Letter From the Desert: Big Galleta Grass

This past winter’s wealth of rain and snow in the Mojave were transmuted, as generally happens, into abundant flowering annual plants in the Mojave. And as generally then also happens, that abundance of flowering Mojave Desert plants was transmuted in turn into an exuberant swarm of small Mojave Desert animals. There are Gambel’s quail. There are desert iguanas stuffed to obesity on the flesh of flowers. There are ground squirrels, both your bog-standard rock squirrel and the adorable and fearsome white-tailed antelope squirrel, devourer of expensive plants, slayer of irrigation hardware.

But mostly, there are rabbits. Technically, I should say rabbits and hares; we see about one jackrabbit for every thirty or so Audubon’s cottontails. I generally see two or three jackrabbits in a typical day. I leave the resulting arithmetic as an exercise for the reader. On opening the front door for our morning walks, the dog and I usually see at least three cottontails within a leash’s length. Under the cars. Behind the potted cacti. Reclining languorously in the wheel ruts.

The teachings of St. Malthus the Problematic suggest that these rabbits will quickly run out of their preferred foodstuffs, and that various troubles will inevitably follow. There will be hunger. There will be depredation of any plant that is even faintly edible. There will be civil strife among the rabbit populace. And then the denouement: an unpleasant downward trend in rabbit numbers, benefiting the local coyotes who have apparently been asleep on the job until now.

We would seem to be in the second of the above stages: there are rabbit-sized bites missing from the pads of prickly pear cacti in the neighborhood. We have watched as cottontails carefully eat just the petioles of Datura leaves. Rabbits sample the flesh of chollas, the (I am guessing) acrid stems of senna and indigo bush, the more palatable parts of annuals that have been dried and brown for months now. They’re even nibbling on the damn bursage.

The big galleta grass thrives, ungrazed.

It’s counterintuitive. On the one hand, you have a very much overlarge population of hungry rabbits. On the other hand, you have a succulent-looking grass, unarmored and nontoxic, responding to last month’s monsoon rains by putting out tons of new leaves per square mile. A random careless assumption would suggest that these two presences are unstable in combination. But no. If that old puzzle about the farmer figuring out how to accomplish a stream crossing with a fox, a goose, and a bag of beans instead had one of our local coyotes, a local rabbit, and a bale of big galleta grass, he could apparently just leave them all in the boat and go off to have a few beers.

We can reach two conclusions from this state of affairs:

  1. These rabbits clearly do not understand Spanish.

  2. There is some inherent quality of big galleta grass that damps the rabbits enthusiasm for eating it.

That’s not to say no animals find the grass palatable. Introduced species of grazing livestock are quite fond of it, for instance. As evidence for this, here’s a photo of our household’s resident dwarf Holstein, preparing to chow down:

She would happily spend hours noshing on blades of big galleta grass.

Despite my above reference to rabbits’ influency in Spanish, there is no particular evidence that the species’ common name derives from the Spanish for “cookie.” Merriam Webster suggests guieta (“gutter” in Spanish, and “guess” in Catalan) as a possible alternative origin, which in either language makes even less sense than “cookie” but is just so damnably evocative that I can’t help but appreciate the possibility.

Here are some things we do know about big galleta grass: Its botanical monicker is Hilaria rigida, though it did spend a few years recently identifying itself as Pleuraphis rigida. It’s green and growing right now in the Mojave Desert when almost everything else is either dead or dormant, or receiving supplemental water somehow. It hardly ever sets viable seed and it doesn’t like being transplanted, so if you want it in your yard you pretty much have to wait for it to arrive of its own accord. Where I live, it’s about the fifth or sixth most common native shrub.

Or pseudo-shrub, anyway. Big galleta grass lacks the permanent woody stems that define true shrubs, but it does have permanent above-ground brown stems that appear to be nothing but dead thatch until some rain falls. At that point, new blades of green grass emerge not from the roots, but from sections of those dead-looking stems a few inches above the earth. It’s a grass that acts like a shrub.

Big galleta grass and bursage fill a wash in the Yuha Desert, Imperial County

We also know that clumps of big galleta grass can be very long-lived, for grasses. In the late 19th century surveyor Robert Brewster Stanton took dozens of photographs along the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon as he explored potential railroad routes. A century later, scientist Robert Webb rephotographed every single one of Stanton’s images, and found, among many other things, that some of the clumps of big galleta grass Stanton had photographed in 1889 were still doing just fine in the 1990s. Bristlecone pine longevity this is not, but for a life form we generally think of as ephemeral it’s pretty damned impressive.

Some of the grass’s traits are less amenable to photography. Big galleta is more adept at sucking up water from dry desert soils than most desert plants. It’s a supremely efficient photosynthesizer, able to close up its pores when the air is hot and desiccated and still turn water and stored CO2 into sugar and starch. It doesn’t taste like anything in particular, as I determined last week when I applied to the plant the oldest experimental method known to humans. I took a long blade, folded it on itself several times, then chewed on it for a while. It was not unlike chewing on a very thin hemp rope. There was plenty of fiber and not much else, aside from an aftertaste, which emerged on several minutes of chewing, that was faint enough that I might have been imagining it. The dog obviously finds it worthwhile with her sense of smell ten thousand times stronger than mine, but she hasn’t bothered to describe it to me.

Big galleta is also a nursery for a few important desert plants that eventually grow armored enough to make it without shelter, but which are vulnerable to rabbits and such in their first months of life. This list includes Agave deserti, one of two species of agave native to California, along with barrel cacti and a few species of cholla. Without big galleta grass there to provide such plants shelter as seedlings, there would be fewer agaves and barrel cacti and chollas. I assure you that fewer chollas would be a bad thing.

And there’s this: without big galleta’s ever-expanding network of roots seining the desert soil for every available molecule of moisture, which network thereby holds the soil in place, those soils would be a hell of a lot more likely to come aloft in the breeze, with all kinds of deleterious effects on human and rabbit and dog.

So it’s probably a good thing the rabbits don’t eat it, though I’ll be damned if I can figure out why.