Natural History

Prickly Pear Cacti – Many Varieties, Many Uses

Prickly pear cacti (genus Opuntia) range from southern Canada to southern South America, in habitats ranging from arid desert to tropical semiarid woodlands and high mountains. There are about 18 species in the Sonoran Desert region, some of which form hybrids. Native peoples recognize many more varieties. I have five (maybe six) varieties of prickly pear in my yard. The most common in the Tucson area is the Engelmann prickly pear. The first photo above shows the ripe fruit. The second shows the flowers which start out reddish and get yellow as they mature. All cactus fruit is edible.

According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM), cacti of genus Opuntia, which includes chollas, are distinguished from other cacti by four characteristics. “First, the stems grow in distinctly jointed segments. The elongation of joints is permanently terminated by the onset of the dry season; subsequent growth of the plant occurs by the initiation of new joints by branching from the areoles. (Other cacti have indeterminate growth. A saguaro stem, for example, grows ever longer each growing season until the plant dies or the stem tip is damaged.) Second, whether or not they have regular spines, Opuntioid areoles bear glochids (usually small to minute, barbed spines that are very sharp and brittle, and very easily detached). Third, rudimentary leaves are present on new joints. Fourth, the seeds have a pale covering called an aril; most other cacti have shiny black seeds.”

Prickly pears are Western Hemisphere plants, but they are now found all over the world. “Sailors brought them back from the New World in the sixteenth century and they are found in Italy, India, Ceylon, South Africa and Australia. In all but Italy, the hope was to raise cochineal insects, but the insects died and the cactus escaped to become part of the landscape.” – ASDM

Cochineal insects, a source of red dye, grow, sometimes profusely, on prickly pear pads under white fuzzy webs, especially in August. See link below.

Spineless varieties of prickly pear were also tried as food for cattle. In South Africa, I saw many plantations on farms for that purpose.

Use as food:

Both the pads and fruit are eaten by pack rats, jackrabbits, javelina, insects, and humans. Note: the pads contain oxalic acid which can make humans sick. However, new spring pads contain much less oxalic acid so these pads were used for human consumption. Preparation may include boiling to leach out the acid. Many native American tribes used the pads as their green vegetable. The flesh is mucilaginous (like okra) and was used to thicken soups.

Fruit from any of the prickly pears can be eaten by humans. The fruit turns reddish-purple when ripe. (The ripe fruit is called “tuna”or “cactus fig”) Some preparation is required to remove the spines and glochids. Native Americans rolled the fruit in sand or other plant material. Cowboys used to put the fruit on a stick and burn off the glochids with a match or over a camp fire.

Generally people eat the flesh of the fruit and discard the seeds. The seeds are edible, but too many cause intestinal upsets. The seeds can be parched, dried, and ground into a flour. They don’t cause digestive upset that way. The juice of the fruit may be made into a syrup or jelly or used in pies and drinks.

Flower petals can be used to garnish salads.

Preparation techniques for both pads and fruit are shown here: http://www.wikihow.com/Eat-Prickly-Pear-Cactus and

http://www.simplyrecipes.com/recipes/how_to_cut_and_prepare_prickly_pears/

Medicinal use:

According to WebMD: Prickly pear cactus is used to treat type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, alcohol hangover, colitis, diarrhea, and benign prostatic hypertrophy (BPH). It is also used to fight viral infections. Prickly pear cactus contains fiber and pectin, which can lower blood glucose by decreasing the absorption of sugar in the stomach and intestine. Some researchers think that it might also decrease cholesterol levels, and kill viruses in the body.

According to DesertUSA, “Researchers are using the prickly pear juice, produced by Arizona Cactus Ranch in Southern Arizona, for their studies, because it is pure. Pascua Yaqui Tribe in Tucson Arizona uses Arizona Cactus Ranch Prickly Pear Nectar in their Alternative Medicine Diabetic Preventive Program since 1997. Prickly pear extract has also been shown to reduce the severity and occurrence of hangovers if taken in advance of drinking. Nausea, dry mouth, appetite loss, and alcohol-related inflammation were all reduced in test subjects who ingested prickly pear extract 5 hours prior to drinking. You can make your own tests and see if it works for you, which is the only test that really counts.”

The juice from the pads was also used topically to treat cuts, bruises, and inflammation of the skin.

PP-rabbit-ears

Other uses:

The juice from prickly pears has long been used to strengthen adobe mortar. It was so used in the restoration of the San Xavier Mission in Tucson.

As mentioned above, there are many species and hybrids, so exact identification may be difficult. ASDM notes: “Numerous species of cholla and some prickly pears hybridize with one another. Hybrid populations are fairly common. Some of these hybrids may reproduce sexually; others are sexually sterile but can reproduce vegetatively. There are several such ‘clonal microspecies’ in the Tucson area alone, some of which are restricted to a patch of just a few acres. Most of the descriptions of these species are published only in scientific monographs and have not yet appeared in general plant lists and keys. So if you are frustrated with being unable to identify a cholla or prickly pear from a field guide, be assured that you’re not alone. No field guide can cover all the possible hybrids and ‘microspecies.’”

See also:

A Desert Christmas cactus

Indian Fig – a useful variety of Prickly Pear Cactus

Cochineal the Little Red Bug

A green lynx spider may be lurking in your yard

Can You Get Potable Water From a Cactus?

Jaguars and more junk science

A new study, published by Cambridge University Press, “A systematic review of potential habitat suitability for the jaguar Panthera onca in central Arizona and New Mexico, USA,” claims that large areas of Arizona and New Mexico may be suitable habitat for wild jaguars.

From the study abstract:

“Here we present a systematic review of the modelling and assessment efforts over the last 25 years, with a focus on areas north of Interstate-10 in Arizona and New Mexico, outside the recovery unit considered by the USFWS. Despite differences in data inputs, methods, and analytical extent, the nine previous studies found support for potential suitable jaguar habitat in the central mountain ranges of Arizona and New Mexico. Applying slightly modified versions of the USFWS model and recalculating an Arizona-focused model over both states provided additional confirmation. Extending the area of consideration also substantially raised the carrying capacity of habitats in Arizona and New Mexico, from six to 90 or 151 adult jaguars, using the modified USFWS models. This review demonstrates the crucial ways in which choosing the extent of analysis influences the conclusions of a conservation plan. More importantly, it opens a new opportunity for jaguar conservation in North America that could help address threats from habitat losses, climate change and border infrastructure.” (Link to full paper)

The study has 17 authors, 14 of which (in my opinion) belong to radical environmental groups.

As stated in the abstract, the researchers did no on-the-ground research, but instead used models to “cherry-pick” previous publications. Reports of this study appeared in the Arizona Republic and in the March 19, 2021 print edition only of the Arizona Daily Star.

This study renews a very controversial topic. My take on the study is that the authors are campaigning for establishment of more critical habitat. Even if larger areas of Arizona and New Mexico could support Jaguar habitat, there is still no reason to formally establish “critical habitat” which would have many bad effects on property rights and natural resource production. The natural habitats in Mexico, Central America, South America are sufficient to provide for the species.

In my previous article on this subject Proposed Jaguar Habitat in Arizona and New Mexico Is Scientifically and Legally Indefensible, I provide a report from the Pima Natural Resource Conservation District (PNRCD): which “shows that the proposal by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) to designate Critical Habitat for the jaguar under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) is scientifically indefensible because it is based on flawed data, and it violates laws such as the Data Quality Act.”

PNRCD requested that FWS withdraw its proposed rule “because habitat ‘essential’ to the conservation of the jaguar as a species does not exist in either Arizona or New Mexico under any scientifically credible definition of that term, because designation of critical habitat therein cannot possibly help save jaguars, and because the economic consequences of adding yet another layer of regulation and restriction on national security, resource production, water use, hunting and recreation during the worst recession on record since 1929 far outweigh any possibly discernible benefit to jaguars as a species that might be gained by designating critical habitat for them north of the Mexican border where they are but rarely transient…”

“For Critical Habitat to be established under ESA, the FWS must show that the area in question is essential to the jaguars conservation and survival as a species, not merely whether the area in question could host or has hosted individual, transient jaguars.”

 

The past, present, and future state of Tucson’s creeks and rivers

From the Arizona Geological Survey:

‘The past, present, and future state of Tucson’s creeks and rivers’, a #StoryMap by the Watershed Management Group (a 501 (c) non-profit). The presentation includes some excellent historic images, diagrams, and interactive maps showing flow conditions, past and present, in Tucson drainages. Most illustrations have explanatory text. Just scroll down through the article.

Take a look.

Arizona Fossils

From the Arizona Geological Survey:

Susan Celestian of Phoenix’s Earth Science Museum cobbled together a nice pictorial on common fossils of Arizona to round out Earth Science Week 2020. You can view or download the 12-page report here.

What is a fossil? Fossils are the prehistoric physical remains (or traces) of organic life. By definition, prehistoric means older than 6000 years, although some people define the minimum age of 10,000 years, before a specimen is called a fossil.

It is hard to become a fossil. While billions of organisms have lived and died through geologic time, very few of them have been preserved in the fossil record.

By using fossils, we can develop a history of lifeforms & increase our understanding of biological evolution.
Fossils assist geologists in establishing a chronological order to geological events and strata. Fossils can be used to establish a relative age date1 for a rock unit. This is best employed by using index fossils (fossils with short and distinct spans of existence, and wide geographic distribution) and unique assemblages of fossils (rather than individual fossils).

This report contains a further explanation of fossils and shows many photographs.

One fossil not mentioned in the report is that of a dinosaur.

Dinosaurs roamed the land, including Arizona’s Sonorasaurus thompsoni, a new species of brachiosaurid dinosaur whose remains were first discovered in the Whetstone mountains by UofA graduate geology student Richard Thompson in 1994. Sonorasaurus is estimated to have been about 50 feet long and 27 feet tall, about one third of the size of other brachiosaurus. It may have been a juvenile or just a small dinosaur species. Sonorasaurus was an herbivore. Tooth gouges on its bones suggest it was killed and eaten by a larger dinosaur. A single blade-like tooth of a huge meat eater called Acrocanthosaurus was found near the bones and suggests that this was the predator that killed Sonorasaurus. You can see an exhibit dedicated to Sonorasaurus at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

Wildfires Not Related to Global Warming

With the outbreak of large wildfires in California, the “mainstream” media is once again blaming it on global warming. However, the real evidence shows that the main causes are bad forest management, failure to clear brush near power lines, arson, and accidents. Note that ancient native Americans did controlled burns to manage the forest and make it more habitable for animals they hunted. But now, controlled burns and clearing brush are politically incorrect.

 

Here are some recent articles on the wildfires.

Irrefutable NASA data: global fires down by 25 percent

by Anthony Watts

Using satellite technology, NASA determined that between 2003 and 2019, global fires have dropped by roughly 25 percent. This makes the “climate change is worsening wildfires” argument completely moot. (Read more)

Minimizing California Wildfires

by Jim Steele

How do we focus our resources to minimize the devastation caused by California’s wildfires? First, we can reduce ignitions. California’s deadliest fire, the Camp Fire and California’s 2nd largest fire, the Thomas Fire were ignited by faulty powerlines during high wind events. California’s sprawling power grid has rapidly expanded since 1970 to accommodate the influx of 20 million people. Accordingly, powerline-ignited fires increased area burnt by five times relative to the previous 20 years.

California’s largest fire (Mendocino Complex), its 3rd largest (Cedar Fire), 5th largest (Rim Fire), and 7th largest (Carr Fire), were all ignited by accidents or carelessness. Uncontrollably, more people cause more accidents, suggesting California’s wisest course of action requires creating more defensible space.

In contrast, the August 2020 fires, which will likely rank in the top 10 of burned area of California, were all naturally started by an onslaught of dry lighting. (Read more)

Dr. Judith Curry on wildfires:

The mantra from global warming activists that manmade global warming is causing the fires, and therefore fossil fuels must be eliminated, is rather tiresome, not to mention misses the most important factors. More importantly, even if global warming is having some fractional impact on the wildfires, reducing fossil fuels would fractionally impact the fires but only a time scale of many decades hence.

Here are some of the more intelligent articles that I’ve seen on the California fires. (Read more)

See also: https://www.nationalreview.com/the-morning-jolt/california-burning/

 

This 1994 article from the New York Times (back when NYT still did journalism) puts things in perspective.

New York Times debunks climate-caused California wildfires

California can either manage its forests better or watch them burn for another 200 years, according to the New York Times. All you need to know about California drought and wildfires:

Beginning about 1,100 years ago, what is now California baked in two droughts, the first lasting 220 years and the second 140 years. Each was much more intense than the mere six-year dry spells that afflict modern California from time to time, new studies of past climates show. The findings suggest, in fact, that relatively wet periods like the 20th century have been the exception rather than the rule in California for at least the last 3,500 years, and that mega-droughts are likely to recur. (Read more)

See also the following articles from my blog to gain more perspective.

Mega-fires in Southwest due to forest mismanagement

North American wildfires and global warming

Wildfires and Warming – Relationship not so clear

Claim: “Worsening Wildfires Linked to Temp Rise”

Media hype about forest fires and global warming

The Lyre Snake – just mildly venomous

The Lyre snake is named for a V-shaped marking on the back of the head. This marking is often more prominent on females. Dark brown saddles occur on a light brown to light gray back. The underside is creamy-white or yellow with scattered brown spots. At first glance the Lyre snake may look like the common king snake. But, the Lyre snake’s neck is narrow, making the head appear more triangular, similar to other venomous snakes. Also, the eyes have pupils that are vertical slits rather than round as are on non-venomous snakes. Lyre snakes can get up to four feet long.

The Lyre snake (Trimorphodon lambda) is usually a nocturnal hunter, but can be found basking in the sun in the spring and fall. The main prey are lizards and mice, but the snake also goes after other prey including birds (It does climb trees).

The range of this snake includes most of Southern Arizona, and extends to southern Nevada and Utah, as well as northern Mexico. It favors the lower rocky canyons and arroyos of hills and mountains from sea level to 7400 feet (2300 m). A rock dweller, it wedges itself in the many crevices and fissures that are abundant in rocky areas. This snake is an occasional resident of flat lands, according to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

According to the Tucson Herpetological Society:

Lyre snakes are not usually dangerous to humans. “When threatened, the Sonoran Lyresnake will often rattle its tail. It will sometimes raise the anterior portion of the body, and strike and bite if further provoked.” The Lyre snake does not have fangs. Rather, “Toxins produced in a Duvernoy’s gland are delivered to prey and attackers via elongated, grooved teeth in the rear of the upper jaw. A large individual is capable of delivering a venomous bite to a person. Symptoms range from none to local redness, itching, swelling, and numbness, particularly if the snake is allowed to chew.”

 

For more photos and a very detailed description, see an article from the Tucson Herpetological Society: https://tucsonherpsociety.org/amphibians-reptiles/snakes/sonoran-lyresnake/ .

More snake articles:

Arizona Coral Snakes – pretty and very venomous

The Coachwhip a colorful snake

Gopher snakes

Kingsnakes versus Rattlesnakes

Mexican vine snakes

Rattlesnakes

Speckled Rattlesnakes

 

The Panicled Aster aka Day of the Dead Flower

The Panicled Aster (Symphyotrichum lanceolatum) is called the “Day of the Dead Flower” because of its use to decorate graves in an early November Mexican ceremony (Dia De Los Muertos) which honors those who have passed. This aster is one of several flowers used in these ceremonies. Other names include: panicle aster, tall white aster, eastern line aster, lance-leaf aster, narrow-leaf Michaelmas daisy, and white-panicle aster. Marigolds are also often used.

The flowers with white petals and a yellow center occur from Canada, throughout the U.S. and into Mexico. October is their peak season for blooming. (See more images here.)

The perennial flowers grow in clumps up to five feet tall and wide (sometimes larger). The petals turn more lavender-colored as the season progresses. The green leaves are up to six inches long. The green stems, which turn brown with age, are often grooved and have lines of hairs.

The nectar and pollen attract many kinds of bees, wasps, and butterflies as well as many other insects. Birds and mice feed on the seeds. Herbivores, including deer, rabbits, groundhogs, horses, cattle, and sheep, browse on the foliage.

The Zuni people used this plant for wounds and nosebleed. A salve of the dried plant was applied to skin abrasions. The smoke from burning dried flowers treated nosebleed.

Tea made from the blossoms produces a calming effect much like chamomile. The Iroquois used it to treat fever.

I took the photo at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum where the flowers are growing between the butterfly garden and the hummingbird aviary. ASDM says these flowers do well in a watered garden, part shade or full sun, or in a large patio container. They are frost tolerant and can be pruned in the spring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chuparosa – the Hummingbird Bush

Chuparosa, Justicia californica, (aka Beloperone) is a perennial plant native to Southeastern California and the Sonoran Desert including Arizona and Sonora and Baja California, Mexico. It is a favorite of hummingbirds which go after the nectar. Other birds go after the sugar-rich center of the flower and seeds. The fruit are elongated, club-shaped capsules about one-half inch long which contain four seeds in the inflated tip.

 

Chuparosa is a shrub that can grow three- to five feet high and six- to eight feet wide. It is usually found in dry washes and on rocky slopes below elevations of 2,500 feet. The shrub is usually grayish green with hairy branches. Plants initially have succulent oval leaves, up to one inch long, that give way to bright red (and sometimes orange or yellow) flowers. The flowers, up to two inches long, are tubular and grow in clusters at the end of stems. The flowers have a large “lower lip” that opens to reveal a white anther which contains the pollen. According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (ASDM), Chuparosa flowers can be found any month of the year, except during drought or right after freezes. Big blooms often occur in the winter and early spring months.

According to DesertUSA, “This member of the large, tropical Acanthus family (Acanthaceae) is the only New World genus that extends north into the US. The common name chuparosa, “sucking rose” in Spanish, is abundant with nectar, making it popular among various birds, especially hummingbirds. Quail and house finches eat the seeds. Known locally as honeysuckle, chuparosa is said to have been eaten by the Papago Indians.” Chuparosa is browsed by livestock and deer.

Chuparosas are very drought tolerant and often cultivated as a landscape ornamental in desert regions for its bright flowers and to attract birds. ASDM has a plant care guide for chuparosa here and notes that they can survive quick dips in temperature to 22°F.

See more photos here.

Globe Chamomile, an invasive species in Arizona

Globe Chamomile (Oncosiphon piluliferum) is a pretty, but prolifically invasive, species. It is currently expanding its range in the Phoenix area. It is a native of South Africa. It was first recorded as an invasive near Los Angeles and San Diego.

According to the Arizona Native Plant Society:

“Globe Chamomile sprouts and grows vegetatively from late November until the end of January. It begins to flower in early January and quickly begins seed setting by early February. The seeds are very light and easily transported by wind and vehicle traffic. In years of sufficient winter moisture, Globe Chamomile can go through up to three generations between November and the end of April, resulting in a prodigious production of plants and seeds in a short period of time. Globe Chamomile readily infests sunny, disturbed soils that are not shaded by vegetation. It readily takes root in bare areas bordering any vegetation, both residential and wild land.” (See more photos) Individual plants can get up to two feet tall.

Globe Chamomile is related to the more commonly known species of chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) an important, daisy-like medicinal herb native to southern and eastern Europe.

Some claimed medicinal uses for Globe Chamomile: a gynecological aid, an antidiarrheal, a cold remedy, and to treat heart problems. Europeans administered an infusion of the plant for convulsions and the Hottentots used an infusion of the flower and leaf for typhoid and other fevers including malaria. It has also been used as food.

The other name for this plant is Stinknet because of its strong, unpleasant odor. Handling the plant may cause skin irritation or allergic reaction. Pollen may cause allergic reaction.

Read about edible and medicinal plants of the Sonoran Desert:

https://wryheat.wordpress.com/edible-desert-plants/