Friday, December 31, 2010

A Cold End

The last night of the year is the coldest. Here are some pics of El Presidio and the Catalina mountains from yesterday's aftermath.  Happy New Year!
A special thanks for these photos taken by Katherine Burdick 

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Butterfly Magic at the Gardens

Frosty.  Rainy. Cold morning.  Until I got to the butterfly exhibit and then it, humid, and steamy.  I don't know what both extremes will do to a body, but I'll find out tonight. Hopefully I won't get sick. On this gray and cloudy day, a moment of sunshine and color presented itself in the gardens!  Today I went to volunteer at the gardens in the butterfly exhibit and it was a wonderful contrast to what was really going on outside.  I love conservatories and greenhouses because you can grow things inside that you normally wouldn't be able to plant outside....for example, you'll see tillandsias(or air plants) all around the tropical garden.  Here are pics and a vid from today's outings.
The Morphos Butterfly(wings closed)
                                                                 Morphos with wings open.

The exhibit will be open until April 30th, 2011. 

The Glass Wing Butterfly

Birdwing Butterfly
The video contains several shots from the exhibit before visitors arrived plus you'll get to see how they move about the greenhouse.

The Atlas Moth

Tomorrow I'll show what we did to prepare for the super freeze that is happening tonight and throughout the weekend.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Apple Pears or Asian Pears

I don't usually write about a fruit unless it's "new" to me and it's noteworthy like the persimmons.  This year a student gave me the gift of the "apple pear".  I don't like pears because I did one of those things that we all do when we are too much of something that makes us never want to eat them again.  Before I begin this blog, I should note that these pics were taken from the internet and are not my own.  They come from fruit companies and I chose pics as they appear in the grocery store including one with a cute little skirt:)

Story time.  My grandparents, on my father's side, were avid gardeners in Wisconsin.  They had two very large healthy pear and apple trees growing behind their vegetable garden hidden amongst a secret grove of pine trees.  We would climb the pine trees as kids and hide in our forts. When it was time for a snack break, we'd head over to the fruit trees where we'd grab an apple or pear.  Apparently, even though I don't remember too much of why I did this, I ate A LOT of pears one day.  In my head, it was like a million.  I don't think it was a dare....I just think the pear flavor took over me and I couldn't stop eating them.  Afterwards, I remember turning green and getting "sick" by my Grandma's kitchen sink with Grandma yelling at me for eating too many pears.  My sister was with me and she kept saying, "I'm not throwing up Grandma. I didn't eat all those pears like he did." (There was always this sibling rivalry between us as we're super close)  At that time, I wanted to smack her, but I was too sick. Once my poor stomache calmed down...and poor Grandma!, she told me to be careful the next time I started eating fruit. Unfortuneatly, there would never be a next time because when I had tried to eat a pear, I started feeling sick....that's how traumatic the experience was. Fast forward to present day....

My student, who brought me these "apple pears" said that I'd love them.  Secretly, I kept my personal story from her.  They were beautifully wrapped in a fruit crate.  I thought, "Oh it's one of those hybrids." Why do they do this?  (i.e. the Grapple) And what an unoriginal name?  The fruit itself was yellow like a pear, and to me, it was unattractive but it had the name apple in it so I said to myself, "Keep an open mind."  I took my first bite.  Holy %$^$!  I couldn't believe the flavor!  The fruit burst with dripping juice all over my hands and mouth.  I couldn't stop eating it because IT WAS THAT GOOD!  So like a geek, I kept the seeds to plant later on because I didn't know if they were just a seasonal thing or if they were just a random one time only thing.  Turns out that you can buy them all over the place and they've been around for years.  I purchased another crate of them from Sam's Club.  They were pricey, but the flavor is out of this world!  The fruit is also known as the Asian Pear.
They also appear to grow as trees here in Arizona with fruit bearing in mid-summer. This is NOT a hybrid but an actual real fruit! It looks like another fruit tree is going into the ground in spring:)  I just need to remember not to over do it because Grandma is not around anymore to help me out:) Try it out!

On a side note, thinking of that horrible pear experience, makes me smile.  It's sad today because both of my grandparents have passed away and their large forested backyard is now an empty lot of grass.  The house was sold and the lot that used to produce amazing things is now empty.  The fruit trees were cut down to keep the riffraff from entering their property. The wooden gate covered in grape vines with the very cool totem pole in front....gone.  The dying pine trees are shabby and not taken care of......and I'm one of the few people to remember this place in its' full glory. The only thing that remains is a patch of rhubarb that comes back every year as a reminder that something used to grow there.  Here's a parting thought. Our role, as gardeners, is an important one....educating others is our legacy for future generations.  My grandparents passed their knowledge onto me and now, I share my love with others. Today, with our busy schedules, we are losing the art of gardening amongst other things.  My grandparent's empty gardening lot is a reminder of why I do what I do.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Jack Frost!

I am afraid.  I am scared.  I have worked my tail off this year in the gardens!  And for what? I am angry. I am in a state of panic.  I won't sleep.  A snow storm is heading our way that will bring A LOT of snow to the Tucson valley and blizzard conditions in the sky islands/mountains.  Is this normal? Absolutely not.  Maybe a one day event at most, but this is promising much more with temps dipping into the low 20's for at least 4 days!! Citrus must be protected!  This sounds like a joke to our friends in the North, but this is a major event in Tucson.  The last time this happened, the snow storm killed millions of dollars worth of plants at nurseries. Of course, Phoenix is not in any danger of the severe wind or cold temps, but Tucson most definitely is.  I'm sure the pics that will follow in the following days will be interesting.  I have called upon my neighbors for sheets to protect the gardens here at El Presidio. People tell me to use lights to warm things up but there are no electrical outlets for such things....this is also not going to be a light freeze or a one night event.  This freeze is going to kill plants.  In my 12 years here, this will be the second time I have experienced a cold snap like this....but that was one night and it killed half of my, then, small garden. Today I purchased what was left of the "plankets"....or blankets for plants.  The large sizes were sold out by 9 AM this morning. And people are purchasing sleds.....SLEDS!!  in the desert.  Unnatural, I tell you.  What follows in the next  several days should be very interesting....pray that Mother Nature be merciful.


This is the post I have been putting off for a couple months and not because it's not interesting but because there is a lot of information to present. Ethnobotany is the study of people's use of plants for things like food, medicine, and shelter. This was a really wonderful presentation at the gardens, but I think I had heard most of it from my experiences elsewhere.  However, for many who do not know the desert, you may not know some of the info that I will share today.  I'll showcase some of the defining Sonoran plants and give their uses.  Some of this is also from my personal experiences while traveling around Mexico and the Southwestern desert.

One of the most important trees in our Sonoran desert is the mesquite tree.  It is a native to this desert and can be seen in and around Tucson.  Mesquite is an interesting tree in that it can provide shade in our hot desert. But did you know that the bean pods(below) can be used to make a flour? Here in Tucson, there are several places, for a minimal cost, that will ground your bean pods up to make your flour so that you can make pancakes, etc.  You may also see your dogs chewing these up.  Don't stress as they won't do anything to your puppy.  They have a sweet flavor and make an excellent food product.  Be aware that the Argentine or Chilean varieties are not as sweet and are not as good as our native Mesquite here.  The other use of mesquite?  You know the answer.  It's the wood.  When used in  grilling meats, etc, it can add that special flavor many people enjoy. For medicinal purposes, the mesquite was used by the native americans for eye drops.  They infused water with the leaves to create this eye product.  Finally mesquite is also used as a building material. If you are interested in any of this information beyond what I'm writing here today, a great place for detailed things like where to mill your mesquite pods or find certain items, is the Native Seeds/SEARCH organization. For more information contact the Native Seeds/SEARCH here in Tucson.

Mesquite pods that are ground up can be used as a sweet flour...

The prickly pear.  There are several fascinating uses from this plant.  It produces a fruit that is sweet.  You can make jellies and syrups from it. Also depending on the variety of prickly pear, the pad segments are delicious over the grill, pickled, or chopped up into small pieces.  We eat these in Mexico and they are called "nopalitos" and they are absolutely delicious.  You ask, "What about the cactus spines?"  They are removed from the plant before you eat them.  If you have never tried it, you should....amazing flavor! Finally, depending on which variety of prickly pear cactus(opuntia) you have,  the stem of the cactus can be used to treat type 2 diabetes or diarreah.  This is being advertised on TV as the miracle cure right now.  I don't believe anything is a miracle cure, but this plant does have some medicinal properties....if you are interested, check it out online.

The prickly pear...the red fruit on top is edible, but if you don't get to it, your javelina or birds will:)
One last item with the prickly pear.  You may notice a white fuzzy goo mass all over the pads.  Do not worry as this will not kill your plant.  You can wipe them off if it bothers  you, but believe it or not, this is also another product that is used as a dye for foods and fabric all over the world.  The white fuzz is from the cochineal bug.  This insect was used by the native americans,for trade, hundreds of years ago. The red dye that comes from this insect was/is used for food coloring, cosmetic dye, paint pigment, and clothing dye. In food products at home, this dye may be titled E120.  It's cleverly retitled to hide the bug reference....however as of January 5th, 2011, the bug title "cochineal" will replace the E120 coding:)

The Cochineal Bug on the Prickly Pear Cactus
The next plant featured is our agave!  Wonderful, beautiful and daggerlike agaves make fantastic plants in our landscape.  But did you know they make a wonderful drink known as tequila? You need to ferment the stuff first.  In the village of Tequila, Mexico, you will see blue agaves as far as the eye can see and it's quite the work.  I was there in '93 tasting all the fine varieties of tequila and I have to say that it was really fun.  The village of Tequila is an hour or two outside of Guadalajara and worth the visit. Did you know that you can make your own tequila but can't call it that?  "Tequila" is a copyright while you will have made "tequila" from your agave, you can't call it come up with something creative:) Mezcal is the official term used for the drink.  The plant is also used for its' fibers which make a great rope.  It also can be eaten!!  There is this thing going on here in Tucson now called the "Agave Roasts".  They are themed parties and apparently you can grill agaves to be eaten.  Again this information can be found online.  I have heard mixed things from people about the flavor.  Some LOVE the taste while others could do without it:)  I've never tried, but I would be willing to do so. One last product that comes from this plant is the agave worm. I have tried this guy as it was served in a taco to me with guacamole.  Um, I imagined eating a french fry even though it wasn't.  The worm is also the one you will see in the bottle.  It absorbs the mezcal and makes it a potent finish to end the bottle.  One last thing about this amazing plant, for those of you who are sufferers of diabetes, the syrup from this plant is sweet and okay for you to use in your cooking.  It is a replacement for sugar here in Tucson.

The Agave worm or "gusano" that is used in Mexican cuisine as an appetizer.
 The next plant is the date palm.  Again this plant through fermentation makes a fanstastic food product that many people love.  You must process the dates like everything else, but added into your recipes or just straight out of the container, dates make a delicious addition to your table.

2 more plants to go.  As I'm writing these out, I am remembering how much I enjoyed the discussions of these plant groups.  The saguaro is a a native to the Sonoran desert and in fact, is the one plant that makes up the look of the Sonoran landscape.  It is also used/was used by native americans.  Today you can find native americans still picking these sweet and delicious fruits off the cactus.  They also have workshops to show people how to do it.  The saguaro WAS used in building material but now it is protected and cannot be used at all.

Note the long stick used to knock the fruit down

Once they are knocked down, the sticky fruit is cleaned out to make the jelly
Finally, I saved the best for last.  The creosote bush is the mother of all plants when it comes to helping out people in the desert. It is one of the indicator plants of the Sonoran desert.  The creosote is the oldest living plant in the world and has many medicinal uses.  It is used as an antioxidant, treatment for blood poisoning, skin disorders, nerve calming, anti-fungal agent, and can be used as a salve for cuts and lesions.  I know several people who have used this plant and it does indeed work.  Perhaps this will be the next "$19.99" gimick on TV.
The Sonoran Desert taken by yours truly

While there are more plants out there that are used today by people, these are the top ones that have contributed to our history here in the desert southwest and currently are making headlines around the world.  I hope you found this posting interesting. This post serves as an educational look into our desert culture. Some of the pics for this particular blog are not my own except for the mesquite pods, creosote, date palm, the Sonoran desert, and the title pic.  Happy adventures!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Christmas in the Canyon

There's nothing more embarrassing than a 38 year old hiker struggling up a mountain being passed up by a 60 something  mountain biker!  Well to be fair, we were both struggling, but I seriously don't find riding bikes uphill very exciting stuff.  I prefer the walking workout because I can stop,scan, and snap!  However, I was impressed and fell in love with the idea that getting older does get better if we don't let our bodies go to hell. So I'm not going to dwell on that for now because a lot of incredible things happened on our 3 day escape from the holidays.  This year I took the initiative and made Christmas with my other half our own tradition. I have to admit that it's not an easy thing to do because when I get used to a routine, it's hard for me to change it.  And it was time for a change.  We both love returning back to Wisconsin for Christmas to be with the family, but it's costly and a bit crazy with all the kids running around.  Instead, we rented out a cabin in Madera Canyon and had a blast!  Christmas for me isn't so much religious as it is a time to be with my family which is what I miss the most this time of year.  So we escaped into the woods and discovered several things........

1. There are a lot of birds.  So when I wasn't hiking, having friends over for a meal, or sharing time with Pat, I would try and sit down and quiet. On our cabin porch, I discovered why Madera Canyon is a huge birder's paradise.  Southwestern Tucson is a hotspot for birds and people come from all over the world to visit places like the Buenos Aires Bird Refuge, Carr Canyon near Sierra Vista, Madera Canyon in Green Valley, and of course, the Santa Catalina mountains.  Now there are more places like this that I haven't mentioned, but these are the top 4 that birders come to visit.  So I'm reading my book quietly in the rocking chair, occassionally being passed by hikers, when suddenly a hummer starts flying around me.  The noise of a hummer's wings sounds like a rapid succession of a plane flying overhead while you are sitting in front of your fan at home.  And just as quickly as it came; it will disappear.  When the fear of human presence was gone, the forest erupted with bird sounds from all over the place.  Several other birds noticed me and flew onto the porch and watched me read....or try to read.  It was really really loud and there were A LOT of birds.  The minute hikers passed by, the birds stopped chirping for several minutes.  After the several minutes of quiet time passed, everyone would be back up flying around and having their bird party.  Tap tap tap.  Squeak squak. Gobble gobble gobble. Fluuuuum fluuuuumm. And other various sounds like those of parrots squaking in the tree tops.  In the video below, you'll see what I'm writing about....I snapped quite a bit of video from some of the action.  It was fun to see what birders get excited about.......and speaking of birders......

Our woodpeckers

2.  Birders are creepy... and kind of neat people.  I can understand their frustrations with people who are loud and annoying in the woods as you need total quiet to see the action happen above and around you.   But again, I tried reading my book, and out of nowhere there were several birders staring into the trees whispering like they were French people at a Paris cafe. Birders are cool people because they respect their noise levels and their surroundings extremely well.  It is a rule that when you travel in any kind of natural setting to keep your volume levels down so that you can spot more wildlife.  Had I been on a boat full of loud tourists in the Amazon, I would not have been able to spot my first Jaguar in the wild.  It's just a bit freaky to think you are not alone in the woods.  There was something else that was unique and I need to ask about this.....but, the birders proceeded to take money out of their wallets and put it in a can.  Was this to support homeowners so that they keep putting the bird seed out to keep attracting birds to their cabins?  Or a thank you for allowing them to look upon their bird haven? Anyhow...fascinating group of people:)

3. There's a good reason why paved roads end.  There were loud obnoxious people who drove up the road into the canyon only to spin around and drive back.  What's the purpose of that?  Get out of your car.  Look around and breathe.  Some sports cars would fly up the road at dangerous speeds and fly back down as if they were the only ones who mattered. Many of them were older drivers which was completely shocking to me.  A dead squirrel was the product of one of these idiot drivers.  I am grateful that the road limits the morons from the heart of the canyon and forest.  If you travel to Madera canyon, the best parts are the hikes that lead off into the park.  You won't be disappointed.  I shot some video from these quiet trails.  I think naturalists and birders enjoy the fact that most people are contained within this rather small area into the park.  It's not worth driving to if you're not going to spend some quality time there:)

4. Sky Islands are amazing. They really are.  In the desert, you'll find heat and the brutal sun during our summer months.  These "sky islands" are contained mountains of cooler, shadier, and greener areas. Because of their higher altitudes, they will also have higher than average precipitation rates. A person is always reminded that they are on these islands when they look below or around them and can see the yellowish brown of the desert in the far distance.  Tucson, and Southwestern Arizona, are much more diverse than other areas in Arizona because of several factors.....the desert, the subtropical currents that make the Sonoran desert what it is, and our Sky Islands.
Sky Island view when above the treeline.

We had a fantastic time and I'm thinking we may do this again next year.  This week I have a house to clean and I'll also be working at the butterfly magic exhibit on Thursday morning at the gardens.  It's hard to imagine that we are celebrating winter right now and that we've got a garden where butterflies thrive! Happy Holidays wherever you may be!!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Silk Floss Tree

On my final posting from Reid Park Zoo, I wanted to share with you a tree that I will occassionaly see growing around town. Everytime I head over to the zoo, I check this tree out and see what it's doing.  It's another one of those unique plants that I won't be planting at our place because there's not any room for it.  This tree is a showstopper....even without its' leaves in winter, it makes an attractive tree.  Again, if you go to the South American exhibit, you'll find this tree hidden amongst the is some history on this beautiful tree that grows in random areas of the city.
Look at the thorny bark!  Talk about an alien looking tree....straight off of Avatar!
The silk floss tree (Ceiba speciosa, formerly Chorisia speciosa), is a species of deciduous tree native to the tropical and subtropical forests of South America. It has a host of local common names, such as palo borracho (in Spanish literally "drunken tree"). It belongs to the same family as the baobab and the kapok. Another tree of the Ceiba genus, C. chodatii, often receives the same common names.
The natural habitat of the floss silk tree is the north-east of Argentina, Paraguay, and southern Brazil. It is resistant to drought and moderate cold. It grows fast in spurts when water is abundant, and sometimes reaches more than 25 m in height. Its trunk is bottle-shaped, generally bulging in its lower third, measuring up to 2 m in girth. It is studded with thick conical prickles which serve to store water for dry times. In younger trees, the trunk is green due to its high chlorophyll content, which makes it capable of performing photosynthesis when leaves are absent; with age it turns to gray.
The branches tend to be horizontal and are also covered with prickles. The leaves are composed of five to seven long leaflets. The flowers are creamy-whitish in the center and pink towards the tips of their five petals. They measure 10-15 cm in diameter and their shape is superficially similar to hibiscus flowers. Their nectar is known to attract insects such as monarch butterflies, which perform pollination. C. speciosa flowers are in bloom between February and May. The flowers of the related C. chodatii are similar in form and size, but their color goes from creamy white centers to yellow tips.
The fruits are lignous ovoid pods, 20 cm long, which contain bean-sized black seeds surrounded by a mass of fibrous, fluffy matter reminiscent of cotton or silk.
Information link and source... and here:
Zones: 9-12.  Protect initially from strong sun. Once established, protect from extreme frost.  It's definitely a cool tree to have around your home or just needs a tiny amount more of attention...and is similiar to a Jacaranda's needs here in the desert southwest.  Until next time, happy gardening!

Thursday, December 23, 2010


While on my photo shoot at Reid Park, I snapped several shots that have inspired me over the years from this fantastic zoo.  While I am still working on the foundation of plants in my own gardens; these images are things I'd like to incorporate into our place here at El Presidio.  The above pic is not "waterwise" for us here, but the surrounding plants and structures are interesting.   
A simple ornament, from their Zoolights theme hangs off a tree.  It's the way the natural light shines through the blue that makes me think of the eventual color scheme in the garden.
A row of philodendron "pruned".  Depending where they are planted in our gardens here in Tucson, these plants can thrive if protected from the summer sun.  Several others that I have found that can make it through frost are the birds of paradise, pothos, ficus, and scheflerra.  It's all about placement with these plants...protect from extreme sun and frosty nights.
These final images are just beautiful ways to combine grasses,like the pampas grass, and palms which I think both make a beautiful statement in our Tucson winter gardens.  This is an oasis that is xeric.

As I drive around town, I pay attention to the successful gardens that thrive.  I think gardening here is amazing, but you wouldn't know it by people's yards around the Old Pueblo.  A lot of people lack imagination and/or just don't want the hassle or maintenance of plants in their own yards.  I do understand that, but it's difficult for me to look at gravel.  I hate lawns in the desert and  I certainly don't like the raked gravel look either.  However, that's just my opinion.

On a final blog note, I have been putting off the "BIG" blog postings and doing the fun ones instead.  I have several on "Ethnobotany" and "The Canopy Connection" which require me to write out my field notes.   There is a lot to break down and cover....I don't know how I'd ever run out of topics to write on as there is always something going on.....Las Aventuras is about gardening and landscape adventures here in my own gardens, around Tucson, national or international gardens (and their designs which will include at times the wildlife that work in chorus with the plants). Looking back at when I started in March, I realized that the blog defined itself, even if I hadn't a clue where to begin.  I didn't realize how much "stuff" I had up in my head until I began categorizing and writing about it.  This definitely has been a very fun process.  Happy Holidays everyone and thank you for reading my blog over this past year!  I look forward to the new year and the adventures that await all of us in 2011.