Rainbow Bloom

May 28, 2008

We hiked in Bisbee on Sunday and came across this Arizona Rainbow Cactus (Echinocereus pectinatus var. rigidissimus) in full bloom.  These small cacti are common on rocky slopes in desert grassland and oak woodland.  They only bloom for a day, and this is only the second time I’ve seen one in full flower.  The cactus in the photo is about six inches tall, with three two-inch flowers.  The Rainbow Cactus is named for the unique alternating colorbands of white and red spines.  This species is also unusual in that the areoles (individual spine clusters) have no central spine, only the ring of thin flat spines, so these cacti are less prickly than most of their relatives.  The flowers are light magenta, and like all cactus flowers they fluoresce or “glow” in daylight, making them appear even brighter.  Round, prickly red fruits ripen with the summer rains. 

Arizona rainbow cactus

Yesterday I made a pair of earrings that will probably go with the “Lady of the Lake” necklace.  These are featherweights forged from tiny cut nails, and are 1 3/4″ long including the earwires.  Didn’t get any time in the shop at all last week, with all the wind, rain, cold, and (on the mountains above 8000 feet) snow!

spiral curly cone earrings


Groundwater Amulet

May 15, 2008

MORE copper…I bought this picture jasper cabochon because it immediately reminded me of a lens of groundwater under the sand – lots of warm brown iron oxide with just a hint of blue (from reduced iron).  I liked the way it was drilled as a bead so it would retain its soft, natural look – a silver bezel setting would have overwhelmed this subtle stone.  It’s strung on New Mexico turquoise beads.  I had to grind off the pointed ends and polish them so the beads would fit together better.  Lots of green in the turquoise, which is less popular than the usual bright pale blue, but there is a nice mix of colors, both in the turquoise itself and in the iron oxide matrix.  The strand fastens to the iron link with copper wire hooks, and a copper wire ornament enlivens the back.  The five-fold spiral reminds me of the flower of sacred datura.

Groundwater Amulet

Copper Pod Bell Chain

May 12, 2008

Forged iron and copper necklaces are my most time-consuming and intricate metalwork projects, but they are spectacular, durable, and fun to wear.  This copper chain with pods and cone bells took far longer than I expected, mostly because it requires more polishing than iron.   Made entirely of hot-forged and cold-hammered recycled copper wire in various sizes (14, 10, 6, and 8 gauge).  The bright bare Red Metal sparkles against a copper ore boulder.  It will look better as it tarnishes with wear, since no newly-polished shine can compare with the beautiful warm brown glow of heavily-worn copper.

copper pod necklace

Second in an occasional series of natural history book reviewsBooks reviewed here can be purchased through Amazon.com by following the links from my Southern Arizona Desert Botany homepage.

The Jepson Desert Manual:  Vascular Plants of Southeastern California.  Bruce G. Baldwin, et. al, editors.  2002, University of California Press, 624 pages, softbound.

Vascular Plants of Southeastern California

I bought this book at the Joshua Tree National Park visitor center.  It was the height of spring wildflower season and I was looking forward to meeting many new Mojave Desert plants.  I already had  California Desert Wildflowers by Philip A. Munz (1962, University of California Press, 122 pages, paperbound).  It’s a very nice and useful book, but I was hoping to find something more complete.  Good botany books are difficult to find in the West.

I was delighted with The Jepson Desert Manual.  It is an interesting hybrid between a traditional botanical manual and a field guide.  It has the structure, language, and completeness of a formal botany, but descriptions are abbreviated and illustrations are stripped down to the bare essentials, creating a book that is easy to use in the field.  Unlike most popular guides, it includes ferns and grasses as well as trees, shrubs, and wildflowers.  This book is ideal for someone who has never used a botanical manual or has tried and found them frustrating.  Technical terms are limited to the most useful descriptive words, all of which are clearly defined in an excellent illustrated glossary.  A geographic discussion and detailed maps are very useful, especially for those who are unfamiliar with California.  Following a hundred-year tradition in natural history guidebooks (including the Munz guide that is this book’s ancestor), there is a central section with color plates.   The photos are of very high quality, and illustrate many of the most distinctive Mojave Desert wildflowers.

For each genus, there is a general description, a brief diagnostic key, individual species descriptions, and line drawings of one or more species.  The diagnostic keys are independent of the descriptions, so they can be used or ignored as desired.  Descriptions are quite abbreviated but do contain specific measurements, fruit characteristics, details on distribution and habitat, and other facts that are usually missing from popular guides.  My only criticism is that I would have preferred to have line illustrations for ALL plants in the book, especially in large genera with many similar species.  I don’t think this would have added many pages, especially if superfluous items were omitted (such the horticultural section, which is too generalized to be useful, and the extensive and pompous documentation on the book’s history and structure.)  The binding is fragile for a large paperback, especially for the heavy use that this one is likely to get from many readers, but it does keep the price affordable.  Overall, this is a wonderful book for botanists, land managers, serious naturalists, and California desert hikers who want something more complete and informative than most wildflower guides.  It’s also a good introduction to technical botanical manuals, encouraging the transition from “picture matching” to more formal taxonomic study.  It is a joy to use and offers a treasure trove of lore and images for this unique desert region.


Fossil mammoth ivory with blue vivianite stripe, Madagascar “Ocean Wave” picture jasper, Indonesian basalt lava beads, tumbled aquamarine chips, copper tube beads and wire, hot-forged copper curly cone, sterling silver.  Custom necklace for a friend.  I cut the mammoth ivory to match the stripe on the jasper cabochon.  Fastens at the front with the copper hooks.

Lady of the Lake necklace

Sometimes the omens appear in clusters.  Today a coyote ran across the road in front of me and (oddly) didn’t look back.  This week I found three snakeskins, all inaccessible in some way:  One hidden under stones (revealed when I was planting agaves), one entwined deep among the daggerlike leaves of a yucca in my yard, and one old and worn but not yet shed, on a big rattlesnake that I met in a sandy wash yesterday.  Clearly, it’s time for me to leave some things behind.  Here are some iron items that might help:

vulture medicine

The Vulture Dancer earrings have double curly cone bells and vulture leg bones.  Two high-carbon steel threaductter knives rest on a piece of snakeskin.  The left one is a bird claw, and has a blade and a seamripper.  The right one (quite a bit thicker and heavier) is a cat claw, 2.5″ long.  Since they are forged, ground, drilled, and polished, they are a lot more work than they look – and perhaps more than they’re worth, considering their rough appearance.   Perhaps Atropos wears one of these as an amulet, or keeps it hidden in her workbasket. 

First in an occasional series of natural history book reviews.  Books reviewed here can be purchased through Amazon.com by following the links from my Southern Arizona Desert Botany homepage.

THE GREAT CACTI:  ETHNOBOTANY AND BIOGEOGRAPHY, by David Yetman, 2007.  University of Arizona Press, 297 pages, hardbound.

The Great Cacti

This beautiful book contains photos and descriptions of more than 100 species of giant columnar cacti in North, Central, and South America.  As the title says, it includes detailed distribution maps and plenty of details on current and historical indigenous use of each species.  But it is most valuable for its photos and natural history discussions, for which it is the only widely available comprehensive resource on these cacti.  The United States is home to only three giant cacti:  the senita and organ pipe (both almost entirely restricted to Organ Pipe Cactus National Park) and the saguaro (southern Arizona and extreme SE California).  Americans who have cactus gardens or who vacation in Mexico may be familiar with a handful of others.  But this book records all the columnar cacti (many of which are rare, localized, and poorly known) and is a celebration of their beauty and diversity.

Each genus has a brief botanical discussion, followed by a description of each species, including growth form, preferred habitat, and any uses that local and/or indigenous people have found for it (many species produce edible fruit and usable lumber).  There are photos of most species growing in their natural habitat, fruit (especially if it is gathered for food or sold in markets) and many unusually large individuals, protected or cultivated stands of cacti, and buildings or furniture made from cactus wood.  The writing style is accessible and informal, which means that anyone – regardless of scientific or natural history background – can enjoy and learn from this book.  As a naturalist, I would have preferred more specific botanical details and technical drawings for each species, and a more concise and uniform presentation of ethnobotanical information (these paragraphs are informative, but tend to be rambling and opinionated).  Oddly and unfortunately, the book’s treatment of the saguaro is perfunctory and incomplete.  Far more information is available on this cactus than on any of the others, and I think the author missed a great opportunity to use this familiar icon as a significant educational “ambassador” for the other giant cacti.  Despite its shortcomings (which may reflect the publisher’s preferences rather than those of the author), THE GREAT CACTI is lovely and inspiring, and a valuable gem among desert natural history books.