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Over the weekend Marci went hiking in the foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains with our friend Erin. At one point they stumbled upon some desert hackberry plants (Celtis pallida) full of large ripe orange berries. Unfortunately they were not equipped to harvest many of the berries, but they brought back a small jarfull. The berries are delicious and we are excited to make some hackberry jam.

We went out later to look for more hackberries in the Tucson Mountains, but the plants were mostly devoid of ripe berries. They’re at a lower elevation than the plants in the Santa Catalinas, so we’re not sure when they were producing, but we’ll have to remember next year that mid-fall is hackberry season!

The berries began to spoil very quickly (after the first night they were starting to turn brown), so we froze them until we can figure out something interesting to do with them.

A wash in the Tucson Mountains

A wash in the Tucson Mountains, a typical habitat for desert hackberries and many other native species.

Closeup of native desert vegetation in the Tucson Mountains

A closeup showing characteristic native vegetation along the wash (especially desert hackberries, Acacia, velvet mesquites, etc.), and further from the wash (saguaros, palo verdes, etc.).

A desert hackberry

A desert hackberry (Celtis pallida) along a wash in the Tucson Mountains. This plant was devoid of ripe berries.

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This past weekend I visited Desert Survivors, a fantastic plant nursery in Tucson which specializes in desert-adapted plants. Most of their plants are native to the Tucson area, although we’ve gotten a fair number of non-native species from them, such as our pomegranate and fig trees. This time we were wanting native shrubs, to fill in some relatively bare areas in our yard. We’re planning to eventually write a more extensive blog post about our yard, including what plants we have and how the yard is laid out. For now, though, I want to just briefly describe the new plants we bought:

  • Quailbush, Atriplex lentiformis: This species provides shelter and food to birds (including chickens), so we placed this inside our chicken yard. It’s actually replacing a quailbush which had been in a nearby spot but was killed by a combination of overshading and chicken damage (they seemed to like digging around the base of this plant). This time we placed the plant in a sunnier spot and placed large rocks around the base to thwart the chickens. As soon as the plant was in the ground the chickens began eating its leaves, so I constructed a chicken wire cage to protect it until it gets large enough to survive their aggressions.
  • Saltbush, Atriplex berlandieri: I bought two of these plants in the hopes that we could use it to replace salt in our diets. We had originally intended to get fourwing saltbush (Atriplex canescens), but in a taste test at Desert Survivors A. berlandieri proved to be dramatically saltier. I know that the conditions under which the plants grow influences the degree of salt sequestration in their leaves, so it’s possible that in our yard the situation will be different. With this caveat in mind, we are hoping that the plants will remain salty, as we believe that they could meet our salt needs once they are larger. We placed one of the plants between our lime tree and pomegranate tree. These trees are irrigated with the graywater from our washing machine, so salt buildup is a potential long-term problem. The saltbush should help to mitigate this buildup somewhat. We planted the other one along our north fence, which is one of the most exposed areas of our yard. We are curious to see how the plants respond to these very different conditions.
  • Fairy duster, Calliandra eriophylla: This is a common plant in the desert around Tucson. It is a small shrubby legume with beautiful pink flowers. We planted it between our fig tree and lime tree, which are in a basin bordering our flagstone patio. We hope that the fairy duster will help to fill out that area, provide some nice color, and attract hummingbirds. It should nicely complement the pink globemallow (Sphaeralcea sp.) and sacred datura (Datura wrightii) we have planted in the same area.
  • Wild cotton, Gossypium thurberi: We placed several of our new plants on the northeast side of the house, in an area that we’d been using as a winter and summer garden. We haven’t had much success gardening in that spot, however, so we decided to fill it out with some native shrubs. The first thing we planted there was a wild cotton plant. This is a beautiful plant which produces small bolls of cotton. I bought this on a whim, and am glad I did, as I think it will be very nice.
  • Canyon hackberry, Celtis reticulata: This species, which produces edible berries, grows to be a large shrub or small tree (up to 30′ tall). We were hesitant to plant it on the northeast side of our house, where it would be competing with a mature velvet mesquite (Prosopis velutina) and a young blue palo verde (Parkinsonia floridum). However, the guy I spoke with at Desert Survivors assured me that it would actually be an ideal location for a canyon hackberry. He said that they are often found growing intertwined with other trees in the wild. In the chicken yard we also have a desert hackberry (Celtis pallida), which does better in full sun.
  • Wolfberry, Lycium fremontii: This is a thorny shrub which produces delicious edible berries. We planted one last year in the chicken yard, and it was doing great until the chickens damaged some of the roots (apparently killing half of the plant). I placed a large rock at its base to prevent future damage, and it seems to be recovering. We planted the new wolfberry on the north side of the house, near the above-mentioned palo verde. We chose this spot partly as an experiment, as it is almost exactly on the opposite side of the house from the other wolfberry. As with the saltbushes, I am curious to see how the plants respond to the different conditions (one will get more sunlight and fertilizer from chicken droppings, but the other will get more water).
  • Sotol, aka desert spoon, Dasylirion wheeleri: I had always thought that this interesting plant was a species of Yucca. Sotol, it turns out, is not a yucca in the strict sense but is fairly closely-related. In any case, this is a very useful plant: it was traditionally used for food and fiber, and is still used today to make an alcoholic drink. Apparently this drink, which is also called sotol, is the state drink of the Mexican state of Chihuahua. We bought two of these plants and placed them along our north fence.
  • Babybonnets, Coursetia glandulosa: This is a nice shrubby legume which produces yellow and white flowers. It grows to 20 feet tall, so we figured that it would make a nice privacy screen on our north fence, which tends to usually be exposed to our neighbors’ yard and to the street beyond. I say “usually” because the neighbors have a long thicket of oleanders which they always cut back to about 6 feet just as they get tall enough to give us some privacy. Now, I have to just come out and say it: I hate oleanders. I’m sure they’re very nice in their native habitat, but in Arizona they are planted everywhere, and I mean everywhere. They are big water hogs, they are deadly poisonous and produce allelopathic chemicals (poisoning the ground around them to prevent other plants from growing), they’re very difficult to get rid of, they’re not native, and they’re just not that attractive, in my opinion. It drives me nuts that both our neighbors to the south and our neighbors to the north have planted oleanders bordering our property. My one hope comes in the form of a virus which is apparently killing oleanders in Phoenix. May it soon show up in Tucson! I would love to see all oleanders disappear from Tucson and be replaced with native or at least useful non-native plants. OK, that’s enough oleander-bashing for this post. Maybe sometime I’ll devote a whole post to Oleander Hate. Wouldn’t that be fun?
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