Sunday, July 22, 2012

A Gift for the Garden

After giving a friend a tour of my garden recently, I thought back to how many times I said, "A friend gave me this specimen," or "This came from a neighbor's yard."  So, I just did a quick little inventory and I was amazed at how many of my garden plants were gifts from friends, relatives or neighbors.  Gardeners love to share their passion for plants, whether for a special occasion, or just clipping off a piece of cactus to give to a neighbor. Desert plants, for the most part, are well-suited sharing, so desert gardeners are constantly trading starts with one another.

There are the torch cactus starts from my neighbor Kim, since passed away, that remind me of her every time they put forth their magnificent blossoms.  

The once-tiny balloon cactus, a gift from Nancy at our annual Parker gathering.  It has prospered in its bowl with other cactus friends, regularly producing a cluster of lovely yellow flowers.

Agaves from Kitty, Barbara and Marilyn.  They are truly the gift that keeps on giving as most will freely produce offsets, or bulbils, reproducing themselves for an endless supply of agaves.  

This little red-spined barrel was a gift from Shellie and Gary after their stay at our house.  She knows how much I love the contrast of the bright red spines against the green flesh of the stem.

More barrels, the fishhook variety, came from neighbors who didn't want them in their yard.  Yes, I was happy to help them out and give the cactuses a new home.  Moving a fat, round, spiny cactus is no easy feat!

Former neighbor Becky was being overrun with these sharp-spined yuccas and encouraged us to help ourselves.  They continue to flourish, bloom and reproduce.

Prickly pear cactus are particularly easy to share - just whack off a piece of a pad, stick it in the ground and away it goes, growing new pads and even blooming before long.  Becky and Brian have an abundance of this Texas red-beard cactus, which has a stunning, red-orange flower, so they generously offered as many pieces as we wanted.   

Since taking a start off a prickly pear does not harm the parent plant, I have helped myself to starts of this purple Santa Rita which was growing close to the road.  

These little Coryphantha came from Marilyn, when her parent plant produced offsets.  I thought perhaps I had lost the bottom one in the big freeze of 2011.  It turned a reddish color and felt rather soft.  But now a healthy color has returned and it sent out a funny little shoot.  

Organ pipe cactus, notoriously slow-growing, was a gift perhaps 10 years ago from Gary and Shellie, and has finally sent out an additional shoot.  Patience is a virtue in cactus gardening.

Daughter Cindy gave us a small pencil cholla years ago, and now it is huge and so happy.

Every gift of a plant is a living reminder of a friend.  The joy of the garden is best when shared.  

Happy Gardening!

Thursday, June 28, 2012

For June, a Hike and a Lament

With June rapidly fading from the calendar, and not a word written in May, it's time to get these fingers typing again.  When the desert heat sets in, there's nothing like a brief escape to the pine-forested slopes of nearby Mt. Lemmon to restore a little sanity and perspective.  By the time we made the hour and a half drive from my house, across the city to the eastside and up the winding mountain road, through the small town of Summerhaven and on to the trailhead, it was already 8:30am.  But on a Tuesday morning, only two or three other cars were in the parking lot.  Yellow-eyed juncos were busy poking around in the pine needles.  We would start up the Aspen Trail and follow it until it met the Marshall Gulch Trail which would bring us in a loop back to our starting point.

A slight breeze was blowing, and at over 8000' and temperatures in the 60's, we were almost chilly.  And, boy, did it feel good!  Wildflowers bloomed, and gigantic rock outcroppings beckoned us to feel their power and beauty.  Nine years after the devastating Aspen Fire that destroyed so much on this mountain, the greenery is returning slowly.  Tiny pine seedlings were abundant, huge bracken ferns, aspens, locusts, maples and oaks all testified to the resilience of nature.
It reminds me that wildfires are now burning in so many areas of the West.  My heart goes out to all those whose magnificent forests are now burning, and whose homes and livelihoods are threatened.

It was an excellent day for butterflies, including this skipper.

Blooming buckbush (Ceoanthus fendleri) drew clouds of blues and metalmarks.

We were thrilled to identify these Nais Metalmarks (Apodemia nais) which were quite cooperative and gave us many great looks.

The birds sang and chattered constantly, hiding in the green canopy.  A little movement on the path caught my eye, and as I stopped to investigate, so did this little guy - a greater short-horned lizard, one of two we saw that day.
Stopping for a snack break on some huge boulders, we had a view of the valley below, and we thanked our good fortune for being where we were, listening to the wind in the pines, breathing in the mountain scents,
watching the juncos and butterflies.

The descent along the Marshall Gulch Trail follows a small creek with its lush riparian habitat.  Golden columbines and yellow and red monkey-flower abounded.

An Abert's squirrel posed on an overhanging branch, checking to see who was invading his territory.  Nuthatches and creepers clung to big tree trunks.  A robin foraged on the ground, and woodpeckers hammered out a tune high in the canopy.

Excellent finds included a beautiful and interesting green gentian (Swertia radiata), with a stalk taller than me and many greenish flowers.


Marilyn spied a lone orchid beside the trail - a spotted coral root (Corallorbiza maculata), a fortuitous and wonderful discovery.


The picnic area at the end of the trail provided a lovely spot for lunch and going over our lists and field guides.  The bird list:  Yellow-eyed junco, turkey vulture, broad-tailed hummingbird, acorn woodpecker, hairy woodpecker, northern flicker, cordilleran flycatcher, common raven, mountain chickadee, brown creeper, white-breasted nuthatch, red-breasted nuthatch, pygmy nuthatch, house wren, hermit thrush, American robin, painted redstart, hepatic tanager and black-headed grosbeak.  

And now for the lament.  Since moving here 17 years ago and discovering a native desert night-blooming cereus (Peniocereus greggii) on my property, it has never failed to bloom in spectacular fashion one night each year.  Between 15 and 23 flowers would open on the appointed evening, spreading their exotic aroma through the night air, the white flowers, appropriately called Queen of the Night, literally glowing in dark.  

As expected, the buds began forming this year and we anticipated another excellent bloom.  It was not to be.  Weeks later, when the buds should have been growing, they remained stunted.  The stalks, which should have been plump and greenish, turned brown and shriveled.  In a panic, I hauled the hose over and gave it a good drink, but it gave no response.  Our local desert botanical garden, Tohono Chul, has an amazing collection of these rare plants and on bloom night each year they have a big party.  Oddly, mine have always bloomed on exactly the same night as theirs, so there was never a reason for me to go experience the garden's Bloom Night.  The flowers stay open all night and into the next morning, starting to fade as the sun rises.  Missing my flowers, I made the short drive to Tohono Chul the next morning at 6:30am and was startled to find a large crowd already there to see and photograph the blooms in natural light.  

Dozens of Peniocereus greggii plants line the pathways, some with multiple blossoms, but none, I might add, even close to my lovely giant.  But, these were actually blooming, mine was not.  

So I savored the beauty and the aroma, took many photos, to go with the several hundred I have taken of mine over the years (amazing how much alike they look!) and enjoyed this special desert moment with like-minded Tucsonans.  The spindly plant arises from a huge underground tuber, and the expert at Tohono Chul assures me that my plant will regenerate itself in time.  

Here's wishing you a very Happy Summer!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Yellow Moment

There comes a day in April in Tucson when you look around and the entire world is YELLOW; very, very yellow.  And such it is at this moment in time.

It's as though a giant artist has dipped her brush in a big pot of yellow paint and swiped it across the landscape, as far as the eye can see.  For a few glorious days, up to two weeks, the desert will be awash in color.  And then it will be gone, seemingly as quickly as it arrived.  The moment will have passed.  Just as the setting sun paints the mountains in shades of pink and purple in "the pink moment" and then fades away, so too will these colors be gone and slip into our memory.

Palo verdes are by far the most dominant tree in the Arizona upland, and it is the annual bloom of this tree which colors our world.  Several species of palo verde can be found growing around Tucson, including the Foothill (Parkinsonia microphylla), Blue (Parkinsonia florida), Mexican (Parkinsonia aculeata) and several hybrids.   Like most of the Sonoran desert trees north of the Mexican border, palo verdes are legumes, in the family Fabaceae.  Most of you are familiar with legumes due to their common and widespread use for food (think peas and beans).  It's a huge family of 16,000 species, many of which are found in the arid tropics.
Foothill Palo Verde, agave stalk and white-winged dove.
Those of you who know Spanish can figure out that palo verde means 'green stick'.  Sure enough, if you look at the bark, you will see that it is green.  This is a wonderful adaptation to drought.  The tiny leaves fall off during times of drought, so the green bark allows the tree to photosynthesize without the leaves.

But it's the flowers, blooming in such profusion that they completely hide the leaves and branches, which are our focus today.  Flowers in the subfamily Caesalpinia have five separate petals, one of which, the 'banner' petal, is always a little different than the others.  It may be larger, or a different color.  Another characteristic is the 10 separate stamens.  The first to bloom are the Blue PV's, with their deep yellow hue.  All the petals are yellow, but the banner petal is slightly larger and has tiny orange dots.
Blue Palo Verde 
Just as the flowers of the blue palo verde are fading and falling to the ground, the foothill palo verde begins its bloom.  In the areas where the bloom overlaps, it is easy to distinguish the two.  The flowers are much paler yellow in the Foothill PV.  Four of the petals are pale yellow and the banner petal is white.
Closeup of the Foothill Palo Verde flower
More drought resistant than its cousin, the Blue, the foothill grows happily on rocky hillsides, whereas the Blue is more at home in washes where it might receive more regular water.  Foothill can also long outlive the blue.  The flowers of the palo verdes are pollinated by solitary bees.  All species of palo verde produce bean pods following the bloom, which are nutritious and delicious to many animals.

Although palo verdes provide the BIG yellow, many smaller desert plants are also now in bloom and they add their shade of yellow to the sunshiny scene.

Engelmann's Prickly Pear Cactus
Santa Rita Prickly Pear Cactus
Cholla Cactus
Prickly Pear Cactus
Agave Flower
Octopus Agave bloom
Cooper's Paper Flower
Desert Marigold
See what I mean?  Yellow.  Lots and lots of yellow.  Do you think I'm tired of it?  Not a chance.
I leave you with a shot of my back yard and the view toward the Catalinas.  And now I'm going to go out and enjoy it some more!