SUMMER SOLSTICE LIGHT AND SHADOW ON BEAR CREEK
AT CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES
From the windmill at Casitas de Gila, the Summer Solstice Sun rises over the highest point of Turtle Rock.
CYCLES OF SOLSTICE ON BEAR CREEK
Guests that return to Casitas de Gila Guesthouses at different times of the year will observe, while sitting in front of their Casita watching the Sunrise, that the Sun comes up at different places along the mountainous skyline to the East above Bear Creek. In mid to late June the sun will appear to pause, popping up repeatedly and predictably for a few days from the same place behind Turtle Rock at the north end of the skyline. Then, as Summer fades and transitions into Early Fall, this anticipated shaft of Dawn’s first light begins its annual, daily southward migration, arriving at the middle of the skyline in late September. Without pausing, the southward journey of Sunrise continues for another three months until late December, when it finally comes to its southern-most point of emergence near the top of South Peak. Then, after another few day’s pause where it will be seen to rise in the same place, this first light of Sunrise will begin once more to trace its six-month-long journey northward along the skyline to finally again emerge from behind Turtle Rock.
This observed seasonal progression of Sunrise is, of course, as most of us were taught so long ago, due to the annual, year-long cyclical progression of the Solstices, from Summer Solstice to Winter Solstice and then return. The Solstices, along with the intervening half-way points the Equinoxes, mark the passage of the Seasons and the progression of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun. Because the Earth’s axis of rotation is tilted at an angle of about 23.43° relative to its orbital plane about the Sun, the angle at which the Sun’s rays strike the earth varies as the Earth proceeds in its orbit. Hence, for a person who enjoys a cup of coffee or tea while waiting for Sunrise at the Casitas, over a year’s time, she or he will observe that the exact position of Sunrise will shift back and forth with the Seasons along the mountainous horizon to the East, covering a horizontal distance of about 0.8 of a mile, between Turtle Rock and South Peak, at a rate, excluding the pauses around the Solstices, of roughly 26 feet a day.
Yearly progression of Sunrise from Summer Solstice at Turtle Rock to Winter Solstice at South Peak, as seen from the Casitas.
ARCHAEOASTRONOMY AND THE ANCIENT ONES
For over 2,000 years, the three main Prehistoric Native American Cultures of the American Southwest — the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi), Mogollon, and Hohokam — farmed the river and creek valleys and upland areas of this arid landscape, with increasing dependance on the three main crops of corn, squash, and beans as their main source of sustenance. As these cultures moved away from small groups of hunter and gatherer populations living in individual pit house structures to larger and larger communities living in above-ground complexes of adobe and stone, their dependance on reliable and successful harvests of crops became increasingly critical.
To insure successful crops and harvests, each of these cultures employed their own intertwined, two-fold agrarian strategy, the first involving complex nature-oriented religious beliefs, customs, and ceremonies, and the second, in what might be considered a more scientific and practical approach, the study of the change in the seasons as related to movements of the sun, moon, planets, and stars in the heavens. Today, this prehistoric connection of cultures to celestial phenomena is the subject of the emerging multidisciplinary field known as archaeoastronomy.
As anyone knows who has ever planted a garden, the time of planting is critical. Put the seeds in the ground too soon in the Spring and a late frost will send you back to the seed store. Put them in too late and your harvest may be cut short or ruined by the onset of an early Fall or Winter. Even with today’s calendars, long range weather forecasts, endless internet resources, etc., the natural and cyclical uncertainties of weather from year to year ensure that there are no guarantees that a particular crop is going to be successful. Fortunately for today’s back-to-the-land horticultural enthusiast, there is always the backup of the local plant nursery or grocery store.
For Prehistoric agrarian cultures the world over, including the Mogollon, Ancestral Pueblo, and Hohokam cultures here in the Southwest, knowing the right time for planting was quite literally a matter of life and death. There were no backups or plan B should crops fail. And, while the prudent Mogollon agronomist would undoubtedly have held back seeds to be used in a second or possibly a third planting, several crop failures in a row could easily mean starvation. The need for a reliable indicator for the time of planting was essential. Throughout human history it has been proven time and time again that, indeed, necessity is the mother of invention. Thus it was, over a time span of several millennia, that many of these early agrarian cultures, quite independently of one another both in time and space, turned to the heavens for the solution to their problem of determining the time of planting. Through repeated observations gathered over generations of the recurring movements of the celestial bodies, they were able to devise and construct permanent and reliable indicators of stone, adobe mud, and wood that would indicate not only the time of planting, but also the summer and winter solstices, the equinoxes, and a variety of lunar events.
Examples of these early almanacs or calendars of stone, mud, and wood can be found the world over, from the Neolithic megalith monuments of Newgrange in Ireland and Stonehenge in England, to astronomical alignments of structures built by the Mayans and Incas in Mesoamerica, to the pictographic indicators and astronomical alignments of buildings at the Ancestral Pueblo People (Anasazi) Complex of Chaco Culture National Historical Park in Northwest New Mexico, and Wupatki National Monument near Flagstaff, Arizona.
It is clear from comparative research in archaeoastronomy and ethnoastronomy (the study of the heavens by historic and present-day indigenous cultures and societies) that down through the ages different cultures ascribed different meanings and interpretations to their observations of the heavens. Attempts at determining the deeper cultural context, significance, or purpose of the various archaeoastronomical alignments and indicators of prehistoric cultures that have been found and described is very difficult, resulting in conclusions that are generally considered speculative and subject to different interpretations. However, with respect to the use of these alignments and indicators by prehistoric peoples as a type of agricultural calendar to ensure successful planting and harvests, there is much greater consensus that such use was both essential and widespread in practice.
ARCHAEOASTRONOMY AT CHACO CANYON
Sun Dagger petroglyph
The Ancestral Pueblo People Culture (Anasazi) Complex at Chaco Canyon in Northwest New Mexico is the site of numerous examples of what many, but not all, scientists and archaeologists now consider to be archaeoastronomical constructed alignments and indicators. It all began in 1977, when an artist by the name of Anna Sofaer visited Chaco Canyon as a volunteer to record Chacoan rock art in the form of petroglyphs and pictographs. During this work she discovered the now famous Sun Dagger Site on Fajada Butte, a prominent landform rising some 400 feet from the canyon floor at the south entrance of Chaco Canyon.
The Sun Dagger Site consists of three large stone slabs leaning against the cliff which focus sunlight in various patterns across two spiral petroglyphs pecked into the cliff wall. At about 11:30 AM on Summer Solstice a dagger of light pierces the center of the larger spiral which lies in shadow beneath the stones. At other times of the year different shafts of light mark the winter solstice and the equinoxes, as well as lunar events. Following this initial work, Sofaer went on to found the Solstice Project which resulted in a tremendous amount of research regarding numerous archaeoastronomical alignments of the many of the buildings in the Chaco Canyon Complex.
The image at right is a diagram of the Sun Dagger petroglyph at the Sun Dagger Site, showing Sunlight Daggers for Summer and Winter Solstices and Vernal or Autumnal Equinox.
EXPLORING THE UNIQUENESS OF NEW MEXICO LIGHT
There are several climatic, atmospheric, and terrestrial factors that combine to produce the unique light found in New Mexico. Primary and most important is the ubiquitous high-desert climate itself, characterized by predominately high barometric pressure, low humidity, and scant precipitation. Couple these factors with the extreme atmospheric clarity that results from the State’s small population and low levels of pollution, and the relatively thinner atmosphere due to the general high elevation of the landscape, and the result is the distinctive turquoise blue New Mexican Summer sky that gradually takes on the deeper shades of cobalt blue seen in Winter. And it is because of this atmospheric clarity that the full spectrum of undiluted, non-refracted or non-degraded frequencies of sunlight are allowed to penetrate and illuminate the iconic New Mexican landscape with such intensity and brilliance.
THE AMAZING LIGHT OF SUMMER SOLSTICE
As discussed in an earlier blog on Winter Solstice, there is a vast difference between the light and shadow illuminating the landscape of New Mexico during Summer Solstice as compared to that of Winter Solstice. The perceived intensity and brilliance of the New Mexico Sun varies along with the seasons in response to the angle at which the Sun’s rays strike the earth due to the tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis. In the Summer, when the Sun traces its daily passage high overhead, the sunlight in New Mexico is virtually omnipresent – penetrating, bouncing, and reflecting soft, warm, glowing light into the shadows of even the deepest canyons and thickest mountain forests. With the coming of Fall, however, as the daily arc of the Sun’s passage traces ever lower towards the southern horizon, the intensity of the direct sunlight gradually decreases. And with this decrease, one notices that the soft warm glow once reflecting within the shadows of the canyons and forests takes on a harder, cooler, dimmer, bluish tone, and that the contrast between light and shadow has increased markedly.
EXPLORING LIGHT AND SHADOW ON BEAR CREEK AT SUMMER SOLSTICE
This year, Summer Solstice 2015 occurred on June 20 at 16:38 UT or 10:38 AM MDT, and on this date Sunrise for Gila, NM, calculated on the basis of longitude was forecast to occur at 6:05 AM MDT. However, here at Casitas de Gila, because of the proximity of a mountainous skyline comprising Turtle Rock, North Peak, and South Peak on the other side of Bear Creek due east of the Casitas, on this morning from a viewing point beside the windmill, the Sun would not emerge from behind the highest point of Turtle Rock until 6:54 AM MDT. The day dawned clear and bright after an overnight low of 58° F. It was a beautiful First Day of Summer morning and a perfect time for a hike along Bear Creek to observe the light and shadow of Summer Solstice.
Hiking north out the entrance road to the Casitas around 7 AM, the One Seeded Junipers (Juniperus monosperma) were still casting long shadows across the road. Looking back to the south, the long ridge extending west from South Peak still remained in deep shadow behind the Casita buildings now bathed in brilliant sunlight streaming in from the east over Turtle Rock. Here and there the last of the Spring Flowers raised their heads to greet the morning rays: beside the road the bizarre, gaudy little blossoms of the Silverleaf Nightshade (Solanum elaeagnifolium) and to the west, up on the hillside, clusters of sun-glazed white spires of Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata) flowers soaring high into the sky.
Heading down a dry wash towards the Creek, the Desert Willows (Chilopsis linearis) (immediately above) were just coming into flower, their orchid-like pink, purple and yellow flowers glistening in back-lighted brilliance against the long, drooping arcs of shadowed green leaves.
Leaving the dry wash behind, the Hidden Spring Trail intersects the Big Tree Trail on Bear Creek towards the north end of the Casitas land. Here, a thousand shafts of sunlight filtered down through the foliage of the high-rising stands of young Freemont Cottonwoods (Populus freemontii) on the east bank of the Creek, creating a creekside sylvan tapestry of light and shadow in a myriad of different shades and tones of lush, Sun-dappled green. The air was still and the silence complete, except for the frequent plaintiff calls of numerous unseen birds wafting down from overhead.
Continuing south along along the Creek, the Big Tree Trail passes beneath overarching branches of large, mature Goodding’s Willow (Salix goddingii) to soon enter a very dark and shadowed grove of Gray Oak (Quercus grisea) guarded by a sunlit curtain of tendrils of Canyon Grape (Vitus arizonicus).
The Sun is rising higher now; time to leave the comfortable hammock beneath the ancient Cottonwood and continue hiking south along the Creek. Once more the Creek itself is bathed in alternating bands of light and shadow. The banks along the Creek’s edge are lined with moist-ground-loving flowering plants such as the beautiful Spotted Monkeyflower (Mimulus guttatus) (below left) and the exquisite stout and furry blooms of Rabbitfootgrass (Polypogon monspeliensis) (below right) ablaze in the light of the Solstice Sun.
Approaching the cliffs, the stream channel narrows. Dense stands of tall Cottonwoods, Bluestem Willow (Salix irrorata), Seepwillow (Baccharis salicifolia), and occasional Arizona Sycamore (Platanus wrightii) press in on the boulder-strewn channel, casting the creek in deep mid-morning shadow, except where sporadic shafts of brilliant sunlight penetrate the foliage above to illuminate, without giving reason, that which Nature wishes to be seen …
Turning and continuing downstream, it was only a short distance to the place where the towering vertical cliffs of Gila Conglomerate reach down to join the creek And it was here, in one of those moments of instant awareness and recognition, that one encountered one of those magical special places that every seeker of Nature is always looking for but seldom finds. Such places can be sought, but cannot be summoned. Like the fragrance of a flower, such places are one of the true gifts of Nature, a gift to be experienced only in the ephemeral moment, but capable of being treasured in one’s memory forever.
The scene in itself was a simple one, just a bleached rock outcrop, reddish sediment and crystal clear creek water, with a dash of complementary plant-life green thrown in, part in shadow, part in light. But oh!, how these simple elements were arranged! In essence, it was yin and yang Nature in perfect balance: light and shadow, hard and soft, big and small, placid and turbulent, life and lifeless, and on and on. A photograph was taken. Could it capture the essence of this fleeting moment? In totality no, but in part possibly, and hopefully in a way that this gift of Nature could be shared.
Downstream from the cliffs, Bear Creek makes a sharp turn to flow west. By now the late morning light of the Solstice Sun was washing at full flood stage over the shallow waters. On the south side of the creek, and bordered by one last bedrock outcrop of Gila Conglomerate, occurs an isolated shallow pool that in times of low flow in the creek, like this day, is typically completely cut off from the main flow of the creek. Often this pool is filled with small minnows, but today it was the consummate tadpole nursery, with hundreds of black tadpoles swarming among clumps of green algae. The Monsoon rains would soon be coming with flash floods that would wash away their nursery. Would they be mature enough to survive?
The Creek is running deeper and wider downstream from the cliffs, an indication that the layer of sediment over the bedrock is thinner here than the sediment upstream from the cliffs, where more of the water in the creek is flowing through the sediment beneath the surface of the creek bed. With the increase in water depth minnows are more abundant and larger along this section of the creek, darting back and forth in small schools over the pebbled bottom, the refraction of light passing through the swirling waters altering their shapes into bizarre patterns just like the curved mirrors in the funhouse at a county fair. Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) is in full bloom along the margins of the creek, with Springwater Dancer Damselflies (Argia plana) perched on these floating masses waiting for dinner to appear, while on the adjacent stream bank thick stands of flowering White Sweet Clover (Melilotus albus) attract a variety of butterflies such as the Cabbage White (Pieris rapae), Western Honey Bees (Apis mellifera), and other small flying insects.
By 11:00 AM, the drama of the alternating play of Light and Shadow of Morning Summer Solstice is almost over. As always, the Morning Light has once again prevailed and is now penetrating into almost every corner of the Bear Creek floodplain. But not quite, for while walking back to the Casitas on the floodplain across the outwash from the Dry Wash Trail, a large group of Prickly Poppies (Argemone pleiacantha) is discovered with their back-lit blue-green leaves and delicate white blossoms with deep yellow centers glistening in high contrast against the fast-disappearing shade of a young Arizona Walnut tree.
LATE AFTERNOON LIGHT
By 6:00 PM MDT, the Summer Solstice Sun is once again beginning the eternal ever-changing competitioin of Light versus Shadow in Bear Creek Canyon. Having discovered the best vantage points for witnessing this annual contest in the past, our late afternoon journey begins at the south end of Casita lands and heads upstream in a northerly direction as the Sun slowly arcs down in the west.
Deep shadows are already encroaching on Bear Creek upon reaching the point where the morning’s observations ended seven hours ago. The light of the Afternoon Summer Solstice is markedly different than that of this morning, more yellow and warmer due to atmospheric changes. With the shadows from the Willows and Cottonwoods overarching the creek now coming in from the opposite direction, the observed landscape is immediately perceived as being very different, almost to the extent of being unrecognizable as the same location.
Walking up the Creek, this reversal in light and shadow perspective continues with cliffs now bathed in brilliant light that reflects down into the creek casting a warm glow into the deepening shadows beneath the Cottonwoods, Willows, and Seepwillows. High on the cliffs above the creek the pads of an Engelmann Prickly Pear (Opuntia engelmannii) gleam in stark silent contrast against the shadowed, eroded recesses of more weakly cemented layers of Gila Conglomerate.
Upstream from the cliffs, where the Creek channel narrows, the shadows, as witnessed in the morning, once again press in on the boulder-strewn channel, casting the creek into a near totality of deep, late afternoon darkness. Except that now it is the opposite side of the creek that is displayed in resplendent intensity as sporadic shafts of brilliant sunlight illuminate new microcosms of water, rock, and greenery along the creek, still without reason, only revealing that which Nature wishes to be seen.
Over the years, Bear Creek has migrated back and forth across the floodplain in front of the Casitas, leaving in its wake alternating linear bands of barren sediment deposits filling old creek channels and densely forested intervening stands of Willow and Cottonwood. The Floodplain Loop trail offers a unique opportunity to observe this part of the Bear Creek evolution as it follows along several of these old channels. But on this Solstice day an extra added perspective is experienced as one watches how the intervening stands of trees cast a complex, ever-changing pattern of light and shadow across the trail.
Passing from the Floodplain Loop Trail onto the Big Tree Trail, the Big Tree itself is soon encountered, the late afternoon Sun creating a kaleidoscope pattern of light and shadow on the massive multi-hundred-year-old trunk and the now deserted bistro chairs and table below. Soon after leaving the trail and heading back to the creek another of Nature’s special moments of time and space is encountered, this time a young Sycamore caught in the rays of the setting Sun, its white bark reflected in the quiet waters of the deeply shadowed creek. Magnificent!
Crossing the creek beneath the young Sycamore and climbing up onto the first terrace above the floodplain, the Big Tree trail is rejoined near the garden and the horse corral, where an extensive field of Prickly Poppies dance in the late afternoon Summer Solstice Sun. The Big Tree trail is followed north for a short distance, passing once again beneath the same overarching branches of Gooding’s Willow described in this morning’s hike, the light now coming from the opposite direction, and illuminating the first blooms of an amazing 10-foot tall stand of Common Sunflower (Helianthus annuus).
As traversed previously this morning, the Big Trail is again followed past the now shadowed curtain of tendrils of the overhanging Canyon Grape and into the darkened grove of Gray Oak. Halfway through the grove of oaks the trail is abandoned, walking west to witness a spectacular display of Summer Solstice Light and Shadow that was discovered many years ago and visited regularly on Summer Solstice ever since. Here, on the west edge of the grove stands an old oak consisting of several trunks that splay out from a common base. Beyond this oak a few other trees, including several old Junipers, grow, leaving an opening in the overhead canopy through which the late afternoon rays of the setting Summer Solstice Sun penetrate in full intensity to silhouette and cast in shadow on the ground the multiple trunks of this unique tree! Because of the unique orientations of the opening behind the oak and the oak itself, this marvelous display only occurs at Summer Solstice!
It is now nearly 7:00 PM MDT and Bear Creek Canyon is growing increasingly shadowed as the Sun sinks closer to the hills rising up just to the west of the Casitas. Climbing the Self-Guided Loop Nature Trail out of the Canyon one pauses to watch as the failing Summer Solstice Light catches the very tops of a large old Juniper, its branches loaded with a crop of soon-to-ripen berries from this Spring’s rain. And then … poof! … the Light is gone, as the Shadows of Summer Solstice prevail.
A MID-SPRING HIKE UP THE SHERIDAN CORRAL TRAIL INTO THE GILA WILDERNESS
— A FASCINATING JOURNEY THROUGH A LANDSCAPE BORN OF
ANCIENT SUPER-VOLCANO ERUPTIONS TO OBSERVE THE FOREST’S
RECOVERY FROM THE GREAT WHITEWATER BALDY COMPLEX FOREST FIRE OF 2012
Looking east on access road to Sheridan Corral Trailhead and Mogollon Mountains
THE SHERIDAN CORRAL TRAIL DAY HIKE (GILA NATIONAL FOREST TRAIL #181)
The Sheridan Corral Trail (GNFT #181), also known as the Holt Apache Trail, is one of several trails providing easy-to-moderate day hikes of two or three miles length (one way) into the southwestern portions of the Gila Wilderness and the High Country of the lofty Mogollon Mountains. From the trailhead at the end of Catron County Road C054 and an elevation of 6,360 feet, Trail #181 heads northeast, gradually ascending over the next 1.9 miles to an elevation of 6,840 feet on Sheridan Gulch Creek, where it intersects with the North Fork Big Dry Creek Trail, GNFT #225, leading south to Skunk Johnson’s Cabin. At this junction, Trail #181 then turns north, following the creek another 1.4 miles up Sheridan Gulch, before beginning a steep 1,000 foot ascent over 1.1 miles of switchbacks to a junction with the Holt Gulch Trail, GNFT #217 at an elevation of 9,120 feet.
A MID-MAY HIKE UP THE SHERIDAN CORRAL TRAIL
Trailhead Kiosk for Sheridan Corral Trail
May is normally a bright, dry, warm month with brilliantly clear night skies, one of the best months for visiting astronomy guests at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses. This year was an exception, however, with abnormal cloud cover, some rainy days, below average temperatures, and disappointingly cloudy skies at night. By mid-month the May New Moon was fast approaching, one of those special times of the year when the viewing of the dark skies at the Casitas is dependably at its best. Yet for this year it was not to be. With increasing empathy, the hosts at the Casitas watched as their regular astronomy guests were teased daily by forecasts of good weather to come, only to be thwarted by another night of uncooperative, cloudy skies. After several days of this, and an updated forecast that was calling for yet another day and night of cloudy weather, it seemed like a good opportunity for the hosts to suggest a change in plans. Perhaps this was the time to introduce these dedicated observers of the Heavens to a more down-to-Earth daytime experience of another of the Casitas’ special local attractions: a hike into the Gila Wilderness!
Leaving the Trailhead Kiosk behind, the trail passes through a Pinon-Juniper forest typical of the Gila National Forest below 6,800 feet
On May 15, 2015, the first part of the trail was lined with Banana Yucca in bloom
Striking off from the Sheridan Corral trailhead, the trail was followed eastward, gradually climbing up and along a ridge, passing through a landscape of mature high desert Piñon Pine (Pinus edulis) and Alligator Juniper (Juniperus deppeana) forest, with intervening open areas of various grasses, Beargrass (Nolina microcarpa), Desert Scrub Oak (Quercus turbinella), Banana Yucca (Yucca baccata), Parry’s Agave (Agave parryi), Sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri), and Pancake Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia chlorotica). This vegetation is typical of the south-facing and southwest-facing volcanic foothills of the Mogollon Mountains below 6,800 feet.
Here, a Parry’s Agave is in the process of putting up its flower stalk; the flower stalk grows at an incredible rate and once it blooms, the plant will die
Hikers passing through a zone of rhyolite dikes; Sheridan Mountain at 8,280 feet looms in the background
Looking southwest down Sheridan Gulch Canyon towards the San Francisco Backcountry
Colorful lichens cover the rhyolitic and andesitic rocks exposed along the trail
After about a half mile, the Sheridan Corral trail passes from the Gila National Forest into the Gila Wilderness. Here and there vast panoramas now opened before us, slowing our progress as we paused to survey the magnificent Mogollon Mountains in the Gila Wilderness looming ever closer in the East, and the wild, rugged San Francisco River Backcountry in the distant West. Beneath our feet, the trail crunched loudly as we passed over exposures of the diverse, colorful volcanic deposits of the ancient Mogollon and Bursum Super-volcano eruptions that had created this rugged Wilderness.
Shortly after entering the burned area, the trail begins a descent into Sheridan Gulch Canyon
Looking north from trail at a large outcrop of Fanney Rhyolite on the edge of the burned area
View of hillside above trail during descent into Sheridan Gulch; note charred Pinon tree and extensive new growth of ground cover of Desert Scrub Oak and grass
Approaching the bottom of the canyon there is more moisture in the soil, as evidenced by the greater diversity and size of the resurgent deciduous and coniferous tree growth, such as this clump of 10-foot high Arizona Walnut
At about 0.85 miles into the hike, the character of trail abruptly changes as we entered a zone of burned forest resulting from the Whitewater Baldy Complex Forest Fire of 2012, and began a gradual descent into Sheridan Gulch Canyon. Here, and for the next 0.6 miles, the trail offered an interesting opportunity to observe the forest in its third year of regeneration from that immense fire that raged through the western portion of the Gila Wilderness between May 9 and July 31, 2012, burning over 297,000 acres to become the largest forest fire in New Mexico’s history. Broad vistas to the south across Sheridan Gulch Canyon showed clearly how the fire progressed from south to north across this rugged landscape, leaving behind charred runs of blacked snags with intervening areas of untouched forest. As the trail descended further into the canyon one noticed an accompanying gradual change in vegetation from the drier, grassy south-facing slopes of high desert Piñon-Juniper forest into a cooler, wetter and more complex riparian forest of Ponderosa Pine (Pinus scopulorum), Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and other Conifers, Arizona Sycamore (Platanus wrightii), Arizona Walnut (Juglans major), Emory Oak (Quercus emoryi), and Gambel Oak (Quercus gambelii).
From andesitic lava flows to deep-seated rhyolitic intrusives, welded ash flow tuffs to rocks of unknown genesis, a diversity of volcanic boulders of all colors, composition and texture delight the eye as they are make their slow journey downstream from the high peaks of the Mogollon Mountains
Along the bottom of Sheridan Gulch Canyon the rebirth of the Gila Wilderness springs forth in tumultuous splendor and diversity as conifers and deciduous trees compete for their place in the sun
A series of small pools and waterfalls step down Sheridan Gulch Creek between a variety of colorful volcanic boulders
As if to mimic the shooting stars of the hiking astronomer’s night-time sky, a patch of Golden Columbine in full bloom lights up a dull afternoon’s lunch along the creek in the depths of Sheridan Gulch Canyon
At about 1.2 miles into the hike, the trail intersects the canyon bottom. Here, a small stream gurgled, beckoning us to stop and refresh among a colorful diversity of volcanic boulders in transit downstream from the high country peaks looming high above us. Bordering the stream, a lush, three-year-old bright green resurgent forest of many species and a scattering of incredible wildflowers including the bizarre blossoms of the Golden Columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha) now surrounded us, rising up in exuberant color and contrast among the somber, ghostly, gray and blackened still-standing snags of the former pristine forest now spiking into the sky high overhead. Ensconced in this surreal setting, large boulders of choice were quickly converted into stoney tables and chairs as lunch was rapidly consumed by the famished, with some of the party chatting quietly, others silently immersed in the palpable energy of a Wilderness in the process of rebirth.
With lunch under our belts, we pressed on. Still passing through the burned area, the trail crossed back and forth across the narrow floodplain over the next quarter of a mile as cliffs of diverse volcanic bedrock bordering the sides of the canyon pressed in closer to the trail. Here and there boulders and charred forest debris choked erosional chasms, produced by catastrophic storm runoff on the fire-denuded steep sides of the canyon, sliced down to the trail from above.
Here, Sheridan Gulch Creek is choked with massive deposits of recently-eroded gravel and sand washed down from the surrounding fire-denuded slopes
In the first two years following the Whitewater Baldy Forest Fire, severe erosion of the denuded mountain slopes and canyon walls was widespread throughout the Gila Wilderness, as shown in this recently cut rock- and debris-choked arroyo now intersecting Sheridan Gulch Creek from the east side of Sheridan Gulch Canyon
Upon reentering the unburned portion of the Sheridan Corral Trail, a towering old-growth Ponderosa Pine presents a magnificent welcome back into the Gila Wilderness primeval
Late in the afternoon, as the trail continued to beckon further into the unburned portions of Sheridan Gulch Canyon, this venerable Douglas Fir made an appropriate turn-around point for the day’s hike
And then, at a point just 1.45 miles from the trailhead, and within a matter of just a few feet, the trail emerged from the burned area to pass immediately back into an unburned mixed conifer and deciduous forest. What a surprise and a delight it was to be back into the forest green! Ancient old-growth Ponderosa and Douglas Fir now bordered the trail, as if still standing guard after defending one of Nature’s fire-lines, beyond which the advancing inferno could not pass. Instantly, we were immersed in a whole new world of enduring life and color. Fascinated, we continued on, once more engulfed by the primeval beauty of the Gila Wilderness.
It was now getting late, and although the trail through the Wilderness green beckoned us strongly onward, at the 1.5 mile point into our hike, we reluctantly turned around. It was time to return …
A final panorama looking southwest down Sheridan Gulch Canyon. And as this hike began, so did it end, a rare day in May during which the Sun never made an appearance, but as an apparent reward for hiking astronomer guests, that evening the stars eventually come out in all their glory.
THE GEOLOGY OF THE SHERIDAN CORRAL TRAIL
The Sheridan Corral Trail is located in the southeast corner of the Holt Mountain Quadrangle. This entire area of the Gila Wilderness is composed of volcanic rocks deposited from the Super-volcano eruptions of the Mogollon Caldera, 34 million years ago, and the Bursum Caldera, 28 million years ago. The Holt Mountain area has been the subject of considerable geologic investigation, most notably as reported in the 2006 New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources Open-file Digital Geologic Map and Report, OF-GM 120: A Preliminary Geologic Map of the Holt Mountain Quadrangle, Catron County, New Mexico, by Jim Ratte, Scott Lynch, and Bill McIntosh.
Ratte, et al. consider the Holt Mountain Quadrangle critical to the understanding and interpretation of the volcanic history of the Mogollon Mountains complex, and in the above-cited reference give an excellent summary of the interpreted geologic history of the Gila Wilderness. A pdf file is available on-line, and is highly recommended for those who would like a better understanding of how the Gila Wilderness came into being.
The map shown here (click on map for larger image) is a portion of Ratte et al’s Geologic map of the Holt Mountain Quadrangle with an overlay of the Sheridan Corral Trail. As shown, there are several distinct formations that have been identified and mapped in this portion of the quadrangle, that are well exposed along the portions of the Sheridan Corral as described in this blog. The various formations shown in Figure 1 are identified on the map by colors and symbols that are explained in detail in Ratte et al’s Geologic map of the Holt Mountain Quadrangle, which is available online in pdf format on the New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources web site. However, a brief description of the formations and rock types found along or very close to the section of the Sheridan Corral Trail as described in this blog are given below, starting at the Trailhead and progressing to a point 2.0 miles up the trail.
A BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF FORMATIONS AND ROCK TYPES FOUND ALONG THE FIRST TWO MILES OF THE SHERIDAN CORRAL TRAIL
0.0 Sheridan Corral Trailhead:
Qtg is the symbol for undivided deposits of the Gila Group which range from Miocene to Pleistocene in age. These are sedimentary rocks and loosely consolidated sediments composed of volcanic material carried by streams and rivers as gravel deposits from the ancestral Mogollon Mountains. Throughout the Gila Wilderness area, including the cliffs at Casitas de Gila, these rocks are informally referred to as the Gila Conglomerate.
At this point the trail crosses a major normal fault that runs northwest along the face of the Mogollon Mountain uplift. Along this fault the Gila Conglomerate has been dropped down relative to the volcanic mountains, which have been lifted up. Although the fault zone itself is covered by loose sediment, its position would be very close to where the first exposure of bedrock is found on the trail after leaving the Trailhead.
0.25-1.20 Formations shown on Figure 1 — Twr (violet color), Tfr (pink), Trd (red) and Ta (green):
Twr is the symbol for the Wilcox Peak Rhyolite Formation of Eocene age, which is a fine-grained intrusive igneous rock of rhyolitic composition that is commonly found chemically altered as soft deposits rich in clay minerals such as dickite and other secondary minerals such as alunite. Analyses of alunite crystals have given an age for the Wilcox Peak Rhyolite of 33 million years, indicating that this formation was deposited during an eruption of the Mogollon Caldera.
Tfr is the symbol for the Fanney Rhyolite Formation of Oligocene age. The Fanney Rhyolite consists of light gray to reddish gray extrusive lava flows and intrusive domes around the ring-fracture zone of the Bursum Caldera which erupted about 28 million years ago.
Trd is the symbol for the Fanney Rhyolite Dikes which are vertical intrusive veins of various thickness that radiate off from intrusive domes of the Fanney Rhyolite.
Ta is the symbol for Andesite Lava Flows and inter-layered volcaniclastic sandstone beds of uncertain age relationships. They could be either Eocene or Oligocene in age, and possibly were erupted from the Mogollon Caldera.
1.20-2.00 Formations shown on Figure 1 — Tcs? (purple), Ql cream), and Qc (yellow):
Tcs Is the symbol for the South Fork Member of the Cooney Tuff Formation a deposit of Uppermost Eocene or Lowermost Oligocene age which was ejected from the Mogollon Caldera. The South Fork Member at its type locality near the mouth of Whitewater Canyon (The Catwalk canyon) consists of deposits of partially to densely welded ash flow tuffs. The question mark behind the symbol as it is mapped along the Sheridan Corral Trail means that these deposits are tentatively correlated with the South Fork Member deposits of Whitewater Canyon.
Ql is the symbol for Landslide Deposits of Pleistocene and possibly Holocene age that form extensive areas of slumped and rotated bedrock that came loose and slid down along the west-facing slopes of the Mogollon Range.
Qc is the symbol for Colluvium of Holocene age consisting of coarse talus and unsorted gravel deposits that mantle bedrock on steep slopes and some valleys of the Mogollon Range.
SOME FURTHER NOTES, SUGGESTIONS, AND CAUTIONS REGARDING THE SHERIDAN CORRAL TRAIL
This blog discusses conditions experienced on May 15, 2015, of only the first 1.5 miles of the Sheridan Corral Trail. Visual observation of aerial photography of the trail on Google Earth taken 2/22/13, indicates the next 2.5 miles of the trail to be relatively untouched by the 2012 fire, and therefore, should be suitable for an extended day hike. Recent discussions with Gila National Forest personnel at the Glenwood Ranger Station, based on their field examination of the trail following the fire, confirm this observation to be correct, and suggest that the trail should be in fair condition and easily followed, but that further on could become difficult to traverse and follow.
A cautionary suggestion is offered regarding current hiking on any of the Gila National Forest or Gila Wilderness trails that were previously heavily forested and subsequently burned during the Whitewater Baldy fire of 2012. Many of these trails, such as the burned portion of the Sheridan Corral Trail discussed in this blog between the .85 and 1.45 mile points, pass through and beneath large portions of dead standing timber. Now, three years after the fire, many of these dead standing trees have rotted at their core and are extremely susceptible to falling at any time, but especially during strong winds or running water during storms or flash floods. Although this blog discusses enjoying lunch in such a burned area, it is definitely not recommended! On that particular day the wind was calm, but had we known that the unburned portion of the trail would begin such a short distance ahead we would have continued further on before acquiescing to our growling stomachs! Keep safe!
FOLLOWING AN EXCEPTIONALLY MOIST LATE WINTER AND MARCH,
AN AMAZING EXTRAVAGANCE OF RARELY-SEEN WILD FLOWERS EMERGES
AT CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO
Nature’s April Flower Garden: Scarlet Globemallow and Desert Dandelion nestled in a field of Five-petaled Blue Mystery Flowers
THE EXCEPTIONAL 2015 BLOOMING OF SPRING FLOWERS CONTINUES
The March 2015 Blog focused on the exceptional blooming of the first early Spring flowers to be seen at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses in many years. As discussed in that blog, this uncommon flowering occurred as a result of the 3.99 inches of rain received here between January 1 and the middle of March of this year. While all of the flowers presented in that blog were flowers that had been seen here at the Casitas before, most of them had not been seen this early in the year or in such great abundance. Throughout March, as the days lengthened and the temperatures gradually increased, the profusion of plants steadily increased also, flourishing on the ample moisture retained in the soil from the Winter months. By the end of March, the drab gray and brown Winter landscape of Bear Creek Canyon and the adjoining uplands was rapidly transitioning into the lime greens of Early Spring.
Looking north on Bear Creek in front of Casitas de Gila on March 31, 2015
Since no rain had been received at the Casitas after the third week of March, it seemed likely that the flowering would soon come to an end as April is traditionally a dry month in Southwest New Mexico. However, this was not the case! The flowering continued, steadily at first, and reaching a crescendo by the third week in April. During these three weeks it seemed that almost every day a bright, new face was discovered flowering in exuberant glory along the trails, challenging one’s attention with a soft whispering of “betcha you don’t know who I am”!
And, for this botany-challenged geologist-cum-naturalist, more often than not they were right! Because, for many of them, one could not remember ever seeing them before, let alone knowing their name. And after 17 years of traipsing the trails over these Casita lands, it was more than a little disconcerting to feel like a stranger in a foreign land.
BOTANICAL NOMENCLATURE – A TAXING EXPERIENCE
For the dilettante, botanical taxonomy can be a rather taxing experience … and so it was for the identification of all of these new flowers. Consulting the several books and general field guides on hand regarding common wild flowers of the Southwest (guides that had proved so helpful in the past) proved to be essentially futile, and did nothing more than confirm that, yes, these new flowers were, evidently, not so common! Fortunately, however, and as referenced in previous writings on this blog, there is an excellent guide available to help aspiring botanists who are interested in the plants of Southwest New Mexico. This guide is the comprehensive on-line guide: Vascular Plants of the Gila Wilderness by Dr. Russ Kleinman, Associate Botanist, Zimmerman Herbarium at Western New Mexico University, Department of Natural Sciences. This invaluable guide provides access by means of photos and descriptions to over 1,100 of the approximately 1,500 species of vascular plants found in the Gila Wilderness and vicinity. The guide consists of an extensive website that includes a presentation and listing of these 1,100+ species of plants by major plant categories, scientific names, common names, and a printable checklist, as well as links to other useful guides, collections, and information.
So, after several days of clicking and comparing, one by one, the photos and descriptions of the 1,100+ species covered in this guide with the personal photos and observed characteristics made of the April flowers proliferating at the Casitas, most, but not all, were successfully identified. Probably most of the remaining unidentified flowers are in the guide. The problem was that as the study progressed, new plants kept coming into flower after the initial search of the data base had been completed! So the research continues …
In the following section of identified plants, all references regarding the use of these plants by Native Americans is derived from citations given in the University of Michigan-Dearborn Native American Ethnobotany Database, another invaluable reference to the natural and cultural history of the American Southwest.
A PHOTO COLLECTION OF IDENTIFIED FLOWERS OBSERVED BLOOMING
AT CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES IN APRIL 2015
ABERT’S WILD BUCKWHEAT (Eriogonum abertianum)
Close-up of flower inflorescence of Abert’s Wild Buckwheat
Growth form of Abert’s Wild Buckwheat
This tiny little herb is found growing close to the ground along the upland trails and on the flats around the Casitas, especially near the hot tub. A decoction of the the plant was used by the Native Americans to treat skin cuts on humans and horses.
APACHE PLUME (Fallugia paradoxa)
Close-up of Apache Plume flower
This small perennial shrub is found within the dry washes and adjacent to the Bear Creek floodplain. It was use by Native Americans for a variety of uses including:
• Used in witchcraft to cause insanity
• Used as a cold infusion of leaves as an emetic in ceremonies
• Used as infusion of leaves as shampoo to promote growth of hair
• Brush used in making rough brooms
• Used in basket making
• Used as ladderback rungs in the making of cradleboards
• Straight stems and branches used to make arrow shafts
ARIZONA SCORPIONWEED (Phacelia arizonica)
Close-up of flower of Arizona Scorpion Weed
Growth form of Arizona Scorpion Weed
This strange looking, little, ground-hugging perennial herb is found growing on the flats behind and around the Casitas.
BLACKFOOT OR PLAINS BLACKFOOT-DAISY (Melampodium leucanthum)
Close-up of Blackfoot Daisy flowers
Growth form of Blackfoot Daisy
This attractive little perennial herb grows in clumps on the sandy flats and the rocky slopes of Bear Creek Canyon.
BLUE SCORPIONWEED (Phacelia coerulea)
Close-up of Blue Scorpion Weed
Growth form of Blue Scorpion Weed
This attractive annual herb is found growing all over the Casita uplands.
CORKWING-WAFER-PARSNIP (Cymopterus multinervatus)
Close-up of flower of Corkwing Wafer-Parsnip
Growth form of Corkwing Wafer-Parsnip
This rather odd-looking small perennial herb is found growing sparsely around the sandy flat around the Casitas. It is reported that the roots of this plant were eaten in the Spring by some Native Americans.
DESERT DANDELION or FENDLER’S DESERT DANDELION (Malacothrix fendleri)
Close-up of Desert Dandelion flower
Growth form of Desert Dandelion
This annual herb is the desert equivalent of the ubiquitous lawn dandelion. It is found on the sandy flats around the Casitas.
DESERT MARIGOLD (Baileya multiradiata)
Close-up of Desert Marigold flower
Growth form of Desert Marigold
This beautiful annual, biennial and perennial herb is found all over the Casita lands. Normally it does not appear here until later in the Summer. It was reportedly used by Native Americans as an underarm deodorant, as well a binder for making adobe bricks and wall plaster. It was also used as poultice of leaves on sores and as a cold infusion for an eyewash for sore eyes.
FENDLER PENSTEMON or FENDLER’S BEARDTONGUE (Penstemon fendleri)
Close-up of Fendler Penstemon flower
Growth form of Fendler Penstemon
This splendent perennial herb is found sparsely over all the Casita uplands following a wet Winter. It was used by Native Americans in making a poultice for arrow and gunshot wounds.
SOUTHWESTERN INDIAN PAINTBRUSH or FOOTHILLS PAINTBRUSH (Castilleja integra)
Growth form and flower of Southwestern Indian Paintbrush
This brilliant flowering perennial herb is typically found slightly hidden in the shade under a Juniper tree on a north facing slope at the Casitas.
GORDON’S BLADDERPOD (Physaria gordonii)
Growth form and flower of Gordon’s Bladderpod
This annual herb is characterized by its bright yellow flowers and globose fruits. It is widespread over the Casita lands, especially along the entrance road.
GRAY FIVE EYES (Chamaesaracha coniodes)
Close-up of flower of Gray Five Eyes
Growth form of Gray Five Eyes
This perennial herb with many branches often appears to be a clump of plants rather than a single one. It occurs sparsely scattered over the Casita lands both on the flats and along the dry wash canyons.
FENDLER HEDGEHOG CACTUS (Echinocereus fendleri)
GFrowth form and flower of Fendler Hedgehog Cactus
Typically partially hidden and unnoticed under a mesquite, this lovely perennial cactus suddenly becomes the center of attention around the Casitas when the huge magenta flowers unfurl in the Spring.
INDIGOBUSH or FEATHER PLUME (Dalea formosa)
Close-up of Feather Plume flower
Growth form of Feather Plume
This plant is a small, woody, perennial shrub that is covered with a profusion of purple and yellow flowers in the Spring. At the Casitas it is found generally on north-facing slopes of dry washes. Native Americans used an infusion of the leaves as an emetic and a decoction of leaves were taken as a cathartic. Runners used an infusion of the leaves to increase endurance and increased lung function.
SCARLET GLOBE MALLOW (Sphaeralcea coccinea)
Close-up of Scarlet Globemallow flower
Growth form of Scarlet Globemallow
This common bright little perennial herb has grown in exceptional profusion this Spring over all of the Casita lands. It was extensively used by Native Americans in a variety of ways:
• Ceremonial medicine drug and fumigant
• Poultice of roots applied to sores
• Chewed plant used on sores and wounds
• Dried plant used as a dusting powder for sores
• Used to make a lotion for skin diseases
• Used as a medicine to give strength for singing
• Used to make a beverage
• Used as a tonic to improve appetite
• Infusion of plant used for swellings and to stop bleeding
• Infusion of plant taken for diseases caused by witchcraft
• Roots chewed during food shortages
SHORT-STEMMED LUPINE (Lupinus brevicaulis)
Close-up of Short-stemmed Lupine
Growth form of Short-stemmed Lupine
This distinctive little annual herb is found amongst the rocky flats and hillsides at the Casitas. It was used by Native Americans as a liniment for boils and as a treatment for sterility.
SILVERY MORNING GLORY or SILKY EVOLVULUS (Evolvulus sericeus)
Growth form and flower of Silvery Morning Glory
This eye catching little perennial herb is found amongst the rocky canyon sides of Bear Creek at the Casitas.
SPREADING FLEABANE or FLEABANE DAISY (Erigeron divergens)
Close-up of Spreading Fleabane Flower
Growth form of Spreading Fleabane
This common biennial herb is found growing in profusion everywhere on the Casita lands. This plant was another important plant in the Native American pharmacopoeia, where it was used in a variety of ways:
• Infusion of plant taken as an aid in childbirth
• Used as a snuff for headaches
• Cold infusion of plant taken and used as a lotion for “lightning infection”
• Cold, compound infusion used as an eyewash
• Compound used for snake bites
• Root used as a “life medicine”
• Used ceremonially in a variety of ways
• Considered an omen of good fortune and kept in the home
WHITE STEM EVENING PRIMROSE (Oenothera albicaulis)
Close-up of White Stem Evening Primrose flower
Growth form of White Stem Evening Primrose
In years of ample Spring rain, as occurred this year, this striking annual herb can form an extensive, almost solid ground cover of large white flowers in the Gila Valley. Here at the Casitas their blooming was less extensive, more like a light sprinkling of giant white snowflakes everywhere you looked glistening in the morning Sun. Native Americans made extensive medicinal use as well as other applications of this plant:
• Poultice used for swellings
• Dried flowers used as ceremonial medicine used to ward out a cold through prayer
• Decoction of root taken and used as lotion for sore and strained muscles, a life medicine
• Compound poultice used for throat trouble
• Fruits eaten as food
• Seeds ground and made into gravy
• Seeds boiled in soups
• Flowers worn by unmarried maidens in hair on holidays
• Chewed blossoms rubbed on the bodies of young girls so they would dance well and insure rain!
• Dried plant used for tobacco
TEXAS TOADFLAX (Nuttallanthus texanus)
Close-up of Texas Toad Flax flower
Growth form of Texas Toad Flax
This tall, delicate, thin-stemmed annual and biennial herb could be easily missed were it not for the striking racemes of lavender colored flowers which form at the top of the tall stems.
TIDYTIPS (Layia glandulosa)
Growth form and flower of Tidytips
This small annual herb is indeed a tidy little plant, and is found on the rocky slopes of Bear Creek Canyon at the Casitas. Native Americans collected the seeds from this plant which they ground into flour to make porridge.
TRAILING WINDMILLS (Allionia incarnata)
Close-up of Trailing Windmill “flower”, which is actually a composite of 3 separate flowers that bloom simultaneously!
Growth form of Trailing Windmills
This ground-hugging annual and perennial herb is easily identified by its pink windmill-shaped flowers which form on long stems. It is found all over the Casita lands. It, like many other plants in this blog, was used by Native Americans to make a cold infusion for treating swellings.
WHITESTEM STICKLEAF or WHITESTEM BLAZINGSTAR (Mentzelia albicaulis)
Close-up of White Stem Stickleaf flower
Growth form of White Stem Stickleaf
This prolific little annual herb is found all over the flats and hillsides around the Casitas. This is another of the plants which served as a general store for the Native Americans, providing food and medicine in a variety of ways:
• Ground seeds used as dressing for burns
• Compound containing leaves used for snakebite
• Parched seeds ground into flour and made into porridge, soups or snacks
• Parched seeds ground and made into seed butter and eaten on bread or with drinks
• Fried seeds and water used for gravy
• Seeds dried and stored for future use
• Dried plant used as tobacco
A PARTING LOOK AT AN INCREDIBLY BEAUTIFUL PLANT
A few days after completing the research on the plants identified and described above, an incredibly beautiful flower was observed along the entrance road coming into the Casitas. Once again the standard guidebooks on hand didn’t contain this plant, and time constraints for finishing this blog for April did not permit one to once again wade through the extensive Vascular Plants of the Gila Wilderness database. The two photos below show both the growth form and a closeup of flower. So, dear reader, if you know this plant, your input would be greatly appreciated!
Close-up of the Most Beautiful Mystery Flower
Growth form of the Most Beautiful Mystery Flower
WITH THE ARRIVAL OF MARCH
AN ABUNDANCE OF EARLY SPRING FLOWERING PLANTS
SIGNALS THE CYCLICAL CHANGE OF SEASONS
AT CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO
A lush growth of flowering Sand Dock carpets the sandy riverine terrace bordering the floodplain of Bear Creek Canyon
at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses
THE FIRST WET SPRING IN SEVERAL YEARS BRINGS ON THE FLOWERS
The landscape surrounding Casitas de Gila Guesthouses is classified as High Chihuahuan Desert (4,200 to 6,500 feet), an ecologic zone in which Juniper and Pinon conifers are the dominant trees. Temperature and precipitation are highly variable in the High Chihuahuan Desert, typically ranging between –5° and 105° Fahrenheit with between 6 and 30 inches of precipitation annually.
As discussed in the January 2015 Blog, both temperature and precipitation during the winter months in the Southwest are strongly influenced by the cyclical pattern of the warm versus cool phases of equatorial surface waters in the Pacific Ocean, known as El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), where the warm phase, El Niño, results in warmer temperatures and more precipitation, and the cool phase, La Niña, results in cooler temperatures and less precipitation. Since 1950, the U.S. National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center monitors have been monitoring these oscillations between El Niño and La Niña events on a monthly basis to produce the Oceanic Niño Index (ONI). Examination of this Index prior to 2015 reveals that for the previous four Winter and Spring seasons, the El Niño Southern Oscillation has been either in a La Niña or the transitional Neutral (La Nada) phase, resulting in cold and dry conditions throughout the Southwest. Consequently, during these years there has been a general paucity of Spring flowers here at the Casitas. Then, beginning in November and December of 2014, and continuing through March 2015, the Index passed into a weak El Niño situation with accompanying warmer temperatures and a significant increase in precipitation, producing a total of 3.99 inches of rain since January 1. As a result, for the first time in several years there is an abundance of early Spring Flowers at the Casitas!
TO BLOOM OR NOT TO BLOOM: FOR SPRING FLOWERS
OF THE GILA HIGH-DESERT COUNTRY, WINTER MOISTURE IS THE KEY
For many perennial native plants of the Gila High-Desert Country there is a critical threshold of moisture received over the Winter months that determines whether or not a particular species will put out flowers in the Spring. If that threshold is not reached, some of these plants will not appear until later in the year, such as during the Summer Monsoon season, when the right amount of moisture is received and they start growing, putting out leaves, and if time before first frost permits, perhaps flower. Also, for some annual species, if a certain Winter moisture threshold is not attained, the seeds of the plant will not even germinate, let alone bloom. Instead, the seeds will remain dormant, waiting for the day, month, year, or in some cases even several years until that critical moisture threshold is reached.
Temperature is much less a factor in determining plant germination, growth, and flowering in the high desert, since 30° to 50° daily temperature swings are common throughout the year. As a result, all plants are well adapted to a wide range of and sudden change in temperature.
SOME OF THE EARLIEST SPRING FLOWERS TO APPEAR AND BLOOM AT THE CASITAS
CANAIGRE OR SAND DOCK (Rumex hymenosepalus)
Close-up of Sand Dock flower inflorescence
Sand Dock in bloom
The earliest plant to appear in the Spring at Casitas de Gila is the perennial commonly known as Canaigre or Sand Dock, which is found throughout most of the Western States. Canaigre is found at the Casitas on the sandy first and second creek terraces immediately adjacent to the Bear Creek floodplain. Regardless of the amount of moisture received over the winter, this plant will always put up at least a few thick, long, elliptical-shaped leaves with tall, reddish colored stems, even during the dry La Niña Winters in late February or early March, and even when the nighttime temperatures are still below freezing. If sufficient rain is received over the Winter, the plant will flower in the form of a tightly packed panicle-type inflorescence of tiny, reddish flowers on a tall red stem.
(Note: Most of the uses mentioned in this blog have been derived from the University of Michigan Native American Ethnobotany Data Base, an exceptional collection of numerous ethnobotanical reports and studies dating from the late 1800s to modern times that documents plants used by Native Americans.)
Canaigre has been used by many different cultures in many different ways for thousands of years, including: a good source of tannin for leather tanning (roots); a brown, yellow, or green dye for textiles (roots); medicinal purposes (roots, leaves and stems); and as an edible vegetable (roots, leaves and stems). The plant was used extensively by Native Americans in a variety of ways including:
• Dermatological aid: stems and leaves used as a wash for sores, ant bites, and infected cuts; dried powdered root used on sores
• Burns: dried, powdered root
• Cold remedy: root chewed
• Sore throat or cough: infusion of roots used as a gargle; powdered or whole piece of root held in mouth
• Sore gums: root held in mouth
• Stimulating flow of milk: Cold infusion of root
• Diarrhea: Root
• Pollen sprinkled on ceremonial items
• Juicy stalks eaten as greens
• Stems boiled to make a drink before flowers bloom
• Seeds parched with hot coals, pounded and cooked to make thick gravy; mush or dough made into flat cakes and baked
• Stems boiled with sugar or roasted to be eaten hot or cold
• Leaves roasted in ashes or boiled and served with butter, or chopped and fried with mutton grease
• Stems baked and eaten
• Roots used as chewing gum
• Stems boiled, strained, flour and sugar added, and used as filling for baked pies
Dye for textiles and basket making
• Roots boiled or dried and ground to make dyes – brown, orange, green, red, and yellow, and gold
• Roots boiled for tanning hides
GOLDEN SMOKE (Corydalis aurea)
Close-up of Golden Smoke flower
Golden Smoke in bloom
Golden Smoke is a beautiful early-Spring annual plant having highly dissected leaves with round-lobed segments and bright yellow flowers that occur singly, in pairs, or in loose racemes, with as many as 30 separate flowers on a short stem. At the Casitas this plant can be found just about anywhere, whether growing on the hillsides behind the buildings, the rocky sides of Bear Creek Canyon, or across the flats above the Canyon.
Golden Smoke has been used by Native Americans and modern cultures for medicinal purposes for both humans and livestock, including:
• Sores on hands
• Infections during childbirth
• Sore throat
• Stomach aches
• Heart disease
• Snakebite in livestock
BLOODWEED (Plagiobothrys arizonicus)
Close-up of Bloodweed flower
Bloodweed in bloom
Bloodweed is a small annual herb having tiny 3mm white flowers and slender, elongated leaves with hairs that emerge along the margins. The leaves are red veined on the bottom side and exude a strong, persistent reddish-purple dye when crushed. Our horses will eat quantities of this little herb in the Spring, after which they look like they have put on lipstick! In times past, Native Americans used this plant to paint their body and face. Bloodweed can be very prolific in years when there is sufficient moisture. It is quite common on the flats around the Casitas.
RED-STEMMED FILAREE (Erodium cicutarium)
Close-up of Red-stemmed Filaree flowers
Red-stemmed Filaree in bloom
Red-stemmed Filaree is a small, ground hugging, herbaceous annual, a member of the Geranium family that is native to the Mediterranean region of Europe. It was introduced to the United States in California during the 1700s by the Spanish. Since then it has spread throughout the West. It is commonly found growing along with Bloodweed at the Casitas. Leaves are compound pinnate and are coated with small hairs. The small flowers are pink with five petals and a dark red center.
BLUE DICKS OR WILD HYACINTH (Dichelostemma capitatum)
Close-up of Blue Dicks or Wild Hyacinth flowers
Blue Dicks or Wild Hyacinth in bloom
Blue Dicks is a herbaceous perennial that grows from an underground bulb-like swelling on the stem known as a corm. Corms function as storage organs for water and nutrients to allow a plant to survive during adverse climatic conditions in the Winter, or, as is the case of the Blue Dicks, Summer droughts and heat. This flower is quite conspicuous against the dead, dry brown grass of the previous summer, perched at the top of a thin, delicate, vertical stem that rises up to a foot or more in height from the ground where several thin elongated linear leaves form the basal foliage of the plant. The plant reproduces by seeds and by small cormlets, which are small reproductive growths that are attached to the parent corm by stolens at old leaf bases. Following a wet Winter, Blue Dicks are found in abundance over the hills and flats surrounding the Casitas.
Blue Dicks were a major Spring food source for Native Americans throughout the West, particularly in the Spring before other plant foods were available. Flowers were eaten raw. The corms were eaten raw, steamed, boiled, baked, roasted, or dried for future use by grinding into flour. In some tribes, they were prepared as baby food or as snack food for children. It is reported that Native Americans practiced sustainability for this food source by breaking off the cromlets from the harvested corm and replanting them, as well as harvesting the corms after the plants went to seed and replanting the seeds in the hole where the corm was removed.
RATTLESNAKE WEED (Chamaesyce albomarginata)
Close-up of Rattlesnakeweed Flowers
Rattlesnakeweed in bloom
Rattlesnake Weed is an inconspicuous, very small, annual herb that grows in a flattened form over the ground. It has small, round, dusty looking, dark green leaves with a very thin lighter green border. The small flowers have burgundy centers with white ringed margins that form a cup shape. It is found in abundance over the flats, hills, and trails at the Casitas.
This little plant is another of the many medicinal plants treasured by Native Americans and was used for quite a variety of ailments, including:
• A poultice of ground leaves and flowers, or a decoction of leaves, for snake bites, for use on both humans and livestock
• Crushed whole plant rubbed on sore eyes
• Decoction of plant used on sores
• Cold infusion for treating stomachache
• Poultice used as a hemostatic agent
• Leaves and roots eaten to promote lactation
• Decoction of plant used as a tonic for general debility
STEMLESS EVENING PRIMROSE (Oenothera caespitosa)
Close-up of Stemless Evening Primrose flowers; note old blossom (pink)
Stemless Evening Primrose in bloom
Stemless Evening Primrose is a very common and photogenic perennial that has elongate grayish-green leaves with crenated margins. The flower consists of four heart-shaped white petals that turn pink with age. The Stemless Evening Primrose seems to have a definite Winter moisture received threshold that must be attained if the plant is to bloom in the Early Spring. If that threshold is not attained, it will not bloom that spring, although it might flower with the coming of the Monsoon Rains in the Summer. With the abundant rain received over the Winter this year, it was one of the first flowers to appear.
Like many of the Early Spring flowers, the Stemless Evening Primrose has been an important medicinal plant of the Native American pharmacopoeia, including:
• Wet poultice of crushed roots for used on sores and swelling
• Poultice of dried ground leaves used on sores for rapid healing
• Dried plant used as dusting powder for chafing
• Poultice of ground plant for prolapses of internal organs
• Medicine for sore eyes
• Medicine for toothache
BANANA YUCCA (Yucca baccata)
Close-up of emerging Banana Yucca flower stalk, buds, and flowers
Clump of several Banana Yucca in bloom
The Banana Yucca is easily distinguished from the Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata) by its absence of a stem and low profile, where both leaves and flower stalks are found growing near the ground. Also, the bluish-green leaves are considerably wider, thicker, and have twisted fibers on the margins. The Banana Yucca requires much more Winter precipitation than the Soaptree Yucca if it is to flower in the Early Spring. The white to cream-colored flowers are considerably larger than those of the Soaptree Yucca and occur in dense, compact clusters on short two- to three-foot stalks, unlike the more spatially separated flowers found on the eight- to twelve-foot stalks of the Soaptree Yucca. After flowering, large, cylindrical, fleshy, green-colored fruits appear, that are 3 to 7 inches long and 2-1/2 inches thick. These fruits, sweet when ripe, are a much-sought-after delicacy by animals (especially deer) and insects, as well as by Native Americans in times past. As such, it is rare that they survive long enough to ripen on the plant! The range of the Banana Yucca is widespread, being found at all elevations from 4,000 in the lowland deserts to 7,000+ feet in the mountains. Here at Casitas de Gila there is large, tight cluster of 12 plants right next to Gallery. This March all 12 of the plants have put up stalks of flowers. It will be interesting to watch what happens when the fruits appear!
In doing the research on usage for the various plants considered in this blog, it quickly became obvious that for the Native Americans of the Southwest, the Banana Yucca was the General Store or Wal-mart of its day. The University of Michigan Ethnobotanical Data Base lists 222 separate citations from the literature regarding use of Yucca baccata by Native Americans. Examination of these citations show that such use was widespread amongst most, if not all, of the various indigenous tribes living where the plant was found. Major uses included the following:
• Dermatological aid for washing hair
• Infusion of pulverized leaves taken as an emetic to induce vomiting
• Fruits eaten raw as a laxative or purgative
• Treating heartburn
• Juice from root used to lubricate midwife’s hands
• Dried fruits dissolved in water to make a beverage or a paste
• Fruit soaked, cooked, and made into a syrup
• Fruits eaten raw, baked, or boiled
• Fruits roasted or dried and rolled into loaves or cakes for winter use
• Fruits baked and pounded into a pulp and strained to make a beverage
• Leaves cooked and used in soup
• Flowers eaten as vegetable before Summer rains, after which they become bitter
• Fruits dried and used as trail staple when on warpath
• Fruits dried and ground to make a porridge
• Fruits used to make jelly and preserves
• Seeds of fruit dried and used for food
• Leaf juice used as a medium for pigments of pottery paints and slips
• Leaf fibers used to make cordage, such as ropes, string, and twines
• Leaves used for making baskets
• Small roots used for making baskets
• Leaf fibers used to weave into mats
• Leaf fiber used to make fishing nets
• Leaves reduced to fiber and made into cloth
• Leaf fibers used to make small brushes for pottery decoration
• Leaf slivers used to make paint brushes and hair brushes
• Leaf fibers used to make snowshoes
• Leaves crushed and mixed with water to make soap
• Roots pounded and mixed with water to make soap
• Terminal spines on leaves used as needles
• Suds of root used for ceremonial purification baths
• Infusion of root used as a wash in adoption and name-giving ceremonies
• Leaves used as whips during initiations
• Leaves used to make ceremonial drumstick
SILVERLINE LOCOWEED (Astragulus tephrodes)
Close-up of Silverline Locoweed in bloom
Silverline Locoweed in bloom
Silverline Locoweed is one of the earliest flowering plants to emerge in the Spring around the Casitas. It has compound leaves with a large number of small, folded, whitish-rimmed, elliptical-shaped leaflets. Its tubular purple and pink flowers are clustered tightly on long stems. Once the flowers bloom they are replaced by distinctive, large, bladder-like seed pods. While the plant is beautiful to look at, it is one of the 270 range plants of New Mexico that are know to be poisonous and toxic to livestock. The toxin in Silverline Locoweed is the alkaloid phytotoxin called swainsonine which causes a variety of neurological disorders in livestock, including cattle, sheep, and horses.There are three primary genera and several species of plants in the plant family Fabaceae which contain swainsonine, and in North America several of them are called locoweed or crazyweed. The main problem with locoweed is that the plant emerges well before range grasses and other forage plants in the Spring. Thus, hungry animals that are loose on the range are likely to eat it because it is the only thing available. In small amounts the plant is not that problematic. However, the plant tends to be somewhat intoxicating, and as a result some animals will become addicted to it, leading to severe neurological damage, and causing them to act unpredictably, erratically, or just plain crazy. Hence, the term locoweed.
DESERT BUCKTHORN OR DESERT BUCKBRUSH (Ceanothus pauciflorus; Syn. Ceanothus greggii)
Desert Buckthorn in bloom
The Desert Buckthorn is a small shrub generally consisting of a dense thicket of several small trunks, branches, and numerous twigs, bearing small, elliptical-shaped, and leathery leaves. With sufficient Winter moisture, as was the case this year, Desert Buckthorn blooms in early Spring, producing thick, dense clusters of tiny, white flowers with five triangular-shaped petals that emit a rather overpowering fragrance that permeates the air of the surrounding area. For many people the smell is considered nauseating (although, over the last 17 years one does seem to get used to it!).
Around the Casitas, Desert Buckthorn is found along the dry washes and on north-facing hillsides which retain moisture longer, where it is browsed by Mule Deer, and when flowering, provides a popular nectar gathering spot for bees and butterflies. It is also abundant on higher elevations above the cliffs of Gila Conglomerate across from the Casitas on the east side of Bear Creek, where it is heavily browsed by the Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep that visit the cliffs periodically.
Close-up of Desert Buckthorn flowers hosting Juniper Hairstreak butterfly (Callophrys gryneus)
EARLY SPRING 2015: A GREAT YEAR FOR WILDFLOWERS
All of the photographs used in this blog were taken during March 2015. Indeed, it has been a great year for early Spring wildflowers … the best in several years. The plants and flowers discussed in this blog were the earliest bloomers and represent only about half of the species that were observed during the month. As the month progressed, just about every morning while hiking the various Casita trails it seemed that a new species would pop its head up, radiating a flowery “Hello, look at me”! And, what a joy it was to observe, photograph, and then identify and perhaps discover the ancient uses and connections that the Native Americans had with each of these plants. Oh, that we could know today all the Ancient Ones knew so long ago!