Monday, March 19, 2012

The End Is Near

No, I'm not predicting the end of the world, or even my own demise, but rather that of some of my plant friends who have grown up and lived in my yard for longer than I have.  Life and Death are more closely connected than we think, especially in the case of agaves, whose dying mission is to reproduce themselves.  Sort of like salmon going upstream to spawn, one last mega-effort to lay eggs, and then to die.  Agaves, those succulent plants in the family Agavaceae, expend their last energy resources to send up a giant bloom stalk, flower and scatter its seeds to the wind, after which death will slowly come to the entire plant.

Bloom stalk emerging from Agave americana
I have many agaves in my yard, both large and small, of perhaps 12 different species.  The lifespan depends on the species and may vary from 7 to 40 years.  The man who founded our neighborhood in the late 1940's loved the big Agave americana (also misnamed 'century plant') so much that he named a street for it, and I'm lucky enough to live on Agave Drive. These wonderful landscape plants offer low maintenance, low water requirements and interesting sculptural forms, colors and textures.  Many species will also provide an endless supply of young 'pups', or offsets, which are clones of the parent plant.  The fleshy leaves grow in a rosette around a central spine, and are curved to channel water to the base.

But back to my friend, the big agave whose bloom stalk I noticed just the other day.  This huge stalk, looking for all the world like an asparagus spear on steroids, will grow at an amazing rate, eventually reaching 30' or more.  Small branches will emerge from the main stalk, bearing multiple buds that will open into bright yellow flowers.  Bees, bats, woodpeckers and many others will seek out the sweet nectar.  The blooms of the agaves are of particular importance to some species of nectar-feeding bats who rely on the sugar source for their migration energy.

Native only to the Americas, agaves have been grown in this valley and Mexico for thousands of years by native peoples who prized the many gifts the agave had to offer.  Most of you are familiar with the  famous agave product - tequila.  A drink distilled from the juices of the heart, the name tequila can only be used to refer to the product of the blue agave, and which is made in the state of Jalisco (and a few surrounding areas) in Mexico.  Made with any other agave, or in a different area, and the drink must be called mezcal.  A type of fermented 'beer' can also be produced and is called pulque.

But, in addition to the liquor, agaves have much more to offer.  The dried leaves are separated into fibers and used to make rope, brooms, baskets and other woven products.  The heart, similar to that of an artichoke, can be roasted and eaten, or the juice extracted to make agave nectar (miel).  Today agave nectar is commercially available and is used as a syrup or honey substitute.  The spent, dried bloom stalks are sturdy and used for constructing ramadas or other structures.

Medicinal uses, too, are important.  According to Mark Dimmit of the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, "The complex chemicals in this family have many uses. Compresses for wounds have been made from macerated agave pulp, and juices from leaves and roots were used in tonics. But beware-sap from many agaves can cause severe dermatitis. The juice of the more virulent agaves has been used as fish poison and arrow poison. Agaves and yuccas are used in Mexico to make soap.  More recently steroid drugs have been synthesized from extracts of several species in the family."

Bloom types fall into two categories - an unbranched spike (spicate) or branched (paniculate).  Some of the spicate produce small plantlets (clones) along the stalk that can be removed and planted.  At the moment, I have some of each type preparing to bloom in my yard.

Some of the Desert Museum's many agave specimens are also sending up the big shoots, including this one,

and will soon be in full bloom.

Here is a sampling of my various agaves

Don't confuse agaves with aloes.  Although similar in appearance, aloes are native to Africa and not related to agaves.  Aloes may bloom many times in their lifetime rather than dying after just one bloom.  

I leave you with two more species, Queen Victoria, and octopus agave.

Queen Victoria

The Queen Victoria is a small, slow-growing, very symmetrical plant, while the octopus grows rapidly in something of a free-form.  Part of the octopus agave's attraction, especially to gardeners, is the lack of barbs along the leaf margins or at the point.

Happy Spring, and happy gardening!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Along the Colorado with Friends

Annually we join friends at the wonderful Buckskin Mountain State Park along the lower Colorado River north of Parker, Arizona for 10 days or so of camaraderie, good food, golf, relaxing by the river, birding, hiking, laughs and great times.  Eight couples converge from Tucson, Yuma and Reno.  Pairs of couples are assigned to cook one night for the entire group and the dinners are nothing short of amazing.  The other nights are potluck, leftovers (and there are LOTS of those) or eating out.
Buckskin Mountain State Park, Parker Strip, Arizona (near side of the river)
We always celebrate my husband's birthday, and he loves to cook for the group on his day.  Our scheduled cooking night didn't fall on his birthday, so he orchestrated Build-Your-Own-Baggie-Omelet night.  He puts your eggs in a freezer baggie, you add all the ingredients you want from a vast array, then into a big pot of boiling water they go.  Shortly, out it comes from the pot, and onto your plate goes a fabulous omelet.

Jay and his birthday gift - "Albert"

Four days are scheduled for golf, three at the beautiful Emerald Canyon course, and one day for a par-3 tournament at Havasu Springs.
Some of the gang, at Emerald Canyon
The remaining days are open for sightseeing, hiking, birding, kayaking, reading, and whatever else anyone has a mind to do.  Many stories are told around the campfire each evening.
Around the Campfire

The Buckskin Trail leads from the campground up into the Buckskin Mountains where the sparse vegetation of the Lower Colorado Valley Subdivision of the Sonoran Desert is dominated by palo verde trees, brittlebush, creosote bush, cholla, beavertail prickly pear cactus and red-spined barrel cactus. A few lonely saguaros punctuate the skyline.   Birds up here away from the river include the lovely little black-throated sparrow, Costa's and Anna's hummingbirds, verdins, kestrels, turkey vultures and ravens.  Lots of little lizards scampered off the trail as I approached.  But if I stopped and stood still, so did they.  Some even let me take their portraits.
Black-throated sparrow on cholla
Red-spined barrel cacti
Beavertail Cactus in Bloom
Lizard all dressed up in breeding colors
Beside the conspicuous beavertail and the reliable creosote bush, the wildflowers were few and far between, a testament to the extreme lack of rainfall here this year.

Wildflowers along the Buckskin Trail

There was lots of talk in the camp about a rare bird sighting just up the road in the Bill Williams NWR.  Nutting's flycatcher, an unusual visitor from Mexico, had been seen every morning, right about mile-marker-2 on the Bill Williams road.  So, coffee in hand and dressed in layers in the chilly morning, Jay and I decided to take a look and see what all the fuss was about.  Jay was watching his odometer to make sure we got to the right spot, but there was no need.  The moment we came over a hill to the 2-mile marker, there were half a dozen cars and birders with their scopes and binoculars already in place.  Wouldn't you know that the bird had been there just minutes before, showing off and singing too.  So, I settled in for the wait, hoping he would return.  Meanwhile, a very vocal canyon wren entertained us with his singing and antics on the sheer rock cliff on the other side of the road.  Verdins, Gila woodpeckers, black-tailed gnatcatchers, a variety of sparrows, phainopeplas and warblers also kept the group busy.  Finally, the famous guy made a reappearance, but left me somewhat unimpressed.  He looked a lot like an ash-throated flycatcher, and had the 'experts' not been there, I would have perhaps made that ID mistake.  There was no mistaking the javelina that crossed the road right near us!  Wildflowers were much more in evidence here in certain areas.

Wildflowers in the Bill Williams NWR

Bill Williams River
Down along the Colorado and in camp, many more birds added to my list:  osprey, Cooper's hawk, robins, rufous hummingbirds, ruby-crowned kinglet, red-winged blackbirds, great blue herons, pied-billed grebes, coots, mourning doves, Eurasion collared doves, gilded flicker, hooded merganser, ring-necked ducks, white-crowned sparrows, vermillion flycatchers, Western grebes, cormorants, mallards, shovelers, buffleheads, red-tailed hawks, Gambel's quail, killdeer, ring-billed gulls, terns, roadrunner, Say's and black phoebes, Northern rough-winged swallows, Western bluebirds, starlings, Abert's towhees, grackles, yellow-rumped warblers, lesser goldfinches, cowbirds and house finches.   A big chuckwalla lizard hangs out on the rock ledges, and the wild burros and coyotes sing for us at night.  A beaver lives just down by the water, where you can see his trail and the arrowweed he has cut down, and if you go early in the morning, you might even see the big guy himself.  The campground is also a fabulous place to watch the night sky, and the alignment of Venus, Jupiter and the moon made it special.  Mars was also rising in the east.

The time ended much too soon and before we knew it, we had to head our separate ways.  Until we meet again right here next year.

Here's wishing you happy days spent with friends, and a little silliness too!
Barry, Carole, Pat and Shellie - Winners All!