Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mid-June. Queen of the evening, Queen of the night

I was digesting a Father's Day plate of freshly grated hash browns on my way to work when I realized that not only was today Father's Day, it was also the first official day of summer. Plus, it was likely to be the first official 100 degree day that we've had this June. More often than not, we would have been laboring under the burden of three digits for a month or more by now, but this year, June has been unreal with temperatures staying in the hard-to-complain-about 90's. When you add all three of these coincident dates together, it's really kind of bizarre: how often does a celestial, a terrestrial, and a familial event happen on the same day?

As I drove, it occurred to me that maybe this was a sign that there was order to the universe after all; that I wasn't just an insignificant speck on the windshield; that I was part of billions of other specks on millions of other windshields; and that we would be all be cleansed by the great wiper of life, only to begin a new cycle in balance and harmony. In almost the same instant, a wasp hit my windshield at 60 mph and disintegrated, leaving a quarter-size dollop of translucent body fluid that quickly flattened against the glass. The wasp's useless carcass then rolled over a few times and was snatched away by the wind. It was at this moment that I realized that today was shaping up to be something special.

My newfound optimism was shattered later that morning when groundskeeper Jeff Payne asked me matter-of-factly, "Did you know that you missed the Peniocereus blooming?"

"Actually, no," I answered. No one had called, or twittered, or texted, or emailed, and even if they had, I was camping and out of cell phone and internet range. The flowering of Peniocereus greggii is a dramatic, once a year, not-to-be-missed event, and I had blown my chance with an ill-timed weekend getaway.

Peniocereus greggii, also known as "queen of the night" or more generically, "night blooming cereus," is an elongated, spindly cactus with a number of representatives in the Arboretum's collections, particularly in the Cactus and Succulent Garden and the Demonstration Garden. It is also a common native plant in the surrounding desert, usually growing under foothill paloverdes, ironwoods, and mesquites, but can also be found growing through dense shrubs like creosote and jojoba. Its overall appearance is unbalanced with gangly, angular stems that are barely the thickness of a breakfast sausage. The stems have a muted, dull green color that serves as excellent camouflage, making them easy to miss, especially in low light. The stem diameter at the very base of the plant is nearly the same as the diameter of the stems two or three above the ground, giving the plant the look that the slightest wind could bring the poor thing crashing down at any moment.
When it blooms, the plant's unstable look is magnified several fold by huge, white flowers that are 7 or 8 times the diameter of the stems. The color of the flowers is the purest of white, unblemished, unstained, perfect. It's as if the flowers were carefully painted in a heavenly clean room, hovered over by angels with wings shrink wrapped in cellophane lest an untimely molt might despoil their creation. Each individual petal is tipped with a thread-like point that curves upward, surrounding a cluster of stamens that share the same ethereal whiteness.

If you want to be a true blue "bloom gazer," you can pull an all nighter and watch the flowers bloom continuously from roughly 7:30 in the evening to about 9am in the morning. For those of you that insist on 8 hours of sleep, that still leaves a potential 5 and a half hours of face time. The rest of us have to settle for seeing the photographs taken by people with better planning skills --like Jeff Payne-- who captured most of the images that are included here.

Jessie Byrd is another queen of the night fancier and each year she holds a bloom gazing party at her house in Tucson. She serves mugs of beer, explains to her guests that the meaning of the word "penio"in Peniocereus is actually Latin for "tail" (definitely not what most of them had been thinking), and then enlists her well-lubed guests to help hand pollinate the flowers with paint brushes. The hand pollination helps out the sphinx moth which is the plant's natural pollinator, and assures better seed production.

This is a good time to plant Peniocereus greggii. Jeff and Arboretum groundskeeper Becky Noth laid out four one gallon plants today in pre-dug holes. All locations were under several different species of "nurse" trees and were new additions to the other night blooming plants that have been planted as part of the Arboretum's new Night Blooming garden.

I think that it's fair to add "botanical" to the celestial, terrestrial, and familial celebrations for the 21st of June, but don't dismay that you missed your last chance to see Peniocereus bloom. I have notes from 2000 that showed several of our plants at the Arboretum blooming on June 26 and Jessie Byrd's bloomed at the beginning of June this year in Tucson. This means that there is some wiggle room on the calendar, and if you're lucky, you still might get the chance this year to see one bloom.

So grab your sleeping bag and a six pack, and take in one of the great spectacles of life in June in the Sonoran desert.
Kim Stone

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Early June 2009 Saguaros

I’ve always had a lousy memory. To prevent myself from becoming a candidate for a more structured environment, I keep track of timely events with a thin, spiral bound notebook that I carry in my hip pocket and a #2 pencil tucked behind my ear. Of late, that pencil has been replaced by a G2 gel pen, but you get the idea.

Much of what I write down has to do with seasonal events that happen in the desert and I’ve learned to anticipate these events by associating them with events that I dare not forget in my daily life. As my wedding anniversary nears in mid March, I know that I’m likely to have to sidestep the first diamondback rattlesnake of the season. Tax time in April is the beginning of the spring cactus blooming season, beginning with our native hedgehog.

The event that I look forward to the most is the appearance of the flowers and fruit of Arizona’s most famous cactus, the Saguaro. In May, saguaros become cactus volcanoes with flowers bubbling out of the top of each arm and the main stem, solidifying one by one as they travel downward. To forget this timely event, I would also have to face the consequences of forgetting Mother’s Day.

By Father’s Day in June, the summer heat is bearing down, cicadas are singing, and the first saguaro fruits are just starting to open. It’s also when semi trucks begin their yearly ritual of shearing off great slabs of tire retreads. Many of these cast-offs come to rest safely on the side of the road but occasionally they stand on end, slowly rocking back and forth in front of oncoming traffic. I start looking for ripe saguaro fruits when I see the first cars take evasive action.

Like my dad, the saguaro is the ultimate strong, silent type. Narrow at the hip and broad shouldered, it doesn’t give up its moisture easily. The entire outer surface of the plant is covered by a thick, waxy skin with plenty of spines. Even though its main stem can contain as much as 9 gallons of water per every foot of height, there is no way for another creature to get any of that water out, until the fruits open to the outside world.

Within minutes after they split open, every desert creature that can fly, jump, climb, or vault to the top will be queued up to scarf up the sweet, red pulp.

Few people know much about saguaro fruits. Just as it’s too difficult to appreciate the muscularity of an ant because it’s too small, or a movie from the front row because it’s too big, the fruits are just too high to easily reach. The Tohono O’odham people of Arizona construct a “harvest pole” made from two long, stout saguaro ribs lashed together with a cross piece at the end. They place this cross piece behind a target fruit that may be as high as 25 feet up in a saguaro, and then, with a push-pull motion, they dislodge it. They carry buckets of ripe fruit back to a shaded temporary camp they call their “cactus camp” where they process them to make syrup, jam, and wine.

As the beginning of the summer monsoon nears after the fourth of July, the last few fruits that haven’t already fallen to the ground look a lot like giant red flowers as we whiz past them in our cars. But don’t look too closely. You might hit one of those tires.

Kim Stone