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.
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.
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.
Sixweeks Prairie Clover
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.
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 with the round dot being an enclosed flower
The enclosed flower, above, and a cutaway showing the interior, below
Nature never cease to amazes and delight me. There is plenty of time for more flowers before the cold weather comes.
We have been going on plant walks every week since June, and every week we see fewer flower species in bloom than usual. The last rain here was April 11 – just under eleven weeks ago. What a thrill today when the heavens opened and almost an inch of rain was recorded in our rain gauge! In a few hours the temperature dropped thirty degrees.
There are some wildflowers in bloom, including three that I have never noticed before. One of them had been on Joan Tedford’s plant list for years, but I have never seen it. Perhaps this is because it has leaves that look very much like the walnut trees which grow in the same area (about 6000 feet in elevation.) When I saw the leaves I thought it was just another walnut tree, but then I looked at the flower cluster and knew that this was a plant I had never noticed in the mountains. I could have seen it in other places in America since apparently it is the only tree or shrub that can be found in all of the lower 48 States. It is called Smooth Sumac (Rhus glabra). I look forward to seeing the red berries, and its brilliant red leaves in the autumn.
Sumac flower cluster
Another new plant – not yet identified – looks like a lactuca, but it seems to be one that I have never seen before. The third new plant is a Galium. I am waiting to photograph it when it starts to bloom in a week or so.
Mystery plant close up
I recently produced a new book of plant photographs. I call it – “More Wildflowers and Trees.” It includes photographs of plants that did not make it into my books: “Mountain Wildflowers of Southern Arizona” and “Mountain Trees of Southern Arizona”.
The new book has been printed in a very limited edition. Later I plan to print more. It contains photographs of 342 species.
On Father’s Day (June 19) the Arizona Daily Star had a two-page article titled “Art Strengthens Family Ties – Father, son share love for creating watercolors.” This excellent article was written by Angela Pittenger and features our son, Owen, and me plus pictures of our paintings. I have had many very positive responses to the article.
“Fall Leaves” – One of the paintings in the article:
We are all excited about the rain that fell today, and hope for more rain in the coming weeks. This should bring out many more of the wildflowers that I love so much.
Ed and I were walking along the Sunset Trail in the Catalina Mountains, and my eyes were drawn to these Douglas Fir trees. I have seen one-sided trees like this on high mountain ridges where the prevailing winds fashion them into a flag shape, but we were in a canyon about a thousand feet down from the highest poInt in the range, and these were the only two with this particular shape. I suspect that the wind at times can come roaring up the canyon from the right in this photograph. And then again, there may be another explanation for this unusual shape (called Krummholz or Flag trees).
Now it is June and the Cow Parsnip plants are huge and showy. Their botanical name, Heracleum lanatum, means Woolly Hercules, the giant of Greek mythology (Heracles in Greek, Hercules in Latin). This plant is in the carrot family and can be as high as six feet tall with large leaves and inflorescences. Using my close-up camera I was able to photograph an individual flower from one of the many clusters that make up the entire flowering head. I notice that these little flowers tend to be lopsided, with small petals facing to the center of the cluster,, and larger ones facing the outside.
It has been very dry and hot (many days over 100 in the valley), but the Coral Bells (Heuchera sanguinea) are flourishing and are a treat to see.
Some time ago I heard from Jeannie at the Ranger’s Station that one of my favorite trees on the mountain had fallen. Early this month (May) we saw a front page article in the Arizona Daily Star: “100-foot tree towers no more in Catalinas”, by Doug Kreutz. Then I knew that it was time to go and see my old friend. I have been hiking in the Catalina Mountains for thirty-four years and have come to know and love this very special tree. It was on a West-facing slope high in the mountain, and leaned over the trail. I have done a number of paintings of this magnificent specimen. This is one of them
I recalled my fear for the tree in the Aspen fire of 2003 when much of the town of Summerhaven and huge stretches of forest burned. When I finally got to visit the tree again, about a year after the fire I noticed it was in fine shape. I apologized to it for doubting its ability to deal with fire. In its two or three hundred year history it must have been scorched many times.
In the end it was not fire that brought the tree down, but internal decay. This made it vulnerable to the wind.
Soon after reading the article my wife and I went to hike at the top of the mountains so that I could see it for myself. Considering the angle of the tree I knew it must have completely blocked the trail when it fell. Sure enough I found the trail impassable, but people had made a route up the slope to the base of the stump and around the other side. I had a few moments of silent respect for the tree, and returned a little saddened by our loss
It was a Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii). This is a species that is second only to the Redwoods in the height to which it can attain. Fortunately there are other giants in the Catalina Mountains, but none that I know of with this much character. We will no doubt see it lying across the trail for a long time to come, and will miss its majestic presence on the mountain.
The trail was about in the middle of this fallen trunk
This is where the trail used to be
The trail now goes just by the stump
Peace in the Grotto
El Nino promised rains and wonderful flowers but the promises have not been kept. So far this has been an average Spring. Here is a picture of two of the favorite Spring flowers – the Mexican Gold Poppy (Eschscholtzia californica ssp. Mexicana) and Wild Heliotrope (Phacelia distans). We saw a few patches of these in Catalina State Park. Other years we would have seen fields of them.
Yesterday Dave and I went to visit one of our favorite spots in the Catalina Mountains. To reach it we followed an unmarked trail up a canyon to a place where the stream drops about fifteen feet into a little pool. On the way we stopped to enjoy the view and have a little rest. We were struck by the quiet in this remote canyon. It was not completely silent. After sitting a while we could hear a background of insect and bird noises, together with the gentle flow of air through the flowers, shrubs, and trees.
There were wildflowers here and there, like this beautiful patch of Parry’s Penstemon (Penstemon parryi) just by the trail.
When we reached the grotto those noises were eclipsed by the water dropping down from the cliff, and splashing on rocks and mosses before landing in the very small pool at the base. Some of the drops refreshed us with a very gentle rain.
We have been there when the pool was the size of one of those above-ground pools that are popular in Tucson back yards. Today it was scarcely three by two feet. With the binoculars we caught a glimpse into its life. There were water scorpions, water striders and other aquatic bugs with their zig-zag courses skimming on the water and bouncing into each other like bumper cars at the fair. Occasionally one would dive the six inches or so to the bottom. Over time we saw lots of different species and couldn’t help wondering what they would do when the pool dried up completely in a few weeks. We had a quarter of an inch of rain on February 1st. The only rain since then was a tenth of an inch two weeks ago. Even so the snow melt from higher in the mountains continues to provide life-giving water to the lower canyons and every day we can expect to find new flower species coming into bloom.
The Grotto with a trickle of water. Below a close-up with yellow monkey flower
On our walks lately we have seen plants in bloom but they are few and far between. We did see a Desert Spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri) with two flowering stalks. Normally they only have one that stays on the plant for more than a year. At least we think it was one plant. Sometimes plants grow so close together that their leaves become entwined to the point that it is hard to tell whether it is one or two.
The Teddy bear cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii) has some of the densest collection of spines of all the cactus species around here. Some birds build their nests right in the thick of them where they can feel really safe and secure. How they manage to fly in and out without impaling themselves is quite a mystery. Recently we came across a dead bird lying on one of their branches. We assumed that it had been flying in and out of the plant successfully until it finally got hooked. Of course it could have died in the air and simply fallen to this resting place.
My wife and I occasionally have a burst of energy to de-junk our house. Last week we tackled the shed throwing out many large plastic bags of trash. And then, to my amazement, I found two oil paintings that I had done years ago. They were tucked away in the back corner. The fact that I had not signed them proves that they have never been in a show. As it turns out our son, Owen, and I are having a joint show at the Contreras Gallery (110 E. 6th St., Tucson) the whole month of March. We will frame these two oil paintings and make them the center pieces of my part of the show. You are all invited to the opening of the show, 6-9 pm, Saturday March 5, 2016.
“Douglas fir” oil painting (30×24 inches)
“Navajo country” oil painting (24×30 inches)
In a few weeks we will have lots of flowers to enjoy and talk about.
For over thirty years I have been admiring the great columnar cactus, Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea). When they are about 60 years old some, but not all, of them start growing arms. Much later, some of the arms might begin to grow arms. What if those arms grew arms? About ten years ago I became obsessed with the task of finding one with an arm on an arm on an arm, what you might call a third-generation outgrowth.
On one of our hikes in Catalina State Park years ago we saw one but I did not get a photograph. Since then every time I go to that park I look for it. So far no luck. But last week Ed and I were walking on the Pink Hill Trail in Saguaro National Park East, and there was a giant Saguaro. Ed pointed out that it did indeed have an arm on an arm on an arm.
We hiked again yesterday, this time on the Ridge Trail on the south side of the Rincon mountains. The trail ends at a beautiful outcropping of rock with a panoramic view of the area. We noticed a Saguaro whose south side was almost pure white. We studied it a little and came to the conclusion that it had been pelted with stones over the years and, for some reason the whole south flank turned white.
Then, as we retraced our steps, we looked in the distance at a Saguaro that looked like it had just had a terrible shock, with hair standing on end. Of course we were seeing two saguaros. The one behind was now a skeleton with its ribs pointing skyward.
Then we saw an Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) with several of its branches turning downwards and then turning back skyward. It must have been injured in some way.
It is the day before Christmas, and we are still seeing plants in bloom. Yesterday it was Pringle’s Prairie Clover (Dalea pringlei), and Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata) plus lots of dogweed (Thymophylla pentachaeta) and others. Every month of the year we find plants in bloom. Soon the early spring flowers will brighten our walks.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of you
Lately Ed and I have been confining our weekly hikes to the desert around Tucson but last Wednesday both of us felt a desire to drive up into the Catalina Mountains. Since it was 40 degrees in the valley when I woke up, and the mountain temperatures are usually 20 or 30 degrees cooler than the valley, I worried a little about being too cold. My worries were unfounded. We drove up the mountain, stopping first at Molino Canyon Vista, where we saw fleabane, trixis, tufted evening primrose and a few other species in bloom. We continued up the mountain to Marshall Gulch at about 8000 feet. It was a sunny day with a light cloud cover. We hiked along the stream (Sabino Creek), and were sure we would not see any flowers in bloom this time of the year. The air was clear and the woods beautiful in the winter sunlight and we were in bliss. We noticed the beautiful ripple patterns of foam on the stream in certain spots (see the pictures).
The first picture looks like a skeleton but it is a row of foam spreading out from a tiny waterfall.
The last two pictures show ice along the stream.
There were small patches of snow were here and there in the woods, and many of the rocks along the stream were covered in ice. We joked about getting a special prize if we saw any flowers in bloom. Then, on the way back, we almost stepped on a flower in the middle of the trail. Well, it wasn’t exactly a flower, but the the tip of a Ponderosa Pine Branch, evidently broken off by a squirrel, with a cluster of female flower cones on it. This tree was blooming way out of season.
We enjoyed the soft blue color of these Ponderosa female flower cones.
The parts of the trail nearest the creek were chilly, since cold air tends to gather in low places, but not drastically cold. By the time we got near the car park we were ready to take off our jackets. In less than a week Marshall Gulch will be closed for the winter, so we were especially pleased to have such a pleasant walk this deep into December.
Last Wednesday Ed and I hiked in Molino Basin. We were delighted to see a number of flower species still in bloom. Perhaps the most abundant was Spreading Fleabane (Erigeron divergens). We saw hundreds of these plants in bloom.
There was also quite a few Gymnosperma plants in flower (Gymnosperma glutinosum). This is a plant that blooms almost any time of the year but seemed particularly plentiful today.
Then there was the Narrow-leaf Aster (dieteria asteroides), with its beautiful bluish-purple flowers.
Much to our surprise we found a Tufted Evening Primrose in bloom (Oenothera caespitosa). We normally see these flowers from March to July. Since it is an evening bloomer the flowers usually close by about 9 or 10 in the morning. We only saw one on this walk, around noon the day before American Thanksgiving. What a beauty.
The Squaw Bush (Rhus aromatica ver. Trilobata) was not in flower but it called out to us with its fall coloring and red fruit.
Our plant walk that day was greatly enriched by the people we met on the trail, a couple from Montana, and family from Long Island, New York to mention just a few of them.
Today I walked with another friend on the Finger Rock trail. Our bird bath was frozen solid last night, but later in the morning the warm sun made us quite comfortable as we made our way up the trail. People were coming and going with smiling faces. There were a few species in bloom, notably Leadwort (Plumbago zeylanica), with its beautiful tubular white flowers and copper-colored fall leaves.
We also saw lots of seedlings promising a glorious spring.