The pleasures of slow botanizing


Hiking and botanizing are distinct pleasures. Hiking is the joy of pushing one’s body, of covering long distances, of discovering new landscapes. Botanizing is the opposite. It is the joy of moving slowly, of looking closely, of reading the story of a place, and of relishing the discovery of something beautiful or unexpected. On a recent trip down to Sonora, in northern Mexico, I took the time to slowly and carefully explore a coastal landscape, and was amply rewarded by the stories I found hidden in the landscape.

opuntia nest

Chollas are one of the principal hazards of desert walking, especially at high speed. On a slower meander, they are easy enough to avoid, but beautiful in their improbable forms and sharp armor. Every once in a while a bird finds a way to construct a nest in their branches, making for a well-hidden and well-defended home. Here you can see one of these nests in a hanging chain cholla, Cylindropuntia fulgida (Cactaceae).

randia thurberi

Other plants also have spines, though not as prominent or painful as those of a cholla. On this species the long spines and leaves branch in opposite pairs, giving some clue to its identity. I was flummoxed in the field, despite having a flora, and decided to break open one of the fruits to find out what it might be.

randia thurberi seeds

I was dismayed to find a black sludge inside every fruit, hiding a profusion of small flat seeds. On a whim I tasted the sludge and found it to be one of the least pleasant flavors I’ve yet to encounter. Some help from my friend and better botanist Brad Boyle revealed this to be Randia thurberi (Rubiaceae), the papache. According to some reports the fruit is consumed locally and has a sweet flavor – maybe the ones I found were rotting or molded. A mystery I am not keen to soon resolve.


And my best discovery, hanging low on the branch of a Jatropha (Euphorbiaceae) shrub – an enormous cocoon of the saturniid moth, Rothschildia cincta. I had seen these used before as ankle rattles in ceremonial dances by the Yaqui people, but never knew where they were from. They are marvelously light, smooth, and strong. I only found two in three days of looking.


For me, hiking and botanizing rarely go together. The rhythms are too different, and I like covering ground, so I tend to hike more than to botanize. But the true pleasures of discovering a landscape only come when it is explored with open mind and eyes.

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