Thursday, February 28, 2013

Arizona Trail Hike Jan. 25

Part of the Arizona Trail is right next door to the Arboretum, barely a half mile away as the crow flies, and it is none-too-soon that Arboretum members and friends hiked a 2.5 mile portion of it on Monday. It's a beautifully rolling section of trail that skirts the base of Picket Post Mountain through Alamo Canyon, adeptly following contours, with gradual ascents and descents that are hardly noticeable. It's a great starter hike for beginners or elementary age kids, with long views of Weaver's Needle and the Superstitions to the north, and massive Picket Post dominating everything to the east.

I arrived late, so staying true to the Arizona Trail's multiple uses as an equestrian, bicycle, and hiking or running trail, I jogged the first mile to catch up with the group. They were gathered around a robust pile of animal scat in the middle of the trail, and Paul Wolterbeek was surmising--correctly, I think--that it had been deposited by a coyote that had recently fed on the dead carcass of one of the black cows that were grazing in the area. The group leader was Wendy Lotze, one of the Arizona Trail stewards, assisted by Bob Zache, a hiking club leader from Globe. Paul, Gonzalo Ruiz, and I represented the Arboretum by providing additional color commentary, and have never been ones to pass up an interesting animal deposit.

Our mission, however, was not fecal but floral. We wanted to assess the wildflower populations that have turned the desert floor green from the late, but copious, rains that fell in the past month. And we weren't disappointed by what we saw.

 Not content to remain just an international symbol for Arizona and the Sonoran Desert, this saguaro along the Arizona Trail moonlights as crosswalk attendant and directional beacon, helping to point wayward hikers back to the trailhead.
The ground plain was lush with developing wildflowers and grasses, mostly under three inches tall, with flowering at the very beginning stages. The perennial deer vetch (Lotus rigidus) displayed its reliable, early-season yellow pea flowers, and an occasional onion-like blue dicks (Dichelostemma pulchellum) popped up here and there with bell-shaped purple flowers atop a thin, single stem. Ubiquitously, covering much of the ground plain and flowering with incy wincy tiny white flowers, we saw the belly flower comb-burr (Pectocarya recurvata). It is often one of the earliest flowers of the spring, but often missed because of its diminutive size, and because it is mixed in with developing grasses and filaree (Erodium cicutarium), which was also beginning to bloom along the trail.

Approximately ten members and their guests attended the hike, with some in the group visiting from as far away as Oregon and Philadelphia. Wendy stopped to show everyone a flowering male jojoba (Simmondsia chinensis), then passed around a few jojoba seeds found under the nearby female plant. Paul pointed out a lone Northern Cardinal perched atop and singing from an ocotillo on the opposite side of the canyon. We stopped and pondered why the plant Euphorbia albomarginata (in full flower) was often called rattlesnake weed. With tongue firmly implanted in cheek, I offered that rattlesnakes might cut small pieces of the plant with their fangs and glue them with sticky venom to their scales for camouflage, a suggestion met with appropriate guffaws by the group, and then officially dismissed by a herpetologist in attendance.

This section of the Arizona Trail is painlessly pleasant and continually interesting. The miles pass as effortlessly as a thoroughly engrossing movie, each step like a mouthful of buttered popcorn. The hike was advertised as two to three miles, so when I thought we had reached the mile and a half mark, I asked the group if anyone was ready to head back. Someone with a pedometer quickly called out that we had actually walked two and half miles, yet no one expressed the desire for the fun to end just yet. By 2 pm, everyone was safely back to the trail head and their cars, with a clear blue sky above their heads, and a five-mile-plus hike under their belts.

What is the wildflower prognosis? From our assessment, the raw material for a good wildflower year is in place. Until recently, it has been cool, but the density of plants, including many desert lupines (Lupinus sparsiflorus) with their clusters of spidery, palmate leaves, shows promise. With temperatures expected in the 80s this weekend, there is an excellent chance that fiddlenecks (Amsinkia intermedia), scorpionweed (Phacelia distans), and all of the other plants mentioned above (plus many more) will react like wound-up springs, triggered by the heat that will fuel them to shoot up with a rapid growth spurt. The first week in March should be worth watching. 

Kim Stone

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Desert snowfall at the Arboretum

The snow at the Arboretum began falling about 11am, Wednesday, Feb. 20, and by 12 noon, a full inch was on the ground. The flakes were quarter-size and plump, crowded and tangled, fighting each other for available air space. There was little wind and the relentless flakes silently piled on top other in an ever growing thickness. At first, the uninsulated leaves, branches, and spines of plants showed the first accumulation, then the warmer ground began to catch up, smeared with irregular snowy patches that soon grew together like a rash into a uniform sheet of white.

Depending on your level of whimsy, the snowfall either had the makings of a Thomas Kinkade painting or a 15-car freeway pileup.

It was wet, heavy snow. Just one inch caused the flexible branches of most leafy trees and shrubs to bow deeply towards the ground. The stiffer, more rigid aloes, agaves, and cacti never yielded to the weight, so the well-supported snow formed little towers on the tips of toothpick cacti, and long, narrow columns atop their spines, the thickness of a vanilla wafer.

We heard the unusual sound of ADOT snowplows as they scraped the snow from the highway asphalt in front of the main gate. Behind them, the snow continued to fall, rapidly filling in their tracks. Those of us with cameras needed umbrellas to prevent the big juicy flakes of snow from landing and melting into our electronics. Lug patterns of hiking boots were imprinted perfectly in the snow along the Main Trail. Fresh stroller wheel tracks marked the path of at least one adventurous mother pushing a child who was probably tasting her first desert snow as cold flakes settled on her nose.

Snow has a tendency to make everything look monochromatic. The white snow dominates, covering what was once a vibrant living green, pushing everything else into the subservient shadows. Discard color information? is the question Photoshop asks when you want to artificially create this effect.

By 12:30, the snowfall had stopped, leaving a full one and a half inches wet, heavy snow in its wake. For another 30 minutes, it held fast,  maintaining a winter wonderland of snow-plastered plants and landscapes. After that magic half hour, what had so rapidly accumulated was now disintegrating, melting as fast as it had fallen. Cameras were vulnerable again as wads of melting snow rained down from overhead trees with cottage cheese consistency, pock-marking the snow below and occasionally making a direct hit on my camera lens. What had been a clingy snow on the trail surfaces was now slushy, snot-like, and mixed with mud; water easily penetrated my supposedly impregnable Gore-tex-treated boots.

By 2 pm, only the distant hills were still uniformly covered with snow. A few persistent globs still remained in some of the trees along the Main Trail (aiming for the next victim with a camera), but a healthy green had again returned and patches of blue sky were opening up.

Three to five inches of wet snow would have potentially caused the kind of severe limb breakage that our trees experienced in March of 2006, but with just an inch and a half, snow-load related damage was relatively minor. The exception is one of our 25-year-old 'Desert Museum' palo verde trees in front of the Visitor Center. It heaved out of the ground from the weight of the snow, roots and all, and laid gently onto its side, resting peacefully on the canopy that's previous job was to produce nothing but oxygen and shade. Every tree eventually meets some version of this same fate, but this one went way too soon.

Kim Stone