Category Archives: Wild Flowers

No Nature

 

 

Dandelion: friend or foe?

On the last day of our trip, listening to CBC radio I heard about a scandal in Regina. Apparently they have a local bylaw there that if the “lawn” on your yard is more than 15 cm high it must be cut down. What a draconian rule! If you don’t do it the weed inspector will come down and do it for you and send you the bill.  No wild flowers permitted in Regina.

It reminds me of the war that most of us who reside in towns have waged on dandelions.  Such beautiful little yellow flowers. Some say the problem with dandelions is that they take over. They invade the lawn. That is true. Nature hates  monoculture. If we didn’t insist on creating monocultures on our property,  dandelions would have no place to invade. People forget that in nature there are seldom vast fields of yellow dandelions. Dandelions enter where nature has been destroyed. People in towns don’t want nature. So they get dandelions and want to use various horrid chemicals  to defeat them.

Some town folks even think golf courses are nature at her finest! Those wide fairways where golf superintendents apply vats of carcinogenic substances to kill the weeds are what they think is nature. They actually consider that nature. Just goes to show how far they are removed from nature, they have forgotten what nature is like. The only difference between a wild flower and a weed is a public relations firm.

On the way home from British Columbia I saw another example of our war on nature. This was actually a big example. Just after we crossed the Alberta/B.C. border we lost nature.  After we left Banff National Park we saw no nature until we arrived in Steinbach other than rain clouds. That was about 1,000 km.! Not one single animal other than an occasional cow. I don’t think cows were native to North America. The prairies that we took the better part of 2 days to travel through used to be grasslands.  Less than 1% of the tall grass prairie remains. Less than 30% of the remaining grasslands are gone too. Actually, to me it looks like more than that has disappeared. We saw none other than in occasional sloughs or river banks. The grasslands seemed to have vanished.

The first European explorers were stunned when they encountered what they saw as an ocean of grass. They had never seen anything like it. After all, the grasslands of Europe were all but gone before they arrived. Most of that grassland is gone.

We have destroyed so much of nature in the holy names of progress.

I have also been told that the wildlife in North America, before contact with Europeans,  was even more abundant than Africa. To me having been to Africa and having seen their depleted wildlife that makes ours pale into insignificance , I find that hard to believe. It is an awful desecration.

For two days,  we saw virtually none. That is a pity. As the Red Rose Tea commercial used to say, “a dreadful pity.”

I even like dandelions when they have gone to seed. I think there is a beauty in old age.

White Sands National Monument

 

Chris is not standing barefoot in snow. This is sand–incredible sand!

For years I have wanted to visit White Sands National Monument. There is nothing like it on the planet.  The main geological feature here is sparkling white sand about the color of sugar. I had heard about it, but nothing really prepared me for it. This is the largest white gypsum dune field in the world. The glistening sand dunes are found in the Tularosa Basin at the northern end of the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico north of Las Cruces and south of Alamogordo.

It covers about 800 sq. km. (300 sq. mi). Gypsum, which is also found in Manitoba in a completely different form, is a water soluble mineral that is not often found as sand.  Because there is no drainage from the Tularosa Basin surrounding the white sand dunes  the sediment from the mountains that is washed by rains, even though infrequent, gets trapped in the basin. When the rain evaporates dry lakes form and strong winds blow the white gypsum up into huge fields of rippling white sand dunes.

Sand dune never remain in place. They are constantly on the move. At one point we saw dunes about to climb over the State highway we had driven to get here.   What surprised me is that the water table here  is very shallow and water can actually rise to the surface after heavy rains turning the interdune area into temporary large ponds.

Geology is always interesting. There is a lot of history in rocks. Millions of years ago, an ancient sea covered most of the southwestern United States and during this time layers of gypsum were deposited on the floor of the sea. Of course that sea was never static either. It rose and sank many times over millions of years. This started the process of the creation of gypsum.

Gypsum is created within layers of sedimentary rock often found in thick beds or layers. It forms in lagoons where ocean waters that are high in calcium sulfate content slowly evaporate but are regularly replenished with new sources of water. This is precisely what happened at White Sands.

Massive gypsum rock forms within layers of sedimentary rock, typically found in thick beds or layers. It forms in lagoons where ocean waters high in calcium and sulphate content can slowly evaporate and be regularly replenished with new sources of water. Because gypsum dissolves over time in water, gypsum is rarely found in the form of sand. That is why White Sands is unique.

Many factors led to the creation of this astonishing ecosystem.   280 to 250 million years ago (‘mya’) the continents of the world were welded together in one massive mega-continent now called Pangea. Part of what we today call the United States in the southwest, including the southern part of current New Mexico, were covered by what we now call the Permian Sea.  When the sea rose and fell repeatedly thick layers of the mineral, gypsum, were left behind along with other minerals that were also dissolved on the seafloor.

About 70 mya when the earth’s tectonic plates started to shift they collided into each other. In some places the pressure from such movement pushed up land and created many mountain ranges including the Rocky Mountains and the mountains that now surround the Tularosa Basin.

30 mya ago the tectonic plates began to pull apart in the opposite direction creating many fault zones. Large portions of mountains were sometimes split apart causing sections of the Earth’s crust to drop thousands of feet, forming basins along the faults. At that time 2 distinct mountain ranges were formed in this region—the San Andres Mountains to the west that are shown in my photographs and the Sacramento Mountains that we could see to the east. Between the two mountain ranges, where we stood, the Tularosa Basin was formed.

About 2 to 3 mya the Rio Grande River flowed along the southern edge of the Tularosa basin bringing sediments and minerals into the basin. This eventually blocked the basin’s outlet to the sea.  Water that was trapped at the blockage started to collect at the lowest point and eventually formed Lake Otero. This lake was about 1,600 sq. miles and covered much of today’s basin.

24,000 to 12,000 years ago the climate was much colder and wetter then it is today. About 12,000 years ago when the climate changed and the last ice Age ended, Lake Otero began to evaporate and when conditions became dryer a playa or dry lake bed was formed. Around 11,000 years ago, the rain and snowmelt carried dissolved gypsum from the surrounding mountain ranges into the Tularosa Basin. Much of that gypsum runoff settled in Lake Otero.

As the climate became even warmer and dryer the sun and winds combined to transform this area into the Chihuahuan Desert and almost all of Lake Otero dried up completely. The dry portions of the lakebed became what today is called Alkali Flat. When Lake Otero’s water disappeared selenite crystals formed on the bottom of the Alkali Flat. Small pieces of gypsum crystal were broken down by strong winds leaving small grains of white sand that were polished into a brilliant white color unlike anything I have ever seen anywhere. These Sands, unlike the white sand beaches of the Caribbean are really white. The sands were consistently pushed to the northeast by the prevailing winds from the west accumulating into massive dunes forming the white dune fields that we saw today.

Of course not all geology is old. Geology is today too. At the present time change occurs as well. Rain and snow melt from the surrounding mountains and even upwelling from the deep water within the basin from time to time fills Lake Lucero with water that contains gypsum. When the water in the lake evaporates again small selenite crystals (2cm to 3cm) are again formed on the surface of the temporary lake and Alkali Flat in the same was they have for thousands of years. It is usually when large floods concentrate the mineralized water about every 10 to 14 years that crystal formations again occur. After that the relentless forces of wind and water again attack those crystals of gypsum creating ever smaller particles of white sand until they are as fine as the sand we walked on today.

Of course it is not just the geology that is interesting in White Sands National Monument.  A plant guy like me must pay some attention to the plants. One of the more interesting ones is Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata). The plants and animals of White Sands are special because they must  have special attributes to survive the harsh and changing conditions of the desert.  The desert is not place for wimps. The landscape here is constantly changing, even more than most other environments.  The sand moves. It never stays for long in one place. That is a characteristic of all dunes.

The Soaptree yucca adapts to these changing conditions by growing rapidly. Yucca first take root in the interdunal soil. Then when the sand piles up as it inevitably does, it elongates its stem to keep it’s leaves above the sand so that they can continue the important work of photosynthesis whereby light is miraculously turned to energy. What looks like a yucca of 4 to 6 feet, as many of those I saw, are actually much taller with a long stem that connects to the roots in the interdunal soil. Plants are smart!

Saguaro National Park

 

Our last day in Arizona was spent at Saguaro National Park, which was created to save the iconic Saguaro Cactus from extinction. So far so good

Hedgehog cactuses are also gloriously in abundance in the park.

 

This part of the park is located at the east end of Tucson. The day before we spent at the west branch of the park.

I love the hedgehog cactus when they bloom.

When the yellow brittlebush wild flowers are in bloom the desert comes alive with beauty.

 

I don’t know if there is a better place to see the majestic saguaro cactus that grows no where else other than the Sonoran Desert.

We drove on an 8 miles self-guided drive around the park.

Some of the rock formations were beautiful too.

I never get enough of the lovely pink flowers of the Hedgehog  cactus.

Cactuses in Bloom

 

This has been a strange year in the American Southwest.  In January and February there was a lot rain (by Sonoran Desert Standards) and it was also very cool by those same standards. Of course in the world of wild flowers there is no such thing as “normal.”

The entire time we were there this year I worried that the cactuses would not bloom before we left.

That almost happened. They only started to bloom the last week of March just before we left. If I come back next year I must stay until mid April.

 

From this prickly pear cactus you can see the large number of buds. I would love to see a prickly pear cactus filled with blooms.

 

I think this is a pincushion cactus but am not sure.  As a result of the cool weather we did not see many cactuses in bloom. But what we missed in quantity we gained I think in quality.

 

I think the cactuses we saw were stellar.

 

 

Boyce Thompson Arboretum: A Place for Flowers

 

We went to Boyce Thompson Arboretum in search of cactuses in bloom. In that respect we were disappointed. Only 1 cactus in bloom. But it was a great day. When you don’t get what you want you look for something else. We found lovely wild flowers.

 

Desert Hyancinth

These are also called Bluedicks but they really aren’t blue or Dicks.

Desert Globemallow

This is one of the most common wild flowers in the Sonoran Desert and comes in many colours: orange like this one, or lavender, or white, or reddish-maroon, pink, or red. All are lovely

Desert Marigold  are often found along road sides. I like that when flowers make it easy to find them.

Lupines are also very common. I particularly like to see them mingling with yellow flowers.

Apricot Blossoms

I thought these were absolutely lovely. I hope you agree.

 

There are a number of different types of Verbena in Arizona and I am not sure what type this was. Does it matter? It was a pretty good day for flower photography as the skies were lightly overcast and wind was modest. Non-existent wind would have been better of course.

These are a mysterious (to me at least) flower that I am still trying to identify. I am not sure if it was a native wild flower or an escapee.  Tell me if you know what it is. I was smitten by its beauty.

Picacho Peak State Park: a little gem

We drove to Picacho Peak State Park where we enjoyed the wild flowers. This is small gem of a state park. It is right off highway 10 on the way to Tucson. The prominent peak, which is visible from miles away, has been a landmark for centuries. The peak was also the site of the most western conflict of the Civil War. The park includes a fine small visitor center, store, campground, picnic areas, ramadas, playgrounds, grills, and hiking trails.

I had been told that Picacho Peak State Park was likely the best place for wild flowers in our region. It might be a little past prime but should still be good. We were not disappointed. Even though one woman I met said she had been here once when the entire mountain-side was filled with flowers, we thought this was pretty good. Of course, I would love to see that.

 

First the hillside was remarkably green as a result of recent rains. Then to see flowers sprinkled in the midst of the green was wonderful. We made many stops for photos.

This little park is beautiful. The flowers were like gems on a lovely garment. Many people think the desert is dull; many people are wrong.

This mountain is across highway 10 from park. I loved it with lovely Brittlebush flowers in the foreground. The desert with wild flowers can’t be beat.

The Most Important Plant in the Sonoran Desert

 

Bursage (Ambrosia deltoidea)

This is a pretty boring little bush isn’t it? Nothing special. Less than that it looks puny and unimportant. To add to the wonder, this plant is actually filled with flowers! Can’t you see them?  Well they are tiny. Tiny and green.  Little green jobs is what we call them. They are very difficult to see and hardly look like flowers at all. After all who has green flowers?

According to my hero Ranger B, this is both the most the most common and most important plant in the Sonoran Desert. But it gets no respect.  How can a commoner be so important?

To begin with, Bursage holds  the desert soil together. If it were not for Bursage there would be a lot more sand and dust in the air in Arizona. So Bursage keeps the air clean. That is very important. It would be very difficult to live here were it not for my old friend Bursage. Because of Bursage sand storms in the Sonoran desert are very rare, unlike other deserts such as the Sahara. The problem is, of course, that Bursage is disappearing. The reason of course is obvious. Life is disappearing on the desert, as it is everywhere, that humans touch. All life  that is except Homo sapiens and those organisms and creatures that can stand living with us. Things like quack grass, rats and cockroaches are doing fine. Humans make life difficult for many plants and animals. That is a pity. The Sahara desert does not have Bursage, hence it has more sand storms. I am exaggerating a bit of course. The Sonoran desert has more plants than most deserts because it has more moisture. More rain means more plants. Plants hold soil together. So it is only natural that there are less sand storms here. But of all the plants the lowly inconspicuous Bursage may be the most important of all desert plants as Ranger B claims.

Too often people have insufficient respect for Bursage. They build new residential subdivisions everywhere and kill the Bursage. That is why there are now more dust storms in Arizona now than ever before.

I must admit that as a wild flower guy I would tend to pass over such a lowly plant but that would be a big mistake. No one wants Bursage on front lawns. Too boring. Saguaros everyone accepts. No one cares about Bursage. Everyone gets rid of it. It does not have pretty flowers because it relies on wind pollination, not insects. Insects don’t come for tiny little green flowers. After all they have standards. Insects, like wild flower guys, want the big flashy flowers with bright colors or scintillating scent, or better yet, both. The flowers of Bursage are extremely small.

Bursage is also important as a nurse plant. This happens often in the Sonoran Desert. Conditions are so harsh that young plants seek the protection of old plants to give them shade from the harsh sun. For example, many Saguaro cacti start out this way. But other plants use the same survival technique. According to Ranger B, Bursage is also the best shade plant in the desert. It supports more young plants than any other plant. According to Ranger B it is not uncommon for ground temperatures in the desert to hit 160°F in the open sun. Remember temperatures are measured in the shade. Plants like humans find that tough. That can kill plants like young saguaros. Most plants in the desert need shade to get a good start. Without bursar there would be a lot less plants in the desert, including the massive Saguaro that starts out as a tiny little plant that needs a nurse–like Bursage.

Like human children, showing a startling lack of gratitude, the young plant eventually outgrows the nurse and overshadows it, stealing nutrients that the nurse could use.Often the nurse dies.  Life in the desert is harsh. Just like life in gated communities.

More missed opportunities

Blue Flag Iris–always beautiful.

Wild Rose

 

 

Cut-leaved anemone

 

 

Pincushion Cactus

 

The flowers I most hated not to see were Manitoba’s cactus.  Many people don’t realize we have cactuses in Manitoba and in my opinion they are every bit as beautiful as those in Arizona, just smaller and less common. They are of course very rare here. In fact one has to ask, “Why here?”

Manitoba’s cactuses are  amazingly resilient plants. Obviously built of sturdy stuff. They must be to survive here. Just like the people.

 

 

 

Fortunately it has not sunk in yet how many others I missed. I guess it is time to move on.

Missed Opportunities

 

Showy Ladies’-slipper (Platanthera reginae)

I paid a heavy price for my recent trip to Iceland. I was gone from Manitoba for the last 2 weeks of June, probably  the best time for Manitoba wild flowers. As a result I missed some wonderful flowers so I will show some shots from my archives.

Grass Pink Orchid  (Calopogon tuberosus)

 

 

Rose Pogonia (Polonia ophioglossoides)

These are some of my favourite Manitoba Orchids. What a pity.

Woodridge Bog

 

After spending a couple of hours here it was time to leave. Actually I did not give it enough time, but today, as I said, I could not mosey along as I like to do. I drove out to the Woodridge Bog. Again conditions were windy and sunny–far from ideal. But you gotta dance with the girl you brung.

 

I was soon rewarded with one of my favorite flowers–Low Prairie Rose. That is one of my favourite Manitoba wild flowers. I love that flower!  It was very dry so I sprinkled a little water on some of the blossoms. I find a little rain (either natural or store bought) helps bring out the colours of this gentle gem of a flower. I do not consider that cheating. Do you?

Other flowers I saw here included Spreading Dogbane, Harebell, Showy Lady’s-slippers and Small round-leaved orchid but sadly past their prime.

Small round-leaved orchid

 

Showy Lady’s-slipper

The Showy Lady’s-slipper is  perhaps one of Manitoba’s most spectacular orchids but most of them were mostly spent. I found a few worth photographing.

Showy Lady’s-slipper

This is the price I paid for going to Iceland. It was a high price. I did find some gorgeous clumps and made a mental note to return next year, but you know mental notes are worth the paper they are not written on. I did later find one nice showy as a result of diligence and persistence. Righteous living was rewarded. For once!