It has been almost three months since we had rain in the Tucson valley, and there is no rain in the seven-day forecast. A couple of weeks ago snow fell in the Catalina Mountains, and my friend and I took a brief walk in the snow to say we did but it did not rain in our part of the valley.
The summer rains, called the monsoons, are now given official starting and ending points – June 15 to September 30. I looked in my personal rain log, and saw that we had no rain at all in the month of June 2017. July was good, with 11 days of precipitation. There were five more in August, and just three very light rainfalls in September. The last was September 9. Between then and the end of the calendar year we had only one rain fall that was more than a tenth of an inch (December 17). This lack of winter rain meant that we had very few Spring flowers in 2018.
It is no surprise, then, that on recent walks, the ground seems incurably dry. And yet there are flowers, and some of them look as healthy as I have ever seen them. It is just that there are not as many as usual. The air is clean, the gentle breeze refreshing, and it feels good just to be alive in these pine forests. Here are some that we saw in flower.
Blue Flax (Linum Lewisii)
Palmer Lupine (Lupinus palmeri)
New Mexico Groundsel (Packera neomexicana)
The Tucson valley is getting hotter every day. Time to go up into the mountains.
Steve and I drove to Bear Wallow where it is thirty degrees cooler and the heavily wooded forest provides ample shade. Soon we were making our way up an unmarked trail, enjoying a gentle breeze and a deep feeling of peace.
We were not expecting any flowers. It has been much too dry, and too long sing significant rain. Even so we saw a patch of Wooton Ragwort (Senecio wootonii) with bright yellow flowers. Then I noticed tiny patches of white in a shady area by the trail. I looked more closely and saw the dainty orchids known as Spring Coralroot (Corallorhiza wisteriana). This diminutive plant is the first of the three Coralroot orchids to bloom every year, hence the name. The roots are indeed shaped like coral, and there is no green, since these plants do not produce any food themselves. Their roots are linked with fungus which in turn connects with the roots of trees. The plant has no leaves, just a thin red stalk with a cluster of flowers at the top each one facing outward, and each with a white lip. We saw about a dozen of these in our half-mile trek up the mountain. I wanted to find one in full sunlight. It was not until we got to our turn-around point and sat down on a log that we noticed one just a few feet in front of us. Later in the year the spotted and striped coral roots will start their blooming season.
Steve was ahead of me on the trail, and was impressed with the trunk of a huge tree. We could hardly see its top. Fortunately the trail switched back so that we were looking at the middle of the tree. Above it split into a Y shape, which is unusual for a conifer. We calculated that it must be a hundred feet tall, which is only about a third the height of the great Sequoias, but even so this tree, the Douglas Fir, is the Giant species in Arizona.
As we drove down the mountain Steve commented that in these few hours we had the feeling of having been on a refreshing vacation.
With a dry winter, and rainless spring, we do not expect to see many wildflowers these days. Those we see come as a special treat, like this Bristlehead (Carphochaete bigelovii). The flowers are both pink and white, and when it bears fruit the seed head looks for all the world like a brush with its bristles splayed as if it had just been crushed against a rock.
Here is the Bristlehead plant with a close-up of the flowers below it, and a picture of the fruit below that.
Speaking of rocks, my friend Dave and I for the first time explored an area on the mountains we have driven past hundreds of times. It is an area alongside the Catalina highway, just past Geology Vista.
It just took a few minutes of weaving our way through some fairly thick brush before we came out onto an area surrounded by rocks weathered into fantastic shapes. It reminded me of Echo Canyon in the Chiricahua National Monument. But the wind was fierce and chilly, so we did not linger long. Instead we drove down to Bear Canyon for our snack. What a treat to find this fascinating tumble of boulders.
Here is Dave on the rocks. Then he took a picture of me.
I had a wonderful time at the Tucson Festival of Books. I sold about 24 books and about 75 notecards. But the main joy was talking with friends new and old. It was especially fun showing people mock-ups of three new books I am working on:
1. Glorious Grasses (with Jim Verrier)
2. Small Wonders (tiny, nearly invisible flowers)
3. An illustrated guide to the Santa Catalina Mountains – using my paintings to illustrate various parts of the range.
Here is one of the paintings for the book. It is of Windy Point, 14 miles up the Hitchcock Highway, with a great view to the South and West, an ideal place to watch the sunset.
Recently I had the pleasure of doing a plant walk with Bruce Homer Smith, who has developed an excellent website where people can easily look up wildflowers growing in California. Here is a link to his site, which has more than ninety-five thousand pictures, about 4248 of them taken by me (marked with an FR). Since it has been such a dry winter, we did not see many plants in bloom, but had a lot to look at and enjoy in Molino Basin.
Here is his web site:
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
Hooker Evening- Primrose – Oenothera elata var.hirsutissima (only one)
Western Sneezeweed – Hymenoxys hoopesii (a few)
Wheeler Thistle – Cirsium wheeleri (several, in a much deeper purple color than we normally see in the Summer)
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.
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.
In spite of two months without rain, the Desert Milkweed (Asclepias subulata) in the same back yard is in full and glorious bloom.
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.
Now that the summer rains have begun, we can expect a profusion of wildflowers in the mountains.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Every time we hike, we see new plants coming into full and glorious bloom.
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.
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.
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.
A little farther on an almost complete Saguaro Skeleton had fallen across the arroyo.
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.
On our return trip we found three species of plants in bloom: Desert Zinnia (Zinnia acerosa), Filaree (Erodium cicutarium), and Brittlebush (Encelia farinosa.)
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.