Stalking the boojum in the Sonoran Desert

  • Sonoran Desert Plants

  From afar, the Sonoran Desert is a stonewashed, monochromatic expanse. Look closer, and you’ll swear that fantasy writer Lewis Carroll did the landscaping.

Two rainy seasons each year give the Sonoran Desert stunning biodiversity and some pretty quirky plant species — many so specialized to a particular place that budding naturalists are likely to need help finding them. That’s where Sonoran Desert Plants comes in.

This paperback edition is a revised and expanded update of the classic 1972 guide by Raymond Turner and the late Rod Hastings, which has stood the test of time. Little wonder: It was the product of a century of native plant research by the U.S. Geological Survey, the Carnegie Institution, and universities and plant museums the world over.

Sonoran Desert Plants covers 339 perennial species, mostly trees, shrubs and succulents. It’s friendly to nonspecialists: Each listing includes the plant’s scientific and common names, a distribution map, an elevation chart, and botanical details such as flowering season, plant structure, and associated pollinators. About one-quarter of the entries feature black-and-white photographs.

There’s plenty of useful scientific description, so desert rats can tell Ferocactus wislizeni from Ferocactus emoryi while sneaking up on Idria columnaris — otherwise known as boojum trees, bizarre columns of green that hold up the heavens. And there’s a bit of history tossed in, too, so you can settle a debate about which came first, the boojum tree or Carroll’s whimsical creature of the same name in "The Hunting of the Snark."

During an update of this text in 1995, the authors expressed a sense of urgency about field work — and about popularizing their results — because they saw that the fantastical, fragile plants they describe are in trouble.

"An unprecedented influx of people into the region has resulted in substantial changes in many biotic communities," they wrote. "Basic knowledge of native species will be an essential tool for creative, sustainable human habitation of the Sonoran Desert."

It’s a welcome whiff of mission in an otherwise technical manual — and the call-out to citizen scientists is more relevant now than ever.

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