Wild Wednesday. 22 June 2022. National Pollinator Week

Today is World Camel Day, and though I admire the lanky beasts, I chose instead to call our attention to National Pollinator Week. Early plants relied on spores for reproduction, and some present ones (e.g., ferns) still do. Wind served to disperse the pollen of gymnosperms, and they had their heyday too, but it was the evolution of Angiosperms that relied on pollen transfer with the aid of animals that really caused a botanical revolution. Today, the great diversity of plants is dependent upon the even greater diversity of animals, particularly insects. Much of our food supply is dependent on pollinators of various kinds, yet our increasing reliance on industrial agriculture, along with its overuse of chemical fertilizers and “pesticides,” is threatening native biodiversity and sometimes even the future of the plants we depend on.

Read More...

Wild Wednesday, 15 June 2022, Nolina

Throughout our grasslands, oak woodlands, and pinyon-juniper stands in Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Mexico grows Nolina microcarpa, commonly known as beargrass, sacahuista, or palmilla. “Beargrass” is an unfortunate name, as it is not a grass at all, nor is it related to the mountain plant called “beargrass” (Xerophyllum tenax). I prefer to call it simply nolina, a lovely name, though the Aztecderived name, sacahuista, is lovely too. It is impressively drought-tolerant, fire-resilient, and evergreen, so it makes a wonderful ornamental plant in our xeriscaped gardens.

Read More...

Wild Wednesday. 1 June 2022. Precocity

We are all familiar with the precocious nature of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, performing the violin beautifully at the age of three and composing pieces of his own at five. Precocity is the development of skills considered very advanced for a given age. It comes from the Latin for “early ripening.” While Mozart was a prodigy with exceptional early talents, humans in general are altricial, born helpless and needing a long period of parental care until able to function independently. Mozart was certainly no less helpless as a newborn, but his musical abilities developed at an extraordinarily early age, thus being considered precocial compared to others in his age-class.

Read More...

Among Friends. May 2022. Jay Walking.

Arizonans harbor myths about “our” jays. I often hear folks talking about the blue jays in their yards. Well, yes, they have jays, and they are basically blue, but the proper Blue Jay is an eastern US species that has only been recorded in SE Arizona a couple times. We have four species of “blue jays” in Arizona: the Steller’s, Mexican, Pinyon, and Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay. I’ll focus on the scrub-jay in this essay, but I’ll show examples of the others for comparison. It’s time to set the record straight, so let’s do some jay walking.

Read More...

Among Friends. May 2022. Yucca.

While cacti often epitomize “desert” in North America, it’s the yuccas that are widespread and notable representatives of semiarid areas throughout much of the continent from Guatemala to southern Alberta, Baja California to Florida and up the coast to Maryland. There are almost 50 species, at least 14 in Arizona. They are completely dependent upon yucca moths for pollination, but the story is more complex than most of us realize. Let’s take a closer at look at these fascinating plants.

Read More...

Wild Wednesday. 6 April 2022. Silktassel.

Shrubs often fail to gather the respect they deserve. They lack the overbearing massiveness of a towering tree or the colorful brilliance of a showy wildflower. However, shrubs completely dominate the chaparral ecosystems in the West, and they create wonderful diversity in the understory of woodlands of oaks, pines, pinyons, and junipers. One of my favorites is Wright’s Silktassel, Garrya wrightii, found throughout Arizona from about 3000-8000 feet, the southern half of New Mexico, the western tip of Texas, and down to central Mexico. Let’s see what makes this shrub so likeable.

Read More...

Wild Wednesday. 30 March 2022. Thanks Vermilion!

On the voyage of the Beagle, Darwin was given the nickname “Flycatcher” for his skills at collecting specimens. To us, the word “flycatcher” seems obvious—a bird that catches flies. But as I have often cautioned, names can be deceiving. If you lived in Europe, Asia, or Africa, “flycatcher” would mean a member of the Muscicapidae, a large family of true songbirds collectively known as “chats, robins, and Old World Flycatchers.”

Read More...

Among Friends. 28 Feb 2022. Alligator Juniper

One of the most distinctive trees of the Southwest is the Alligator Juniper, well-named for its platy, saurian-like bark. My natural history students had no trouble learning it by appearance, and, with the mnemonic clue, “Johnny Depp,” they quickly caught on to its scientific name, Juniperus deppeana. Of course, an organism is so much more than its name, and the Alligator Juniper is special in so many ways that it earns the limelight in this essay. As you will see, this amazing plant is one of my all-time favorites, very close to my heartwood.

Read More...