American Indians of old knew not to fight the summer heat. Moving in harmony with the environment, ancient desert dwellers performed required outdoor tasks in the cooler morning and evening hours.
Similarly, sunrise tours at the Desert Botanical Garden give visitors "outside time" before temperatures crush pedestrian potential. These tours, mostly comprising locals this time of year, are led by volunteers who greet visitors promptly at 7 a.m. At that time, the group is divided to make the early morning walkand-talk more personal. Volunteer guides Peggy Moroney and "Cactus" Jack Blake head one group this day, eager to share their knowledge of the Sonoran Desert.
"The garden is ever changing," Moroney says of seasonal transformations. "Different guides have different passions. But we all hope that this visit adds to your appreciation of the place we call home." With that, Moroney spins and strikes out into the garden, a basket of demonstration tools at the ready.
"We are located at the northernmost point of the Sonoran Desert," Moroney explains, standing in the shade of a giant saguaro. What defines a desert, she asks? Someone suggests water, but Moroney shakes her head. It’s rain, she says. And our area is currently experiencing a nine-year drought, having only received 3 inches of rainfall this year. Generally, we would have had 7 inches by now, Moroney explains.
"How many seasons do we have?" she tosses to the crowd.
"Two," responds a visitor.
"Five," Moroney says goodnaturedly. She says a dry summer is followed by a wet summer (mid-July through August.) This seasonal characteristic is unique to the Sonoran Desert, she says.
Moving down the path, Moroney lobs up another insight. Cactuses, she says, are defined by areolae, or "hairy holes" — it is from these dark pad points that sharp hairs and seasonal blooms emerge. She goes on to explain the white "fur" sometimes associated with cactuses is the shelter and camouflage of the cochineal, a scaly insect that, when squeezed, secretes a red fluid. Its historic use as a dye continues to this day, approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a coloring source, Moroney says.
"This next one is one of my favorite plants," Blake says as the group moves down the path. Ahead is the creosote, a plant whose properties have earned it the nickname "drugstore of the state." It’s one of the oldest plants in the world.
"It’s older than the redwoods," Moroney quips. Sheltering many desert animals, creosote was used by American Indians as a poultice for wounds. "It also makes a pretty bad-tasting tea," Blake says in a whisper, sounding like someone who knows.
The state tree, the paloverde, is visited next on the walk. Its branches provide welcome shade for hatless visitors. Moroney notes that outof-staters, seeing this tree for the first time, often speak of transplanting it to their own back yard, but the Sonoran Desert is the only place where paloverde grows. Moroney pulls a pod from the tree, pops out a seed and munches on the popular America Indian snack.
"The mesquite tree is the tree of life," Moroney continues, stepping up the path. The group focuses its attention on the scrappy perennial prized by the ancients for the "atole," made from its beans, that sustained them through winter. High in protein, calcium and carbohyd rates, mesquite beans can be ground into flour. At this point, she passes around a shaker filled with the flour for visitors to taste. She explains that mesquite sap has been used as a type of throat lozenge, and the bark, after boiled, as paint.
As the hour closes in on 8 a.m., the group is led past night-blooming flowers, still open, and day bloomers, flowers emerging. On a garden patio, the groups converge and rest their feet while more volunteers serve up saguaro seed cookies, prickly pear punch, nopales (cactus pad) hors d’oeuvres and prickly pear salsa.
"I got to knock down some saguaro fruit," one visitor brags to a friend from another tour.
Even the party’s sole teenager thanks her parents for prying her from bed for the walk.
Then, as the heat rises, the visitors evaporate home.