Choose Your Punishment

A close-up view of the spine of a teddy bear cholla along the Chuckwagon Trail in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

If you’re ever captured by a villain who’s going to punish you by tossing you into a thorny desert plant of your choosing, pick the crucifixion thorn (canotia). Despite the fearsome name, the thorns aren’t too sharp and are dense enough that they will likely break your fall more than break your bones. Do not choose the adorably-named teddy bear cholla, its spines are sharp, its spines are many, and the joints break easily so you will carry your pain with you after you escape its embrace.

It does however make a lovely subject in the early morning light.

Twists & Turns

The arms of a saguaro twist and turn with the ends of one covered in flowers along one of the off-map trails in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

The classic image of the saguaro is of arms lifted towards the sky, and many do grow that way, but the arms may twist and turn in all directions, even growing down, like this splendid old example along one of the off-map trails at Brown’s Ranch. I especially liked the unusual ones when we moved here as I could remember them and they helped orient me on a web of trails winding through an unfamiliar environment.

In the Shadows

A pincushion cactus grows next to a dead teddy bear cholla near the Amphitheater in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

When we first moved here I assumed this was a baby cactus but upon further reading realized it was a pincushion cactus, a small cactus that cannot grow in full sun and thus relies on partial shade to survive. The teddy bear cholla it was growing next to has died and fallen over but the surrounding rocks provide some shade in the early light, though it will be exposed to the brunt of the sun in the middle of the day.

Identification

A view of the desert landscape before Brown's Mountain as seen from the Watershed Trail with a wide varienty of plants including many of the typical cactus species

At first every view in Arizona was a bit unsettling because it was so unfamiliar. The chance to explore somewhere quite different than my beloved Northwest was one of the attractions of moving here and the undercurrent of unease dissipated with each passing day. It took longer on the trails as nearly everything in my view was new to me and I couldn’t even put names to most of what I saw. I hiked as often as I could and studied when I got home and the desert changed beneath my feet into my home.

One picture can’t encapsulate all that is the McDowell Sonoran Preserve, nor even the Brown’s Ranch area that I haunt the most, but this is a mix of much of what I see. The tall cactus you probably recognize as a saguaro, that one I could identify even before I arrived. Embracing the saguaro in the center is a crucifixion thorn (there are several plants with this name, this is the canotia). Scattered around are teddy bear cholla, buckhorn cholla, compass barrel cactus, foothill palo verde, and Engelmann prickly pear. And a bunch of plants I can’t yet identify.

In the background with the long scar running down its flank is Brown’s Mountain with Cone Mountain behind and to the left. From where I was standing Cholla Mountain was to my right, Granite Mountain behind me. Each of these hills has a distinctive look which made it easier to orient myself on the many interconnected trails.

Washed Away

A foothill palo verde with its roots exposed in a wash at Lost Dog Wash in McDowell Sonoran Preserve

As you hike through the desert you’ll sometimes cross a wash, an area that is normally dry but where water runs after a storm. I’ve not seen a wash run, it doesn’t take long for the water to stop flowing and the monsoons usually arrive in the evenings when I’m not on the trails due to the heat. I’ve seen the aftermath though in the scouring of the trails, I wonder if the roots of this foothill palo verde were recently exposed due to erosion after a summer storm. Most of the shallow roots have been stripped of earth and are angled downstream save for one still plugged into the surviving bank.

It may not look like it but this little tree has leafed out, the trees have tiny leaves that you can see along the thorns if you look at the top of the tree set against the darker green of the larger trees behind it. You can also see the green bark, the palo verde can photosynthesize its food from both the little leaves when they are present and from the green bark and thorns year round. I’m curious to see if it survives or if it will fade away now that its roots are exposed, and perhaps wash away in a future storm. But for now it is holding on, literally.