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!