Animal life has always excited me more than plant life – zoology over botany. Why would anyone want to study dull, boring vegetation? However, my attitude toward plants began to change when we headed to the Sonoran Desert the first year we volunteered for U.S. Fish & Wildlife.
Into the Desert
After setting up camp the first day we arrived at Imperial Desert National Wildlife Refuge 40 miles north of Yuma, Arizona, I was approached by the volunteer parked next to us. “Let’s get a truck and head into the desert,” said Judy Bush. “I’ll tell you about the plants.”
My knowledge of desert plants, not to mention desert animals, at that point was negligible. I had no idea why Judy chose to tutor me, but whatever she could teach me would be welcome information. I took a notebook to record everything she pointed out.
Judy, I later learned, had managed a nursery for over 20 years. Her interest in plants and her general curiosity had prompted her to investigate the local flora when she first arrived in the Southwest.
Learning the Desert
I scribbled furiously as Judy identified bursage, brittle bush, mesquite, palo verde, desert lavender, and ocotillo and told interesting facts or stories about each. “Here,” she said as she pointed to a creosote bush. “Smell this.” The pungent odor of the bush assaulted my senses. “That’s what you smell here when it rains,” she said. “And the nasty taste keeps most animals from chewing on it.” My ears perked up when she mentioned animals, and I began to understand that vegetation has adaptations to survive, as do animals.
Palo verde trees, she said, grow small leaves so they don’t lose moisture like large leaves of the Northwest where rain is abundant. Brittle bush sprout beautiful yellow flowers to attract pollinators, but their leaves are mildly toxic, and when it rains, the toxins wash into soil to prevent other plants from growing nearby. Some bushes serve as nurse plants to protect saguaro cactus as they begin growing, and most of the vegetation provides shade in the desert heat for relief to animals.
Armed with Knowledge
When we finished that afternoon, I was armed with enough plant information to pique my curiosity and encourage me to research further on my own. Over the years I learned that the prickly projections on cactus are not thorns, as I originally thought, but spines which are modified leaves. I discovered that the ball of leaves the size of ping pong balls produced on creosote bushes were “galls” that the bush created to protect itself from fly larvae that hatch within the ball. I read that most barrel cactus lean toward the south to prevent tissue damage from the sun, giving them the name “compass cactus.” And so much more.
And as the years progressed, I kept adding to this knowledge until I looked forward to and felt comfortable talking about plants during the winter visitor hikes we led at Imperial National Wildlife Refuge. I always knew that plants and animals were interconnected, but the lesson from Judy Bush re-enforced this awareness.
Education as Key
Any topic can become interesting and exciting if a person investigates that subject. Education, as always, is the key. Thanks again, Judy Bush, for educating me in an area I might otherwise have neglected!