Last night I was over in the San Pedro River Valley playing music at John and Marcia’s place. After a very nice meal featuring home-grown tomatoes and turkey burgers I was in the kitchen putting a plate in the sink. On a central island counter I noticed a ginger root with an interesting green excrescence protruding from its side. Looking closer it seemed to be a conical bud, something I’d never seen on a ginger root before. I beckoned Marcia over and pointed to the root.

“Marcia, could I cut this this shoot or bud from your ginger root and take it home with me?”

“Sure, Larry! Are you wanting to root it?”

“Yeah, I’ll suspend it in water somehow.”

I found a knife and severed the shoot, leaving a small chunk of root to help nurture the hopeful little creature. Marcia gave me a sandwich bag to take the shoot home in.

I forgot all about the ginger piece until this morning. I found a small ceramic pot, cut a piece from a chopstick, and attached the root to it with a twist-tie. Here’s the ginger shoot on my windowsill, illuminated by a stray sun-ray shafting through the leaves of a tree:


Not a practical project, I admit, but I’m pleased to act as parent to this little plant!


A Grass Story With An Odor

A couple of years ago I spent the summer in Bisbee house-sitting for some friends. The house was at one end of High Road, a street suspended on a ledge halfway up the northern slope of Tombstone canyon. There are two ways to get to High Road from Bisbee’s main drag, Tombstone Canyon Road. To drive up to High Road, you have to make a sharp turn on Clausen and simultaneously ascend a steep slope. The other way is for hardy pedestrians; a steep series of seventy or so steps will take you up to and right on past the house I was staying in.

At the bottom of those steps lived a couple with young children. The wife could often be noticed tending to her various garden plots along the steps, and I frequently encountered her in my peregrinations. One day she was down at the bottom of the steps and and after I had descended the steps we fell into conversation about plants, gardening, and such.

The woman drew my attention to some clumps of fuzzy-topped grass growing between the sidewalk and the street. She said:

“Larry, pick some of the tops from that grass there, crush them, and tell me what they smell like, okay?”

Far be it from me to resist such a request! I picked some of the seedheads, smelled them, and said:

“Damn! It smells just like blueberries!”

“Yeah, they do, don’t they? When I first moved to Bisbee fifteen years ago a friend told me about this grass.”

“What kind of grass is it?”

“I really don’t know, but it grows all over town!”

I tried to do a Google search, using such terms as “grass that smells like blueberries”, but my results were clogged with people’s remarks about varieties of marijuana which smell like blueberries. Evidently quite a few varieties of pot smell like that!

This summer I asked Cado Daily, a Cochise County extension agent (and one of my friends and musical cohorts) what she thought that grass might be. She said:

“Oh, I know that grass! it’s one of the beard-grasses, a species of Andropogon!”

“Thanks, Cado!”

That was just the lead I needed. After some better-directed Google searches I found that the grass has been removed from the old Andropogon genus and placed in a new one. The grass is native and it’s common all over the Southwest, all the way from Texas to California. One common name for it is “Cane Beargrass”, and the grass currently rejoices in the Latin cognomen Bothriochloa barbinodis. Nowhere did I find a mention of the grass’s blueberry odor.

Some people I’ve talked with in Bisbee claim that the grass really smells more like Blueberry Pop-Tarts than real blueberries. I think that is a distinction without a difference, as Blueberry Pop-Tarts do have some real blueberries in their gummy filling. Processed foods are most often made with small Low-bush Blueberries harvested in the Northeast US and the Canadian Maritime Provinces.

This morning I went out in the courtyard and photographed a Cane Beargrass seedhead I had picked the other day out in the valley.


It’s always a pleasure to learn something new about the native plants which share this region with us!


Volcanic Eruptions?

Yesterday morning I had to drive to San José, the southernmost district of Bisbee which lies beyond the ghastly Lavender Pit and the traffic circle. That’s where the Safeway store and the Ace Hardware store are located, along with numerous other businesses which all Bisbee residents need from time to time. That’s the price Bisbee people pay for living in such a quaint canyon town full of artists, musicians, and uncategorizable odd folks!

I parked in the Safeway parking lot, which always seems to be windy. The parking lot overlooks the border with Mexico and the twin towns down in the valley, Naco, Arizona and Naco, Sonora. The grim border wall is all too visible.

Before doing my mundane errands at Safeway and Alco I looked out across the valley towards the San José mountains, across the border. Power-lines obscured my view, but I was impressed by the way the clouds were gathered about the peaks, creating an illusion of volcanoes erupting.


The closest and highest mountain, San José peak, also seemed to be spewing vapor down its slopes. I imagined people who dwell beneath the peak fleeing in panic, chased by relentless flows of hot lava.


But I had groceries to buy, so I reluctantly turned away!


Up Zacatecas Canyon

Walk downhill from just about anywhere in Bisbee and you will end up at an area which is the confluence of two canyons, Tombstone Canyon and Zacatecas Canyon. At this downtown nexus you will find the post office and the library along with a bank and many shops and other businesses. Everyone in town passes through this area at one time or another.

The “town end” of Zacatecas Canyon is called Brewery Gulch, locally known as “the Gulch”. Most of Bisbee’s bars are clustered there, but if you follow the twists and turns of the canyon it becomes residential, a unique neighborhood housing the more unconventional of Bisbee’s inhabitants, which is saying something! There are so many abrupt bends in the street that you have to drive slowly — it’s really more of a street for walkers.

Eventually you will come to an old-fashioned store called Mimosa Market, which in my mind marks the demarcation between the Gulch and Zacatecas Canyon. The street becomes rougher and narrower after that, eventually giving way to rough cobbles. Prudent drivers will begin to wonder if they will ever find a place to turn around. Some of the houses are vacant. Eventually there are no more houses and the true and enduring nature of Zacatecas Canyon manifests itself.

Late yesterday afternoon I became embroiled in a really pointless and stupid “discussion” on a Facebook group for Bisbee people. I was having trouble refraining from making scathing comments and, as they say around here, the vibes were bad. I decisively closed my laptop, hopped in my truck, and drove as far as I could up Brewery Gulch. I found a place to park past Mimosa Market and began to walk up Zacatecas Canyon until the scene became suitably wild and thorny. Just the way I like it!

A side-canyon beckoned to me and I began clambering up and around schist outcrops. A trickle of water was still flowing, evidence of recent monsoon rains. Plants were flowering all around, the contrast of bright dots of floral color with the enduring gray-green of the vegetation was calming to my soul. A very light drizzle of rain was falling, and the sky was gray.

I shot a few photos on this excursion. It’s nearly impossible to capture the feel of these desert canyons, so I tend to go for the close-up macro shots of plants and such.

A very common summer plant in Bisbee and the surrounding canyons is this charming little morning glory, Ipomoea cristulata. The vines are all over Bisbee’s alleys and street-sides. Once a woman, a long-time Bisbee resident, said to me “Sometimes I think that morning glory vines are what hold Old Bisbee together!” I like to see the plant in its native canyon and wash habitat:


Here are some morning glory vines climbing up and around a rigid clump of Sotol, a relative of the Yuccas and Agaves:


Such a charming sight! Off to one side of the sub-canyon I saw a Devil’s Claw plant which has been forming its fruits. Notice how a morning glory vine has wrapped itself around the plump fruit:


These fruits are edible at this stage, but as they ripen they split and the two halves form wickedly-curved horns which snag onto any creature happening by.

Now and then I encountered a diminutive species of sage, Salvia subincisus, also known as Sawtooth Sage. This is an easily-overlooked plant, as the plant is only six inches tall, and the flowers are only three-eighths of an inch long. A couple of weeks from now these sages will have set seed and won’t be noticeable again until next summer, after the rains.


I enjoyed this densely-packed passage of botanical English from a published description of this Salvia:

The flowers are each followed by a ribbed, bilobed, glandular-hairy, green to dark purple fruiting calyx that dries to brown and contains tan-colored nutlets.

I’m glad not to be “glandular-hairy” and would prefer not to have “tan-colored nutlets”. Just the thing for a Salvia, though!

One of the last houses in Zacatecas Canyon belongs to two friends of mine, a couple with whom I regularly play music. I was on the canyon slope opposite their house when I took the above photos. Here’s a photo of their house, the lair of two true canyon-dwellers:


I got back to my apartment, opened the laptop, and found that the roiling discussion was still going on in that Bisbee Facebook group. Once again I was drawn in — after all, when someone is wrong on the internet something must be done!


‘Shrooms At The Farmer’s Market

This southeast corner of Arizona is known for its pleasant weather. Even if an afternoon gets hot, like this one has, the mornings are uniformly delightful. This morning while the air was still cool I drove over to Warren to the weekly Farmer’s Market.

Vendors were still setting up and laying out their wares when I arrived. I walked over to the Spadefoot Nursery display. I wanted to tell the proprietor how lucky I had been with the Arizona Sycamore he had sold me two weeks ago. The rains came at the right time for that tree!

In a grassy area nearby I noticed a splendid fruiting of a white mushroom with nicely-arrayed universal veil flecks ornamenting the surfaces of the caps. A family gathering which was a pleasure to see:


I stooped down and picked one, turning it over so that I could examine the gills. They were snowy white, and a ring or annulus surrounded the stem.

Perhaps an Amanita? I consulted with a man who had approached me, a fellow fungus fancier. He thought Amanita was most likely.

Why hadn’t I remembered to bring my camera? Cursing my forgetfulness, I drove back into Old Bisbee, ascended the twenty-five steps to my apartment, and drove back to Warren with the camera.

As I walked back to the patch of mushrooms I saw a group of young boys looking at the fungi. One boy drew his leg back to kick the largest one over. I was right behind him, and I loudly said “No!” in stentorian tones. The kid jumped, startled, and didn’t kick the mushroom. I admit I got a perverse kick out of that!

I kneeled down and got out my camera. Several young children and a few adults surrounded me in a circle. I suppose this may have been a novel sight. I’m shameless in the presence of my fungal friends.

Here’s a youngster, an immature ‘shroom which hasn’t expanded its cap yet. As the cap expands the partial veil, a diaphanous membrane which covers the gills, ruptures and the remnants of the veil form the ring around the stem. A comparison could be made with the somewhat analogous rupture of a virgin woman’s hymen, but I digress…


I think that the semi-regular patterns formed by fragments of the universal veil, which once enveloped and protected the entire mushroom, are quite appealing. This next one looks like one of the chitinous giant planets, Planet Amanita. The polar veil-cap is quite prominent in this shot:


One of the young boys picked up the mushroom I had picked earlier. He said:

“Mister, mister! Why don’t you take a picture of the other side of the mushroom?”

A good suggestion! Here is the shot I took:


One last photo, a pair which may live long enough to release spores, if the boys leave them alone!



Bisbee Falls

This has been a rainy monsoon season here in Bisbee. One thunderstorm after another! People here are just giddy with delight. We’re in the fifteenth year of drought conditions, and these rains have been unexpected gifts from the fickle Southwest sky gods.

I have been seeing some impressive images on the “Cochise County And Its Wonders” Facebook group, photos of an impressive waterfall cascading down the granite slopes of what looked like Juniper Flats. The people who posted the photos called the site “Bisbee Falls”. I’ve intermittently been in and around Bisbee for a couple of years now, and I’ve never heard “Bisbee Falls” mentioned. It occurs to me now that there are no falls without rain, and the “Falls” aren’t talked about if they don’t exist!

Early Wednesday morning I heard from a friend, Maggie. She told me her young son Finner really wanted to go see the Falls. Evidently he had seen the same Facebook photos I had seen!

This happened to be an ideal morning for an excursion — cool, sunny, and calm. Before long I had parked my truck in a pull-off opposite Juniper Flats, the massive granite eminence which is part of Bisbee’s northern boundary.

At the base of Juniper Flats we could see a trail angling across the steep slope. Maggie had heard that this had been a mule trail at one time. But how to get to it?

The three of us crossed Highway 80, headed up a brushy slope and then slithered beneath a barb-wire fence. We found the trail, which had been built up on the downhill side with roughly laid chunks of granite.

The trail switched back and forth and led us through verdant glens and coves, such a welcome sight after the parched early summer months. Before we came close to the falls we could see sheets of water flowing over the granite, forming innumerable rivulets and pooling in small fern-lined cavities in the rock. Occasionally dramatic granite outcrops would be silhouetted against a flawless, clear, and deep blue sky:


Finner is a hardy and curious little guy and sometimes as difficult to photograph as a young dog. I managed to get a quick shot of him running down the path:


Finner saw the falls first. He stopped as we rounded a bend in the trail and said “Look at that!”


Such a dramatic sight! The contrast of the rippling sheets of water spilling over the edge of the top of Juniper Flats was a joy to behold.


Off to the side of the main falls water was flowing in sheets over the granite rather than falling. The stone was stained with “desert varnish”, evidence of rains which have deposited minerals over the past few millennia.


Small waterfalls diverged from the main flow and collected in pools surrounded by monsoon-stimulated vegetation:


The path ended at a pool surrounded by jumbled chunks and boulders which have been spalling off the main massif ever since the uplift which created Juniper Flats. Witnessing such geological scenes puts the brief human history of this region in perspective. These rocks will be periodically inundated long after the human race has perished, most likely in its own waste.

After we had been enjoying the scene for an hour or so two more hikers appeared and sat down on the rocks with us: two women, each with a dog. The dogs were happy and well-behaved, a basset hound and a pit bull mix with intriguing markings.


We had some interesting conversation as Finner and the dogs clambered around the rocks.


All four of the adults were taking photos and videos from time to time. A few more of mine:


Such a sight to see! Two agaves which were rooted in crevices in the granite, stoically enduring moisture they certainly didn’t need. This too shall pass, remarks one to the other:



The property belongs to the Nature Conservancy, but it isn’t marked with signs or described anywhere on the web, as far as I’ve been able to tell. The trail to the falls is known to many Bisbee residents, and as we walked back to the truck we encountered other hikers out to enjoy the fine weather and remarkable sights.


A Sycamore and a Storm

Saturday morning I had planned to make a short visit to the Farmer’s Market in Warren, which is a part of Bisbee which lies on the far side of that yawning moonscape, the Lavender Pit. I thought I would buy some chile peppers and tomatoes and possibly talk with people, but I didn’t plan to stay long. On a whim I threw my fiddle in the truck, as you never know — I could meet another musician sharing that yen to jam a bit.

As I passed the display of healthy native plants and trees offered by Spadefoot Nursery, a local concern, I was intrigued by a group of lush-looking Arizona Sycamore trees.

“How old are those trees?”, I asked the proprietor.

“They are first year seedlings, and they’ve been doing remarkably well.”

Fifteen bucks seemed to be a bargain, so I bought a four-foot-tall baby sycamore.

I ended up staying at the market for over three hours. The singer who was scheduled to perform hadn’t showed up, so I played the fiddle with two friends who happened to be there, a banjo player and a mandolinist/guitarist. We had a good time, and I made enough money in tips to pay for the tree and a bag of chili peppers and okra too! A nice serendipitous morning.

I knew rain was forecast for today, but I figured it would come in the afternoon. It seemed like a good day to plant a tree, as the sky was cloudy and the temperature cool. I drove out into the Sulphur Springs Valley, hoping the lane to our cabin would be passable. I was a bit dubious when I saw water pooled and mud deposited on North Frontier Road — how much rain had fallen out there?

I drove through several washes on the mile-long road back to the cabin. The contours of the land had changed as sheets of run-off had re-sculpted the surface of the road. Then I had to stop, as the water had carved out a hole in the road big enough to seize a tire. I walked back to the cabin, got a shovel and a bucket, and filled that hole with sand and gravel.

When I got to the cabin the rain gauge showed two and a quarter inches, quite a substantial rain! Digging the hole for the tree was quick and easy in the moist soil. I didn’t even have to use the mattock! Here’s a shot of the sycamore after I’d fenced around the tree, using half-inch re-bar as posts. Javelinas and deer shouldn’t be able to bother that tree!


A shot of the healthy native tree from above:


The valley can be windy, too hot or too cold, and bleak at times. In some ways, especially compared to Bisbee’s moderation in all things climatic, the valley can be a harsh environment, but this is often offset by utterly spectacular skies. From our place you can see for thirty miles in some directions, eighty in others. Often several rain showers are visible at once. Cumulus clouds ascend in mighty pillars or anvil-shaped formations, and sometimes the cirrus clouds are delicately arranged in exquisite patterns.This blue rift in the clouds above the Mule Mountains caught my eye:


Looking south along our lane:


As I was driving back to Bisbee along Double Adobe Road I just had to pull over and shoot some photos. The southern arm of the Mules looked so verdant where the sun was peeking through the clouds:


Looking towards Bisbee it seemed likely that rain was falling. The town is right behind the mountain which is almost obscured by clouds and rain in this shot:


As I drove into town torrential rain was falling. The streets were inches deep in flowing water and cars left rooster-tail spray in their wakes. I stopped to get my mail at the post office and managed to become completely drenched during the short run in and then back to my truck. But I did get our tree planted, and I didn’t get my truck stuck!

Addendum: I was lucky to get out there before the storm this afternoon! here’s a photo from the Cochise County Road Department of Frontier Road this afternoon:




The Latin names of organisms fascinate me. There are few rules for naming, and naturalists and biologists often turn to the Greek and Roman myths for inspiration. Typhon was the “deadliest monster” in Greek mythology, and he was the father of Cerberus, the three-headed dog who was employed by Hades to guard the entrance of the underworld. Typhon was also the father of the Sphinx, who plagued the city of Thebes until Oedipus happened along and answered her riddle. Quite a distinguished family in the land of myths!

Mention of the Sphinx leads me by an admittedly circuitous route to the real subject of this post.

Recently I was visiting a friend, a single mother who is raising a six-year-old boy. This boy maintains and adds to a collection of curiosities: geological, cultural, and biological objects which he and his mother have spotted and brought home. The boy was showing me his latest acquisitions.

“Mom and I found this moth in the school parking lot! Isn’t it cool!”

The moth was dead and a bit deteriorated. The wing patterns fascinated me. I could tell that it was a sphinx moth, but I had never encountered that particular species before.

The next time I visited I had my camera with me. I shot this photo and, once I was home again, I looked up the species in a moth book.


The moth seems to be rare, but biological rarities turn up often in Southeast Arizona. I could find no common name for the creature, but I’m pretty certain that the Latin name is Eumorpha typhon. “Eumorpha” could be translated as “Good shape”, and Typhon, as related above, was the father of the Sphinx.

To me personal discoveries like this one are the essence of coolness. Greek mythology, whimsical biologists mining the myths for names, and a beautiful creature whose larvae live on wild grapes.

I’ll keep an eye on that boy, as he seems to have good luck finding interesting things!


Artistic Motifs And The Natural World

The word “seed” interests me. In this increasingly industrialized world the word might be used metaphorically more often than literally. Plants have seeds, but so do ideas and essays.

The seed of this photo-essay was an e-mail exchange I had recently with Bev, who is at her house in Nova Scotia for the summer. Both of us belong to a Facebook group which features photos of moths and requests for moth IDs. Most of the photos posted to the group are of North American moth species, many of them familiar to us. Lately one of the members of the group has been posting spectacular photos of Malaysian moths, and another member has been posting photos of Chinese species.

Bev and I agreed that these moth images were strange-looking, unlike our local species in shape and color. These moths had evolved in another hemisphere, and evolution always has an element of randomness which could explain the differences we observed.

Pondering this, I began to wonder about the early years of any culture. This brought to mind the clichéd term “Golden Age”. We inherited this term from our Mediterranean cultural forbearers, the Greeks and Romans. The Chinese have an analogous term. The general idea is that everything was better in the “old days”, that people lived closer to nature and lacked the societal ills which plague the present. An attenuated personal version of this concept is quite noticeable in every old person’s view that, in general, things were better when they were younger. Dammit, they just were!

In general, every human society wishes to expand its population. The traditional view towards competing neighbor societies has always been, except for brief interludes, “assimilate ’em or obliterate ’em!”. This attitude goes hand in hand with the urge to subjugate and make maximum use of the natural environment. Every civilization has a childhood period, though, when the population was low, neighbors were distant, and the natural world intermingled with the human world.

During these “Golden Ages” many of the artistic design motifs which help give a culture its individual character arose. Typically leaves and flowers of the local vegetation were abstracted and conventionalized. One example from Roman culture is the use of the acanthus leaf. Acanthus mollis is a spiny-leaved plant of the Mediterranean region. This design motif was eagerly embraced by the Victorians in England during the 19th Century; the designers of that era used it in everything from textiles to cast iron. The acanthus leaf became so stylized that the resemblance to the original plant was almost lost. Here are two photos of the acanthus plant, followed by a Victorian acanthus-inspired design:




I had been familiar with the acanthus-leaf motif from an early age, and I still recall how surprised I was to learn that Acanthus is a real plant genus! People in Britain grow the plant as an ornamental in gardens.

A common decorative motif in England since the middle Ages is the leaf of Quercus robur, the English Oak:


Before the British Navy began consuming oaks voraciously in order to make sailing ships there were many oak forests in England; they were the backdrops of rural and village life. The leafs became stylized by wood- and stone-carvers, as in these examples from Winchester Cathedral:



What originally inspired this post were some thoughts about the shapes of moths in different parts of the world. Here is a photo of a Geometrid moth. It was taken by John Horstman in Yunnan Province, China


Now look at a leaf from Ginkgo biloba, a Chinese tree with a leaf shape and structure unlike those of any Occidental tree:


Of course you are familiar with the use of fans as a decorative motif in Oriental art. Art imitating nature? It seems to be a universal human trait.


Avant le deluge

Tuesday afternoon I felt like taking a walk. I thought that a storm might be coming, and the atmospheric conditions which bring on such an intuition tend to make me restless. I didn’t have to worry about making a palatable meal because I had food already cooked. Since Bisbee is located in a steep-sided canyon I couldn’t see much of the horizon, but I noticed that the sky was looking quite dark towards the south.

I thought that gaining a vantage point way up on the canyon slope might provide me with some good photos of the approaching storm. I drove up Tombstone Canyon (Bisbee’s main drag) a ways and headed up the opposite side of the canyon on Moon Canyon Road. That road is perched halfway up the canyon side. I could park near a trail-head, and from there I could walk up to a high point from which, with any luck, I’d have a good view of an approaching storm. What could possibly go wrong?

Such a nice view of Bisbee with ominous lightning-dissected dark clouds in the background! The storm didn’t seem to be moving in too fast. I shot some photos along the trail; here’s one of an insect-eye view along the stem of a Strap-leaved Morning Glory, with the angled leaves forming twin palisades:


This species is just beginning its blooming period; here’s the lone open blossom I saw:


The sky was becoming dramatic and I began to think about turning back:


I noticed a nice schist outcropping near the top which looked to be a good place to sit and take some more photos. I went off the trail and was nearly to the outcrop when the breeze picked up and rain began to fall. Change of plans!

The rain became heavier and visibility was poor. I realized that I was unlikely to find the trail again. I knew that if I kept descending I’d surely get back to Moon Canyon Road, where my truck awaited me. By this time I was soaked and my main priorities were keeping my camera dry and not stumbling and falling.

The prime thing to remember when attempting to go down a steep canyon slope, its surface strewn with loose scree, is that you just can’t hurry. I really wished that I had thought to bring a walking stick, as a third leg can be a big help on those steep slopes.

I glanced back towards the approaching storm just once during my descent. It was a chilling sight; a wall of heavy rain was inexorably approaching down the canyon. I got to my truck, and as I fumbled with my truck’s key the real rain hit. Such tumult! My glasses were fogged up as I started the engine and I fired up the defroster so I could see out the window. Brilliant lightning flashed simultaneously with the thunder, and I realized that those lightning bolts were striking up on the slopes where I had been just moments before.

I couldn’t see well enough to safely get my truck turned around. Moon Canyon Road is narrow, and the downhill side is a steep drop-off into a sub-canyon. After a few minutes the rain abated a bit, I got turned around, and on my way down to Tombstone Canyon Road I drove through five newly-formed streams. The rain washes down those canyon slopes so quickly!

A couple more photos, taken just before the rain began to fall:



An exciting evening indeed, but I was very content to witness the remainder of the storm from my apartment haven on Brophy Street.