Sensational plant

Szechuan Button
For the past year and a half I’ve worked at a large greenhouse in Phoenix. Our one commercial tenant grows microgreens destined for farmer’s markets and restaurants. The two charismatic young men who run this company attract many fans to the greenhouse, from pretty women who shop at farmer’s markets to visionary chefs seeking the latest in flavors to spice up their creations.

The other day Joseph came up to me cradling a small yellow blossom in his palm. “Want to try something wild?” he asked. Microgreens are grown from many flavorful greens including basil, radish and mustard, so I’m used to such requests. But I hadn’t seen the yellow flowers before.

“Sure. What is it?” I asked the question at the same time I popped the whole bud in my mouth. From the first bite the sensation was intense, and I watched a grin spread across Joseph’s face while mine twisted in surprise.

“It’s called a buzz button,” he said. “Or a Szechuan button.”

The Latin name is Spilanthes acmella and the plant is a member of the sunflower family. An intense uproar was going on in my mouth. The feeling on my gums was progressing from fizzing to electrifying, and my tongue was going numb. I swallowed the bud and felt a cool menthol rush in my throat.

Joseph told me that a couple of chefs requested the buzz buttons. Ever in search of something new, innovative chefs use just a few petals of the tiny flowers in sauces and soups to create layers of flavor and sensation. The petals are also used in syrups, cocktails and desserts.

The plant has long been used for its medicinal qualities in South America, North Africa and Asia where it is prescribed for stomach distress, toothaches, stammering, and to ward off parasites. The alkaloid Spilanthol gives the plant its electrifying effect.

I imagine Szechuan buttons create quite a buzz when offered as samples at the microgreens table at the farmer’s market.


What Worms Can Do

worm bins


Since I keep worm bins I’m always on the lookout for worm food. This means I anticipate junk mail. Those envelopes and circulars I used to dread are fodder for the shredder and then, nirvana for the worms.

Working in the kitchen I protectively guard the food scraps, no matter how tiny. Mixed together with the paper scraps and moistened, they make the perfect worm meal. Peelings, egg shells, coffee grinds, tea bags, anything left in the refrigerator produce drawer too long. Oh, the worms especially love those tea bags.

This material I collect is taken to the greenhouse and divied up between the three bins. The worms are like little machines, eating every day and always needing more fuel. Walking across the school campus I scuff up fallen leaves, carry armloads back to the greenhouse. Opening a package that arrives in the mail, I anticipate how the worms will enjoy that cardboard.

Red wriggler worms kept in a bin are an intimate form of recycling. The super rich castings they produce make natural fertilizer for gardens and potted plants. The verdant green growth of the happy plants makes the process obviously worthwhile.

What about the recyclables we put out at the curb for city pick up? A recent report titled New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics indicates most recycling programs are not so successful, particularly in the case of plastics. While 58% of paper gets a new use, only 5% of plastics are recycled. Worse, 32% of plastic escapes the waste collection system entirely, and much of it ends up in oceans.

The use of plastic has exploded in modern times. Plastic production worldwide was 15 million metric tons* in 1964, and 311 million metric tons in 2014. If this trend continues the weight of plastic in our oceans will exceed all fish by 2050.

Just for fun, let’s review the time it takes for various items we buy, use and discard daily to decompose in a landfill. Plastic bag: 10-20 years, aluminum can: 80-200 years, plastic container (think yogurt, sour cream, cottage cheese): 400-500 years, disposable diaper: 550 years, monofilament fishing line: 600 years. Styrofoam does not ever go away.

On the other hand, a biodegradable food container decomposes in 2-12 weeks. That’s something a bin full of worms could also take care of for you.

*A metric ton = 2,204.6 lbs

Gila Box

Bonita Creek

Bonita Creek

The Gila River

The Gila River

On our way to Safford in eastern Arizona, we stopped to look at Coolidge Dam. A couple sitting in their car asked where we were from and offered stories from their youth, when studly boys jumped from the dam into the sparkling water of San Carlos Lake. Together we studied the high water mark, a grimy ring far above the brown water of the lake. The woman claimed that in the nineties a tribal leader sold the Gila River water rights to the city of Tempe so they could build Tempe Town Lake.

We peered over the downstream side of the dam. In place of the lively river that once carved gorges through the desert, a trickle of chocolate colored water seeped from beneath the towering cement walls. Despite the changes, great blue herons still fished in the shallows and cormorants sunned on boulders far below us.

Just east of the dam turnoff, in the tiny town of Bylas, a Basha’s grocery stood at the edge of the highway. I went in and found the aisles crowded with young Native American families doing their Saturday morning shopping. They pushed carts loaded with 20 pound burlap sacks of dry beans and vats of cooking oil, and their non-perishables came in cans and containers in extra large sizes. These people don’t make it to the market every day or two like us city folks.

In Safford we checked into the Cottage Bed and Breakfast. The charming bungalow nestles in the back garden of the historic Olney House, a grand home built in 1890. Despite the temptations of the Cottage Bakery also on property, we refreshed our water bottles and headed out for our expedition to Gila Box.

We drove east of town, following the Gila River upstream. Neat farms rested smugly in the narrow valley, their croplands laid out like pieces in a carefully stitched quilt. When the road turned north we left the farmland to climb into stark rolling hills of limestone that bristled with ocotillo. Creosote bushes provided sparks of green.

At the West Entrance to the Gila Box Riparian National Conservation Area, a paved overlook with stone pillars provided an information kiosk and a view of the river and its attendant greenery. Water draws a verdant line in a desert landscape. In every direction wrinkles of tan hills filled the space while distant blue mountains anchored the horizons.

We continued along the maze of well maintained dirt tracks. Our next stop was a picnic area, shady and cool with several picnic tables tucked beneath tall sycamore trees. I followed a trail through dense undergrowth and emerged at a silty patch of beach dotted with river rock and watched over by stately cottonwood trees. The Gila rushed by, but my attention was drawn by the multitude of animal tracks crossing the mud. No breeze stirred the leaves but the water pushed and gurgled its way and insects whined nearby. Here was a world completely different than the stark landscape that lined the road above. I could easily imagine a mountain lion crouched here, lapping at the river.

We drove on and at the next turn off spiraled down a steep incline to Bonita Creek. The track ended abruptly in a sunlit clearing. Trees elbowed each other in the narrow canyon, nearly obliterating peach colored cliffs. Shrubs and grasses grew to the very edge of the shallow stream and bright flowers shined their yellow faces in the clear water. It was very still, incredibly quiet.

There are four perennial waterways at Gila Box, thus the protected status. Bonita Creek and Eagle Creek add their waters to the Gila, and the confluence of the San Francisco River is just upstream. One of only two Riparian National Conservation Areas in the country (the other is the San Pedro River), Gila Box encompasses 23,000 acres and is managed by the BLM. The Area was designated by Congress in 1990. Since then a management plan has been drawn up to deal with the challenges of encouraging recreation while protecting the unique habitat.

The area has a lot to protect. We arrived a bit unprepared for the unmarked roads, so we didn’t find the cliff dwellings, the historic homestead cabins or the petroglyphs. But it was easy to see that this is a mecca for wildlife. The riparian refuge is home to Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep, mountain lions, black bear and over 200 species of birds. I look forward to returning for another visit, to enjoy more of the solitude and beauty of this rare place. And I wouldn’t miss another dinner at Casa Manana in Safford.

Found Her on the Web

Banded Garden Spider

Banded Garden Spider

Click on photo for close up!

Click on photo for close up!

I can’t tell you what it is with me and spiders lately. I walked along the waterway at Wild Horse Pass Resort at dawn on Saturday and was shocked by the size of this spider hanging motionless in her sunlit web.

Honestly. If a big ole spider like this suddenly landed on my shoulder? I’d freak out and probably need psychiatric care. But finding her exactly in the center of that amazing web, posing so nicely just when I was looking to use my camera, was fascinating rather than terrifying.

I had discovered a banded garden spider. The female, much larger than the male, is one of the most substantial of the orb spiders. She spins her web vertically on an east west axis and hangs upside down with her abdomen facing south. This spider matures late in the summer, so hanging out where one’s generous, mostly black belly gathers heat from the sun is a nifty adaptation.

One Internet web site I found said she eats her spider web and spins a new one every day. More scientific journals claim the banded garden spider spends time carefully mending her web. She does sometimes eat the male after mating though, and if he does manage to get away he dies soon enough. The season is late.

The female also weakens and dies as fall comes on, but not before leaving hundreds of eggs in a tidy egg sac secured near the web. This sac is described as shaped like a kettledrum, flat at one end and rounded at the other. The hordes of new baby spiders break free from the sac in the spring and float away on silken threads.

See the stabilimentum? This loose, zigzag-shaped bit of silk is woven into the banded garden spider’s web. Scientists speculate the decorative addition may work like a lure to attract flying and jumping insects. I was wishing it wasn’t there to mar the perfection of the web, but apparently I knew nothing about banded garden spiders.

Speedy Salenopid

Waiting to ambush

Waiting to ambush

Now that I’m working, I don’t have as much time to poke around in the desert watching for cool plants and critters. These days, Onelookout often concerns wild things discovered inside the house.

There’s been a spider living in the family room for a couple of weeks now. We see him on the wall, usually poised about four inches from the framed picture of Husky stadium. The aerial photograph from the 70’s encompasses many of our early hangouts and is a fond relic of college days at University of Washington.

When I first spied the spider I thought to whack him with my flip flop. But as I crept up, he easily nipped behind the picture frame. The lightning fast Salenopid crab spider watches with six eyes, and yes, he notices every move you make.

I’ve written about this crevice dwelling spider before…when a spider we called Flattie lived briefly in the laundry room. Salenopid crab spiders are mostly found here in the Southwest, and are known to consume lots of insects, but never humans.

With that in mind, I decided to let this spider remain in his hangout behind Husky stadium. We continued to see him now and then near the picture. Then Marc reported he’d seen Salenopid again, this time high in the stairwell.

The stairwell is some distance from the family room! Well, Salenopid’s a speedy guy and maybe our square footage about matches the territorial needs of a crab spider.

Later, I was reading about urban agriculture on the desktop, when a paper rattled on my desk. I looked down in time to see the spider scuttling sideways across the sheet. I could actually hear the drumming of his eight little feet.

I guess I’m getting better at acknowledging that we share this land with other natural beings. Maybe it’s learning to live with the spiders at the greenhouse, all in the name of Integrated Pest Management. In any case, I did not scream.

When Salenopid visited my desk, I just went into the kitchen. When I came back later, the spider was gone. We haven’t seen him since. I imagine that his vision of me, through all those eyes was the more terrifying, but I’m quite sure he did not scream either.

Another Unexpected Visitor

Ground snake in the pool net

Ground snake in the pool net

In a good monsoon season monster storms roll in packing high winds, lightning and absolute torrents of rain. Monsoon season is also exciting because wild critters show up in the strangest places.

Last week Marc found this colorful little snake swimming in the pool. It was a bit out of place there, because this is a ground snake (Sonora semiannulata). Small and glossy, these snakes grow to be only 19 inches long. Ground snakes come in a wide variety of colorings and markings, and are found in a wide variety of habitats, including Phoenix metropolitan neighborhoods according to Thomas C. Brennan of

Desert species of ground snakes are nocturnal during the hot months of the year, so again it’s hard to say why this snake was in the pool in the afternoon. He should have been napping in a cool burrow waiting for nighttime, hunting time. Ground snakes prey on insects, spiders, scorpions and lizards, all plentiful around here in the summer.

Even more out of place was the tiny, and I mean tiny, ground snake the cats found in the house last evening. Boo and Bandit are pretty useless as far as ferreting out spiders and scorpions inside, although they do get motivated by moths. But the boys were beside themselves over this writhing little snake, and I had to push them out of the way to get a better look. At first I thought they had cornered a centipede.

The snake was no more than four inches long and about as big around as a piece of cooked spaghetti, but it was clearly orange with black bands, just like the snake pictured in the pool net.

Audubon’s Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians states that male ground snakes fight for the right to mate a comely female. They mate in both spring and fall and females lay clutches of up to six eggs. It takes 7-10 weeks before the snakes hatch out, just 4-5 inches long. Our monsoon visitor must have been brand new. Who knows how it ended up inside the house; Marc scooped it up and put it out where it belonged.

When I came into the kitchen this morning both cats were sitting in front of the refrigerator staring into the black space underneath. “Now what?!”
We pulled the fridge away from the wall, but found nothing lurking to surprise u

Feeling antsy

ant image
I’ve been overcome this week by creatures smaller than this type font. This happens every summer as the monsoon season edges in. I’m always surprised and horrified as my beloved nature invades the house and requires drastic measures…. poison even.

Every year their strategy is a little different. This year it started on Monday morning with a scattering of miniscule ants on the kitchen floor. Hustling around on my way to work, I scooped them up with a rag soaked in vinegar. Later in the day I scattered diatomaceous earth around the doorways.

A few hours later I find ants massing on the kitchen floor (while the cats sit nearby, apparently transfixed). Worse, a line of larger and even faster ants march in formation up the wall, under the cabinet light fixture and into the spice cupboard. Opening the door, I find an enthusiastic frenzy of ants mobbing the sticky honey container.

Somehow, from all the way outside in the hot desert, these (dumb?) insects “discovered” my gooey honey container! I must say I experienced extreme frustration and a semi-minor meltdown at that point.

Sent hubby to the store for pet-friendly ant spray. (Poison)

We sprayed at all the entrances to the house and behind the fixtures beneath the cupboard. Then I freaked out about spraying poison inside and mopped it all up. Living ants scurried ahead of me carrying dead (or dying?) ants on their backs.

Esteemed biologist E.O. Wilson says he never outgrew the “bug stage” that boys (and many girls) go through. He claims his groundbreaking study of ants came about because ants are easy to find, social creatures. Wilson discovered that each species of ants has its own unique culture. He found that ant societies are held together by chemical communication. Lacking sight and smell, ants thrive following the information-laden pheromone trails they leave for each other.

Those trails in our house apparently allowed the tiny scouts that entered our kitchen to communicate to the larger gatherers the location of not only the honey container, but the next day, the kaluha bottle in the booze cupboard. After we had cleaned up those two sticky areas, the persistent ants found still another pot of gold – the sugar bowl, tucked away and forgotten on a high shelf. (eeek)

As annoying as the ant experience has been, I have to admire these fascinating little critters that willingly sacrifice themselves to find a food source to perpetuate their community.

E.O. Wilson is 86 now, and spends his time urging humans to recognize the importance of all life. “Biodiversity is the totality of all inherited variation in the life forms of Earth, of which we are one species. We study and save it to our great benefit. We ignore and degrade it to our great peril.”

Check out E.O. Wilson’s tremendous website on biodiversity.

Summer Solstice Snake Story


I find I organize my thoughts and perceptions into patterns that if not entirely comforting, are at least expected, so that I can negotiate my days in a somewhat orderly manner. Maybe everyone does this.

Leave it to Nature to toss out surprises to jolt us from our comfort zone and even make our adrenalin rush.

My husband provided this Onelookout summer solstice report from the local golf course. He, or his golf buddy, shanked a ball into the rough and the two of them searched a grove of desert mesquite trees for the missing ball. Marc says a movement overhead caught his eye.

Wound gracefully in a nearby mesquite, about seven feet up, a handsome gopher snake cast its head about in search of prey. The three foot long reptile wore a striking pattern in colors of cream and brown.

When the snake saw the golfers it slithered smoothly down the rough barked trunk. Without seeming to hurry much, the snake quickly disappeared into a burrow at the base of the tree.

Gopher snakes are good burrowers, climbers and swimmers, but mostly of course they are constrictors. This impressive snake species provides us the great service of rodent population control. The snake Marc saw may have been hunting for lizards in the tree or even baby birds.

Even here in the Southwest desert, coming across a snake is always surprising and somewhat alarming. A snake in a tree, on a golf course?

My husband sounded pretty thrilled to experience a jolt of wildlife to spice up his day.

Give Me the News of the Earth

Palo Verde tree

Palo Verde tree

We start our day with Good Morning America, NPR or a faithful study of the daily newspaper. We tell ourselves we are staying abreast of local happenings and gaining perspective on world events. You could also say this media addiction is a mass exercise in navel gazing, because all of our news concerns…guess who…us!

Break free of attempts by the media to influence your thoughts and by the marketers to take your money. Find real news outside in signs from the natural world.

Outside you may hear a chorus of birds. In my backyard a verdin peeps incessantly while doves harmonize and a thasher provides the melody. Underlying the bird calls is a steady drone of bees come to visit the flowering plants.

In a deep canyon nearby I shuffle through sand and past boulders on a path made by water. The arroyo is laced with a string of golden-blossomed palo verde trees. Instead of water, bees flow by in a steady stream. Instead of the gurgle of water I hear the rising and falling buzz of these bees. Why are bees so buzzy?

Scientific American provides an answer from Gard Otis, a professor of environmental biology at the University of Guelph in Ontario who studies bee behavior, ecology and evolution.
“Bees buzz for two reasons. First, the rapid wingbeats of many species create wind vibrations that people hear as buzzes. The larger the bee, the slower the wingbeat and the lower the pitch of the resulting buzz.
In addition some bees, most commonly bumblebees (genus Bombus), are capable of vibrating their wing muscles and thorax (the middle segment of their body) while visiting flowers. These vibrations shake the pollen off the flower’s anthers and onto the bee’s body. Some of that pollen then gets deposited on the next flower the bee visits, resulting in pollination. The bee grooms the remainder of the pollen onto special pollen-carrying structures (on the hind legs of most bees) and takes it back to the nest to feed to the larvae.
When bumblebees vibrate flowers to release pollen, the corresponding buzz is quite loud. Honeybees (genus Apis) are incapable of buzz-pollination and are usually quiet when foraging on flowers.”

Outside we gradually become aware of the carefully calibrated systems that govern the remarkable relationships between thousands and millions of plants, animals, insects, microbes and minerals, as well as the currents in the oceans and the atmosphere.

Imagine, this astounding world that represents the resources that allow our existence evolved over billions of years, without any help from us. Perhaps more of us should be studying the workings of nature instead of the latest shenanigans of politicians and celebrities. Give me the news of the earth any day.

Fantastic Frogs

Tiny canyon tree frog

Tiny canyon tree frog

Couch's spadefoot can be 3 inches or more in size.

Couch’s spadefoot can be 3 inches or more in size.

On March 19 I drove out to the Superstition Mountains, under a threatening sky split with trembling shafts of sunlight. It had rained the night before and again that morning, and as my hiking pal and I set out on the Second Water Trail the cool air was heavy with humidity and sweet with the scent of desert plants.

At the outset the trail descended gently to a boulder strewn wash. It was obvious that in rain events water thunders here, draining mountainous faces that loom craggy and forbidding. Familiar desert trees were joined by lush vines, and lichen and moss sprawled across rocky stretches. Timid lupine, larkspur and hyacinth shyly presented their spectrum of blue blossoms while brittle bushes and creosote flowered in bold yellow.

We hiked for several hours and the day was warming when I noticed movement at ground level. Expecting a lizard, I was astounded to see a small brown frog hop across the trail. He reached the shade of a large rock and slipped out of sight. It was a canyon treefrog, known for cryptic coloring that helps it hide in a variety of habitats.

The canyon treefrog is usually found in rocky canyons in riparian areas. This might be in the desert, in desert grasslands or oak-pine forests. The frog survives in elevations up to 9800 feet, avoiding cold temperatures by retreating to underground burrows.

I saw another frog a week later. I was outside with my Mesa Community College aquaponics class when one of the students spied a frog. It’s an evening class and we often walk over to the greenhouse, adjacent garden, and aquaponics systems to work. As we approached the dimly lit garden, a large frog hopped across the path.

Our professor scooped him up and held him so we could all admire his olive green coloring and dark green blotches. “This is a Couch’s spadefoot,” Dr. Brooks announced. “When I was a kid these frogs used to be everywhere.” The frog’s large eyes bugged out at us from the top of its head.

Apparently back in the day, spadefoots were a common sight in the evening times, especially in areas with sandy soils where drought hardy creosote and mesquite trees grew. Back then people knew the eerie nighttime scream they heard on monsoon nights was the mating call of this frog.

Mating season coincides with the torrential rainfalls of late summer. The spadefoots are called from their underground homes by the drumming of the rain on the earth and by the rumble of thunder. The males come up out of their burrows and immediately start calling the females. In The Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, the call of Couch’s spadefoot is described as the bleating cry that a sheep or goat might make. I would guess most of us aren’t familiar with that sound either.

Females lay thousands of eggs which can hatch in as little as 15 hours. The tiny tadpoles transform quickly into frogs, driven by the rapid shrinkage of the pools where they spawned. The brand new frogs hide under vegetation or anyplace slightly moist, and eat and eat. They feed on grasshoppers, ants, beetles and spiders. This may be the frogs’ only chance to eat until the monsoon season rolls around again. The horny growths or “spades” on their back legs help the frogs dig down into their protective burrows.

Frogs in the desert strike me as improbable, and in these days, nearly impossible. But nature has found a way to put amphibians into our arid landscape and allow them to flourish. As much as Nature favors delicate yet resilient amphibians, humans have mostly stayed immune to their charms and ignorant of their ways.