In desert and swamp, nature lovers find splendor

Several of us Georgia Botanical Society members have just returned from a week of botanizing in the strikingly beautiful Sonoran Desert around Tucson, Ariz., where we found an amazing array of blooming cacti, wildflowers and other desert species.

The Sonoran may be one of the hottest and driest regions (less than 12 inches of rain annually on average) in North America, but it is the most biologically diverse of any North American desert — home to 60 mammal species, 350 kinds of birds, 20 amphibians, 100 reptiles and over 2,000 native plant species.

Its dominant flora are the yellow-flowered creosote bush and the twisted teddy bear cholla (beware of its sharp spines). The absolute monarch, however, is the tall saguaro cactus with its outstretched “arms” and sometimes all-too-human shape — the supreme symbol of the American Southwest. “If you don’t see the saguaro, you’re not in the Sonoran,” said our leader, Rich Reaves of Marietta.

During our field trips into Saguaro National Park, Sabino Canyon, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and other desert preserves, we found the bright, colorful flowers that we had come to see. On the desert floor were many blooming annuals, including Arizona poppy (yellow flower), globe mallow (orange), owl’s clover (purple), desert lupine (deep lavender) and desert chicory (white).

In small patches were blooming herbaceous perennials and shrubs such as penstemon (pink), brittlebush (yellow) and fairy duster (pink). Ocotillo shrubs sported clusters of red tubular flowers at the tips of their long, cane-like spiny stems. A glorious sight was the bright red blooms etched against the deep blue desert sky.

Costa’s hummingbirds and Anna’s hummingbirds darted about as they went after nectar. Also attracted to the blooms was a variety of bees and other pollinators.

Next weekend, we’ll be nearer home in an even lusher and much wetter place, the Okefenokee Swamp in South Georgia, for the Botanical Society’s annual wildflower pilgrimage. We’ll canoe and tromp through the famed wetland to enjoy its amazing natural splendor. No doubt, we’ll be comparing it to the ultra-dry Sonoran. Instead of saguaro, the icon species will be the pond-cypress, draped with Spanish moss, standing 100 feet or taller in the swamp’s inky black water.

IN THE SKY: The moon will be last quarter on Sunday, said David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer. Mercury is low in the east just before dawn. Venus rises out of the east about three hours before dawn and will appear near the moon on Thursday morning (March 27). Mars rises out of the east a few hours after dusk. Jupiter is high in the south at dusk. Saturn rises out of the east before midnight.

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