Many are the times I have encountered this odd plant with its bloated sac and branches protruding from it that make it look like some woody troll doll. It was a curiosity, nothing more. But with all things in the natural world, there’s more to it than a funky hairdo.
I’ve been making notes on all the plants I encounter in the Mojave, purely for my own edification. I’m no botanist and many of the technical terms for plant anatomy are beyond me. However, I did grow intrigued with the desert trumpet when I read of one use the early peoples had for it, which I’ll tell you about in a minute.
Eriogonum inflatum is a member of the buckwheat family. The buckwheat family is one of those families. Generations of buckwheats all over the place, under the table, chasing each other around the house and spread all over the world; family reunions are a nightmare to coordinate. It comprises about 1200 species. Members of the family provide lumber, are made into jelly for spreading on toast, ground into flour, and are cultivated as ornamental plants. Sorrel is eaten in salads or on its own. Heck, even rhubarb is a family member. Needless to say, it is a prolific and highly useful family.
But the thing that jumped out at me about the desert trumpet was that early people purportedly used it as a pipe. Anyone who’s known me for any amount of time knows I ran a tobacconist back in my Canadian days. One of those old, wood-paneled places - walls lined with jars of pipeweed, where the first time you walked in all the old-timers would turn and stare at you until you either wilted and retreated or gritted your teeth and forced yourself into their company. We blended our tobaccos by hand from recipes written on yellowed cards kept in a Rolodex. I’d been an enthusiastic pipe smoker since purchasing my first pipe in Salzburg back in the ‘90s.
So when I stumbled across the reference to using desert trumpet for such pursuits, it piqued my interest. What did they smoke in it? How did they figure it all out? I went down a rabbit hole looking for answers - the same rabbit hole I’m about to drag you down.
My first challenge was finding a suitable plant. It became obvious that not all desert trumpets are created equal, at least for the purpose of pipe smoking. In my experimentation, thicker stems have a better chance of being hollow in the center. Obviously the time of year plays a role in this - when they’re green and blooming they’re obviously not going to work. Care must be taken to not crush the stem, thus blocking the hole. Equal care must be taken when creating the bowl of the pipe, as it were - the entire plant is quite fragile with the consistency of thin cardboard. Minimal force will snap it.
It’s a delicate process cutting the bowl. The slightest pressure can crush it. After a few duds, I found one with a suitably hollow stem and carefully fashioned the bowl. I had to remind myself to breathe whilst attempting it. Having a good sharp knife definitely helps. The early people may have used an obsidian blade or some other knapped stone.
Now it was time to research what they would have smoked in this delicate instrument. The literature indicated a mixture of desert tobacco and mistletoe.
Desert tobacco is a peculiar thing. It is said the early people chewed and obviously, for the purposes of this article, smoked the leaves. It was also used ceremonially and medicinally. It is rumored to be good for expelling mucus from the respiratory tract, and advocates for its use claim it’s effective in helping people quit smoking, to soothe muscles and even help recovering alcoholics kick the habit. However, there has been scant research to back up any of these claims and the USDA has classified it as toxic due to, among other things, the presence of alkaloids. It also, obviously, contains nicotine.
Desert tobacco belongs to the Nightshade (Solanaceae) family which includes Deadly Nightshade and Sacred Datura (another plant used in the region for shamanic visions and ceremonial purposes). Curiously this family also includes potatoes and tomatoes.
Still, I would not advocate attempting to consume it in any form yourself. The indigenous peoples of the region had a far more intimate relationship with the flora, a skill we have largely lost, and would have understood the nuance of its consumption in ways we 21st century interlopers are completely ignorant of.
Both desert tobacco and desert mistletoe grow at elevations under 5000 feet. Desert trumpet is much hardier and occurs at elevations between -50 and 6500+ feet. The region I frequent is roughly between 5000 and 7200 feet. Trumpet is very common there but it would be well above occurrences of tobacco and mistletoe, so I assume the people there would have had to travel to lower elevations or trade in order to obtain them, if they also made use of this technique.
Speaking of desert mistletoe, you’d be forgiven for thinking of the plant under which Christmas kisses are dispensed. This mistletoe is not your traditional holiday smooching plant, but Phoradendron californicum, desert mistletoe, a hemiparasitic plant that inflicts itself upon mesquite (the principle source of it in the regions around Death Valley), ironwood, catclaw acacia and other plants in the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts.
“Hemiparasitic” refers to a parasitic plant that leeches water and minerals from its host but takes care of photosynthesis on its own. Desert mistletoe has no leaves but produces berries, so I’m unclear on how it was smoked unless the berries were dried and ground up. Early people ground piñon seeds and mesquite beans from time immemorial so it would not be a stretch to think they had done it for their luxury goods as well. If you’ve spent any time in the Mojave, you’ve no doubt come across their grinding slicks and morteros on boulders.
Interestingly, the indigenous people were said to have only eaten the fruit from mistletoe growing on mesquite, ironwood and acacia plants, deeming the growth on other plants - palos verdes and desert buckhorn - as inedible. Perhaps some process of the leaching action pulled toxic elements or less desirable flavors from those particular plants.
So here we are with a trio of desert plants: trumpet, tobacco and mistletoe. I can’t help thinking about the alchemy of blending burley and cavendish and latakia and virginias in a Calgary tobacconist and how years later and 1500 miles away, I’m again pondering the mysteries of smoking and its importance to an ancient people.