out of fashion as quickly as chest hair, leisure suits, and pet rocks, particularly when they carry with them some excess baggage. Basic botany pays no heed to the whims of trends, and there is a very good reason that Pima Indian children have been taught from an early age not to touch the leaves or stems of this plant. It's not surprising, then, that one of the most sinister common names for Sphaeralcea ambigua is translated the same in three or more different languages as: sore-eye mallow.

The leaves and stems of the plant are covered with what first appears to be a harmless white pubescence, like peach fuzz. But magnify this fine hairiness with a hand lens and it is exposed for what it really is: thousands of evenly spaced, star-like (stellate) hairs that are reminiscent of the radiating tentacles of a brain neuron. Rub a leaf between your thumb and forefinger, and you'll feel the fine grit of a few thousand of these hairs. Touch the corner of your eye with one of those fingers, and you will become a statistic.

Some say that the "globe" in globemallow was named after Globe, Arizona, but botanical descriptions also refer to the flower as being orb-like (spherical). In reality, it's a half orb, more like a stemless margarita glass with the pigment color of the middle third of a tequila sunrise. Other flower colors than orange are commercially available; it's best to choose a plant that's already flowering with the color that you want, because the seeds of the more exotic, pastel colors don't come true to type. A desirable trademarked selection that is grown vegetatively is called Louis Hamilton and it has reliable watermelon red flowers.

There is hardly a more durable and tough--yet easy--plant to grow, and it quickly establishes itself, without much supplemental irrigation. Desert tortoises regard all parts of the plant as one of their favorite foods, but the odds of having your plant eaten by one of them is about the same as the chance of ever seeing a desert tortoise in the wild.

The globemallow's striking beauty and prolific flowering far outweigh its relatively minor dermatological pitfalls. Luckily, like electricity, it doesn't have to be touched to be enjoyed.

Kim Stone