Letter From The Desert: acacias, lizards

Has it been an especially good year for catclaw acacia, or am I just really seeing them for the first time? For the last few months, everywhere I've been in the desert, from the Ord Mountains near Barstow on to the Colorado River and beyond, I have seen lush, verdant Acacia greggii populating the washes and the verges of roads. They seem incongruous, willowy canes covered in soft green foliage, looking for all the world like Forsythia in an early New York State spring, before the bloom.

Though I am forced to admit I haven't seen a Forsythia in twenty years. I may be remembering them wrong.

or even in bloom

Anyway, it's a deceptive softness: beneath those leaves are the recurved thorns that give the shrub two of its common names: the feline one and the somewhat more folkloric "wait a minute bush," so named for what a hypothetical unwary desert visitor would say after walking too close to one.

Writing about something else this weekend I uncovered yet another item for my collection of disparaging comments written about desert plants, this one by Thomas H. Kearney and Robert H. Peebles in their 1951 Arizona Flora, in which they offer a brief field guide description of the species, including a rather quaint description of its wood being strong enough to use in building doubletrees and singletrees, which for the non-Amish here I will briefly define as tools for equalizing load on a team of draft animals. (Wikipedia discussion at those links.) Kearney and Peebles mention the species' range, general size and shape, color of sap and heartwood, and indigenous peoples' use of the seedpods as an important food source.

They conclude their discussion of Acacia greggii by saying:

"This is probably the most heartily disliked plant in the state, the sharp, strong prickles tearing the clothes and lacerating the flesh."

As botanical calumnies go, this is rather tame, especially when compared with those from a generation or two previous, such as J. Smeaton Chase's 1919 observation about the teddy bear cholla, which la mujer que amo is fond of reciting:

“If the plant bears any helpful or even innocent part in the scheme of things on this planet, I should be glad to hear of it.”

Chase does grant that he has seen hornets building nests in cholla patches, but adds that that "is hardly a virtue."

But chollas will get their own Letter soon.

I am generally in the habit of wearing denim or canvas in the desert, even on the hottest days, so the cursedness of acacia thorns is a bit more academic for me. Also, and I cannot stress the importance of this enough, I tend to watch where I am going, a salutary defense against many of the perils that might befall the desert traveler, from minor ones like rattlesnakes and flash floods to the truly dangerous threats: water speculators, corporate attorneys, legislators, tourists, and self-righteous nature writers. It's an almost certain preventative measure against acacia entanglement. On the rare occasion when a tendril of catclaw does snag my shirtsleeve, it delights me. It's one of the many ways in which the desert clears its throat to ask for my attention.

It does occur to me that acacias themselves might also be a good defense against corporate attorneys. This notion surely needs more study. Also, I expect to eat at least a couple handsful of acacia pods this fall, so there's that. Right now, the shrubs still in bloom are perfuming the neighborhood.

Last week I found a desert night lizard in a neglected plant pot, and put it in a larger pot underneath some yucca debris, which, according to the field guides, is its preferred habitat. The next day it was gone, not entirely surprisingly. This morning, repotting a prickly pear I rooted out from a supermarket nopal, I saw it again... beneath a large plastic cooler on the concrete. I expect it's nice and insulated under there.

Within two minutes I saw one of the bigger desert iguanas around near a little mesquite I am working to keep alive, and mindful of recent iguana-related aspirations, I high-tailed it to the nearest desert willow still in bloom, hurrying back with three nice blossoms. I tossed them to the iguana one by one. The first it regarded with something like suspicion for perhaps ten seconds, then approached it cautiously, then ate. The second, it ate more readily. The third? Well, you can see for yourself what happened.

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