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

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

Posted in Apaches, Native Americans, native plants, nature | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

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

 

Posted in cactus, native plants, nature, spring, wildflowers | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

SEEKING CHALCEDONY AND JASPER IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO

TWO UNIQUE GEMSTONES FOUND IN THE GILA COUNTRY
OF SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO

chalcedony

Pink Chalcedony Rose

jasper

Red and Yellow Jasper

CHALCEDONY AND JASPER: QUARTZ GEMSTONES OF UNIQUE FORM AND COLOR

Chalcedony and Jasper are two distinct gemstone varieties of the diverse quartz mineral family that occur abundantly throughout the Gila Country of Southwest New Mexico. Both of these gemstones are composed of cryptocrystalline quartz, meaning that they consist of a tightly-bound aggregate of tiny crystals of quartz, SiO2, so small that it requires a polarizing or electron microscope to resolve the individual crystals. While chalcedony and jasper are commonly found together in areas where volcanic activity has been extensive, they differ markedly in appearance and their origins involve somewhat different processes.

CHALCEDONY

chalcedony

Large Chalcedony vug filling showing botryoidal texture.

Chalcedony is best described as a dense, semitransparent or translucent variety of SiO2 consisting of a cryptocrystalline intergrowth of mostly quartz and lesser amounts of moganite, another form of SiO2 that has a different crystal form. Chalcedony breaks with a conchoidal fracture and commonly displays a waxy, vitreous, or silky luster. In terms of color it is most commonly white to gray, sometimes displaying a blue or pink tint due to mineral impurities or an optical phenomena known as Rayleigh Scattering. (Chalcedony by definition does not show distinct layers of color banding; if color banding is present then the specimen is called “agate”.) It has a hardness of 6 to 7 on the Moh’s Scale and a Specific Gravity of 2.6. In the Gila County, chalcedony can assume a wide range of unique and interesting shapes and forms, depending on how, where, and when it formed in the volcanic host rock.

In general, chalcedony forms by filling cavities in rocks. Such cavities may form as gas bubbles in a lava flow; irregular vugs or open space within a solid rock; or horizontal cavities along bedding planes, that result from solution of the preexisting rock, faulting or movement within the rock, or other geologic processes. Geodes, for example, form from the partial filling of gas bubbles in this manner, often consisting of layers of chalcedony which only partially fill the void which is then lined with macro-crystals of quartz. In other cases, the chalcedony (or if it shows banding, agate) will completely fill the cavity, resulting in what is known to rockhounds as “thunder eggs”.

chalcedony

White Chalcedony lens-shape deposit showing botryoidal texture on upper surface of specimen. Chalcedony was precipitated from low-temperature, silica-rich aqueous solutions circulating within a horizontal bedding plane cavity within an earlier deposit of volcanic welded ash-fall rhyolite tuff. Brown material at top of specimen is a layer of iron-stained rhyolite ash-fall welded tuff host rock that overlies the chalcedony.

chalcedony

Chalcedony Spheres and Ellipsoids. Gas bubbles in lava flow rock are often filled over time with Chalcedony precipitated from silica-rich aqueous solutions that penetrate the rock. The two ellipsoids on either side of the two spheroids are gas bubble fillings where the gas bubbles were stretched and elongated before the lava flow cooled and hardened. Sometimes the gas bubbles are only partially filled with Chalcedony leaving a flat spot on the up-side of the spheroid or ellipsoid, as can be seen at the bottom of the top spheroid (in the flow rock the flat surface would of course been at the top of the gas bubble).


chalcedony

Minute changes in amount of impurities in the silica-rich solutions can result in faint color banding or layering in the Chalcedony as in the top specimen, or as intersecting or impinging growth forms such as these two Chalcedony Roses in the bottom specimen. These represent just two of the various processes that produce the endless variety of shapes and forms of Chalcedony.

chalcedony

“Wormy” Chalcedony. Sometimes the injected Chalcedony takes the form of masses of undulating tubes or “worms”. In this specimen two distinct compositions of Chalcedony are present, representing a complex history of silica gel injection and slow deposition and formation.


Given an open space or cavity within a rock, chalcedony forms when subsequent silica-rich watery fluids or viscous silica gels enter or are injected into the cavity. This process occurs as a result of hydrothermal circulation at low temperatures and pressures, from which the chalcedony is either deposited in molecular thin layers that slowly over time either partially or completely fill the cavity, or all at once in the form of a viscous gel. Commonly, the surface of the chalcedony deposited within a partially-filled cavity will display a smooth, but lumpy, surface known as a botryoidal texture or habit, resembling a bunch of grapes. Another common occurrence is that of the surface of the chalcedony filling being covered with small quartz crystals, known as druzy quartz.

chalcedony

A half-dozen Chalcedony Roses. No two alike, these cup-shaped Chalcedony specimens “grow” when low-temperature silica-rich aqueous solutions or silica gels fill vugs and open cavities in previous volcanic rocks, either slowly depositing layer upon layer of cryptocrystalline quartz or a much more rapid injection as a viscous silica gel. Highly resistant to chemical and physical weathering the roses are released when the enclosing host rock is weathered away at the surface of the earth.


chalcedony

Four Chalcedony Conchos. Named after the silver button-like ornaments found on belts and other pieces of traditional clothing in the Southwest, these interesting forms are essentially smaller versions of Chalcedony roses, both in appearance and manner of formation. Like the larger roses, no two conchos are alike and often display coatings of tiny, sparkling druzy quartz crystals as displayed by the two conchos on the bottom row.

chalcedony

This exceptional specimen displays a snow-white Chalcedony Rose “growing” on a botryoidal surface of a layer of fire agate. Considering the fact that the Chalcedony Rose and the Fire Agate layers represent deposition from silica-rich aqueous solutions of greatly different compositions, the exact sequence and manner of formation of this specimen reflects a highly complex history.


A unique and highly sought after form of chalcedony that is commonly found within the Gila Country is a type known as “Chalcedony Roses”(see excellent photos towards the bottom of the linked page). These unusual specimens consist of flower-like growths that formed when a hot silica gel of chalcedony composition, having a viscosity perhaps similar to that of toothpaste, was injected under pressure into the open cavity. No two roses are alike in size and form, making them highly collectible.

fire agate

Six specimens of Fire Agate as found in the field. Only with careful cutting and polishing can the translucent Chalcedony layers be removed to reveal the possible presence, absence or degree of fire in the stone.

fire agate

Fire Agate and Chalcedony Rose Pendant. In this artistically crafted gold wire-wrapped pendant, an exquisite cabochon of Fire Agate has been set in the natural cup of a Chalcedony Rose.


However, for most discriminating and serious collectors, the most precious form of chalcedony that can be found in the Gila Country and neighboring Southeast Arizona is a form known as “Fire Agate”. Fire Agate is generally not considered a true agate as it does not display the typical color banding of agate. Rather, this interesting form of chalcedony consists of inclusions of molecular-thin layers of iron III oxide minerals Goethite FeO(OH) and Limonite (FeO(OH).nH2O. crystals which are deposited on the botryoidal surface of colorless, translucent to transparent chalcedony. The Goethite and Limonite layers are in turn then subsequently covered over by additional thin layers of colorless chalcedony. When this sequential process is repeated several times it produces a gemstone, that when properly cut and polished gives a vivid, brilliant and complex play of various colors of yellow, orange, red, brown, green, purple, and sometimes blue. The cutting and polishing of fire agate is a fine art, requiring considerable experience to preserve and display the desired play of colors and not grind and polish the thin, delicate layers of color away.

fire agate

Is there Fire down below? Here a 1-3 mm layer of translucent botryoidal Chalcedony covers a 1-2 mm layer of Fire Agate (note Fire Agate layer showing on broken corner in upper right of specimen). Is the Fire there? Only hours of careful cutting and polishing will tell.


WHERE TO FIND CHALCEDONY IN THE GILA COUNTRY …

alien eyeball! Just chalcedony

Petrified Alien Eyeball! Well, actually no. It’s simply a really bizarre Chalcedony Ellipsoid that filled a gas bubble. Specimen is exactly as found, and has not been altered in any way.

The short answer is almost everywhere. The dominant geology of the Gila Country of Grant and Catron Counties is that of volcanic rock deposited between 34 and 15 million years ago. An earlier blog on this site, the Super-Volcanoes of the Gila Wilderness, gives a brief history of the major volcanic events that occurred here. Compositionally, the volcanic rocks of the Gila range from silica-rich rhyolites to silica-deficient basalts; however, in terms of absolute volume the silica rich rhyolites are by far the dominant rock type.

Throughout Grant and Catron Counties are vast areas of uplifted mountain masses of these silica-rich volcanic rocks. The Gila National Forest alone, for example, encompasses some 3.3 million acres consisting primarily of such terrain. Surrounding these uplifted volcanic masses are adjacent, down-dropped trenches and basins that are filled with volcanic sedimentary rock debris that has been weathered, eroded, and subsequently carried by streams and rivers flowing out of the uplifted mountains. These sedimentary deposits range from older (5-10 million years), tightly-cemented sandstone conglomerates and sandstones, such as the widespread and ubiquitous Gila Conglomerate Formation, to more recent deposits, such as are currently being carried downstream in modern floodplains.

Almost all of these rocks and sediments are likely to contain collectible specimens of chalcedony. Of course, some areas are better than others … and that’s where experience and the thrill of the hunt begins! While there are areas where collectible chalcedony can be discovered and extracted (generally with great expenditure of energy) from the matrix of solid volcanic host rock, such as around the tailings dumps of old mines, most experienced collectors will instead choose to let nature do the hard work, and hunt for specimens in the shallow, unconsolidated, weathered surface deposits covering the unweathered volcanic rock bedrock. For the less-than-determined collector the best method, and quite often the method that yields the greatest return both in terms of number and quality of specimens found, involves extensive walking across the surface of the vast areas of sedimentary deposits surrounding the uplifted mountain masses. The reason for this is that chalcedony has a hardness of 6 to 7 and is highly resistant to both chemical and physical weathering, whereas the host matrix volcanic rock consists of a high percentage of minerals that are both softer and more-readily broken down through weathering and erosion. Hence, over time, the chalcedony remains unaltered, is totally freed from the matrix rock, and is concentrated in the sedimentary deposits. Collecting chalcedony in this manner is thus a walker’s or hiker’s delight, where success is proportional to the area covered.
 

JASPER

Jasper was used extensively by stone age cultures in the making of projectile points and other tools, and has been prized as a gemstone for thousands of years. Today, it is a highly sought after gemstone material that is mined from diverse deposits worldwide, and marketed under a variety of descriptive names depending upon the color and patterns displayed by the polished stone, such as “picture jasper”, “poppy jasper”, “ocean jasper”, “bloodstone”, etc.

jasper

Vein Jasper. Originally a three to four-inch thick vein of Jasper in volcanic host rock, this specimen was subsequently eroded from the host rock and transported by stream action, surviving as an elongated boulder in sedimentary deposits.

jasper

Stream worn specimen of Vein Jasper with surfical coating of white Chalcedony.


jasper

Exceptionally pure and dense specimen of Red Vein Jasper showing conchoidal fracture.

yellow jasper

Worn stream pebble of Yellow Jasper showing conchoidal fracture.


Jasper is a cryptocrystalline variety of quartz but, unlike chalcedony, is opaque due to the high content of mineral impurities, most commonly iron III oxide minerals such as Hematite (Fe2O3), Goethite (FeO(OH), and Limonite (FeO(OH).nH2O. The color of most of the jasper found in the Gila Country ranges from a deep purplish red to blood red to shades of yellow, orange, brown, and occasionally green. These colors can either present as a single solid color or several different colors that either grade from one to the other or are intermingled in complex patterns. The best quality jasper in terms of usefulness as a gemstone, are specimens that have a dense, homogeneous internal structure, break with a conchoidal fracture, and have a waxy or vitreous luster similar to chalcedony. Such material has a hardness of 6 to 7 on the Moh’s Scale and a Specific Gravity of 2.5 to 2.9 because of the high iron content.

red jasper

Worn stream pebbles of welded rhyolite ash-fall tuff displaying veinlets of Red Jasper precipitated along hairline fractures.


red jasper

Thin veins of Red and Yellow jasper injected along fractures and cracks within shattered welded rhyolite ash-fall tuff. Note how iron-bearing, silica-rich aqueous solutions diffused outward from the veins into the somewhat porous and permeable welded tuff.

red jasper

Red Jasper and White Chalcedony Breccia. Jasper was originally emplaced as a vein filling, but subsequently shattered through faulting which allowed later deposition of Chalcedony by silica-rich fluids circulating through the broken rock.


Jasper most commonly occurs in veins, or as fillings in cracks and fractures in volcanic rocks where it has been later injected and deposited from hot, silica-rich aqueous solutions percolating through the rock. Sometimes jasper is deposited in fault zones where there have been repeated injections and precipitation from iron-rich silica bearing solutions which have been subsequently broken up by repeated faulting and internal crushing, and then re-cemented by further jasper deposition. Such deposits are called jasper breccias. Jasper breccias can be quite distinctive and striking, displaying a complex assemblage of jasper fragments of diverse color, sometimes along with fragments of chalcedony and macro-crystalline quartz, and are thus highly sought after for use as a gemstone.

red jasper

Micro-veins of Red and Yellow Jasper penetrating and diffusing along fractures through welded rhyolite ash-fall tuff.

jasper and chalcedony

Chalcedony with slight impurities of cryptocrystalline Jasper and Jasper veinlets grading to pure Jasper with pure Hematite on upper joint surface.



 

jasper and breccia

Purple Jasper and Chalcedony Breccia. This spectacular specimen shows numerous periods of Jasper and Calcedony deposition followed by subsequent crushing through faulting and subsequent cementation by more Jasper.


WHERE TO FIND JASPER IN THE GILA COUNTRY …

Jasper is often found in all of the same places where chalcedony occurs. Since it forms in veins and rock fractures, where it is discovered in solid rock outcrops it can be hand quarried with modest effort using a hammer and chisel. Such veins are not common, but can be found in areas of old mines and prospects. However, for the novice collector or person unfamiliar with the area and known localities, as was suggested for collecting chalcedony, the best (and easiest) approach is to walk the surfaces of modern sedimentary deposits which have been transported out of nearby volcanic mountains such as along river and creek floodplains, and dry washes, or to explore areas where there are exposed surfaces of weathered and eroded Gila Conglomerate.

jasper breccia

Jasper Breccia. Untold episodes of repeated Jasper deposition, followed by crushing through faulting, and re-cementation have produced this unique specimen.

red and yellow jasper

Colorful Red and Yellow Jasper Breccia showing coatings of pure Hematite (black) on fracture surfaces. Very complex history of formation.


ROCKHOUNDING AND GEM AND MINERAL COLLECTING
USING CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES AS YOUR BASE

Within day-trip driving range of the Casitas de Gila Guesthouses there are unlimited locations where chalcedony, jasper, and other semi-precious gemstones, diverse minerals, and just plain interesting rocks can be searched for on the public lands of the Gila National Forest or Bureau of Land Management. Some of these areas are officially designated tracts of public land set aside specifically for rockhounding (i.e., Rockhound State Park, Black Hills Rockhound Area, and Round Mountain Rockhound Area). Casitas de Gila Guesthouses is familiar with many of these areas and will be pleased to provide maps, directions, and local information to our guests.

Guests staying at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses are, of course, also most welcome to search for chalcedony, jasper, and other minerals and interesting rocks on the Casita lands. Except for around our home … where we place the rocks we have collected!

jasper

Multicolored Jasper at its finest!


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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

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