Post Christmas Peace

The Christmas rush is over. Ed and I found beautiful quiet in the Agua Verde Creek, just below Colossal Cave Park near Tucson, Arizona. The temperature was in the high sixties.

As we made our way down the wash we came to some very old tree trunks in fantastic shapes. We started making guesses as to what they were, and eventually decided that they had to be Velvet Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica subsp. velutina). We had not seen such thick trunks on the Ash trees we have come upon in the Catalina mountains. In some cases there were multiple trunks – perhaps originally three trees that somehow merged into one.

Ash tree bases

Ash tree base

Ash tree

One Cottonwood (Populus fremontii) had a very long root running along the wash. The root, or whatever it is, was almost as long as the tree is high. Ed is trying to figure that out.

Long root

To the north we could see Rincon peak (8482 feet at the top). The sky was filled with whimsical clouds called mares tails.
Rincon peak
There were no wildflowers in bloom, but we had fun trying to identify plants that had dried up. Cocklebur, desert cotton, prickly poppy to mention a few.

We had over a half an inch of rain eleven days ago, but only a total of about a third of an inch more since the third week of August, so we were surprised to see whole stretches of very damp sand in the wash and even two little ponds. We need winter rains to ensure a wildflower show in the Spring.

Purp and the Snowman

Some years ago I told stories to children about a little purple man called “Purp”. I have decided to post one of them on this blog – with maybe more later.

PURP AND THE SNOWMAN
Once upon a time there was a little purple man called Purp. He was very small and not very tall, and lived with his friend, Mervyn.  They could have called him “Purple” – because he was purple all over and loved to wear purple clothes, but they called him “Purp” for short.

One night it snowed very heavily. In the morning when Purp looked out the window, everything was white and beautiful.

“What’s all that white stuff?” he asked Mervyn.

“That, my dear little Purple man, is snow.”

“What good is it?”

“Well you see it is very beautiful, and people like to play in it.”

“What do they play?”

“Well, they have snowball fights for one thing.”

“OK, I’ll fight you” boasted Purp.

“Purp, you haven’t got a chance against a big guy like me, let’s find some other game to play.”

“I know you are frightened, big boy” said Purp, “but I want a fight, and you’re going to get one.”

“OK, Purp” said Mervyn, and the two went outside.

Mervyn was standing, looking at the beautiful winter scene, and then he heard a little tiny voice:

“Gotcha.”

“What do you mean, Gotcha” said Mervyn. And then he looked down and saw a little white patch of snow on his trousers near his ankle.

“OK Purp, you asked for it” said Mervyn, and he reached down and grabbed a handful of snow. After he made his snowball he looked down at Purp standing near his feet, and wondered what to do next. “I can’t throw this huge snowball at my little purple man” he thought, “I guess I will just drop it.”

So Mervyn looked down at Purp, aimed the snowball and dropped it.

Purp was looking up and saw it coming straight at him.  “Yikes” he said, and scurried around behind Mervyn’s leg.

He moved just in time. The next thing he knew he saw the snowball hit Mervyn’s shoe with a big splat. As soon as Purp saw that, he went back to the front where he could see Mervyn, and said: “I got you twice!”

“You win, Purp” said Mervyn, “now let’s go see what the children are doing.”

They were out there playing in the snow, and rolling huge snowballs.

“What are those kids doing?” he asked Purp.

“They’re making a snowman,” answered Mervyn.

“Can we make a snowman – can we? – can we make a snowman, too?”

Purp got very excited at the thought. The air was bright and clear, and the snow was soft and fluffy.

“Let’s go, big boy!” said Purp.  “You make a snowman over there, and I will make a much better one over here!”

Purp sounded very confident.  So Mervyn made a snowball, and then rolled it around the field until it got bigger and bigger.  He wasn’t paying any attention to Purp.

Meanwhile, Purp had started his snowball and it was going great until he came to the top of the hill and it started to roll down the other side.  The snowball began rolling faster than Purp could push it.  “Uh, oh!” said Purp, and he held on to the snowball, trying to stop it from rolling any more.  But before he knew what was happening, he found himself rolled up inside the snowball, and still it rolled, getting bigger and bigger until it finally came to a rest at the bottom of the field hitting the big wooden fence.

“Oh, dear,” said Purp.  “I’m stuck. How do you get out of these things?”

And then some children found the great big snowball he was in, picked it up (it took three of them to lift it), and they carried it up the hill, and put it on top of the two big snowballs they already had.  It made a wonderful head to their snowman.

Meanwhile, Mervyn was working as fast as he could.  He wanted to make the best snowman and he didn’t even stop to think about Purp or watch what he was doing.  He just said to himself, “Purp is going to be sorry he said that about making a better snowman.  This is the best snowman in the whole wide world.”  He put the finishing touches on his snowman, and backed up to take a good look.

The kids behind him yelled, “Hey mister, watch where you’re going, you almost knocked over our snowman.”

Mervyn turned around and had to look up to see the top of this huge, beautiful snowman.

“Did you make this snowman?” he asked the children.

He looked up and he thought he saw the carrot nose wiggle.

Before they could answer, he heard a tiny little voice coming out of the snowman’s mouth.  He saw what he thought was a purple tongue moving, and it said, “No, they didn’t make it, I did.”

Purp crawled out of the snowman’s mouth, and looked down at Mervyn’s creation.

“That is pretty good, for a beginner,” he said.  “But nice try, anyway!”

BLISS IN THE STREAM BED

As the seasons progress into winter, Ed and I are always delighted to see flowers in bloom. This week we were at 6000 feet in the Catalina mountains. It was a beautiful day and the temperature was very comfortable. We went to Chihuahua Pine picnic area, where the Mexican Jays (Aphelocoma ultramarina) were keeping their eyes on the picnic tables hoping for scraps of food.
Mexican Jay
We walked up the stream bed, through the tunnel under the highway, and further into the Hitchcock Campground area. On the way we saw a number of Goldenrod plants in bloom (possibly Solidago missouriensis).

Goldenrod

In the dry stream bed most of the Hummingbird Trumpet flowers (Epilobium canum) were gone, but we recognized the plants, and did see some of their spectacular flowers.

Hummingbird trumpet PL

Epilobium canum 7 k

We could smell the presence of Mountain Marigold (Tagetes lemmoni), with its yellow flowers and orange centers. Most of them had finished blooming, but the fragrance is in the leaves and we were aware of them as we walked past whole clumps of them.

Mountain marigold

Just under the tunnel we saw the familiar Alligator Juniper tree (Juniperus deppeana), in a very unfamiliar shape. Note how the trunk is mostly smooth, with a strip of bark running up the left side. We wondered how the horizontal ridges had formed. There were needles, so the tree was still alive in spite of having lost so much of its bark.

Alligator juniper lumpy

I continue to work on paintings for the upcoming show in March, 2018. This watercolor is  a view on a ridge looking North, with a circle of stones evidently used as a fire pit.

On the Ridge

LATE BLOOMERS

We are getting toward the end of the year. Day-time temperatures in Tucson are still in the 80’s and 90’s. At our house we have had only a tenth of an inch of rain in the last ten weeks. We are still able to hike in the mountains. To our amazement we are still finding plants in bloom, even though at over 8000 feet the thermometer drops to near freezing at night.

Here are some of the plants we have seen:
Red Penstemon –  Penstemon barbatus (just one)

November Penstemon

Hooker Evening- Primrose – Oenothera elata var.hirsutissima (only one)

Evening primrose

Western Sneezeweed – Hymenoxys hoopesii (a few)
Sneezeweed
Wheeler Thistle – Cirsium wheeleri (several, in a much deeper purple color than we normally see in the Summer)
Thistle
Bitter Dock – Rumex obtusifolius (There is a lot of this non-native plant, but the flowers are so small that it takes work to find if it is actually in bloom)

Yellow Salsify – Tragopogon dubius (Just one – Even in mid-morning the flower had not fully opened)

In the colder weather I am taking fewer trips to the mountain. This has left me time to work on the book “Small Wonders” which is now in the hands of my editor. That is a big relief. It will have over 200 species in it. And now, with fewer hikes, and the manuscript of that book off my desk, I am devoting myself to painting. Here is one of them. These are being done for a show at the Contreras Gallery in Tucson in March 2018.

Spring Sentinel c

GALLS ETC.

As we wander the mountains north of Tucson we often come across unusual growths on plants, especially trees. At first glance they look like some kind of fruit. Since acorns are easy to recognize, the growths on different oak species clearly must be something else. It turns out that they are galls. These are formed by the tree in response to an irritation by an insect, mite or fungus. Here are three different oak species with their galls:

Silverleaf oak – (Quercus hypoleucoides) – This gall is a perfectly round sphere, about the size of a ping-pong ball. This is formed by a wasp that lands on a twig, irritates it in some way, and then deposits eggs in the growing gall. The eggs are well protected (and fed) as they develop. Once I cut a gall open. At first I thought there was nothing in it – just a little dark spot at the very center. Taking out my loupe I noticed that the black spot was actually a group of maybe a half dozen tiny little wasps. When the wasps hatch they eat their way out of the gall, leaving a perfectly round hole to show their exit.

Quercus hypoleucoidesGall2

Once I saw a very different collection of galls on the Mexican Blue Oak (Quercus oblongifolia). These were also little red spheres.

Quercus oblongifolia Galls

More recently we were hiking at about 8000′ with the Net Leaf Oaks (Quercus rugosa) which had galls, all on the underside of the leaves. Instead of a nice round gall, it is more like a very hairy red mass. We found that the mass consisted of a number of cylinders, each of which contained wasp larva.

Quercus rugosa gall

SMALL WONDERS TALK
I have been working for several years on a book about the nearly invisible flowers that do not make it into most flower books. This coming Thursday, September 14, 2017, I will be giving a talk to the Tucson chapter of the Arizona Native Plant Society, 7 pm at the City of Tucson Ward 6 Office, 3202 East 1st Street. This is south of Speedway Boulevard and east of Country Club Road. I would love to see you there and share over 60 species worth a closer look. Here is one whose name, Eucrypta micrantha means “well hidden small flower”. The “well hidden” refers to the seeds. The common name is Dainty Desert Hideseed.

Eucrypta micrantha 7

THE RAINS CAME

For the last week the Catalina Mountains have been closed to all but emergency vehicles as firefighters struggle with a fairly large fire. In the last 12 hours over an inch of rain fell on our property, and probably a lot more on the mountains, so the fire must be well under control. It has been just two months since we had rain. We have had to fill our bird-bath every day, which means that the hot sun has evaporated an inch of water in twenty-four hours. If you multiply that by the number of days, over five feet of water has evaporated since the tenth of May. It is a wonder that any vegetation has survived.

Here is a picture of the Brittlebushes in our back yard. It will not be long until they revive and turn green again.Brittlebush in back yard

 

In spite of two months without rain, the Desert Milkweed (Asclepias subulata) in the same back yard is in full and glorious bloom.

Milkweed in back yard

Ascleipias subulata 7b home

With the mountain closed, I have done a few watercolors. Here is one showing a view from Oracle Ridge,. The area caught in the sunlight is the Reef of Rocks.

Reef of Rocks in the sun b

Now that the summer rains have begun, we can expect a profusion of wildflowers in the mountains.

Art and Life

It is still cool in the mountains, though the valley temperatures are close to one hundred degrees. On a recent trip I started on a trail out of Marshall Gulch only to find the trail blocked by four fallen trees. This was a reminder to me of how much we owe to those who maintain trails. Without maintenance, most of the mountain trails would be impassable in a few years.

MG trail blocked

On a recent walk on Oracle Ridge in the Catalina Mountains, Ed and I were struck by the beauty of the Parry’s Agave, sending up sturdy flower stalks. We also noted something neither of us had seen before, the male flower cones of the Ponderosa pine opened to release pollen. We had seen them in their tightly closed form, with their beautiful scales. On this trip we saw how the cones expand to release pollen, seen as pale yellow dots on the picture.

Agave parryi 3

Agave parryi 1 stalks

Pinus ponderosa 7 m

Pinus ponderosa 9 m

My friends Hilary and Andrea took me to Oracle State Park. One of the nature trails afforded a view of the historic Kannally Ranch House in the distance. I took a photograph and later did this little watercolor of the view.

Oracle State Park wc

Speaking of watercolors, on Saturday, May 6, 2017, the Bear Canyon Library in Tucson will feature a show of three nature photographers, Brian Gersten, Tom Trebisky and Leslie Eguchi, plus six of my plant portraits, done in watercolor. This one is of the Canadian Violet (Viola canadensis). The opening reception is from 3 to 4:30, and you are all welcome.

Viola canadensis new

SEEN ON NATURE WALKS

Recently our congregation in Tucson, Sunrise Chapel, celebrated the 30th anniversary of its building. All five of our children were here for the event, and even put together a musical combo – “the Band of Roses” – for our enjoyment.

Our oldest son had to leave early Monday, but the other four were able to join me in a walk in Catalina State Park. The flowers were magnificent, the buttermilk sky, amazing.

Catalina clouds

One of the group spotted this unusual saguaro. There are a number of crestate saguaros in Arizona, but this one was different. The crest was surrounded with arms, and protruding out of the crest were about a dozen new arms.

Nearing crestate

Crestate with arms

Ed and I were looking at plants in Saguaro National Park East, and saw a flash of yellow in the middle of a nearby shrub. We wondered what it was. “I think it is a yellow mustard”, I said. Ed reached in, and pulled it out. And this is what he had in his hand. It was clearly labeled: Heinz Yellow Mustard.

Yellow mustard

Every time we hike, we see new plants coming into full and glorious bloom.

Brittlebush hillside

Watercolors

February is a quiet month for  wildflowers, so I have been putting my energy into working on my new book, tentatively called: “Small Wonders” in which I show enlarged pictures of tiny flowers that are rarely noticed. I am up to page 150 out of a possible 200.

In addition I have been working on watercolors for an upcoming show with our son, Owen at the Contreras Gallery in Tucson. The opening is next Saturday, March 4 from 6 – 9 pm. Here is the invitation. I would love to see you there.

dual_invitation2
And here are some of the paintings.
c-Snow at Loma Lind

c-Patagonia gold

c-San Rafael Valley
Many wildflowers have started blooming, and soon they will absorb much of my attention.

SAGUAROS

It has been a quiet time for flowers. Today Ed and I walked in Saguaro National Park East. On the outward journey we did not see any flowers in bloom, so we paid attention to the many forms Saguaros take. Normally they have a single trunk, but we found one that had four.

Carnegia gigantea quadruple

We have had about three inches of rain since January 1 this year, and the Saguaros have expanded, in some cases to the breaking point. Here is one that is not only very fat with water, but has a long split. We suppose it just burst its skin there.

Carnegia gigantea split seam

Normally the ridges are vertical in saguaros, following the lines of the trunk and arms. For the first time we saw one with a different pattern on top of which is a new arm.

Carnegiea gigantea face like

A little farther on an almost complete Saguaro Skeleton had fallen across the arroyo.

Carnegiea gigantea skeleton in wash

Saguaros need a nursery plant in their tender early years. Almost any fairly long-lived plant will do. We came across a fallen Palo Verde (or was it a Mesquite?) That had evidently given shelter to a whole ring of Saguaros. The nursery plant has fallen, and the family of Saguaros stands as if in respect.

Carnegiea giganteas honoring mother

On our return trip we found three species of plants in bloom: Desert Zinnia (Zinnia acerosa), Filaree (Erodium cicutarium), and Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa.)

Paved trail

We were particularly thrilled with the newly paved trail – the Mica View Trail. It goes seven tenths of a mile from the East end of Broadway to the Mica Picnic Area, and provides an opportunity for people in wheel chairs or baby strollers to easily explore the gorgeous Sonoran desert. Congratulations to those who made the desert accessible to more people.