Archive for the ‘Flora’ Category

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Spring Planting

March 8, 2012

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Haboob, the Desert Dust Storm

July 8, 2011

Another limiting factor in the desert arises from the ferocious dessicating and abrasive desert dust storm called the Haboob. Often associated with the seasonal monsoons, these storms can actually happen any time of year, blasting and scouring any plants and animals in their path.

The word haboob is Arabic, from the home of truly impressive sandstorms, but now is applied in any area susceptible to them.

These storms can move particles of dust and even sand, and may reach hurricane force for a few minutes at a time.

Deserts have few trees to stop the wind, and little moisture to hold down the soil. A haboob forms when warm air rises into thunderheads, then the air is cooled by rain, the storm collapses, and the cooled air falls and rushes out from the base of the storm, driving dust and sand before it, sometimes at truly remarkable speeds. Within minutes, winds can go from zero to 50 miles an hour.

Dust storms often arise suddenly, making them hard to avoid or escape. Most years in the Sonoran desert, there are traffic accidents associated with dust storms, when visibility suddenly plummets.

Desert plants need either shelter or thick skins to handle the dessication and scouring associated with a haboob or other winds.

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A Dry Heat

June 29, 2011

The joke is, in the Sonoran desert, even though it’s 114, it’s a dry heat.

The idea being that with very low humidity, amazingly, under 5 percent at times, the heat is easier to bear.

114, an average high for a few days each summer, is still bad enough, but given how few trees and other shelter there is in the desert, it’s almost always a sunny heat during the daytime, which adds another 7 to 10 degrees.

All plants and animals and people that live in the desert need to be built or adapt in some way to survive these extreme temperatures.

The hottest time of year is a few days before the summer Solstice on June 21, and a few weeks after that. Then the average daily temperature starts going down again, very very gradually.

A few weeks after the solstice is also the time when the summer monsoons really get going. The standard definition of monsoon season is the change in the wind, but in the desert, the important thing is that the monsoon usually brings moisture and finally rain from the Gulf of California and the Gulf of Mexico.

And of course, when the humidity goes up and the rains start, it’s still over 100 degrees in the desert. And it’s no longer a dry heat.

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Ocotillos in bloom

April 11, 2011

It is mid-April and the ocotillos are in bloom in the Sonoran desert, a great sight to see.

These plants can leaf out several times a year after rains, but they only bloom once a year, the blossoms providing food for a variety of insects and birds.

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Autumn desert vegetable garden

October 8, 2010

Into October now, it is already getting late, but perhaps a reminder for next year–fall is the other good time to start a food garden in the desert.

You will probably not have much success with foods that need to flower and fruit, but for leafy greens, this is a great time.

Chard, spinach, beet greens, herbs, all these can still be planted in the desert in October. Of course, they will need hand watering or irrigation. But some will produce right through the winter, depending on your location.

Some will go dormant, then revive in late January and February, when the longer daylight and warmer temperatures begin to return, the time when you can begin adding your regular spring vegetables.

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Limiting factors in the desert

September 16, 2010

In some ways the term “limiting factor” is almost a definition of deserts, because deserts lack one or more essential ingredients for the survival of most kinds of plants and animals.

First, a desert is, by definition, a place with very little available water, either because there is little rainfall, or because it evaporates so fast. It may also be that most of the precipitation is unavailable because it is frozen most of the year, as in the far north or south, or in some high altitude regions.

Some areas may get bursts of moisture, even flooding, but it is episodic and not dependably available most of the year.

Temperature is another limiting factor. Many deserts get too hot for most organisms. Some deserts near the north and south poles are too cold. And yet others have wide swings in temperature.

Wind is another. There are few trees or shrubs to stop the wind. Desert mountains, river-courses or other sheltered areas may harbor small oases in their wind and sun shadows.

One unusual limiting factor is lack of sunlight. This can occur in deserts near the poles.

Especially interesting are the adaptations that plants and animals have developed to deal with these limiting factors. Many of them are what we talk about here.

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Leafing again: the strange case of the ocotillo

August 6, 2010

One of the odder native residents of the Sonoran desert is the ocotillo bush. It typically consists of several spindly branches, vertically striped and spiny, up to 20 feet tall, that are leafless for long periods, only to sprout thick lines of small leaves within a few days after a rain.

Ocotillo branches with few leaves

Ocotillo branches with few leaves

Its desert adaptation of dropping leaves and playing possum is so complete that ocotillo plants for sale, in their leafless phase, with their branches tied in a bundle and roots bare, look thoroughly dead.

Ocotillo branches with many leaves

Ocotillo branches with many leaves


In the spring, they produce numerous red tubular blossoms at the ends of the branches that attract insects and birds of many species. They make great landscape plants because of their sparse sculptural look, and extremely low water requirements, and striking seasonal changes.

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Choose native plants for your desert landscape

July 22, 2010

One way to figure out what plants will be suitable and attractive in your desert landscaping is to go to a nearby natural area and see what is growing wild.

Make sure you select a location that is similar to yours in exposure, dryness and altitude.

Take photos or make a list of plants you find attractive. Never dig up native plants! They are fragile and rare, and in most places it is illegal to do so.  Almost everything you will see is available in plant stores. Photos will also help you arrange your landscaping, showing which plants grow together, and how much space they need.

Then go to the web or in plant books to learn about the plants you have found, or take your photos to a local nursery that specializes in native plants, and decide which are for you.

The variety of desert plants is surprising: cacti, shrubs, vines, spring-flowering annuals, many kinds of perennials. A big virtue of native plants is that they  require little in the way of extra water and plant food, and are easy to maintain.

One thing to keep in mind about native plants–some of them grow very slowly, so it may take a while for your landscape to mature. But there is nothing to match their beauty, and their ability to attract native fauna.

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What are Desert Wetlands?

July 15, 2010

The definition of desert is a dry place. So what do you mean, desert wetlands? Like most things in nature, deserts are more complicated, and interesting, that you’d think at first.

For example, there are many kinds of wetlands found in or near deserts:
Ponds
Freshwater and Salt or Alkaline lakes, like the Great Salt Lake
Springs and Seeps
Creeks, Streams and Rivers
Intermittent Streams, like the Hassayampa River
Disappearing Streams, like the Hassayampa River
Canals, Impoundments and other built wetlands
Oceans

Because they are such a distinct change or edge, they often host a surprising variety to wildlife, including disjunct species, that is, organisms typically found in distant areas.

This also means that they are often good places to view wildlife.

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A thorny issue

June 23, 2010

Related to the last post, it is amazing how many kinds of thorns, bristles, hooks, spikes, prickers, sharp edges, pointed leaves, pointed branches, as well as claws, scales, fangs, spines, and hooves you find in the Sonoran desert, and generally in the arid western USA.

In a contrary kind of way, almost all of these indicate that there’s probably a nice, juicy, succulent hunk of flesh nearby.

But you’ll get hurt if you try to get at it!