Bad Women and Writhing Leafy Tentacles

The monsoon season has arrived here in Southeast Arizona, and people in general here are happier. Towering cumulus clouds fill the afternoon sky and all of Cochise County has been blessed with rain.

People had been getting cranky and irritable during those endless hot and cloudless days of May and June, myself among them. What had we done to deserve such unrelenting dryness? People I know who are in their seventies and eighties were prone to nostalgically reminisce about those halcyon days when they first moved here. “It used to rain all summer!”

One elderly woman said to me “I know just how long this drought has been going on! My son is twenty-five years old and he was born during the last really wet summer we’ve had since then.”

This morning, after a night of gentle rain, the air was cool and moist and I felt like a walk. I drove to a small rocky park on the south side of Bisbee, a scant few acres of sloping land on the borders of a wash. The park is bordered by Highway 92 on one side and several suburban developments on the other.

The park is dominated by radiating clumps of ocotillo, Palmer’s Agaves, and Little-leaved Sumac. A path winds through it and with my camera in hand I stayed on that path for a short time, then drifted off into the thorny and newly-leafy landscape.

I noticed numerous clumps of a white-flowered plant, the Malo Mujer, which means Bad Woman. This plant is a monsoon opportunist, quickly springing up, flowering, and setting seed while there is moisture.

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Why is this plant compared to a bad woman? The answer is in the beautiful spiny leaves, which can cause excruciating pain and swelling to susceptible people who handle them. The leaves have never affected me, though I haven’t rudely squeezed them or rubbed them all over my face. I’m reasonably cautious with plants of bad repute. The leaves are ephemerally fleshy and quite beautifully patterned:

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A closer view of the spines. What might be that milky ichor or fluid at the base of the spines, which reminds me of venom?

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Ocotillos are such strange creatures. The slender trunks radiate out from a central woody base and they only have leaves during wet periods. As soon as the dryness returns the fleshy small leaves wither and fall off. The trunks have areas of green chlorophyll and transform sunlight into carbohydrates between leafy periods. The trunks aren’t ever straight. They look as if they had been writhing, only stopping when a human glances at them. Perhaps that is what they do when they are alone! Less fancifully, I think they slowly writhe away from each other, always seeking light. A years-long time-lapse sequence of photos would be quite interesting to see.

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The leafy trunks glow, backlit by the morning sunlight, creating an aura of spring-green around the wiry trunks:

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Here’s a close-up shot of partially-developed ocotillo leaves emerging from the woody trunk, which seems to reveal waxy-looking innards between scurfy areas of bark:

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The flower-clusters grow at the tips of the cane-like trunks. They can appear several times every year, like the leaves requiring a rainy period. The scarlet clusters are a characteristic sight during wet periods in the Chihuahuan desert, most of which is in Mexico.

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A closer look:

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It’s wonderful to see the desert come to life after a long hot dormant period!

Larry