Tasha Oates updated January 3, 2012


Tasha Oates's Tags


Browse Articles » How-To Text View Magazine View

  • Foliage on the Southwestern Roads

    All foliage photos are by the author.
    Prototype Modeler - December 1978 - Page 61 Prototype Modeler - December 1978 - Page 62

    In the September/October 1976 issue of the Southwestern Prototype Modeler magazine we carried the first section of an article by Peter Singher on the model ing of southwestern United States desert scenery. We were going to run some sub sequent articles but decided to hold off and re-run the original article as well as the subsequent articles as a continuing series. These subjects, when modeled with the patience and attention to detail that Peter exhibits, will result in the capture of the true flavor of our southwestern deserts. It is with sincere pleasure that we bring you the reprint of the earlier article and begin the series for the subsequent articles. Ed.

    As subscribers to Prototype Modeler magazine, we are obviously interested in the modeling of the prototype and for most of us that extends to scenery and for many of us it extends to the scenery of the southwestern portion of our country. Many of our layouts depict this section of the United States. Unless we are lucky enough to live in the western part of the United States, many of us are not able to observe, first hand, just what the west looks like. Fortunately, there are many books well illustrated to help us along, also post cards, slides, and a profusion of television shows with western locales. Still, the small details that interest us most as model builders are not easily accessible, most probably because they are not as photogenic as the vast, sweeping panoramas we most often see.

    Working in miniature as we do, we are illusionists of a sort always restricted by available space forever condensing nature to fit into our basements or attics. To help create the effect we are seeking we can "fool" the eye by diverting the attention to localized, highly detailed areas on our layouts.

    A sequence of these detailed areas, each perhaps separate, or sometimes over lapping and complementing one another is a highly successful way of adding credibility to our miniaturized world. For ex ample: a highly detailed depot area can either stand alone or, in the case of a large one, can be complemented by an engine servicing facility.

    OK. So how about the area between the busy place and the next depot which, almost inevitably, is just a train length away? Therein lies the biggest problem for those of us modeling the west and southwest.

    One very successful solution is again attention to detail in regard to terrain features and, more specifically, as far as this article is concerned, foliage. Following is a brief lesson in topography and horticulture, neither of which is especially endearing to me personally, but I think it is important to the overall understanding of the problem. Thereafter, I'd like to show you a few ways of duplicating foliage in miniature regardless of the scale that has a personal appeal to you.

    Certainly the dominant landscape in the southwestern United States (and northern Mexico) is desert. Although there are forested slopes and green mountain meadows, too, these are but like islands in a vast sea of desert. Perhaps "deserts" would be more accurate for the arid lands of the North American continent display a fascinating variety of topography and foliage forms if' their differences are recognized. To the casual ob server, these deserts may seem all alike, barren and unproductive except where irrigation is used for the growth of cotton, alfalfa, citrus, and other crops. In actuality, these deserts have been separated in many ways for millions of years, as plant distributions testify. For example, creasote bush, ocotillo, and mesquite characterize the lower, warmer deserts; sagebrush and scattered woodlands of pinion-juniper typify the higher, more northern desert lands.

    In the Cajon Pass area of California (my weakness), two distinct topographical boundaries exist. The San Gabrial and San Bernardino mountains which together form the familiar rugged background of the Los Angeles basin. These mountains are the southern backbone of a series of Coast Ranges known as the "Transverse Range" because of their unusual predominently easterly-westerly direction. Re cent evidence points out that the unusual trend of these Transverse Ranges is the result of the San Andreas Fault which makes a major turn to the east in the vicinity of Santa Barbara, California, which lies one hundred miles north of Los Angeles.

    Looking down from an airplane, one can trace clearly these jagged ranges, the drainage ways, the washes and gorges, for the most part dry, that fan out into this great system of interlocking handholds. They secure these subdivisions of the desert in what amounts to a contradictory partnership: the desert is carved by water, yet water is scarce. Keeping this brief set ting in mind, let's quickly look at a sum mary of foliage commonly found in the southwest:

    California (southern ) - Scrub Oak, Juniper, Joshua, Spruce, Palm, and Citrus trees; Ocotilla and Yucca plants; Spanish Bayonet, Rainbow, Prickly Pear, Barrel, Saguaro, and Pincushion cacti; Manzanita, Pinion, and Sagebrush bushes.

    Arizona - Pine, Fir, Spruce, Scrub Oak, Juniper, and Cottonwood trees; Yucca plants; Manzanita, Pinion, and Sagebrush bushes; Spanish Bayonet,Rainbow,Prickly Pear, Barrel, Pincushion, Buckhorn, and Giant Saguaro cacti.

    New Mexico - Pine, Red Fir, Scrub Oak, Juniper, and Cottonwood trees; Manzanita, Pinion, and Purple Sagebrush bushes; Prickly Pear, Barrel, and Pincushion cacti.

    A capsule description of the types most common to all the above states:

    Yucca Plant - From the lilac family. Woody or fibrous stem usually short, but in some cases attaining a height of 30-40 feet, branching at the top in a series of forks. The leaves are crowded in tufts at the end of the stem and are generally stiff and sword-shaped with a sharp point. The numerous flowers are generally white and bell-shaped. The flowers are entirely fertilized through moths known, appropriately, as "Yucca Moths."

    Juniper - Aromatic bushy trees of the Cedar family. The leaves are usually articulated at the base, spreading, sharp-pointed, and needle-like in form. Some trees produce small cones and small reddish berries. In North America about 15 native species of Juniper occur. Among those found in the southwest are: the California Juniper with reddish fruit eaten by the Indians, the Mexican Juniper of Texas and New Mexico with brown wood, the Sierra Juniper of California (mountain areas), and the Alligator Juniper of the southern Rockies with a distinctly checkered trunk.

    Oak - The name given to trees of the Beech family, a large group which includes some of the world's most important timber trees. The Arizona White Oak, sometimes 60 feet high, is the chief oak of Arizona and New Mexico. In California some 15 species of oak can be found. Among those in southern California are: Scrub Oak, usually 2-8 feet high and abundant in the desert areas, the Interior Live Oak, a medium sized tree, and the Canyon Live Oak, sometimes growing erect to a height of 110 feet. All the southwestern oaks have spreading branches which have a tendency to assume a torturous form causing a picturesque zig-zag development.

    Sagebrush - The name given to various shrubby species of bushes native to the southwest. The common Sagebrush is a many branched shrub, usually 3-6 feet high, but sometimes 12 feet high with silvery-grey, bitter, aromatic foliage. The leaves are small, wedge-shaped, mostly with three "teeth" at the outer end. The shrub is abundant on semi-arid plains be tween 1,500 and 6,000 foot altitudes, where it is often a conscious and characteristic feature of vegetation. The Sage brush usually grows in fertile soil.

    Manzanita - Mostly found in California. They are evergreen shrubs ranging from 3-12 feet high with dark red or chocolate color covered, smooth, and polished bark, very crooked, usually stiff branches, small, mostly toothless, often vertical leaves with white or pink flowers appearing in late Fall. The fruit, which becomes brownish and berry-like at maturity, is somewhat suggestive when young of a tiny apple, from which comes the Spanish name "Manzanita" or "Little Apple."

    Saguaro (Sahuaro) - A remarkable tree cactus, 15-70 feet high, also called "Giant Cactus" or "Monument Cactus" native to arid districts in Southern Arizona and California's Mojave Desert. It has a stout, woody, vertically ribbed stem, 1-2 feet in diameter: sometimes rising unbranched, like a green, fluted, column, thus the name Monument Cactus. Frequently it bears a few large, stout, diverging candelabra-like branches, but occasionally one will bear numerous branches which rise vertically from near the base like a group of organ pipes. Close to the top of the stem or branches it bears white flowers which are followed by crimson, edible, fruits.

    Now, if you're still awake after this brief initiation with southwestern topography and horticulture, let's proceed to more interesting territory.

    There are numerous commercial trees and foliage on the market and commonly available. Some are very toy-like in appearance while others bear their full size counterparts a reasonable resemblance. For our purpose, only a few of the commercial trees are suitable or, in most cases, even necessary. They can also be modified (careful pruning, shortened, lengthened, repainted, etc.) in order to-avoid repetition. The commercial trees I have found useful are:

    Adventure Scale Miniatures - Kit No. 2, Dying Pine Tree a t $2.50, which i s similar to the large Ponderosa Pine found at higher elevations in California. This is a kit which will take one evening to assemble. It is quite tall (70' in HO) and would, therefor, normally be found in a foreground setting.

    Architectural Models Inc. - This company makes excellent tree structure material, covering material (similar to horsehair), and ground foam. The structural material comes in various shapes and sizes, the ground foam in an assortment of sizes and colors. Both the ground foam and covering material are very useful for our needs. Prices vary.

    Campbell Scale Models - I like especially their No. 101 Green Shade Tree at $2.50 per box of five, and No. 601 Green Lichen and No. 604 Grey Lichen at $2.10 per box. Campbell also makes a Pine Tree kit No. 100 which assembles into five large trees. This kit sells for $5.50 and again typifies the Ponderosa variety of pine.

    Scenic Architectural Models - No. 655-110 at $3.00 is a box of five green, medium sized, trees which somewhat resemble maples or any other type of concentrated foliage tree. These are packed in a small peach crate (!) and are preassembled. They are excellent for grouping as back ground trees and can easily be altered in color and structure.

    Prototype Modeler - December 1978 - Page 63 Prototype Modeler - December 1978 - Page 64

    True Trees - (mail order only: George Kendrick, 4 Dorrer Avenue, South Glens Falls, NY 12801). These are remarkable hand made trees complete with carved trunks available in assorted types and sizes and seasonal colors. An SSAE will bring a complete listing and price range. My favorite is the Summer Oak in the 3" or 3 1/2" sizes at $3.00 or $3.50 which closely approximate California's Interior Live Oak. This is definitely a foreground, highly detailed product.

    Jordan Products - This well known manufacturer of HO scale vintage vehicles also makes an excellent kit of three Palm Trees. The kit, No. 302 at $1.75, is all plastic, but don't let this deter you. Carefully following directions and painting tips the trees become very realistic. Splicing the trunks of a few together will make nice tall trees.

    Before we diverge from the commercially available products to making our own exotic foliage, I think the following deserves mention:

    The products listed can all be used as assembled or pre-assembled quite realistically to suit your tastes. Green lichen used as-is closely resembles the southwest Manzanita and, with a light blue-grey once over, California's low Juniper bush. A larger piece of the same material with the trunk structure painted dark brown will look much like Pinion. The grey lichen used out of the box can also be slightly aged with a thin wash of black to represent Manzanita, Juniper, and Pinion in a dried out state of decay. By pruning Campbell's Green Shade Tree so that it has fewer branches and becomes less dense, a good facsimile of the Scrub Oak common to the southwest is achieved. You might also spray it with a flat dark green even further improving its appearance. The possibilities then are numerous and I'm sure you'll think of many more. For these pre-packaged items you are on your own.

    Unfortunately, as of this writing the various "stars" of southwestern foliage are not commercially available. Fortunately, on the other hand, they are easy to duplicate in any scale with materials you probably have laying around. That's what this article is all about. Let me show you how I make: Joshua and young Spruce trees, Yucca and Ocotillo plants, and Rainbow, Prickly Pear, Spanish Bayonet, and Saguaro cacti. Here is a list of what you'll need:

    • Hydrocal Plaster (or any other fast, set ting hard plaster)
    • Pipe Cleaners (regular white ones)
    • Air Fern (available from your florist; a small bunch will be more than you'll ever use)
    • Green Flocking (such as Kibri's or Life Like grass; one is plenty)
    • White Glue
    • Green Lichen
    • Grey Lichen
    • No. 3 or No. 4 Paint Brushes (cheap ones; these will be used for the Spanish Bayonet and will be cut off at the tip. One per plant)
    • Scrap Insulated Wire (a couple of feet is plenty)
    • .015" Styrene (scrap pieces are fine)
    • Assorted Flat Paints ( i.e. Floquil)
    • Styrofoam or Modeling Clay (to be used as a stand for the tree or plant in progress)
    • Architectural Models 8L-001 (one bag is enough, the use of which I'll explain later)


    Using the white pipe cleaners, take four or five of them and, after standing them up on a flat surface and getting the bases even, twist them together from the base up approximately Ph-2". This forms the bottom trunk structure. Now separate the upper "branches" in a jagged fashion fanning out in a circular direction from the twisted strands forming the trunk. Cut shorter assorted lengths of pipe cleaner and twist them into the upper branch structure until you have a full branch net work. You may have to use small dabs of white glue to help secure these smaller pieces in place. Stand your tree structure in the styrofoam or clay base and let it dry throughly.

    Once the basic structure has dried, mix a small batch of hydrocal with water to a soupy consistency. A small plastic margarine container makes for a good throw away mixing bowl. With a small paint brush begin coating the structure with the hydrocal mix while holding the tree by the trunk. A thin coat is all that is necessary as you don't want the branches to become too massive. Again, stand the coated tree in it's base and allow sufficient time for the hydrocal to harden. When everything has dried completely, paint the entire trunk and limb assembly brown (i.e. Floquil Roof Brown) and, once again, let this dry. While the paint is drying, cut a sufficient number of bushy green lichen "heads" to cover the tips of each of the branches. Using white glue, attach the lichen heads to the branch tips. The next step will be to texture the tree which in reality has a very rough, almost spiney, bark texture. This is simulated in miniature with either flocking or the dyed saw dust grass material available from Life-Like. Work over a shoe box or suitable container so that the excess can b e saved for other uses.

    Now, spray the entire tree with a spray adhesive (I've used Testor's Dullcoat which is really a clear, flat lacquer with good results) and sprinkle the flocking/sawdust over the lichen heads, limbs, and trunk. Don't overdo it, the idea is to make the tree look "hairy." When you're satisfied with the appearance of the tree, the only remaining step is to carefully shade the tree in various greens and even a touch of yellow. This can be done either with flat sprays or the bottled paint using a soft brush and very little paint. If you plan to have several Joshua trees on your layout, they are very easily mass-produced at one sitting.


    This is the easiest of all to make. All that is needed here is Air Fern which is most probably carried by your local florist at less than a dollar for a small bundle. The Air Fern has already been processed with a preservative and will retain its light green color for years. To simulate the young Spruce tree, find a good branch that has a nice conical tip to it and cut it off about 1" to 1 1/2" back from the tip. Presto! A young spruce! Added realism can be accomplished by toning down the light green with a light wash of grey/black paint. Drill a small hole in your layout and with a touch of white glue to the base of the trunk you're ready for planting.


    Materials needed for the Yucca plant are the grey lichen and a short length of insulated wire. Cut the insulated wire to a length of 1 1/4". Paint this a medium green (Floquil Depot Olive) and set aside to dry. Next, find a small, bushy head of grey lichen and trim it to a cone shape with a small pair of scissors. Glue the cone to the top of the wire with a dab of white glue. Take another small clump of grey lichen and thread the wire through it so you've got about a quarter inch protruding from the bottom which will serve as an anchor when you drill a hole in your layout. Fasten the bottom clump of lichen with a touch of white glue and you're ready to install your Yucca plant on your layout. A light wash of grey/black to the lower clump of lichen will give the desired effect of a tangled branch structure.


    From the insulated wire, cut 8 to 10 strands 1 1/2" long. Next, stand these strands on end so that the bases are all equal. Using a pair of pliers, twist the strands together up to approximately %" from the base. The remaining inch of wires should now be separated in a circular pattern roughly 1/2" in diameter and each strand slightly bent so that the overall appearance is rather scraggly or disjointed. Now, remove from the tip of each strand one eighth inch of insulation leaving only the bared wire. With the green flocking material ready close by, dip the entire wire structure in medium green paint (Floquil Depot Olive) and lightly dust this structure with the green flocking while the paint is still wet. The paint will serve as the adhesive for the flocking in this case. Set this aside to dry.

    When this assembly has dried, remove any excess flocking from the bared wire tips and paint these a crimson color (Floquil SP Scarlet). Your Ocotillo is now ready for planting. You may want to touch up the branch structure with small streaks of yellow.

    Prototype Modeler - December 1978 - Page 65 Prototype Modeler - December 1978 - Page 66


    The Rainbow cactus is another very simple project easily mass-produced. Simply pre-paint one of the white pipe cleaners a medium green and cut assorted lengths varying from approximately 1/2" to 1". After you have determined the placement of the cactus on your layout, drill a hole large enough to receive the cactus in bunches of three or four grouped together vertically. White glue will hold this securely in place. Lightly touching the tips with yellow will complete the planting.


    If you have a paper punch handy this will greatly speed up the construction of the Prickly Pear variety of cactus. This will be made from the scrap .015" styrene stock, medium green paint, and flocking. Begin by punching out 8 to 10 circles of styrene (or cut out rough circular shapes approximately 1/4 " in diameter with a modeling knife). Using any of the popular plastic cements and a fine grade of sandpaper, shape the styrene circles into rough egg shapes, then cement them in pretzel fashion so that the pointed end of one of the shapes becomes attached to the broad top of the next one. A small pair of tweezers facilitates this job enormously. Work upwards in a flat plane cementing three or four shapes together then start another one. When the sub assemblies are complete and have dried, stand them up vertically and cement them together at their bases in a criss-cross pattern. Using a flat enamel (Pactra Chromate Green), paint the styrene assembly a light green and again lightly dust the entire structure with green flocking. Lightly brushing the tops of the cactus discs with yellow completes this unusual foliage and it is now ready for placement on your layout.


    To build the Spanish Bayonet variety of cactus, refer to the construction of the Yucca plant. The identical procedure is followed but substitute the hairs of a cheap No. 3 or No. 4 paint brush at the base of the cactus instead of the clump of lichen used at the base of the Yucca. Paint these hairs a medium green (Floquil Depot Olive) and the Spanish Bayonet cactus is ready for planting on the layout.


    Here is the true star attraction of the southwest. A real eye catcher and conversation piece for your layout scenery! Using, again, the white pipe cleaners, begin construction much the same as for the Joshua tree covered earlier. Begin by twisting several pipe cleaners together forming the base of this giant cactus. A base or trunk length of approximately 1" to 1 1/2" is average. Next, separate and bend at right angles to the base, the upper pipe cleaner structure (see photos). Vary the distance, but at no more than 1/2" out from the base, again, bend the upper pipe cleaner "limbs" returning them to the vertical in alignment with the base. This will create the desired candelabra appearance of this particular species. Trim the limbs to various lengths leaving one rather taller than the rest. Using the same Hydro cal plaster mix procedure as for the Joshua tree, coat the entire pipe cleaner structure. While the plaster is drying, comb the trunk and limbs vertically with a stiff brush (i.e., an old tooth brush works well - but don't plan on brushing your teeth with it after you're through) resulting in the desired ridged or corrugated effect. Set aside to dry using either the styrofoam or clay as a temporary support. When the plaster has dried throughly, paint the entire cactus a light green (Floquil Burlington Green) highlighting the ridges with streaks of yellow. This completes the Saguaro or Monument cactus.


    Earlier I mentioned a covering material made by Architectural Models, Inc., catalog No. 8L-001. This material looks much like horsehair or steel wool but it is non magnetic and comes pre-colored in a brownish tan. Using it right from the package in small clusters, it approximates nicely the tall, dried out grass common to the southwest. Rolled into small balls it also resembles dried tumbleweed such as we've all seen blowing across ghost towns in John Wayne westerns. Investigate it further, it has lots of possibilities.

    Article Details

    • Original Author Peter Singher
    • Source Prototype Modeler
    • Publication Date December 1978

    Article Album (6 photos)

    Share - Report