Friday, July 11, 2014

After the Rain

Now that the monsoon has arrived (though it's taken the last 2 days off) the desert seems revitalized and if Joe and I are any example, so do the people who live here - well, some of us, at least, those who spend any significant time outdoors. Instead of the usual 30-45 minute stroll around the neighborhood, we've been taking longer morning walks in Greasewood Park, a minimally developed desert park just a quarter-mile away on the other side of Speedway. It's where I nearly stepped on a rattlesnake some years ago (and haven't seen one there since) and where all these pictures were taken two days ago.
     One of the first things we noticed was the number of bright green baby ocotillos - and the bigger ones are also greener than they've been in a while.
 Here's a closeup of the leaves and the formidable spines. When we first moved to Tucson I read an essay by a local writer who was reminiscing about how, in spring, her mother would send her out to scratch the ocotillo with her fingernail to see if it was green below the bark-like skin. I guess that was a sign spring had arrived. We always look for the scarlet flame-like blossoms at the tops of the long stalks.
 What a gorgeous gray sky! It was so cool and the air was so moist, almost like far northern coastal California, where we used to live. Except no redwoods, or blackberries, or ocean - okay, maybe not much like it after all. But it sure felt good. These cactus wrens seemed pretty happy - and amorous.
We call this area the saguaro nursery because of the many young saguaros there; in fact, I've never seen so many youngsters in one place, spread out over a rather large depression below a low ridge.
 Young saguaros are often found in the company of "nurse plants" that protect them from predators and the elements. This one is very well protected by a dense and very spiny cholla (I never argue with a cholla) and a greasewood on the other side.
 And here, in the foreground, is a saguaro at the other end of its life cycle, dead but still standing. You can see the nice straight ribs of the skeleton still holding it up, and a big "boot" at the top, a cavity that in the living plant would have served as shelter and/or a nest site for various creatures. Our neighbors have one in their front yard where woodpeckers raise a brood of babies every year.                            
I have no idea what these tiny seedlings are.
 The rain dug a channel down the middle of this trail,
 where we also spotted these deer tracks. We see quite a lot of wildlife in our neighborhood - coyotes, javelinas, hawks, rabbits, the occasional bobcat - but have yet to see an actual deer on the hoof.
 When Isaiah was about 3, he and I took a walk in Greasewood Park and found a deer's foreleg (that's the most deer I've seen there). He hunkered down and poked it and turned it over with a stick. "Nana, where's the rest of it?" he asked, and we talked about how coyotes had probably eaten the rest of it. He was very serious and scientifically fascinated with his observations, in a way that was just wonderful to share.
     I don't know what these little plants are, either, but I'm fairly sure they're seedlings of some cactus-type plant. And what an interesting color!
There's so much that's so interesting on the trail that it's easy to forget to look up, but this sky, this view was certainly worth it. When we lived in Humboldt County I had a friend who said that, living there, he'd become a conoisseur of gray sunsets. Here we become conoisseurs of skies like this because they are such rare gifts.

One reason I'd brought my camera was to get pictures of millipedes; we'd seen hundreds the day before but I was beginning to think we might be out of luck. And then there they were, along the last ridge on the way home. This is their defensive posture, coiling up to protect their heads, which seems quite sensible though I don't imagine things with such tiny brains do much actual, logical thinking. Most of them are about 5 inches long, and you can see the pairs of delicate legs on each segment. I think they're rather beautiful, and they're harmless, since they can't bite like their centipede cousins. But they do have some rather disgusting - though I'd argue also useful - behaviors.
 Millipedes are detritivores, which means they eat things that are rotting and otherwise unappealing to humans. They're also coprophages, which would be a wonderful insult to use in a bar fight, I think. Instead of telling someone to "eat sh-t and die" you could just call him a coprophage and he might be so confused that it would give you time to get away safely. Anyway, judging from their numbers in the  park, millipedes live quite well on the feces they find along the trail. What we were trying to figure out was how those bits of cloth wound up in coyote scat. There was certainly nothing in the news about anybody going missing who might have wound up as a coyote's lunch - anyway, they really don't eat people.

      Looking up again, here's another long view of the results of the rain. I took this shot while standing on a bank about 12-15 feet above the wash that a few hours earlier would have been running with water. The center is smoother than it's been in months, still unmarked by any tracks and scoured clean, except along the edge, of smaller rocks and debris. I wish I could describe the feeling in the air and the way, on a morning like this, the desert smells like rain.

Thursday, July 10, 2014


I wanted to start this post with a drawing of the Roman goddess Flora, but alas, I haven't finished it. And with the rains things are changing so fast in the garden and elsewhere that these photos will just have to serve as my tribute to the goddess of flowers.
      The summer squash have been taking a beating from the heat, but with the cooler monsoon temps they look like they may recover.
Joe didn't think he liked okra 22 years ago when we planted our first garden together, but I persuaded him that the gorgeous flowers were worth it. Now he loves it (and the flowers). I like burgundy okra for the colorful stems and leaves that you can see here, and the pods (that turn green when you cook them).
 I saw this artichoke at the Tucson Botanical Gardens last Sunday. If you don't pick the big buds to eat them, you get this kind of spectacular beauty!
 Also at the botanical garden I found a display of potted adeniums, much bigger than the one in my kitchen window! But mine has sprouted two limbs since I posted a picture of it (  and it's getting ready to bloom again!
 This gorgeous sunflower is as big as a good-sized salad plate! My friend Caren gave me the seeds: Hopi Black Dye Sunflower from Native Seed Search (, a fantastic organization specializing in seeds for desert-adapted plants. Can you see the bee at the lower right of the center, his back legs covered with pollen?
 These sunflowers are almost as big as the one above but I don't know what variety they are; they were part of a packet of mixed seeds, some of which did well while others couldn't take the heat (I'm guessing that was the problem, along with being savaged by birds before they had a chance to bloom).
 The chives are also in bloom, and I have lots of them, though I'm not sure why I grow so many since I don't use them all that often. But they're hardy and healthy and make a nice border. I think these are garlic chives.
 These pink rain lilies (zephyranthes) were a wonderful surprise yesterday afternoon, after two successive afternoons of good rain, a lovely line of them popped up all along the edge of this raised bed.  The monsoon was such a bust last year that I don't think we had any that bloomed, maybe one or two at most. But they've been biding their time and multiplying underground, more than I thought. Most of the year they look like chives, nothing but leaves, and as the leaves die they collect around the bases and aren't terribly attractive. Then almost all - sometimes all - the leaves die back and it looks very empty and sad until - voilá! - one day there's a nice line or cluster of them where you didn't expect to see anything at all! They're about 8" tall and remind me of the "naked ladies" that used to grow along a neighbor's driveway when I was growing up in Idaho, but those, I think, were amaryllis belladonna, much taller and highly poisonous.
There are many varieties of zephyranthes,  mostly in pink, white, or yellow. They're not very cold-hardy (zones 7-10), so it surprised me that the original bulbs for these came from my brother in Idaho. Maybe he took them up to store over the winter. Here in Arizona they thrive on my benign neglect with no particular care at all except watering and occasionally digging them up to thin them out and move some to different areas of the garden. They're such a delight, made all the more precious because they're so ephemeral, like so many beautiful things that lift our hearts and then disappear, things that appear right before our eyes but that we may not notice at all if we forget to pay attention.