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.


10 thoughts on “Palo Verde Totem

  1. Love your totem. Gorgeous, and bet it feels perfect in the hand. I too have several shelves of desert ephemera (is that the word?) – seedpods, bits of cacti, minerals. And find amazing energy is holding them, too. I’ll soon be packing a tiny box of desert reminders to carry half way across the country. Desert lovers, desert connections!

    • You are so right–it feels heavy and perfect in my hands. I have to be careful so I don’t fiddle with it a lot. I love the idea that you are taking a box of desert reminders with you–so perfect! I found a piece of olivine matrix on a walk, and had the same guy drill it and put a bail on it. I’m sure he had odd thoughts about my choice of jewelry, but he is always gracious.

  2. Having just returned from a fabulous driving trip to Scottsdale and the Grand Canyon, I am nodding my head at the beauty of the Palo Verde trees. There was a blanket of yellow under the trees we saw at the Desert Botanic Garden and Taliesen West. Both were wonderful to see and we learned so much about desert life at the Heard and Botanic Garden. Well worth visiting all 3 places. I love the Sonoran Desert but would never convince my husband to retire there. The high plains of Colorado is about as dry as he likes. 🙂 We’ll just have to visit from time to time.

  3. Oh I love those seedpods. On my last trip I brought back a ziplock bag filled with them. They inspire me everyday to keep my dream alive of living out west someday. I hold them at least once a day. I love the feel in my hand.

    • I have a whole shelf of seed pods in a bookcase, along with skeletonized cactus parts. The big hook pods of Devil’s Claw, the potato-chip-shape of the Jacaranda, the rattly pod of Ironwoods, mesquite and Texas Laurel. I love them, and think holding them on a daily basis is an excellent idea.

  4. It’s a beautiful piece Quinn. The power of the totem is strong . . . my son and daughter-in-law gave me a greenstone/pounamu pendant for my 60th birthday and I find myself wearing it when I need that extra bit of courage, that extra push in some direction. It came from the South Island, Te Wai Pounamu, the island of my birth, the Mainland.

    As I was reading I was thinking about how the Palo Verde provides protection for the young slow growing saguaro beneath . . . like a parent or grandparent, a protector of the young and vulnerable. We would all do well to take a lesson from this tree.

    • I just read up on greenstone. What lovely stories are attached to that stone! The nurse-tree story has an odd ending. When the saguaro is tall enough to survive, it competes with its nurse tree for water and nutrients. The saguaro secretes a poison through its roots that kills the nurse tree. The Foothills Palo Verde was the first to evolve a protection against the poison–it grows faster than the saguaro, creating more roots. It also has the ability to drop entire limbs if it doesn’t have enough water, and grow them back during Monsoon Season.

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