The Christmas rush is over. Ed and I found beautiful quiet in the Agua Verde Creek, just below Colossal Cave Park near Tucson, Arizona. The temperature was in the high sixties.
As we made our way down the wash we came to some very old tree trunks in fantastic shapes. We started making guesses as to what they were, and eventually decided that they had to be Velvet Ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica subsp. velutina). We had not seen such thick trunks on the Ash trees we have come upon in the Catalina mountains. In some cases there were multiple trunks – perhaps originally three trees that somehow merged into one.
One Cottonwood (Populus fremontii) had a very long root running along the wash. The root, or whatever it is, was almost as long as the tree is high. Ed is trying to figure that out.
To the north we could see Rincon peak (8482 feet at the top). The sky was filled with whimsical clouds called mares tails.
There were no wildflowers in bloom, but we had fun trying to identify plants that had dried up. Cocklebur, desert cotton, prickly poppy to mention a few.
We had over a half an inch of rain eleven days ago, but only a total of about a third of an inch more since the third week of August, so we were surprised to see whole stretches of very damp sand in the wash and even two little ponds. We need winter rains to ensure a wildflower show in the Spring.
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.
As we wander the mountains north of Tucson we often come across unusual growths on plants, especially trees. At first glance they look like some kind of fruit. Since acorns are easy to recognize, the growths on different oak species clearly must be something else. It turns out that they are galls. These are formed by the tree in response to an irritation by an insect, mite or fungus. Here are three different oak species with their galls:
Silverleaf oak – (Quercus hypoleucoides) – This gall is a perfectly round sphere, about the size of a ping-pong ball. This is formed by a wasp that lands on a twig, irritates it in some way, and then deposits eggs in the growing gall. The eggs are well protected (and fed) as they develop. Once I cut a gall open. At first I thought there was nothing in it – just a little dark spot at the very center. Taking out my loupe I noticed that the black spot was actually a group of maybe a half dozen tiny little wasps. When the wasps hatch they eat their way out of the gall, leaving a perfectly round hole to show their exit.
Once I saw a very different collection of galls on the Mexican Blue Oak (Quercus oblongifolia). These were also little red spheres.
More recently we were hiking at about 8000′ with the Net Leaf Oaks (Quercus rugosa) which had galls, all on the underside of the leaves. Instead of a nice round gall, it is more like a very hairy red mass. We found that the mass consisted of a number of cylinders, each of which contained wasp larva.
SMALL WONDERS TALK
I have been working for several years on a book about the nearly invisible flowers that do not make it into most flower books. This coming Thursday, September 14, 2017, I will be giving a talk to the Tucson chapter of the Arizona Native Plant Society, 7 pm at the City of Tucson Ward 6 Office, 3202 East 1st Street. This is south of Speedway Boulevard and east of Country Club Road. I would love to see you there and share over 60 species worth a closer look. Here is one whose name, Eucrypta micrantha means “well hidden small flower”. The “well hidden” refers to the seeds. The common name is Dainty Desert Hideseed.
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.
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.
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).
Hummingbird trumpet (picture below – the same with butterflies)
Little lemon head
We sat on the warm sand as time disappeared and we felt the healing power of being in the mountains again.
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.
An Acacia with mistletoe in the foreground
Kelsey with the stick
The seed with haustorium on a Mesquite branch
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 pond
The snake holding a mouse
The Queen butterfly on a milkweed flower
Dave with Mae and Siena
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.