I’ve been here in Arizona for a few weeks, and I’m still baffled by highway signs saying,“Do not enter when flooded.” Flooded! This is the desert and everything is crackling with dryness. The signs usually appear before a steep dip in the road.
Then there are countless dried-up river beds. A block long bridge carries me over The Santa Cruz River. Below, a wide and absolutely dry bed lies where there must have been fast flowing water. Today, all I see is a sand bottom etched with wavy lines. It’s been dry long enough to grow grasses and bushes.
In my own neighbourhood, deep river beds run under bridges and sand bottoms ripple in gorges where there’s no water. It’s hard to imagine the drama and excitement of fierce floods coursing through this dry land. I’m told it actually happens in the Spring, during the Monsoon.
Cactus is everywhere and comes in a number of species. I’ve learned to respect these succulent plants. When I got too close to a banana yucca, I’d swear it deliberately reached out and stabbed me in the shin with its sharp, dry pointed blade. Ouch! Weeks later, the resulting infection still itches reminding me that the desert is a wondrous – and potentially dangerous landscape. As proof that I’m not the only human to imagine a deliberate attack on my person, I came across a cactus labelled Shindagger Cactus.
As I learn more about the cactus family, I find that many of these plants propagate by “jumping” at passing animals, human and non-human. The Chainfruit or Jumping Cholla is an example. It’s a tree. Its branches bear short joints that break off easily.
As you pass by a cholla, spines catch onto your pant leg or shirt. You feel a tug and look down just as the joint breaks off from the plant, and the recoil from the stretched cloth snaps the joint into your flesh. The experience is memorable. (Getco Guide’s “Cacti of Arizona.”)
The giant of the cactus family is the Saguaro. Typically, the Saguaro is 20 to 40 feet tall. It’s the one you see in cartoons with branches growing parallel to the main trunk. It’s eight to ten feet high. These giants are common in my neighbourhood, along with tall palm trees.
Organ Pipe cacti is another tall species. It grows six to eight feet tall and has many branches growing right out of the ground. I usually see it in the company of the Barrel Cacti. Both of these are favourites on my neighbourhood’s gravel covered lawns. (no grass here in this dry state.) The barrel cactus grows 2 to 4 feet high. A ring of bright flowers surround its top. Most of the flowers I see are bright orange, red or yellow.
Maybe Arizona’s hills don’t belong in a discussion of cacti, but they do fit into my “strange and unusual”category. The Santa Rita mountains lie to the east of my house. Numerous ranges surround the Tucson area. These ranges are old. Their peaks are jagged and for the most part they are bare of trees.
Then there are the other “mountains.” These are tan coloured, flat on top and ridged, both vertically and horizontally. Some have spotty green growth. You can imagine my surprise when I was told that these beige hills are piles of tailings dumped there from the nearby copper mines.
How long will I wander about, curious and amazed? I know from experience that even the most remarkable scenery finally becomes just part of everyday life. I’m here for five months. By the end of this time, will I take for granted these amazing cacti and the warm sunny weather? Time will tell. I hope not.