Living in the Sonoran Desert, I don’t often see mushrooms. Sometimes, fungus appears on the trunks of dying trees, but that’s not often. This year, Tucson has had a very wet monsoon season, which is wonderful after years of severe drought.
Along with the greening of the vegetation, the abundance of rain has brought forth some interesting mushrooms.
These interesting mushrooms are Podaxis pistillaris, the Desert Shaggy Mane mushroom. Possibly the most common mushroom in the Sonoran Desert, this genus of fungus, possibly this species, is found in deserts worldwide. The above ground portion, the fruiting body, appears after a soaking rain. The fibrous texture and closed cap are believed to protect the gills and spores from desiccation.
The mushroom starts out whitish, turns brown, eventually ends up as black powder.
Being unfamiliar with this type of mushroom, I was curious to see what happened to these specimens. Would they be consumed by rodents, rabbits or coyotes? Would the horses be interested in eating them? No, these mushrooms were undisturbed. This made me think this fungus is toxic. However, P. pistillaris, is eaten in many areas of the world and has high nutritional value.
In addition, this mushroom is used extensively in traditional medicines and cosmeceuticals throughout the world. Now, I’m intrigued to try this mushroom, but I’ll await instruction by an experienced mushroom hunter.
I’m always delighted when I discover new and different aspects of the Sonoran Desert.
Book Note: If you’d like to know more about the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert, check out my Don’t series and the other Sonoran Desert-themed picture books.
The Sonoran Desert is home to many species of hummingbirds. The first things I installed in my yard when I moved in were hummingbird feeders. Whenever a hummer would stop for a drink, I’d pull out my bird book to identify it. I’ve had quite a few species stop by over the years. Some were local residents, and some were passing through on their annual migrations. I even had an albino individual who frequented my yard for a couple of years.
Usually, I have no trouble identifying my feathered visitors, since they were all present in my Birds of the Southwest book. I find they often cooperate by sitting on a branch so I can examine them. I’ve been honored to host Black-chinned, Anna’s, Costas, Rufous, Calliope and Lucifer Hummingbirds.
Recently, when a hummer visited my yard, as usual, I went out for a look. However, I didn’t recognize this individual. I looked in the book, but I couldn’t find her. That seems to be a problem with identifying birds – lots of photos of the males, but not enough of the females.
I contacted a friend whose son is an expert on hummingbirds. He thought it looked like a female Blue-throated hummingbird or Blue-throated Mountaingem. Blue-throateds are unusual in Tucson, but they are known to be in the area. Maybe the drought brought her to my yard. She stayed a few days.
Whatever her reasons for visiting, she is welcome anytime.
This hummer posed very nicely for me, but not all hummingbirds are that accommodating. I recommend my humorous tale, How NOT to Photograph a Hummingbird, about a bumbling visitor trying to photograph a hummer. Though the desert seems to conspire against him, it’s more that he doesn’t understand the environment he is in. So, the book also contains a lot of information about the animals, plants and minerals of the Sonoran Desert. Your kids will get a kick out of his ‘accidents.’ If they’d like to learn about the desert in a funny way, pick up a copy for them today.
One plant that has always amazed me in the Sonoran Desert is the Brittlebush. No matter how little rain falls nor how hot it is, this bush produces a lush crop of flowers.
Brittlebush, Encelia farinose, is a bush native to the Sonoran Desert and is a member of the sunflower family. The leaves are long, oval and silver-gray with a fuzzy surface (trichomes). The fuzziness provides protection from excessive heat and cold. The grayish white color reflects sunlight, helping to keep the plant cool. In addition, the fuzziness helps collect any moisture and reduce water loss, which is very important in the desert.
In late winter and early spring, yellow flowers form on long stalks on the outside of bush. Notice their sunflower-like appearance. Their bright color contrasts with the dull tan-gray of the ground.
The common name, brittlebush, refers to the brittleness of its stems. It’s also called incienso because the fragrant resin was dried and burned by early Spanish missions as incense. Brittlebush was used by indigenous and pioneer people. The resin was also used as glue, sealant, varnish and chewing gum. Brittlebush was important in oral hygiene. Cowboys used stems as toothbrushes, while Native Americans used it to treat toothaches.
Brittlebush thrives in dry gravelly to sandy habitats. A sunny site is required along with the well-drained soil. The plant has a shallow taproot and lateral roots to take advantage of any rainfall. It is sensitive to frost, so my bush enjoys the protection of my backyard wall.
The profusion of blossoms is an important food source for a variety of animals. Once they fade away, thousands of seeds will be produced, another food source.
I hope that some of my bush’s offspring will germinate in my yard, creating more magnificent bushes.
Thank you, Brittlebush, for providing a bit of vibrant color in my life.
BOOK NOTE: If you love plants as much as I do, I hope you’ll check out my fun science books on plants, especially Queen of the Night: The Night-blooming Cereus, which is all about the very unusual Sonoran Desert flowering plants that bloom all together on one night per year!
It happens in June or July every summer and people come out by the hundreds to see these magnificent beauties bloom together. More to follow about the 2021 expected bloom dates. Learn all about the Night-blooming Cereus before they bloom this year!
Also, to enjoy a tale of friendship and learn more about the ecosystems necessary to Bahamian trees, and how seeds find their homes, check out my children’s adventure tale (ages 8+), Grow Home, Little Seeds.
For a humorous take on the Sonoran Desert and its flora and fauna, see How NOT to Photograph a Hummingbird. After the fun, refer to the desert plant and wildlife glossary in the back of the book.
All three books would be help with science or book reports. And for summer supplemental, educational, and fun activity sheets and workbooks, go to Lyric Power Publishing, LLC.
It’s my calling to help make science fun, and I’m sticking to it!
In the Spring, avian hearts turn to thoughts of love, or at least, to mating. Songs have been written about it. Cole Porter croons, “Birds do it, bees do it.” But have you ever thought about how birds “do it?”
Recently, I realized that a couple of white-winged doves, Zenaida asiatica, were getting together on the branch of a Palo Verde tree in my backyard. Watching the male trying to balance on the back of the female, who was receptive to the idea at least, in the gusty wind on a moving branch, got me thinking about the effort it takes for birds to mate.
It’s amazing that birds are able to perpetuate their species at all.
Mating takes place by the matching up of the cloacas. Keep in mind, the cloacas are located under the tails. So, along with the balancing act, they have to move their tails out of the way! Those tail feathers are stiff and can’t be bent. Just imagine having to maneuver the tails of a peacock or resplendent quetzal! Those tails are huge! Sure, they got the attention of the female, but just where do you put them during the cloacal matching? You can see why I’m impressed at the success rate of these interactions!
I knew a woman who wrote her Master’s degree thesis on aquatic birds’ ability to mate underwater! Wouldn’t the reproductive liquids be in danger of being diluted or washed away? The birds did fly, so it’s not like they couldn’t mate above water.
I encourage you to remember the effort it took for the ordinary birds flying about outside to be born and to congratulate them.
Book Note: I have written three fun-science books about birds. The book descriptions are here—perhaps you can find one for your child or grandchild.
I usually travel during the December holidays, so I don’t do much holiday decorating. A garland and a lighted ball is sufficient for me. This year, due to the pandemic, I’m staying home and I’ve been trying to decide if and how I’ll decorate. I don’t really need decorations to feel the holiday spirit. This morning, I found the holiday colors I was looking for. I don’t need an evergreen tree in my house – I have a golden tree in my yard. This pomegranate tree comes complete with its own red fruit ornaments. And instead of a star, I’ll top my tree with a hummingbird.
Nature is the best decorator.
Book Note: How Not to Photograph a Hummingbirdis a humorous tale about the dangers of trying to photograph a hummingbird. I was fortunate that this particular hummingbird cooperated with my photography efforts.
On November 20th, absurdity is celebrated by being whacky, for example. It strikes me as absurd that on November 19th, we celebrate carbonated beverages with caffeine day. One day later we can expand and include other absurdities.
Some might think it is absurd to write a book. Some days, writers think so, too! Or go to Caribbean islands and spend all your time chasing large lizards that are not happy to be part of a scientific study. I often visit islands with gorgeous beaches and never actually get in the ocean – now that is absurd!
Absurdity and ridiculousness keep life interesting. What is absurd? The illogical, unreasonable, the crazy, zany and the nonsensical. November 20th is the day to accept life’s absurdities and perhaps create some of your own. Have some fun with it. Let your absurd side run free . . . if only for a day!
Book Note: An absurd moment did hit one day when I was thinking about a recent visitor to Arizona and a story began to unfold in my mind. The scientist in me included Sonoran Desert flora and fauna in the story (with a glossary, no less!), but the comedian in me caused the story’s impolite visitor to stumble from one desert danger to the next, while trying to photograph a hummingbird. Even though I write mystery novels in addition to my FUN children’s science books, I did not kill off the visitor. But the number of his injuries might give him pause when thinking about returning, right?
For a good (and educational) laugh, check out How NOT to Photograph a Hummingbird. Your kids will enjoy the absurdities; you could even read it to your little ones–it is illustrated.
This guy, Roadrunner Geococcyx californianus, and his species inspired my book, Don’t Make Me Fly!
September 4 is National Wildlife Day. As a biologist, I love wildlife, whether it is in my backyard or at some distant exotic location. Wildlife Day was established to remind us about endangered animals, locally and around the world.
This is also the day to recognize the work being done on behalf of these animals, both in preservation and education about them. I do my part for conservation through my volunteering as a citizen scientist, talks I give, the books I write about animals, and supplemental, educational workbooks that teach about animals in a fun way.
In the heat of the Sonoran Desert, many cacti use the shade of trees to help them survive. They also help in the cold winters. These are nurse trees.
Underneath a mesquite in my yard, I found this thriving Graham’s Nipple or Arizona Fishhook Cactus. The scientific name isMammillaria grahamii. I wouldn’t have noticed it if not for the bright colors of the flowers. The term fishhook refers to the one-three large spines in each spine grouping that are hooked and reddish to brown in color. This species are named after Colonel James Duncan Graham (1799-1851), who took part in a U.S.-Mexico border survey.
Indigenous people have eaten the fruit and pulp of this plant as food, as well using it as a medicine to treat earaches. I’m enjoying it for its natural beauty.
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