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!


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:



Up And Over

Lately I’ve become fond of a little park which just happens to be on the way to the Safeway store on the south edge of Bisbee. The park has a parking lot but hardly anyone ever goes there. It’s just a few acres in extent, but the park is sort of a microcosm of limestone-based Chihuahuan desert scrub, dominated by ocotillo and agave.

One of my favorite plants around here is a monsoon-blooming morning glory species, a sprawling plant with strap-like leaves and spectacular blossoms. The plant’s most common haunts are way up on the high canyon slopes, but this park harbors quite a few clumps and they are easy to find. Sometimes I’m not in the mood for a strenuous climb of several hundred feet!

Ipomoea longifolia has a tuberous root, giving the species a buffer against dry periods. This morning glory species sends out horizontal vines which snake their way across the rocky soil. These vines will climb, but not very far up. They don’t need to, as there is plenty of bare ground to inch their way across.

Yesterday I realized that I was almost out of toilet paper, something I do like having on hand. I’m spoiled by civilization’s luxuries, I readily admit! After visiting a friend in town for a while, I headed for the Safeway store. My curiosity got the better of me as I began to wonder what might be blooming in that little park. Ten minutes is sufficient to ramble around for a while with my camera, as the park is small.

This morning glory scene caught my eye. A vine had encountered a big chunk of limestone and rather than go around it, the vine went up the rock and over to the other side:


These morning glories are budded out (as you can see in the photo) and will probably be in full bloom within a week. You can be sure that I’ll stop and check on them while on a grocery run!


A Poppy By Any Other Name…

Across a broad swathe of the Southwest, all the way from Texas to California, Kallstroemia grandiflora brightens up the landscape after summer rains. Many folks know this plant as Arizona Poppy, but it’s not in the Poppy Family (known on formal occasions as the Papaveraceae). A more appropriate common name is Arizona Caltrop. The plant is related to Creosote Bush and both are in the Caltrop Family. Later on, just to complicate matters, another plant which is in the Poppy Family shows up.

The California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica ssp. mexicana) blooms in the late winter and early spring. The plant’s flower strongly resembles the Arizona Poppy in size, color, and shape. The leaves, though are gray-green and dissected, quite unlike the leaves of the Arizona Poppy.

So why should this matter to the majority of people who aren’t botanically inclined? Hmm… I suppose that such people might be glad for the botanical diversity, which gives them cheery yellow-orange flowers at two different times of year. That said, I think that in general it’s good to know something about your neighbors!

At a web-site called Desert USA David B. Williams wrote this about the habitat and habits of Kallstroemia grandiflora:

The Arizona poppy is common to profuse in flat, sandy grasslands from sea level to 6000 feet. A summer bloomer, Arizona poppies begin to appear with the rains and in particularly wet years, their display rivals spring wildflowers. Even if Kallstroemia dominates an area one year, it may be rare or nonexistent the next. Seeds remain viable for at least three years and germinate at irregular intervals. Although the flowers lack any fragrance, they are visited by at least 46 species, including bees, wasps, flies and butterflies. Insects find the flowers and get directions to pollen and nectar from the ultraviolet reflecting patterns of the flowers. Areas that are not reflective appear dark and indicate either the location of the nectar or act as guides that point to the sugar source. The great variety of visitors utilize the flowers in four distinct ways. Unlike many insect visitors to plants, three groups do not play a role in pollination. One group avoids the anthers and stigma by being too small. A second group, including honeybees and larger wasps, extract nectar from under the flower. A third clan only stops by for nectar. A fourth group gathers pollen and nectar from within the flower and contributes to both cross- and self-pollination. Researchers hypothesized that the non-pollinating visitors “contributed to the economy of the plant by reducing the quantity of available nectar so that the pollinators have to visit more flowers to get their full nectar supply.

Out in the Sulphur Springs Valley Caltrop flowers are springing up all over. The monsoon rains give them their big chance of the year to have progeny.


Here’s what a pollinating insect sees as it flies into the maw of the flower — a realm of yellow-orange sex. Notice how this flower has already been well-pollinated. The pistil seems well-satisfied. Pollen grains are carelessly strewn about, the aftermath of a cross-species party.



The Ghost of Samuel Dale

This morning a fine drizzle was falling, still such a novelty after the dry months. I was meditatively ambling through patches of ocotillo and agave in a small park tucked into a wash here in Bisbee. The ground was strewn with chunks of limestone, possibly a reason the little tract of land had never been developed.

There are so many leguminous trees and shrubs in the Chihuahuan desert-scrub landscape that it can be easy to overlook the less common species. I see compound leaves with many opposite leaflets and tend to think “Oh, more mesquite and white-thorn acacia…” On this walk, though, a small shrub caught my eye; I could tell it was something different. I squatted down and shot some photos. Rather than having yellow or pink fuzzy balls or cylinders for flowers, this species had pea-like flowers with prominent sprays of fine hairs. Subtle, easily-overlooked, but quite beautiful in a modest way. The shrubs were just eighteen inches tall, with woody stems:



After I got home I determined that my shrub is called Featherplume (Dalea formosa) Back when I roamed the tiny prairie remnants of the Midwest I was fond of two non-woody species of Dalea, Purple Prairie Clover and White Prairie Clover, legumes which once nourished vast herds of buffalo in the tall-grass prairie, that region which now nourishes Monsanto. The Featherplume is a desert relative of these plants.

The genus Dalea was named for Samuel Dale, an early English botanist and geologist who died in 1739. Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, must have either known the man or known of his work, as it was Linnaeus who named the genus after Dale. Here’s a portrait of Samuel Dale, flowing locks and all:


A walk which admits me to the company of an organism new to me is always welcome!


Claws Of The Desert Devil

Last night I was out in the mesquite scrub when the thunderstorm blew in. I was a mile from my truck and before long I was drenched, and I couldn’t even see my way. I sensed a massive creature moving towards me, crushing mesquite and acacia trees in its path, and I backed away. A flash of lightning illuminated the creature, which had red-gleaming eyes and fangs dripping loathsome viscous ichor. I screamed as the spawn of hell leaped upon me and ripped my flesh with dagger-like talons…

Oops, sorry, that was just an idle fantasy! This is what really happened:

Last night I was playing music with friends at the Copper Queen Saloon in Bisbee, Arizona. While we played jaunty Irish dance tunes a dramatic thunderstorm moved in. We kept on playing right through a couple of power outages as lightning flashed overhead.

This morning I wondered how much rain had fallen out in the valley where Bev and I have built a cabin. I drove out there early, but walked the last mile so I could determine if the road was passable. The rain gauge at the cabin showed one inch of rain, and the desert scrub looked hydrated and happy.

The road wasn’t too eroded, and on my way back to my truck I decided to cut diagonally across a neighbor’s property. Luckily I had my trusty camera with me, as I encountered two species of plants in full bloom. The first one was intriguing. A low-growing plant, it had fleshy red-tinged stems and flowers which reminded me of those of Catalpa and Desert Willow trees.


The flowers modestly faced the ground, so I plucked one and arranged it on a leaf so as to make its beautifully-speckled mouth visible:


When I got home I determined that this plant was a Devil’s Claw (Proboscidea althaeifolia), a plant which I had never seen growing. I am, though, familiar with the dramatically-sculpted seed pods, which have an uncanny ability to latch on to man or beast. One day in March of 2013 I was laboriously making my way through a thicket of Point-leaved Manzanita and Emory Oak. I was up on a canyon slope on the north edge of Bisbee. When I emerged from the thicket I noticed that a Devil’s Claw seed-pod had found my arm:


When a Devil’s Claw seed-pod ripens it splits down a central suture and the wickedly-incurved spines are then ready for whomever happens by. It’s an ingenious system for transporting seeds to a new locality!

The immature pods are reputed to be good to eat, as are the ripened seeds. Some day I’ll try them!

The second plant I found looked something like a squash or cucumber plant. The leaves were pleated in a fetching way, and the yellow flowers looked to be open for sexual business:


Notice how the leaves are beginning to unfold their pleats now that there is some moisture in the ground:


The plant, which I later identified as Melon Loco (Apodanthera undulata), has simple but effective yellow flowers:


The growing tips of the shoots are appealingly fuzzy:


The little melon-like fruit of this plant is supposed to be very bitter. I suppose the common name “Melon Loco” is supposed to suggest that anyone who would eat one of these fruits is loco!


Morning Glorification

Yesterday morning, before the sun became too intense, I walked along a trail which runs along the north canyon slope overlooking Bisbee. This was a favorite haunt of mine during the summer of 2012, when I was living in a house just below that trail.

One of my goals yesterday was to see how the Pink-throated Morning Glories (Ipomoea longifolia) were doing after the recent rains. This species of morning glory is a true Chihuahuan desert plant. In Arizona it can only be seen in two southeast counties, yet another Mexican plant which has found its northern limit here in Cochise County.

Morning glories tend to have heart-shaped leaves and a propensity for climbing. This species has narrow strap-like leaves and it won’t climb more than a foot or two, even when opportunities present themselves. The plant doesn’t reveal that it is indeed related to Heavenly Blue and other Ipomoea species and cultivars until it flowers.

This photo shows one of this morning glory’s vines making its way across the crumbling Pinal Schist. Look carefully at the right-hand side of the image and you can see one of the buildings of Old Bisbee several hundred feet below.


Here is the morning sun highlighting another traveling shoot:


I’ll be in Nova Scotia by the time this plant flowers. Ah, well, I’d love to see the fresh blossoms again, but you can’t always get what you want, right? Here’s a photo I shot during the 2012 monsoon season, soon after I first encountered this bewitching species:



Before The Monsoon

During the oppressively dry summer weeks before the monsoon rains began to fall I was living out in the Sulphur Springs Valley. Looking north I could see mountains eighty miles away, and to the south, a bit closer, were mountains in Mexico. East and west, just a few miles away are the Swisshelm and Mule mountains. Over the past millions of years these mountains had shed alluvium which filled the valley a mile deep in sand and gravel. A vast sky — at any given time something meteorological was happening somewhere on the horizon, especially as evening shadows lengthened.

A fact of life out in the valley is that the rim mountains get twice as much rain as the valley does. It’s not fair, but since when has life been fair? The result is that during the dry weeks and months valley folks see more rain in the distance, over the mountains, than they directly experience.

One impressive sight, if a bit tantalizing, is a virga, a horse-tail-like plume of rain which evaporates in the dry atmosphere before it hits the ground. Here’s one I saw in May:


Here’s another impressive May sky scene, a band of rain falling over the Mule Mountains a few miles to the west. This was a rain that Bisbee was getting, while the valley saw nary a drop. Beautiful sight, though!


Cloudy tumult:


There should be a word or phrase for the dry pre-monsoon weeks. Perhaps we could borrow a term from the early Christians. Antediluvian means “before the flood”; the Latinate word was coined to describe the era before Noah’s flood. How about antepluvial, a word I cobbled together from Latin words for “before” and “rains”. The word monsoon is a Southeast Asian word which was (according to legend) brought back by Air Force pilots returning from the Viet Nam conflict.

Another portentously beautiful cloud scene which yielded no rain:


That central cloud mass intrigued me; it looked like a castle or spacecraft hovering above.

One cool morning in late April I was out wandering in the dry washes. The omnipresent mesquites were blooming and fungus-farming ants were busy snipping off mesquite flowers and leaves and conveying them to vast underground ant empires, where worker ants were chewing up the vegetative material for fungus compost.

On the bank of a wash not far from our cabin a tangled mass of greenery caught my eye. The vining plant bore flowers structurally reminding me of milkweed flowers. I eventually determined that the plant belonged to a genus related to Asclepias, the milkweed genus. The plant is called Twining Milkweed, or Fringed Twinevine, and its Latin name is Funastrum cyanthoides. The plant was growing lushly with no apparent source of water. The species must have a deep water-storing taproot!




I’ve walked for miles along washes in the valley, and that one patch of Twinevine was the only one I ever encountered!


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.


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:


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?


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.


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


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:


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.


A closer look:


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


Desert Poppies

It’s easy to ignore common plants, just as it’s easy to ignore people en masse. The eye becomes surfeited easily and novelty is required to revive our flagging attentions.

This tendency can be fruitfully resisted, I’ve noticed. Magnification helps. I’ll shoot a few photos while out walking, then later find unexpected aesthetic delights lurking in the bundles of pixels disgorged into a USB cable.

The California Poppy is a common spring flower here in Bisbee. Our sub-species (Eschscholzia californica ssp. mexicana) is a strong clear yellow with just a hint of orange, unlike the orange-yellow form found in California. The plant grows from sidewalk cracks where there is sufficient sun. The foliage is a distinctive shade of blue-green. So far I’ve seen just two clumps in bloom, but I’ve noticed hundreds of plants girding their vegetative loins for the big reproductive push. The plants bloom sporadically for a month or two, but eventually the severity of the midsummer sun will sear the ferny foliage into green dust.

A couple of morning shots: