Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Walk in the 'Hood

I talked to my sister Kathy this morning - the Midwest is under a winter storm warning today! So just to prove it is springtime somewhere, we took a late afternoon walk with the camera to see what was photogenic. We had a pretty dry winter, so didn't have much of a wildflower season this spring, so we are jumping directly into the cactus flowers, though it is still a little early for them too. Temperatures have been seasonal lately - mid 70s mostly - today's high was a normal 78F.

Our first stop was a mere 60 yards or so from our house - one of our neighbors had a huge cholla cactus laden with flower buds, but no flowers yet. Note that the proper pronunciation follows the Spanish, so cholla is pronounced Choy-ah (double l makes a "Y" sound). There are about 20 species of cholla, nearly a half dozen we spotted on our amble. While all take the generic form of branching cylinders, there is a wide variety of thorn density, branching types and flower colors. We'll have to repeat our walk at regular intervals to catch them in bloom as well, but for now, shape and form will have to do. You can see from the 3 types shown here there are distinct differences. The one at left is sometimes called "Teddy Bear " cholla - from a distance it looks soft and cuddly, but the closeup shows it's sharp teeth! There is another common type called a "jumping" cholla - the segments break off easily (some say they "jumped" onto them), and when they are pried off the passerby later (human or beast), the segment takes root to propagate a new plant. Again, flower pictures in a future post...

Another common type of cactus is the prickly pear, and similar to the cholla, there are numerous species in the area. Notably, some have nasty looking thorns, some look to be thornless, but close examination shows clusters of fine, tiny barbed spines called glochoids. Brushing past the pad of a prickly pear, you might think you escaped harm, only to later discover from the burning pain that you got a few dozen of these spines in you that need a tweezer to remove. The pictures here are from 2 plants - the first had both buds and a few flowers that were still open (and were popular with the bees). The second plant had much smaller pads, but was covered with buds that should be a spectacular sight in a week or so. Again, you can see the wide variety in appearance, though the general form is the same. Interestingly, cholla and prickly pear are related - instead of branching cylindrical forms for the cholla, the latter have interconnecting pads.

The last plant to show off tonight is not a cactus, but is a native desert shrub. The creosote bush has numerous yellow flowers this time of year, which transform to seed balls for dispersal in the wind. Fortunately, both are visible this time of year, and it makes a striking plant. The creosote bush makes a pungent fragrance, especially in the summer rainy season, and is perhaps the most characteristic scent of the Sonoran Desert. There is a very good book about the Sonoran Desert and the local population of Tohono O'Odham called "The Desert Smells Like Rain" - well it is the creosote that makes that smell!

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