In 1848 the American explorer and future President of the United States discovered a rather unusual plant “on barren hills in the lower part of Northern California”. Fremont took his find to John Torrey, the leading botanist of the day and insisted that they both should be recognised in the plant name.
The plant that Fremont found was the Desert Trumpet or Eriogonum inflatum Torrey. & Fremont. The Desert Trumpet can be found in desert country throughout Southwestern America, in California, Southern and Eastern Utah and Arizona. The plant thrives on well drained sand or gravel slopes. It is common in washes and on mesas. The Desert Trumpet can tolerate heavy and alkaline soils and has an association with gold. Miners in Arizona used to say that wherever they saw the Desert Trumpet they would find gold. It has many common names. The Desert Trumpet is the Native American Pipeweed, Bottlebush, Bottlestopper, Bladder Stem and the Indian Pipeweed.
The Desert Trumpet is well adapted for dry conditions. It seeks water through a deep tap root. Winter rains encourage leaf production. Flat, silver green leaves form in rosettes at the base of the stem.
Summer rain induces the plant to flower. This takes place between March and September. The plant throws up a remarkable stem. The stems are a waxy blue green and range in height from 4 to 40 inches in height. The stems are often inflated which gives rise to the Desert Trumpet’s many names.
In most years Desert Trumpets produces a small number of very small inconspicuous yellow or pink flowers from almost leafless branches. When the desert blooms with favourable rainfall the Desert Trumpets produce many flowers that cumulatively give the desert a yellow hue.
The Desert Trumpet is sometimes descried as an annual, sometimes a perennial. It depends upon whether the plant flowers. After flowering the seed matures and the plant dies. The stems dry out and remain on the plant for many years. In the first year after flowering they turn red brown. In later years they turn grey/white.
The strangest thing about the Desert Trumpet is the swollen stem. Nobody fully understands its function. It used to be thought that the swelling was produced by a wasp inflection. The parasitic female Oyerus wasp often fills the stem cavity with larvae, lays eggs upon them and allows the grubs to grew within the sheltered environment. When swollen stems were grown in laboratory conditions this theory had to be rejected. Dr J.L.Reveal who is world authority on the genus Eriogonum believes that the swollen stem has something to do with gas regulation. The solid stem has unusually high concentrations of carbon dioxide.