Category Archives: Invisible flowers


Recently Dave, Lis and I went off the beaten path to climb a hill in the front range of the Catalina Mountains. On the way I saw a large patch of Plectritis (Plectritis ciliosa). This is one of those plants that is so  easily overlooked that it does not really have a common name. The plants are about six  inches high, with an inflorescence that is about the size of a marble with a cluster of small flowers twisted around the head. Its name is from a Greek word which means ‘braided”. I always enjoy seeing this little plant which is not included in most wildflower guides, (not even my own, which I plan to make up for this in a future book.) I managed to get some good close-up pictures, but failed to take a wider view, showing a collection of them in their habitat. I returned two days later to photograph a group of them in their habitat, but couldn’t find a single one! A few days after that, Ed and I were exploring the plants in the Gordon Hirabayashi Camp Ground (formerly called Prison Camp), and found large patches of it. Plectritis ciliosa 1d Looking down at a patch of Plectritis

Plectritis ciliosa 6d A double flower head

Plectritis ciliosa 6 A closer look at the flower head

Plectritis ciliosa 7b An individual flower – many are pinker than this one

On a different walk Dave and I found ourselves in Bear Canyon, resting in the shade by the stream. I was interested in studying and photographing a plant that I have seen many times but not really noticed. At first it looks like a grass, but it is very different. I believe it is Swamp carex (Carex senta), one of a very large family called Sedges. Many look like grasses, but are quite different. I do not fully understand the various parts, but I believe that the pale yellow top, like a bottle brush, contains the male flowers, and that the female flowers may be lower down on the plant with yellow tips.

Carex senta 3b A patch of Swamp carex in the stream bed, with previous years’ leaves forming a massive mat

Carex senta 3c A look at a single plant with the inflorescence

Carex senta 5 The penny gives scale to this picture of the flower parts of the Carex

Carex senta 9 A close up – with all kinds of fascinating bits and pieces

Last Saturday, on a very pleasant nature walk with the Arizona Native Plant Society, we saw many flowers of interest. Walking back by the road we couldn’t help noticing how much the ground around many of the prickly pear cactus were all dug up. Various theories were advanced until one person knew the answer. This is Skunk work. Evidently skunks love burrowing around the roots of the cactus to get grubs, beetles, and other goodies.
Skunk works The ground around a Prickly pear  dug up by skunks
On recent walks I have come across two new flowers. One must be one of the chickweeds, (Cerastium), and the other looks like a petunia. Since this is in a camp site, I suspect that the petunia was planted by one of the campers or the camp director.  It is very pretty, but looks out of place in this mountain setting.

DSC_0037 The mystery chickweed

Petunia The Petunia (or whatever it is)


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.




The Orobanche – the penny gives an idea of size







Orobanche white





Another smaller Orobanche





Orobanche FL



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


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.


Ed and I were walking along the dirt road at the top of the Ski area in the Catalina Mountains. We found over 40 species of flowers in bloom, including a few mysteries. At the spot where we saw some unusual plants last year, we found a California poppy in bloom, and Bachelor’s button, plus a beautiful, tiny blue flower, at the top of about a four inch stem.

mystery blue

Our mystery blue flower








We had more or less ignored the Dock plants that covered large sections of the ground (Rumex species), thinking they were the usual Curly Dock (Rumex crispus) or Bitter Dock (Rumex obtusifolius), but then I stopped to look more closely. This was the rarer Pale Dock (Rumex altissimus). “Altissimus” means very high and we were about 9000 feet above sea level. We thought, too bad it is not in bloom. We sat down, the plants now higher than our heads. The flower stalks were a rusty red color. After a few minutes we decided to get out our trusty magnifying lenses, and soon found that the plants had flowers and fruit! These certainly qualified as “invisible” flowers, invisible to us until we took a closer look.

Rumex altissimusPL


Pale dock with its red inflorescence









Rumex altissimus5Rumex altissimus9f

A closer look at part of the flower stalk showing male and female flowers and fruit










I think this is a female flower








Rumex altissimus9m



And this seems to be a male flower







Rumex altissimus8



The beautiful red fruit







The next day Andrea in our group, came across an orchid that I had known existed on the mountain but had never seen. I just got this one photograph. It is called Slender-flowered malaxis (Malaxis abieticola). The plant itself is about six inches tall. Two days later Patrick and Tori looked for the orchid but it was gone, possibly eaten. I am glad I got at least one good picture.
Malaxis abieticolaPL

The rare Slender-flowered malaxis



The rains have come, and the mountains are springing back to life. For some plants the rains came too late, as you can see in this Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum). We saw a patch of them that had already turned brown as if calling it quits for the year. Fortunately most of the ferns have survived.


The fern with its fall colors





And there are wild flowers everywhere!

On a recent hike we found ourselves studying the fallen trees and noticing that the logs had yellow highlights. It seems as if there is a fungus, also responding to the rain, that attacks only certain parts of the fallen trees. The yellow spots are knot holes, remnants of branches when the tree was very much younger.


















The horned lizards (often called horned toads, but they are really lizards)  are much in evidence, posing for quite a long time.

horned lizard 16









On my recent trip Ellen told me about a grass in bloom, Squirreltail grass (Elymus elymoides). I took some photographs, then noticed in my grass books that the awns on the head of the grass splay out. I took a piece home with me. Within a few hours it had opened up into this wonderful form.

Elymus elymoides 3



Squirreltail grass

The penny is there to give scale







Elymus elymoides 5

Elymus elymoides 8










The had of the grass closed   . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . and open

Today I went looking for more grasses but got distracted by coming across Desert spoon plants (Dasylirion wheeleri or Sotol), with the flowers within reach. We have one in our front yard. The flower stalk is over 10 feet tall, and half of that is covered with male flowers. This is one of those plants that has separate male and female plants (dioecious). I have been wanting to use my close up lens to see what the actual flowers looked like, and today was my day. I found many plants in Molino Basin. some of each sex with flowers near enough to the ground to be reached. After blooming the stalks stay on the plant for over a year.
Dasylirion 3fDasylirion 3m



The left picture is the female and the right is the male plant








Dasylirion 7fDasylirion 7m2


On the left, the female flowers, and the males on the right









Dasylirion 9f



A close up of the female flowers






From now on every trip up the mountain will bring new pleasures.


Last week a group of us were having lunch after a nature walk. Many of the people in the group were keen bird watchers, so you can imagine their astonishment when they heard the call of an owl in the middle of the day. One woman wanted to see the owl, so she went to investigate. Minutes later she returned, a little bit deflated. “It wasn’t an owl” she explained, “just another bird watcher making owl sounds.” I found out later that some little birds will gang up on an owl to drive it away. By making owl sounds the person was trying to trick some of these little fellows into emerging from the shrubs. I don’t know if he (or she) fooled the little birds. It fooled us.

Today we saw a few birds but I was more interested in getting a close up view of two plants I have known for some time – Bear Grass and False Indigo.
Nolina microcarpa
Bear Grass (Nolina microcarpa) is not a grass at all, but a very large plant in the Asparagus family. In May the plants send up a flowering shoot, four feet or more tall. The species is dioecious, meaning that male and female flowers are on separate plants. Whereas the flowering stalk is huge, the flowers are quite small, and we were having some difficulty telling which was the male and which the female. Eventually we found some with tiny little flowers clustered on the long stalk. I was able to get a close up of the flowers, and finally can tell the two apart.

This is a watercolor portrait I did of Bear Grass


Nolina microcarpa male and female




The stalk on the left has the male flowers, not yet opened

On the right is the female, with some flowers open and many closed

The penny gives an idea of scale






Nolina microcarpa7b male closed



The male flowers before they open






Nolina microcarpa5 male



Here is a cluster of male flowers, with just one of them open








Nolina microcarpa9 male


The male flower close up. Note the golden anthers









Nolina microcarpa9 female



This is a close-up of a female flower of the Bear Grass





Later we came across a clusters of False Indigo plants – Amorpha fruticosa. From a distance it is hard to tell if the plant is in bloom or not. Up close, you can see the flower stalks, with the bright yellow anthers emerging from a deep purple base. I had never been able to photograph the individual flowers before today. I was thrilled to see what they look like. The genus name, amorphous, means “deformed” referring to the fact that each flower doesn’t have the usual form with a number of petals. It just has a single one curled around, with the anthers protruding from it.

Amorpha fruticosa1



A general view of False Indigo plants in a stream bed






Amorpha fruticosaPL



This shows a part of a False Indigo plant with the flower spikes






Amorpha fruticosa5b


Here is a flower spike with the flowers on the top portion not yet open









Amorpha fruticosa7

Here we see the individual flowers packed in. The yellow balls are the pollen bearing anthers. The flower petals are purple








Amorpha fruticosa9b


A close up of two False Indigo flowers






On the home front, I have been watching the golden barrel cactus in our front yard. A few months ago I noticed that one of them was looking a little sickly. On closer inspection I found that I could see right through it in places. Our property is home to many ground squirrels, and I think they found a way of getting to the fleshy interior of the cactus. On the outside, the plants are well defended. Coming from underground, the ground squirrels found the soft underbelly, and have almost completely hollowed the plant out. They did the same to one of the other two. And yet all three cactus plants are still alive! They are gutted, but not totally defeated.

Golden barrell


Our Golden Barrel cactus with holes in the middle where you can see right through the plant. Looking at the plant and moving your head around, you can see that it is almost completely hollow, and yet is still alive


February has been a month full of interest.   More and more plant species are coming into bloom. I had the pleasure of speaking twice – the first in Sierra Vista to the Cochise Chapter of the Arizona Native Plant Society (AZNPS) on “Invisible Flowers and Other Wonders” , and two days later giving a similar speech to the Arizona Botany Meeting 2014, at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum,  “Taking a Closer Look.”  Both talks gave me a chance to share pictures I have taken, some looking at familiar flowers close up, others showing “invisible flowers”, flowers that are so small or insignificant that people walk by them not knowing that they are in bloom. People responded very favorably to the two talks.
At the conference I had the pleasure of making contact with people who share a love of plants, and all things in nature. The day ended with a dinner, and a speech by local raconteur Petey Mesquite, whose radio talks have entertained people for years. He proved to be a most engaging speaker with his stories, pictures and songs. What a delightful way to end the day!

The next day there were optional nature walks. I went on the one led by Jim Verrier. There were about 15 to 17 people on the hike, including some specializing in certain aspects of botany, like sedges and rushes.  Everyone had something to contribute to the richness of our experience, and we all shared the love of discovery.

Several times our group gathered around an apparently bare patch of earth, some of us on all fours. People gave us strange looks as they walked by in bewilderment. We were definitely looking at things that they were not seeing.

We found some interesting “invisible” plants, including Mouse-tail (Myosurus cupulatus, in the Ranunculus family). This is a very small plant that grows in wet places in the early spring. I have looked for it in Molino Basin and Gordon Hirayabashi this year without success. Evidently it is too dry there. But we were in Catalina State Park, where there is some water still flowing even though it has not rained much in the last eight weeks. Another small plant is Miner’s lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata), so called because it is an edible little plant and its stems are perfoliate, going right through the center of the leaves. The tiny white flowers come out of the top leaf like a miniature lotus in its lily pad.




Myosurus cupulatusPL



Mouse-tail – a plant just a few inches high. The tail grows longer and longer and turns brown.








Myosurus cupulatusPLb


This is my most recent picture of the flower stalk of Mouse-tail with a penny to show the scale

Myosurus cupulatus9




Claytonia perfoliataFL7Here is a close up showing the anthers.








Miner’s lettuce close up, with one open flower and lots of buds






Looking down on a Miner’s lettuce plant. It is named after John Clayton, an18th century botanist from Virginia.
Claytonia perfoliataPL copy
We had two very special plant people on the walk, our leader,  Jim Verrier and one of Arizona’s most knowledgeable botanists, Richard Felger. Each of the other people on the hike brought some special knowledge of nature, which made for a very rich and enlightening experience.

We came across just a few examples of another plant that I met in Catalina State Park last year and regretted not finding it with flowers or fruit (Common pussy paws, Cistanthe monandra).  Also last year I did not have my super macro lens. We found that the plant was mostly in fruit, but Richard Felger pointed out that there were some very tiny flowers. Its species name  “monandra” which means “having only one anther”, which you can see in the picture.

Cistanthe monandraPL


Common pussy paws, a plant in the Portulaca family that looks as if it has been stepped on.


Cistanthe monandraFR




A close up showing lots of fruit on the Common pussy paws.

Cistanthe monandraFL2


A very close look at what I think is the flower








KXCI presents:
“Growing Native with Petey Mesquitey”

The following is an excellent website for looking up the meaning of plant names:

California Plant Names:
Latin and Greek Meanings and Derivations
A Dictionary of Botanical and Biographical Etymology
Compiled by Michael L. Charters

A recent and excellent website for Arizona flora:


The last two days have taken me up into the mountains, a pleasant break from the freezing temperatures in Glenview, north of Chicago, where my wife and I spent last week end.
Ed and I walked in the Gordon Hirayabashi camp ground. As soon as we parked the car we noticed a plant that looked, from a distance, like a bladderpod, though we knew that it does not normally grow at this elevation. On closer look the “flowers” were actually leaves. Looking still closer we saw that these leaves at the tips of the branches were covered with yellow papillae. We have no idea what the plant is. From the woody stem, we decided it must be a perennial. We will enjoy checking on it from time to time to see how it develops.

mystery not in flower

The mystery plant, seemingly in flower










mystery not in flower3



The mystery plant showing that these are leaves, not flowers







False flower


A close up of the plant showing the yellow papillae





We had almost given up on seeing any flowers on our return journey when we heard a loud buzzing coming from the top of some of the cottonwood trees. These were the male trees, with their golden catkins. Some of the trees still had leaves left over from last fall. All of them had leaf buds developing at the end of the twigs.
We stopped for a snack by a little waterfall. It was actually running, though very slowly. We have had precious little rain this winter. There we noticed that the Alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana) was coming into flower. They are not true flowers, but thousands of little brown buds containing pollen. They are called pollen cones. I managed to get a close-up of one of them, and also of new fruit forming. It is red now but will turn blue as it ripens.



The Alligator Juniper pollen cones



Alligator FR







New fruit on the Alligator Juniper







The next day Dave and I went to Bear Canyon and found that the great Arizona cypress trees (Cupressus arizonica) were also coming into flower. I managed to get a close up of the pollen cones, including some that evidently had finished releasing their pollen. Then for the first time Dave found what seems to be a seed cone (the female part of the plant.) Cypress FLm

Arizona cypress pollen cone






Cypress FLf



We think this might be the female, seed cone of the Arizona Cypress






Dropping down into the canyon we came across a large dried up plant which we think was a Pokeberry (Phytolacca icosandra). It had lots of last year’s fruit on it. The ones on the tips of the branches were deep red. Lower down they were grey and white. I love the close-up pictures we were able to get.

Pokeberry FRred



Pokeberry FRgreyLast year’s fruit on the Pokeberry






Lower down the stalk the old fruit turns grey








We also saw lots of willow in bloom, possibly Coyote willow (Salix exigua). It seemed much too early in the year, but the bees certainly knew that it was in flower. This is another dioecious plant. With my new close-up camera I was not only able to look more deeply at the male flowers, but for the first time, saw the actual flowers on the female shrubs. They are the tiny pale yellow endings to the green spikes.

Salix FLm

The male flowers of the willow


Salix FLf7





Salix FLfThe female flowers









A close-up showing the actual tiny flowers on the willow







Tomorrow (Feb. 1st) Owen and I have the opening of our Father/Son art show at Contreras Gallery in Tucson – 6 – 9 pm. All are welcome. The show goes until Feb. 22.


Yesterday Dave and I felt we needed to get out in the fresh air. I had been cooped up with a cold for over a week, and Dave had been busy. We both needed the renewal that we always find in the mountains.
Pond w butterfly

Looking straight down into a pond of very clear water with a white butterfly floating on the top





We did not have much time, so we drove just over seven miles up the mountain road and headed toward Bug Spring. Then we looked up at the peak straight ahead of us and felt it calling. A deer trail took us to the top. We were just about a mile above sea-level, commanding a beautiful view of the valley. We could see part of Tucson, and distant mountain ranges. The temperature was mild. It was the middle of January, so we did not expect to see any flowers, but there they were, smiling bravely at us. We even found a beautiful pool in the stream bed, complete with a floating white butterfly. We saw a few live butterflies and even heard the rush of a humming bird, but never saw it.


Looking down at an “invisible” flower – possibly Spurge – euphorbia pediculifera

Euphorbia melanadenia close up






A close up of the spurge showing their gorgeous flowers

By the time we reached home we had been gone only a few hours, but felt as refreshed as if we had been away for a week.





Goodding verbena – glandularia gooddingii, in full bloom on January 20









One of the lotus plants in full and glorious bloom





Manzanita jan

The manzanita shrubs are starting to bloom, with their white bell-like flowers, tinged with red


The forecast yesterday included high winds and a chance of rain. Ed and I set off for Saguaro National Park East and the Cactus Forest Trail. We walked past the old lime kilns, came to a junction in the trail and decided to head for Lime Falls. The trail in part follows a stream bed. There were even a few little pools of water left over from rain last week. As we walked I told Ed about my new interest in Spurges – members of the Euphorbia family. It is a very large family with 300 genera and about 7,500 species. Many of them have “invisible” flowers as I have noted in this blog before. Probably the most famous, especially this time of year, is Poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). Poinsettia flowers are very small, hidden in the center of the top leaves. The leaves are the showy part and may be red or a variety of other colors.
I told Ed that I had even thought of buying a book about this family, but learned that the one that seemed the most interesting costs about $500 (in a ten-volume set). It is definitely a fascinating family, but maybe not worth that much to me right now. Just then I looked down in the stream bed and saw a rather dark plant. Some of its leave had turned red. I knew at once it was Nose burn (Tragia nepetifolia), so called because its leaves irritate the skin. Until today I had never dared to pick the plant or inspect the flowers at close range. It seemed to both of us that it was not in bloom. A few days ago I had looked for flowers on this plant in Molino Basin and concluded that it was long past blooming, so I assumed that this one was no longer in flower. But then, realizing that we were dealing with an “invisible” flower, I leaned down, and inspected it with my loupe. To my delight it was in full and glorious bloom. I picked a sprig, not worrying at all about its stinging reputation. It was not very irritating after all. Here are the pictures I took of this fascinating plant.




Looking straight down at Nose burn in the stream bed. One would not expect to find flowers on this plant, which was about a foot wide.









This branch is a little the worse for wear. Note how some leaves have turned red. The flowering part is at the top of the branch.






This is a close-up of the flowering head.









And a close-up of the close-up.







We met a couple on the trail, and after a brief conversation realized that we had met them before much higher up on the mountain – an area called Bear Wallow. They were Rick and Pat, and were very much interested in all aspects of nature, so we introduced them to this “invisible” flower and invited them to join the blog so that they could see these pictures.

It was a very pleasant day in the desert. We even saw other plants in bloom, including a Brittle bush, Wire lettuce, Dalea (pulchra, we think), and now this Nose burn.

When I woke up this morning there were three tenths of an inch in the rain gauge, so the rain did come, and very welcome it is.