And so it begins. A little snow melt running down a crack in the rock, a little pooling here and there, and when all the pieces of the puzzle fit together, a native shrub germinates in a sea of rock. It’s not hard to imagine why this green plant is attractive forage for big game when most of the forage this time of year is dry and brown.
Curlleaf mountain mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) is a native ever green shrub occupying most of the arid west. It is adapted to habitats with low precipitation and extreme temperature ranges. Plant size varies from 3 to 35 feet.
Plants are very long lived. The oldest trees located in the Shoshone Range of Nevada were estimated to be 1,350 years old! As evidenced by the photo, Curlleaf mountain mahogany is adapted to germinate on mineral soil. Its longevity, combined with its ability to germinate on open mineral soils, defies classification as an early or late seral stage species.
It is an important soil builder, supporting nitrogen-fixing bacteria in root nodules. Drought tolerance is aided by sunken stomata, curled leaves, and fast growing taproots. Taproot extension of 1.1 feet in 35 days has been reported.
Curlleaf mountain mahogany has spring flowers commonly in clusters of 2-3 flowers and produces achenes with a long, persistent, plumose style or tail. Mountain-mahogany species take a relatively long time to reach reproductive maturity- up to 10 to 15 years. Seed crop production is sporadic and variable. A single tree can produce 90,000 to 100,000 seeds in one year and virtually no seed the next.
Curlleaf mountain mahogany is also an important wildlife species. It is highly palatable to deer and elk providing a very good source of protein. It’s also habitat for a wide variety of birds. Small mammals and insects feed on the seeds. Certain species of grouse in California have been observed to favor nesting sites containing Curlleaf mountain mahogany. Rabbits often browse on this species while it is young and within reach.
Native Americans used this plant to treat a wide range of illnesses. It has been reported that the inner Curlleaf mountain mahogany bark makes a purple dye.