A Matter Of Scale

Have you ever noticed that our attentions seem to be drawn to non-human organisms which are larger than us and possibly threatening?

Lions, tigers, cougars, elephants, sharks, giant squids — they all get ample
press. Masters as we are of the diminishing natural world, the idea of being eaten alive always captures our attention.

Though wildflowers, no matter how large and conspicuous, don’t seem to be much of a threat, we pay more attention to large flowers and tend to ignore tiny ones. Small flowers can be as interesting as large ones, and we now have the advantage of digital cameras and magnifying devices which allow us to see plant structures which are much smaller than our unaided eyes can easily see.

The visual net we cast over the local landscape as we indulge in a walk can be one with coarse meshes, especially if our thoughts wander through the mental landscapes of memory and speculation rather than paying attention to the natural world unfolding before us.

In a vegetative realm lying somewhere between the massive (trees, etc.) and the microbiological are the humble inhabitants, inconspicuous plants with small flowers co-existing with the tiny insects which pollinate them or feed upon them. Such plants are easily ignored, but just squatting down and peering into low thickets will often reveal miniature landscapes full of plants and insects quietly plying their trades.

Here are a few photographic examples gleaned from a short walk here in the Mule Mountains.

This species had me baffled for a while; it bears the evocative common name Scarlet Spiderling. The plant is in the four-o-clock family and is more formally known as Boerhavia coccinea. Like the desert morning glory I wrote about recently, this Spiderling sends out long vines which hug the gravelly ground. The flowers are borne in minute clusters which are about three-eighths of an inch wide.

A close-up of the flower-cluster; each individual flower is less than one-eighth inch wide:

I always get a kick out of wild relatives of our domesticated food plants. This plant is in the same genus as lima beans, and its common name is Slimleaf Limabean (Phaseolus angustissimus). The little bean is only an inch long:

Unlike the cultivated limas, where were bred in more humid and well-watered climates, this desert bean has narrow leaves, as larger and broader leaves would lead to excessive transpiration under the blazing mid-day sun. The vines are practically diaphanous, and they quickly climb whatever is available during the brief monsoon season:

Another genus of legumes is Desmodium. Several of the many species are called Tick-trefoil or Beggar-lice. The plants typically have little segmented pods which break apart and stick to clothing and fur. This Desmodium clump was simultaneously budding out new flowers and forming miniscule pods, a parallel strategy which ensures that at least some seeds will ripen if the rains stop.

A close-up of the intricate flower structure:

The common names of Bidens bipinnata are indicative of the ubiquitous plant’s reputation among humans: Spanish Needles, Beggarticks, Stickseeds, and Tickseeds are just a few. When the linear barbed seeds are ripe in the fall they cling to clothing and can be quite annoying. Stumble into a thicket of Bidens and Desmodium in the fall and you will regret it! The plant, in my view, redeems itself by being one of the larval hosts of the Painted Lady butterfly, and a feeding platform for this one-eight-inch crab spider which blended in well with the ragged and scanty petals of the plant. I had a hard time focusing on this predator lying in wait:




Filed under Arizona, Essays and Articles, Natural History, Photos

6 responses to “A Matter Of Scale

  1. bev

    So many of us barely take much notice of nature. I am reminded of a remark made by one of the tour guides during our visit to the Kitt Peak Observatory in 2001. He said that a survey had shown that the average American spends no more than a total of 15 minutes per year looking up a the sky. My guess is that it is about the same or less time spent studying small plants and creatures. Fortunately, there are a few of us enlightened folks in the world and perhaps our numbers are growing, in part, because digital cameras have the capability to reveal that which is barely seen by the naked eye. Still, one must have the passion and patience to observe and turn the camera upon this minature world. Love the photo of the tiny flower crab spider folded so neatly upon her delicate perch!

  2. Joan


    A world in microcosm grows.
    We walk here, unaware. Who knows
    The wonders underneath our toes
    In Lilliputian Land.

    The grass can seem as tall as trees.
    Puddles masquerade as seas.
    Beware of giant bumblebees
    In Lilliputian Land.

    A blossom does not have the mettle
    To flick a spider off it’s petal,
    One-eighth inch spider won’t unsettle
    In Lipputian land.

    A drop of rain can quell the thirst
    Of minute blossoms. Seed pods burst.
    A meteor shower of seeds disperse
    In Lilliputian land.

    A seed can levitate from piles
    Of brush and use it’s seedy wiles
    To travel forth a million miles
    In Lilliputian land.

    A trouser cuff might be enough
    To port that sticker from the rough
    Where it will end on some far bluff
    In Lilliputian land.

    And when it blooms, please do take care
    Of where you step. You must beware
    These tiny plants might soon grow rare
    In Lilliputian land.

  3. Thanks for the prose and verse comments, Bev and Joan!

  4. ljfitz62

    Great detailed photos Larry! I had to stare at that last one of the little crab, so was it a flower shaped like a tiny crab or a tiny crab?? I loved that scarlet spiderling. I’d never seen or heard of that. I just spent 2 weeks hunting for scarce wildflowers out West (scarce due to drought and late summer timing) while John “hunted” wildlife with his camera. I did find some, but not much!

  5. It’s a tiny crab spider, Leslie; several species use camouflage to blend in with various flowers.

  6. Wow that was odd. I just wrote an really long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Anyways, just wanted to say excellent blog!|

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