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Wednesday, May 20, 2020

How Green Is My Desert

Flowering shrub is bird-of-paradise

The Artist and I have never stayed in southern Arizona this late into the spring before, never seen the desert so green, and every day the change from bare, dead-looking winter trees and shrubs becoming vibrant with leaves and blossoms astonishes us anew. “Are there many deciduous trees where you are?” my son asked me on the phone this morning. Oh, goodness, yes! The mesquite is often more of a large shrub than a tree, but it is ubiquitous, and it is deciduous, and some individuals reach tree size and can have beautiful shapes, and right now all are leafed out, providing shade for cattle and hiding places for birds to build nests. But mesquite is only the beginning. In the photograph just below, looking past the bird-of-paradise and down into the wash, there are at least four more large, green, deciduous plants, three of them trees. At the far right top (back corner) is a walnut tree. 

Nogal in leaf and bloom

The walnut tree’s leafy crown dances in the afternoon wind, and suckers sprout at the base. For five years I’ve been wondering what kind of tree this was, and how I see another farther back behind the neighbor’s fence, and down the road just past another neighbor’s house I’ve spotted a whole row. I don’t know if this is the Arizona or the Texas walnut, but either one goes by the Spanish name nogal, the plural of which is nogales. It’s walnuts that give the name to that Mexican border town, and I am happy to know this beautiful neighbor tree by name at last.

In the center background (and not sharply in focus) of green things growing along the wash is a netleaf hackberry tree, a tree I've written about before. In winter there have always been enough dried berries and dead leaves on the hackberry that I have been able to identify it almost from the beginning of my desert stays, but it looks very different now, clothed in green. 

Center left of that composite shot but not all the way to the left, the light green tree you see is desert willow, another newly learned-by-name tree to me and one that charms me in every way. Since learning it, I’ve found myself photographing the desert willow at different times of day. It is not, you should understand, a true willow. It is a different genus and member of a completely different botanical family from the willows along the no-name creek just north of my Michigan farmhouse. 

Flowers on the desert willow below the cabin have not yet opened, but when we went for a little ride down Chiricahua way, I was happy to spot a desert willow in bloom. 

Does that flower remind you of a catalpa blossom? Both trees belong to the Bignonia family, the desert willow’s flowers smaller and more colorful but very like those of catalpa trees back in Leelanau County, Michigan.

We have never seen the wash flowing with water, a phenomenon that arrives only with the summer monsoons, each flood lasting only a few hours. Over closer to the Chiricahua Mountains, though, where streams flow for much of the year, water-loving sycamores are found. Some are of magnificent size, although during the winter, when they look like ghost trees, it’s hard to believe they are alive. 

Arizona sycamore in winter 
Now look at the difference! It seems nothing short of miraculous. 

Arizona sycamore mid-May

Oaks are deciduous, also, but in this climate they hold onto their leaves through the winter and bring forth new leaves in the spring, at the same time that they begin to drop the old, gradually, with never a bare season to them. Oak trees near streams and in mountain canyons are peaceful places to rest the eyes all year-round.

Cochise County and I have been getting acquainted since January of 2015, but my desert is still full of surprises. Of course, what surprises me is familiar to those who have lived here all their lives. How can I call the desert “mine” at all? 

It’s true I’m a newcomer, but I do love it, more deeply each year, and this year – this strange spring of the COVID-19 pandemic, with stay-at-home orders in Arizona from mid-March until the end of April, being here in a whole new and unexpected way, I feel I have paid a few odd dues and earned at least a beginner’s merit badge in Arizona living. 

Our resident roadrunner has accepted us unconditionally. Bless his little heart!


BB-Idaho said...

Golly darn- I swear I've seen your Roadrunner friend somewhere before.

P. J. Grath said...

This morning he flew up to drink from the pedestal birthbath! I have another on the ground for roadrunners and quail, but maybe the pedestal was more exciting. Who knows?

BB-Idaho said...

Presumably, the locals have you informed of the Summer there. If not,
recalling from my old geography class on world weather, I went over
the and graphs for Willcox (el 4167'). On average, May has 88 for
a high/49 for a low and 0.4" rain. For June 96/87 & 0.5". July brings the monsoon and 96/64 &2.6" and August 93/64 and 2.5". I guess
you are higher than Willcox, so maybe a bit cooler. If you are still
there in monsoon, I'm hoping to see photos of wild flash floods!
Pandemic travel plans are necessarily tenuous, but IMO, early opening of masks/distancings may well launch a second wave of infection. Hopefully not and you can get back to the north country

P. J. Grath said...

Hi, BB. Summer here doesn't sound too bad to me, even remembering that averages are averages and that 100+ temperatures are more than possible during the heat of the day, say around 2 p.m. And we would love to see the monsoon rains flooding the washes and turning dry streambeds -- briefly -- to torrential rivers. But we are not planning to be here into July. Not this year, anyway. My sister reports flooding in northern Illinois, Michigan friends tell of blossoming orchards and trillium in the woods. Here in Cochise County, AZ, the other day I saw hooded orioles feeding their young in the nest and identified my first varied bunting. It is spring everywhere in North America, I guess. Stay safe, BB!

Dawn said...

That was just beautiful, and the blossom of the willow is extraordinary! In 2018 I stayed at the lake for about 6 weeks. It was the longest I'd ever stayed there, and I didn't want to leave. I felt like i had settled in and could quite contentedly stay there for the extended future. I'm thinking you may be feeling that way too. It's so fun to see the seasons unfold in a place you've never been able to linger before. Enjoy!

PS: I love your roadrunner friend.

P. J. Grath said...

Dawn, we are now back in our northern Michigan farmhouse. Cherry orchard blossoms are spent and brown, but my two little apple trees are still blooming. There are violets and lilies-of-the-valley, and if we were not completely exhausted and in despair over the state of our country, we would think ourselves in heaven here, too.

Dawn said...

I think, even in the midst of the turmoil it would be good to enjoy where you are, because it is also a bit of heaven there too.

P. J. Grath said...

Already it seems very long ago.