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Palmer, First to Collect a Now Rare Grass Species

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Location: Bend of the Colorado River, Mexico about 35 miles south of Lerdo
Culture: Cocopa
Date Acquired: 1889
Accession No.: None

Related Plants
Collected by Palmer

Distichlis (Uniola)
palmeri
Distichlis (Uniola)
palmeri
Distichlis (Uniola)
palmeri
Distichlis (Uniola)
palmeri
Distichlis (Uniola)
palmeri


Palmer, First to Collect a Now Rare Grass Species
Palmer's grass, know in the scientific realm as Distichlis palmeri, was named in honor of Edward Palmer as Uniola palmeri Vasey; Palmer was the first botanist to collect the grass. Palmer's grass was a staple food and trade product of the Cocopa, a community who live in the Colorado River Delta floodplain. Palmer visited this region three times, specifically to Lerdo Colonia and the Cocopa "Grass Camp". Lerdo Colonia was a farming settlement on the Sonora side of the Rio Colorado delta in the late 1800s and early 1900s; the main settlement was Ciudad Lerdo (Felger 2000).

Grasslands Central to a Peoples' Survival
Palmer initially reported a vast grass population covering 40,000 to 50,000 acres that were central to the Cocopas' culture. Palmer documented the seasonal community harvest of this grass by the Cocopa. A full account of his 1884 trip can be found in Rogers McVaugh's book, Edward Palmer: Plant Explorer of the American West and in George Vasey's Report of the Secretary of Agriculture in 1889. In May and probably June great quantities of grain-containing spikelets washed ashore and accumulated in tidal banks, where it was easily gathered. Stems were also harvested while the grain was still green, dried next to fires, and threshed (Castetter & Bell 1951:192-194). The Cocopa ground the grain into coarse flour and usually consumed it as a gruel (atole), or made the flour into leavened or unleavened bread (Castetter & Bell 1951; Vasey 1889). The grain is sweet (Hardy 1829:347 in Felger 2000:529) and its nutritional content compares with that of wheat ((Yensen & Weber 1986, 1987) in Felger 2000).

Palmer's grass requires fresh water to germinate, but can subsequently live on seawater (Alvarez Willams, 1997) since it contains special salt-excreting organs in its leaves (Felger 2000). It is the only species of grass entirely endemic to the Sonoran Desert (Gould & Moran 1981; Reeder & Felger 1989 in Felger 2000).

Culture and Ecology Inextricably Linked
The vast grasslands Palmer observed are now gone. Damming the Colorado River in the mid-1900s changed the ecosystem abruptly and permanently, dramatically reducing both the quantity and quality of the water and changing Cocopa life forever. By the late 1900's Palmer's grass was thought to have become extinct, the last harvest by the Cocopa was in the 1950s (Felger 2000). In 1987, the anthropologist Dr. Anita Alvarez de Williams worked with Cocopa elders to record the remaining traditional knowledge about Palmer's grass. (Burgess, 1994). Currently, the Cocopa community numbers approximately 350 individuals. Their language is passed on to some children and taught to students at a local college (Lewis, 2009).

Rediscovery and Re-application
Fortunately, scientists recently rediscovered Palmer's grass. Varieties cultivated from this native species are now planted in arid lands in the United States, Africa, Australia, and the Middle East for food and animal forage (Alvarez Williams, 1997:346). Nevertheless, according to anthropologists it went ‘culturally extinct' among indigenous people living in the delta, except in their oral history. Without regular flows of fresh water or nutrients, the harvest is unreliable and too low to attract wide-spread stewardship.

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