S is for Saguaro

The Saguaro Cactus (Carnegiea gigantea) is an Arizona icon.  They are the largest cacti in the United States and are native only to the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona and Sonoran Mexico. Although they can grow very tall, they have mostly very shallow roots.  When the desert receives a good rainfall, the Saguaro absorbs as much water as possible, and the pleated sides expand to hold the moisture. The cactus is supported by woody ribs, corresponding to the pleats visible outside. The pleats are covered with long spines to protect the waxy soft skin from predators like ground squirrels and rabbits.  Desert birds often make their nests inside the Saguaro, depending on the cactus’ natural ability to heal such a wound, leaving a cavity inside the cactus to be reused year after year.

How old is that Saguaro? Here is the official story from the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix: “on average and under the natural conditions existing just west of Tucson with 10 inches of rainfall annually, a saguaro often weighs less than an aspirin at age five and it may take about 10 years to get just an inch and a half tall, about the size of your thumb! Under these natural conditions it may take 20 years to almost attain one foot in height and 30 years to reach two feet tall, but by age 40 it may be up to four feet tall, by age 50 up to seven feet tall, by 75 up to 16 feet, and by age 100 almost 25 feet tall. Throughout its range and depending upon soil and rainfall, it first blooms between 40 and 75 (average 55) years old, usually starts to grow arms when it is between 50 to 100 years of age (average 70), and it may live for perhaps 200 years or more (again, no one knows for sure)”

According to that, this little one is probably 20 years old.

Foot high Saguaro at Cave Creek, Arizona.

Foot high Saguaro at Cave Creek, Arizona.

Saguaros like to sprout under the protection of desert trees like this Palo Verde.

Saguaros often sprout under the protection of desert trees like this Palo Verde.

Lots of spines protect the Saguaro from hungry animals

Lots of spines protect the Saguaro from hungry animals

A Starling serves up breakfast to babies in a nest inside the Saguaro

A Starling serves up breakfast to babies in a nest inside the Saguaro

The flowers on a Saguaro form at the top and the ends of the arms.

The flowers on a Saguaro form at the top and the ends of the arms.

The state flower of Arizona is the Saguaro flower.

The state flower of Arizona is the Saguaro flower.

This Saguaro at Lake Pleasant has unusually symmetric arms

This Saguaro at Lake Pleasant has unusual arms

 

 

R is for Roads

Way back when automobiles first became common, states created highway publications to alert drivers to the paved roads within their road systems. Arizona Highways Magazine  was first published in 1925 by the engineers of the state highway department and has gone on to become a hugely popular magazine world-wide. It showcases everything from the most scenic drives, not-to-be missed hikes, the best Arizona photographs to the best wildflower viewing sites. If you haven’t seen it, click the link above and browse through the site. For many of us who grew up in Arizona in the 1950s, a prized family collection of Arizona Highways Magazines was the centerpiece of the living room bookshelf.

Freeways and stacked interchanges: yes, we have them. But Arizona has done a lot to create freeway art that is symbolic of our state.

Freeway art near Sky Harbor Airport, Phoenix, via A View from Above Blogspot.com

In my family growing up, a Sunday drive was fine entertainment.  Our 1950 Pontiac covered many miles crisscrossing southeastern Arizona,

and we never flinched at a bumpy dirt road. I still like to do that.

Dirt roads can lead to beautiful places

Sometimes a dirt road gets pretty narrow

Sometimes a dirt road gets pretty narrow

Not all paved Arizona roads are divided highways and many of the two lane roads lead to spectacular places.

Elephant Foot Rocks

Elephant Foot Rocks

Roads down into canyon N. AZ

Northern Arizona on the Navajo Reservation

San Francisco Peaks in Northern Arizona

San Francisco Peaks in Northern Arizona

Roads near Tucson

Southern Arizona near Tucson

Roads woods near Flagstaff

Highway 89 between Sedona and Flagstaff

Tunnel in rocky mountainside near Roosevelt Dam

Tunnel in rocky mountainside near Roosevelt Dam

And finally, there are always road signs.

Roads signs Horsetheif Basin Roads Signs curves Roads signs curve Roads signs Bloody Basin Roads signs dips, winding roadRoads signs Burros small

 

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M is for Mesquite

Mesquite Bosque in Tucson

Mesquite Bosque in Tucson

Known as the Tree of Life to the Pima Indians, the Mesquite (mess-KEET) is common in the deserts of Arizona.  There are three native species in Arizona, the Honey Mesquite, the Velvet Mesquite and the Screwbean Mesquite.  Mesquites can grow into large, shady trees and are used in landscaping as well as found growing wild.

Mesquites are members of the Fabaceae Family, one of the largest plant families. A familiar member of this family is the pea plant. The unifying characteristic of these plants is the seed pod they create, called a legume. Many legumes are able to convert atmospheric nitrogen into compounds useful to plants, through the nodules they have on their roots.  Mesquites are able to do this and this makes them valuable to the other plants in the poor growing conditions of a desert.  They also act as nurse trees for slow-growing plants.  Birds, insects and other animals rely on the Mesquite beans as a food source and for shade and nesting. Often the Mesquites found throughout the desert are no more than a shrub, but under good conditions, they become large trees. Mesquites bloom in the Spring with creamy yellow dense, narrow clusters.

Mesquite flowers

Mesquite in bloom, North Mountain Preserve, Phoenix.

Historic records show that every part of the Mesquite had a use to the native peoples, for wood, for flour made of ground pods (pinole), the bark for baskets, medicines, and fabric. Today they are used in much the same ways. Mesquite burns slowly and is nearly smokeless, so it is popular as fuelwood. It makes an aromatic charcoal for barbecuing. Mesquite honey is very popular.

The Velvet Mesquite, Prosopis velutina, is very common in the southern part of Arizona.  It is remarkable in appearance because of fuzzy, short hairs that cover the entire tree and pods, making it look velvety.  The pods when ripe are narrow and brown and up to 8 inches long. This tree can grow a very long taproot, allowing it to access water deep underground. The Velvet Mesquite can get quite large, with a two-foot trunk and 30 feet tall or more. They can be found along streams or washes in shady thickets. Along some desert rivers, like the Verde and the San Pedro, dense mesquite bosques (forest in Spanish) can be found.

The Honey Mesquite, Prosopis glandulosa, has large spikes or thorns of up to three and a half inches and a sweet taste that make its beans delicious. The bean pods are mostly straight and up to 8 inches long. Its flower is a favorite of bees.  It is a smaller tree than the Velvet Mesquite.

The Screwbean Mesquite, Prosopis pubesens, like the Velvet Mesquite, has rough bark that separates into long, narrow strips. The bean pod on this tree gives it the name, Screwbean, because instead of a long straight pod, the pod is tightly coiled and spirals to 2 inches.

Mesquites growing on the shore at Lake Pleasant, with wild burros.

Mesquites growing on the shore at Lake Pleasant, with wild burros.

J is for Joshua Trees

One of Arizona’s desert flora is the Joshua Tree, or Yucca brevifolia.  They are perfectly adapted to the environment of only the Mojave Desert, just as the Saguaro epitomizes the Sonoran Desert.  Joshua Trees are not really trees, but members of the Agavaceae Family, like Century Plants. They are not Cacti.  They grow very tall, 15 to 40 feet, and can live 150 years or more.  A great place in Arizona to see them is the Joshua Forest Scenic Road from Wikieup to Wickenburg, where I took these photos.  

Joshua Tree 1

Joshua Tree 3 Joshua Tree 4 Joshua Tree 5

 

 

Fire-prone

In 1910 a devastating wildfire tore through Idaho and Montana. In just two days’ time, the Big Blowup consumed almost three million acres of forested hillsides. Drought and high winds created the perfect conditions for a firestorm. The National Forest Service had recently been created, but fighting the fire required additional help from the US Army and the local miners. At last, a cold front brought a rain storm that put the fire out. Eight-nine lives were lost and the horrifying stories of the survivors motivated the country to create a fire suppression policy.

For most of the last century, the Forest Service put out almost every fire.  The result, unfortunately, has been severely increased forest density. The first settlers in northern Arizona described the forest as possible to ride a horse through at a full gallop.

Thick forest

Today riding at a gallop through the woods around Flagstaff would not be advisable. According to turn of the century reports from the early 1900’s, northern Arizona was mixed conifer forest with grassy undergrowth and large, open areas.  Because of the distance between the large old growth trees, when a wildfire occurred, it burned along the ground, not in the crown of the tree as today.  This allowed the trees to survive a fire, whereas today, everything is killed.

Burned hillside

You can see a burned off area at the top of this hill, with standing snags. The area below the hill was saved by fire-fighting efforts.

Arizona has a dry climate.  Arizona has experienced long drought periods in the past. When the Ponderosa Pines are distressed by lack of moisture, they are prone to the Pine Bark Beetle.  In 2010, 9.2 million acres (Out of 749 million acres of forest land in the United States) of tree mortality was caused by insects and disease. 74 % of that damage was done by the Bark Beetle. Once these stands of trees die, they are tinder waiting for the next lightning strike, careless camper, or tossed cigarette.

The problem is compounded by the number of homes built in the interface area between the forest and the urban areas.  Firefighters are put at risk to save homes from the fast-moving fires.  Much has been learned about caring for our wild lands, and one of the projects now underway is 4FRI. This is the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, working to restore the structure, pattern and composition of fire-adapted ecosystems, which will provide for fuels reduction, forest health, and wildlife and plant diversity. 4FRI aims to implement comprehensive restoration over the next twenty years, including thinning of predominantly small trees across one million acres, and safe controlled burning and natural fire management on much of the landscape.

Downed Ponderosas

Bark Beetle-downed trees

Dry slash pile

Slash piles ready for burning

Fire from car

A controlled burn

Hopefully 4FRI is a solution for implementing landscape-scale forest restoration. It is a problem that will take twenty years or more to solve, with new fires happening each year.  Home owners in the urban interface areas attempt to clear areas around their homes, and create emergency plans for escape should a fire start.

Dry

Because Arizona is arid by nature, we are tempted to think it has no water.  Since ancient times. residents of this desert land have been ingenious in harnessing the water resources needed for life.  As it was for the ancients, our main renewable resource for water is surface water in streams.

Petroglyph on Shaw Butte in north Phoenix

Petroglyph on Shaw Butte in north Phoenix

 

For almost 1500 years the Hohokam people inhabited central Arizona, farming near the Gila and Salt Rivers.  In about 600,  the Hohokam began to dig canals up to twelve feet deep to bring water to their 110,000 acres of fields.

Petroglyphs of the sun during the seasons of the year, Shaw Butte

Petroglyphs of the sun during the seasons of the year

 

Their amazing irrigation system made it possible to support a population of about 80,000 people.  We do not know what finally disrupted their civilization in about 1450, but they left petroglyphs on hilltops throughout the region.  Their descendants live on as the Tohono O’odham Nation.

In the 1870s, settlers to the central valley followed the lines of the ancient canals and brought water from the same Salt River to their own fields.  Those canals are no longer in use, but newer canals criss-cross the valley bringing water from the river and from new projects. Arizona has developed one of the most sophisticated water management programs in the world. (The Arizona Experience)

Beginning in the early 1900s, Arizona began building a series of dams along the streams and creeks of the state. Lakes behind these dams provide recreational use as well as water supplies for drinking water, irrigation and industry.

Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River was built in 1912.

Roosevelt Dam on the Salt River was built in 1912.

 

As it was for the ancient people, the surface water today is not dependable season to season or year to year.  Additional resources currently are Ground Water, Colorado River Water, and Effluent.  Water from the Colorado River is brought into the middle of the state with the Central Arizona Project, CAP, and used to fill the lakes and recharge the groundwater. Bartlett Lake lengthWith careful management, Arizona is not so dry after all.

Covered with Cacti

Saguaro, Carnegiea Gigantica

Saguaro, Carnegiea Gigantica

 

Arizona has more cacti than any other state!  Of course, there is more to Arizona flora than cacti.  However, what a wonderful distinction to have.  The iconic Saguaro is native to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, the Mexican state of Sonora, and a small area of California. The Saguaro blossom is the State Wildflower of Arizona.

Our arid climate has led to wonderful adaptive plants that flourish here. Cacti quickly store the scant rainfall in their thick stems for the drought i
YFperiods.  Most cacti have fleshy stems that expand and shrink according to the water stored inside.  The stems are green, so cacti photosynthesize even though their leaves have adapted to become spines.  The spines protect the waxy flesh from predators such as birds, ground squirrels and rabbits. Desert birds nevertheless build their nests in cacti such as the Cholla and the Saguaro.

Here is a selection of  additional cacti that you may encounter on an Arizona trip.

Teddy Bear Cholla, Cylindropuntia bigelovii.

Teddy Bear Cholla, Cylindropuntia bigelovii.

Barrel Cactus, Ferocactus

Barrel Cactus, Ferocactus

Prickly Pear,  Opuntia engelmannii

Prickly Pear, Opuntia engelmannii

Mammillaria Grahamii

Mammillaria Grahamii

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hedgehog Cactus, Echinocereus engelmannii

Hedgehog Cactus, Echinocereus engelmannii

Barrel Cactus, Ferocactus

Barrel Cactus, Ferocactus

Buckhorn Cholla, Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa

Buckhorn Cholla, Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa

Prickly Pear, Opuntia Engelmanii

Prickly Pear, Opuntia Engelmanii

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Botanical gardens are worth a visit if you want to see Arizona’s many cacti species.  Here are some of my personal favorites: In the Phoenix area: Desert Botanical Garden, Boyce Thompson Arboretum In the Tucson area: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum,

Brown

I have heard it asked, “Why is Arizona so brown?” There is brown here. However, if you look, you will find a full palette of color.

There is also the blue of lakes, like Lake Pleasant near Phoenix.

There is also the blue of lakes, like Lake Pleasant near Phoenix.

Even in the driest parts of the desert, the cacti conspire to add amazing color.

Even in the driest parts of the desert, the cacti conspire to add amazing color.

Purple Phacelia in North Mountain Preserve, Phoenix.

Purple Phacelia in North Mountain Preserve, Phoenix.

Desert Globe Mallow in bloom.

Desert Globe Mallow in bloom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oak Creek Canyon

Oak Creek Canyon

Oak Creek Canyon Redrock near Sedona.

Oak Creek Canyon Redrock near Sedona.

Lush forest on Mt. Lemmon near Tucson.

Lush forest on Mt. Lemmon near Tucson.

Young poppy in the desert

Young poppy in the desert

Ponderosa forest on the Colorado Plateau of northern Arizona

Ponderosa forest on the Colorado Plateau of northern Arizona