Last Saturday I was hiking toward that store with my backpack on when an old fellow coming up the road began giving me a look-over. That happens wherever I go. Because so many people here have worked in the US, legally or illegally, and they've had so many good and bad experiences with gringos, there's a kind of love-hate feeling for us. It's just hard for a Mexican to take for granted a gringo walking a back street in a small town deep in the heart of Mexico.
The fellow called to me as we passed one another. Usually I just give a polite greeting, smile and keep going, because if I stopped for everyone who seems to want to talk I'd never get anywhere. But this man had a funny look on his face and, more interesting, was carrying an armload of stiff, straight weed-stems. I was curious about what he was going to do with those stems.
The look on his face I understood as soon as I smelled the pulque on his breath. The weed stems got more interesting the more I looked at them.
The stems bore at their tips clusters of lentil-shaped, BB-size fruits and a few purple, bean-flower blossoms. As the man spoke of how he'd once worked in California and Arkansas I squashed a fruit between my fingers and my fingers turned bright yellow. The dye wouldn't wipe off, and it was still with me the next morning. You can see exactly how it stained my hand, as exhibited on someone else's hand with a very closely related plant in Texas, at http://www.tx.nrcs.usda.gov/technical/pmc/images/lpc_4.jpg.
I figured the man had picked the stems to feed the fruits to pet pigeons or something, but to make sure I asked him.
A broom. He told me a long story about how he needed a broom so he'd gone to a certain ridge a bit outside of town, to the only place he knew of around here where this kind of plant still grows -- though it used to be common in weedy spots right here in town -- and now he was taking the stems home to make a broom. I pointed out the yellow stain on my hands and asked if the plant was ever used for making dyes. No, just makes good brooms.
I snatched some flowers and fruits so I could identify the plant back home. It turns out that the plant, which doesn't have an English name, is native from Mexico to Honduras. It's DALEA FOLIOLOSA (NOT Dalea foliosa, which has endangered status in Illinois, Tennessee and Alabama.) You can see a pressed herbarium specimen at http://fm2.fieldmuseum.org/vrrc/med/FABA-dale-foli-mex-282430.jpg.
In North America some members of the genus Dalea are known as prairie clovers, and some of those are classified as rare and endangered species. Therefore, particularly after my friend told how the plant had disappeared from around here, and after I'd seen the copious yellow dye the fruits produced, I began to suspect that we had in hand the remains of a plant that should be much respected, protected and propagated, not just picked for making brooms.