casitas de gila guesthouses bed and breakfast new mexico 1-877-923-4827
info@casitasdegila.com

Southwestern Guesthouses on 265 Acres
near Silver City, New Mexico
overlooking Bear Creek and the Gila Wilderness

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

A Southwest New Mexico Flash Flood

THE GREAT BEAR CREEK FLASH FLOOD OF SEPTEMBER 22, 2014
 
Documenting a Major Flash Flood on Bear Creek at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses
caused by Remnants of Hurricane Odile in Southwest New Mexico

2005 flood on Bear Creek

View of February 12, 2005 Flood at near peak flow, looking north from Casitas towards Turtle Rock. Photo illustrates how major floods will inundate the entire Bear Creek floodplain and lower stream bank terraces. Because the September 22, 2014 Flood peaked and receded before dawn there are no comparable photos.

2005 Flood

Hammock below Casitas at peak flow of February 12, 2005 flood. Water level at this time approximately 8 feet above normal water level of Bear Creek. Debris left behind in trees near the hammock by the September 22, 2014 flood showed that this same hammock was two feet under water in the 2014 Flood, or between 10 and 12 feet above normal water level!


 

THE SETUP: HURRICANE ODILE MAKES LANDFALL
ON MEXICO’S BAJA CALIFORNIA PENINSULA

On Sunday night, September 14, 2014, Hurricane Odile came ashore on Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, making a direct hit on the resort tourist destination of Cabo San Lucas as a Category 3 hurricane with sustained winds of 125 mph. It was the strongest hurricane to hit the Peninsula in recorded history. After inflicting devastating damage and chaos in Cabo, the hurricane took an unusual northward path along the Baja Peninsula towards Arizona, reaching the U.S. border on Friday, September 19. Passing into Arizona, the storm then took a turn to the east towards Southern New Mexico and West Texas. Although the winds rapidly decreased upon entering the U.S., the degraded storm succeeded in dragging a huge plume of moisture into the Southwest, triggering several days of rain and thunderstorms as it travelled eastward, and resulting in extreme flooding and flash floods in SE Arizona and SW New Mexico.
 

A NIGHT TO REMEMBER

The National Weather Service (NWS) had predicted that over the weekend and early into the coming week of September 22 there would be a high probability of showers and thunderstorms, with some local flooding and flash floods as the remnants of Storm Odile made its way from Arizona east towards Texas. Indeed, on September 20 and 21, patchy showers, thunderstorms and localized flooding occurred throughout Southwest New Mexico, although only small amounts of rain and only a brief, small rise in Bear Creek were recorded at the Casitas. By Sunday evening, September 21, NWS radar was showing that the most intense thunderstorm activity stemming from the rapidly-dissipating Odiel had now moved east of the Casitas and the surrounding Gila area towards Truth or Consequences, NM, suggesting that the potential for significant flooding was over. Such was not the case.

At about 2 AM on Monday morning, September 22, the first of several large thunderstorms made a direct hit on the Casitas. With the pounding of the first blast of rain on the roof, a check with the NWS radar showed that the thunderstorm cell had come out of the Northeast. With increasing consternation, it was quickly determined that not only was it a large cell, but there were several large cells lined up behind it, all of which were tracking straight towards the Casitas. Taken together, the numerous cells covered a wide swath that essentially covered the entire drainage basin of Bear Creek, extending all the way upstream from the Casitas to Pinos Altos, 25 miles to the northeast. If these cells remained active for any length of time, it was pretty certain that Bear Creek was going to flood. Judging by the persisting deep red to purple colors of the cells on the radar as they slowly moved down Bear Creek, it was going to be a major flood.

All of the thunderstorm cells remained intensely active until 4 AM, when the last of them finally passed over the Casitas. By this time Bear Creek was already roaring unseen in the darkness 100 feet below in the canyon below the Casitas. By the sound of it, a significant flash flood was underway, but it would be another two and a half hours before the first light of day would illuminate the magnitude of what was actually taking place.
 

A FLOODPLAIN OF CHANGE

Peering down into the canyon in the early morning light, one could see that the peak of the resulting flash flood had already passed by and that Bear Creek was still swollen out of its banks and running strong.

Here and there chaotic masses of vegetative debris could be seen hanging high in the branches of the cottonwoods and willows several feet above the floodwaters that still ran across the entire floodplain and onto the adjacent stream terraces below. Over the main channel an endless parade of logs, branches, and mats of other floating debris shot by in the churning waters.

Late in the day on Monday, when the Creek had dropped substantially from its highest stand, some guests staying at the Casitas ventured down to take a closer look at the still roaring Bear Creek, following a trail that leads down to a hammock that is situated on a creek bank terrace about 6 feet above the main channel, on the Casita side of the Creek. Upon their return they estimated that the hammock (still intact and hanging on its chains) had been submerged about 2 feet underwater at the peak of the flood on the basis of debris caught in adjacent trees, which would put the maximum depth of the Creek over the channel at about 10 feet. If verified, this figure would mean that the September 22 floodwaters had attained the greatest depth of any flood experienced in the 16-year history of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, the previous record being an 8-foot depth from the February 12, 2005 flood. That flood had resulted when a warm front coming up from Mexico brought 2.5 inches of slow rain to the area over a 52-hour period, which succeeded in melting all of the snow pack in the high mountains of the Gila Wilderness lying a few miles north and northeast from the Casitas.

It would be three days before the floodwaters receded to the main channel and the velocity dropped enough that one could cross the creek safely to survey and record what had taken place. Starting at the downstream boundary of the Casita land and following the course of the Creek two-thirds of a mile to the upstream Casita boundary, a close inspection revealed that the guest’s estimate was actually conservative in that the floodwaters had in places reached depths of 11 to 12 feet, based on debris lodged in the trees bordering the main channel.
 

SOME BASIC PROCESSES OF STREAM CHANGE IN BEAR CREEK

Before illustrating and discussing the changes that took place on Bear Creek over the three-day period of September 22-25, 2014, it is useful to review some of the basic processes that affect how a stream evolves and changes over time.

The width of the active Bear Creek floodplain over the Casita lands, including the first stream bank terraces, varies from 120 feet at the most narrow point to 250 feet at the widest. Although rather confined, over time the Creek still manages to display some of the features of a meandering stream. In the 16 years of observation at the Casitas the stream has undergone significant change, including:

  • Channel migration or meander from one side of the canyon to the other, producing slip-off slopes, point bars, stream cut cliffs, and cut-off channels or chutes
  • Deposition and build up of sediments up to 6 or 7 feet thick across the floodplain, ranging from fine sand to boulders 3 feet in diameter
  • Erosion and scouring of cut-off channels up to 6 or 7 feet deep
  • Exposure or burying of the Gila Conglomerate bedrock underlying Bear Creek by unconsolidated modern sediments in transport down the Creek

Flash Flood on Bear Creek

Looking upstream, photo illustrates formation of slip-off slope and point bar on east side of main channel and cut-bank on west side of channel, following drop of flood waters to normal flow.

flash flood on Bear Creek

Photo illustrating cut-off channel scoured by flood waters abandoning curve in main channel (flowing from upper left of photo out of sight behind trees to right side of photo and then to lower left of photo) to flow directly across floodplain.


All creeks and rivers carry various amounts of solid sediment and dissolved matter downstream. This material is referred to as stream load, which is classified into three types:

  • Bed load – Coarse and heavy sediment, ranging in grain size from silt and sand to pebbles, cobbles, and boulders, that travel downstream along the bottom of the stream either in constant contact, such as rolling or sliding (traction load), or by hopping and skipping and bouncing (saltation load)
  • Suspended load – Fine sediment, such as clay, silt, and sand, that is transported downstream suspended in the water column by turbulence and currents
  • Dissolved load – Invisible to the eye, this type of stream load consists of chemical ions of various elements that are dissolved in the water

All streams, from small creeks to large rivers, are typically in a state of dynamic flux, attempting to achieve a state of equilibrium where there is neither erosion nor deposition of stream load along the stream channel. Such equilibrium is only rarely and briefly achieved as fluctuation in the volume and velocity of water, plus the gradient or slope of the channels, vary constantly. During floods and flash floods such fluctuations increase exponentially, both in magnitude as well as spatially, as flood waters leave their channels and flow out across the floodplain, and, in the case of large floods, ultimately submerge the adjacent river bank terraces. When the floodplain is covered with riverine forest, as is the case of Bear Creek in front of the Casitas, the resulting fluctuations are extremely chaotic as trees are undercut and topple or masses of floating debris of logs and vegetative matter lodge against standing trees forming localized dams to the churning waters.
 

A PHOTO DISCUSSION OF THE EFFECTS OF THE GREAT BEAR CREEK FLASH FLOOD OF SEPTEMBER 22, 2014

A Comparison of the Magnitude, Duration, and Effects of the 2005 and 2014 Floods

The February 2005 flood was quite different from the September 22, 2014 flood in terms of duration, magnitude, and resulting effects. While the maximum height of the water reached during 2005 flood was around 8 feet above normal channel flow level in the Creek, the height of the 2014 flood was between 10 and 12 feet as measured by debris left in trees across the floodplain.

southwest flash flood

Vegetative debris caught on willow tree at edge of main channel. Scarred bark just above debris (probably result of hit by floating log) is about 12 feet above main channel normal water level.

flash flood in New Mexico

Debris caught on 4-1/2 foot Casita horse corral fence. Flood-scoured corral is located on top of first stream bank terrace approximately 7 feet above normal water level in main channel.


In terms of duration, the 2005 flood went on relatively unabated for nearly two weeks because of a warm front that came up from Mexico dropping 2.5 inches of widespread rain over a period of 52 hours that covered not only the entire Bear Creek drainage system, but also melted all of the snowpack in the adjacent mountains. In contrast, the 2014 flood was essentially a flash flood resulting from only a few hours of intense thunderstorms having extreme precipitation rates of 1 to 2 inches per hour that were confined to the center of the Bear Creek drainage basin. So while the 2014 flood reached greater depths, much greater volumes per second, and higher velocities, this greater intensity only lasted a few hours in comparison to the less intense, but much longer lasting 2005 flood.

flash flood Southwest New Mexico

Surface of stream bank terrace 6 feet above main channel cut away by erosion and scoured to depths of three feet or more by flood waters.

bear creek flash flood

Looking upstream on floodplain at thick deposits of sand deposited downstream from the dense stand of cottonwood and willow in background which slowed water flowing across floodplain sufficiently so that suspended load of sand sediment would be deposited.

Bear Creek flash flood

Looking upstream on floodplain where debris dams on right side of photo have concentrated waters flood waters on floodplain to selectively scoured away all fine silt and sand to leave a cut-off channel paved with course cobbles and boulders.


Consequently, the change affected by these two floods upon Bear Creek Canyon was quite different. These changes can be summed up as large scale but gradual changes affected by the 2005 flood as opposed to small scale but catastrophic changes for the 2014 flood. For example: in the 2005 flood the main channel of Bear Creek was shifted from the eastern edge of the canyon some 200 feet to the west to where it is now located directly below the Casitas on the western edge of the canyon. By contrast, the 2014 flood produced numerous, but localized, deeply scoured channels and thick, irregular mound-shaped deposits of sand to coarse gravel and boulders across the floodplain, as well as uprooting trees and stripping vegetation from bedrock surfaces.

Silver City flash flood

Clump of several 20-foot willow trees that were growing on stream bank on west side of main channel that were undercut and toppled by flood. Mass of upstream-facing roots will act as a dam-like barrier to prevent further erosion of the Creek bank at this spot and cause migration of the main channel to the east (toward the camera).

flash flood southwest New Mexico

Gila Conglomerate bedrock exposed on south side of main channel when flood waters stripped away the cover of creek bank vegetation shown on left side of photo. Thus exposed, bed-load sand and gravel carried by future floods will now resume the wearing down of the bedrock surface continuing the eternal downcutting of Bear Creek Canyon.


Another critical factor responsible for the vast difference in affects resulting from the 2005 and 2014 flood is the dramatic increase in floodplain vegetation between June 2005 and September 20, 2014 (just two days before the flood) as illustrated in the these photos.

2005 Flood

View of Bear Creek floodplain looking north upstream towards Turtle Rock on June 18, 2005. Note width of channel and and paucity of floodplain vegetation when compared to 2014 photo on right.

2014 Pre-Flood

View of Bear Creek floodplain looking upstream towards Turtle Rock on September 20, 2014, two days before the Great Flash Flood. Note narrow width of main channel and extensive development of riverine forest across the floodplain on east side of Creek (right side of photo) in comparison to 2005 photo on left.


In addition to the increase in density of the maturing riparian forest over the floodplain, note how the main channel in 2014 has become constricted in width, resulting in both active down cutting of the main channel itself while simultaneously forcing a high volume of rapidly-moving water out across the floodplain. The result of these high-energy flood waters surging across the densely-forested floodplain produced massive change across the floodplain in terms of the erosion and scouring of new cut-off channels, plus large-scale build-up of adjacent stream bank terraces of both fine and course suspended and bed load material in response to localized damming effects of flood-transported debris being caught against trees on the floodplain which resulted a reduction in the velocity of the water resulting in deposition of stream load.

Aftermath of flash flood

Localized debris dams slow water movement over floodplain causing deposition and buildup of fine suspended load sediment.

aftermath of flash flood

Localized debris dam on floodplain causing deposition and buildup of coarse gravel and boulders.



 

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Southwest Hummingbirds & Butterflies

A SUPER ABUNDANCE OF HIGH DESERT NECTAR SLURPERS ABOUND
WITHIN THE BEAR CREEK NATURE PRESERVE
 
August is High Season for Hummingbirds and Butterflies
at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses

black-chinned hummingbirds

Female Black-chinned Hummingbirds

male black-chinned hummingbirds

Male Black-chinned Hummingbird (on left)

painted lady butterfly

Painted Lady, Brush-footed Family

Cloudless Sulphur butterfly

Cloudless Sulphur, Whites and Sulphurs Family


THE BEAR CREEK NATURE PRESERVE

In 1999, the Bear Creek Nature Preserve was created and set aside in Bear Creek Canyon at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses. Initially comprising some 70 acres, the Reserve was gradually enlarged to 265 acres. Six miles of maintained hiking trails along three-quarters of a mile of Bear Creek Canyon allow Casita guests to explore the diverse habitats that exist along and adjacent to Bear Creek. Over the past 15 years, the Nature Preserve has been an on-going source of pleasure and delight for both guests and hosts alike, allowing them to observe the various cycles of natural change that have evolved along this stretch of Bear Creek.

Initially this segment of the Bear Creek Canyon consisted of an over-grazed, straight channeled, gravel and debris choked and scoured floodplain, essentially barren of any vegetation over six feet in height, bordered by thousand-year-old mature-growth vegetated river terraces on both sides of the floodplain. These stream terraces, once farmed by the ancient Mogollon Pueblo Culture, were being actively eroded and cut away with every succeeding flood that came down Bear Creek. With fencing and removal of the cattle that had overgrazed the floodplain for many years, the young Cottonwood, Willow, Sycamore, and Seep Willow were able to take root, grow, and stabilize the eroding creek banks and immediately began to reestablish the natural riverine forest in the floodplain.

Bear Creek 2001

Looking North up Bear Creek Nature Preserve from Casitas de Gila Office, July 9, 2001

Bear Creek 2013

Looking North up Bear Creek Nature Preserve from Casitas de Gila Office, July 26, 2013


Today, the creek bottom within the Nature Preserve is unrecognizable from its former state 15 years ago. The vegetation over the floodplain has evolved and matured into a diverse riverine forest dominated by stands of 30- to 80-foot young cottonwoods, sycamores, and willows that border a now meandering creek and have stabilized the formerly eroding old stream terraces. A complex vegetative diversity of trees, shrubs, and flowering weeds and grasses now abounds over the floodplain and adjacent terraces, providing year-round habitat and food for an equally diverse assemblage of animals, birds, and insects.
 

HUMMINGBIRDS GALORE IN THE HIGH DESERT

hummingbirds

“Bon Slurpatit!” A group of hummingbird friends sit down for breakfast at the Casitas. From L to R: Perched Male Back-chinned, Hovering Male Black-chinned, Hovering Female Rufous, Hovering Female Black-chinned, Hovering Male Black-chinned

For 16 years now, guests at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses have been treated to the spectacular annual gathering of hummingbirds that takes place between their arrival in late March until their departure in early October. Initially the number of hummingbirds who decided to visit during the “Season” at the Casitas was modest, but over the years the number has grown exponentially, as evidenced by the volume of sugar water nectar consumed by the voracious slurpings of these amazing little creatures! This year, for example, the Casitas will use approximately 150 pounds of granulated sugar to make the 85 gallons of nectar that will be consumed over the roughly 200-day season.

black-chinned hummingbird

“Look at Me, Mr. Rufous”. (Mr. Rufous has now joined the others for dinner)! “As a Black-chinned male, I have a purple throat patch, and you don’t!”

roufus hummingbird

“Yeah, well, who cares Mr. Black-chinned. I’m the American Birding Association Bird of the Year!”


There are some 325 to 340 different species of Hummingbirds in the World (depending on who is counting), all of which are found in North, Central and South America. Twenty-seven species of of these hummingbirds have been reported in the United States, and 17 are reported in the State of New Mexico. Here in Southwest New Mexico, there are 7 species of hummingbirds reported from the Gila National Forest (bird checklist available for download as .pdf file), 5 of which visit the Casitas over the course of the Summer. Most abundant, first to arrive, and last to leave are the Black-chinned Hummingbirds (Archilochus alexandri). The Broad-tail Hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus) is also a common visitor. The Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) comes in late Summer, arriving in July and peaking in August. The Calliope Hummingbird (Selasphorus calliope) and the Magnificent Hummingbird (Eugenes fulgens) are much less common, occasionally seen in August and early September.

roufus hummingbird

“Oh yeah, well then Mr. Rufus, just take a look at my Mrs. with her iridescent green colors and those white spots on her tail feathers!”

roufus hummingbird

“Not impressed Mr. Black-chinned, take a look at my Mrs.’s iridescent green and copper colors, plus the white tail feathers to match!”


Hummingbirds are the smallest birds in the world, and weigh between from 0.07 to 0.7 oz. (2 to 20 grams). In their research on hummingbird foods and feeding, Hainsworth and Wolf have shown that Ruby-throat Hummingbirds can consume up to 14 times their weight in sugar water from artificial feeders in a single day when filled with the typical 1:4 concentration of table sugar and water! They also found that the sugar concentration in wildflowers could be up to 8 times greater than the typical 1:4 sugar water concentration. Since hummingbirds at the Casitas have access to both artificial feeders and wildflowers, the average hummingbird at the Casitas probably consumes at least several times its weight in nectar in the form of many small meals slurped up from the Casita feeders. In addition, the hummingbirds will also consume a sizeable daily intake of small insects and spiders that provide the essential proteins, amino acids, vitamins, and minerals that flower nectar and sugar water nectar do not contain. Some of these insects they find around the Casitas, but most are caught during numerous forays into the riparian forest along Bear Creek, 100 feet below the Casitas. A primary attraction for the large number of hummingbirds that visit the Casitas is the presence of the extensive riverine forest of the Bear Creek Nature Preserve along Bear Creek, where a profusion of wildflowers and small insects are found during the Summer months.

hummingbirds in New Mexico

Breakfast finished, Mrs. Black-chinned quickly flits to her man’s side, chirping for Mrs. Rufous to “Buzz off!”. Mr. Black-chinned seems to know he’ll soon be catching it from the Mrs., while Mr. Rufous has seen it all before and goes back to slurping.

hummingbirds

Meanwhile, although very much aware of how the brazen Mrs. Rufous is showing off for Mr. Black-chinned, Mrs. Black-chinned decides to finish her breakfast before taking action.


The most common, and average-sized, hummingbird at the Casitas is the Black-chinned Hummingbird, which has an average weight of about 0.15 oz. Considering the research of Hainsworth and Wolf, if each of these hummingbirds consumed, say, just 6.5 times its body weight (or about 1.0 ounces of Casita sugar water nectar) a day, that would equate to about 0.1 cups per day (1 cup sugar water nectar weights 10.6 oz.). Doing the math, the 85 gallons of sugar water nectar that will be consumed at the Casitas this year amounts to approximately 13,600 hummingbird meals fed over the approximately 200-day season, for an average of 68 bird-meals a day. The actual number of birds present at any given time varies greatly during the season. Starting out with only a few in March, their numbers gradually increase as the Summer progresses, until reaching a peak in August, when the greatest diversity and number of wildflowers are blooming along Bear Creek. At this time, the feeders at the Casitas are literally swarming with the little birds from dawn to dusk.

If one takes the time to read and study the facts about the life history of hummingbirds, one quickly comes to understand that they are truly amazing little birds. Hummingbirds are the smallest birds in the world, and have the highest metabolism of all animals, with a resting heart rate of around 450 beats per minute which can increase to in excess of 1,000 beats per minute when flying, and a resting breathing rate of 245 breaths per minute. In terms of flight, they can hover, fly upside down, sideways, or backwards and forwards, with forward speeds of 25 to 30 miles an hour, and top speeds of 60 miles an hour in dives, with wings beating from 70 to 200 times per second. They are voracious feeders. The Black-chinned Hummingbird, for example, slurps nectar along two grooves in its tongue at a rate of 13-17 licks per second. Several species migrate very long distances, with most species wintering in Southern Mexico. The Rufous Hummingbird, for example, takes one of the longest migratory journeys of any bird in the world, covering 3,900 miles (one-way) from Mexico to Alaska and return in one season!

calliope hummingbird

Later in the day, after the Black-chinned and the Rufous group has had their fill and left, a lone female Calliope Hummingbird is seen coming to the feeder for a long quiet slurp, all to herself … Calliope Hummingbirds are the second smallest hummingbird and are the smallest breeding bird in the U.S.

Hummingbirds are also very smart. Their brain comprises 4.2% of their body weight, which is reportedly the largest percentage in the bird kingdom. Human brains by contrast comprise only about 2% of their body weight. (A fact which offers a different take on the disparaging human epithet “bird brain”!)

Research on Rufous Hummingbirds has shown that hummingbirds possess elements of episodic-like memory, namely the concepts of where and when. Apparently, this memory enables them to remember not only where every feeder or flower is and when it will be refilled with nectar on a local basis, but also functions equally well for the entire migration route and from one year to the next. Our experience here at the Casitas also seems to agree with the reported claim that they quickly learn who fills the feeders and who doesn’t!

The average life span of hummingbirds is 5 years, however life spans of 10 years are documented for some species, such as the Black-chinned. Thus, it is likely that many of the hummingbirds visiting Casitas de Gila Guesthouses are repeat visitors and have been coming here for several generations.
 

 

common buckeye and bordered patch butterfly

Two members of the Brush-foot Family (Nymphalidae), a Common Buckeye (Junonia coenia) and a Bordered Patch (Chlosyne lacinia), enjoy the nectar of the Coreopsis flowers planted in the courtyard at the Casita Office.

BUTTERFLIES ABOUND AROUND BEAR CREEK CANYON

In August, about a month into the Monsoon Season, wildflowers peak both in number and diversity throughout the riverine forest that borders Bear Creek, 100 feet below Casitas de Gila Guesthouses. Accompanying the hummingbirds that gather to exploit this annual profusion of colorful blooms and fragrance are the Butterflies, flitting from flower to flower in silent, graceful counterpoint to the noisy, chaotic darting to and fro of their avian competitors.
 

New Mexico: Land of the Lepidoptera

It is estimated that there are about 20,000 species of butterflies in the world, with about 725 species reported from North America north of Mexico, of which about 575 species are found in the lower 48 states of the United States. Approximately 300 species of Butterflies (Class: Insecta; Order: Lepidoptera) are reported from New Mexico, representing one of the most diverse Butterfly faunas in the United States. This faunal diversity is due to the great geographic diversity of the immense New Mexico landscape which includes portions of the Great Plains, the Southern Rocky Mountains, the Basin and Range, the Colorado Plateau, the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts and the Sierra Madre, with elevations ranging from 2,970 feet in the southern deserts to 13,039 feet in the northern mountains. About 100 species are known from Grant County where the Bear Creek Nature Preserve and Casitas de Gila are located.

butterfly

Unidentified species of Skipper Family (Erynnis sp.?) (Hesperiidae) on Marigold flower in the Casita Office courtyard.

common checkered skipper

Common Checkered Skipper (Pyrgus communis) on Coreopsis flower

northern cloudywing skipper

Northern Cloudywing Skipper (Thorybes phylades) on Butterfly Bush in the Office Courtyard


The Butterflies of New Mexico are classified scientifically as belonging to two Superfamilies: the Superfamily Hesperioidea, which includes a single family of Butterflies known as the Hesperiidae, commonly known as the Skipper Butterfles; and the Superfamily Papilionoidea, comprised of five separate families including the Papilionidae (Swallowtail Butterflies), the Pieridae (White or Sulfur Butterflies), the Nymphalidae (Brush-footed Butterflies), the Lycaenidae (Gossamer-Winged Butterflies or the Blue and Copper Butterflies), and the Riodinidae (Metalmark Butterflies). (Note: While these groupings, which are based on various distinctive physical features, seem rather complicated at first, if one studies photographs of representative species from each family, one quickly sees that the groupings are quite distinct in appearance from one another visually.)

painted lady butterfly

A Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui), Brush-footed Family (Nymphalidae), feeds on a Zinnia in the Casita Office courtyard

varigated fritillary

A Varigated Fritillary (Euptoieta claudia), Brush-footed Family, slurps up nectar from a Marigold flower in the Casita Office courtyard

gulf fritillary

A Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis vanillae), Brush-footed Family, enjoys the Marigolds in the Casita Office Courtyard as well

Queen Butterfly

A Queen Butterfly (Danaus gilippus), Brush-footed Family, forages on a Seep Willlow flower (Baccharis salicifolia) below the Casitas on Bear Creek. The Queen Butterfly is in the same Genus as the famed Monarch (Danaus plexippus), but does not make the legendary migration to Mexico that the Monarch makes.


Over the years, numerous species of butterflies have been observed at Casitas de Gila, both those feeding on the wildflowers along Bear Creek, as well as species attracted to the native plants and non-native flowering plants brought in for landscaping around the Casitas. In the Spring of 2014 an extensive planting of various traditional garden flowers was undertaken in the courtyard at the Casita Office. Beginning in late July and peaking in early August, a large variety of butterflies were swarming the courtyard flowers daily. It was a spectacular sight, delighting both the Casita hosts as well as incoming guests. Then, by the middle of August, although the flowers were still at the height of their blooming, the number and variety of butterflies suddenly plummeted as a series of cold nights occurred following evening thunderstorms. Within a matter of a couple of days, the spectacular butterfly pageant was over, only to be replaced, to the head gardener’s horror, by a vast horde of thousands of tiny, half-inch grasshoppers that immediately set upon devouring every flowering plant in sight.

sleepy orange butterfly

A Sleepy Orange (Eurema nicippe), Whites and Sulphurs Family (Pieridae), slurps nectar from a Zinnia in the Casita Office courtyard.

southern dogface butterfly

A Southern Dogface (Zerene cesonia), Whites and Sulphurs Family, drains the nectar from a Butterfly Bush flower in the Casita Office courtyard.

checkered white butterfly

A Checkered White (Pontia protodice), Whites and Sulphurs Family, slurping nectar from a Trailing Windmills flower (Allionia incarnata) below the Casitas along Bear Creek


Cycles of Natural Change Affect Butterfly Diversity and Abundance in the High Desert

The diversity and abundance of flowers along Bear Creek and adjacent lands varies significantly from year to year. The dominant controlling factor, of course, is precipitation—when and how much. After 15 years of observation, here at the Casitas about all that is certain is that no 2 years are alike in terms of when, where, and how much rain will fall during the Summer Monsoons along the Bear Creek drainage system, and, consequently, whether a particular flower species will be abundant or not. Not surprisingly, the butterfly species, both in terms of diversity and abundance, also show similar variation and unpredictability from year to year.

Temperature variations are much less a factor than precipitation in affecting diversity and abundance of various species, but in some years, such as this year, it can be significant. The Summer of 2013, was a bountiful year for both wildflowers and butterflies. The Monsoon rains started right on schedule with a major hail and rain thunderstorm on July 2, and continued into the third week of September, triggering 7 major flash floods along Bear Creek, with extensive flooding across the entire floodplain lasting up to several hours and running several feet deep. Temperatures were normally warm throughout the period especially during August, the peak month for flowering.

Summer 2014 has been a different story, however. Overall, temperatures have been cooler, especially during August, which has seen more cloud cover, and atypical slow drizzling rains of minor accumulation instead of the more typical heavy downpours resulting from intense, but short-lived thunderstorms. Many nights have been exceptionally cool, in the high 50s F, as evidenced by numerous cottonwoods showing extensive premature yellowing of the leaves. Also, very little rain has fallen during the second half of the month. A similar weather pattern has existed during the month throughout the 25 mile-long Bear Creek drainage basin as evidenced by the fact that the Creek has not yet experienced a single major flash flood this year. The stock fences across the Creek at the north and south ends of the Casita property, which are normally washed away several times each summer, are still standing, having been put up at the end of the Monsoon Season last year. By the middle of August, flowers along the Creek were still not blooming in abundance and many plants were starting to wither. As observed in the Office courtyard, butterfly diversity and abundance along the Creek peaked in early August and dropped off markedly after the middle of the month, with only a few species and numbers remaining. All in all it has been an unusual Summer, well illustrating the amazing Cycles of Natural Change that occur in this High Desert landscape.
 

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YUCCA, SOTOL, AND BEARGRASS

These Iconic Plants of Southern New Mexico Were
Nature’s Grocery Store, Pharmacy, Fabric Shop, and Hardware Store
for the Native Americans of Southwest New Mexico

soaptree yucca

Soaptree Yucca at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses

beargrass

Beargrass along Turkey Creek Road in the Gila National Forest

sotol

Sotol along Turkey Creek Road in the Gila National Forest


SHOWTIME IN THE HIGH CHIHUAHUAN DESERT

soaptree yucca

Soaptree Yucca outside the Gallery

sotol

Sotol along the road approaching the Casitas

Beginning sometime in June, and generally peaking in early July, the Juniper and Piñon dominated High Chihuahuan Desert landscape surrounding Casitas de Gila Guesthouses often delights our guests with an extravagant Welcome-to-Summer white and golden flowering of the ubiquitous Yucca, Sotol, and Beargrass plants that thrive across this arid terrain. The magnitude of the flowering is a function of several factors, but primarily reflects the amount and timing of the previous Winter and Spring precipitation.

It was obvious that all of the various factors were optimum over this past Winter and Spring because this year’s display was simply magnificent! No matter where one looked, the brilliant white flowering plumes of the Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata) atop their 6-to-12 foot stalks, and the golden plumes crowning the soaring 10-to-16 foot stalks of the Sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri) could be seen in glorious contrast against the deep green of the Juniper trees or the cobalt blue of the New Mexican sky.
 

THE DESERT YUCCA

soaptree yucca

Soaptree Yucca along the Nature Trail at the Casitas

soaptree yucca flowers

Flowers of the Soaptree Yucca at various stages of blossoming

In 1927 the New Mexico Legislature established the blossom of the desert Yucca plant as the State flower. Only the Genus was specified, allowing the designation to apply to the several species of the plant growing within the State. Early settlers referred to these lovely flowers, which are found in all sectors of New Mexico, as “Our Lord’s candles” — “las lamparas de Dios” or the lamps of God. A magnificent flower at any time, for many it is when viewed on a full moon night, when the snow white plumes appear to float suspended in space high above the desert floor, that the ethereal beauty of the bloom is best appreciated.

There are some 40 to 50 species of Yuccas in the Americas and the Caribbean, all of which share the common characteristics of a basal, rosette, or circular arrangement of sword-shaped leaves and clusters of white or whitish flowers set at the top of a tall stem or stalk. Here at the Casitas there are two species of Yucca: the abundant Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata) and the much less common Banana Yucca (Yucca baccata).
 

SOAPTREE YUCCA

bent soaptree yucca

Soaptree Yucca along the road at the Casitas that’s bent by the strong prevailing west winds.

The Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata) has narrow, 0.25 inch, sword-shaped leaves 1 to 3 feet long, with needle-sharp tips, and grows to heights of 15 feet or more with a small diameter, occasionally branching, cylindrical trunk that is generally covered with a dense mat of dead leaves. Following the flowering phase, which consists of an inflorescence of large 1.25 to 2.25 inch bell-shaped flowers, the fruit appears in the form of numerous, large, three-chambered seed pods or capsules, two to three inches long and an inch in diameter. Each of these chambers contains two poker-chip-like stacks of flat black seeds. Eventually these pods dry and crack open, releasing the seeds to be spread by wind, surface water runoff, birds and animals. Various insects love the nectar of the Soaptree Yucca, but the flower is only pollinated by a species of the Yucca Moth.

soaptree yucca

Honeybees love Soaptree Yucca flowers but do not pollinate them.

fruit of Soaptree Yucca

The fruit of the Soaptree Yucca is a three-chambered pod or capsule.

open soaptree yucca seed pod

Opened Soaptree Yucca seed pod showing three-chambered structure.


BANANA YUCCA

Flowering Banana Yucca

Flowering Banana Yucca near the Gallery at the Casitas.

The Banana Yucca (Yucca baccata) grows close to the ground, with only a short trunk, if present at all. The sword-shaped leaves are 1.25 to 1.5 inches wide, up to 3.5 feet long, with curled fibers along the margins, and needle-sharp tips. Height of the plant, including both the leaves and flower stalk rarely exceeds 4 or 5 feet high. While the flowers of the Soaptree Yucca and Banana Yucca are similar, their fruits are quite different. Unlike the more woody, tough, chambered seed pods or capsules of the Soaptree Yucca fruits, the Banana Yucca fruits are large, 3 to 6 inches long and 2.5 inches thick, fleshy, and soft and sweet when ripe. As a result they are much sought after as a food source by insects, birds, animals, and humans. Rarely do they reach ripening stage on the plant before being eaten. Like the Soaptree Yucca, the Banana Yucca is pollinated by a species of the Yucca Moth.

THE YUCCA AND THE YUCCA MOTH: A 30-50 MILLION YEAR OLD ROMANCE

Yuccas and Yucca Moths have been enjoying a romantic relationship for some 30 to 50 million years now. What has kept them together all those years makes for an interesting love story in intra-specifc relationships . . .

seed pod of soaptree yucca

Seed pod of Soaptree Yucca showing hole where Yucca Moth larvae bored out prior to the drying out and splitting open of the seed pod.

Yuccas reproduce by seeds produced from the pollination of the flowers. The flowers of Yucca plants are pollinated by three genera of the family of moths known as Prodoxidae. Certain species of two of these moth genera, the Tegeticula and the Parategeticula, have what is called an obligate pollination mutualism arrangement with particular species of Yucca. What this means is that certain species of Yucca are only pollinated by a particular species of Yucca Moth, an evolutionary development in which both species are mutually benefited, which, in this case, is by successful reproduction.

For the Soaptree Yucca the mutualistic Yucca Moth is Tegeticula yuccasella1. In this torrid relationship, the female moth first deposits an egg in the flower’s ovary, after which, in a display of impassioned gratitude, she collects a large ball of pollen from the flower, two or three times the size of her head, and then inserts it into the stigma of the flower! After a week or so the egg hatches there and the baby moth larvae will munch on some of the seeds developing from the ovules. After a few weeks, the seed capsules begin to open, at which time the mature larvae now bores its way out of the capsule and tumbles to the ground where it bores down into the ground, forms a silken cocoon, and begins a long winter’s nap while waiting for next season’s Yucca flowers, at which time it will complete the cycle and emerge from the ground as a new Yucca Moth!

The Banana Yucca and the Yucca Moth also have a obligate pollination mutualism relationship in which the romantic modus operandi of the moth, Tegeticula baccatella, is essentially the same as that of Tegeticula yuccasella.
 

MODERN USE OF YUCCA

yucca walking sticks

Dried Soaptree Yucca stalks are strong and light, a perfect combination for the handcrafted walking sticks made by Jeff Ross for the Gallery at Casitas de Gila.

Today, all species of New Mexican Yucca are extensively used in xeriscaping because of their extremely low water requirements and their iconic Southwestern beauty. They are easy to grow and once established require virtually no maintenance.

The flower stalks of the Yucca are extremely strong and light, therefore they make excellent walking or hiking sticks. Here at the Casitas we provide them as walking sticks, and also use and decorate them as a Christmas tree in each Casita. Compared with other natural woods, Yucca as well as Sotol stalks have an exceptionally low ignition temperature. Consequently, they are excellent as drill and hearth or fireboard material for outdoor primitive friction fire starting using the plough, handrill or bow techniques as used by hunters, campers and practitioners of wilderness survival skills.

The use of Yucca as well as Sotol stalks in various types of building construction was widely practiced by both Anglo and Hispanic settlers in the traditional architecture of the Southwest, from crude enclosures of various kinds to the unique latillas over vigas in room ceiling construction. Modern construction of traditional architecture continues such use.

 

SOTOL

Sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri) is a common flowering plant of the arid Southwest found in both the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts. At first glance the plant can be mistaken for a Soaptree Yucca with its rosette or globe-shaped mass of 0.50 to 1 inch wide and 1 to 3 foot long sword shaped leaves radiating in all directions at the top of a short, 5 foot or less, brown unbranched trunk cloaked in dead leaves. Looking closer, however, one quickly sees or perhaps is unfortunate enough to feel that the leaves have dangerously sharp barbs or saw-tooth spines lining the leaf margins.

Sotol replace the Soaptree Yucca above 5,000 feet elevation at the Casitas, and here along Turkey Creek road in the Gila National Forest.

Sotol replace the Soaptree Yucca above 5,000 feet elevation at the Casitas, and here along Turkey Creek road in the Gila National Forest.

sotol

A phalanx of Sotol plants marching south down the mountainside along Turkey Creek Road in the Gila National Forest.

honeybees and sotol

Close up of flowering inflorescence of Sotol along the road into the Casitas. Honey Bee shows size of individual flowers!


Like the Yucca, the Sotol has a massive, plume-shaped inflorescence of flowers at the top of tall stem or stalk up to 16 feet in height and 1 to 2 inches in diameter. The flowers are small, about an inch in length and vary from white to golden for male plants and purplish pink for female plants. The fruit is also small, about 0.25 inches long and contains a single seed. Unlike the Yucca, the Sotol plant is visited and pollinated by a variety of insects.

 

MODERN USE OF SOTOL

In the U.S. the Sotol plant is often used for xeriscaping like the Yucca, although its flower is less showy and and saw-tooth barbs on the leaves render it less friendly or desirable in gardens. The woody flower stalks are strong and light like the Yucca and are frequently handcrafted into walking and hiking sticks, and some practitioners of friction fire starting prefer Sotol over Yucca as a hearth or drill material.

In Northern Mexico, mostly in the region of Chihuahua, however, Sotol is wild-harvested on a commercial scale where the hearts of the crown are baked, femented, and double-distilled to make a spirit liquor that is somewhat similar to tequila and mezcal.
 

BEARGRASS

Beargrass (Nolina microcarpa) can be considered a distant relative of both Yucca and Sotol in that all three belong to the family of flowering plants known as the Asparagaceae, of which the namesake Genus Asparagus belongs, as well as our favorite Spring vegetable species, Asparagus officinalis.

beargrass

Plumes of flowering Beargrass catching the early morning Sun along Casita Flats Road.

beargrass

Clump of Beargrass. Fibers from the long, narrow leaves were used extensively by all cultures of Native Americans for cordage, basketry, and woven mats of all types.


beargrass

Many Native American cultures used flowering Beargrass for food, eating the emerging young flower stalks, the small fruit that followed the flowering, as well as the seeds that developed within the fruit.

Beargrass is widely spread over the American Southwest and Northern Mexico. Its growth form is that of a globular clump of narrow, 0.50 inch, coarse, thick, wiry, and serrated grass-like leaves up to 4 feet long with dry, curled and string-like tips. It grows in a variety of habitats from desert grasslands to juniper and piñon woodlands, and especially in overgrazed ranch land where the plant can attain dense concentrations with individual plant diameters of 6 feet and a height of 4 to 5 feet.

Beargrass has no above ground stem or stalk, but rather an underground woody caudex from which the leaves and flower stalks grow. Like the Yucca and the Sotol at the time of flowering it puts up a stem or stalk 4 to 6 feet tall, at the top of which is found a much-branched inflorescence of tiny white flowers, 0.10 inch, which produce small green fruits and eventually encapsulated seeds.

 

MODERN USE OF BEARGRASS

Beargrass is another southwestern plant mostly used in xeriscaping, particularly as an accent, in borders, and in stabilizing hillsides.

beargrass

Clumps of Beargrass at the top of Telephone Mountain near the Casitas, looking northeast to the Mogollon Mountains in the Gila Wilderness.



 

NATIVE AMERICAN USE OF YUCCA, SOTOL AND BEARGRASS

Various species of Yucca, Sotol and Beargrass were widely used by all cultures of Southwestern Native American Cultures from pre-historic to historic times. These three plants were extremely important to these cultures, serving as Nature’s grocery store, pharmacy, fabric shop, and hardware store in those times. Many of these uses and customs are still practiced today.

The following categories, uses and practicing cultures are documented in the University of Michigan at Dearborn Ethnobotany Database.2
 

Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata)

Medicinal Use
Peeled stalk shaped like a short snake eaten by a practitioner and spit at the sick (Apache)

Food Use
Flowers boiled and eaten as vegetable, added to soups, or dried for later use. (Apache)
Trunks baked overnight in rock-lined pits and dried in pieces for later consumption after softening in water (Apache)
Trunks pit cooked, dried, and pounded into flour (Apache)
Young flower stalks cooked, peeled, and eaten hot (Apache)
Flower stalk charred and eaten like sugar cane (Apache)

Fiber Basketry
Leaves woven into shallow baskets or trays for carrying things (Apache)
Leaves used as the binding element in coarse coiled ware (Papago)
Red roots used as basket decorations (Apache)

Fiber Cordage (ropes, string, binding material)
Leaves used to make cordage (Apache)
Leaves tied to make a fastening loop for sandals (Southwest Native Americans)

Fiber Furniture
Leaves used for the headshade of cradleboards (Apache)

Fiber Building Material
Used for weft (horizontal lashing) in house frames (Papago)

Fiber Sewing Material
Thread-like fibers from pounded leaves used to sew fiber coils into tight baskets (Papago)
Thread-like fibers woven into nets for carrying things (Pima)

Fiber Mats, Rugs and Bedding
Leaves woven into mats (Pima)

Soap
Roots used for making soap (Apache, Pima, Navajo)

 

Banana Yucca (Yucca baccata)

Medicinal Use
Dermatological aid for washing hair (Keresan Pueblo, Apache)
Infusion of pulverized leaves remedy for vomiting, heartburn (Navajo)
Fruits eaten raw as as a purgative or laxative (Pima)
Unspecified parts chewed as emetic to induce vomiting (Tewa)
Fruit eaten to promote easy childbirth (Tewa)

Food Use
Dried fruits dissolved in water for beverage (Acoma Pueblo, Papago)
Fruit used to make a fermented beverage (Hualapai)
Fruits eaten raw, baked or boiled, or dried, made into cakes or rolls, and stored for future or winter use (Acoma Pueblo, Keresan Pueblo, Apache, Havasupai, Hopi, Hualapai, Navajo, Papago, Pima, Zuni)
Ripe fruits dried, ground, made into cakes and roasted (Navajo)
Ground dried fruit cooked with cornmeal to make gruel (Navajo)
Dried fruits eaten as a preserve or dissolved in water and used as a dip (Acoma Pueblo, Hopi, Navajo, Zuni)
Fruits made into a syrup (Keresan Pueblo, Apache, Zuni)
Tender crowns roasted and eaten in times of food shortage (Acoma Pueblo, Laguna Pueblo)
Young leaves cooked in soups with meat (Apache)
Flowers eaten before summer rains (Apache)
Pods roasted and eaten or dried for future use (Apache)
Seeds dried and eaten (Papago)
Flower stalks gathered before blossoming, roasted in fire and eaten (Yavapai)

Dyes, Pigments, Painting
Leaf juice used as medium for pigments of pottery paints and slips (Navajo)

Brushes and Brooms
Leaf fibers used to make small brushes for pottery decoration (Isleta Pueblo, Navajo)
Leaf fibers made into brushes for cleaning baskets (Navajo, Yavapai)
Leaf fibers made into hair brushes (Pima)

Fiber Basketry
Leaves woven into baskets (Apache, Hop, Isleta Pueblo, Jemez Pueblo, Papago, Pima, Zuni)
Small red roots used as basket decorations (Apache)

Fiber Cordage (ropes, string, binding material)
Leaves used to make rope or twine (Apache, Havasupai, Hualapai. Isleta Pueblo, Navajo, Pima, Tewa, Zuni)

Fiber Clothing
Leaves reduced to fiber and made into cloth (Apache, Zuni)
Stems (trunks?) used to make shoes (Hualapai)

Fiber Building Material
Used for weft (horizontal lashing) in house frames (Papago)

Fiber Sewing Material
Terminal spines used as needles (Havasupai)
Thread-like fibers woven into fishing nets (Tewa)

Fiber Mats, Rugs, Pads and Bedding
Leaves woven into mats to cover various openings and vessels (Zuni)
Leaves woven into water jug-carrying head pads (Zuni)

Soap
Crushed leaves mixed with water for soap (Keresan Pueblo, Pima, Papago)
Roots pounded and placed in water for suds for bathing and shampooing or soap (Apache, Havasupai, Hopi, Hualapai, Navajo, Zuni)

Fire Starting Material
Thick portion of flower stalk used as hearth for friction fire making (Apache)
Stalk used to make fire drills (Apache)

 

Sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri)

Food Use
Crown of plant pit-baked, peeled, crushed, mixed with water, fermented, and drunk as beverage (Apache)
Crown of plant pounded and used as drink (Apache)
Crown of plant baked in pit, stripped, pounded to a pulp, dried, and eaten like cake (Apache)
Crown of plant pit-baked, dried, pounded into flour, and made into cakes (Southwest Indians)
Flower stalks roasted, boiled, or eaten raw as greens (Apache, Papago)
Flower stalks boiled, dried, and stored for use as vegetables (Apache)
Head (crown) hearts cooked with bones as soup (Apache)

Fiber Furniture
Flower stalks used as cross pieces for cradleboard backs (Apache)

Fiber Basketry
Leaves used in coiled basketry (Papago)

Fiber Clothing
Leaves used to make headbands and headrings (Papago)
Stalks used in the head dress of Mountain Spirit dancers (Apache)

Fiber Mats, Rugs, Pads and Bedding
Leaves woven into mats (Papago, Pima)
Leaves used to make large sleeping mats, cradle mats, and back mats for the carrying frame (Papago)

Fire Starting Material
Stalks dried, split, drilled to make small holes and used as fire drill hearths (Apache)

 

Beargrass (Nolina microcarpa)

Medicinal Use
Decoction of root taken for rheumatism (Isleta Pueblo)
Decoction of root taken for pneumonia and lung hemorrhages (Isleta Pueblo)

Food Use
Flower stalks roasted, boiled, eaten raw, or dried and stored for use as vegetables (Apache)
Seeds made into a meal and used to make bread (Isleta Pueblo)
Seeds used to make flour (Isleta Food)
Fruit eaten fresh or preserved (Isleta Pueblo)
Seeds made into a meal and used to make mush (porridge) (Isleta Pueblo)

Dyes, Pigments, Painting
Plant used to make a dye for blankets (Navajo)

Brushes and Brooms
Leaf fibers used to make brushes (Isleta Pueblo)

Fiber Basketry
Leaves woven into baskets (Keresan Pueblo, Isleta Pueblo, Jemez Pueblo, Papago, Southwest Native Americans)
Leaves used to make baskets for storage and washing of grains (Jemez Pueblo)
Leaves used as the foundation in coiled basketry (Papago, Pima, Southwest Native Americans)

Fiber Cordage (ropes, string, binding material)
Leaf fibers used to make cords, ropes and whips (Isleta Pueblo)
Leaves used as tying material (Southwest Native Americans)

Fiber Mats, Rugs, Pads and Bedding
Leaves used to make mats (Keresan Pueblo)
Leaves woven into a coarse mat and used for drying mescal (Havasupai)
Leaves used as a dwelling ground covering (Apache)
Leaves used as a thatching material for wickiup or ramada (Apache)
Leaves used for thatch (Havasupai, Yavapai)
Leaves used to make matting to cover the dead (Southwest Native Americans)
Leaves woven to trays for procesing datil (Banana Yucca) and mescal (Apache)
Leaves used as wrapping material for foods to be transported or stored (Apache)

Soap
Roots used as soap (Apache)

Fire Starting Material
Thick portion of flower stalk used as hearth for friction fire making (Apache)
Stalk used to make fire drills (Apache)

 

REFERENCES

    1. Craig D. James, et. al., 1993, Pollination ecology of Yucca elata, Oecologia, Vol. 93, No. 4
    2. University of Michigan at Dearborn Ethnobotany Database

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FLOWERING CACTUS IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO

THE MARVELOUS LATE SPRING FLOWERING OF CACTUS
IN THE HIGH DESERT OF SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO

During the Driest Months of the Year, Cactus Blooms Accent a Landscape
Parched and Waiting for the Rains

Englemann's Prickly Pear

Englemann’s Prickly Pear on Turkey Creek Road, Gila National Forest

WAITING FOR THE RAINS TIME

Bear Creek New Mexico

By Mid-June, spring-fed Bear Creek below the Casitas has shrunk to a trickle due to uptake of water by the lush Cottonwood, Willow, and Sycamore riverine forest

Once again it’s Waiting for the Rains Time here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses. Similar to the previous two years, this past Winter and Early Spring were dry here in Southwest New Mexico due to a persistent, residual La Nada (neutral) to Weak La Niña climatic situation, during which Late Winter and Early Spring precipitation was negligible. Here at the Casitas, for example, as of June 23, a total precipitation of 1.26 inches has been recorded since January 1.

It’s a Late Spring morning as one looks down from the front of the Casitas into Bear Creek Canyon where a small, spring-fed creek is observed flowing through an inviting lush, cool, green riverine forest of Cottonwood, Willow, and Sycamore. Other than the fact that the creek itself has now shrunk to a small fraction of its normal flow due to the immense daily up-take of thousands of gallons water by the dense vegetation covering the floodplain, there is little evidence of the dry times that the adjacent landscape of surrounding hills is experiencing.

bear creek new mexico

In the High Chihuahuan Desert, Bear Creek is an oasis of life-giving water for all creatures large and small during the Waiting for the Rain Times.

Bear Creek New Mexico

Above the Creek, a parched brown landscape waits for the Monsoon Rains to begin

Raising ones’ binoculars from the floodplain to observe the hills bordering the creek, the stark contrast presented by the adjacent landscape is striking. For here, just a few hundred feet away from the creek, is a totally different——a parched, drab landscape of predominantly brown-to-tan grasses, weeds, and leafless shrubs left over from the previous summer’s rain, broken only by the scattering of small, dark green juniper trees and bright green mesquite bushes. Yet as one slowly glasses the hillside, one soon detects, here and there, nestled within the ubiquitous field of brown, small flashes of bright red and yellow. Yes! Oh yes! One smiles, recognizing at once the source of the color: the Cactus are blooming!
 

THE HIGH CHIHUAHUAN DESERT

mogollon mountains new mexico

In this photo, the High Chihuahuan Desert stretches from Turtle Rock (elev. 5,480 feet in foreground) across the Gila River Valley (elev. 4,500 feet in middle ground with white buildings) to the base of the distant Mogollon Mountains (elev. 6,000 feet) (click on picture for full and larger image)

The landscape surrounding Casitas de Gila Guesthouses is classified as High Chihuahuan Desert. Situated at elevations of 4,000 to 6,000 feet, in the form of rugged, hilly topography adjacent the soaring Mogollon and Pinos Altos mountains of the Gila Wilderness just a few miles away, the High Chihuahuan Desert is a transitional landscape where the vegetation of higher elevations can be observed intermingled with that of lower elevations. It is a landscape of extreme climatic variation, where during the course of a year temperatures commonly range in excess of 100 degrees, where daily temperature swings of 30 to 50 degrees are the norm, and annual precipitation can vary from 6 to 30 inches. As a result, the High Chihuahuan Desert is a landscape where only the strongest, the most adaptable, and the most persevering flora and fauna can survive. (And up until modern times, this was also true for both the early Native Americans cultures and the later Hispanic and Anglo pioneers and settlers who chose to live here.) Essentially, this High Desert terrain can be thought of as a landscape delicately balanced on an environmental cusp, where the effects of subtle cycles of climate change are quickly reflected, and for the serious, observant naturalist, open to discovery and understanding.

 

HIGH DESERT CACTUS AT CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES

Pincushion Cactus

A Pincushion Cactus nestles among the dry gravels on the flat behind Casitas de Gila

Fendler's Hedgehog Cactus

A Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus lights up a dry landscape at Casitas de Gila

In terms of abundance and diversity, cactus are of minor significance among the High Desert flora found on the landscape surrounding Casitas de Gila. However, in terms of ecologic significance they play an important role as a food source and shelter for mammal, reptile, amphibian, bird, insect, and in times past, human populations.

Here at Casitas de Gila there are four genera and seven species of cacti that are common. These include: four species of Opuntia or Prickly Pear Cactus: the Engelmann’s Prickly Pear (Opuntia englemannii), the Pancake Prickly Pear (Opuntia chlorotica), the Purple Prickly Pear (Opuntia macrocentra), and the Brown Spined Prickly Pear (Opuntia phaeacantha); the Cane or Walking Stick Cholla Cactus (Cylindropuntia spinosior); Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus fendleri); and the Pincushion or Spinystar Cactus (Escobaria vivipara or Coryphantha vivipara).

An excellent online reference that includes detailed descriptions and photographs for each of these cactus, as well as all other vascular flora found in the Gila Wilderness region, is Vascular Plants of the Gila Wilderness by Dr. Russ Kleinman at Western New Mexico University.

Engelmann's Prickly Pear Cactus

Engelmann’s Prickly Pear cactus on the Casitas de Gila Self-Guided Nature Trail

Cane Cholla

Large Cane Cholla on the Casitas de Gila Self-Guided Nature Trail



 

OPUNTIA: THE PRICKLY PEAR CACTUS –
QUINTESSENTIAL CACTUS OF THE NEW MEXICAN HIGH DESERT

prickly pear cactus

At the end of a dry winter, an armament of three-inch spines and hairlike glochids have protected this Purple Prickly Pear pad being eaten by hungry javelinas

purple prickly pear

A Purple Prickly Pear Cactus displays numerous immature fruit or tuna beneath withered flowers along the entrance road to Casitas de Gila

Prickly Pear Cactus, or Nopal as they are known in Mexico, belong to the genus Opuntia, of which there are over 200 different species distributed throughout North, Central, and South America. More than 100 species are known from Mexico alone. Prickly Pear Cactus take their name from the spine-covered fruits (known as tuna in Spanish) that develop on the pad-shaped, flattened stems of the cactus (technically termed cladodes) after flowering.

Most species have two types of needle sharp spines: large fixed spines which can be 2 or more inches long that are found on the pads, and small, short, hairlike, prickly spines called glochids, that occur on both the pads and the fruit. These hairlike spines will penetrate the skin upon the slightest touch and then detach causing significant, and unless removed, lasting discomfort. While capable of inflicting a deep wound to the unwary hiker, in ancient times the large spines found extensive use by Native Americans as needles for sewing, tattooing, piercing ears, lancing abscesses, and fishhooks.

pancake prickly pear

In early June this old Pancake Prickly Pear along the Gila River puts out new pads, flowers and eventually bright red fruit having survived another dry winter’s predation despite the jaws of ravenous javelina chomping at its lower extremities

Engelmann's prickly pear

Tuna gathering time in the Gila! By Late August the fruit or tuna are ready for harvest on this Engelmann’s Prickly Pear on Turkey Creek Road in the Gila National Forest


USE AS A FOOD SOURCE

During times of drought, particularly at the end of a dry La Niña winter, Prickly Pears become an important survival and forage food for both man and beast. During these times it is common when hiking to come across a large clump of prickly pear that have been completely decimated by a herd of Javelina or Collared Peccary, who have eaten them right to the ground, spines and all, and then have dug up the roots and eaten them, too.

Both the fruits and the pads of most Prickly Pear species are edible, and have been a staple food source of numerous Native American cultures for thousands of years. Fruits were eaten raw, dried, or boiled, or used to make juices, syrup, or jellies. The pads were peeled, then roasted or boiled to be eaten as a vegetable, or the pulp could be pounded into cakes which were then dried for future use1

Today, Nopal remain a major ingredient in the traditional cuisine of Mexico, supporting a large and expanding horticultural industry.
 

USE FOR MEDICINAL PURPOSES

With the colonization of the New World by the Spanish in the 1500s, the Prickly Pear was brought back to Europe where it soon spread throughout the Mediterranean area. Prickly
Pears contain a high vitamin C content. When it was discovered by early expeditions to the New World that the plants were effective in preventing scurvy, the debilitating disease of extended sea voyages caused by vitamin C deficiency, sailing ships began carrying the plant, thus promoting the spread of the plant throughout the globe.

For Native Americans in the Southwest the Prickly Pear Cactus was as important as today’s corner drug store, and was collected for treating a variety of ailments including1:

Pads used as poultice for cuts, wounds, infections, boils, and as a hemostat
Pads used on rattlesnake bites
Mucilage of pads used for treating burns and analgesic for pain
Infusion of pads and pieces of raw pad ingested for stomach troubles, diarrhea, and urinary problems
Infusion of roots used as laxative and for urinary problems
Dried pads ground or burned to powder for use on cuts, wounds, sores, and earache

Today, Prickly Pear is enjoying a modern comeback, available as a pulp-rich juice and in capsule form, for treating various medical problems, some clinically proven and others yet to be tested, including: Treatment of Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, alcohol hangover, colitis, diarrhea, benign prostatic hyperplasia (BHP), viral infections, and arthritis.2
 

DISTINGUISHING CHARACTERISTICS OF PRICKLY PEAR CACTUS FOUND AT THE CASITAS

The four species of Prickly Pear Cactus at the Casitas are readily identified by a few distinguishing characteristics such as overall size, growth form, flowers, and spine distribution.

prickly pear cactus

This photo, taken in 2001, is of a large, extremely healthy Engelmann’s Prickly Pear near the “Entering Stress Free Zone” sign on Casita Flats Road coming into the Casitas. A magnificent cactus that welcomed all arriving guests, modeled for an oil painting, and posed for innumerable photographs, it was eaten by the javelina during a dry winter two years ago, down to, and including the roots.

Pancake prickly pear

Similar to the Engelmann’s Prickly Pear in overall size, pad characteristics and flowers, the Pancake Prickly Pear is easily distinguished by the fact that it grows from a single central stem or stalk. This specimen is growing from a fracture in volcanic rhyolite welded tuff at the Gila River Gaging Station in the Gila Riparian Preserve.


The Engelmann Prickly Pear and the Pancake Prickly Pear are similar in several aspects: they grow to a large size, have large, thick, fleshy pads (although the Engelmann pads tend to be larger), have a large purple red fruit, and have pure yellow flowers. However, the Englemann Prickly Pear grows in clumps of numerous pads close to the ground, whereas the Pancake Prickly Peas grows tall, having a central trunk or stem, from which the numerous pads grow in sequential links.

purple prickly pear

This specimen of Purple Prickly Pear displays a somewhat anemic appearance along the road into Casitas de Gila following the dry La Nada winter of 2013-14.


The Purple Prickly Pear is a smaller cactus than the Engelmann or the Pancake, with smaller pads growing in clumps close to the ground. It has purple spines along the edges of the pads, and a paucity of spines in the central areas of the pads.

Brown-Spined prickly pear

This Brown Spined Prickly Pear on the Casitas de Gila Self Guided Nature Trail displays its characteristic growth form of chains of pads growing close along the ground.


The Brown Spined Prickly Pear is the most common prickly pear of the Gila Wilderness region. It tends to grow in long chains of pads that sprawl along the ground. Its flowers are yellow with either a red or orange center.

 

CYLINDROPUNTIA SPINOSIOR: THE CANE OR WALKING STICK CHOLLA

cane cholla

This magnificent Cane Cholla at Casitas de Gila shows off a heavy June blossoming with numerous ripening fruit.

cane cholla

Close up of same specimen to Cane Cholla showing new joints, blossoms and ripening fruit on river terrace just above Bear Creek floodplain.

The Cane or Walking Stick Cholla, Cylindropuntia spiniosior (formerly classified as Opuntia spinosior), is a striking and unique cactus of the High Chihuahuan Desert. The dark green joints or cylindrical segments of the cactus do not have the long fixed spines like the Prickly Pear, but are covered with short, barbed spines that extend from spiral-shaped ridges on the joints. These fine, needle-sharp spines readily detach into the skin if bumped against, and are quite painful and difficult to get out.

The cactus takes its common name from the dried, woody skeleton of the plant which has been traditionally used for making attractive walking canes, as well as other hand-crafted, ornamental sculptures typically having a western motif. It is abundant throughout the Gila Wilderness region and is found all over the Casitas de Gila lands, where its tall, cylindrical growth forms (in maturity reaching up to six feet or more) are found interspersed among the mesquite and yucca plants on the flats, the grass and juniper covered hillsides, as well as the river terraces just above the floodplain along Bear Creek.

In Late Spring, generally May and early June, the Cane Cholla puts out an abundance of large magenta flowers that contrast beautifully against the maze of deep green cylindrical segments of the cactus. Once the flowers wither they are replaced by the growth of a bright yellow spineless fruit or tuna, containing numerous seeds in a pulpy matrix.

cane cholla skeleton

When Cane Cholla die, after several years the fleshy covering eventually rots away leaving a unique woody core that is often used for making canes or walking sticks.

cane cholla skeleton

Close-up detail of Cane Cholla with outer fleshy and spine covered layers in process of coming off woody core.


USES OF CANE CHOLLA

cane cholla fruit

Close-up detail of Cane Cholla mature yellow fruit and unopened flower bud.

The Cane Cholla has been reported as a staple food source of the Tohono O’odham Native American culture (formerly known as the Papago) of the Sonoran Desert in southeastern Arizona and northwestern Mexico.1 The Tohono O’odham pit baked the buds, fruits and joints or stem segments. It is likely that the cactus was widely used by other Native American cultures in the Southwest, including those living in the Gila Wilderness region, as well.

In modern times the Cane Cholla has been used to a minor extent as a native material for making the aforementioned handicrafts, such as walking sticks, but in recent years has found great use as ornamental horticultural plant in desert landscaping projects.



 

FENDLER’S HEDGEHOG CACTUS

Fendler's hedgehog cactus flower

Close-up of same specimen of Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus flowers showing green stigma, surrounded by a multitude of yellow stamens with pollen on petals.

Fendler's hedgehog cactus

Old growth Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus coming out of hiding at base of Honey Mesquite with multiple blooms in Late April at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses.

Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus, Echinocereus fendleri, is an interesting little cactus that is found throughout the lower to middle elevations of the Gila Wilderness region. Its growth form is that of dark green, single individual to compound clumps of vertically ribbed or furrowed cylinders, two or three inches in diameter and six to nine inches tall, that are heavily armored with half-inch spines. At Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus vegetates in relative obscurity, well hidden at the base of the ubiquitous Honey Mesquite bushes and One-seed Juniper trees scattered over the dry sandy flats and adjacent rocky hillsides. Because of its low profile, drab appearance, and enclosing camouflage of brownish gray spines, it is hardly ever noticed by the passing hiker for eleven months out of the year. Then, in Late April to Early May, it suddenly flaunts large, very ostentatious, magenta flowers, each set off by a complementary central green stigma surrounded by a multitude of bright yellow stamens, that virtually shout out for attention! When illuminated by the early morning sun, these flowers are iridescently brilliant and showy, a High Desert delight for both photographer and artist alike. Once the flowers have withered they are replaced by a small, juicy red fruit.

 

USES OF FENDLER’S HEDGEHOG CACTUS

Fendler's Hedgehog cactus

Single Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus waving twin flowers like pom-poms, screaming “Look at Me, Look at Me” near the hot tub.

Javelina love this fleshy, little cactus and, like the Prickly Pear, during a dry La Nina winter they will gobble them up right down to the ground. Quite often, and certainly more than can be written of as just coincidence, it will happen that a dedicated Naturalist, having scouted out just the perfect specimen for that special photograph or painting and having waited patiently for just the right day when the cactus is calculated to bloom, will return only to find that perfect specimen completely missing, having been eaten by the javelina the night before!

Native American cultures used both the cactus as well as the fruit as food, the cactus body or stem being pit roasted before consumption, and the fruit eaten either raw or dried for future use as a sweetener. It is also reported that a poultice of the stem was sometimes used for arthritis.

Like many of the cactus of the Southwest, Fendler’s Hedgehog and other species and subspecies of the genus have become a highly sought after and collected ornamental, leading in some cases to their being classified as an endangered species. Because of their relatively low abundance here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, collecting of all cactus on the property is not allowed.



 

PINCUSHION OR SPINYSTAR CACTUS

The Pincushion or Spinystar Cactus, Coryphantha vivapara or Escobaria vivipara is a common cactus found in the Gila Wilderness region at both lower and middle elevations. Its growth form is typically an individual or small clump of spheres or globular shapes up to six inches high that are covered in a dense mat of star-shaped arrays of straight white spines, a quarter to one inch long. At Casitas de Gila this cactus tends to “hide out in plain sight” in the same habitats as Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus, only becoming obvious when it flowers in April or May. The one to two inch flowers are also similar to Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus, but are an even more electric and garish magenta, with numerous flowers common on a single globe-shaped cactus stem. The fruit is a small globose green berry that gradually turns purple as it matures, containing numerous small black seeds.

pincushion cactus

Beautiful Pincushion Cactus in full bloom at Casitas de Gila. Note complete armament of star-shaped spines, which thwart all predators except the starving javelina.

pincushion cactus

Honey Bees love the Pincushion Cactus at the Casitas, especially when a single cactus puts out 12 blooms!


USES OF THE PINCUSHION CACTUS

In addition to Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus, the javelina also like to eat the Pincushion Cactus, gobbling them up whole as they travel down the Casitas de Gila Self-Guided Nature Trail. Especially tasty, it seems, are those specimens that have been designated, numbered, and described as official stops in the Trail Guide … bad javelina … bad!

In more ancient times, both the stems, flowers, and fruit of the Pincushion Cactus were eaten by Native American cultures, the fruits raw and the whole cactus being roasted to remove the spines, or boiled after they had been dried.3

Like the Hedgehog Cactus, In modern times the Pincushion Cactus has also become a favorite ornamental in horticultural landscaping applications.

pincushion cactus flowers

Close-up of 12 blooms on Pincushion Cactus. Note two Honey Bees!



 

REFERENCES
1. University of Michigan at Dearborn Ethnobotany Database
2. Prickly Pear Cactus in the RxList The Internet Drug Index – Owned and Operated by WebMD and part of the WebMD network
3. Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie – An Ethnobotanical Guide, Kindscher and Kuhn, University of Kansas Press, 1987

 

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Becky & Michael O'Connor, Owners
CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES & ART GALLERY
50 Casita Flats Rd • PO Box 325 • Gila, New Mexico 88038
575-535-4455  •  fax 575-535-4456

1-877-923-4827   •   info@casitasdegila.com

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