Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Arizona Still Life

Arizona and Virginia are eerily opposite. Virginia is humid, semi-tropical, and almost chaotically lush; Arizona is dry, desert-y, and from a Virginian's point of view, almost austere. (Case in point--a Southern Californian visiting my Virginia neighborhood once remarked, "Why don't people here take care of their lawns?" He was used to the pristine, manicured, leafless neighborhoods that an arid climate allows--I told him a Virginian with that goal would either be rich enough to afford a landscape crew or on the brink of insanity). My Virginia garden isn't just visually "noisy." It's often literally loud and it's in constant motion--most months, it's difficult to separate the birds' chatter from the hum of frogs and insects--and the slightest breeze sets the trees going--leaves rustle and trunks groan. Arizona--at least the southern part--is probably windier than Tidewater Virginia, but nevertheless it's incredibly quiet. The distinct calls of a coyote, a quail, a mourning dove punctuate the silence, and long periods can pass in which nothing moves. And the sky is blue, and cloudless, and huge.

This is the view from my mom's back porch in Sun City, Arizona, an expansive retirement community northwest of Phoenix. I grew up in Glendale (also just to the northwest of Phoenix), and my five sisters and brothers and most of their kids and grandkids still live in Arizona. It's a second home to Salix and me, and we spend as much time there as we can.

As you can probably see in the photo, my mom's extended back yard is a golf course. When I was growing up, most people had lawns, but I'd say now that most--or at least many--don't. You usually see expanses of grass like this only on golf courses and in parks, and even on the golf courses, the grass is mainly on the fairways with relatively small rough areas (and lots of rocks). Most homes have desert landscaping.

This is a shot of the back of my mom's house from the golf course. The two tall palms are in her front yard, and the back porch looks out on the 13th hole--it's an ideal location if you like golf, especially since the tee box is close enough to the house that we don't have to worry about stray shots (even mine!).

One of the reasons Arizona seems so still to me is that cactus are imperturbable. Even the smaller ones like agave and aloe seem unruffled by the wind. I didn't like cactus growing up--probably stepped on one too many--but I've come to love them as an adult. Still, I've had trouble identifying a lot of these desert plants (I'd love to be edified and corrected if you recognize any . . .) This cactus in the corner MIGHT be an Espostoa lantana, or snowball cactus--it's "woolly" (meaning lots of fine needles), and it's 12-15 feet tall.

In the other corner of her yard, a kind of Cereus cactus grows between the two palm trees. Cereus have beautiful white flowers, and typical of many cacti, they bloom at night. Most cacti aren't flowering in October--that will be substance for a later posting.

This is a barrel cactus in her front yard--if you look to the left side of the photo, you can see a little yellow baby sprouting.

The iconic cactus is the Sajuaro (Carnegiea gigantea). The Sajuaros can grow more than thirty feet tall, and like many cacti, are very slow growing. It can take decades for a sajuaro to develop its first arm. They are protected in Arizona (for example, you can't just knock one down to put up a house). This one is across the street from my mom's house--the house is a one-story rancher, so this one looks to be about 20 feet. You can see holes where martins or maybe small woodpeckers have nested.

Of course, not all of the plants in Arizona are cacti. One of my favorite shrubs is Caesalpinia mexicana, or Mexican Bird-of-Paradise. My mom's is about 7 feet high and maybe 10 feet wide--rabbit and quail nest underneath it. From about April through September, it's covered in bright orange and red blooms that give way to seed pods in the fall. Here's one last bloom among the pods:

And here's a closer shot of the leaves and the seed pods:

My mom will cut hers back to about a foot when the weather cools down (the plant dies back in the cold). It self-seeds very easily--I've started several plants, hoping at least to grow them as annuals here, but they don't like the humidity and they don't live long. Still, our Virginia summers are getting dryer and dryer--maybe one more go this spring!

Lots of flowers in Arizona bloom almost year-round, like these oleanders on the golf course:

Bougainvillea clambers up walls and across roofs (in Virginia, it's a good year when mine hits 6 feet before the temperatures dip).

This flower is a fairly common landscaping plant--it's all over the golf courses. But no one knows what it is and I haven't been able to find it in my books or on the internet. I have the sense that it's something really common--anyway, I love the gray and yellow combination.

This is another common plant in the neighborhood--it's a large shrub, often trimmed into a flat hedge or a ball shape, and the flower looks like an abelia, and again I have the sense that I should know what it is . . . but I don't. And again, I love the combination of the purple flower against the gray-green leaf.

Bush honeysuckle grows kind of like bougainvillea (as opposed to the kudzu-like invasiveness of honeysuckles here), and the residents often trim it into neat arrangements against walls . Here's the lovely orange blossom with a little visitor:

And a closer view:

The palms are the tallest trees one sees; most of the trees are quite small by Virginia standards, many of them never growing as tall as the ranch-style houses they surround. This little oasis on our golf course is framed by palms, juniper, and mesquite.

(By the way, I love golfing on nearly tree-free courses. Sand and water don't bother me that much--but put a tree in sight, and I'm going to hit it. I spend most of my time on Virginia courses looking for my balls in the woods . . .)

Here's another mesquite tree on the golf course:

And one at my sister Kelley's more rural home in northeast Phoenix:

My mom and I think this next one is a kind of juniper. The curved trunk makes it look like a bonsai (I realize of course that bonsai trees are stunted tall ones--still, when I first arrive in Phoenix, I have the impression for the first couple of days that not only is everything quiet, but the trees also seem miniatures).

So I'm exaggerating a little bit: there's lots of movement in my mom's back yard, and this little morning trek from the Cereus cactus through the Bird-of-Paradise shrub to the tall cactus on the other side is a daily occurence.

And when Virginia visits Arizona, things don't stay quiet. The occasion for our visit was my mom's 80th birthday party, and we all dressed in the style of the decade of her birth (well, most of us). Here's my mom with her brood, save one brother who arrived fashionably late.

And here's the latecomer with Salix, clowning in Amelia Earhardt's goggles (I call this one "Superfly").

I was busy enough with the party, then with catching up with sibs, then with a side trip to Southern California, that I didn't visit any of the great sites like Sedona or the desert museums--I'll do that at Christmas. In the meantime, I'm working on another post on Venice, California gardens--and trying to find time to get work done in my own!


tina said...

Hi Cosmos, I am not sure why I keep missing when your posts come out. Are you checking the dates? Please tell me no:) You see I check the blogroll for the most recent one at the top and then quickly look down. If it is way down I might miss it. Just making excuses here now for my lateness-but I am here now.

Your description of the differences between Arizona really made me see the differences, even without the pictures. You see I have only been out west once (Las Vegas in June) and noticed right away all of the differences. I did not see a lot of cacti there though and your description of them being 'imperturbable' is really good. I was going to ask you if you were from there but you answered the question. So now begs another question, how did you wind up in Virginia? Very different venues for life just like you described. Though those quail were fun:)

Cosmo said...

Oh, Tina, I'm such a dope--I forgot to change the date when I posted, and I know it sends my posting down on the blogrolls--thanks for the reminder and I'm fixing it. I left Arizona after high school, for college and grad school in Texas and California, and then my job brought me to Virginia. I've lived in VA for almost 25 years--longer than I lived in Arizona--so both feel like home. I miss the quail when I'm here and the deer when I'm there!

inadvertentfarmer said...

Wow...outstanging post! It looks like a foreign landscape compared to my we rainy Washington. Love, love, love all the cacti (sp?) They all seem so stately standing there without moving. Thanks so much for sharing!

tina said...

Great! I am most relieved! Yes, do remember this as it puts you way down and makes a difference for less than observant folks like me. We got to work on the quail/deer thing for sure. Gotta get you some quail here and take some deer there with you? Got some ideas....hmmm...might mean a big suitcase:)

Gail said...

It's good to read your post! Arizona is incredible. We were in Tucson a few years ago and visited the Saguaro National Park. Fabulous. The flowering Oleanders and Bougainvillea were everywhere on the streets... just lovely. One can have a good outdoor life in Arizona...but not during the summers! A good post and supporting photos (also very nice)! You've done your home state proud!


Dawn said...

What beautiful pictures! I want a alpine garden sooo bad, and a bonsi! Thanks for sharing

Defining Your Home said...

Xeriscape! I like to see what's growing in other places and learn about the plants...your phots are beautiful and the text so informative.


Cosmo said...

Hi, Inadvertent--thanks for visiting. How does your camel like rainy Washington? I always think of them as desert animals, but maybe he's gotten used to frequent drinks? After a day of nonstop rain, the desert's looking good.

Tina, SOMEDAY I will learn how to do this right! I remembered tags this time, forgot to adjust the date (of course, it would help if it didn't take me three days to finish a posting)! I love the idea of deer in a suitcase--that's so funny. I think there are plenty of deer in Arizona--bigger ones than we have here--but not where my mom lives.

Cosmo said...

Gail, I am so looking forward to the desert museums in December--I think some cactus will be in bloom then. It's wonderful to see things in bloom in December--on the other hand, I really love seasons--if I lived in AZ all the time, I'd miss Virginia's beautiful springs and falls. And you're right--Arizona in the summer is tough--I can get in 9 holes if we start at 7:00, and even then I get overheated!

Dawn, thanks so much. It really is funny that Arizona trees look so tiny to me when I first arrive--here, as I wrote to Tina, I get dizzy looking up to the top of the trees in our woods.

Cameron, it's ALL about the xeriscaping now. When I was a kid, Phoenix's population was still largely "immigrant" (in the sense that most people were from other parts of the US) trying to recreate the yards they grew up in. They're much smarter now. It is nice not to wake up to lawn mowers and leaf blowers . . .Anyway, thanks for your nice comments--I need to do some more research into the cacti especially. I bet the deer don't eat them!

Les, Zone 8a said...

I really enjoyed your post. One of the best things about garden blogging is seeing what other places do. Just when you think you can't stand seeing another boxwood/holly/azalea combo, you get to see a post like this. Thanks!

Rose said...

Happy Birthday to your mother! How wonderful that she had so many family members there to celebrate with her.

I enjoyed all your photos. Last January I visited my daughter in Phoenix, my first trip to the Southwest. I was struck immediately by all the differences in the landscape. I'd seen palm trees in Florida and California before, but the cacti and the mesquite trees were quite new to me. And seeing lawns that weren't really lawns took a little getting used to.

Will you still be in Arizona the first week of December? I'm going back to visit Daughter then. I'm looking forward to seeing more of the sights I missed the first time; I did see Sedona, though--spectacular!

Viooltje said...

Beautifully written. I can totally understand your feelings, but hey, what would I give to see any of those brave cacti growing outdoors in my 'hood or anywhere around here. I can only tame my cacti and succulent desires through my potted babies which only leave the house during scorching summers, but move back in during mental winter colds. Although lately, with the global warming syndrome, I'm quite sure I'll soon be able to grow more of the tender plants outside (such as Jacaranda), I love pushing the limits there. At this time of year, early November, we should be deep in snow or at least teeth-chattering in cold, but the gossamer days (now months already) have brought people back to the beaches instead...

Btw, I love Caesalpinias, actually I'm literally obsessed with all of the Pea family. I could love them just for their wonderful foliage and gentle appearance, not to mention the unforgettable blooms.

Cosmo said...

Hi, Les--I do miss desert plants, and I continue to try to grow a few here (your fave, the yucca, e.g.), and my euphorbia. But I don't have much luck--it's just too wet--and the holly and azalea do so well on their own! Glad you liked the pics--I hope to get more expert (or really, less ignorant) on my next trip.

Rose, we won't be out until the semester's over--I think we leave here the 18th and we'll be with my family for the holidays. There's SO much to see--I know you'll love it--the Sonoran Desert Museum is spectacular (but in a whole different way than Sedona is).

Viooltje, are you able to grow Caesalpinias in Zagreb? In pots? Except for the yucca, I put all the succulents in pots, and most don't survive (they don't like the forced heat inside and the humidity outside). But like you, I hope with warmer winters I can find the right microclimate somewhere . . .

Jamie and Randy said...

Wonderful photos Cosmo. Arizona seems like a beautiful place.-Randy

Phillip said...

What a great post! I didn't know that one could garden in Arizona (except for cactus) but you've proved me wrong. Did you say southern California and Venice? I can't wait!

To answer your question from my blog, we were between Rosemary Beach and Seagrove (which is between Panama City Beach and Destin, FL). I don't know if you are familiar with the area but Hwy. 30-A runs along the ocean and there is one little area after another - one of them is the famous Seaside community. I've thought about considering the Outer Banks. I bet it would be a long drive for us.

Sarah Laurence said...

So that’s where you’ve been! I love Arizona because it is so different from our green east coast. I’ve only been once and want to return, especially after seeing your beautiful photos and reading your evocative descriptions. I love the cacti especially. We live in such a botanically diverse country.

Happy Birthday to your mom! Are you sure it’s not her 70th? What fun!

Roses and Lilacs said...

Goodmorning, I'm catching up on the blogs I missed on my 'days off';)

The differences in landscaping are very pronounced. I have to admit a preference for the more chaotic Virginia and Illinois scenery. Gardens in deserts are just way too artificial. For people who like order, they are perfect;) Me, I like imperfection.

The Organic Gardener said...

Arizona is truly beautiful, but I don't know what I would grow out there, beside cactus. You may want to look into ocean gardens, They are gardens that actually look it is an ocean scene, but really it is just a bunch of rocks and cacti!

Cosmo said...

Hi, Randy--Arizona is gorgeous--it's hard to believe that the Sonoran Desert and the Grand Canyon are in the same state. You can have beautiful gardens there, but you really have to be mindful of water--luckily, there are lots of plants besides cacti that thrive in dry conditions.

Phillip, Some things we take for granted ARE really tough in Arizona--tomatoes, for example, don't grow after July because it's too hot--but then again some of the vines grow year round. Thanks for the info about Florida--the Outer Banks would probably be quite a drive for you (even St. Augustine is a full day's drive for us, while the Outer Banks are about 2 1/2 hours away).

Cosmo said...

Sarah, I think you've made my mom's day (she reads my blog even if she doesn't comment). You are always so sweet in your comments--I only wish I had your gift for words!

Marnie, I think I'm by nature inclined to the rambling--I love the sheer fecundity of Virginia (well, most of the time--I've had a couple of bad weeding moments . . .) And I love the seasons--I've been drinking in fall, and I don't even mind winter, though ours is rarely as hard as yours. Hope you're staying warm.

Zach, you really can grow a lot in Arizona. But I have to learn more about these ocean gardens--kind of an ironic name, huh, since they presumably don't need water?

cherb said...

I think the yellow flower is Encelia farinosa which is shown here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Encelia_farinosa_form.jpg

Anyways, I hope that helped.

Cosmo said...

Cherb--Thanks so much--that's it! Do you blog? Are you from the Southwest? I really appreciate the help--

Anonymous said...

hi I love your photos! can I use one on a website - my friend is starting up as a therapist and her logo is a tree - and the golf course 'oasis' one is soooo beautiful and serene... can't afford much but we'd give you a link?
aliberry1 (at symbol) aol dot com, cheers!

Redbeard said...

Hi there,

I was just passing through and noticed your great photos. I live in Arizona, in the Phoenix-area, and love it here. I wanted to help you out with the names of those plants you saw - they are common, and are quite nice to have as part of a landscape.

The one with gray-ish leaves and yellow flowers (http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3168/2960777736_b0d6633595.jpg) is Brittlebush, common in the wild around the valley.

The one with the green leaves and purple flowers (http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3292/2985756842_4008f1d976.jpg) is a Leucophyllum - probably one of the Texas Sages like Green Cloud Sage (there are a few, and they vary a bit by leaf and flower color).

I hope this helps you some. Great pictures. :-)