Monthly Archives: October 2013


My old friend JB (Joe Billings) called and suggested we do a nature walk together. I first met Joe many years ago when he stopped at Sunrise Chapel, the Church where I was pastor, and asked if he could trade one of our white columnar cactus for a red species. Now, some twenty years later, his donated cactus has multiplied and we regularly enjoy the wonderful display of gorgeous red flowers a couple of times a year.JB
Celtis pallida

JB at Bug Spring







Desert Hackberry




Yesterday was one of those beautiful southern Arizona days, blue sky with light clouds, in the seventies. JB and I stopped at the first hairpin turn on the Catalina Highway, noted with concern how Fountain Grass (Pennisetum setaceum) has taken over the stream bed, saw some Desert Hackberry shrubs (Celtis pallida) loaded with fruit, which we tasted and enjoyed.

Then we drove up to Gordon Hirayabashi Camp (formerly called Prison Camp), to hike up to Bug Spring, the water source for the camp that was there from the thirties until its closure in 1973.  This is an unmarked trail that follows a stream bed in a very lush environment. JB specializes in Monarchs, having tagged thousands of them in the last seven years, so we looked out for butterflies, and saw only a few. We did see some flowers in bloom – Gumhead (Gymnosperma glutinosa), Wire lettuce, (Stephanomeria pauciflora), a few hardy Slender golden weed (Xanthisma gracile), and Hummingbird trumpet with its beautiful masses of red flowers (Epilobium canum).

Hummingbird t


Hummingbird trumpet







Since I am now into grasses, we took a special interest in them. The hillsides were covered with them, almost all going to seed. There were masses of Cane beardgrass (Bothriochloa barbinodis) with its fluffy white heads containing seeds that smell like blueberries, and one with a very similar look: Arizona cottontop (Digitaria californica) that JB introduced me to.   Bothriochloa barbinodisC6

Cane beardgrass








Digitaria californica6

Arizona cottontop









On the way home we went to the offices of Tucson Lifestyle, and picked up copies of the current issue, since it includes articles about philanthropists by our son Owen (pages 6 to 12 of the Charity Register section). Well done, Owen.


One of the most interesting displays in the South Rim of Grand Canyon extends for over a mile along the rim walk There is a sign introducing the path labeled “Two billion years of Grand Canyon History” with an invitation to see and touch some of the rocks. Trail sign

One morning I walked the path to Yavapai Point to see the sunrise, and then walked back in the growing beauty of the day. I especially enjoyed seeing samples of the different rock layers. At the 340 million year old mark there is this piece of Redwall limestone. Years ago I learned that the rocks in the red wall are not red but white. The red color comes from thousands of years of iron oxide (rust), washing over the surface. Even so it was rather startling to see how white the “red” wall limestone really  is.









Yesterday I had an exciting conference with Jim Verrier. He has invited me to work with him on a book of the grasses of southern Arizona. I brought samples collected a week ago, and he was able to help me put names to grasses that a short time ago were strangers to me. Today I went up to an area called Molino Canyon Vista, just about 5 miles up the Catalina highway. How different it is to walk among the grasses being able to recognize different species and even call them by name. It was a beautiful fall day, as you can see from this picture of an Arizona Sycamore.







One of my last finds turned out to be a grass introduced from South Africa, Natal grass (Melinis repens). This is one I have noticed for many years, since its pink and white flowering heads are so decorative and can be seen for several miles along the highway. One picture shows it all white. The close-up reveals the incredible beauty of the pink and white hairs and the little yellow flowers. Too bad it is an invasive plant. It is really quite lovely.Natal closeNatal grass


Canyon view







My wife and I just returned from a delightful trip to Grand Canyon, together with my niece, Marjorie. The weather was perfect. I got to take photographs at two sunsets and two sunrises – and many times in between, a total of about 300 pictures.
On my Sunset walk on the second night I met a couple looking down to the trees in Indian Gardens thousands of feet below us. I asked him if he had ever been there. Oh yes he had, but that was many years ago. So began a delightful conversation as we walked together back to the Village. I found that their names were Michael and Natalie, that they lived in Ohio and Florida, and that Natalie was a painter, going by the painting name of Vera. I love these chance encounters with such wonderful people.
We had a very different encounter the next morning as we drove eastward along the rim toward Desert View. As soon as we parked the car at Grandview Point my niece spotted a young man picking up a small child probably less than a year old, with an older child near by. She said something to the effect that he must have found the child in the woods, and if so he found a good one. The boy in question, now in his father’s arms, smiled broadly and waved a friendly greeting. The older boy, not wanting to be upstaged by his younger brother, looked down at the Colorado river, 4000 feet below us. He then remembered his super powers, looked up at us and announced, “I just jumped up from there.” We were all dutifully impressed and congratulated him on his prodigious feat.
Marjorie and friend



We don’t get many fall colors in the Catalina mountains, but you can find them along stream beds, especially high inn the mountains where the Big tooth Maple provides the best examples. This painting shows a riparian area with a huge Arizona Sycamore (Platanus wrightii), among other trees.


fall sycamore


Since I decided to photograph grasses I have made several trips up the mountains. Most of the species have finished blooming for the year and are loaded with seeds. I love seeing the many forms that these grasses take. I can see it is going to be quite a challenge getting to know them all.

In my growing collection of plant books, there were none for the grasses, so I bought three to start to learn them. One was first published in 1899, another in 1935 and the third in 1979, so there may be some problems in name changes. All three have line drawings which are quite beautiful, but are not able to show the colors of the flowers, and the fine details of their fruits.

I realized that a better way of learning grasses is to see the plants themselves. It dawned on me that there is a huge collection of grasses, mounted and labeled at the University of Arizona Herbarium. So I took my camera and set off for the Campus. In the building that houses the herbarium I met many of my botanical friends and they helped me find the grasses I was looking for. In about four hours I photographed over 100 of them. A few days later I went to the collection put together by Joan Tedford at the Palisades ranger station in the Catalina Mountains, and photographed that collection (over 70 species). I am beginning to have a way of identifying the grasses I have been seeing and photographing. By the time Spring comes around I will be better equipped to name the different species as they come into bloom.

In my hikes I have found a few species in flower. It turns out that the showiest ones happen to be problem grasses that are crowding out the native species in certain areas. On one trip I found two of them side by side, both of which are a real problem in this part of the world. It turns out that they are related. (Pennisetum ciliare or Bufflegrass, and Pennisetum setaceum or Fountain Grass). You can see their similarities in these pictures. I found another non-native grass in beautiful bloom. It is not as much of a problem, and is an important food crop, Sorghum halpense or Johnsongrass.

BufflegrassPennisetum setaceum3Johnson grass










Bufflegrass and Fountain grass


Johnsongrass flowers


I think I’m falling in love. No, not with Louise – well, yes, I did that in 1954. I mean I have a new love. I think I am in love with grasses.

For some reason I have been ignoring grasses these last 14 years. In that time I have learned to identify about 500 different wildflower species, and every tree species in these southern Arizona mountains, but grasses were a great, deep mystery. It seemed impossible for anyone to learn them. Because I hadn’t really looked at them, they looked all the same to me. And then my friend Jim suggested that I start photographing grasses. He would help with identification. Immediately I knew that this was going to be my next project.

I learned that there are fewer than 200 grass species in the Catalina mountains. (In one list I have there are fewer than 100). Surely I could get to know the grasses. I found one hiking with Ed in Turkey Run last week, and then went to Molino Basin a few days ago and found lots more. At this point I am not able to put names to any of them.

Last evening my wife and I decided to abandon the idiot box and go for a stroll in Molino Basin.
We left our house at 5pm.  We arrived at the parking lot at about 5:20. This was a half hour before sunset, but the sun was already obscured by the hill to the west, so we could walk without hats or sun screen. It was a beautiful evening, clear, light breeze, perfect temperature. We walked up the paved camp road – less than a mile. The roadside was lush with grasses. When we turned around I decided to see how many distinct grass forms I could see on the way back to the car. I was struck by the great variety and stunning beauty of the fruiting heads of these grasses. I was also struck by how easy they were to tell apart. I realize that this will not always be the case, but in the space of less than a half an hour I figured I had seen over thirty different species.

At one point Louise stopped me to point out a line of ants scurrying across the road carrying white bundles of some sort. . With my binoculars I could see that many of them were carrying grass seeds, like the beautiful one in this photograph. grassb8










And here is one of the grasses we found yesterday. The first picture shows a branch. The second moves in closer, and the third closer still.




There was heavy wind in the forecast today in southern Arizona so Ed encouraged me to bring a jacket. How right he was. We walked up Turkey Run, having rejected the idea of Oracle Ridge where the wind would have blown us off the mountain. Even in the deep woods it was very windy and there was a fall chill in the air. We did not see many wildflowers, about half as many as last week (14 compared to 37). We did see this beautiful Richardson’s geranium with two blooms on a single plant one white and the other deep pink. In this species the color can be blue, white or pink.

It turned out that the big attraction on this walk was not to be wildflowers but fall colors and clouds.








We arrived at our snack point. I sat on a log. Ed moved up the slope to look at a stand of trees including some Big Tooth Maple in full color. He stood there for the longest time, mesmerized by the view.

Frank on log

Eventually I joined him and saw what had held him spellbound. We stood there, looking up the hill with a stand of trees, many in their fall colors. Above the trees wonderful formations of clouds were moving swiftly up and over our heads. It felt as if the clouds were holding still and the world had suddenly accelerated its rotation.






This picture gives you some idea of the view of the trees and one of the many cloud forms racing above them.
Fall scene


Many times I find nature overwhelming in its complexity and beauty. It is impossible to know everything about everything. Over time I have learned that it is enough to get to know some things about a few things in a fairly limited area. Which brings me to buckwheat. I first got interested in buckwheat when I did illustrations for the first edition of Charlie Kane’s “Herbal Medicine of the American Southwest”, including paintings of flat-top buckwheat (p. 98-100). Now, eight years later, I decided to take a closer look at the buckwheat flowers.

With my new camera and lens I can zoom in and see flowers at a much closer range than before, and discover things I have not yet noticed.

The buckwheat family is called Polygonaceae, from the Greek word polygon = knee, referring to the fact that many in this genus have thickened joints on their stems.

The genus is eriogonum, from two Greek words: erion=hairy or woolly, and gonu=joint, since some species in this genus have hairy joints.

How many Eriogonum species are there?
240 – in the world (Wikipedia)
200 – in the United States ( Kane)
100 – in Southern California, Arizona and New Mexico (Ricketts)
50 – in Arizona (Epple)
5 – in the Santa Catalina mountains above 4000′ (Verrier and Tedford)

Of these five, let me show you two, one visible and the other “invisible”.

The visible one is Flat-topped buckwheat or eriogonum fasciculatum. The botanical name refers to the fact that the leaves are in fascicles, or bundles where they attach to the stem.

Here we see a road cut in the Catalina Mountains with eriogonum fasciculatum in fairly large clumps all along the slope.  Eriogonum fasciculatum1pass
Eriogonum fasciculatum1
These large masses look almost black in the late fall and winter. Then, in the early spring, they turn a beautiful green and soon are topped with a bouquet of pale pink flowers.  After a while, as the flowers fade, the top turns a pleasant rust color.



Here we see a group of plants, with just a few flowers left.



Eriogonum fasciculatum3


Here is a single plant showing some fresh flowers, and some that have turned brown.

Eriogonum fasciculatum3b

Here is a plant with mostly new flowers.








Eriogonum fasciculatum5


A single branch with a cluster on the top consisting of many flowers packed tightly together.











Eriogonum fasciculatum6



Here is the cluster close up. Note that some of the flowers have aged and turned reddish brown.







Eriogonum fasciculatum7


This is a single flat-topped buckwheat flower.








The second species is one of the “invisible” buckwheats,  – Sorrel eriogonum,  eriogonum polycladon (meaning having many branches).

Eriogonum polycladon3

The plants are about two feet tall. You can see the way they branch. The pinkish-white parts at the end of the stems are the flowers. There are fields full of these plants between 4000′ and 5000′. Often I have walked by them and wondered if they were in bloom or not, since the flowers are so small. The stems are grey. The flower buds are partly red and the flowers mostly white. From a distance these plants give a beautiful pink glow to the landscape.





Eriogonum polycladon7


Eriogonum polycladon7blackThis is a close-up of a group of buds, part of a flower and some fading flowers.








This is a single flower, very small, nearly invisible yet quite beautiful.