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ON ONE OF OUR recent sketching sessions last March, Ursula Basinger, the botanist working on the winter annual plots on Tumamoc, lead us on a botanical walk. We didn’t get much drawing done, but it didn’t seem to matter. Identifying plants was just as good. We bypassed the art and went right to botany. The purpose behind drawing the plants would just be to get to know the plants better. And it seems a little too forward to draw something before you know its name.
The flowers Ursula works with are often called “belly-flowers” because one has to go way down on them to properly appreciate them, or to identify them. It’s a largely metaphorical name because no one really goes onto their belly in the gravelly, prickly Sonoran Desert. I humble myself just enough though to get down on my knees for them, carrying knee pads for that purpose. They are worth getting to know at their own level. I call them “Knee-flowers.” Meredith calls them “Insignificant Plants.” Love that.
Although there is a lot to know about them, few people even know these plants exist. Just because they are short. Most humans are too proud or too lazy to bend down enough to get a closer look.
Ursula knows their most intimate details, like the two Phacelias that are told apart by the color of their pollen, or the three Pectocaryas that can only be identified near the end of their lives by their seeds. I was so confounded by these that I put only one of each in the image above.
Challenging as they are to the human memory cells, these tiny plants are significant in crowds. They are what covers most of the ground on Tumamoc in the Spring. They are dramatic on a “good wildflower year” when they can cover an entire landscape.
Identifying them by Latin name is just the beginning. Combined with weather data, desert annuals give us an almost perfect model for observing how plants respond to climate variability, a defining characteristic of the Sonoran Desert. Scientists on Tumamoc have collected 31 years of data on these plants, more properly called winter annuals. That’s 31 complete generations in a mature plant community. If we were to gather the same information from a forest, given a conservative lifespan of 120 years for a pine tree for instance, it would take close to 40,000 years to gather that same data. Or take a saguaro with an average life span of 175-200 years. Annuals start to look easy.
I’ll write more about this subject in the future. We might learn something from these plants about how to live in an unpredictable and impermanent world.
I made this botanical plate for us by scanning some of the plants I could find by retracing our steps a few days later. The image is pretty large–if you click on it you should get a good view of details as you scroll around in it. Eventually, I’ll have a botanical plate or two for each month showing common plants along the Tumamoc road. I know I missed a few from that walk. Then I was out of town for a week and most of them had dried up by then. That’s why they call then annuals. If you don’t pay attention, they are gone.
One more note, based on a comment I got from a subscriber. This article is about a special workshop arranged with Tumamoc staff for artists meeting on the Hill. In general, it is not all right to collect or pick plants on Tumamoc without permission.