Category Archives: Nature

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

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.

FLOWERS IN DECEMBER

It is December 12 in sunny Arizona. We have had a number of days where we woke up to ice on our bird-bath. It is still cool at night, but today was sunny and pleasantly warm. Dave and I went to Molino Basin. We walked up the dry stream bed, only once coming across a little pool, left over from the rains just over two weeks ago. We looked for signs of aquatic life, but only found a few dead plants and insects in the water.
stream-bed The dry stream bed
Althogh we knew that we were in the middle of December, we looked out for wild-flowers, and found more than we expected.  Most abundant was the Hummingbird trumpet (Epilobium canum). Then we saw a few flowers of the Gumhead (Gymnosperma glutinosum) which we have seen blooming most months of the year, though its main season seems to be late fall. It was a great treat to see the blue flowers of Stemodia (Stemodia durantifolia). Then there were two more yellow composites: Little lemon head (Coreocarpus arizonicus), and, one of my favorites, Bur marigold (Bidens aurea).

humming-bird-trumpet Hummingbird trumpet (picture below – the same with butterflies)

hummmingbird-with-butterflies

gymnosperma Gumhead

stemodia Stemodia

little-lemon-head Little lemon head

bur-marigold Bur marigold

We sat on the warm sand as time disappeared and we felt the healing power of being in the mountains again.

Life in the Desert

Since I have taken an interest in “invisible flowers” it made sense for me to go to go to a talk called: “Desert mistletoe: A misunderstood, but beneficial native plant” given by Kelsey Yule. This was presented to the Tucson Chapter of the Arizona Native Plant Society. The following Saturday Kelsey lead a walk to look at these fascinating plants. She talked about their life cycle, and how their sticky fruits are sometimes stuck on the branches of a desert tree, maybe by a bird. For a while we wondered where our leader had gone, and then she came back with a short stick of wood. On it there was a tiny lump. We had to get out our loupes to see what it was like. Fortunately my camera has good close-up power, so I was able to get a photograph. In it you see the grey lump of the seed, and a tiny red tube arching up and down into the branch. She explained that the tube was a haustorium, which is like a root, but is different enough to have its own name. She said it would take five years before the plant developed to the point where it could grow and produce flowers and fruit. She also explained that the fruit is edible, but so far I have not dared to taste one.

phoradendron-californicum-1-m-and-f An Acacia with mistletoe in the foreground

kelsey-with-stick Kelsey with the stick

phoradendron-ca-taking-root The seed with haustorium on a Mesquite branch

phoradendron-californicum-8-cluster Mistletoe fruit

Our home was enlivened by the advent of granddaughter, Gillian, her husband Dave, and 3-year old Mae, and 9-month old Siena. As part of their time here we went to Agua Caliente Park in Tucson. The first thing that caught Dave’s eye was a thin snake curled up on the path, surrounding a little whitish ball of fur. It was eating a mouse, and we were able to watch until it was just a fat lump in its slim body. Later we went to the butterfly garden where the white milkweed flowers were being visited by about a dozen Queen butterflies. Mae was thrilled to touch one of them.

agua-caliente-park Agua Caliente park pond

snake-eats-mouse The snake holding a mouse

queen-butterfly-and-milkweed The Queen butterfly on a milkweed flower

dave-family-man Dave with Mae and Siena

gillian-getting-down-to-it Gillian getting down to serious photography

It is November, and there are not many flowers, but the Desert Mistletoe plants are full of fruit, much to the delight of birds and other animal life.

POND LIFE

Dave and I were exploring Bear Canyon in the Catalina Mountains. The stream was intermittent, with long stretches of dry sand, and occasional pools. When we got to the area pictured here, we sat down to relax and talk. The pool was about 10 by 20 feet, and a foot or two deep. We were on the north side of the water, so ripples in the surface sparkled in the sunlight.

bear-canyon-pond

Then we noticed what looked like a cluster of four stars moving erratically across the water. Looking through our binoculars we saw that each star was an indentation in the water caused by the legs of a water strider. We also noticed that the two front legs are very much smaller than the side ones, and created smaller stars, so there were six in all. (Gerridae are a family of insects in the order Hemiptera, commonly known as water striders, water bugs, pond skaters, water skippers, or jesus bugs. Wikipedia)

striderAn enlarged picture of the water strider

It was somewhat hypnotizing watching these insects dart around the pond. We imagined that this might be their whole world. In addition to skimming the top of the water, they occasionally jumped, doing so quickly enough for us to wonder where they had gone.

Then a white moth (or butterfly), landed on the pond, at first lying quite still. The water striders started to gather around, and looked as if they were going to feast on this delectable corpse, when, all of a sudden it started flapping its wings furiously. The encircling mob immediately retreated. We were fascinated by the sun reflecting off the ripples, and the shadows of the ripples making fast moving circular patterns on the bottom.

butterfly-skipper-ripples There seem to be about six striders in this view

After a few seconds of furious motion, the moth lay perfectly still. The striders cautiously started to move in, only to be panicked by another flurry of wing activity. We noticed that the beating wings did not leave the surface of the water. They were more like paddles on a row boat.

butterfly-ripples

In addition to the striders a couple of dragon flies came into the area right above the water, darting back and forth and then disappearing upstream. We were amazed at how they managed to avoid a spider’s web that hung in the still air.

The drama with the striders and the dying moth continued, and we left the area long before it was finished. We felt privileged to share their world, if only briefly.

BOOK SIGNING
This coming Sunday, November 6, I will have a book signing at our church – Sunrise Chapel.
The chapel is on 8421 E. Wrightstown Road, between Pantano and Camino Seco, in Tucson. The signing will be on the Patio from 12:15 to 1 pm. I will have these three books: “Bo and the Fly-Away Kite (written by Virginia Ames and illustrated by me), “Church Growth Pains and Pleasures” and “More Wildflowers and Trees” containing photographs of 343 plants thast did not make it into my other books: “Mountain Wildflowers” and Mountain Trees” which will also be on sale. Notecards of my wildflower portraits will be available. I would love to see you there.

cover-3-books

OCTOBER PLEASURES

It has been a glorious fall in the Catalina mountains. I had a walk with Ed, during which we came across an animal that looked, at first, to be a snake with its tail cut off. Then we saw the four legs, and knew it was a lizard. I had not seen one with the same markings before. There are many varieties of lizards in Southern Arizona (there are about 6000 in the whole world), and we were not sure what this one was. It had lost about half of its body length but evidently was surviving well in the leaf litter. It looks like it could be a Madrean Alligator Lizard (Elgaria kingii).

tailless-lizard

Ed and I enjoyed the fall colors immensely. Two days later my niece, Marjorie, and I drove up the mountain to take in the special beauty of this season. We stopped first in Bear Wallow to see the colors there. Then we proceeded to the parking lot of the Ski area. We were enchanted by the Aspen trees in full color. I usually think of Aspen leaves as all turning yellow in the fall, unlike the big Tooth maples that come in a variety of colors. It did not take long poking through the litter on the ground, to find that just as there are no two snow flakes alike, it seems that no two aspen leaves are alike either. This little sample shows just five leaves. Note the color and shape differences. We were particularly struck by those that were deep red. From a distance, the combination of the usual yellow and the occasional red, makes the overall effect orange. Had we stayed to explore this more, we think we would have found many more colors and shapes.

aspens

populus-tremuloides-lf-fall1-set

Coming down the mountain we pulled off to see one of Marjorie’s favorite areas. It is in a pine forest, with interesting rock formations. The low area had lots of desert marigold (Tagetes lemmoni) in full and glorious bloom. Then I came upon a circle of stones – perhaps a camp fire – with a plant growing through the rocks. Its leaves looked very much out of place. Marjorie said that they could be Nasturtium, a popular bedding plant. This is the first time we had seen this plant growing in the mountains. Nasturtiums (Genus Tropaeolum), are native to Central and south America. Watercress is called: Nasturtium officinale, but the plants are totally different. It seems that watercress and nasturtium produce a similar oil. The name Nasturtium comes from roots meaning “nose distorting”. I imagine that Nasturtium and Watercress smell about the same.
nasturtium-lf

nasturtium-officinale-6

The single leaf, we think, is Nasturtium. The picture below it is of watercress.
Every trip up the mountain brings sights worth enjoying. There are not many flowers blooming in October, but parts of the mountain are ablaze in color.

A CAMOUFLAGE SPIDER AND A CHILDREN’S BOOK

Recently I was exploring the area south of the Santa Rita mountains with my friend, Jim. We were particularly interested in grasses, but kept coming across other plants of interest, including this one with the yellow flowers (Melampodium). When I processed the picture I noticed what seemed to be a yellow flower right at the base of the stem. Then I zoomed in and found it was a spider! I believe it is a Goldenrod Crab Spider (Misumena vatia). Years ago I was processing a picture of a Bouvardia plant, and found one tucked in among the red tubular flowers. It seems that this particular spider does not make a web. Its color enables it to perch unseen on a yellow flower and just wait for insects to land on it. Maybe this one was trying out a red one to see if that would also do the trick. These spiders also come in white, and can change color to match the flowers they visit.

melampodium-longipes-3

melampodium-longipes-spider

yellow-spider

Recently my old friend, Virginia Ames, published her charming book: Bo and the Fly-Away Kite. She is old in two senses. I have known her for many years, first meting her in 1982 – 34 years ago. Now she is 102. And this is her first children’s book which I was honored to illustrate for her. She is an accomplished water-color artist herself, but chose to have me do the illustrations. It is unique in having the text in three languages, since the story includes three boys – English speaking, Spanish speaking, and O’odham speaking. Here is the link on Amazon.com.

https://www.amazon.com/Bo-Fly-Away-Kite-Virginia-Ames/dp/1533561524/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1475246820&sr=1-7&keywords=virginia+ames#reader_1533561524

SMALL WONDERSS

After some wonderful summer rains, the trails are rich with flowers. Some of the smallest plants bloom at this time of year, especially the little Sixweeks Prairie Clover (Dalea polygonoides), and Drymaria (Drymaria leptophylla). Last Thursday we had a plant walk in the mountains after heavy rains the day before. At 8000′ the mountains were in cloud and each twig and flower was covered with dew. It was breathtakingly beautiful. We saw over sixty different species in bloom, and thousands of flowers.

dalea-polygonoides-3f

dalea-polygonoides-7f Sixweeks Prairie Clover

drymaria-leptophylla-3f

drymaria-leptophyllafl Drymaria

Recently I printed a limited edition of my new plant book. I call it “More” because it is a kind of supplement to the books: “Mountain Wildflowers” and “Mountain Trees”. So far I have just sold it out of the trunk of my car but now people who are in Southern Arizona can find it at the Living Rainbow store in Summerhaven on the Catalina Mountains.

cover-more

Jim Verrier and I are working on a book showing the beauty of grasses, and I am getting ready to format a book which I will call “Small Wonders” showing the beauty of little plants like the Sixweeks Prairie Clover and Drymaria, plus hundreds of others, Many of which I call “Invisible Flowers.”

Recently I have actually met some flowers that I had only read about in books. They are called “cleistogamic” referring to the fact that the flowers are entirely enclosed and never open to the fresh air. They pollinate themselves. My most recent find was several of these on a Pennelia plant (Pennellia longifolia). Prior to that I had photographed cleistogamic flowers in the violet family (Viola umbraticola, or Blue Violet.)

pennellia-longifolia-cleistofl-5 Pennellia with the round dot being an enclosed flower

pennellia-longifolia-cleistofl

The enclosed flower, above, and a cutaway showing the interior, below

pennellia-longifolia-cleistofl-inside

Nature never cease to amazes and delight me. There is plenty of time for more flowers before the cold weather comes.