Monday, April 30, 2012

Life of a Cactus Part 1: A Cactus Home

A saguaro cactus in the Sonoran Desert.
So I got a bit carried away with writing about cacti, I think I have at least an eight part series ready to post.  I may be able to add more to that even.  Hopefully its not too boring for anyone because I personally find the existence of the desert cactus quite interesting.  Being the series will be so long I will not post each part in succession, there will be breaks where we have posts of differing subjects.  Hopefully this extended series will spark your interest in cacti!

The Cactus Home

Ask just about anyone why cacti are common desert plants and of course they will tell you it’s because they store water in their stem.  And of course this is true, but it’s only the tip of the iceberg.  Beyond water storage, every part of a cactus is highly adapted to moderately dry desert conditions.  I say moderately dry conditions because extremely dry deserts with say four or fewer inches of rain a year generally do not have many cacti.  Everything needs water, and cacti need slightly more than next to nothing.  Extremely dry deserts are generally barren of nearly all plants, including cacti, except for a few scraggly shrubs.  But even in extremely dry deserts cacti can be found in dry washes, owed simply to the slightly higher concentration of water in these areas after rare flash floods.  Even slightly more than four inches of rain annually, or even double or triple that, is still very dry.  Under these conditions everything seems to work against water storage for the cactus.  Even so, this is where the cactus works best. 
Hedgehog cactus growing in the Sonoran Desert.
Not only are deserts excruciatingly dry due to lack of rain, but many are also excruciatingly hot.  While not all deserts are hot, most cacti find their home in the hot deserts of North and South America.  Dryness only contributes to this heat.  Moisture and humidity work to stabilize temperatures, and therefore prevent extreme highs.  So called desert dry-heat is often oven like due to lack of humidity.  But even in the shade this extreme temperature can be tolerable.  Unfortunately, there is not a lot of shade to spare in the desert.  In more humid environments atmospheric moisture filters large amounts of sun from ever reaching the ground, thus shielding from harsh sun rays and extreme temperatures.  Dry desert atmospheres result in a sun intensity that can be as much as three times greater than humid temperate regions.  So from the simple lack of rain, temperature increases more, robbing even more moisture from everything in the environment.  The resulting low humidity also aids scorching sunlight which again contributes to higher temperatures and lost moisture.  Simply put, dry conditions make it even hotter, which makes it even dryer.  Cacti can thrive under these conditions when most other plants either go dormant or die.

The next part of this series will cover how cacti roots are adapted to the dry desert.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Plant Galls: Where Do They Come From?

Creosote gall.
This morning while hiking I came across a few odd masses of leaves growing on Creosote Bush.  These masses of leaves are technically galls caused by the Creosote Gall Midge.  This insect lays an egg or eggs along with fungal spores in part of a Creosote Bush.  There are 15 species of the Creosote Gall Midge, each specializes in laying their eggs in a specific location on the bush.  Some specialize in laying the egg and forming galls in the leaves, others on stems, others buds or flowers and so on.  Each species also does this only at specific times of the year.  When the fungus begins to grow it forms a gall on the Creosote.  Later, the midge eggs hatch and the larva begin eating the fungus inside of the gall.  Once mature, the larva eat their way out of the gall and morph into adult insects.  Once adults, the whole process is of laying eggs with fungal spores in the Creosote begins again. 

Galls are not unique to Creosote.  In-fact they are quite common, especially among oak species.  Gall wasps actually specialize in forming galls, most often on oak leaves.  Gall formation almost always is part of the reproductive life cycle of these wasps.  There are well over 1000 species of Gall Wasps, each individual species specializing in forming galls on one specific plant species.  These galls are often quite unusual looking, sometimes looking even Christmas ornament like.  Below are a few pictures of galls.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Simple and Effective SNAP Hydroponics

Historically hydroponics has been touted as a feasible way of growing foods in third world countries.  Unfortunately, this has not proven to be the case.  The expensive start-up cost along with electricity requirements for water circulation have proven to be extreme hindrances in poor countries.  Hydroponics has been proven though to be an effective space saver and can productively grow lots of food in a small amount of space.  Hydroponics simply is growing plants in a soil-less environment and giving plants the nutrition they need through exposure of the roots to water that contains fertilizer in it.  Recently, a new low tech hydroponics system that overcomes these historical failures was developed in the Philippines.  In its short history it has already proven itself as extremely effective and is transforming communities in the Philippines by providing a safe and inexpensive food source.  It also has allowed communities to generate new streams of income by selling food grown in their system.  The system is known as the Simple Nutrient Addition Program (SNAP).  It uses a reservoir for the nutrient solution to sit in and a cover for the reservoir with pot sized holes in it.  Plants grown in pots or small baskets are stock in the reservoir cover holes and the roots hung down into the nutrient solution.  Extremely simple, easy, and inexpensive yet very effective.  This is so cheap and easy that I am highly considering making my own system in the near future.

Here is a blog with some good basic information on the SNAP system:

Friday, April 20, 2012

Sonoran Desert in the Spring

Hedgehog Cactus in bloom.
Its spring time here in the Sonoran Desert, and it sure is dry.  Normally it is at least a little wetter around here this time of year but with only about two inches of rain since December and the recent break into 90 degree temperatures thing are bone dry.  Right now Brittlebush is in bloom but the number and size of flowers are greatly reduced due to lack of rain.  These are typically some of the most reliable and abundant flowers in the desert, often having spectacular blooms.  In-fact, there have been a few springs where I have looked at small isolated desert mountain ranges from a distance and they actually appeared to be slightly yellowish in coloration due to the abundance of Brittlebush flowers.  Unfortunately, this is not one of those years.  Lower in elevation in the valleys and basins Creosote Bush can also be found in bloom.  While not extremely showy or spectacular it does dapple the landscape reliably year to year being it is the very definition of a desert hardy plant species.
Brittlebush flower.
Most cacti will also be entering their blooming seasons very soon.  Hedgehog Cactus is just finishing up blooming with their beautiful purple flowers. Buckhorn Cholla is right in the middle of blooming currently.  I am planning on making a hiking trip in the next few days to collect some cholla flower buds for eating.  Normally there are tons of cholla buds right now but this year most seem to have finished blooming early.  Some different locations though might have more flowers in bud and bloom though.  Oddly, I also found an area of a few acres where the Saguaro's were in intense bloom, about a month ahead of schedule.  A part from this area though I couldn't find a single Saguaro in flower, lots of flower bud starting though.
Saguaro Cactus  flower.
The dry weather can also be attested to by the presence of yellow leaved Ocotillos.  Ocotillos normally only have leaves when the soil is sufficiently wet after rain.  When the soil dries out, the leaves turn yellow and fall off, causing the plant no harm.  This is a normal adaptation to dry desert conditions, allowing the plant to survive drought.  Right now, the yellow leaves are quite pretty.

An Ocotillo with yellow leaves.  The lack of rain is causing this Ocotillo to loose its leaves, a normal occurance and adaptation do dry desert conditions.
Over the next month we will head into the driest and hottest time of the year.  Not much of any hope for rain in the near future, only dry heat and the return of the scorching desert sun.  To begin that season though the Palo Verdes, Ironwoods, and Saguaros will all bloom making for great flower viewing and bird watching.  After that comes some of the easiest gathering of wild desert foods such as Mesquite pods, Palo Verde beans, and later Saguaro fruit.  Starting now, I'm going to try my best to enjoy the cool morning air by sneaking in some early hikes.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Restoring Fire to Ecosystems

Midwestern Oak Woodland actively managed by fire.
Fire is a fascinating force of nature.  Its use or disuse results in huge consequences.  If you think about it, we all use fire in one form another probably every day.  If we use a combustion engine or a gas heater or gas stove we have used fire.  This of course has ecosystem consequences due to drilling for gas and the carbon dioxide produced after combustion.  There is a lot of power in the ability to control fire and was likely one of the first steps towards technological advancement of the human race.  Less applicable to most of us "modern" humans is the role of fire in ecosystems.  Again, the use and disuse of fire has huge consequences on how an ecosystem functions and what it becomes.  For thousands of years native cultures throughout the world have used fires to control, engineer, and improve ecosystems.  For example, it is very likely the Tall Grass Prairies of the Midwest would be extremely rare if it were not for Native Americans purposefully burning prairie grass often on a nearly annual basis for thousands of years.  Natives started the fires to remove trees and shrubs, and thereby improve the productivity of the land from which they derived their all their resources for living.  Farmers today still benefit from the rich soils left behind as a legacy of the Native Americans fire management technique.  In the rainforest, natives still today employ a slash and burn technique to clear land for farming, then slowly letting the land return to rainforest.  Certain types of soils in the Amazonian Rainforest still are amazingly rich even thousands of years after slash and burn management by the native.  Ponderosa Pine Woodlands of the Western United States and Oak Woodlands of the Midwest also are a legacy of Native Americans purposefully burning ground cover to kill off the abundance of trees and shrubbery.  The huge benefits of fire in ecosystems wasn't entirely realized until so called more intelligent, more "modern" people groups eliminated fire from the ecosystem.  In the name of technological advancement a lot of more ancient technology was forgotten simply because it was thought the new was better than the old.  As a result soil productivity decreased causing the land to be less productive, open woodlands where small safe controlled burns took place were filled in with trees causing major dangerous forest fires to become more frequent, and ecosystems were invaded with fire intolerant and less productive species.  It is only within the past 30 or so years that fire has been reintroduced to ecosystems as a management tool and we have rediscovered its huge benefits.

Oak Woodlands, like the one in this video, have been dependent on humans burning them every decade or so for many thousands of years.  When they are burned the underbrush and less productive plant species such as maples are removed and the soil enriched.  All benefiting the productivity of the oak trees and in turn befitting wildlife and people economically, aesthetically, and safety wise.

I had several posts on Oak Woodlands last fall pertaining to fire in the ecosystem and specifically Oak trees.  Click here.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Wolfberry: the Wild Gogi Berry

Ripe Wolfberry
Gogi berries have been quite the rage for the past few years as a sort of super food.  I am sure the berries are very healthy but there really isn't any scientific support for them as a super food at this time.  At a minimum though they are just as healthy as any other berry, which other berries are indeed very healthy.  Here in the Sonoran Desert Wolfberry is quite common, especially along dry washes.  Between now and the  middle of May is when they are ripe for harvesting, and they are quite easy to find.  They look like miniature tomatoes that grow on medium to small sized bushes.  The resemblance is for good reason, both Wolfberry and tomato are in the same plant family, specifically the genus Lycium.  They sure don't taste like tomatoes though, but probably closer to a raspberry.  The amazing thing about Wolfberries is that their size varies significantly from year to year depending on timing and amount of rain received during the winter months.  Years with little rainfall will yield tiny berries that are not worth picking.  Years with more rainfall will yield nice sized berries slightly smaller than a raspberry.  This year I have noticed that Wolfberries along washes are niced sized while those outside of washes are too tiny to pick.

Anyway, its the right time of year to search out this berry along desert washes.  Be sure to bring a good plant identification key so you can be sure to correctly identify what to pick and not to pick.  The best way is to identify the plant by leaves, berries, and the flowers.  Unfortunately, the small purple flowers have been gone since February.  In future years though, consider searching out the plant by flower in February, then remembering its location come back to harvest berries in April.  My guess is that these wild gogi berries are healthier than what you can buy in the store, if for no other reason other than the fact that you have to hike around to find them.
Wolfberries small purple flowers, usually found in February.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Desert Canyon: Ford Canyon Trail White Tank Mountains Part 2

Higher elevation (around 3,000 feet) in the White Tank Mountains west of Phoenix.  Here grasses are a lot more common and cacti, trees and shrubs a lot more rare.
Towards the middle of the canyon eventually a small dam will be reached.  Personally I really wonder why this dam was built.  I can guess that it was built by ranchers to form a water hole for their thirsty cattle.  But really, how in the world would they ever have carried so much cement up into this rugged and remote section of the canyon?  Beyond that, the dam doesn’t hold much water at all.  It is extremely effective at holding sand though and the entire area behind the dam is completely filled with it.  All that work hauling cement up into a rugged and remote canyon to build a dam that doesn’t hold water but rather holds a lot of sand.  Talk about a disappointing work project.  After the dam however, the wash bed becomes a lot less rugged and more sandy, with much of the trail going directly through the wash.  Here the wash becomes much more wash-like and less canyon like.  The banks are lined with mesquites, catclaw acacias, wolfberry bushes, grasses, canyon ragweed, and the invasive tamarisk tree.  All indicators of increased water availability in the wash due to infrequent flash floods.  Fortunately, the tamarisk doesn’t seem to be causing much of a problem here. 

When hiking in the sandy area of the wash above the dam, there is a remarkable increase in the grasses along the hillsides.  Tobosa, three-awn, and big-gallete are the most common grasses.  All of these grasses require the slightly greater amount of precipitation and slightly cooler temperatures present at this elevation of around 3,000 plus feet.  The grasses are most abundant lower on the hillslopes where soil is slightly more developed and holds water better.  After leaving the wash the trail continues through several areas with high amounts of grass cover, which is a nice change from the ubiquitous cactus and shrub studded landscape below this elevation.  Continuing upslope however, the soil becomes increasingly rocky with brittlebush becoming the dominate plant.  Brittlebush has a strong preference for rocky, unstable, and dry soils more typical higher up on mountain or hillsides.  Also, looking closely along the trail you may find some charred stumps.  This is a result of infrequent grass fires at this higher elevation.  At lower elevations it is pretty rare to find charred woody materials due to sparse vegetation that is not able to carry fire far.  The greater amount of grass cover at higher elevations though more easily carries fire.  Fire generally promotes more grasses to grow and kills shrubs, trees, and cacti.  At least partially for this reason cacti and palo verde are far less common at these higher elevations.  Wire lettuce, buckwheat, brittlebush, and globe mallow also are common at these elevations and seem to be able to colonize bare ground quickly after a fire.

After a few miles of hiking through desert grasslands of the upper elevations of the White Tanks
the trail will come to an end at the Mesquite Canyon Trail and Goat Camp Trail.  I currently am 105 miles towards my goal of 150 miles in 2012.  Hopefully I will be able to reach 150 miles in the next two months or so.  Then maybe I'll extend my goal out another 150 miles.  Due to my schedule being quite busy these last few weeks I haven't done much hiking.  And I have definitely missed it.  The health and relaxation benefits become quite clear after missing a few weeks as I become a little more stressed out and feeling a little less in shape.  I am planning a lot of hiking in the near future though.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Desert Canyon: Ford Canyon Trail White Tank Mountains

Ford Canyon Trail is my favorite hike in the White Tank Mountains.  The rugged terrain, diversity of landscapes, and mixture of easy and challenging sections makes this hike worth repeating.  For my recent hike I took a loop from the parks Ramada Picnic and parking area starting with the Waddell Trail, to the Ford Canyon Trail, then to the Willow Canyon, and finally returning to the parking lot by the Mesquite Canyon Trail.  Entire length is just over nine miles.  For this particular post I will be highlighting just the Ford Canyon section starting at Waddell Trail and ending at Mesquite Canyon Trail.

The trail approaching the canyon ascends a gently sloping bajada.  This bajada is beautifully surrounded by mountains to the north, south and west, opening up to the basin desert below.  Millenniums of decaying granite in the mountains have been carried down through the Ford Canyon, depositing a composite of alluvial fans, and forming the bajada we can see today.  This particular bajada appears to have been extremely stable being the surface is relatively flat and shallow rooted triangle-leaf bursage and cacti indicate a layer of caliche just below the surface.  The area also, though not grazed for three decades or more, still shows evidence of trampling by cattle.  This trampling is evidenced by the large and nearly barren areas where the soil is too compacted to support plant life.  After a relatively short hike up this bajada you enter the canyon.
Saguaro Cactus along the Ford Canyon Trail.

Ford Canyon is the roughest hike in the entire White Tank’s park.  But its rugged nature is exactly what makes it so appealing.  Within a short distance into the canyon you will begin hiking and even climbing over house sized blocks of granite.  Large sections of the canyon have nearly vertical drops of tens of feet just off the edge of the trail.  The wash bed in this section of the canyon is not nice, sandy, and smooth.  It also is extremely rough with lots of high drop-offs and large sections of smoothly worn granite.  The ruggedness of this canyon is witness of the decay of this mountain.  In extremely ancient times, all of these blocks of granite, the house sized blocks down to the sand sized fragments, were all part of one massive unbroken mountain-sized block of granite.  Pressure from movement of the surrounding geology began to crack and break this block.  Very likely Ford Canyon began as one or many small but long cracks in this mountain sized block of granite.  Extreme desert heat caused further cracking and breaking down of the rock enlarging the initial cracks.  Water flowing into and through the crack or cracks eroded and dissolved the rock, enlarging it further.  Plant roots working their way through smaller surrounding cracks continued to enlarge the initial crack.  All of these processes continue their work to this day, and continue to form the present day Ford Canyon. 
Canyon in the White Tank Mountains.
The many large drop-offs in the canyon means many large waterfalls, which unfortunately only flow for a few hours a year and only after large rainfall events.  I only hiked through this canyon once, during a heavy rainfall with the wash flowing and water dropping over the many falls.  Unfortunately, but dramatically, much of the canyon was shrouded in fog so I could only see portions of a few of the waterfalls.  The combination of rain, fog, and sound of flowing water through the canyon is a desert rarity.  Typically, the desert is peacefully quiet with only the sound of occasional calling birds, giving it a strong sense of solitude.  Further up in the canyon there are many holes in the unbroken granite bedrock where water accumulates and can hold many months after rain.  When the rest of the desert is dry after months without rain these water holes will often still hold water and become magnets in the landscape for wildlife.  In a recent hike I found and abundance of water in many different holes, even though there had been no rain for a month.  The surrounding landscape was nearly bone dry and the high density of mule deer and javelina hoof prints around these holes attests to their importance to these animals.  

Part 2 will be continued on Monday.  So far I have hiked 101 miles this year.  Unfortunately, I haven't added any miles to this over the past three weeks due to a busy schedule.  Hopefully this weekend I will be able to put in a few miles though.  

Monday, April 2, 2012

1957 BBC's April's Fools Day Spagetti Farming

Thought this was one of the funnier things I came across on April's Fools day.  Apparently it did fool a lot of  British people into trying to grow their own spaghetti trees when it originally aired on April first in 1957.  Below is another humorous spaghetti farming video.