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.

Sunday, May 4, 2014


Yellow, seems it's everywhere one looks these days . . . like the yellow orchid vine that climbs a trellis outside our kitchen window,
 cassia blossoms,
or the Santa Rita prickly pear, which shows that nature knows how well yellow and purple go together.
Palo verde trees come in several varieties, so their bloom season is extended over several weeks,
(and more palo verdes, in the wash across the street from our house and marching up the hill).
Of course all those blossoms eventually drop in a rain of gold - these are in our driveway, crisp and crunchy underfoot.
This little wildflower lines the sidewalks and roadsides,
and the yellowbells (a wilder, hardier variety of the orange Tecoma stans seen in many yards) will eventually shoot back up to 6'-8' tall, filled with this year's blossoms and last year's seedpods.

The marvelous mesquite, one of the desert's hardiest plants is in blossom now, source of so many things, from wood (and charcoal) to the pods that provide nutritious flour and other foods, and the wonderful mesquite honey that helps keep my unfortunate allergy to mesquite under control. Just a spoonful in my first cup of tea or coffee in the morning for a homeopathic effect that, over time, has remarkable results.
Last but not least, the more common prickly pear, which I think is quite uncommon in its beauty and the sustenance its fruits and even its spiny pads offer to so many desert creatures, including humans (see my post on prickly pear jelly,

Thursday, April 17, 2014


My earworm this afternoon is from Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado: "The flowers that bloom in the spring, tra la." I have often noticed that in the Sonoran desert where we live, the native flowers tend to arrive in shades of purple and yellow. 

These little violas or johnny-jump-ups aren't native - I planted them from seed in an old wine barrel - but they fit the color scheme. Their barrel has also been colonized by volunteers more suited to the climate: epazote (the big leaf on the left), a very useful herb for those of us who love beans but would like to limit some of their more odorous after-effects, and on the right, the darker, pointier-leaved wild poinsettia, the ancestor of the much flashier red, pink, and white cultivars we see around Christmastime. Both plants reseed themselves with great abandon, and the poinsettias are easily transplanted if they show up in inconvenient spots.
        The blossoms below are on one of four eggplant bushes that survived the winter (such as it was here), as did the tomatoes and the jalapeno and Cubanelle peppers. All are bearing abundant fruits (that's a little baby eggplant in the upper right corner), though when the temperatures climb the tomatoes will continue to flower but stop setting fruit. A Japanese friend shared with me a traditional proverb: "Of eggplant blossoms and parental advice, only one in a thousand will go wrong."
Browallia is another reckless self-seeder. These plants also survived the winter and are now about 3 feet tall, though I'll probably cut them back as they've gotten rather scrawny and leggy.

Not everything currently in bloom is purple (or yellow), of course, though I'd say these big, shamelessly hot pink cactus blossoms come close. And yes, that's more wild poinsettia peeking out from behind the cactus. But that's okay. I know a bare spot where it should thrive and will look just great.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Grandmothers and others

 These are memory pillows. The one on the left, just 12" square, showcases a beautiful little doily crocheted in fine thread by Joe's Nonni, his Italian grandmother. Joe's mother generously gave us several pieces of Nonni's handiwork, crocheted doilies and embroidered dresser scarves, etc. We use the dresser scarves for their intended purpose, but I want to be able to see and enjoy some of the smaller pieces, like this one, so I'll probably be making more pillows or finding some other way to enjoy her lovely work and let Joe be reminded of the loving woman who made such fantastic red sauce.
     The pillow on the right is made from a tea towel given to me by Dr. Marseille Spetz, who was my neighbor when I lived among the dairy farms in the Arcata Bottoms while attending Humboldt State University in northern California. I was a newly single mother, my daughter and I were sharing a big old farmhouse with another single mom and her 5-year-old son, and my own mother was far away. The day we moved in, Marseille walked down the road to welcome us and stepped naturally and easily into the role of surrogate mother figure and one of the best friends I've ever had. She was in her 70s then, retired from medical practice but not from active engagement in the world around her. She signed up for classes at HSU, where she learned to play the trumpet, studied French and Norwegian, and eventually earned a master's degree in English. I didn't write down her translation of the text on the towel at the time but I remember the gist of it, and after much struggle with Google Translate the computer and I agree that it's something to the effect of "Hepatica (flowers) on the slopes say 'spring is here,'" as indeed it is.

This third piece also has a story: several years ago my mother gave me a set of "days of the week" flour sack dish towels that my paternal grandmother embroidered for her before I was born. I wanted to enjoy them, not stick them away in a drawer (though I'm glad Mom did that, or I wouldn't have them!), but they were too old and fragile to use for their intended purpose. The blotch on the "Saturday" towel on the lower left was already there and I haven't been able to get it out, and some had yellowed with age. I cut out the embroidered sections and added green print strip blocks and solid green strips between the blocks, both because it went with the frog motifs and to honor my grandmother's Irish heritage. Now it hangs on a wall in my north-facing sewing room where it's safe from the sun.
   I like to think that Nonni, Marseille, and my Grandma Lou would all be pleased to see these things out in view, where they can be appreciated both for what they add to the decor of our home and as reminders of the remarkable and talented and loving women who added so much to our lives. Maybe some day our children or grandchildren will use the things we've made or given to them and share their own memories or stories.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

In the Bleak Midwinter . . . .

While that title will ring painfully true for many right now (even a couple of my friends in Portland, Oregon, who were so excited a few days ago about snow, are complaining about cabin fever), here in Tucson we've hardly had anything worth the name of winter. I actually miss it, though I can't complain about sitting outside right now, enjoying 74 degrees or so.
I've had this adenium obesum in my kitchen window for a couple of years, and every winter it drops leaves for a period of relative dormancy (and I try not to get too alarmed), but it's never bloomed before. There are still a couple of buds left to open to add to the already pretty showy cluster of blossoms - I am so excited!
But I'm even more excited about what I picked from the garden yesterday! We've had pepper plants survive for up to 5 years by protecting them from frosts, but never tomatoes or eggplants. (The larger peppers are Cubanelles, the smaller ones very hot jalapeños.) In fact, raising tomatoes here is problematic at best - some years I don't even try, and I almost didn't this year. The Big Boys and wonderful heirlooms that grow well elsewhere . . . well, I've never had any luck with them here, but cherry tomatoes . . . sometimes. Sometimes not. Everything on this platter was planted early last spring and the plants are still going strong. It's very strange and no doubt, like so much of the rest of the strange weather this year, related to global warming, so my gratitude for this beautiful harvest is necessarily tinged with unease. But I can't not appreciate the beauty and abundance.
 This is the blossom of the Golden Sweet Snow Pea, an heirloom variety from India. I purchased the seeds from Pinetree Garden Seeds, a small, family-owned seed company with very reasonable prices and packets sized right for small family gardens like ours, and a selection of seeds and other garden-related items one might not find elsewhere, like these gorgeous yellow snow peas! I picked a few this morning and there are lots more on the vines that aren't quite ready.
 A friend gave me a small plant of this strange and very prickly euphorbia whose last name I don't know. Hard to believe it's in the same family as poinsettia. Anyway, I have several larger pots of it now (just break off a piece and stick it in the soil) and they're all getting ready to bloom - just look at all the little pale green buds.
And the Meyer lemon, that's had a rather rough and unproductive year, is also bursting into bloom. I've been watching the buds and today found the first open blossom.
So the weather is crazy but lovely and I'm trying to just enjoy what we have and not think about the heat that's coming or the lack of rainfall here this "winter." I wish winter wasn't hitting so hard in other places, and if you're in one of those places, I hope things let up soon, and I wish you warmth, comfort, and good company.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Waste Not, Want Not

A few weeks ago I bought a goldfish plant (columnea x banksii) - I think it was probably at Home Depot - and while repotting it this little branch broke off, so I stuck it in a tiny bottle of water. That's what I usually do when something like this happens, even if it's not the preferred method of propagation for a particular plant according to the gardening authorities. The worst that could happen is that I have a pretty mini-bouquet for a while, but if I get lucky, the cutting roots, as this one is doing (the roots - all 2 of them so far - are still very small and not visible in this photo, in which the plant appears larger than in real life). The added bonus - totally unexpected! - is the 3 blossoms! It's obvious where the plant gets its name. No sign of buds or blossoms on the parent plant, but it looks nice in its new pot, which will go well with the blossoms when they appear.
 The begonia below is about 5  months old and also came from branches broken off while the parent plant was being repotted. The lovely blossoms make me think I should move the mother plant into the kitchen too, since the light seems better for it there.

But in some ways, I'm most excited by this little plant that's growing out of the bottom of a head of celery. Here it is after about a week floating in water,
 and this morning, about 2 weeks later. It's definitely celery, even if it doesn't seem to want to stand up straight with the stalks tight together the way we find it in the store. Since the end of the original stalk is looking pretty funky by now, I suppose I should dust it with rooting hormone and put it into a proper pot with soil. It hasn't really produced any roots, but it may if I do that. I found the idea on another blog some time ago (and apologize for being unable to cite my source, an anxiety especially strong among current and former English teachers); that blogger said to pot it up in soil right away, which just wasn't convenient at the time.
So I guess my point is that it's fun to see things grow, fun to make something from what we'd normally throw in the garbage or at best the compost. And if you have kids or grandkids, or any kids, around, both you and they can have the pleasure of watching something grow and of learning together.