Botany Blueprint: The Paperbag Bush

Specimen #24: Paperbag bush (Salazaria mexicana)

Light as a ghost, a paperbag bush balloon is an easy desert traveler, drawing its weight from the wind and its coloring from the sunset. These tiny seed vessels roll through ghost towns in Nevada and undisturbed arroyos in California until an intervening twig or rock persuades them to pause, disperse, and settle in the dust. The paper balloon skins are thin and impressionable, like memories, and soon they’ll abandon themselves in the wind, leaving the seeds to colonize the new territory. The plant is called a pioneer shrub, and it’s familiar with the ways of the Western settlers—go as far as you can, set stable roots, and think only of the future.

Salazaria mexicana is a gray-green shrub in the mint family, but its common name comes from the small balloons that develop just under the plant’s flowers. As the seeds mature, these warm pink capsules become dry, papery, and bleached. Hundreds of tiny pearlescent paper bags hang on the bush and gradually disengage from the plant, following the wind to a new hillside, mesa, or canyon. The plant is common in the southwestern U.S., especially in the Mojave Desert area, where its southern outposts extend to Joshua Tree and farther. I found these particular paperbag travelers along Route 62, somewhere between Desert Hot Springs and Yucca Valley, on a raised sandy embankment whose height offered long shadows and a good view of the sunset.

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