Succulent hunting in the Arizona desert

Only two weeks to go to Christmas. That means two weeks and a day until I set out on my 7th annual post-Christmas trip south. Like 6 out of these 7 times, it will be to Arizona. What can I say? I love the desert, especially the Sonoran, and I need my yearly fix!

Looking back at my previous excursions, I realized that I never blogged about a December 2016 outing to the Waterman Mountains with agave guru Greg Starr, author of Agaves: Living Sculptures for Landscapes and Containers, and desert rat Ron Parker, author of Chasing Centuries: The Search for Ancient Agave Cultivars Across the Desert Southwest. It was one of the most memorable experiences I ever had in the Sonoran Desert, and the photos I took are too good not to share.

Located about 25 miles northwest of Tucson, the Waterman Mountains are part of Ironwood Forest National Monument. This is a remote area inhabited by few, if any, souls. The roads we took after getting off Interstate 10 got progressively narrower and bumpier. That was before we entered territory that can only be described as hair-raising. Ron, to his credit, handled the many potholes and sharp rocks with great skill (and speed). Eventually the “road” got too bad to continue so we parked the car and set off on foot.

We climbed about 600 ft. over a mile or mile and a half to an altitude of about 3,000 ft. What we saw along the way was amazing: Echinocactus horizonthalonius var. nicholii (rare and federally protected), Ferocactus acanthodes (a barrel cactus known for its fiery red spines on young plants), Echinocereus nicholii (a beautiful hedgehog cactus with golden spines), Mammillaria grahamii, untold numbers of ocotillos (Fouquieria splendens), saguaros (Carnegiea gigantea), and of course the star of the show for me: Agave simplex. You'll see all of these in this post.

Opuntia chlorotica

Opuntia chlorotica with its distinctive “crest” of golden glochids on top of the pad

Opuntia chlorotica and a young Echinocactus horizonthalonius var. nicholii

Echinocactus horizonthalonius var. nicholii

Older specimen of Echinocactus horizonthalonius var. nicholii

Baby Echinocactus horizonthalonius var. nicholii

It takes a while to develop your “desert eyes” that allow you to spot plants (or animals) amidst the random jumble of rocks:

Older Ferocactus acanthodes (the barrel cactus previously known as Ferocactus cylindraceus)

Seeing how all three of us are agave lovers, our main focus was Agave deserti var. simplex. In contrast to Agave deserti var. deserti, which is found in Southern and Baja California, var. simplex does not form large clumps consisting of numerous offsets. Based on this and other morphological differences, Ron Parker was passionately arguing in favor of elevating Agave deserti var. simplex to species status. And lo and behold, that's exactly what happened earlier this year when Andrew Salywon and Wendy Hodgson of the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix formally described Agave simplex as a new species, more closely related to Agave mckelveyana and Agave subsimplex than to Agave deserti var. deserti. (If you're interested, you can read the formal description here.)

Greg Starr examining one of many specimens of Agave simplex we would see

Seeing how beautiful this agave species is, I find it hard to understand why it's so rare in cultivation

This is the mining “road” we hiked on, or rather what's left of it

This crack in the rock must have held just a bit more moisture than other spots...

...making it a favorable enough micro-environment for one agave seed to germinate and grow

More rock dwellers: Nichol's hedgehog cactus (Echinocereus nicholii)...

...and a small saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea)

While small, this saguaro is at least a dozen years old

Wavy cloak fern (Astrolepis sinuata)

Ferocactus acanthodes (left), Echinocereus nicholii (right)

Ferocactus acanthodes in the middle of the road

It must have rotted and then tumbled down the hillside

I kept wondering what this road was like in its heyday. It leads to a mine that has been out of commission for many decades.

What's left of a bloomed-out Agave simplex

Several Agave simplex babies clustered around an ocotillo

The higher we climbed, the more Agave simplex we saw

Often they were growing near ocotillos—maybe just a coincidence, considering how common ocotillos are in that area

Greg Starr studying an Agave simplex growing among the ocotillos

Agave simplex and ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)

Ocotillos with Agave simplex (left) and Echinocactus horizonthalonius var. nicholii

Wider view from the road/trail

Echinocereus nicholii...

...perched on a rock

More Agave simplex growing next to a particularly rough stretch of “road”

Agave simplex

Opuntia macrocentra, the only specimen I remember seeing

Adolescent saguaro (Carnegiea gigantea) growing on a pile of rocks

A young fire barrel (Ferocactus acanthodes, formerly Ferocactus cylindraceus)

Greg Starr pouring water on this fire barrel to demonstrate how their color becomes even more vivid in the rain

The same Ferocactus acanthodes, now wet

Fire barrel is a good common name, isn't it?

The higher we got...

...the better the views were

Ocotillo (Fouquiera splendens) and Cochise scaly cloak fern (Astrolepis cochisensis)

Cochise scaly cloak fern (Astrolepis cochisensis)

Fallen ocotillo proved to be a prickly obstacle in the middle of the trail

One of the prettiest Agave simplex we encountered

Greg Starr pointing at a small pup, a fairly rare occurrence since Agave simplex doesn't usually offset

Barren and desolate to some, searingly beautiful to me

From this height we could finally see a road

No, this was the prettiest Agave simplex

Perfect form

If only I could have taken some of these rocks home with me

Astrolepis cochisensis

By now I was getting better... spotting small cactus growing among the rocks

Echinocactus horizonthalonius var. nicholii

This Agave simplex baby really wants more water

The green flecks are copper

View from the highest point we got to (an abandoned mine shaft)

What remains of a rock wall near the mine shaft

My two hiking companions on the trail

View of the old mining road/our trail

This stretch was fairly steep, explaining my near-constant huffing and puffing

Still got your desert eyes on?

Graham's nipple cactus (Mammillaria grahamii)

I'd love to have this rock and this cactus right in our front garden!

Mammillaria grahamii

On our 2½ hour hike we met only two other people on the trail. This was as close to wilderness as I've come in a long time even though we were back in Tucson an hour later. I wouldn't have ventured out into the Waterman Mountains without Greg and Ron, and I'm very grateful they took me under their wings.

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  1. What an adventure, truly memorable. Gorgeous gorgeous place with two very experienced desert hikers.

    Agave simplex, it's very elegant in form and the banding and solitary habit is a plus. I'll keep an eye open for that one.

    I know what you mean about developing a "desert eye"--around here on the still wild hills I used to have no clue as to the plants, but with more and more practice now I can pick them out.

    Have a great time in AZ!

    1. I've seen Agave deserti var. deserti in nurseries since it's considered a California native. But it pups like crazy and doesn't have the elegant form as Agave simplex.

  2. Wow, the frosty blue color of the A.simplex just jumps out! Each one, as you say, prettier than the last. And the wet fire barrel: eye-popping. I suppose dousing one just before a CSSA show is Not Done...

  3. Wonderful photos, and as Hoov says; what an adventure! Glad to hear you're back on the road after the holiday, I look forward to your photos from your new adventures.

    1. You never know where the road less traveled might take you. Of course it could also be in a ditch somewhere :-)

  4. Marvelous photos. I'm glad you didn't leave them on the cutting room floor. You're right about the appeal of Agave simplex - it's a specimen I'd love to see in distribution.

    1. Please let me know if you spot any Agave simplex in a retail nursery!

  5. Most of these plants, esp the ferocactus, I've only seen through "plant show eyes," in containers, so seeing them in situ does take a bit of readjustment and getting your "desert eyes" on. Nice to have the old mine trail to follow -- I need to get out there!

    1. We found lots of colorful rocks in the mine tailings. Of course hauling them off the mountain is another thing altogether!

  6. Really enjoyed your photos of what must have been an awe-inspiring hike with two amazing experts. I especially appreciated your photos of the rock formations. The diagonal fracturing is so beautiful. Hoping to make use of this look in the garden I'm currently planting. Rocks are on order!

  7. What a great post with incredible photos. Brings back some great memories. Let's go create some new ones!


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