As a man born in the temperate zones of Europe, having lived always in the Northern Hemisphere, I know nothing about the desert and the plants that grow here. I might as well have landed with an alien spaceship on a new planet. Everything seems so new to me. It must be a left over subconscious feeling after seeing the movie Avatar.
I do not recognize one plant. Sure I know what a cactus looks like and a tree, but I wanted to learn the difference between a Palo Verde, an Ironwood and a Mesquite Tree during my guided tour of the Sonora Desert. All three trees are of the legume family by the way. The specific weight of Iron Wood is greater than water. Iron wood does not float. Mesquite wood is used to flavor food. Palo Verde uses its bark for photosynthesis.
Chris Adix (firstname.lastname@example.org) was our tour guide. For about 2 and ½ hours we trekked on foot thru a small section of the Sonora Desert. Chris showed us why we really need to avoid the Teddy Bear Cactus (Cholla) since it is very brittle and sections break off easily and cling to you. It seems the barbed pieces easily pierce the skin. They are clingy like a Teddy Bear, hence the name. And yes, they itch and hurt for hours after you get rid of the barbs. Some barbs are so small they burrow into you and you will have a difficult time removing them if you can even see them. A barrel cactus, on the other hand is comparatively harmless, since it just stands there. Yet, don’t sit on this barrel. Some barrel cacti have bent barbs that can be used as fish hooks, hence its name, fish hook cactus. Some barrel cacti always twist themselves towards the sun and are called compass cacti. But watch out for the Teddy Bear Plant.
Strangely, though, the packrat, a rodent living here, collects the broken pieces of this Cholla cactus and brings them to its midden. I learned that midden is a dump site in archeology, and packrats pass their midden on from generation to generation. These fallen off pieces are needed for the propagation of the Cholla plant and the packrat aids in distributing the seeds of this cactus.
Chris told us that the creosote tree is the oldest living plant on earth. There is one in the Lucerne Valley in California that is 11,700 years old. The typical smell that reaches your nose in the desert, especially after a rain, is the smell of the creosote tree. The natives used the small leaves to make herbal tea which helped for some ailments.
Prickly pear cactus is edible for humans (you need to burn off the barbs) and for Javelinas as well. Javelinas are not pigs; even though they look like a pig. We did not see any animals (only a cotton tail bunny) on our short trip but I was overwhelmed with the knowledge Chris shared. He talked a lot but somehow I seem to remember many of the things he said. He has a natural way of sharing what he knows. He is a great guy and guide. The stories about the Saguaro cactus, about how they grow, how their blooms are harvested as food, how much water they can hold, etc are amazing to me.
The whole trip into the desert was a new experience. I like to know what is edible, what is ornamental and what is medicinal when it comes to plants. This trip into the desert gave me a totally new appreciation for the people who lived here and how they survived in an area that seems inhospitable yet offers free food and drink for the person who can find it or knows what to take or where to look.
We saw petroglyphs that were 1000 years old, just lying on the ground. People have been here for millennium living off the land. I am the new comer, I am learning slowly. I find it amazing and interesting to be able to live in this alien world, this section of the planet is so strange and so different from where I grew up.
My trip to the Botanical Garden of Arizona just a few days before was not as informative as this guided tour with Chris. Send him an email if you want to have a tour of the desert here in Phoenix, this guy is good.
Even Chris is still puzzled as to why the rattlesnake gives birth to live offspring and another snake that looks exactly like the rattlesnake, makes a “rattle” sound but is not poisonous, lays eggs and hatches them. Two snakes, both look alike and are often confused, both live in the same environment yet are so different from each other. There are a lot of stories here; there is a lot to discover. AZ is worth a trip, the best month would be late March or early April. I think I am coming back someday.