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Common Southwestern Native Plants, An Identification Guide

Author : Jack L. Carter
Published : 2003-10

There are, on those rare occasions, times when I can actually identify a tree or plant rooted along a trail in a national park. But those occasions are exceedingly rare.

Often my identification skills are no better than describing a growth as "spindly stalks with blazing orange flowers on their tips." That, of course to those well-familiar with Southwest vegetation, would be the Ocotillo, one of the more dramatic plants to be found in Saguaro National Park. And let's not even get into the scientific names.

So, often when I'm in the book section of a park's visitor center, I drift over to the plant and bird identification books, with hopes I'll find one that not only will make the identification task easy, but one that I'll pick up more than once. (OK, more often it's my wife who drifts over and calls me over when she finds an interesting book).

One of those books is Common Southwestern Native Plants, An Identification Guide (MSRP $24) by Jack L. Carter, Martha A. Carter and Donna J. Stevens. First published in 2003, this paperback returned in a 2nd edition in 2009, an edition that offers a number of improvements over the first edition. Foremost, for us identification novices, is that each species is described on a single page with an accompanying color photograph. Some species also are accompanied by an illustration. Some photos from the first edition also have been replaced with more descriptive ones, and 20 additional species have been included in the 2nd edition. And information has been provided regarding medicinal or edible aspects of the plants you might see in the Southwest.

So in the case of Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens/Ocotiilo family (Fouquieriaceae)), not only is there a full color photograph on page 132, but there's also a reasonable amount of description informing readers that this plant "is one of the Southwest's most distinctive and conspicuous shrubs. Although its stems are spiny and it grows in the desert, it is not a cactus. During dry spells, the leafless stems look dead. But shortly after rains, the small, bright green leaves appear along the length of the stem, making it look thick and healthy."

Not only that, but its flowers are popular with migrating hummingbirds, and these plants can live for two centuries, write the authors. There's also a few accompanying illustrations that depict the stalky plant, the flower head, and the spiny leaves. And, of course, attention is paid to Ocotillo's distribution (trans-Pecos, Texas, across southern NM, into southern to northwestern AZ, NV and CA).

If you're accustomed to plant identification books from, say, the National Audubon Society, which organizes wildflowers by color, Common Southwestern Native Plants will take some getting used to. It organizes by type -- cone-bearing plants and flowering plants, which in turn are dissected down into trees, small trees or shrubs, shrubs, vines, cacti, "agave and their allies," and, finally, herbacaeous plants. (For those true novices, "herbacaeous plants" include many of our wildflowers.) And, of course, what might seem to be a wildflower might actually be a blooming shrub, or, in the case of Ocotillo, a shrub, not a tree despite the fact it can grow to 23 feet!

In other words, until you gain a passing knowledge of plant subdivisions, using this book could prove frustrating, as you can't simply flip through the pages looking for the color of the flower.

My wife and I encountered that dilemma first-hand while hiking in Saguaro earlier this year. Among the many beautiful and fascinating blooming plants we encountered was one particularly delicate looking specimen with wispy pink flowers. While thumbing through this book soon after buying it we came upon our plant on page 122 -- the Fairy Duster, Mesquitilla, (calliandra eriophylla/Legume Family (Fabaceae)). "A showy, small shrub of the desert, Fairy Duster bears flower clusters that look like powder puffs. They are pink, the showy stamens white at the base and reddish purple at the tips."

Would it be easier if the book were categorized by color? Perhaps. But the listing that the authors settled on almost forces you to spend more time with the book, flipping through the pages when you're not hiking to become more familiar with it.

If there's a downside to this book, it'd be its size, at 9 inches x 6 inches, which can be a bit awkward for some daypacks. With its glossy pages and gorgeous photographs, will you really want to bend and possibly tear at the pages from frequently pulling it out of your pack and shoving it back down inside?

(Editor's note: For some reason, does not list the 2nd edition among its inventory. You can, though, find it at Jack and Martha Carter's website,


1. National parks may have initially been established because of “scenic quality” but that should not be what uniquely distinguishes them today. Yes, early photographs and paintings glorified unsettled land of the West and made people in the East excited by them, but we must not forget that is was the railroads looking for paying passengers, and the fact that the mountainous lands that became our first national parks had no value for settlement, that drove most political interest and enabled them to be carved out of the public domain. It was not simply an overwhelming sense of altruism and love of nature that caused politicians to vote the way they did.

We are reminded that Abraham Lincoln, in the middle of the Civil War, signed the law to set aside the first federal lands to be a park – giving Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove to the state of California to manage; but that eight years later, since there was no state yet established to manage Yellowstone - this “public park or pleasuring ground” - had to become a “national” park.

Early environmentalists, in order to provide more land usable for cattle grazing and public accommodation, blew up the terminal moraine in Yosemite Valley lowering the water level in the valley to forever alter the natural scene and invite in a host of non-native conditions that frustrate today’s environmentalists.

Developments in Yellowstone were placed a half-day’s stagecoach ride away along the figure-eight roads in order to feed and house visitors that had enough money and free-time to experience its unique curiosities.

While it is quaint to harken back to the good-old-days, we need not do so with a prism that warps early motives and realities.

2. Protecting scenic values - keeping national parks the same – shaking our collective finger at species that want to migrate in – must be replaced with a realization that nature should be allowed to its thing – to adapt to the dramatic environmental changes that are occurring – and will do so at an accelerating pace – to adapt to global climate change. We have to learn what nature is doing – wants to do – and must do – to thrive in the future. We must find out what we are doing to put obstacles in the way of – and find out what man must do to facilitate - this “natural” adaptation. We have to re-define what we mean by “nature” by letting-nature-do-what-comes-naturally.

We have to look to the future and have it guide us – not look to the past and be mesmerized by it.

3. Increasing the NPS budget has its negative consequences.

Funding the maintenance backlog will enable development that should not have been put in the parks in the first place - to stay there. Why do we need so many tour roads and scenic overlooks – that encourage, no direct, visitors to visit-by-car? Yes, maybe the NPS needs money – but money to tear out much of the development that encourages staying in cars, not money to perpetuate mistakes of the past. Why do we need so many visitor facilities, stores, gas stations and lodging accommodations? Park visitors should get out of their cars to enjoy the parks; park visitors should eat and sleep outside parks.

Most of a normal park’s annual budget goes to maintain man-built facilities. By getting rid of facilities that should not have been put there in the first place - money will be freed for research, resources management and helping the public understand and appreciate parks.

4. We need more national parks and a new direction for them.

We are suffering an epidemic of lack-of-exercise; of getting into, learning about and enjoying nature.

One-third of us are obese.

Nature-deficit-disorder does not enable nature-based logic, way-of-thinking & decision-making to develop in our brain synapses. Those that grow-up in the climate-controlled in-doors, hooked-up to the internet, glued to the computer screen, playing fictional video games, have not experienced the basic realities of nature that must drive decision-making.

Except in the urban core we need a car to go anywhere, do anything. Subdivisions have few sidewalks, buying the necessities of everyday life happens in shopping centers and strip-malls that require that we use a car. School buses pick up our kids.

Vacations – visiting a national park – require flying and driving. Even major environmental groups sponsor “outings” that require generation of thousands of tons of greenhouse gases.

Physical development – should be limited to that needed to enable people to get out into the natural world of national parks – and it should be limited to vestibules – close to outside access corridors – close to outside development. Non park-related development should be outside national parks. The private sector outside the parks will be thrilled to provide the necessities of life – and get the jobs and money – needed to serve visitors. By keeping non-park related physical development outside - the bears will be happy – and so will the locals and their electeds.

Visitation to national parks reached its peak in 1987; and expect for the publicity of the Ken Burns series that produced a slight glitch, visitation has declined ever since. It is now down 23% per capita from its peak. Hunting and fishing – is down similarly. This removing ourselves from nature is happening across the world.

Well, if people won’t come to parks - bring parks to the people.

National parks are concentrated in the mountainous West – major population areas in the East and mid-West have no national park nearby,

Half of our ecoregions – half our natural world - is unrepresented by a national park.

We need to create 50 new national parks or similar protected natural areas. And we have to redirect our national parks – to provide refuge for natural species, to observe and learn-about what nature – all of nature – nature in our back yard - is doing to adapt to global climate change. We need to provide internet hook-ups to our schools – to us all, and invite and lure-in active physical and mental exploration.

Half of our lives is free time. We need conveneit and easy access to our natural world

Global climate change, sea level rise, different weather patterns, migrating natural species are the realities that we and our children and grandchildren will face. National Parks can play a crucial role in having us deal with – and appreciate – our common future.

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