Author Archives: Frank

THE DESERT IN BLOOM

Green desertThe forest floor in Saguaro National Park East is carpeted in green, like a well tended
golf course. But what looks like grass is really thousands and thousands of small plants with tiny white flowers in the Borage family, possibly Bearded Cryptantha ( Cryptantha barbigera. )

 

 

 

Cryptantha barbigeraPLBearded Cryptantha

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Three ladies

Three of the women admiring a Saguaro

 

 

 

 

 

Yesterday a group of women accompanied me in search of an interesting plant there: Texas Desert Rue, (Thamnosa [Greek – Smelly Shrub] Texana). It grows only a foot or two high, and has very small dark red flowers and a distinctive and pleasant (to my taste) odor. It is also called Dutchman’s Breeches, because of the shape of the fruit. It is harmful to livestock because it causes them to be oversensitive to light. The plant we were looking for was in a wash (dry river bed). This involved a fairly long walk in sand, which I found a little tiring. After we located and photographed it, we continued along the wash until we joined a trail to head back to our vehicles. After a short distance we came across several Thamnosa plants right along the side of the path. Thamnosa texana 3c

 

Kathleen’s hand giving an idea of scale of the Texas Desert Rue

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Thamnosa texana 5

 

Getting a closer look

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thamnosa texana 5b

 

A close-up of a flower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thamnosa texana 8

 

The fruit, like Dutchmen’s breeches

 

 

 

 

There were many plants to entertain us on our three and a half mile loop. Altogether we saw about fifty different species in bloom, and many more about to flower.

Earlier this week Val and I took a ride to Ajo – about 150 miles west of here, to give a talk to the Ajo Garden Club. We expected to see lots of wildflowers along the roadsides, since we have had some good winter rains. The showing was not up to our expectations, though there were many Lupines and Desert Marigold along the road. Half way to Ajo it started to rain, and continued all the way to the Ajo Public Library where I spoke about “Nature’s Small Wonders”. The talk was well received. On the return journey we stopped at a town called “Why” (possibly so named because there is a Y-shaped intersection in the middle of the town), population under 200 . I had driven through this part of Arizona before, and knew that it was just a little collection of homes and a gas station. Just for fun I asked the attendant at the gas station how far to go until we got to Why. He tilted back his head, and began to roar with laughter. “You are in it!” he said. As I left I looked up at the name of the Gas station. It read: “Why Not?”

Stenocerues thurberi 1We went through Why to the Organ Pipe National Monument with its wonderful visitor’s center, and lots of fascinating plant and animal life, resolving to go back again when the Organ Pipe Cactus and the Ajo Lily are in bloom (April or May).

 

Organ Pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) on a cloudy day at Organ Pipe National Monument

WILDFLOWERS GALORE

Ed and I were hiking up the trail and had stopped to look at some flowers. A couple came down the trail towards us, evidently having gone over five miles of rough terrain. They asked us if we knew any of the flowers. This led to a pleasant botany lesson. The man looked at me and asked how old I was. I said: “Eighty-seven”. We then talked a little more and finally I couldn’t stand the suspense any more. “And how old are you?”

“We are both ninety” he said with a great smile. The two of them looked to be in their sixties. I felt a little ashamed. Ed, who is younger than I am, did not even admit to his age. After some awkwardness I asked him the secret of his longevity. “I haven’t died yet” was his full explanation.

Six times in the last eleven days we have explored this trail (Babat Do’ag in the Catalina Mountains) and every time we have seen new flowers in bloom. On the first trip, February 18, we saw about 30 species. Today we saw over 50.  Perhaps the most interesting was the Broom rape (Orobanche), a plant that lives by drawing nourishment from the roots of other plants. It is not green at all, does not have chlorophyll, and is incapable of making food from the energy of the sun. On one trip we saw one fully grown one, with four near by just beginning to pop their heads through the soil. The next trip we found another near by. Today Jim and I saw all of those, and more than a dozen more on the Soldier Trail, just a couple of miles further down the mountain.

Orobanche

 

 

The Orobanche – the penny gives an idea of size

 

 

 

 

 

 

Orobanche white

 

 

 

 

Another smaller Orobanche

 

 

 

 

Orobanche FL

 

 

Orobanches
A close-up of one of its flowers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two of the many we saw on Soldier Trail

 

 

 

Among the most spectacular plants now is the “Indigo Bush”, Dalea pulchra. This time of year the plant is covered with deep blue or even purple flowers. And the bees and other insects love it.
Dalea pulchra 3

 

Indigo Bush

 

 

 

 

There is a fairly common low growing plant imported from Europe called “Filaree” or “Heron’s Bill”, (Erodium cicutarium). It has the ability to drill its own seeds into the ground. Long ago I learned of a  native Erodium, called “Texas Geranium” or “Stork’s Bill” (Erodium Texanum) and for years I have been trying to find it. This was my lucky month. I found quite a few on the Babat Do’ag trail, and then noticed it growing in our church parking lot!

Erodium texanum PL

 

 

Texas Geranium plant

 

 

 

 

Erodium texanum FL2

 

 

A close-up of the flower

 

 

 

 

 

Since I began working on “Invisible Flowers” I have become interested in the Euphorbia family. Many of its genera and species are low growing  plants with small flowers. In particular there are a half a dozen or more euphorbias called “spurges” in this area. I have been trying to learn to how tell them apart. Today Jim told me that while many spurges have single flowers at the end of each stalk, one has flowers growing in a little cluster. It is called Euphorbia capitellata (meaning “having a little head”). I find its tiny flowers quite charming.

Euphorbia capitellata 5

 

The flowering head of this Spurge

 

 

 

 

 

 

Euphorbia capitellata 9One of the many flowers in the head

A walk in Cienega Creek

It was a very windy day, so Ed and I were looking for a place to hike that was somewhat sheltered. We found it in Cienega Creek, a wild-life preserve. We had to make reservations, but that turned out to be very easy.

After parking the car we descended the trail to the creek bed. We met only one person that day, and he was a naturalist friend, Joe. We stopped to chat with him and walked together for a while. Joe spotted an ancient artifact on the trail which we examined, and then carefully put back in place.

The creek bed was dry, but after we turned north for a short distance, we found a stream. On either side there were twenty-foot cliffs, so the wind was gentle and the air warm.

Cottonwood and sand

 

The creek supports a large population of trees: giant cottonwoods, ash, mesquite, willows and other trees. Where the creek was fairly wide, and thus moving slowly, the male flowers that had fallen from the cottonwoods covered the surface, turning it gold. Flowers on creek

 

There is water under this carpet of gold flowers from the Cottonwoods overhead

 

 

 

 

 

We looked upstream and saw the point where the water was coming out of the ground. Beyond it was just sand. This is fairly common in these western washes. The water may be running year-round underground, surfacing here and there, only to descend again.

Water start

 

In the top half of the picture there is just sand. In the middle you can see where the water starts flowing, some of it covered in cottonwood flowers

 

 

Another stretch was lined with the bright green foliage of yellow monkey flowers, a plant with blue flowers which we did not identify, and possibly some water cress.

Water plants

 

 

The creek bordered by aquatic plants, with shadows of cottonwood trees

 

 

 

 

Blue flower

 

Just a few of these plants with blue flowers were blooming

 

 

 

 

Ed was able to identify all kinds of birds that were flitting from branch to branch.

The surrounding cliffs were carved by water. We especially noticed a mesquite tree that had been deeply undercut. We wondered how it could survive living life on the edge like that.

Mesquite overhang

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There were signs of high water in canyon, including this mass of tree trunks and branches. This creek must be impossible to explore in high water, and a section of it is part of the Arizona Trail that runs from Mexico to Utah, over 800 miles.

Debris

 

A six foot high pile of debris from floods in the canyon

 

 

 
We made our way back up the hill to the car park, driven by a steady wind at our backs. This was one of those short and sweet nature walks.

BIRD WATCHING

It has been almost a month since my last posting. Not being able to include pictures has been a deterrent to making new entries. Our son, Owen, has solved the problem, for which I thank him.
instagram1

 

 

 

This is one of Owen’s great photographs

 

 

 

 

 
In the last week or so we have had a lot of rain – about three inches in three days at our house. Considering that this area receives only a little over ten inches a year, that is a lot. And more is on the way. This leads us to expect a spectacular show of spring flowers.

Recently Ed and I were invited by our friends Doug and Arlene, to see the birds in the nature preserve known as Whitewater Draw in Sulphur Springs Valley, near the border with Mexico. The preserve is one of a number of locations for the Sandhill Crane. It has several very large ponds, full of all kinds of water fowl and other birds. Doug and Arlene, both keen birders, pointed out a number of them: Great Horned Owl, Shovelers, Pintails, Coots, Ruddy ducks, Green winged teal, to name but a few. We arrived late morning.  It was a beautiful overcast day, with grey clouds reflected in the water. This part of the valley is flat, and is ringed with mountains ranges. I thought, “This is a watercolor day.” When we got home I did a little sketch which I will later develop into a painting.

Whitewater

 

A 5 by 9 inch watercolor sketch

 

 

 

We saw only a few cranes in the morning, but were treated to a large flock of Snow geese, which circled, finally landing in the water only to take off later, circle, and then land again. It was a wonderful sight, especially when the sun caught their brilliant white color.

We went to the old mining town of Bisbee and returned after lunch. As soon as we got out of the car we could hear flocks of sandhill cranes, in raucous conversation. They came swooping in, some landing on the ground, others waterskiing up to the shore. Later more flocks arrived. Had we stayed until dark, we might have seen as many as ten thousand of them. What a treat! The flocks stay here until the middle or end of February when they will migrate north for the summer, some going as far as northern Canada and Alaska.

cranes landing

 

A flock on the ground, and a half a dozen coming to join them

 

 

 

 

In my last posting I mentioned seeing a number of Jack rabbits on a couple of our hikes. Here are some pictures.Hare ears

 

 

hares twoNote the huge pink ears

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sometimes they run rather than hop

 

 

 

 

Rabbit 1

 

And this is a rabbit

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In a few weeks, we will see the desert in bloom!

Winter in Arizona

Lately I have not been able to include pictures in my blog postings. I am interested in how that discourages me from adding to it. Until I solve the problem I will create word pictures instead.

Let me start with a little walk Dave and I took today at about 8000 feet in the Catalina mountains. When we set out to go hiking together, we had no fixed purpose in mind. The nights have been below freezing for almost a week, but the days have been getting increasingly warm. We could not see any snow on the mountains from the valley, but knew that much of the snow we had on New Year’s day must surely still be in the higher elevations of the mountain range. After driving about 20 miles up the mountain we felt drawn to a little knoll that overlooks the Tucson valley. We parked the car, and gingerly made our way across the verge, covered as it was with ice and snow. There were thousands of footprints in the snow, and signs of sledding trails, including the remains of a sled that had come to a sad end.

We were very careful as we made our way up the snowy slope. On reaching the ridge, we relaxed because we were able to make our way on large patches of bare earth. Eventually we came to an area where we could look out over the entire valley to the Santa Rita mountains, over 50 miles to the south. We enjoyed seeing the mountain ranges that ring the city. We did not need the extra jackets we brought. Instead we took off our warm sweaters, and then our shoes and socks, as if we were sitting at the sea-side. The sky was a clear blue and the sunlight very warm on the patches of bare earth where we sat. It felt like the perfect place to be, comfortable, warm, taking in a magnificent view and enjoying a deep conversation.

About a week ago I was leading a nature walk with a group of seven people in Saguaro National Park East. The high temperature that day was in the forties. There were about a dozen flower species in bloom, though the flowers were very few and far between. The Jojoba and other plants have already started to form flower buds. It won’t be long before the spring flowers start, and given the fact that we have had good December rains, we can expect to see the desert in bloom in a couple of months.

That day we saw three Jack Rabbits (Lepus californicus). In over 30 years in Arizona I have rarely come across them, so it was a special treat, not only to see them, but to get close enough for a few pictures. Originally they were called Jackass Rabbits, because the huge ears were like a jackass. They are not rabbits at all, but hares.  (The Desert cottontail, Sylvilagus audubonii, is a rabbit.) At first we saw just one. It seemed to follow us on the trail, so I was able to get some good pictures, particularly fascinated with the sunlight shining pink through its ridiculously long ears. Some distance down the trail we saw two. At first they were scrunched up into the shape of an oversized football, making them very hard to spot. When they saw us they stood up, and began walking away. They did not hop like rabbits, but their gait and size made them look almost like coyotes. I have read that they can go as fast as forty miles an hour.

We are looking forward to some wonderful flower hikes starting in just a few weeks. Until then we gather round the fire-place and enjoy the darker days of winter in Arizona.

DECEMBER INVISIBLE FLOWERS

Yesterday Ed’s brother, Bob, joined us for our weekly nature walk. We headed for Saguaro National Park East, taking the Cactus Forest trail to Lime Kilns and Lime Falls. The night time temperature was in the low forties, but during the day, rose to a comfortable 70.

I went to take a picture of a beautiful group of Christmas cactus with their bright red fruits, and found that the camera’s battery needed recharging. This meant that I had to see through my own eyes, and not so much the lens of the camera. At this time of the year, the second week in December, we did not expect to see many flowers in bloom. At first we noticed some tobacco plants with flowers, plus lots of paperflower plants in bloom.

Desert Tobacco (Nicotiana obtusifolia)

Whitestem paperflower (Psilostrophe cooperi)

By the time we had finished, we counted 19 flowering species, and 8 of them were invisible! By “invisible” I mean walking past them most people would not even realize that they were in bloom. And here they are close up.

Fittingly, I suppose, I have been unable to insert pictures here, so some of them will remain invisible. anyway, here are the names:

Slimleaf bursage (Ambrosia confertiflora)

Parry dalea (Marina parryi)

Earleaf brickelbush (Brickellia amplexicaulis)

Pictures of the other five have been shown in this blog before, and here they are:

Tidestromia lanuginosa 9Euphorbia melanadenia close upDalea pringlei7Porophyllum gracile7Tragia9

Tidestromeia lanuginosa

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the spurges (Euhorbia)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pringle’s prairie clover (Dalea pringlei)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Odora (Prophyllum gracile)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Noseburn (Tragia nepetifolia)

 

 

 

 

 

 
The Night blooming cereus is an inconspicuous plant except on those rare nights when it blooms, or when it is in fruit. Ed spotted one with a bright red fruit about the size of a hen’s egg. Without the fruit we would never have noticed it.

This was one of those special days, hiking with friends in perfect weather surrounded by the richness of the Sonoran Desert.

Saguaros

On November 26, Ed and I took a leisurely walk in Saguaro National Park East. Even this late in the year there were a number of plants in full and glorious bloom, notably the Paper Flower.

paper flower

 

Paper flowers (Psilostrophe cooperi) with a prickly pear in the center.

 

 

 

 

 

Our attention was drawn more to the cactuses, especially the dominant cactus of the Sonoran Desert, the Saguaro.  With various losses and new growths, some of them take on amazing forms.

Saguaro odd fellow

 

The odd shaped saguaro

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saguaro oddfellow base

 

The base of the odd fellow. The brown, I believe, is made by termites.

 

 

 

When they have completed their life cycle, they shed their thick green skin, and the mushy interior, to reveal the long, thin wooden ribs that form a skeleton.

Sauaro w skeleton

 

The ribs of the skeleton also extend into the arms

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Normally a saguaro does not grow arms until it is about sixty years old. We saw a small one (that could have been twenty years old), with a branch, and wondered about it. Perhaps it grew an arm due to an injury. Then we saw a short one with two symmetrical arms at the top, like bunny ears. Saguaro baby with baby

The new arm is at the base on the left. What looks like an arm on the right is a small cactus just beyond it.

 

 

 

 

 

Saguaro two ears

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our special interest was in the nursery plants that support Saguaros in their very vulnerable early years. For some reason we had not until then, paid much attention to what particular plants provide shade and shelter for the saguaro seedlings. On this short walk we identified six different species, some of which were quite a surprise to us.

Saguaro nurse by opuntiaSaguaro w creosoteSguaro w chollaSaguaro condaliaSguaro by mesquiteSaguaro nursed by palo verde

Two saguaros nursed by a prickly pear

 

 

 

 

 

On the left nursed by creosote, on the right by a cholla

 

Outgrowing the nurse plant, in this case Mexican crucillo (Condalia warnockii)

 

 

 

 

 

A fairly large group under a mesquite tree

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One saguaro growing under a Paloverde. Note how the central trunk broke off, and a large arm extends to the right.

 

 

 

Saguaros around mommaThen we came across a semicircle of huge saguaros. Lying at the center of the circle was a fallen Paloverde tree, its branches extending in all directions from the center. The saguaros looked as if they were standing at attention to honor their fallen mother.

Almost as far as the eye could see saguaros towered above the other vegetation. What a remarkable plant. What a rich desert!

NOVEMBER HIKES

Hiking in November is special. With the sun lower in the sky the light is different, the air is cool, and though most of the flowers have completed their summer blooming, there are enough still around to delight the heart and the eye.

Dave and I hiked up stream in Molino Basin, and came to this little pool of water. The night before the temperature had dropped almost to the freezing point, so we knew the water would be cool. The air was mild, and we both enjoyed standing in the water in our bare feet.

Frank in pool

 

Here am I standing in cool water and loving it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was particularly fascinated with the way in which the leaves that have fallen into the stream distort the normally flat surface of the water. At the right angle the sun reflects off of these depressions creating the effect of having each leaf rimmed with stars. Dave reminded me that the mathematical name for that is a meniscus.

Leaf in h20

 

Notice the ring of light around the shadow. Note too how the shadow of the stem is much fatter than the stem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

About a week later Ed and I hiked into Milagrosa (miraculous) canyon.

Milagrosa cnyn

 

Milagrosa canyon in the center of the picture

 

 

 

 

Our appreciation of the beauty of the grasses was more than canceled out by the realization that the two shown here are invasive and really do not belong in Arizona (Fountain Grass and Natal Grass – the one that is a deeper pink).

grasses

Mixture of Fountain grass and Natal grass

 

 

 

 

We came to the spot where we saw honeycombs on the cliff the last time we were in this canyon. At a respectful distance we watched with our binoculars as the bees in super slow motion, made their way around the combs.

Ed looking at hive

 

Ed looking at the cliff with the honey comb

 

 

 

Hive

 

 

 

The honeycomb left of the saguaro

 

 

 

 

 

On the way into the canyon we saw a saguaro whose single trunk had split into five. On the way out we saw another one up close, and realized that the central trunk had broken off, and clearly the center was gone.

Saguaro stumped 2

Saguaro stumped

 

 

 

 

 

On the left, a single trunk split into five. Above on split into three.

 

We may have seen as many as twenty flowering species on this little hike, and expect to see plants in bloom even up to Christmas.

FALLING LEAVES AND COZY NESTS

About ten days ago Ed and I hiked in Marshall Gulch, just above 8000 feet in elevation. Though it was toward the end of October there was till plenty of color in the maple leaves. I was particularly fascinated with the way in which the leaves that have fallen into the stream distort the normally flat surface of the water. At the right angle the sun reflects off of these depressions creating the effect of having each leaf rimmed with stars. Leaf dimples

 

 

 

 

 

 

We passed a fallen tree, and noticed that the cut end of the tree was populated with a number of fungi, in a variety of colors.Stump with fungus

 

I wonder how many different fungi are on this log

 

 

 

 

The core of another log had evidently been burned out in one of the mountain fires. We found the overlapping scale effect quite interesting. Log core

The inside of this log looks a little like the outside bark of the Alligator Juniper

 

 

 

 

The temperature has finally dropped a little and walking in the desert is comfortable and rewarding. Ed and I had a pleasant amble in Saguaro National Park East this week and saw more than a dozen plant species in bloom. In addition we enjoyed seeing the remarkable nest of the Cactus wren (ampylorhynchus brunneicapillus, State bird of Arizona), in the densely thorned Jumping Cholla (Cylindropuntia Bigelovii). The nest was at least a foot long, shaped like an elongated football, lying horizontal with an opening at the end. Cactus wren nest

 

Ed admiring the Cactus wren nest

The opening is to the left in this picture

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also found a chain-fruit cholla (Cylindropuntia fulgida), with a beautifully formed nest. Ed suggested it might belong to a curve-billed thrasher (Toxostoma curvirostre). Chain fruit w nest

 

This nest is almost in the center of the plant

 

 

 

 

A Barrel cactus (Ferocactus wislizenii) normally forms a single round ball, extending to a long cylinder as it grows, with a crown of flowers, and later fruit at the top. We saw one that had an extra layer, possibly a separate barrel cactus growing on top of it, with fruit. Barrel double

 

 

The double-barrel cactus

 

 

 

 

Barrell FR

 

 

Looking down on the fruit of a normal barrel cactus

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hiking in Molino basin, we came across a Mexican blue oak (Quercus oblongifolia) that had fallen some time ago, and was now being cut up. I found the cross-section fascinating. The heart-wood had rotted out, and left an empty center with star-like channels growing toward the bark. Quercus oblongifolia cutthrough

 

 

The fallen Mexican blue oak

 

 

 

The growing season is slowing down, but there is still a wealth of beauty to enjoy.

FALL GLORY

Southern Arizona has glorious fall colors. All it takes to find them is a one hour drive up the mountains. In the last week I have made the trip four times, each one a delightful experience. What a treat to be surrounded by these glorious colors, almost all of them from a single tree species, Bigtooth Maple (Acer grandidentatum)! The fall leaves range from pale yellow to deep red. You may see all these colors on one tree. Then again you may see a yellow tree being right next to one whose leaves are bright red. Maples
 

 

 

 

 

Recently I came across this delightful plant lying flat on the ground, Woolly tidestromia (Tidestromia lanuuginosa). The picture shows one that is about a foot in diameter. I love the growth pattern with its red stems branching out into clusters of seemingly white leaves. In each cluster the leaves range in size: large, medium and small. If you turn a leaf over, you see that it is green underneath, but the top is so covered in hairs that the leaves look bluish white. It was named for an American botanist, Ivar Tidestrom. and the species name, lanuginosa – means woolly, referring to the surface of the leaves. It is in the Amaranth family.
Tidestromia lanuginosa 3

 

 

Looking down on the plant from above

 

 

 

 

 

Tidestromia lanuginosa 5

 

 

A portion of one of the tips with the various leaf sizes, and the tiny flowers nestled in the middle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tidestromia lanuginosa 9

 

 

 

A close-up of an individual flower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tidestromia lanuginosa LFportion

 

A close-up of portions of some leaves covered in white hair

 

 

 

 

 
A few days ago my wife and I were walking in the neighborhood and came across a defunct Swallowtail butterfly. I was glad to carry this light-as-a-feather creature home and scan it top and bottom. Using my macro lens, I took a closer look at some of the scales on its wings.
Black yellow butterfly

 

As soon as I picked up the butterfly I broke off one of its tails, and when I put it on the scanner the head fell off

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Black yellow butterfly back

The underside of the same butterfly

 

 

 

 

 

 

Swallow tail 9

 

 

 

A close-up of the wing markings

 

 

 

 

 
Many plant embryos have rudimentary structures known as Cotyledons. Monocots, like grasses, lilies and orchids, emerge from the ground with only one (hence the name MONOcot short for Monocotyledon). Most flowering plants, shrubs and trees emerge with two and are called DICOTS (two cotyledons). These structures carry nutrients, and function as primitive leaves. Once the plant gets started, it forms true leaves. Recently I pulled up this baby tree, Velvet Mesquite (Prosopis velutinas), and at once noticed two things. A) The cotyledons were still intact and above them the true leaves were already starting to form.  B) The root was huge for such a tiny plant, at least half its length. If I had allowed it to grow its roots would have gone deeper than the plant was tall. Indeed, some Mesquites send their roots down 50 feet. The record is something like 175 feet. It was fascinating to see this little seedling already showing its potential. Too bad it was in a place where it was too near other structures to grow to its full glory.

 

The seedling with a penny for scale

 

Mesquite seedling