Arizona Desert Architecture


When the main flora of a region is comprised mostly of cacti and succulents, and such life is devoid of abundant water for much of the year, the focus goes from leafy and dense foliage to the structure and architecture of a plant. Desert life has adapted to allow for storage of precious water in the bulbous and gnarled forms of cacti. The grand saguaro have developed ribs that expand and contract based on how much moisture they have at any given time. The Palo Verde tree, with its green bark, photosynthesizes without need of leaves.

That’s not to say that water isn’t necessary. I was lucky enough to visit when the thorny Ocotillo, usually bereft of greenery, had sprouted leaves – a product of a wet spell, and one of the many benefits that kept my chagrin at the rain to a minimum. This ubiquitous shrub most often looks dead and spindly, but give it some water and the leaves magically appear, often followed by flowers. Desert spells, whether hot or wet, often result in such drama.

As lovely and as welcome as the little leaves are, they are not enough to detract from the main focus of desert life: its form. Prickly spines cross at intersecting angles, weaving blankets of protection and armor. Leaves like swords, and edged in serrated spikes, stand starkly against the sand, confident in their intrinsic ability to ward off those who stray too close to such weaponry.

Even the Ocotillo, which at first glance seemed too spindly and bare to be of much aesthetic interest, opened up to unveil its architectural elegance, as its branches reached toward the sky and rows of perfectly-placed leaves bloomed like little fresh green flowers. The Ocotillo also reveals a design secret: when massed in repetition, even the most mundane object can gain interest and character – witness the ceiling made by rows of branches. I saw them being used as fences as well, a thorny deterrent that makes practical use of the local landscape.

Such enchantments sprawled out everywhere I looked, and most took some time to let their guard down. Even in the most barren scene, variations can be found if one examines things closely enough, but this wondrous place wasn’t even close to being barren.

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