Tuesday, February 19, 2013


This robust specimen of Sahara mustard (Brassica tournefortii) is the lone survivor at the edge of a fallow cotton field in the McMullen Valley near Wenden, Arizona.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


Two species of filaree grow side by side in the Sonoran desert. One is a bright purple native, Erodium texanum. The other is a lavender or pink flowered species, Erodium cicutarium, that was introduced to North America from the Mediterranean region hundreds of years ago. The long pointed seed pods of both species inspired the name "heron's bill" or "stork's bill." When the seeds detach, they form coils that expand and contract with moisture, effectively drilling the seed into the soil.  
 Erodium cicutarium

Erodium texanum

Filaree seeds

Friday, February 15, 2013

Green Lace

Delicate new leaves of spotted hideseed (Eucrypta chrysanthemifolia) find refuge in the protection of a basalt boulder along a desert trail in north Phoenix. The tiny white flowers are some of the first to bloom among Sonoran desert annual wildflowers, quickly transforming to tiny burred seed capsules that stick to fur and socks for easy dispersal.
A larger cousin of this species is fiesta flower (Pholistoma auritum), which has lavender colored petals. The lanky, sprawling stems and leaves of fiesta flower are covered with tiny hairs that stick like velcro to clothing and hair, a colorful and aromatic adornment for young ladies to decorate themselves with during fiesta time!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Globe Mallow

Globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) is one desert wildflower we can count on blooming abundantly most years, no matter how little rain we've had.
After a good series of winter rains, roadsides and entire hillsides may be awash in their orange glow.
There are 15 species and 9 subspecies of Sphaeralcea in Arizona. As their name suggests, they are related to marsh mallows (Althea officialis), which is the original source of thickener to make what was once a honey-based confection; modern marshmallows are made from gelatin and corn syrup. Other familiar members of the mallow family (Malvaceae) are cotton (Gossypium spp.) and okra (Hibiscus esculentus), both of which have been important agricultural crops in central and southern Arizona.  

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Phacelia, You're Breakin' My Heart

Desert bluebells (Phacelia campanularia) are one of the easiest wildflowers to grow from seed if you want to add a little color to your suburban landscape. Besides the astonishing electric blue flowers, they are also excellent self-seeders, and will continue to produce flowers with no extra watering for years.  Before you know it, your neighbors will also have bluebells popping up in their yard each spring, courtesy of the wind blowing seeds around. These bluebells are blooming in the yard two houses down from ours, offspring of a crop that flourished in my garden about eight years ago.  A few yellow fiddle necks (Amsinkia intermedia), another hearty native annual, are mingled in with the Phacelia.
Beware, however, the powerful resins exuded from glandular hairs that cover the stems and leaves of these beauties. Skin contact can cause a painful allergic reaction similar to poison ivy. Not everyone is affected, but I'm one of the unlucky people that is severely allergic to Phacilia, so I had to have all of the flowers removed from my yard. There is no remedy for the itchy, blistery skin rash that erupts from contact with the plants, except washing with soap and water immediately after being around them.

Phacelia campanularia is native to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts. They are abundant in cool, shaded canyons throughout southern California and southwestern Arizona.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Cracking Up

Desert hideseed (Eucrypta micrantha) and mini popcorn flower (Pectocarya recurvata) sprout in a crack in basalt boulders along desert trails in Deem Hills. 
Cracks in the asphalt provide refuge for grasses and chickweed on the neighborhood streets.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Desert Hyacinths

Desert hyacinths (Dichelostemma capitatum) send thin succulent stems up through the stoney desert soils from a corm, a marble-sized swelling of the stem, similar to a bulb. Because they arise from below ground reserves, hyacinths are more resilient to drought than desert annuals that grow from seed, and may be very abundant when there are few other flowers. This is one of those years in Deem Hills
Also known as snake lily, the stems may grow up to two feet (~60 cm) tall before blossoming into a cluster of lavender flowers. 
As with most wild plants, you will occasionally find an albino variety of the flowers. 
Many kinds of wildlife, especially small rodents, feast on the corms and actually help to propagate the plants by dispersing tiny "cormlets," or offshoots of the corms, in the process of digging. Indigenous people throughout the southwest deserts and California used to harvest the corms for food. The corms can be eaten raw, boiled or roasted. Digging them up is a challenge though, because they are usually deep in the soil, so  you have to use a digging tool to find the tender morsel. Ethnobotanists have reported that many hyacinth populations were actively managed by native peoples so that they could rely on an abundant harvest of hyacinth corms over many years. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Cactus Rescue

We rescued these two robust specimens of Golden Barrel Cactus (Echinocactus grusonii) from abandonment two months ago, and are glad to report that they are thriving in our care. They had been uprooted and overturned, tossed by the roadside near an area that is frequently used for illegal dumping.   Each one must weigh at least eighty pounds, so this was a difficult rescue. How do you pick up a spiny golden barrel? Our solution was a scrap of carpet and leather gloves, plus a dolly to move it to the back of our car.

Golden Barrels are native to central Mexico where they are endangered in the wild. Cultivation for horticultural use has made them one of the most common cacti used in landscaping around Phoenix and in desert climates around the world. This makes Golden Barrels one of the many beneficiaries of the gardening trade, as there is no recorded medicinal, edible or other human use for these beautiful cacti.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Skull Art

A skull is a work of art. These rodent skulls were gathered below a nest box at Robbins Butte Wildlife Area that is currently being used by a pair of barn owls. The midden below the nest box was littered with hundreds of skulls and bones from the prey that the owls have eaten over many years. 

This barn owl is a resident at the Adobe Mountain Wildlife Center in Phoenix. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Green Fuzz

The first spring blooms are just beginning to pop out this year. Combseed (Pectocarya spp.) are the most abundant and reliable annuals in the Sonoran desert, growing en masse to create a lush green fuzz wherever there is enough soil moisture to sustain them. The teeny white flowers are scarcely an eighth of an inch in diameter, and rapidly develop into bristly seeds that inspired the common name. Another name is "mini-popcorn flower," since they belong to the same family as popcorn flower (Cryptantha spp.), the Boraginaceae or Forget-me-not Family.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Trail Tech III

For this third installation of my Trail Tech series, I ventured over in Deem Hills Recreation Area, where reference posts were installed every quarter mile or so along the 8+ miles of trails.  Nice idea, but what the heck do they mean?  Is it 4.98 miles or 5.9 miles?  And to where? And how many miles will the Palisade Trail go to wherever that is?  Should I go left or right?  Or is really the exact middle point on a loop trail?
Does the trail really go up? 
And which trail am I on...the Basalt Trail or the Palisade Trail? Or are they the same one? Help!!!
I finally cracked the code by visiting the East Trailhead at the end of Pinnacle Vista Road, where a faded map of of the area is displayed. In the corner of the map, the cryptic numbers are explained in a handy "Trail Post Marker Guide." The only problem is that there are two major trailheads for Deem Hills, and if you've started on the west side, the mileage on the trail markers is confusing at best.
Fortunately, you're never far from civilization in the Deem Hills, so it's tough to truly get lost.
View from the Circumference Trail along the south ridge of Deem Hills.