Palo Verde Totem

The Palo Verde is Arizona’s state tree. That’s not why I love it, but it is a native desert tree, hardy and useful in many ways. Palo Verde means “green stick” in Spanish, and the tree is named that because the trunk and branches are green. Not covered in moss, but green.

Close-up of Blue Palo Verde tree turnk

Close-up of Blue Palo Verde tree turnk

The tree was an early adapter to the desert climate. It developed small leaves on thin leaf-holding stems. In the desert, there are no broad-leaf trees. Leaves lose too much water. Tiny leaves lose less water. But the Foothills Palo Verde has such tiny leaves that they can’t successfully photosynthesize enough to keep the tree alive. In an evolutionary leap, the tree developed the ability to photosynthesize through its bark, which is largely smooth and green.

There are three species of the tree–the Blue Palo Verde, Foothills Palo Verde and one (maybe two) hybrids of the two. The Palo Brea has a brighter green bark and the Hybrid is still trying to figure out who its parents are. All of them bloom profusely in the spring and summer, from pale to bright yellow blossoms.

A different kind of tree. A Palo Verde whose brilliant yellow blossoms drift into desert snow this time of year.

A Foothills Palo Verde, whose brilliant yellow blossoms drift like snow this time of year.

The Palo Verde is a useful tree. The Foothills Palo Verde often serves as a nurse tree for the young saguaro cactus. Birds sit in the tree, drop the seeds of the saguaro with their poop, and the Palo Verde provides shades that protects the young cactus from the harsh desert climate. The seed pod of the Foothills Palo Verde is edible–raw, it tastes a bit like snow peas. Dried and ground, it provides a flour that helps the body slow the digestion of glucose.

(The seed pod of the Blue Palo Verde is bitter, although the flour is edible, when parched, ground and toasted.)

I’m fascinated by seed pods, particularly desert ones. They provide ways to protect the seed–they are tough, or open easily when rain hits them, or open easily if they are delicious to birds. In every case, the seed pod makes the propagation of trees more likely.

Seed pods hold the entire history of the tree–the DNA tells the story of the entire species. When I hold a seed pod in my hand, I feel connected to the desert, the tree and the power the tree holds by providing shade, food, protection and growth of the people and animals who live in the desert.

seedpodBecause I travel, I wanted to have a seed pod from the desert to take with me. It helps me believe that I will return to the desert, and wearing a totem from the desert helps me remember that I have the responsibility to protect the delicate balance that exists here, both metaphorically and ecologically. But, I didn’t want to wear a real one–they open easily and I didn’t want a Sage Thrasher following me around the airport.

As I have done before, I turned to Matt Muralt, a custom jeweler in the Valley. He listens and then creates beautiful pieces. I wanted a sterling silver Palo Verde seed pod to wear. This is the one he created. It not only looks just like the seed pod, down to the groove on the side, it has a wonderful feel in the hand, just right for take off and landing–not my favorite part of the flight.

Matt has made me several totems and all of them are realistic and imaginative. And on my next trip out of state, I’ll have a totem to take with me.

—Quinn McDonald is a naturalist and wearer of totem jewelry.