Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Green Desert

I am very blessed to live on the edge of Tucson Mountain Park. Just at the end of my street is one of the many gates that allow access to the park. Tucson Mountain Park is part of the Sonoran Desert. I know when people come to visit us the first time they are usually amazed that a desert can actually be green. The Sonoran Desert is just that. While the soil is mostly rock and sand all of the plant life is green.

My battle of the bulge requires me to get out and do some physical exercise once in a while so come and join me as I take an early morning walk in the park in April of 2010. I usually make a loop that takes me behind the ridge you see in the above photo and then down through a wash and back on another trail that comes out just a couple of hundred yards from where I went in. The walk usually takes about 45 minutes. I walk to the end of the street and enter the park on the "John Krein Trail". This is named after a neighbor who used to walk these trails with my Dad.

While I am not an expert on plants I will do my best to explain what we see as we take this walk in one of God's amazing places on this earth. While there are a few plants blooming right now the desert is pretty much green like this all year around. The main trees you see are the Palo Verde. The leaves are so small that you need to be within a foot or so to see them. What is amazing about this tree is that the bark is green. This tree has the same ability to create chlorophyll through its bark like most trees do through their leaves. The leaves are small so that they don't need as much water to survive. This is true with a lot of the plants here as we get little rain. One of the next fairly large plants that we see is the Ocotillo. This is also known as the Hummingbird Bush as it always blooms in April when the majority of the hummingbirds are on their way up North.

The Ocotillo is the plant in the right side of the picture with all of the whip-like looking branches. During a year when it gets plenty of moisture it will sprout leaves plus the red blooms at the end of each branch. During dry years it will not grow leaves but will always have blossoms. The leaves again are small but larger than the Palo Verde tree. The Ocotillo branches are very thorny. Much care must be taken when getting close.

In this next picture you can see the leaves and blooms but you can't really see the thorns.

The next plant we see a lot of is the Prickly Pear Cactus. There are many varieties of the Prickly Pear. (Clock-face, Beavertail, Tuberous, Purple, and the list goes on.) These haven't started blooming yet but will have very pretty flowers when they do. The flowers are different colors depending on the variety of Prickly Pear.

You can see the buds of the flowers on the top edge of the petals. After the flowers are done blooming these buds fall off. They are red in color and almost look like a flower also. We have friends that boil these up and make the best prickly pear jelly that I have ever tasted. We are currently on our second pint of jelly. (Now you know why I need to exercise.) If you look close at this picture of a Prickly Pear you will see that it has a plant growing in the middle of it. It is a Fairy Duster and is currently blooming. It has light pink flowers that look like a duster. Its real name is Calliandra eriophylla and now you know why everyone calls it a Fairy Duster.

The next plant we see on our walk is the Creosote Bush. Where it got it's name, I don't know. When I think of creosote, I think of the black smelly stuff we used to treat fence posts with so they wouldn't rot off in the ground. As you can see this bush is a lot prettier than that description. It reminds me of a yellow daisy. These are in full bloom now and you can see lots of them from the trail, as you see in the next picture.

We are now at the highest point of our journey and we have walked to the back side of the ridge in the first picture. This picture was taken from the trail looking across a wash. A wash for you non-desert people is a dry river bed. We have lots of these that are usually dry but during the summer monsoons they can fill with water. That's right, monsoons. During July and August we get the majority of our yearly rain. The rain storms usually will only last 10-15 minutes or so but we can get close to an inch of rain in that time.

The next plant/tree we will talk about is the Saguaro. Pronounced "saw war o". It is probably the most famous cactus and one of the most filmed. We all remember this cactus in a lot of the old westerns. They grow very slowly and can live to be over a 100 years old. They are protected and only grow in two areas of North America. From Tucson South into Mexico and there is also another area outside of Phoenix. No one really knows why some of them have arms and some don't. Supposedly they have to be over 70 years old to grow arms. They are a true example of a desert plant that stores water. If you look close you can see the the skin on the outside looks like an accordion bellow. This is so when the cactus fill up with water it can stretch out and as it uses the water it shrinks back again. Under the skin are actual wooden ribs with a pulpy type center.

The above picture is of a Saguaro that has died. You can see the ribs that are left. the Saguaro has white flowers when it blooms. While they are not blooming now I did take a picture of one that has buds on it that will become flowers when they open. These are the little wart like looking things on the top of the Saguaro in the picture below. These will be blooming in a couple of weeks.

Just so you can see what the flowers look like, the picture below is one Brenda took last year of one of the Saguaros in our front yard. It was the first year that they had flowered so we were kind of excited about it.

They have to be several years old before they flower. While the Saguaros are protected, developers can acquire a permit to move them and then replant them. The two that we planted in front of our house were two of those. They were about 3 foot and 4 foot tall when we planted them in 2001 and are now about 8 foot and 9 foot. Everything I have read says they don't grow this fast but our growth rate is probably due to the fact that they are getting water from other plants around them that are on my irrigation system. They say that if a Saguaro is over 5 feet tall the chance of surviving a transplant is slim. Their root system usually expands from the base a distance twice the height of the cactus. This means that when they get transplanted you lose most of this root system. If the cactus is large it will not survive. This fact is also why you should not water them by hand. If you water just the base of the plant only certain parts of it will get the water. that part of the plant will then think that it has plenty of water and the parts that don't get the water will die off.

The next couple of pictures are just scenery as we start to walk towards home. Those of you who like the outdoors should understand why I love this area so much. The more I read and learn about the plants and animals that live here the more amazed I am.

While I wasn't able to get any good pictures of the wildlife in this park there are many. Mammals consist of: Havelina, bobcat, mountain lion, mule deer, desert hare, and coyote. Reptiles are of course the diamondback rattlesnake and many various lizards. Other than the mountain lion it is not uncommon to see most of these on a walk. I have gone early in the morning and counted up to 25 mule deer on one walk.

The next plant we come upon is the Strawberry Hedgehog. This is a small cactus where many tubes grows out of one base. This one is blooming and has has some pretty cool flowers. It is amazing to me how something so full of stickers can be this pretty. Don't get your nose too close when trying to smell the flowers!

This next picture shows a Teddy Bear Cholla. Its real name is "Opuntia bigelovii". (I know, who ever came up with these real names, what were they thinking?) Don't let the name on this one fool you either. It is also called the jumping cholla because you can walk by it and it seems to jump out and latch on to you.

Once impaled to your arm, back, or what ever it is almost impossible to get rid of because it will then stick to what ever you grab it with. What really happens is that when you walk by one, the wind or breeze you create when walking by can be enough to knock one of the small branches off. This is why it is said that it jumps on you. I always take a metal dog comb with me when walking. This works really well when dislodging one of these cactus from your arm, leg, or whatever. You will see a few of these laying on the trail and you want to make sure you don't make the same mistake most people make, including yours truly, and kick it out of the way. It will impale itself into your boot. If you have sneakers on or some other light shoe you are really in trouble as it will go right through and find your toes, guaranteed.

This picture doesn't really show what I hoped probably because the photographer wasn't that good. When the Octillo's leaves start to turn they become a light orange/red. When the morning sun hits them they just glow. Anyway you can kind of see the color but the glow does not show up in this picture.

Well if you look close in the middle of this picture you will see the roof tops of houses. Yes, that means our walk is coming to it's end. I don't think I got as much exercise as normal stopping to take all of these pictures, but it was sure more fun. I hope you enjoyed yourself as much as I did. Thanks for coming with!

I will leave you with one last picture. To me, this Saguaro seems to be giving us the Peace sign. So from me to you.... God's Peace and Blessings......

"Life Is Good If You Let It".


randymeiss said...

Thanks for the tour, Dad. For me it was also a walk down memory lane because all I was thinking about was the great time I had down there. Nice to know you still remember how to blog. When you're out exercising make sure you don't forget to exercise your typing fingers.

AZJim said...

I will try and do that but lately it seems that I have a hard time exercising anything.

Steve at Random said...

I've been to Arizona and Sonoran desert many times. To me, the unsophisticated Montana/North Dakotan, things in the desert either are pointy or poisonous. I know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and your photos are beautiful, but I'm not a great fan of the desert.

AZJim said...

Like traveling in any place you also need to be informed. Most people don't realize that while we have many dangerous and weird looking critters in the desert there is only one that you have to be real careful of, the diamondback rattlesnake. Everything else, unless you are allergic shouldn't harm you. Kind of like a bee sting.