Letter From the Desert: Desert Plantain

Desert plantain growing in my yard.

I have three components to my typical day. One is sleep, which hasn’t worked too well these last months to be honest. Component the second is to do what I can to keep the world from going to hell, working with people I like on things that are important to me. Component the third? Tearing myself away from this screen and keyboard and going outside to immerse myself in the desert.

I’ve chased beauty my whole life the way some people chase money or power. I’ve made important life decisions — whether to stay married, for instance — based on what was likely to expose me to the greatest amount of beauty. In the months after my divorce, filled with pain and grief and not a little shame, I would hop in the Jeep and head into Nevada through Big Tiger Canyon and spend some time gazing at Avi Kwa Ame and it would all wash away, wash away. For an hour or two, I mean. It didn’t make the pain any easier. To the contrary, it reminded me that I needed to go through every bit of the pain because otherwise think of all the red rock and celadon sky-post-rain and orioles in olive drab Joshua trees I would miss if I took the easy way out.

Beauty rides me as a queen might ride a three-legged mule, is what I’m trying to say. So it makes sense that sometimes I feel like I’ve had enough of the obvious beauty, the dramatic individual desert flowers or the endless fields of color splashed out across a sere and drastic landscape. That’s especially true when my entire otherwise life has been upended. Which, despite the pleasures and good fortune I keep making a point to remind myself I enjoy, it has. I get to the point where I have to avert my eyes from the desert lilies, from the iridescent gorgets of black-chinned hummingbirds, from the alpenglow on the Calumets, and focus on something not so dazzling. Or something that seems to me at first not so dazzling, I should say, because sometimes what I avert my gaze toward knocks the socks every bit as off as the gaudy things.

So I have been noticing desert plantain lately, a perfectly nice little native flower that is not what one would ever call “showy.” Except that its tiny flowers set in its hairy gray-green inflorescences are an appealing white or cream colored with small red freckles, I mean, and its elongate leaves bear an appealing pelage of gray velvet, but you have to pretty much lie flat on the desert floor to notice those, and who ever does that, aside from me and everyone I know and love?

Desert plantain, about 47 times life size, Creative Commons photo by Stan Shebs

I’ve been noticing desert plantain, and having my eye drawn to spots where it masses on the desert floor in a seeming attempt to repel the Mediterranean split grass, and seeing its leaves glint slantward in the noon sun every bit as dazzling as a piece of silver, and I noticed it enough and enough and then I looked it up and well.

Two separate pieces of knowledge came together in my head in a mildly startling way.

It’s one of those things where let’s say you like jazz trombone and you listen to a couple pieces you haven’t heard before and the trombonist is really pretty good, so you find his name — Brent Jones, let’s say — and look up his other work, and you find some. Then you find some more. In a couple months, you have become fond enough of Brent Jones’ trombone work that you can pick his stuff out when you hear a new one of his on the radio before the announcer says anything. We are assuming a world where jazz radio stations with announcers still exist. Six months go by and you are sometimes referring to yourself as a Brent Jones fan, and unironically at that. You start to feel like you’ve never heard quite the nuanced and complex emotion coming out of a trombone before. It’s really kind of a holiness there, a connection with something true and profound in the phrasings and little details. You fall a little bit in love. And one day you’re sitting in the waiting room of your daughter’s orthodontist, which you have done every two weeks for the last year, and they have some of Brent Jones’ recent work playing in the receptionist’s cubicle, and you nod to yourself. For the last year you have arrived, waved to your daughter as she walks into the braces-adjusting room, read the old copies of magazines and played with your phone, and then your daughter walks out in varying moods depending on how things went in there and you leave. Every two weeks for the last year. And you say something to the receptionist about appreciating her taste in music and she looks at you a little oddly, says something like “this is my boss’s music.” You assume she means it’s his musical taste and not hers, fair enough, and then the phone rings and she picks it up and says “Doctor Jones office can you hold please,” and your gaze falls to the stack of business cards on the counter, one of which you’ve had stuck to the refrigerator for the last 13 or 14 months, and it says “Brent Jones, DDS MS,” and you remember your first visit and how hard it was to find the sign on the office door that said “Brent Jones” on it, and the three prescriptions Brent Jones had written your daughter — two painkillers, one antibiotic for an abscess — that had the name “Brent Jones” on the label, facing outward in your medicine cabinet for weeks at a time, and you have seen the name Brent Jones probably every day for a year out of the corner of your eye at least and you never connected Brent Jones the trombone saint with Brent Jones who is doing wonders with your daughter’s underbite. The sacred and profane collide within the skin of a single person. You knew them both but never connected the two.

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Which is by way of saying I decided to learn more about desert plantain and googled its Linnaean binomial — Plantago ovata — and had the sacred and profane collide, to my mind, in the skin of this single species of lovely plant. And I’d known both. I just failed to connect them.

Plantago ovata is psyllium, that mundane source of soluble fiber found in all your better mucilaginous orange-flavored dietary supplements. The plant that has beguiled me these past weeks with its modest beauty is also the plant whose powdered husk I’ve been consuming around 20 grams of each day for a few years.

You want profane? I got your profane right here pal.

I would guess, without going so far as to look it up, that Plantago ovata might well be the California native plant that is grown in the largest amounts for commercial and industrial use. As far as I know, also without looking it up, none of that growing takes place in California. Plantago ovata is also native to southern and western parts of the continent of Asia, about which more in a moment, and growing the stuff on a commercial scale seems mainly a thing done in northern Gujarat, India, and in the Pakistani provinces immediately to the north; Sind and Balochistan. It’s called by a number of vernacular names there, ispaghol and isabgul being two of the more popular.

Distribution of Plantago ovata, more or less. From Meyers & Liston, The Biogeography of Plantago ovata Forrsk (Plantaginaceae), 2008

How can a plant species be native to both Southwest Asia and the Mojave Desert? Fair question, though I ought to point out that the species grows along the California coast as well, where it’s important as a larval food plant for critters like the Quino checkerspot butterfly, and in North Africa to boot.

Scientists wondered about that split nativity for a while too. In 1967, G. Ledyard Stebbins and Alva Day of UC Davis suggested that some animal or other introduced seeds to what would later be called California during the Miocene, at least 25 million years ago. In a counterpoint in 1970, Canadian scientists IJ Basset and Bernard Baum suggested that the plants had been introduced a little later than that, say somewhere between 1750 and 1850, by Spanish colonizers mindful of their digestive health. You will still see this repeated as assumed fact in some field guides.

In the late 1970s Knud Rahn, a botanist with the University of Copenhagen, measured almost 400 herbarium specimens of Plantago ovata from throughout its global range and found enough anatomical differences between plants from North America and those from elsewhere that he suggested desert plantain must have been evolving on its own in North America for quite a bit longer than 220 years, though probably not for 25 million years. In 2008, Stephen Meyers and Aaron Liston of Oregon State U. crunched the P. ovata genome and corroborated Rahn’s hunch. All the North American plants shared a common ancestor which not all the Old World plants had in common, which pointed to an introduction. But based on the depth of the genetic difference between Old and New World P. ovata, Meyers and Liston calculated that the introduction of desert plantain to North America probably happened between 600,000 and 250,000 years ago, too far back to have been a human intervention. (Meyers and Liston also slyly pointed out that in the 17th-18th centuries, Spanish colonists probably didn’t know about Plantago ovata’s salubrious effects on colonic well being, that knowledge having been more or less exclusive to Ayurvedic practitioners at the time. Oh well.)

So, an introduced native plant. But introduced before settlers got here, and not by humans. Works for me.

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I am not even kidding about that salubriousness, by the way. Those Ayurvedic docs were onto something. It’s well established by now that psyllium consumption helps with serum cholesterol. (That’s why I started indulging in it myself.) That would be enough. But psyllium has also been seen to reduce blood glucose after meals, an important potential life management tool for people with diabetes. Pakistani scientists and a few others are looking into promising hints of antimicrobial action by ingested psyllium husk, and then there’s a paper I found with possibly the least suitable for dinner table discussion title ever: “Stool-fermented Plantago ovata husk induces apoptosis in colorectal cancer cells independently of molecular phenotype.Translation: when you eat psyllium, it ferments in transit by the action of your gut flora, giving off compounds that cause cancer cells in your colon to kill themselves.

Turns out I can’t even go for a walk in my desert neighborhood without bumping up against industry, colonial history, paleontology and a cure for cancer. It’s enough to make a guy go listen to some jazz trombone solos.


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