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Species Spotlight

Finally Some Rain

By Doug Moore

Drought has been shadowing southeast Arizona for at least a decade; some say more. Despite regional rainfall totals being down, Madera Canyon has seemed to fair pretty well. Yes, there have been some dry spells when the Pacific failed to deliver much winter moisture, but the “monsoon” always seemed to kick in just when everything was just about as hot and parched as could be imagined! Thunderstorms would then drench the canyon regularly and generously, seeming to green everything up almost overnight and the resulting tumult of life would “party on” until the frosts of fall. Until 2009…

Winter/spring precipitation in 2009 was dismal; it simply came up way short. To say the canyon was dry in late June is a major understatement! The summer rains swept in strong around the first of July (Halleluiah!!), but then just seemed to fizzle out. The clouds would build! It would look great! A scattered drizzle or brief downpour would fall here or there, but it always seemed to be a bit more over there. The “none soon”!

The canyon received some rain, but it really wasn’t enough. Summer seedlings sprouted, only to dry up or became stunted. By late August most of the leafy perennials and shrubs were looking a lot like that limp, wilted celery stick long lost in the bottom of the fridge vegetable bin. By late September, instead of the regular green riot, many plants were already turning “fall” colors and dropping all their leaves; others were dying. There were amazingly few insects (it was hard to actually find a grasshopper!) and even the canyon prickly pears were looking more like potato chips than succulents. The remainder of 2009 was basically more of the same, though rumors of a soggy El Niño kept glimmers of hope alive.

The strong Pacific high that blocks our winter rain weakened in January. Finally, some relief! Three good storms in four weeks brought more rain than the previous six months! The creek is now running strong and plants responded quickly, many sprouting or greening up in the bright February sun! Sitting quietly under the trees, I believe you can actually hear the entire canyon sighing in relief!

It will be interesting to see how the rest of the “rainy” season plays out, to see if the canyon will get more rain to sustain it into summer, and how well canyon life will respond to the current respite. The recent precipitation was probably too late for spring annuals, but when added with a couple of meager December showers, there could be some surprises! The perennials and shrubs should really perk up and flower well. Around Proctor in March keep an eye on Fairy Duster, mimosas and Desert Honeysuckle; also look for Desert Anemone, Desert Hyacinth, and Spreading Sida poking flowers up through the grass. Two shrubs to watch are Fendler Globemallow and Indian Mallow- both common along the path near the Proctor trailhead.

Fendler Globemallow, Sphaeralcea fendleri, is a small, multi-stemmed shrub with very crinkled, toothed to lobed gray-green leaves. Leaves and stems are densely covered in short hairs and look velvety (be careful touching this plant, as the “star-shaped” hairs detach easily and can be irritating to skin and eyes!) Though variable in flower color, at Proctor all the globemallows bloom with flaming orange 5-petaled cups to 1¼ inches wide from March to May. A close look at flower anatomy will reveal to an observer that these plants are in the mallow (hibiscus) family.

Indian Mallow, Abutilon incanum, is another distinctive hibiscus relative. It grows more upright and has fewer stems and branches than Fendler Globemallow. The dark stems are not very hairy, but the large, heart-shaped toothed leaves are distinctive- covered in dense, fine silvery velvet, and are dull light green in color. Five-petaled light-orange flowers up to 1½ inches across resemble small hibiscus blossoms. Distinctive round, segmented seed pods have points around the crown. Indian Mallow blooms March to October. Both these mallows are described in Joan Lewis’ book, Madera Canyon Wildflower, a “must-have” for canyon flower enthusiasts!