Friday, May 1, 2009

Tucson, Arizona

So I went to the 33rd Biannual Convention of the Cactus and Succulent Society of America, in Tucson.

 Carnegia gigantea, Saguaro detail

Besides of going on a guided one-day fieldtrip, and playing hooky for another morning to go hiking, I listened to a 4-day marathon of succulent related plant talks and absorbed tons of new information. First I want to tell you about the fun-fun stuff, field-trips.
A morning hike by myself to the desert riparian habitat of Pima canyon was just what pushed the New York winter out of me. I deeply appreciated the warm sunny morning turning into a dry hot day.      

Pima Canyon

Fouquieria splendens

I geeked out over a great diversity of plants, and to make it even more interesting saw tons of beautiful birds that make this productive desert their home. Though the stream itself is dry for most of the year, the area is known for it’s excellent bird watching.
I never made it to the dam, which is the final point of this hike, due to the fun I had with taking pictures, and watching the, to me unknown Gila Woodpecker (Melanerpes uropygialis). Hanging upside down from the long branches of Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), chomping on the fire-red flowers, they definitely were a highlight. (Sorry – I do not have the skill or equipment to take decent bird pictures yet, but here is another fun animal thing, click on pictures to enlarge)

NOID fun guy

Another early rising ended with a major morning-tea incident, but I made it in time to join Mark Dimmitt and a small group of 10 on a fieldtrip to Ironwood National Forest, a newly established park, and to Ragged Top. The first spot is called Waterman Mountains, where we first saw the Ironwoods (Olneya tesota, Fabaceae), named so for the extraordinary quality of its super heavy dark-red wood. Toxins in the hardwood make it so no fungus or insect can initiate any decomposition, rendering this wood virtually indestructible. Besides of this remarkable trade they actually consider some of them to be as old as 500 years, due to the adaptation to re-sprout from the base if the top dies or burns.

Olneya tesota

Trees first leaf out and either keep those leaves for the rest of the season, or loose their leaves and put out a flush of lavender-white flowers. I did not see this, only those promising flower buds, making me wish I could stay a little longer and come back to this location to see this.

Olneya tesota, flower buds 

noid bug is waiting for them to open too 

The other special treat was a beautiful colony of Turk’s head cactus (Echinocactus horizonthalonius nicholii), of which we saw seedlings, adults and dead ones, but no flower. The plants here are so much more heavily armed then the plants of South Africa. Different animals?

Echinocactus horizonthalonius nicholii, well protected seedling under spiny remnants of 

The Ragged Top location was especially scenic, and the Saguaros, Carnegia gigantea here reach their highest density and size in this place. Absolutely amazing! Their root system being super shallow they have to spread as far as they are high, which makes it still impressive when you see them growing all the way up the cliffs on the narrow ledges.



Right after signing in and picking up my batch and program, I immediately hit the plant sale. The motto was: quick and hard. Not sure if that was the right strategy ($87 damage), but I was telling myself I wont go back there for the rest of my stay, yeah – right, I did not know yet about the great book sale…

Cylindropuntia versicolor, Staghorn Cholla

One of my favorite lectures was by a USGS guy named Bob Webb, who was talking about the succulent diversity in the central Baja California peninsular. I want to go there NOW! He specified 3 different groups, the cacti, the succulents and the sarco-caulescent plants. Besides of getting a pretty good overview of the genera and species found in this region, I realized again how interesting the distribution aspect of plants is. And of course the related geology and (micro) climates. The regions on the upper side of the fog line, and more on the western side of elevations, showed the highest species richness index (something he had defined earlier). And all this is found mostly in the parts of the peninsular that have winter or mixed season rainfall, with summer rainfall regions being much poorer in species. Interesting, to say the least, as this correlates with what I have seen in South Africa.

happy bee

I another talk, by the research meteorologist Michael Douglas, was about high-resolution satellite imaging of cloud cover over a certain time, in oppositions or in conjunction with precipitation records, and the information that is relevant to plant growing conditions and adaptations. Quite fascinating (here is a link), it seems a helpful tool concerning biogeography, a subject hat I seem to have a lot of interest in. Well, it deals with maps, which I absolutely love, so not too big a surprise…

Agave sp. bud imprints 

I reconnected with Ernst van Jaarsveld, the curator of Kirstenbosch’s Conservatory, who first taught me about cliffs as specialized habitats. He gave a talk about plant exploration in SA, a subject I obviously can’t get enough of. His second lecture I liked even better, this time a ‘habitat’-talk about cliff dwellers. We later talked about the progress on his project of installing a cliff-garden and the new Welwitschia house. Lithophytes seem to gain more attention recently, maybe due to the ‘horizontal habitats’ being increasingly destroyed by overgrazing, burning and mining, with most diversity of native species only hanging on to those inaccessible cliffs? I would love to be at Kirstenbosch when Ernst installs the new exhibits.

View from waterman Mountain towards Mexico in the distance

Coming back from my morning hike I made it just in time to hear a fabulous talk about Madagascar by Pietr Pavelka, a Czech plants-man. His great photography really stood out from all the other presentations. He gave another lecture with more from the Richtersveld, South Africa. Even with his strong accent he is a good speaker and his pictures are quite fantastic. 

Astrolepis sinuata, wavy scaly cloakfern
Astrolepis cochisensisCochise Scaly Cloakfern
growing between

Selaginella arizonica 

Ferrocactus wislizeni, the Fishook Barrel Cactus

Another worthwhile presentation was the introducing of Australian native succulents by Attila Kapitany, which really showed how little there is known in the greater western succulent world about plants from this continent. He had some beautiful pictures of incredible plants, like Stylidium sp., Dischidia sp., Dorianthes, Peperomia, Hydnophytum, Myrmecodia, and I could go on with this list of stuff if I could remember half of what he showed…

Ferocactus wislizeni, detail

Echinocereus fasciculatusHedgehog Cactus flower

Cylindropuntia versicolor, Staghorn Cholla flower

Then a succession of lectures about lithophytic (rock dwelling) Tillandsias, about a million Sanseverias from all over, a few snippets about DNA work in Mammelaria genus and finally a talk about plants of the island of Socotra in Yemen.

Botany sure makes you work on your geography, I had to look up this botanically famous, but to me unknown, weathered clump of old continent on the African Horn.

Opuntia santa-rita 

So here comes my short rant - skip if you rather hear about plants only

·     I am profoundly annoyed by those presentations with the wife in every other picture next to the plant – always mentioned, as ‘this is my wife next to the so-and-so plant’. And what about all these phallus reverences whenever and wherever there is something upright? One guy went even as far as having several (yes! – not just one) pictures of animals (elephant, baboon) with erected penises throughout his PPP. What the F&*#$%?  There are also way too few woman getting around in this boys-only-club (of all 28 original speakers 26 are men and 2 women). TOTALLY uncool. The end.    

Opuntia engelmannii, detail

After listening to even more stuff about Aloes, hybridizing Adeniums, Echeverias in the wild, and Aeoniums on the Canary Islands, my ears hummed, my eyes blurred, and my throat was dry. There was only one thing to do; a cold margarita on the Hotel terrace watching the sunset over the Santa Catalina Mountains

View from the Westin La Paloma Resort, 

where the convention was held, is an extremely fancy affair, spread out and beautifully located at the bottom of the Santa Catalina Mountain range north of Tucson, part of the Coronado National Forest. 

Sunday, March 29, 2009



On my recent short trip to Munich/Bavaria I took advantage of any time off to look again at the landscape I grew up with, but this time with my 'new' (botanically educated) eyes. This country of rolling hills and lakes, formed by the retrieving glaciers, is rich in history and cultivation of its fertile soils. 

'Our milk makes Bavaria strong!'

And yes - this is dairy country at it's best! One thing that I learned to truly appreciate only when i moved away is the Northern European law of the 'freedom to roam'.This also might explain why the people here go so often for 'walks' one could call this is a national pastime. 
But then there is also the pilgrimage, a extended version of the walk, usually directed towards a church housing some ancient reliquaries. These churches are often part of large monasteries, which commonly house breweries and inns. One of my favorite is 'Kloster Andechs', famous for it's dark beer and beer garden. One way to get there is a 21/2 hour walk through some of the most beautiful of Bavaria's landscapes.

Hedera helix

Hedera helix fruit

One thing I noticed more this time, probably because of the leaf less season, is the amount of ivy growing up trees. Ivy is a native here (in contrast to the US where it is considered an invasive) and has a strong tradition of symbolic and medicinal use, going all the way back to the Egyptians. It is strongly associated with the roman god of wine, Bacchus, and the Greeks wore ivy wraths around their heads believing it to wake 'bacchanal enthusiasm' and to cool their brains while drinking and eating until they passed out.... 
As to the ivy completely covering the trunks of so many trees, there is no evidence found to today that this is detrimental to the tree, as long as it does not shade out the host.

Corylus avellana, female flower

Corylus avellana, male catkin and female flower

Another plant that is visually dominant this time of the year is the common hazel, Corylus avellana, another native around here. The yellow catkins covering these shrubs early in the spring before the leaves come out, make this plant highly visible along the forest and field edges and also in parks and gardens. This is a very important food plant going all the way back to the Mesolithic age, when it was the dominating woody plant in the forests of central Europe.
Clematis vitalba

Also highly visible are the fluffy seed heads of Clematis vitalba, a native climber that covers deciduous trees and shrubs along the edges of woods, and is a nitrogen indicator. And in the right light it is absolutely gorgeous!

Eranthis hyemalis

I just learned Eranthis hyemalis to be native to southern Europe, but this little beauty has been cultivated here since the 16th century and is wildly naturalized. As it is one of the first flowers in the season it is important as first food to bees. All parts of these little tubers are highly poisonous, making the plant popular with murderers of the Greek mythology.

reflection in shallow pond

old infructescent of Carduus acanthoides

The walk to Andechs leads you through these wonderful light forests dominated by the European beech tree Fagus salvaticus. This is my favorite tree of them all, and I have to apologize for the lousy picture (please do not click on this one - it's embarrassing)

Another plant that has a lot of meaning to me is Hepatica nobilis, the common liverwort native to Europe. This beautiful little gem of the Ranunculaceae family typically grows in these beech forests, and has recently been renamed to Anemone hepatica, but I am not sure how accepted this new classification is.
As a little child I often went into the woods behind my parents house to collect small bouquets of this flower, gifting it to whoever I found worthy of it that particular day.
leaf of Hepatica nobilis

Hepatica nobilis flower

The name is easy to remember if you look at the leaf shape and color. The purple color of leaf, stem and flower is associated with the pigment Anthocyan, which is said to be able to convert light into heat, and such preventing the delicate little thing to die off in the frosts still occurring around this time of the year.

Salix capreamale catkins before release of pollen

And then there is  the 'Palmkatzerl' Salix caprea. The hairy little male flowers are very popular cuttings for vases, especially around Easter and Palm Sunday, alas the name, loosely translated as 'palm kittens'.

Part of the walk is along cultivated fields, still not tilled after last years harvest, and sometimes way to close to those fields that have freshly been fertilized with cow manure. But that's part of country life....

The rewards of the long walk (if it is not enough in itself) wait inside the large dining hall of the cloister. A shared mass (one liter) of the famous dark beer draft, now during lent with even more alcohol content, is almost a meal in itself and the hardy plate of pork roast with the finest crust (I suspect some more dark beer involved there) with a real pretzel (not to be confused with those preetzel-like things sold in Central Park), and a healthy portion of sauerkraut - this should illustrate what pilgrimage means to me.

The monastery sits absolutely picturesque on top of a large hill overlooking the 
lake Ammersee, and on our way down we caught the last of the late winter sun sinking into the lake behind the trees.

I felt we did properly pacify the winter gods, and honored the beginning of spring.