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.

Correction

My wife kindly suggested that I had a senior moment when I said that the youtube program about Gardens that I am taking part in is 5 pm Eastern time. It is 8 pm Eastern time today, which is 5 pm here in Arizona.

Sorry about that.

Frank

Orchids

This past week I had the great pleasure of attending the Native Orchid Conference at Cochise College in Benson, Arizona. I was one of the 17 speakers, my topic being “Invisible Flora of the Sky Islands.” I also led some plant walks in the Catalina Mountains overlooking Tucson.

The first walk was last Tuesday. The forecast suggested rain in the afternoon, so the 12 of us set off innocently enough at 9 o’clock in the morning thinking that we had plenty of time. As we were heading for our first orchid site, on the Turkey Run trail, we ran into heavy rain to the point where I led our little caravan of cars to the top of Carter Canyon Road instead. The largest orchid in these mountains is known as the Bog Orchid (Platanthera Limosa), and instead of walking a half a mile on the Turkey Run Trail, all we had to do was park at the trail head for the Mint Spring Trail, and there it was in great abundance and in full and glorious bloom. Our little cast of orchid lovers had no problem getting out in the drenching rain to see this sight. We then went to another location to see Malaxis Soulei, and the rain continued to the point where we abandoned the rest of the walk. When I got home I was soaked through. My handkerchief was wet, and when I opened my wallet, I found the bills in it were also wet.

Platanthera limosaPL
Two bog orchids

Platanthera limosa 1

A hill covered with Bog Orchids
Two days later we were up on the mountain again with a different group. Again we saw the two types of orchid, got drenching wet, and thoroughly enjoyed the mountain flora.

Prior to the Conference, the leaders, Ron, Ben, Doug and I went to the Chiricahua Mountains to see two different orchids. One was very small. In this picture you see Ron, Ben and Doug puting markers of two different colors so that the people could find these delightful, and small beauties.

Ron and Ben Ron, Ben and Doug (partial)

 

Later that day we went to Turkey Creek, also in the Chiricahua mountains. Ron mentioned that it was a little tricky crossing the creek to get on the trail, and feared that a few thunderstorms might make the trail impassable. Five days later his fears came true. The morning group was able to see the rare and beautiful Malaxis corymbosa (pictured), but by the time the second group came in the afternoon the creek was much too swollen to allow them to cross.
Malaxis corymbosa 3 Here is the whole plant, about 6 inches tall

Malaxis corymbosa 5b The flower head is relatively flat.

Malaxis corymbosa buds and FL At this point only one tiny flower was actually open.
It was a great pleasure spending time with plant lovers. The orchids in Arizona may not be very spectacular, but for orchid lovers they are worth the trip (people came to the Conference from various parts of USA, Canada and England.)

This coming Monday, August 8th, 5 pm Eastern time, I will be speaking as part of a program called:
“Spiritual Insight Through Gardening – Swedenborg and Life.”
Also taking part in the same program will be our Son, Jonathan, his wife, Kristin, their daughter, Chelsea, and others. This will be shown on Youtube, and here is the link if you are interested in watching it.

Wishing you all a happy summer.

LOUISE MAKES A DECISION

Looking ahead to a summer vacation Louise and I decided to visit Greer – a small town in the White Mountains of Arizona. The Little Colorado River runs through Greer, eventually ending up at the Grand Canyon. There it is just a stream, bordered with a wealth of flowers, many of them new to me.

As we were leaving Greer Louise and I decided to walk the Butler Nature Trail. It is a short walk, just about a mile long. For the first half mile it climbs up to a spring where we were able to fill our water bottles. I noticed on the walk that even though I walked slowly, finding the up-hill slope a bit of a challenge, Louise was walking even more slowly behind me. From time to time I would stop to rest as she caught up with me. When we were at the Spring she made a watershed statement. “This is my last hike. I am almost 87 years old and it is just getting too hard for me.” I admit to being a little stunned, but also pleased to have her make what must have been a difficult decision.

When we moved to Arizona in 1982, we were not hikers. This is something we came to do and love over the many years since then. We have walked hundreds of miles together, enjoying some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. It has been one of the most satisfying and worthwhile forms of exercise we have ever had. For me it has also been a great opportunity to take pictures of scenery for painting watercolors, and of plants for my nature books.

In 2000, Louise and her sister Ann, decided they would like to hike the Grand Canyon rim to rim in one day! I thought it was a daunting challenge and one I was willing to support. Louise and I began training for the big walk, including climbing Mount Wrightson, walking down to Tucson from Mt. Lemmon (about 15 miles), taking long hikes in the Rincon Mountains, and generally doing all we could do to condition ourselves for the big event. Louise bought new boots three months before, to make sure they were well worn in before the big hike.

On October 2, 2001, when Louise was 72 and I had just turned 74, we accomplished the dream. There were 8 people in our party, plus Louise’s brother Jim and sister Fran who provided transportation. Our youngest son, Owen, was also with us. We began the hike at 6 am in the ice at the North Rim of the Grand canyon, and Louise and I were the last to arrived at the South Rim 17 hours later. We had no sore muscles or blisters after that twenty-four mile walk.

In the years since then we have enjoyed many more hikes. But this one-mile hike in Greer was to be the last one. We paused to reflect on this change in our lives, and then continued the walk down hill back to the car. Somewhere along the way Louise called to me – “Look at this!” I turned around and saw her pointing to her left hiking boot, with the sole flapping down like some prehistoric jaw. I reassured her that she could still walk on the boot, since it was ruined anyway. In only about 15 minutes we were back at the car. When she took off her boots she noticed that the right boot was also losing its sole, but this one was peeling off from the back, not the front.

We could not help remarking on the proximity of the two events – the announcement that this was her last hike, and the boots giving out. “They must have heard me” was all she said. They had given her fifteen years of amazing and faithful service. As she put them in the trunk she felt a mixture of relief and sadness. A truly wonderful era in our life was coming to an end. .

Louise will continue to walk in the neighborhood for exercise, and I will continue to hike in the mountains, though I must admit that I am slowing down.

Hiking boots die

RAIN – RAIN – RAIN

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.

Juglans majorLFsWalnut leaves

Rhus glabra LFcpSumac leaves

Rhus glabra 6cpSumac 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 lactuca plantMystery plant

Mystery lactucaMystery 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“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.

SUMMER TIME

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).

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.

Heracleaum lanatum 1

Heracleum lanatum 6

Heracleaum lanatum 7

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.

Heuchera sanguinea 3