Category Archives: Grasses


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).


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








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.


Ed and I were walking along the Oracle Ridge Trail, talking about ways of achieving peace of mind. I mentioned how one of the simplest ways to do that is to live in the present. If we can do that we avoid much of the negativity associated with regret of the past, and dread of the future. He mentioned that our nature hikes help to keep us in the present, since we are constantly tuned in to the things in our environment. It was a good thought, and helped to explain why I am mostly in bliss when I am on the trail. I have been on about 120 nature walks in the last nine months, and have found that there is always something to fascinate and please.

Here are some recent gifts:

A brief and pleasant encounter with a rattle snake in the Bug Spring Trail parking lot. The snake even moved out of the vegetation and posed on the paved surface. A real beauty. Just nearby I saw a lizard, and felt like giving it a warning about the snake. Then I rethought my plan, and considered alerting the rattlesnake that there was a meal near by. This reminded me of the time when I was a young boy, and a bunch of us were walking along the tracks by the Penepac Creek in Eastern Pennsylvania. We noticed a snake just starting to swallow a frog. We were indignant, and pulled the frog from its mouth just in time. We thought we were doing good. But who were we to take sides? I realized that this new situation was similar, and I just had to step back and let nature take its course  Black tailed rattlesnake

Black-tailed rattlesnake  Crotalus molossus






On a nature walk south of the Santa Rita mountains we came across an especially spectacular caterpillar. There were three of them on the stem of an Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) which seems to be its favorite food plant. Calleta silkmoth larva



Silk worm larva
Eupackardia calleta







Fouquieria splendensPL

Ocotillo – Fouquieria splendens









A more recent walk took us to see the rare (at least in this part of Arizona) and beautiful Pigeon berry. Many in our group had never seen it before. I was able to photograph the plant, and close in on its soft pink flowers. rivina humilis PL





Pigeon berry or rouge plant – Rivina humilis





Rivina humilis 6


Part of the flowering head







Rivina humilis 7



A close-up of an individual flower





Jim and I spent the best part of a day exploring grasses. I added sixteen to my list of ones that I have photographed, including this little beauty, Fluff-grass, another gift of nature.

Erioneuron pulchellum 3




Erioneuron pulchellum 6Erioneuron pulchellum 9mFluff grass – Erioneuron pulchellum






A close up of one of the heads






The tiny anther


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.


On our mountain hikes we have come across some animals that I have rarely seen. One was a little black mouse, scurrying along so fast that I only managed to catch a picture of the rear department. His head was tucked under a fallen leaf.Mountain  mouse











A few days later we came across this pocket gopher at 9000 feet, almost the very top of the mountain. The gopher was just inches away from the parking lot (it was a Saturday and the mountain was very crowded.) We watched as he poked his head out, moved a little stone, then withdrew, only to emerge later in a burst of soil, always coming out of the hole head first. He even ventured a few feet away from the hole, and held still as if posing for my camera.





The name “pocket gopher” refers to the pouches in their cheeks where they hold food





Gopher2Pocket gopher











They back into their holes, using their tails to feel their way





We are still waiting for rain. There was a quarter of an inch on the mountain last week, much of it in the form of hail, but nothing in the valley. The day time temperatures often rise above 100 degrees. About an inch of water evaporates from a bird bath in a 24 period this time of the year. Since our bird bath is an inch and a quarter deep, I need to fill it almost every day.

We managed to find some grasses, including Weeping love grass (Eragrostis curvula), a non-native species. It is an elegant looking grass. The flower parts are very small. I was pleased with this picture showing the anthers (in yellow) and the white fern-like stigmas.

Eragrostis curvula3Eragrostis curvula 7b


I recently visited Desert Survivors Nursery (1020 W. Starr Pass in Tucson) where Jim Verrier is Nursery Director. He is the brave soul who invited me to work on a book of grasses with him. When I got there he pointed out Bamboo Muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa).  I was able to photograph the whole plant (it is quite large), and then zoom in on it to show more details as in these photographs. Two days later he and I did a plant walk in Sabino Canyon. Recent rain has brought a new crop of seedlings, and we saw about a dozen grasses coming into flower.

Muhlenbergia dumosa1b

A clump of Bamboo Muhly at Desert Survivors Nursery







Muhlenbergia dumosa5

A branch of Bamboo Muhly









Muhlenbergia dumosa6

Zooming in to see more detail









Muhlenbergia dumosa9fl

The pink is my finger. There are flowers in this picture. Can you spot them?






We also walked along Sabino Creek with the water rushing by and nurturing all kinds of interesting aquatic plants.



Sabino Creek with a clump of Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens)





On the way back we saw some Natal grass (Melinis repens) that I have photographed before, but this time I was able to get an especially good close-up of the flowers.

Melinis repens9mf


Natal grass flowers. The feathery ones are female, and the two yellow ones are male.






Two nights ago our son, Owen, and I were guest speakers at the Friends of Western Art meeting. Owen began with a humorous and challenging talk about how watercolors are better than oils. The fact that we were in a room richly equipped with excellent oil paintings made his remarks seem especially daring. I talked about how I got into painting and, much later, into nature photography. Our talks seemed to have been very well received and we thoroughly enjoyed the company of friends new and old.

The next big event for me is the Tucson Festival of Books where I will be spending time in four different booths. Since we had a good rain a few days ago there will be new life to enjoy in the Catalina Mountains.


It was a cool, cloudy day, so Ed and I decided to stay in the valley for our weekly hike. Something drew us to explore Milagro Canyon. We found many flower species in bloom, some with only a few specimens, others out in full force, like the gorgeous Indigo Bush (Dalea pulchra) loaded with its wine colored flowers. The other was one that I have not seen very often, Arizona water-willow (Justicia candicans) also called Red justicia (which puzzles me since candicans means “white”.)
Justicia c

Arizona water-willow plant






Justicia c6




The top of Arizona water-willow with lots of blooms



Justicia c7





A close up of two flowers







The stream bed was choked with grasses, most of them invasive species, notably these two bad actors – Fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum) and Buffelgrass (Pennisetum ciliare). Not surprisingly since they are of the same genus, they have similar flowering stalks as shown in this picture. The leaves are very different. Fountain grass has mostly straight leaves that splay out like a fountain. Buffelgrass leaves are wider and more irregular in their growth pattern. Fountain grasses is the dominant species in this canyon and is larger than Buffelgrass.
two bad grasses


On the left is Fountain Grass with straight leaves

On the right is Buffelgrass with irregular leaves


En route Ed began talking about Ragged rock flower (Crossosoma bigelovii), and very soon we spotted some up on the cliff above us. We wondered if we unconsciously noticed it, discussed it, and then spotted it or whether it was just a coincidence that we saw it almost immediately after discussing it. We love it especially for its beautiful scent. Speaking of scent, we were also delighted with the fragrance coming from some mistletoe.



Flat honeycombs


On our way up the rocky canyon, we looked up and saw something like stalactites hanging in a recess in the cliff. Our trusty binoculars revealed that these were honeycombs. Neither of us had ever seen the likes of it. We did not stay to look at it more closely, concerned that the hives might be the work of the infamous killer bees.

We got about as high in the canyon as we wanted to go, and stopped to rest. Sitting down for our break, Ed looked up into the gray sky and saw a glow where the sun was obscured by the clouds. We liked the way this glow was framed by the arms of a saguaro cactus far above us. This was about as much of the sun as we saw all day.
Ed looking up

Ed looking up at the gray sky with fountain grass clumps





saguaro sky

The sun just barely showing through a saguaro cactus







On the return to the car we saw five flower species that we had not noted on the outward journey, making a total of about twenty for the day. Not bad for early February.


Dave and I hiked in Ventana Canyon yesterday – so named because “Ventana” is Spanish for window. High up the trail you come to a window – about 15 feet high and  25 feet wide.

This map shows the trail we followed. The trails we have hiked are marked in red.



This brought back memories for me. Twenty-eight years ago my wife and I hiked up to the window. The plan was to slog the 9 plus miles up to the Window on the Esperero Trail from Sabino Canyon, (just over 9 miles), have the wedding, spend the night near by, and then in the morning hike down the Ventana Canyon trail, 6.4 miles to where we had parked a second set of cars. But there was a snag. Most of our gear was packed onto three horses that were going meet us, bringing water, sleeping bags, food and the bride’s wedding dress. We waited and waited for them to arrive, and finally decided to head to the Window before it got too late.  As we walked the last two miles toward the Window we passed a lone hiker. Louise and I were at the end of the line. By the time the hiker met us he was mumbling under his breath: “Three days of hiking without seeing a soul, and now I meet a whole damn wedding party.” (There were 11 of us)

After the wedding we headed back the way we had come, going as fast as we could so as to not have to hike too long in the heat of the next day. At a certain point it was simply too dark, so we lay down on the trail where we were, and fitfully slept until the early light of morning woke us. We hurried down into the 109 degree heat of a Tucson summer day. It took quite a while for us to cool down  I had to immerse myself in a tub of cold water. The following day we felt fine.

Whenever I hike in Ventana Canyon, I think of that adventure. Yesterday started cool, but got warmer, even though it is mid December. The first thing we noticed was the very tall grass called Giant Reed (Arundo donax). Some time ago I went to a talk in Sabino Canyon where they spoke of the task of eradicating this very aggressive plant from the Canyon. It had taken over large areas, and was crowding out the native species of trees and plants. Dave and I went off the trail to get a closer look at this member of the grass family. The plant in this picture is 15 feet tall at least. Farther along the trail we saw other clumps of the grass, and commented on how difficult it would be to keep it from taking over Ventana Canyon.

Arundo donax3Arundo donax1






Above is a picture of just one Giant Reed plant

The plant on the left is at least 15 feet tall.



After exploring the trail and the stream bed, we came to a nice resting place. There were thousands of seedlings carpeting the ground. I particularly noticed this one. Dicot plants send up a shoot which branches into two leaves (from Dicotyledon, meaning two Cotyledons, or seed leaves). These leaves look much the same in a variety of plants. Then the plant produces new leaves recognizable as belonging to a certain species. In this case we can see from the crinkled leaves, that it is a Phacelia (Heliotrope or Scorpion weed). In a few months the floor of the canyon will be graced with a light purple haze from the beautiful flowers of this plant, mixed in with the blues, golds and whites of thousands of other wildflowers.

Phacelia seedling


Ed’s brother, Bob was visiting, so last Wednesday the three of us hiked up Bear Canyon toward Seven Falls. It was a little cool at first, but after a short time we were peeling off layers of clothes and basking in the warmth of the sun. The canyon was bright with the gold color of autumn leaves, including Velvet Ash, Fremont Cottonwood and Bonpland willow. Added to this was the rich orange-brown color of the Arizona Sycamore. There was plenty of water in the creek from snow melt higher up the mountain. Seven falls1

I was particularly conscious of the grasses, noting with some regret, how many of them were not native to this area. We saw lots of  the admittedly beautiful but yet threatening Fountain grass, (which was deliberately introduced into Southern Arizona in the 1940’s). Its near relative, Buffel grass (Pennisetum ciliare), is even more of a problem. Both were in bloom. I couldn’t help noticing the similarities and differences between the foliage of the Fountain grass (Pennisetum setaceum) and the local Deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens).

Pennisetum setaceum3




Fountain grass







Muhlenbergia rigens3d


Deer grass




Muhlenbergia rigens6




Close up of Deer grass male flowers







There have been  some heavy rains recently leading to fresh growth. Places along the trail were totally covered with little green seedlings. If we get some more rain early in the New Year, we should have a spectacular display of Spring flowers in just a few months.

SeedlingsA carpet of green seedlings