I grew up in suburban Philadelphia. and remember hearing references to Arbutus, a city in Maryland, north of Washington DC. In learning the plants of southern Arizona I was pleased to find that this is the botanical name of a very beautiful tree. The common name is Madrone (from a Spanish word meaning “Strawberry Tree”. It is a member of the Heather family (Ericaceae). Botanists call the species in this area, Arbutus arizonica. Recently hiking at 7000 feet, Steve and I saw one with a very wide, blackened trunk. I have read that it can grow for over two hundred years, and this one seemed to fit with that time line having been severely burnt at some time in its life, but still flourishing.

As an evergreen it keeps its leaves all year, but in June a significant number turn a beautiful red, as in this picture. This makes it easy to spot driving up the mountain.

The ones we saw at the end of May had white flowers, like little bottles. The bark is also red. In a few weeks it will support a full crop of beautiful red berries.


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.


Carphochaete bigeloviiFL

Carphochaete bigeloviiFR

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.

Dave on the rocks

Here is Dave on the rocks. Then he took a picture of me.

Frank on the rocks


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.

Sunset at the Windy point

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.

Bruce Homer Smith and Rosewood

Here is his web site:


I was working on my new book – “An Illustrated Guide to the Santa Catalina Mountains” and wanted to know just how old these mountains are. Different books gave different dates. My favorite article was: “A Guide to the Geology of the Santa  Catalina Mountains, Arizona”
by John v. Bezy of the Arizona Geological Survey, which taught me that this is not at all a simple question. The oldest rocks (called Pinal Schist) in the Catalina mountains date back 1.65 billion years.

The process that started to shape the Catalina mountains as we know them went through several phases. The main upheaval that forms the core of the mountain range goes back about 35 million years in the Cenozoic age when the super continent known as Pangaea was further separating and the Atlantic ocean was being formed.

There was more development 26 million years ago, and again 15 million years ago.

This means that this wonderful mountain range has been in the process of construction for twenty million years or more. And it is still changing. I seem to have read somewhere that it is still growing about an inch every hundred years, but have not been able to confirm that. In any case, it is a work in progress.

And as the mountain range itself evolves over the centuries and millennia, the plants that call it home have also been changing. For example saguaros arrived after the last ice-age which ended about 11,700 years ago.   We have the privilege of coming to know some of the plants that flourish here now. Who knows what the future holds?

Look for me at the Festival of Books at the University of Arizona Campus  –

March 10, 11 booth 254.

Panoramic View of the CatalinasThis painting is for the cover of my new book, and shows a profile of the mountains viewed from the South. The range is about 20 miles wide and a mile and a half high.


Day after day the weather forecast had said that there was zero chance of rain in the next few days. And then the rains came. It has already rained for three days and now the forecast shows possibility of rain (if only 10% or 20%) for several days in the future. What a change this brings to the desert and the mountains! It also lifts our spirits.

Yesterday Steve and I headed for the mountains, undaunted by the forecast. As we drove north on Houghton Road, we saw something neither of us had ever noticed before. It was a cloud shaped like a rolled-up white blanket, stretching for almost twenty miles along the front range of the Catalina Mountains. You can see a portion of it in the center of this picture.

Cloud sausage

We drove up the highway and sure enough were soon in the midst of the blanket. We emerged after about three miles at Molino Canyon Vista. We parked the car and caught the view looking back at the cloud, as seen in this photograph.

Above the sausage

We then walked along the path and turned around to see the little waterfall running at full tilt. I call this “Hidden Falls” because almost as soon as the water goes over the lip, it drops behind a large boulder, splashing into a pool at the bottom. The falls have been bone dry for about five months, so this was special.

Hidden Falls

Hidden Falls 3
Here is I one of the watercolors I have painted of this interesting little cascade.
In two weeks, March 3, our son Owen and I will be at the Contreras Gallery (110 E. 6th St., Tucson)  from 6 to 9 pm, for an opening of a show of our art work. The show runs the month of March, and the gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10:00 am.- 3:30 pm.

We are only three weeks away from the Tucson Festival of Books. I will be sharing a booth with the Arizona Spiritual Growth Foundation, and will be autographing five different books (Mountain Wildflowers, Mountain Trees, More Wildflowers, The Art of Effective Preaching and a book I illustrated, Bo and the Fly-away Kite.) I will also have a dummy copy of part of a book I am currently working on, which is a guide to the Santa Catalina mountains with my watercolors as illustrations.

Look for me at the Festival of Books at the University of Arizona Campus  – March 10, 11 booth 254. And enjoy the change in the weather.

Dry spell

We are getting toward the middle of February, and the rains have not come. Every day I look in the newspaper for the four-day forecast, only to find zero chance of precipitation in the near future. This is fine for many things. People are enjoying the mild Winter weather, there are no weeds in our yard, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, but the flowers are few and far between.

In this part of Arizona the spectacular shows of Spring flowers come only after Winter rains. Last December we had just over half an inch of rain. In January about a fifth of an inch, and nothing so far in February.

On a recent walk in Molino Basin I did see the Cottonwood trees in bloom, plus a tiny cluster of flowers on the Gumhead (Gymnosperma glutinosum), and a barely visible Biscuit Root (Lomatium nevadense) just about one inch high.  Normally I would expect to see as many as two dozen species in bloom this time of the year.

So now I hike to get photographs which become the basis for my paintings. I am getting ready for a show at the Contreras gallery in Tucson in March (opening reception March 3), so I am content, though I do like to have clouds in many of the paintings, and these are very scarce.
Rose Canyon Lake

Rose Canyon Lake in the Catalina Mountains

Lizard Rock

Lizard Rock

Post Christmas Peace

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.

Ash tree bases

Ash tree base

Ash tree

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.

Long root

To the north we could see Rincon peak (8482 feet at the top). The sky was filled with whimsical clouds called mares tails.
Rincon peak
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.

Purp and the Snowman

Some years ago I told stories to children about a little purple man called “Purp”. I have decided to post one of them on this blog – with maybe more later.

Once upon a time there was a little purple man called Purp. He was very small and not very tall, and lived with his friend, Mervyn.  They could have called him “Purple” – because he was purple all over and loved to wear purple clothes, but they called him “Purp” for short.

One night it snowed very heavily. In the morning when Purp looked out the window, everything was white and beautiful.

“What’s all that white stuff?” he asked Mervyn.

“That, my dear little Purple man, is snow.”

“What good is it?”

“Well you see it is very beautiful, and people like to play in it.”

“What do they play?”

“Well, they have snowball fights for one thing.”

“OK, I’ll fight you” boasted Purp.

“Purp, you haven’t got a chance against a big guy like me, let’s find some other game to play.”

“I know you are frightened, big boy” said Purp, “but I want a fight, and you’re going to get one.”

“OK, Purp” said Mervyn, and the two went outside.

Mervyn was standing, looking at the beautiful winter scene, and then he heard a little tiny voice:


“What do you mean, Gotcha” said Mervyn. And then he looked down and saw a little white patch of snow on his trousers near his ankle.

“OK Purp, you asked for it” said Mervyn, and he reached down and grabbed a handful of snow. After he made his snowball he looked down at Purp standing near his feet, and wondered what to do next. “I can’t throw this huge snowball at my little purple man” he thought, “I guess I will just drop it.”

So Mervyn looked down at Purp, aimed the snowball and dropped it.

Purp was looking up and saw it coming straight at him.  “Yikes” he said, and scurried around behind Mervyn’s leg.

He moved just in time. The next thing he knew he saw the snowball hit Mervyn’s shoe with a big splat. As soon as Purp saw that, he went back to the front where he could see Mervyn, and said: “I got you twice!”

“You win, Purp” said Mervyn, “now let’s go see what the children are doing.”

They were out there playing in the snow, and rolling huge snowballs.

“What are those kids doing?” he asked Purp.

“They’re making a snowman,” answered Mervyn.

“Can we make a snowman – can we? – can we make a snowman, too?”

Purp got very excited at the thought. The air was bright and clear, and the snow was soft and fluffy.

“Let’s go, big boy!” said Purp.  “You make a snowman over there, and I will make a much better one over here!”

Purp sounded very confident.  So Mervyn made a snowball, and then rolled it around the field until it got bigger and bigger.  He wasn’t paying any attention to Purp.

Meanwhile, Purp had started his snowball and it was going great until he came to the top of the hill and it started to roll down the other side.  The snowball began rolling faster than Purp could push it.  “Uh, oh!” said Purp, and he held on to the snowball, trying to stop it from rolling any more.  But before he knew what was happening, he found himself rolled up inside the snowball, and still it rolled, getting bigger and bigger until it finally came to a rest at the bottom of the field hitting the big wooden fence.

“Oh, dear,” said Purp.  “I’m stuck. How do you get out of these things?”

And then some children found the great big snowball he was in, picked it up (it took three of them to lift it), and they carried it up the hill, and put it on top of the two big snowballs they already had.  It made a wonderful head to their snowman.

Meanwhile, Mervyn was working as fast as he could.  He wanted to make the best snowman and he didn’t even stop to think about Purp or watch what he was doing.  He just said to himself, “Purp is going to be sorry he said that about making a better snowman.  This is the best snowman in the whole wide world.”  He put the finishing touches on his snowman, and backed up to take a good look.

The kids behind him yelled, “Hey mister, watch where you’re going, you almost knocked over our snowman.”

Mervyn turned around and had to look up to see the top of this huge, beautiful snowman.

“Did you make this snowman?” he asked the children.

He looked up and he thought he saw the carrot nose wiggle.

Before they could answer, he heard a tiny little voice coming out of the snowman’s mouth.  He saw what he thought was a purple tongue moving, and it said, “No, they didn’t make it, I did.”

Purp crawled out of the snowman’s mouth, and looked down at Mervyn’s creation.

“That is pretty good, for a beginner,” he said.  “But nice try, anyway!”