Plant of the day: desert mountain mahogany

From a distance, the small trees seemed to be covered in gray flowers. Once up close, the “flowers” turned out to be curlicue seedpods covered in long silver hairs. The pods are striking, each tipped with a long curling tail like that on a squirrel or a frightened cat. This is desert mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius), which grows in dry parts of California at 4,000+ feet in elevation. 

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This small evergreen tree has oval, leathery leaves that are slightly hairy. I didn’t see it in bloom, but the flowers are described as unobtrusive–small and slightly hairy, with many stamens indicative of its membership in the Rosaceae family.

Mountain mahogany was used medicinally by Native American tribes such as the Paiute and the Shoshone to treat colds, burns, heart troubles and diarrhea. The inner bark was used as a red dye for buckskins Fish spears and bows were made from the wood, which is so hard and dense that it won’t float in water.

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