Kevin V. Hunt
Scouting Historian, Author, Scouting Veteran, Camp Director
Arizona: A Regional Guide – Part 2 Flora … More than Just beautiful Cacti!
The Arizona Flora – the flowers, trees and plants. It’s probably not what you think! Arizona – it’s more than just beautiful cacti! “But why a blog about Arizona – since we are not even there?” you ask. Well, since I am from Arizona, and have lived here through much of my Scouting experience I tend to talk a bit about the Great State of Arizona. So, this is the second blog article in a series about Arizona. Maybe after reading these blogs, you will understand a bit more of what I talk about in my Arizona blogs. You can read part Part One here: Crazy Weather in Arizona And stay tuned for Part Three – about some of the interesting fauna (that’s animals) of our Arizona region.
So, we have established the fact that we have a few cacti in Arizona. But, you probably already knew that. But, you may not have realized that with our tropical climate (where the mean temperature is at least 64 degrees F in 12 months of the year)
we also have palm trees in a wide variety of species, citrus trees of every kind, vegetables and melons in all their varieties, and like McBroom’s 1-Acre farm, our farmers can actually get six or eight crops of alfalfa hay in one annual growing season. And we can grow gardens through most months of the year. (I used to read the crazy books about McBroom and his prolific farm to my kids when they were young. Check out McBroom for great reads with your own kids. They are good for some great laughs. And of course, Arizona is just like his farm. And that is the truth!)
We are actually a part of a very unique region – the lower Sonoran Desert. And with this designation, we have a lot of cacti and other flora that are not found anywhere else.
And speaking of cacti, our biggest cactus is the giant Saquaro – the real big guy with all of the arms going in every direction. These are stereotypical Arizona – but we like that. After all, the beautiful flower of the Saquaro (pronounced Suh-War-O) is our state flower. And the Cactus Wren bird that bores holes in the Saquaro arms and lives there – is our state bird! And in case you didn’t know it, the giant Saguaro with all of the arms is probably over 300 years old. One that is about 6 feet tall – and with no arms – is likely about 75 years old. (So, plant one today for your 3rd or 4th great grandkids to enjoy!)
And we like to say down here that we have everything but an ocean. And that really is the truth! We have desert plains, desert plants on mountains, a lot of rocks – many in grand formation and many colors, cottonwood and sycamore tree stands where there is a bit of water running through, and we have alpine evergreens up on “The Rim” and in northern parts like around Flagstaff. We even have ski resorts. We have a plethora of lakes and rivers and they are great for boating – or lazily floating down the rivers in inner tubes – and unless you dress like I suggested, you’ll have a powerful sunburn as a souvenir of your desires to show off your beautiful body in the Arizona sun. (And after a few of those, I realized that the body stuff is really overrated … It only took a few major sunburns for me to catch on to that. So, I got smart and covered up. And I knew then that this was the way to go!) And I really am telling the truth on this one.
I said that in Arizona we don’t have an ocean. Well, that is not entirely true. We do have a place not too far from us called “Big Surf”. This place is amazing. It has a beach – no doubt with some of our Arizona sand. And the system creates a fake ocean with monster waves (that work on the same principle as a toilet). Well, at least it is something.
We have some absolutely beautiful and breath-taking country – mostly within a hundred mile or so radius out from us. It is great fun to hike and camp in these places. But, I’ll admit that we do have a few ugly places as well. I guess “ugly” is kind of a harsh word. Maybe “barren” (devoid of vegetation) might be a better term. Take for instance, the Mormon Battalion Trail. The Mormon Battalion was a military group of LDS men – and a few women – that was mustered into service in 1846 to go help fight in the Mexican American War. These soldiers left their families and marched down from Kansas, through Oklahoma, New Mexico and then through Arizona – following the Gila River – before getting to California and completing their 2,000 mile infantry march.
By the time that the Mormon Battalion got to Arizona, they were pretty thread-bare and just hanging on by a thread – literally – relative to food, clothes, provisions, etc. But, they camped over Christmas south of my native Mesa, Arizona about 40 miles. So, coincidentally, we call the place “The Christmas Camp”.
I am a member of the “modern Mormon Battalion” (which exists to keep alive the memory of the original Mormon Battalion and its mission of service and sacrifice). Our Battalion group takes Scouting groups out on the “trail”. And later, as a boy who went on the trail receives his Eagle award, we present classy buffalo skull neckerchief slides (a symbol of the “pioneer spirit”) at Eagle courts of honor – to all young men who have been on the trail, heard the history lesson, camped there, etc.
As I make these Eagle slide presentations, I often see – on the program before me – a “this is your life” slide show of the new Eagle Scout – and this generally shows many of the beautiful places he’s been with his troop. In my presentation, I say, “I can see that you have been to some very beautiful places with your troop. Arizona has many such beautiful places and I’ve been to many of the same places that you have … though we are a generation or more apart.” I then talk of the Mormon Battalion trail (and they have obviously been out there or I would not be at their Eagle court). I surprise them by saying, “And the Mormon Battalion Trail is NOT one of those beautiful places. In fact, it is perhaps one of the ugliest places I have ever been.”
This always gets a laugh from those who have been there and know it’s true. But then, I say, “But, this, for me, underscores the personal sacrifice that those great men made for their Church and country.” (And usually at this point, my eyes get all teary and the Spirit seems to enter the presentation!)
There are literally a hundred varieties in the cacti family. (That is probably not the scientific term). Most of them will just give you the cold pricklies. However, there are a couple of them that can prove useful. Take for instance, the Prickly Pear cactus.
It sprouts some beautiful purple “pears”. If one has a pocket knife, one can carefully peel off the very small spine clusters and then peel the pear. They have more seeds than my Grandmother’s old garden, but the remaining flesh around the seeds is actually quite tasty. Many old-timers like to get a mess of these pears and then they make prickly pear jam. And this is almost delectable.
Barrel cactus – now that is an interesting character. This is the short round and generally fat guy that kind of rises up in a blob above the ground – almost like a balloon that has been blown up with a bit too much air.
The word of the desert is that if the top is cut off of one of these cacti, then inside you will find a sponge-like mass that is supposed to be “potable”. Now, I haven’t ever tried this, but that is the story. I always tell the younger generation that it is better to just be prepared with plenty of water on any outing – and that since cutting the top off of the cactus – would be like getting a scalping for a human – and this probably would not be real healthy for the longevity of the plant – that we should not open one up. But, for those who might really like the sensation of sucking on the sponge, I would add, “Be prepared and take a kitchen sponge with you for sucking on through the outing. It might even put forth a better flavor. Let me know if you try both! (Note: Since I wrote this article, I talked with my Brother, Darcy, and shared this with him. He said that he had actually tasted a barrel cactus sponge. He said that you don’t actually drink with the sponge – but that it is like eating sugar cane and is kind of crunchy – and not real bad tasting.) But, you have my advice – and it still stands!
We allso have several varieties of cacti that have kind of long and wide “leaves”. These are “succulents” that grow up kind in a rosette pattern and can be a foot to three feet in length. They include the Century plant, the Agave and the aloe vera plants and probably many others. Their spines are kind of “mellow” in that they are straight and only about an inch long as they protrude straight out from the edges of the “leaves”. So, when in a tight spot with a “nature call”, one can (in his spare time) cut some of these long leaves, remove the spines and be ready to answer the call. One of those 3′ leaves – when cut in sections – could get you through a major session or two. The smaller length leaves are actually a bit more pliable.
These plants of which I speak put out a bit of “jelly” goo – when cut – that is mildly obnoxious – but in a situation like this, beggars can’t be choosy. After all, when you gotta go, you gotta … And there is an added benefit to this type of “tissue”. If you miss a spine or two as you peel the leaf, at least the aloe vera cacti have medicinal benefits (to help allay the cause and effect of it all). I can say that I have had an experience (or several) as described above – and it is an experience not soon forgotten. I have learned to be grateful for little mercies – wherever and however they come.
No discussion of Arizona flora would be complete without an introduction to our jumping Cholla cactus. You don’t want to get within a football field length of one of them. These lovely cacti grow spine balls that are about 2-4 inches in diameter – and completely covered with long spines. And the wicked thing about them is that one or more of the spine balls can (with even the slightest wind – caused even by you walking by it) reach out and grab you. They have been known to jump further than Mark Twain’s Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calavares County. So, this whole scenario can soon become pretty ugly for the participant.
Case in point: For a couple of years we lived in Coolidge, Arizona (such a delightful place!). We there adopted this family with eleven children and vice versa. So, one day on a holiday, and as a service to the parents, my wife and kids and I “kidnapped” all of the kids of this family – at least those who were already born by that time – anyway, quite a mob of them – when combined with our own seven children of the moment. We took them out hiking for the day. We went out to explore our Arizona flora and fauna.
Fred (*the name has been changed to protect the innocent) then age 11, somehow got involved with a jumping Cholla “bush”. Now, I don’t know if he went to them or if they came to him, but he ended up with multiple of those spine balls stuck in his posterior. I emphasize the “in” part. The spines really went INto that part of his anatomy. And the fact that he was wearing loose sweat pants did not help his situation at all. The spines easily bored right through the sweats and into all parts of his backside. And when he tried to flip the balls off, the spines came disengaged from the main ball, went through the thin material and settled in – curved point and all – deep into his end zone. And there were a lot of them! But wait! That’s not all!
We quickly learned of his predicament as he became a bit more vocal. We all gathered around him and looked in horror at the spine balls sticking through the pants and INto his underside. He pulled on the spines (which have a lovely curve to them where they grab you) as best he could but had little to no success in extracting them through the sweat pants. It was obvious that the task was way beyond his own capabilities.
So, *Fred and I found our way (alone) out behind one of those creosote bushes – out a bit away from the many young ladies in our group. And out there, he took down his pants – and bent over into my face. And I saw more of his anatomy than I ever wanted to see in broad daylight (or the dark either, for that matter). And then, one at a time, I extracted those long spines from him (and it was not all that pleasant for either of us). But, we got the mission accomplished. He probably wore those scars for a couple of weeks afterwards. Who knows … maybe he still has them! Poor kid! [And I might add that every time I have seen *Fred again – even now years later, he gets this sheepish embarrassed look on his face – and hopes each time that I won’t say anything to him about the incident or share with anyone around us the details of our experience together that day.] I just kind of smile and laugh too (now that we can laugh about it). And I do admit that I have shared the story several times (with laughter and guffaws each time from those who hear the story) – but only once in his presence. I guess the memory is still a bit painful for him.
Yes, we do have a wide variety of interesting plants in Arizona. And admittedly, there are also a lot of cacti. The best advice for anyone is to stay on the trail and leave the cacti alone. Anyone who tries to play with them is probably going to be the loser. Admire them from a distance!
Best wishes along your Scouting Trails … Kevin
Excerpts taken from Kevin’s many Scouting Trails books including “MR. Scoutmaster!”, “Keys to Scouting Leadership” and others at Scoutingtrails. Connect with Kevin and read his articles on Scouting blogsites such as The Boy Scout, The Scouting Trail and The Voice of Scouting. Feel free to comment on anything you read!
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