Cattle Spinach: Atriplex Polycarpa

Cattle Spinach, which is known by its scientific name, Atriplex polycarpa, as well as the common names allscale saltbush, allscale, desert saltbush and alkaline saltbush, is a medium to large shrub in the Chenopodiaceae family with dense, hard wood making up the lower branches and root crown.
In a habitat dominated by this shrub, all cattle spinach plants will be close to the same size, typi-cally three to six-and-a-half feet. It will vary in size when set amidst other types of plants.
Cattle spinach often bears an abundance of seeds that weighs over the branch tips. The twigs have light gray bark and the wood is yellowish inside.
In general, the plant’s grayish-green leaves are small, usually one inch in length or less, oblong and more or less thickened and tough.
Spikes of greenish-yellow male flowers are borne above the clusters of greenish female flowers which only become apparent once the seeds begin development. Pollen becomes airborne and may be of concern to hay fever sufferers. This plant lacks thorns, although the thin, tough twigs may act as spines.
The plant bears fruit in the form of a scale-shaped nutlet with fine crenulations along its margin. There is usually a tubercle on the face. The nutlets are often borne in great abundance along the branch ends.
Native to the Southwestern United States, California, and northern Mexico, this plant occurs on deep, variously flooded soils that are usually alkaline, and occasionally on flood plains of rivers or areas near agriculture and irrigation systems.
This species blooms in July and August.
There are some insects which have an affinity for the Atriplex polcarpa. Often, the fuzzy galls of Asphondylia midges can be seen on the twigs of Allscale Saltbush. These galls offer a good identifica-tion clue for the plant.
For survival, certain insects must rely on plants such as allscale saltbush to make themselves less visible to predators. Casebearer moth larva, pupa and adults are all well-concealed on the cattle spinach plant. The very small larva of this moth tunnels inside a leaf. Once it grows too large for this narrow space, it will spin a silken case with only its head emerging to chew the plant leaves. The case is much the same color and texture as a brown leaf. The adult moth looks like a sliver of peeling stem bark and can rest mostly undisturbed on the branch stems. The full grown moth is only three to four millimeters long and normally goes unnoticed by most human observers and is even well camouflaged for sharp-sighted birds.

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