Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Better Than a Zoo

New visitors to Boyce Thompson Arboretum are often surprised at how “wild” our park can be. Besides over 2000 species of plants growing here, we are also surrounded by the wide open desert. On a normal day you can see a snake under a tree or a deer on a hill or butterflies flitting around flowers.  Just last week, a visitor saw a coatimundi traipsing along the rocks near the High Trail. Coyotes, bobcats, fox (pictured), and bighorn sheep also make occasional appearances here. And, as many of you know, the numbers of birds that pass through the Arboretum attract birdwatchers from around the world. (Nearly 300 species of birds have been sighted here over the years!) Too, a wide array of reptiles and insects make the park their home. It’s as if the entire fauna of the Sonoran Desert has been distilled through this narrow band along Picketpost Mountain and, in a way, it has.
There are three main reasons for the lively diversity of animal life you find at the Arboretum:
First we are a riparian area – our land bisected by Queen Creek, which has water in it much of the year. That’s why we have a canyon naturally lush with cottonwood and velvet ash trees. (In local canyons you will also find sycamores, Arizona walnuts, and, once in a while, catalpa trees and mulberry.)
The second reason is because we are located in a transition zone between high and low desert. We sit right above the Phoenix valley and below the Pinal Mountain highlands. Here we have native jojoba and saguaro cacti. But just five mile east, above the sleepy town of Superior, you will find yourself in manzanita and pinyon pine country.
And, finally, even though we have been in a drought these last few years, this portion of Arizona averages around 17” of rain annually. Compare that with Tucson’s 12” and Phoenix’s 8”. For a desert, we are reasonably wet.
For the person interested in plants and wildlife, the BTA presents a unique opportunity to experience a truly living desert landscape. We are a zoo without cages; a place where nature moves unbounded. One thing we aren’t is tame.

T. Stone

Monday, October 27, 2014

Textile artist Susan Corl

At the Arboretum’s recent Herb Festival, Patagonia textile artist and exhibitor Susan Corl demonstrated a technique of working with merino and angora wool called felting. She handed me one of her specialized felting needles and asked, “Can you feel the tiny barbs at the end?” I could, but only if I ran my finger nail over the stainless steel tip. It’s these barbs that allow the felting to work.

She uses these needles to plunge into a wad of wool with even more wool, closely mimicking the arm movements of a voodoo practitioner. But instead of doll in the form of a strongly disliked coworker, she was creating objects like sunflowers and cats’ play balls with dozens of varying colors. She even had a wooden case that unscrewed to show four holes that each held an individual felting needle, essentially quadrupling her production output with each reticulating movement of her wrist.

She demonstrated the technique, then let me try it. I used a single needle to push a small tuft of sienna-colored wool into a mass of other felted strands that collectively had the size and density of a pincushion. She suggested that I use a thick piece of foam underneath to protect me from accidentally stabbing myself. “There have been accidents,” she told me, with a half smile. After about 30 seconds, I was exhausted.

Dry felting is what she had allowed me to experience, but there is also wet felting, the technique that she used to create a rack of beautiful rack of scarves with wool flowers felted to silk fabrics. The wet kind is even more lengthy and labor intensive process than the dry, involving rolling pins and rolls of bamboo. This method requires the confines of well-equipped studio, and not as prone to blood-letting incidents.

A true Renaissance woman, Susan has been farming  her own silk worms for about ten years. She feeds the caterpillars increasing amounts of mulberry leaves as they progress through their multiple instars until they create a cocoon. This is where the silk comes from, and it is unwound in a single strand, rather than spun like yarn. “Each strand is stronger than steel,” she said. She also creates her own paper, basketry, and candles, all with a floral or faunal theme. Fish, flowers, butterflies, insects: she uses them all. She even had a meticulously stitched quilted piece the size and shape of a dining table place mat, the kind of place mat you would never rest a bowl of pasta marinara.

I have been familiar with her work for about twenty years, but after talking to her again on Sunday, I was reminded that this is a woman who just can’t stop creating.

Kim Stone

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Why does BTA Love Tumblr?

Facebook at this point is something of a "Main Trail", if you will, in terms of Boyce Thompson's presence on the social media platforms. However, much like the Arboretum's actual main trail there are various small detours that are as special as they are unique. Within social media the truth of the matter is that there are very interesting interfaces these different platforms provide that afford the user both an ability and experience that are also unique and worth exploring.

The Boyce Thompson Arboretum itself possesses an array of artistic visual opportunity. Although photos may for instance be posted to Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, they will be presented in a format and resolution that is suited for those platforms which, currently, are not set to a very high standard in terms of detailed visual content. However, in the instance of Tumblr the quality and presentation of content nearly exceeds all else. Users will experience a simplified non-clutter format with the option of having content presented to them as the author intended, or as a simple dashboard post to scroll past among other interesting posts that peak one's interests. For Boyce Thompson Arboretum this means that any content with more detail and or special meaning is more likely to be fully appreciated there. 

If you have no yet had the opportunity to view our tumblr page, the link will be provided below. You will not be required to join tumblr in order to enjoy what we offer there so view away! http://boycethompsonarboretum.tumblr.com/

Question time! Considering that there are so many different platforms, where would you like to see Boyce Thompson Arboretum on the web? Leave a comment below, we would love to hear your thoughts and ideas. 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A Boojum seed harvesting adventure

Gonzalo called me over and said, “Hey, check this out.” He had lashed a cardboard box onto a thick saguaro rib with some bailing twine. It looked like what you would use to lower a stranded cat out of a tree, should the cat be so bold—or stupid—to step into it.

“Becky and I are going to harvest some boojum seeds. She’ll cut and I’ll catch.”
The target plant was our newest and second largest boojum tree. It was acquired from a boojum grower in Tucson and transplanted to the Arboretum last November. It has done exceeding well in its new location, potentially producing a boxful of seeds—or  so we were about to find out.  

The slope was steep, with decomposed rhyolite as loose and hazardous to walk on as a patina of frozen peas.  Becky wielded a long, telescoping pole pruner, and Gonzalo used his pole to position the box under each cluster as she snipped. The conversation had a lot to do with where the fruits would fall. “Which side is the gravity?” Gonzalo asked. I wanted to answer, All sides, I but I knew that wouldn’t be helpful. The tree had a slight bend near the top and it wasn’t immediately evident where the cut fruit cluster would fall.

“I think I can reach it from down here,” Becky answered. She made her way down slope and Gonzalo moved towards the opposite side, almost falling when his right foot slipped on the gravely rhyolite along the side slope. He caught himself by stabbing the end of the saguaro rib against the rock, nearly sloshing out some of the hundreds of fruits that were loosely piled in the box. 

Becky was now assuming the telltale posture of an archer, but rather than drawing a bow string, she was grasping the rope that would close the steel jaws of the lopper on the targeted fruit cluster. “Don’t cut back too far,” Gonzalo advised, “just enough to get the fruits at the end.” He stood at a ninety degree angle to her position and placed the box directly under her loppers.  A big part of this process was just staying out of each others way.

“Ready?” she asked. It was a rhetorical question, one that she had asked a dozen times already. We couldn’t hear the fruits go plunk into the box when she snipped, but if none hit the ground, it was a successful catch.

This sequence, with minor variations, was repeated over and over, so the system had become routine. At one point, though, I heard Gonzalo yell, “Becky, freeze! Don’t move!” I looked out from my camera, expecting to see a six-inch centipede crawling up her leg, but he was pointing to a dozen stray fruits that had somehow fallen on her shoulder. “We need them all,” he said. I had done nothing but watch up to this point, so I plucked them off her shoulder one-by-one, placing them in the box that he had lowered and held in front of me.

The entire process took less than an hour. As interesting as this was to watch, these weren't the first boojum seeds they had harvested this year, just the highest.  We now have over twenty-five boojum trees of various ages in the Arboretum collection, and about a half dozen are mature enough that staff have collected viable seeds from them in each in the past two years. 

Gonzalo separated the seeds from the hulls (the fruits) and allowed the seeds to dry before putting them in a vermin-proof glass bottle. His preferred method for planting the seeds is to clump-flat them in shallow rectangular trays filled with fine sand. The seeds germinate in about ten days without any pre-treatment and produce an impressive 5” tap root in just a few months after germination. One of the seedlings planted in November 2013 is already an inch and a half tall with a quarter inch thick stem. This little precocious upstart is the exception, though, not the rule.  The baby boojums will be bumped up into progressively into larger containers over the coming years until they reach a size where they have the best chance of survival on the grounds.

The prime harvest time is late September through mid-October, though seeds have been harvested as late as November. The earlier harvest time yields a better success rate because less opportunity is given to predators, both insects and birds, to beat us to the punch.

Kim Stone