Projects: Chip Hedgcock & Mark A. Dimmitt


The Unusual Form of Diaphanous Plants: A collaboration between Mark Dimmitt and Charles Hedgcock

Dimmitt, Mark, Gavenus, Erika, Hedgcock, Charles | May 11, 2017 | Baja elephant trees (Bursera microphylla) by Mark Dimmitt

Have you ever tried looking for shade in the desert only to find that the plants are unable to fully block the intense sunshine? What might feel like a particularly unkind slight in your time of desperation, is actually an incredible adaptation of some desert plants. Iain Robertson, a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Washington, first recognized this property of desert plants in the mid-1990s and began using the term diaphanous plants to describe them. Unlike plants from wetter habitats that boast leafy, dense canopies, diaphanous plants have such sparse stems and foliage you can often see right through them. In a land of intense sunlight and limited water, diaphanous plants have adapted to minimize transpiration and sun exposure. In adapting to their extreme conditions these plants are largely unique to the desert and hard to find in more forgiving systems. But in the Sonoran Desert they thrive, their odd forms defining the landscape.

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Plant Lifeforms Characteristic of the Sonoran Desert

Chip and I are still mulling over what to do for our project. One idea is to showcase the plant lifeforms that are characteristic of the Sonoran Desert. Several lifeforms are unique or especially well represented in deserts. Their adaptations to aridity and intense sunlight give them odd forms that in turn make desert landscapes starkly different from other habitats. For example:


survive drought by storing water in their stems or leaves. They are common in arid habitats, and are most visible in deserts.

Agave zebra
Agaves have broad succulent leaves, often with marginal teeth and bold markings.
Bursera microphylla
(elephant tree) stores water in swollen stems that are often grotesquely twisted.
Ferocactus cylindraceus
(California fire barrel). Barrel cacti have massive, usually unbranched stems covered in fierce spines that protect the stored water from thirsty animals.


have seeds that germinate and grow only in unusually wet years. They complete their life cycles and die in a few weeks. Also called annuals, this lifeform occurs only in semiarid and arid habitats, and make up half or more of the plant species in deserts.

Camissonia claviformis
(yellow evening-primrose) grows on sandy soils after heavy fall rains.
Geraea canescens
(desert sunflower) grows on gravelly soils throughout the Sonoran and Mohave Deserts, often covering vast areas after rare wet winters.
Phacelia calthifolia
(Caterpillar weed) and Monoptilon bellioides (belly flower) go through a complete life cycle in a few months.
Psathyrotes ramosissima
(velvet cushion or turtleback) pops up in very dry gravels after a good rain.


plants have such sparse stems and foliage that you can see right through them. This life form was first recognized only in the 1990s by landscape architect Iain Robertson. Plants from wetter habitats usually have dense canopies.

Vachellia constricta
(whitethorn acacia) has a thin canopy even when in full leaf and flower.
Mariosousa willardiana
(palo blanco) provides almost no shade. On a summer day you could get heatstroke beneath it.
Asclepias albicans
(giant cane milkweed) has only a few stems and is almost completely leafless.
Eriogonum deflexum
(skeleton weed) grows about a foot tall. The basal leaves are dried up by the time the plant is in bloom.
Euphorbia florida
is an annual that grows up to a foot tall. It’s so wispy that it’s difficult to focus on.
Fouquieria splendens
(ocotillo), although it has bold stems, you can easily see through it even when it’s in full leaf and flower.
Muhlenbergia porteri
(bush muhly) is a shrubby grass that can grow two feet tall and 3-4 feet wide. Its stems are so fine that it looks like a fog from a distance.



Subjects and mediums

Our project is in the early stages and we’re still zeroing on the actual story and subject matter we will use in the collaboration. We seem to be moving more towards diaphanous plants. From Mark:

Desert plants include a few distinctive lifeforms that are rare or absent in other habitats. Succulents and annuals are the most obvious, and there is a third that almost no one has recognized. Nearly all plants from mesic habitats have dense canopies of large leaves; you can’t see through them. In contrast, deserts have numerous diaphanous plants – those that are so open-structured that you can easily see through them. Some are so fine-textured that they’re difficult to focus your eyes or camera on. We want to showcase some of the plants that make the Sonoran Desert special.

The actual art product might be lumen prints which I’ve been developing techniques for over the last few years but we're still approaching what medium to use with an open mind.

"Cottonwood Imperial Dam"
- Chip Hedgcock
- Chip Hedgcock
"Willow Canyon Bouquet"
- Chip Hedgcock



Interview with Mark Dimmitt

Photo by Keegam Shamlian for The Guardian

This is a text version of an interview with Sarah Clark who is documenting the 6&6 project in audio and video.

What is your role in the 6&6 Initiative and why did you decide to participate?

My role is to contribute botanical/ecological expertise to an art project. I accepted the invitation to join the 6&6 group because of my admiration of the Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers network and my deep respect for two of its founders, Ben Wilder and Taylor Edwards. I’ve known Ben since he was a student at the UofA, and Taylor since he was a keeper at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum long before he entered graduate school. Both of them are exceptionally bright scientists and enthusiastic researchers. I am excited to watch their careers take off as mine is winding down, and want to help them in any way I can.

What is the value of collaborating across the arts and sciences?

Science is the primary reason for human prosperity. Nearly all of the technologies that make our lives better, from smart phones to the internet to our abundant food supply to effective health care, result from the direct application of scientific knowledge. And by extension, most of our economy is driven by these advances. But the vast majority of Americans are scientifically illiterate, and in fact there is a strong and growing anti-science attitude. Most scientists are incompetent at communicating with the general public. We were taught to present our knowledge in formal, strictly factual and analytical, technical language that is in fact quite boring. The aim of the artist is exactly the opposite: it’s to inspire.

When I was writing my chapters for the first edition of A Natural History of the Sonoran Desert, I was lucky to have Gary Nabhan as a mentor. As both a scientist and artist, he understands the importance of communicating scientific knowledge to the public, and is an expert at doing that. He advised me not to start with the dry facts about species or ecosystems, but to begin with a story to capture the readers’ interest. That advice has greatly improved my communication skill.

I hope that the 6&6 project will create some beautiful, inspiring exhibits that also impart some useful knowledge about our natural world. First capture their interest, then help them understand.

What personal and/or professional qualities do you hope to deepen or expand through your participation in 6&6?

I have no expectations for this project. I’ve entered it with a blank open mind and will see what develops.

I have known a number of artists in my life, but have never worked closely with one. But having become aware that there is more than one way to view a subject, I hope to gain insight into how artists view the world differently from my scientific perspective. I have also observed that a number of scientists have become more artistic and philosophical late in their careers. I want to experience such a transformation myself.

What would you like to communicate to members of your own profession (i.e., other artists or scientists) about the 6&6 Initiative?

Too early to say. Perhaps that the factual/rational and the aesthetic/spiritual are not mutually exclusive realms of human experience.