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Botanist discusses desert flora

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Maria Jesus, graduate student at Claremont Graduate University, discussed the importance of native plants – based on her research in the southern Inyo Mountains – during California Botanic Gardens monthly virtual lecture series “Conservation Stories.”

The virtual event was held live via Zoom on Tuesday and moderated by the Botanic Gardens’ Director of Conservation Programs Naomi Fraga.

The lecture was a mix of research findings and personal stories about lessons Jesus learned while doing research in the desert mountain range between Death Valley and the Sierra Nevada. Jesus shared information about the rare plants she encountered and the threat of mining exploration on its habitat.

“I knew I wanted to work on a flora and I was interested in completing a checklist in an area that would serve a conservation need,” Jesus said during the lecture.

Jesus shared information about the first botanists here and the plant knowledge about the Inyo thanks to the Timbisha Shoshone tribe’s preservation committee. 

“The reason why we don’t know much about the plants that grow here isn’t because no one has studied them but rather the people who once lived here and held the knowledge were displaced by settlers,” she said.

The Western Joshua tree is an iconic plant of the Mojave desert and a traditional food source for native people in the area. 

When one of the lecture attendees asked about how the fruits of the Joshua Tree are prepared to be eaten, Jesus explained how the flowers are carefully twisted off, roasted in a bed of coal and eaten like an artichoke.

Another plant that she discussed was the Stanleya pinnata, also known as the prince’s plume, that is found in all elevations of the studied area. 

This plant is also a food source and can be eaten after several washes to get rid of toxins and boiled.

Jesus said there are many plants that she only found in one location when traveling all over the studied area, including a type of desert milkweed called Asclepias erosa. 

Also located in the Inyo mountains is Cerro Gordo, where silver was discovered in 1865, now a ghost town. The silver attracted settlers, and 1871, it became a booming mining town, Jesus said. To feed the smelters that processed the silver to make it profitable, the miners needed fuel. Trees that were critical food sources and plants of great cultural importance were all cleared out of the area, making it the ghost town it is today. 

Jesus also talked about the Joshua Tree, which she said may soon be on the endangered species list. 

For more information on conservation and virtual events, visit calbg.org.

—Hien Nguyen

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