There is a shrub growing in the Tehachapi Mountains and the Mojave Desert that at times bears more than a passing resemblance to the hop plant, and for that reason it is known as Hopsage, though in fact it is neither a form of hops nor sage. "I've never been anywhere around that plant," you think to yourself. Or have you? If you've ever traveled on Tehachapi Boulevard, you've driven right past it.
Known as Spiny Hopsage (Grayia spinosa), this strange-looking, drought tolerant shrub grows on slopes, sandy washes and arid places throughout the Western States. It can be found in relative abundance in some areas of Sand Canyon, and as I mentioned, it is also growing alongside Tehachapi Boulevard. If you're traveling west on Tehachapi Boulevard, and you've passed All American Tire and the red caboose kiosk, look to your right (north) as you approach City Slickers and you'll see some examples of Spiny Hopsage. There are also some plants along the little "Road to Nowhere" that curves around the City Slickers parking lot and dead-ends where the Tehachapi Creek Bridge used to be.
Spiny Hopsage typically grows from one to four feet tall and looks rather odd. The stems are frequently covered with masses of papery-looking, rounded bracteoles (modified leaves) that form a flattened wing-like structure to hold the seed and aid in seed dispersal. Unusually among shrubs, there are both male and female Hopsage plants, and I must say that I can't think of a plant growing in the Tehachapi Mountains that shows more variability than Hopsage: adjacent plants can look markedly different, and even the same plant can exhibit a lot of diversity on different parts of it.
Although the name "Spiny Hopsage" suggests that it might have sharp thorns, the "spines' are actually just the ends of old bare stems that kinda look like spines, but they are easily broken with your hand and are nothing like the pins and daggers found on cactus, gooseberry, and other genuinely spiny plants. However, Hopsage does have an overall brambly appearance and these shrubs do provide good cover for rabbits, birds, lizards and other small creatures looking to avoid predators. Because of the shelter they provide and the fact that they require little water, Hopsage is sometimes planted in xeriscape gardens and Hopsage plants are available from native nurseries. The leaves are inconspicuous little grayish green pine needle-like structures akin to those you find on rabbitbrush and other drought-adapted plants.
Despite its peculiar, non-lush visiage, Hopsage does provide good seasonal forage for browsers like California Mule Deer and Blacktailed Jackrabbits. Sheep raisers in desert areas also consider it to be good food for their sheep, and though the foliage is sparse it is apparently fairly nutritious. As I mentioned earlier, there is considerable variety among Hopsage plants, and in some individual plants the bracteoles that hold the seeds turn pink or even bright red, while in others they stay a muted greenish or yellowish.
So that's Spiny Hopsage. If you've lived in Tehachapi or even visited, chances are you've driven right past it, and if you noticed it at all, you just lumped it in with the "sagebrush," which may have been rabbitbrush or California buckwheat and not sagebrush at all.
I've noticed that people (myself included) tend to be much better at noticing things that move, like animals and birds, at which we may only get a fleeting glance, while plants that are rooted in place and will actually provide an excellent and unhurried look for the price of simply walking up to them, go unnoticed. Even though they sit in the same place day after day for years on end, we tend to pass plants by even though they're the ones that are easy to examine closely! Some plants may look unusual, but it's hard not to draw the conclusion that it is humans who are truly odd. . .
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for the Tehachapi News for more than 30 years. Send email to: email@example.com