Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Sonoran Twin B Getaway Part 1: Water and Hidden Order

Friday afternoon I snuck out of work early, swung by the house, picked up Twin B and headed for the airport. A couple of hours later Arizona Steve (AS) picked us up at the Phoenix airport.

All About Twin B

Tangent: This trip was a while in the making. Back in September I did solo camping trips with both Twin A (Henry Mountains) and Bird Whisperer (Powell Point.) I intended to follow up sooner with a solo trip with Twin B, but schedules and commitments conspired to delay the trip into the new year.

Throughout this project, I’ve blogged about Twin B the least of the Trifecta. IMG_4001There’s a simple reason for this: She’s the easiest of our children. She’s bright, courteous, responsible, healthy and low-drama*. The unfortunate thing about being a problem-free kid- particularly if you’re not the oldest- is that you probably end up enjoying less attention and focus than your more maintenance-intensive siblings. We’ve tried hard not to make that the case with Twin B, and solo trips, such as this past weekend, as well as a mommy-daughter trip to San Francisco last month, are one tool we use to try to ensure focus and attention on each kid.

*If you don’t know me in real life, you should know that this- “low-drama”- is one of the greatest compliments I give.

Nested Tangent: BTW, this is probably the best piece of parenting advice I’ll ever give in this blog, so pay attention: Do solo trips with your kids. Whether camping, or to a city or another country or whatever, make the time and do it. Many of my best memories to date with all 3 kids are from such trips, and hopefully, in later years, some of their best memories of me will come from the same trips. (My best childhood memories of my father were from the summer of 1972, when we camped together for 2 weeks in the Maine woods while building a cabin*.)

*He- and a friend- “built”. I fetched stuff, ran errands, played in the woods and swam in the lake.

IMG_4146 Twin B is also smart. A couple years ago we had the Trifecta tested for a “gifted*” program in our local school system**. Twin B knocked it out of the park, scoring highest of the 3. She’s observant in a way the boys aren’t, noticing things concerning the behavior and social dynamics of others that her brothers (or often her parents) don’t pick up on.

*I hate the term “gifted.” “Gifted” sounds you got a Wii or a pony for Christmas. Why can’t we just say “smart”?

**2 out of 3 qualified. We elected not to enroll either in the program, which is the subject of a long, complex (and probably controversial) tangent about the merits of “gifted” programs that I may work into a future post.

She’s also the child who looks (in complexion at least) most like me. All of us probably wonder at some point or another what we would look like, or who we might be, had we been born the opposite sex. When I look at Twin B I see a hint of that what-if-me.

AS is my oldest friend. Not “oldest” as in really old*, but as in been friends for a long time. We met sophomore year in college**, when we were partners in EE lab. Neither of us were great students, but we eeked out degrees and hired on at the same company. We worked and roomed together for a couple of years before each moving on and out to cohabit with our respective girlfriends.

*That would be OCRick, who claims he is 63, but is cranky enough to be 80. My theory is that sometime in the last 20 years he swam in a pool containing some of those rejuvenating alien pods, like in the movie Cocoon.

**Yes, that’s right- my oldest/longest-standing friend is from sophomore year of college. I don’t keep in touch with any high-school classmates or childhood friends. And what’s more, AS is the only college classmate I regularly keep in touch with. No, I didn’t assume a new identity, enter witness-protection, find/lose Jesus, go to prison, have a sex change or anything like that. I’m just not very good at keeping in touch for, well, the sake of keeping in touch. Geography might have a bit to do with it; I live 2,500 miles from where I grew up. But mostly it’s just me. I don’t really have a good excuse***.

***When I think about this too long, I’m oddly reminded of a passage from the Silmarillion, right after the Noldor make landfall in Middle Earth: “But when they were landed, Maedhros, the eldest of his sons… spoke to Feanor, saying: ‘Now what ships and rowers will you spare to return, and whom shall they bear hither first?...’ Then Feanor laughed as one fey, and cried ‘None and none! What I have left behind I count now no loss…’ Yes, I was a total Tolkien geek. I don’t know why I think of that passage; I don’t actually feel that way about falling out of touch. I guess it just seems like a cool, bad-ass thing to say when you do fall out of touch. BTW, I always thought Feanor was the absolute coolest, most bad-ass character in the whole Tolkien mythology. Selfish,hot-tempered and way problematic, but definitely very cool.

In 1990, we each, separately, left New England and- with our respective girlfriends- moved West- me to Colorado, AS to Arizona. Since then, though we’ve never again lived in the same place, our lives have moved oddly in parallel, and we’ve met up once or twice a year for desert camping/backpacking trips.

Each of us moved West with, and subsequently married, our New England girlfriends, both of whom eventually turned out to be highly problematic and completely batshit-crazy, and from whom we were each divorced a few years later, each of us (thankfully) childless. AS remained in Arizona, I moved to Utah, and we each remarried, within a year of one another, each of us to women we’d known for years as friends. And in the summer of 2001 we each had daughters, whom we both subsequently took out on daddy-daughter camping trips. So it seemed right that we do such a trip together.

Man, this is a long introduction. Even I’m getting bored. Let’s get going already.

Great idea for a trip right? Too bad about the weather. Last week was the wettest week in Phoenix AS could remember. Washes were running, roads were flooded, and the weekend forecast was in the 40’s and low 50’s.

It’s always weird when you go camping in the desert and it rains. IMG_4005Growing up in New England, you imagine that it never rains in the desert. Later on when you grow up and actually move to a desert, you gradually get used to rain (or snow) in a desert, but every once in a while think, “Really? It’s raining? But isn’t this a desert?” Anyway, in “my”* deserts I’ve been rained on many times, and by and large no longer regard it as unusual. But although I’ve done many backcountry trips in the Sonoran Desert, on both sides of the border, I’d never before visited when it was really wet.

*By “my” deserts I mean the Great Basin Desert, or what we Utahns call the “West Desert”, and the Colorado Plateau Semi-Desert- the whole Canyonlands, Four Corners, Redrock area. These are the most accessible deserts to Northern Utah, and I spend plenty of time in each. Botanically these 2 deserts aren’t all that different from one another, though the geology, topography and weather differs quite a bit.

The Mojave, which sticks a “paw” up into Southwest Utah really isn’t “my” desert, but I spend enough time there that it too feels like familiar ground, and there are strong botanical links (like Blackbrush, Cliffrose and Juniper) between it and the Great Basin Desert.

Saturday morning we drove about an hour and a quarter West into the foothills of the Superstition Mountains. IMG_4009The wash we camped along- a wash that AS had passed by and across many, many times and never seen wet in 19 years- was a steady river the entire weekend. The ground was damp and spongy wherever we hiked. For years I’ve read about how plants of the Sonoran Desert adapt their whole lives around these infrequent bonanzas of moisture. Finally I was seeing one.

Everything in the Sonoran is about water. It seems like every plant and animal here has some super-specialized schtick to deal with limited water access, and when it comes to plants, what’s interesting is that different plants use different schticks, and these schticks determine where they grow, and the floral layout of the desert floor itself. Cactus is the most obvious Sonoran plant type, but we’ll save that for last.

The simplest strategy is that of the Ephemerals, such as Desert Paintbrush and Mojave Aster. These plants germinate when it’s wet, grow, reproduce, and die. Next rainy season some number of their seeds germinate, and the cycle is repeated.

A different approach is the Perennial strategy, used by Brittlebush and Ocotillo. Oct others labelsThese plants “come to life”, greening, leafing and flowering following rains, then dropping their leaves and going dormant through the next dry spell. Ocotillo typically does this 4 or 5 times/year, presenting a whole different perspective of the concept of “season”. Ocotillo BTW is often considered a cactus, but it’s not. It’s part of an order called Ericales, which includes things like Blueberry and Brazil Nut. Ocotillo has one close relative in the Sonoran, wonderfully-freaky Boojum Tree, which unfortunately (for us gringos) occurs only South of the border.

It can sometimes seem like no leaf lasts for long in the Sonoran, but that’s not the case. A fascinating exception is cactus spines, which as we’ll see tomorrow, are actually specialized (and persistent) leaves. But more traditional persistent leaves can of course be found on our old friend Creosote, and- even more impressively- on Jojoba.

IMG_4104 Jojoba, Simmondsia chinensis (pic right- behind cholla skeleton) is a knee-to-chest-high shrub scattered across Sonoran hillsides. It’s not particularly impressive or weird-looking, but it stands out in the desert because a) it’s not spiky/ spiny/ thorny (meaning it’s one of the few plants around you could actually crash into and not take a trip to the ER) and b) it has leaves. Real, year-round*, half-decent-sized leaves.

*Under extreme drought conditions Jojoba can drop its leaves, and so is technically drought-deciduous, but this is pretty unusual.

Even if you’re not into desert plants, you might have heard of Jojoba anyway, particularly if you’re a woman. Many, beauty, skincare and shampoo products tout Jojoba oil as an ingredient. Though many of the claimed properties are no doubt overhyped (like with all beauty products, right?) the oil is in fact an excellent moisturizer and carrier, or base, oil for perfumes. The reason for this is that unlike most vegetable oils, which are made up triglycerides, Jojoba oil is comprised of long chain fatty acids linked to fatty alcohols, and is actually chemically more similar to human sebum* and- get this- Sperm Whale oil. Because of this, Jojoba is the second-most commercially valuable native Sonoran Desert plant (after palms), and is farmed not only in North America, but also in places like India, where it’s planted not only for its oil, but to combat desertification.

*Sebum= the stuff produced by your sebaceous glands. In other words, it’s the real thing- the stuff all those moisturizing beauty products are trying to emulate.

In farming Jojoba, care has to be taken to manage the sex of the plants raised. Jojoba is dioecious, meaning that plants are either male or female, but not both*. Naturally Jojoba occurs in a male-female ratio of about 4 or 5 to 1. But since the oil is the product of the seeds, and only females produce seeds, and 1 male can effectively pollinate (more on Jojoba pollination- which is way cool- in a moment) several females, growers try to manage to a 1:5 or so male: female ratio.

*With very rare exceptions in Jojoba’s case.

IMG_4025 Jojoba gets weirder and weirder. It’s monotypic, not just at the genus level, but at the family level. It’s in a family, Simmondsiaceae, all by itself. Its leaves are tough and waxy-coated, like Creosote or Bitterbrush, so it loses little water (pic below, right). And interestingly, the leaves stand, for the most part, straight up (pic left). By doing so they optimize their aspect for maximum solar exposure in early morning or late afternoon, when it’s cooler out, and minimize their exposure to the direct noon-day sun.

IMG_4096 Jojoba’s wind-pollinated, but what’s cool about this pollination is that it’s not entirely passive; the leaf spacing/ positioning is such that a breeze creates vortexes within the branches that capture passing pollen and swirl it around the female flowers. Interestingly, male and female Jojoba plants tend to have slightly different branch architecture/ morphologies, which is thought to create more internal shade in female plants, which in turn protects developing seeds.

Extra Detail: The logical connection would be that the “female” morphology also lends to optimized pollen wind-vortexes, but I was unable to confirm this in researching this post. I should also mention that the female-male morphology rule is not hard & fast; there are female plants with “male” morphology and vice versa. But in any case, even if the only benefit is seed-shading, it’s a great example of sexual dimorphism in a plant.

What’s really interesting is what’s going on below the ground. Different desert plants have different rooting strategies, and these strategies determine their relative positioning to one another.

After we set up camp, the 4 us crossed the dirt road, away from the running wash, scrambled up the embankment and gradually worked our way up along a series of slopes and ridges. There was no trail to follow, but cross-country travel in the Sonoran is pretty easy- you just have to watch where you step. Though filled with spiky, sharp and spiny things, plants on the Sonoran Desert floor are widely spaced, and it’s easy to find a path. Ribs Gradually, at an easy pace, we threaded our way upward, through and around Jojoba, Cholla, Saguaros, Prickly Pear, Desert Broom and Palo Verde, the girls chattering and pointing out funny looking cacti, bunny rabbits* and such the whole while.

*Desert Cottontail, Sylvilagus audubonii), short (and lame) video below. (Voice exclaiming in background = AS’s daughter .) Whenever we spotted wildlife I whipped the camera out of the shoulder-holster and tried to get a shot or video. By the 3rd or so attempt, AS would start humming the theme to Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom.

Yeah, I warned you it was lame. Don’t get all cranky with me if you wasted 11 seconds watching it.

Mesquite, Ironwood (pic left) and Palo Verde for example, are all what are IMG_4162 called phreatophytes*, which are plants whose roots extend way, way down into the ground, all the way to the permanent water table. Cacti on the other hand are xerophytes, which are plants that have adapted to survive with only limited or intermittent access to water. Specific xerophytic adaptations of cacti include succulence- or the ability to retain water, and CAM photosynthesis which we looked at last year, and which limits water-loss by keeping stomates (pores) closed during the day.

S Cutaway*Closer to home, Greasewood is a great example of a phreatophyte in the valleys West of Salt Lake. BTW, phreatophyte is one of those words, which- like so many botanical terms- I’ve only read; I’ve never heard it pronounced. In my mind I pronounce it “free-AT-oh-fight”, mainly because “Frito-Fight” sounds silly.

S Roots Cacti have shallow roots networks which take advantage of recent rains, sucking up what moisture they can and storing it. The system works well, but in taller, columnar cacti, the shallow roots can be a liability, making them susceptible to toppling. Here’s a shot of the roots of a toppled Saguaro we passed by.

Saguaros are the tallest plants around in the Arizona Sonoran. They grow up over 40 feet tall, live up to 200 years, and can weigh up to 6 tons. Why don’t they have deeper roots?

First off having shallow roots isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the closer to the surface your roots are in the desert, the more of the rain you can catch. But shallow roots help Saguros in another way.

IMG_4118 Cacti are divided into two groups- Opuntia and Cereus. Segmented cacti, like Cholla and Prickly Pear (pic right), are Opuntia. Cereus are columnar cacti, like Saguaro, Hedgehog and Barrel*. Up around Phoenix, Saguaro is the only tall Cereus cacti.

*Another difference between the 2 groups are the spines, which I’ll cover tomorrow.

There are other tall Cereus species, but for the most part they’re down in Mexico. Organ Pipe makes it across the border into its namesake national monument, and about 50 Senitas have made it across the border as well, but overwhelmingly these species are found only in Mexico (where they grow like weeds.) The mighty Cardon cactus (up to 75 feet tall), so far as I know*, occurs only in Mexico.

*Wikipedia claims Cardon cactus extends into Southern Arizona, but I’m unaware of any such location and couldn’t confirm.

IMG_4061 Saguaro is the outlier, pushing into the very Northern fringes of the Sonoran, and what’s interesting is that it only arrived there within the last few thousand years*. And most of the larger “trees” it encountered when it arrived there- Palo Verde (pic right), Ironwood, Mesquite- are phreatophytes. But Saguaro with its shallow roots, is able to fit in nicely alongside these deep-rooters. Look around next time you’re in the Phoenix area. You’ll almost never see Saguaros clumped together; they’re widely spaced, each staking out a shallow “root-territory.” Yet they frequently grow next to, or even intertwined with, phreatophytic Palo Verde and Mesquite; they don’t compete, by and large, for root “real-estate.”

Sonoran Root NetworksWhen you notice this spacing as you walk across open Sonoran Desert, as the 4 of us did behind our campsite Saturday afternoon, it slowly dawns on you that the seemingly random scattering of desert flora isn’t all that random after all; that each bush, shrub, shree and cactus occupies a space in a well-ordered mosaic, a sophisticated living jigsaw puzzle-equilibrium of positioning and hydrology. And when you see hints of that order start to become visible out of the array of plants, the desert somehow becomes beautiful on a whole other level, one you didn’t see before.

*The whole Sonoran desert in Arizona for that matter, in its current range and incarnation, has only come about in the last 10,000 years.

Side Note: Speaking of root strategies, know what plant’s got a really, really cool one? Creosote*, that’s what. No, not just because of the incredible, multi-generational root –clones it forms, spreading in concentric rings across the desert floor and dating back over 10,000 years. Yeah, that’s cool, but what else is really cool, is that it has a 2-tier root architecture, with both a distinct, opportunistic shallow-root network to take advantage of monsoon rains, as well as a deep-reaching phreatophytic network to access the underlying water-table.

Creosote Root Networks Clones, rapid colonization, geographically distinct polyploid races, allelopathic chemical warfare and a cool smell to boot- Creosote has totally got it going on.

*Creosote is so cool, in my next life I am doing a blog just about it and nothing else. It’ll be Way Awesome. You’ll see.

So it was fun to see the desert wet, and to think about how water, and access to water, shapes the form and layout of the desert floor. But none of that was what was really eating at me. No, what was really on my mind was the same thing that’s always on my mind on off-trail Sonoran hikes: Why is everything so damn sharp and spiky?

Next Up: Spikes, Spines and Thorns


KanyonKris said...

What a packed post.

I'm impressed that you not only dive deep into the details but also see the big picture. I'm trying to develop this sensibility, but most of the time I just see cool looking scenery. I need to wake up.

My favorite photo: the 5 desert plants group shot.

Ski Bike Junkie said...

I'm amazed you could make it through the Silmarillion. I tried it on audiobook and felt like a mellowdramatic old man was reading the old testament except with more unbelievably wacky magic going on.

KanyonKris said...

SBJ - I heard similar reactions to Silmarillion, and while I love The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I just couldn't muster the endurance to try Silmarillion. Your comment is another nail in that coffin. Sorry Watcher.

Watcher said...

Kris- I love it when something random and confusing starts to make sense. I think that's why I get off on the big picture/pattern stuff.

SBJ/Kris- I suspect there's a certain class of books that are really, really great, but only if you read them before you're 25 or 30 or so. I fear Silmarillion may be one of them. (
ZMM may be another.)

Anonymous said...

It was good fun to read your post--the Superstitions are one of my favorite places in the Upland Sonoran. When my husband and I were there last March, it was so wet that during a three-day backpack, we were literally never out of the sight of water (warning: results not typical!). You'll have to return to the Supes in the early spring for a wildflower display that will knock your socks off. See especially the Lost Dutchman's Trail and the Barkley Basin.

I agree that Creosote is a cool plant. Did you know that Larrea occurs as far south as Bolivia? Research has shown that L. tridendata evolved different ploidy levels as it expanded its range into drier Southwestern deserts, like the Mojave and Chihuahua. This, in turn, has helped to demonstate that polyploidy in general is an effective adaptation to harsh environments. Polyploids exhibit self-fertilization, asexual reproduction, and drought-tolerance. It's no wonder that Larrea is the longest lived genus on earth.


Enel said...

I have started and failed to finish the Silmarillion twice, and I have been known to get through long, boring books, just can't do it.

Glad you got to visit. Glad you weren't "washed" away like a local 6 yo.

I think Palo Verdes are beautiful.

The snowline thing with Junipers is interesting. In our town, an elevation change of only 500 feet markedly changes the amount of rain/snow seen, and the flora is subsequently markedly different.

I am sure you have read it, but "The Secret Knowledge of Water" is a fabulous book about water and lack of it in the desert.

Watcher said...

Shelley- Thanks for the trail suggestions. With AS living down there I get down Phoenix-way fairly often, so I expect I’ll get to check them out. And yes, I knew of the South American range (and possible origins) of Larrea (posted about it in the last tangent of this post, and blogged about the polyploid races of Creosote across Southwest deserts in this post.) So glad someone else thinks Creosote is as fantastic as I do! (And that smell- still fresh in my mind!)

Speaking of polyploidy in the Sonoran, here’s a cool teaser for Part 2 (which won’t be tomorrow- ran out of time): most of the Teddy Bear Cholla you see are asexual triploids.

Enel- When we returned to Phoenix, we stopped by AS’s house for dinner before heading for the airport and heard the tragic news about the 6 yo boy. Ugh. Having just finished a great weekend with our own young kids, it really hit home.

Your location is fantastic, both for the local topography and flora, as well as for the fantastic variety of environments within a 2 hour drive. Someday I’m going to finagle a day stop-over on one of my road-trips (last time was in ’95) and talk you into taking me out for a ride.

I’m a huge Craig Childs fan and loved Secret Knowledge. This Fall I read his latest book, House Of Rain, in my opinion his best yet.