Thursday, April 28, 2011

More Sonoran Desert April flowers

With my schedule clearing us I have had a lot more time to hike the desert lately.  Fortunately we have had very nice temperatures for the past several weeks.  One of my more recent trips was to Cottonwood Creek just west of Lake Pleasant NW of Phoenix.  Similar to my previous post perennials are in full bloom.  Creosote, Buckhorn Cholla, Teddy Bear Cholla, Strawberry Hedgehog, and Paper Flower are in full bloom.  I also found an extremely rare Buckhorn Cholla with red flowers.  I have literally walked past tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Buckhorn Chollas in bloom over the years and have only come across one red flowering plant.

Anyway, here are some of the flowers in bloom along Cottonwood Creek.

Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus

Teddy Bear Cholla

Paper Flower

The typical yellow colored Buckhorn Cholla flower.

A rare red Buckhorn Cholla flower.  Maybe one in a million or more.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

April flowers in the Sonoran Desert

Teddy Bear Cholla (Cylindopuntia bigelovii) in bloom in the desert right now.  Oddly, this cactus produces no viable seeds despite flowering and only reproduces asexually by rooting broken cactus joints.
April showers bring May flowers!  Right?  Well not in the Sonoran Desert.  Its more along the lines of May drought kills April flowers.  But from March through mid April or so we can have a whole host of flowers depending on how much rain we received in the winter months before.  Even in years with relatively little winter rainfall the perennial plants will still normally produce flowers.  This winter we had several small rainfall events that amounted to only 2.75 inches which is slightly over half of our "normal" 4.5 inches of winter rainfall.  But so called normal rainfall is sort of an enigma in the desert...  Despite the lack of rain we still have had quite a showing of April perennial plant flowers. 

Currently in bloom are several species of cacti: Prickly Pears (Opuntia sp.), Staghorn Cholla (Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa), Teddy Bear Cholla (Cylindropuntia bigelovii), and Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus englemanii).  I am sure other species of cacti are also in bloom currently in other locations but I haven't visited them lately.

Staghorn Cholla (Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa)
Strawberry Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus englemanii)
Prickly Pear (Opuntia sp.)

Other more bush like plants are also in bloom right now: Mesquite (Prosobis sp.), Creosote Bush (Larrea tridentata), Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), and the Blue Palo Verde (Parkinsonia florida).

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

Creosote bush (Larrea tridentata)

Velvet Mesquite (Prosobis velutina)

Velvet Mesquite (Prosobis velutina)
In the next few weeks these flowers will die off with the increasing heat and begin to produce an abundance of seed and seed pods.  Over the next several weeks Foothills Palo Verde (Parkinsonia microphylla), Iron wood (Olneya tesota), Saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea), and Barrel Cactus (Ferocactus sp.) will begin to flower during the Sonoran Deserts driest time of year.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Horseradish plant from the produce section

Horseradish plant started from a section of horseradish root I purchased last fall in the grocery store. 
One of my favorite ways of obtaining and growing plants starts in the produce section of the grocery store.  Here there are an abundance of seeds and roots from the produce that is for sale that can be grown in the garden or inside.  I have mentioned obtaining fresh ginger root from the grocery store and growing it, but this last fall I also did it with a section of horseradish root.  I simply purchased a healthy looking section of root and then made sure it was dried out well by letting it sit on a counter for several days.  After that I simply planted it in the ground about three inches deep and waited to see what happened. I planted the root mid-October, it took a few weeks before any sprouts appeared, and the leaves died back after our winter frosts.  About March however the plant started growing like crazy!  From what I have read horseradish can become an invasive weed in the garden in more temperate climates but in Phoenix the summer heat should make it die back.  So my plan is to let it grow until the heat kills the leaves, then I will see if there are any roots to dig up.
Section of horseradish root similar to what I planted in October.
Starting plants from materials found in the grocery store produce section can be quite exciting.  You never know quite what you are going to get.  You also have access to a lot of different plants that normally are not available in seed catalogs or garden stores.  Unfortunately, growing grocery produce is experimental and some of your attempts will fail, but that's the way science goes.  We are still trying to successfully germinate and grow coconuts from the grocery store.  We are currently on our second coconut attempt and if we don't succeed we will try again!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Cholla flower bud harvest 2011

Buckhorn Cholla flower buds (Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa) ready for harvest mid April in the Sonoran Desert.
April of 2011 has proved to be my first successful cholla flower bud harvest.  In the past I have never found an abundance of information on how to specifically and successfully harvest cholla flower buds for eating.  For that reason I simply avoided it.  However, instead of avoiding cholla buds due to lack of information I just went ahead and did it this year.  It is a shame I haven't done this in the past, its rather quick, easy, and super abundant!  Not quite as easy as saguaro fruit harvesting though.

Buckhorn Cholla flower (Cylindropuntia acanthocarpa).
Here is how to harvest cholla flower buds:

1. Identify the species of cholla in the area you want to harvest in.  I harvested west of Phoenix where Buckhorn Cholla is abundant.  This particular cholla is ready to harvest mid April.  Most other types of chollas are ready to harvest mid April also.

2. To collect cholla flower buds you will need some sort of tongs, such as a grilling tong.  This allows you to twist the bud off of the plant so you don't get poked.  You will also need some sort of bag, bucket, or basket.  I used a plastic bag which wasn't the best choice due to the spines puncturing the plastic, but it still worked.

3. After collecting all the buds you want you will have to remove the spines.  Some people roll the buds on the ground or on some sort of hardware cloth.  I chose to burn the spines off which proved to be very effective.  I would like to try removing spines with hardware cloth sometime though.  After burning the spines off I thoroughly washed to buds off by swishing them around in several rinses of water.

Burning cholla bud spines off in the bottom of my grill.
4.  Lastly, I boiled the buds in water for about 30 minutes.  Apparently some people don't boil their buds but I chose to in order to remove the oxalic acid.  Once the buds are boiled they are ready to eat.

The buds that I ate plain were very good.  I made the rest into a cholla bud salsa which was also excellent.  According to everything I have read on-line cholla buds taste somewhere between asparagus and artichoke, and I would have to agree.  The flavor is not overpowering but is very rich and tasty.  As with other cacti the texture is slimy due to the mucilaginous nature of the tissue.  Also from what I have read cholla buds are loaded with calcium as well as carbohydrates that help maintain blood sugar.

My cholla bud salsa.  About 1 cup of chopped cholla buds, 1/4 of a small red onion, 1/2 lime juice, small amount of garlic powder, and 2 small tomatoes.

Being this is my first time harvesting and eating cholla buds I would like to know if anyone else has experiences with cholla bud foraging.  What species?  How were spines removed?  How were they cooked?

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Cellular biology game: CellCraft

I accidentally happened across a free on-line game called CellCraft. Supposedly some sort of off take of the game World of Warcraft, except with a cellular biological twist.

CellCraft:  Build a cell, fight off viruses, survive harsh worlds, and save the Platypus species!

Fairly interesting, possibly slightly addictive to biologists, pretty informative with quite a few interesting and important concepts taught through the game, and kind of weird.  A good educational game to check out at least. 

Check it out here:  CellCraft  or  CellCraft Home

If anyone plays this game I would sure be interested in what you thought of it.  So let me know!!!

Monday, April 11, 2011

April garden economics update

The month of March went extremely well in the garden.  We had an abundance of produce with only four hours of time put in and minimal expenses.  The weather warmed up considerably and though we had several rainy days, the rain didn't amount to much.  Still very dry around here but what else can you expect in the desert.  We also planted tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, beans, winter squash, summer squash at the beginning of the month.  All of which were started from seed, thus minimizing cost inputs.  Normally March through May would produce an abundance of chili peppers but due to the unusually cold weather nearly all of the chili pepper plants died and only one looks like it will be producing anything this coming month.  April marks the beginning of warm but not yet hot weather and the beginning of our annual spring drought.  Spring drought is usually not broken until July monsoon season.

Here are the stats:
College garden
Shell peas 29oz, $8.99
Beets 132oz, $32.90
Lettuce  30oz, $7.50
Chard  68oz, $21.08
Cilantro  18oz, $3.15
Total hours: 4
Total calories burned: 1224
Calories produced: 2866
Net calories:  1642
$ spent: $12.93 on seeds
$ produced: $74.01
Net $: $61.08

Home Garden
Shell peas 30oz, $9.30
Radishes  8oz, $0.99
Green onions  32oz, $7.56
Broccoli  12oz, $1.80
Beets  60oz, $14.95
Chard  70oz, $22.40
Carrots  22oz, $1.10
Chives 3oz, $2.69
Total hours: 4
Total calories burned: 1224
Calories produced: 2135
Net calories:  911
$ spent: $12.93 on seeds
$ produced: $58.99
Net $:  $46.06

Totals since October 2010
College garden: 
$ Totals: -$1.36+61.08=$59.72
Total hours worked: 14.75
Calorie totals:12+1642=1654

$ Totals: $10.09+46.06=$56.15
Hours worked: 17.25
Calorie totals:-355+911=556

Well, we are finally making a profit in our gardens.  This should have probably come a few months earlier but I spent too much money on seeds and planted too much space in unproductive crops.  I have quickly learned from my mistakes however and am trying to quickly make up for lost time.