Return to AZ

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Nolina parryi subsp. wolfii in the Kingston Mountains

Who remembers way back when I first started the nursery—which, a few of you may recall, began as a seed business—and I did quite a bit of traveling to California and the Southwest to collect seeds of virtually any interesting plants I could find, that I thought I could sell? I know, it was a while ago. Until this year, my last trip to such far-off destinations was in 2005. Finally, in 2018, I have managed another excursion down that way, plus another shorter trip that I will tell you about also.

But before we get on to the important part of this post, we should pause to note that I have reminded myself of the need to watch “Return to Oz,” one of those great movies which I think didn’t do that well upon release, but is certain to actually be quite interesting. I probably saw it long ago but I’m darned if I can remember anything about it. We will also note that this is the first blog post I have produced in who-knows-how-long which does not have the sole purpose of announcing an upcoming open house or plant sale. So that’s special. What can I say, it’s a major challenge to make time for blogging at this time in my life.

However, lest anyone get the impression this post is entirely recreational, I must announce that seeds will be trickling back into our selection of offerings here at the Desert Northwest. It only makes sense that we should sell some of what we collect; if we have an excess there is no point of just letting it sit around until it loses viability. And excesses are inevitable for things like Agaves, which can yield tens of thousands of seeds from a single infructescence (I’ll be using that word a couple more times, so I hope you like it). In any case, watch this space for more news about seeds, including a selection of Agaves and similar exciting items. Some of them will be mentioned later in this post. Ok, commercial announcement over, now on to the fun part.

So what exactly have I been up to? Well, I don’t know if I’ll have time to write up a whole trip report and put it on the web site, like I used to, so we’ll give it the brief (but not too brief!) blog summary. But before we get to AZ and Agaves, I must tell of the earlier trip, which was shorter and less ambitious, but still worthwhile. In the last week of September I took off for a five day trip to southern Oregon and northern California, during which I tracked down things like manzanita cuttings (not that these are hard to find), and acorns of evergreen oaks.

Collecting acorns presented a new challenge. Since I failed to calculate into my plans the amount of time it takes to track down acorns of certain oak species, and then to actually collect them; I found myself running behind schedule the entire trip. This was because in past years I always seemed to miss my chance with the acorns due to being too early, too late, or choosing a bad year for seed set. This year, remarkably enough, I hit it just right. And once acorns are actually found, the amount of time it takes to collect them really adds up: hence being constantly behind. But all’s well that ends well, as the saying goes; and I ended up with a lot of good collections, such as this Quercus durata growing along a remote mountain road.

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Q. durata. There were easier places to get to this, but hey. This is a wonderful evergreen shub with attractive leaves in all seasons, and conspicuous acorns! This deserves much wider use in gardens, and should be completely drought tolerant in the Northwest.

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And some fun manzanitas like this one (A. manzanita subsp. weislandieri, I suppose) north of Chico with enormous leaves. I noticed everything was particularly crispy dry in this area. I was hoping for Heteromeles seeds but they apparently failed to mature, perhaps due to dry conditions. When I came through there in 2014 they had loads of red berries!)

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For some reason I had never seen Woodwardia fimbriata in the wild before, until now. (I drove through here in 2014 and didn’t notice them, for some reason.)

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Ran across a really, really nice blue form of Quercus douglasii near Platina with thick, deep blue leaves. Not a lot of seeds on it though.

Of course the trip would not be without a misadventure of some sort. It was Saturday night when I was driving “my” rental car up that Berry Summit between Willow Creek and Arcata, on a winding road in the dark and pouring rain, and my tire pressure light came on. Oh crap, I thought, why does it have to be now? I checked out the tires and none of them appeared to be flat enough to explode just yet. Thankfully the tire survived long enough to reach a Tractor Supply Co. in Arcata just before they closed, where I bought a pump to temporarily keep the tire going. I also discovered the problem, which was a screw stuck in the tire. It wasn’t until the next day that Ev’s High Tech Service in Gold Beach repaired the tire properly. They were great, and I’m really glad they were there when I needed them!

So after a drizzly morning excursion in which I discovered I was too late to collect seed of Notholithocarpus densiflorus var. echinoides, I stopped off and visited Ben Gardener in Pistol River, who may be known to some of my readers. He is a pioneer of Australian plant growing on the West Coast who really doesn’t get the credit he deserves. My main reason for visitng was that I had borrowed some books from him twelve years ago and felt I ought to return them, which I did. He said he would put them on the Rare Book Shelf, since a rare book is the one that gets returned. I was glad to find him still on his feet and living in the same spot at the spry age of 93. I told him I’ll be happy if I’m in half as good of shape at that age, although he may have been slowing down just slightly. He was kind enough to take me to his niece’s garden and welcomed me to take cuttings of Australian plants, which I did in such a way so that almost nothing would be noticed to be missing. So Rebecca (I don’t seem to have your contact details, sorry), if you’re reading this, thank you for the cuttings!

Then it was off to Gib Cooper’s place to check out Tradewinds Bamboo Nursery. This was highly anticipated not just because of my continuing interest in bamboo, but also because the last time I had been there was 16 years ago. So a lot had changed from before; some plants had grown much larger (Oldeania alpina, which wasn’t called that 16 years ago), some looked the same (Chusquea foliosa, which occasionally freezes to the ground), and certain remarkable specimens weren’t even there the first time, like the massive Borinda macclureana pictured below. I also bought six more bamboos I didn’t have, that being about what I could fit into the rental car with all the seeds, cooler full of cuttings, campling gear, and other travel essentials I had brought.

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Borinda macclureana, at 10 years old, is a stunner of a plant! All the Borindas are great, but this one may take the cake for a tropical-looking, HARDY bamboo. It’s hard to get a feel for the scale in this photo but it’s easily 30′ tall and wide at the top; exponentially more impressive than any Fargesia.

I did not pass through Bandon or Yachats (places of botanical interest that you may read about elsewhere on the nursery web site), because at Gold Beach I cut east and headed towards Grants Pass via the “coastal route” where James Kim died a few weeks after I went through there in 2006. Sad to say this whole area was a major mess. As I progressed east, the going got slow because numerous large paved sections had been taken out of the road and replaced with gravel (new culverts, I guess, and who knows what other maintenance): this road used to be nice and smooth the whole way; I wonder if it will be repaved. I had been hoping for seeds of Quercus vaccinifolia and Chrysolepis chrysophylla, but with earlier delays (tire repair, road condition) it really got too dark by the time I made it east of the crest where they are found. I was also hoping for Q. sadleriana seeds; I was too late to get more than a small handful. (They had plenty of seeds the second week of October in 2012 when I came through there with Mike Lee and Vor Hostelter! I guess summers were cooler then.)

On the east side of the coastal route, the road was better, but fire camps were set up here and there as fire crews finished off the Klondike and Taylor Creek fires. They also “finished off” about every living thing within 20 yards of the road by cutting fire lines. It is incredible how much destruction can be caused by a motivated fire crew in a short amount of time. A lot of my favorite Arctostaphylos canescens plants that I had taken cuttings from before were razed completely to the ground. So the whole area looks ugly, but don’t read me wrong: I acknowledge the necessity of controlling wildfires, and appreciate firefighters very much. I’m glad this large fire was in a nearly unpopulated area. Anyway, perhaps out of the ashes will come a lot of interesting new manzanitas: I’ll have to go back in three years and check. Then after a quick stop off at Cistus Nursery, I returned home.

So after a week and a half to spend at home and sort through all that stuff, and process cuttings, I left once again in another rental car for a longer and more ambitious trip. This was a trip that really should have been done in at least 16 or better yet 20 days, but given the constraints of family life I figured I’d better limit it to 12. On this trip as well as the last, I spent probably far too much time hunting down Opuntia fragilis in the Shasta Valley. Remind me not to bother with that again. Then there was the hunt for modoc cypress (Cupressus bakeri) which I believe I saw but there were way too many darn junipers in there so as to confuse matter substantially, and none of the cypresses had any seeds. (But at least they were labeled—a rare treat for wild plants!) So the end result of that was that once again I started the trip off behind schedule. I did some real late night driving down to almost Bishop, CA to try to catch up.

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I love it when wild plants are labeled! Why can’t they all be that easy?

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Quercus chrysolepis growing above Devil’s Half Acre, a lava flow just east of Lassen Park. Who knew this attractive broadleaf evergreen could be found in such a high, cold, and snowy area? We’re in at least USDA zone 5 here if not 4. I expect the city of Spokane to be all over this to promote as a street tree.

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I also visited some really interesting and rather ambiguous Opuntia basilaris and/or O. erinacea types along CA Hwy 168, which someone had posted to Facebook so I thought I’d better check them out. A long time ago someone didn’t want to tell me where to find hardy cacti in the Bishop area of California. But now I found them, so, ha.

The next day it took way longer than I thought to get all the way down to the Tecopa, California area to camp. I had really wanted to reach the Kingston Mountains that day, but it was too late in the afternoon. So I got up super early the following morning to do it, and had only been driving for 20 minutes when at 6:15 am it was of course time for the obligatory flat tire. This time it was so bad I had to put on the spare, but at least the weather was pleasant instead of raining. I ended up spending the rest of the morning in Pahrump (not really on my way) where I found the tire was beyond repair and I just had to get a new one. It was a Saturday and tire shops were busy, and I had to go around to a few places to come up with a matching tire, so I couldn’t get out of there until just after noon.

After that, since I had already been detoured to Pahrump, I figured I may as well attempt a different adventure than originally planned; in which I hiked two miles across the Mojave Desert in the sun to the Nopah Range, an environment that reminded me of the Mountains of Shadow bordering Mordor. The trek was harder than it looked from the road. I was hoping some of the Agave utahensis subsp. eborispina plants reported from this area might be found at the base of the mountains, but when I got up there I couldn’t see anything. So, not wanting to give up just yet, I started climbing into a canyon. I was just about to turn back, when I finally spotted one still pretty far ahead and high up. It took quite a bit more climbing to get even close to one with a spent infructescence. Finally after a 40’+ rock scramble I arrived at a nice one, only to find I was too late and all the seeds had blown away. So that won’t be on the seed list; sorry. It was only a two hour foray but I was sure glad I brought a lot of water!

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Agave utahensis subsp. eborispina with no seeds, Nopah Range.

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I made a new friend! This was the first time I had seen Echinocactus polycephalus in the wild before.

Finally it was back to the Kingston Mountains. The west approach was even more interesting than I remembered it (again, from 13 years ago) with tons of great cacti including a good variety of Opuntias, Echinocereus and Ferocactus. But the road was horrible. I kept asking myself, how did I actually drive the Volvo through here in 2005 and not get a flat? At the crest of the highway I found Agave utahensis subsp. nevadensis which I missed that year (seed set wasn’t impressive though). Of course, a major reason to go this way was to collect Nolina parryi subsp. wolfii at the northernmost place that it is found in nature. This magnificent plant with its huge rosette of stiff leaves and larger-than-life flower spike is basically the Puya raimondii of North America. And fortunately it is much easier to grow, albeit quite slow growing! So that will be available again—hooray. Note to self: next time approach and leave the Kingston Mountains from the south. The road isn’t great but it’s a lot better!

It was dark when I got out of there, making me basically a day behind. I drove three hours (including right through downtown Vegas) to northwest Arizona to camp in the Beaver Dam Mountains. I had contentedly settled down to what I thought would be a nice relaxing night, when the wind came up in a major way at about 2:30 am and about ripped my tent to shreds. I took it down hastily and managed to save it. I had to try to sleep in the car after that and was awfully tired the next day.

For the next several days I had generally terrible weather, including snow and ice at higher elevations and lots of wind almost anywhere I went. Although I was not unprepared, this made the trip a lot less fun. I had better weather when I went in December 2004! On one night (and I’m no longer relating the trip in chronological order) I wimped out and got a hotel. It snowed in Flagstaff the day after I passed through it stopping there for lunch, but snow in Flagstaff is none too uncommon. On another night I looked and looked for a campsite, but for various reasons all the ones on my route were closed and I ended up sleeping in the car yet again, which turned out to be just as well since it poured rain all night. In the morning I got up and there was a fresh coat of heavy snow in the New River Mountains and the Mogollon Rim. (Why didn’t I get a picture of that? Oh well.) On the same morning, I attempted to drive to the trailhead of the Barnhardt Trail to look for Arizona Fremontodendrons, but the mud on the road was so bad that I did not feel safe continuing and had to turn around, even with four wheel drive (which I was very glad to have!). I couldn’t believe how wet and almost swampy it could be in a place so heavily populated with cacti and Agave chrysantha.

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Echinocereus swamp? South of Payson Arizona.

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Arctostaphylos pungens northeast of Globe. There’s potential in central AZ for manzanitas that will tolerate summer water and heat, to a point, anyway. I made quite a few collections in various places (cuttings, not plants), and it will be interesting to try them all out, provided I can get them to root.

Unlike California, this was not a good year for seeds in Arizona. I could probably research this, and I know they had a wet summer, but I suspect winter and spring there were on the dry side. A lot of the plants I wanted to collect seeds from (especially Yuccas, but even some Agaves) appeared not to have bloomed that year at all, or very little. So hunting around for seeds was an involved process that took longer than I had hoped. Of course, I made the best of it. It took a long time but I eventually found a Nolina microcarpa with good seed set near Show Low, after passing thousands of them with no seeds nor evidence of having flowered this year. The furthest point of my trip was when I drove clear out to Cloudcroft, New Mexico to try to collect Agave neomexicana at 7,600′ where I collected it in 2005 with my friend Steve Smullen, formerly of Las Cruces. But despite an extensive search I found that none of them had any seeds. That was a heck of a lot of extra driving for no seeds, but oh well. The search for A. neomexicana caused me to run out of time to find A. gracilipes near Alamogordo. And I did not quite make it to Texas, so there will be no A. havardiana or A. lechuguilla collections this year.

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Agave neomexicanas which annoyingly had no evidence of flowering and no seeds this year.

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Not a great picture but this is ice on Quercus hypoleucoides at Emory Pass. Yes the weather was lovely.

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This is the giant form of Agave parryi I have collected before near Mimbres, New Mexico. This year I took a moment to measure some rosettes, and made a point of getting seeds from the largest one possible. This rosette measured 54” across!

Although I had already been around Arizona quite a bit, it was only on the return pass when I finally found seeds on any Arizona oaks, in the Chiricahua Mountains. Agave palmeri in that area was easy to find seed of also, which was nice. What I was disappointed not to find any seeds on, despite looking at thousands of them, was Yucca schottii. That plant does great in the Northwest and is in high demand, but better luck next year, I guess. It didn’t help that it was so foggy up there I could hardly see 20′ off the road. A quick hunt for Agave parryi var huachucensis was also unsuccessful due to any of them that were easy to find with seeds being on (apparently) private property. And I did finally find a Yucca schottii near Canelo with two seed capsules on it, but they were heavily guarded by huge, ferocious looking wasps, so I opted to give them a pass. I was happy that day though that the weather finally changed for the better with sun and temperatures above 70; and that I made it to an actual, respectable campsite before dark, in the Catalina Mountains.

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Here’s an oak in the Chiricahua Mountains that looks suspiciously like Q. greggii, which is not supposed to be found outside of Mexico.

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Yucca schottii in the fog. It can be found as high as 8,000′ altitude in the Chiricahua Mountains.

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Quercus oblongifolia near Canelo.

After a bit of poking around the Catalina Mountains, I drove north once again, making my way towards a good high altitude collection of Agave parryi from Mingus Mountain at 7,200′ that could only be reached by climbing up a short cliff. OK, the cliff had footholds, but it has been a while since I attempted anything like that, a bit out of my comfort zone! Well, how else was I supposed to get the seeds? Fortunately I survived and got a large batch of seeds that looks great.

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Arbutus arizonica—had I been a few weeks later, the fruit would have been ripe. Oh well.

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Arctostaphylos pringlei in the Catalina Mountains, growing out of rocks!

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Agave parryi at Mingus Mountain, Arizona.

In the interest of not making this a book I’m skipping over some stuff, but I’ll note that the trip wouldn’t have felt complete without a pass through southern California and the San Jacinto Mountains. This is an area with a winter rainfall maximum and roughly the same amount of winter rain and cold as we get in Sequim. The east slopes of the San Jacinto Mts around 4,000′ is an Opuntia enthusiast’s paradise, with a confusing array of far more species and hyrids than one normally finds in proximity—not to mention Cylindropuntia, Echinocereus, Agave deserti at the highest elevation where it grows, Nolina parryi, Yucca schidigera, and a giant form of Hesperoyucca whipplei, which I again took a moment to measure. Seed hunting here went reasonably well though I once again underestimated how long it would take. I had to be pretty quick about getting up to Wrightwood before dark in the same day to hunt for Hesperoyucca whipplei subsp. caespitosa, where I located some good plants at a higher altitude than my previous collection. These ought to have respectable cold-hardiness, coming from higher than the base of the ski area.

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7′ wide Hesperoyucca whipplei in the San Jacinto Mountains—yes, they really can get that big!

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Agave deserti, a plant which I am convinced would be more popular if it didn’t have such a dumb name. It is an attractive species.

And from there of course it took two days to drive back, though I may have been a bit distracted along the way taking more manzanita cuttings (can one ever have enough?). It was fortunate that I passed through central California on a Sunday, though I still managed to get stuck in traffic for a bit; and that I did not have any more flat tires. As I said I skipped over a lot, but those are some of the important trip highlights. Then there was the adventure of spending most of the next day after I returned home getting the rental car cleaned out and wiping all the mud off places I have no idea how it even got into.

So, what’s next? Well, I am done processing all the cuttings, so that’s good; and I’m still in the middle of cleaning seeds. I need a bit more time to get through that, and then seed availability will be announced here soon. Even if it wasn’t everything I had hoped for, I’m happy to get a few good collections of Agave seed (and a couple Yuccas) so at least for certain species, I don’t have to worry about purchasing seed and wondering if they will come up. I don’t want to pick on any seed companies I mostly like, but I’ve had some issues with that in the last couple of years. It’s nice just to get my own seeds and know they are fresh, and that I can sow as many as I need.

I’m also rather excited for all the Arctostaphylos cuttings. Normally when hunting for Arctostaphylos, I don’t make it further south than the Redding area of California. Besides manzanita there are a few other interesting odds and ends in there as well. This year I will have a lot of new and different collections if I can just keep them all alive and growing. You’ll want to wish me luck with that!

So there you have it: my return to AZ and the Southwest. We’ll see if I decide to do this again sometime or what. After the weather I had, I might make it easier on myself and book some hotels in advance! And did I mention I missed 12 days of sunny, warm weather back home? At least we may all feel reassured that Agaves and cacti can handle nasty, cold and wet weather.

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Selfie with the giant form of Agave chrysantha.

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11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Trillium
    Dec 04, 2018 @ 23:26:32

    Great post! From your nursery, do you ship seeds to Canada? I garden at the north end of the southern desert that stretches up through Colorado into zone 4/5 and I’m trying as many dry land plants to see if, with climate change, they might grow here beside the Fraser River in the Interior of BC.

    Reply

    • Ian
      Dec 07, 2018 @ 22:17:32

      Trillium: Yes that should be possible although I have yet to work out the best possible payment method. But we will definitely have quite a few items that would interest you! A number of Agaves and Yuccas that ought to be hardy to -20 or -25C or so. I was last up your way 2005!

      Reply

    • Gordon
      Dec 07, 2018 @ 23:19:52

      Hi, Ian and thanks for your response! Do you have an online catalog or another way for me to see what seeds you have? Right now, I’m investigating whether or not a shrub called “fern bush” would grow here if I started it from seed.
      Anyway, I would like to keep in touch with you and try to benefit from your knowledge.

      Reply

      • Ian
        Dec 11, 2018 @ 12:13:39

        Hi Gordon, I’m still working on the seed list. I hope to have it available by the end of the year, so please check back! If by “fern bush” we mean Chamaebatiaria millifolium, yes I’m sure you could grow it. We don’t have any seed (or plants) of it though.

      • Trillium
        Dec 11, 2018 @ 20:53:49

        Hi again, Ian. Yes, that is the fern bush I’m looking for.
        I hope you’ll have seeds of some agaves, herperaloes (I have one that loves it here but which refuses to bloom) and other desert plants.

  2. Shelagh Tucker
    Dec 05, 2018 @ 02:34:39

    Terrific post. Thanks Ian.

    Reply

  3. danger garden
    Dec 05, 2018 @ 08:18:10

    Thank goodness there intrepid folks like you willing to give up the comforts to go out and collect seeds! Sign me up for an Agave deserti someday, if you think it would do well in my not so deserti climate.

    Reply

    • Ian
      Dec 07, 2018 @ 22:21:59

      Loree, Feeling a lot less “intrepid” these days as a soak in a hotel hot tub after each day in the field sounds really nice, the next time I do this! I’ll try to produce plenty of those Agave deserti; I don’t know that it’s even had a fair trial in the Northwest.

      Reply

  4. Nancy Kohn
    Dec 05, 2018 @ 23:37:02

    A most excellent adventure! I was in AZ early March this year and it had indeed been one of the drier winters on record. My niece (student at NAU) and I went hiking from a high (7500 or 8000 ft) NW of Flagstaff, completely snow free until reaching the end of a canyon shaded by high cliffs on all sides. The Arizona Snowbowl ski area was operating on manmade snow. Lots of spectacular plants mentioned and photo’d above, but the oval-leafed oak(?) really caught my eye!

    Reply

    • Ian
      Dec 07, 2018 @ 22:23:32

      Hi Nancy, glad you enjoyed the post, and thanks for confirming my suspicions. I did get some seeds off that oak, but I have to figure out how to keep them going as they started germinating almost immediately! It’s too cold to plant them outside now even in the greenhouse. So wish me luck figuring that one out– I’d love to be able to offer it for sale.

      Reply

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