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image, Toads Gone Wild, by Scott Calhoun.

by Scott Calhoun

Because of certain children’s books, we think of the toad as a stern and portly character dressed up in a velvet vest with a pocket watch—a proper member of the British upper class, or perhaps worse, an effete prince hidden in a warty body, crown akimbo, waiting to be kissed by a sad princess. Toads may look stern and portly, but when you consider their behavior, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Real toads, especially toads in the desert southwest, are more like members of a fat shirtless motorcycle gang than English country gentlemen. The toad’s anthem should be the 1980s Judas Priest metal classic, “Living after midnight, rockin' to the dawn, lovin' 'til the morning, then I'm gone, I’m gone…”

In our Tucson, Arizona backyard, my wife Deirdre and daughter Zoë have inadvertently created a perfect habitat for toads. Using scrap lumber, an old mirrored door and a painted ceramic frog from Guanajuato, Mexico, they made a rectangular trough into which the pottery frog spit a stream of water. In the fountain, they planted Yerba Mansa, a white coneflower-like plant, and filled the water with mosquito fish. Little did they know that their tiny pond would soon host a visitor much more interesting than a ceramic frog.

image, The Colorado River toad that calls the Calhoun garden home.Our favorite amphibious visitor was a bad-to-the-bone real toad: the mac daddy of the toad world, the Colorado River toad (Bufo alvarius). The Colorado River toad is about the diameter of a cow pie and makes a grand appearance only after our summer rains begin. One hot August night, I looked out at our fountain and noticed that something was awry. A massive glistening toad was perched on the ledge of our water feature. He was staring at his reflection in the mirrored door behind the fountain. The toad was about a foot away from the blue and yellow ceramic frog that served as the spigot for our fountain. Silently, I crept outside in stocking feet to try to take a picture of him and observe this oddity. I couldn’t decide if he was confused by the mirror and was trying to woo himself, or if he was tying to court the ceramic frog from Guanajuato. Either way, it was a frustrating situation for a big old desert toad looking to hook-up with a female of the same species. After I approached him a little too close with the camera, he hopped off the fountain lip and disappeared behind a stack of bricks.

I’ve always considered a monsoon storm a sexy event, but the point was driven home one night after a subtropical rumbler dropped an inch of rain in a little over half an hour. Deirdre, Zoë and I walked around the neighborhood following the mwaa mwaa sound of toads trying to find a mate. The sound, like bleating sheep leads us to a retention basin full of rainwater and Couch's spadefoot toads (Scaphiopus couchi). It was toad orgy. Spadefoot toads, which burrow underground listening for a certain low frequency vibration caused by rain and thunder, that signals that it’s time to out, find a pond and breed. They were floating around stacked on top of each other all over the surface of the pond. The whole pond was oozing with life in an urgent song and dance performed by the warty hoards. The scene gave new meaning to the phrase, “Mr. Toad’s wild ride.” These were not the well-reasoned toads of Beatrix Potter’s books: these were toads gone wild.

image, The infamous frog fountain in the Calhoun's yard.Even though the Colorado River toad secretes poisonous mucus containing a toxin called bufotenine that induces powerful hallucinations and possible death when ingested, I consider them a gardener’s best pet. They eat prodigious amounts of beetles that would otherwise bore into your desert trees. The spadefoot toad also enjoys eating beetles, though prefers them garnished with termites that would otherwise eat your house. Since everyone except dogs and small children are quite capable of avoiding toad-licking, I think that every desert gardener should create a moist shady place for a toad or two to make a home. Given the fact that the Colorado River toad lives at least ten years, he or she could be a long-term garden resident.

The toad doesn’t really need us to make him a home, both the spadefoot and Colorado river toad can excavate burrows almost three feet deep. These burrows are where they spend nine or ten months of the year. Like fraternity brothers, the toads sleep it off between parties. After all, they are faced with the ultimate desert challenge: finding a temporary pool with enough water to breed in and raise tadpoles. Luckily, the tadpoles mature into toadlets in less than two weeks.

Meanwhile the adult toad is gorging on termites, cat-calling the girl toads, living after midnight, rockin’ till the dawn, lovin’ ‘till the morning, then he’s gone, he’s gone.


A self-described “desert plant fiend,” Scott Calhoun enjoys exploring the deserts of Arizona and Mexico seeking interesting plants, gardens, and transcendent fish tacos. He gets much of his design inspiration from badlands and taco stands, a style which Sunset magazine dubbed “Taqueria Chic.” Scott writes, lectures, and designs gardens in Tucson, Arizona. His first book, Yard Full of Sun: The Story of a Gardener's Obsession that Got a Little Out of Hand, has been awarded the 2006 American Horticultural Society Book Award. His newest book is Chasing Wildflowers: A Mad Search for Wild Gardens. Catch up with Scott at www.zonagardens.com.
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Sonoran Desert Toad Page on DesertMuseum.org

Colorado River Toad Page on eNature.com

Couch's Spadefoot Toad Page on DesertMuseum.org

Couch's Spadefoot Toad Page on eNature.com

Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

An Underpass for Tucson's Rainy Season Toads? opinion from the Arizona Daily Wildcat


Adopted from Scott Calhoun's book, Yard Full of Sun: The Story of a Gardener's Obsession that Got a Little Out of Hand.


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