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

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

Casitas de Gila Nature Blog

A Profusion of April Flowers in Southwest New Mexico

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

wild flowers in April

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.

view of Turtle Rock Southwest New Mexico

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)

Abert's Wild Buckwheat

Close-up of flower inflorescence of Abert’s Wild Buckwheat

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)

Apache Plume

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)

Arizona Scorpion Weed

Close-up of flower of Arizona Scorpion Weed

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)

Blackfoot Daisy

Close-up of Blackfoot Daisy flowers

Blackfoot Daisy

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)

Blue Scorpion Weed

Close-up of Blue Scorpion Weed

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)

Corkwing Wafer-Parsnip

Close-up of flower of Corkwing Wafer-Parsnip

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)

Desert Dandelion

Close-up of Desert Dandelion flower

Desert Dandelion

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)

Desert Marigold

Close-up of Desert Marigold flower

Desert Marigold

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)

Fendler Penstemon

Close-up of Fendler Penstemon flower

Fendler Penstemon

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)

Indian Paintbrush

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)

Gordon's Bladderpod

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)

Gray Five Eyes

Close-up of flower of Gray Five Eyes

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)

Hedgehog Cactus

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)

Feather Plume

Close-up of Feather Plume flower

Feather Plume

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)

Scarlet Globemallow

Close-up of Scarlet Globemallow flower

Scarlet Globemallow

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)

Short-stemmed Lupine

Close-up of Short-stemmed Lupine

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)

Silvery Morning Glory

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)

Spreading Fleabane

Close-up of Spreading Fleabane Flower

Spreading Fleabane

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)

White Stem Evening Primrose

Close-up of White Stem Evening Primrose flower

White Stem Evening Primrose

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)

Texas Toad Flax

Close-up of Texas Toad Flax flower

Texas Toad Flax

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)

Tidytips

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)

Trailing Windmill flower

Close-up of Trailing Windmill “flower”, which is actually a composite of 3 separate flowers that bloom simultaneously!

Trailing Windmills

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)

White Stem Stickleaf flower

Close-up of White Stem Stickleaf flower

White Stem Stickleaf

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!

Mystery Flower

Close-up of the Most Beautiful Mystery Flower

Mystery Flower

Growth form of the Most Beautiful Mystery Flower


 

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Early Flowers in Southwest New Mexico

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

sand dock

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)

sand dock

Close-up of Sand Dock flower inflorescence

Sand Dock

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.

USES

(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:

Medicine
• 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

Ceremonial medicine
• Pollen sprinkled on ceremonial items

Food
• 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

Tanning Hides
• Roots boiled for tanning hides

 

GOLDEN SMOKE (Corydalis aurea)

golden smoke flower

Close-up of Golden Smoke flower

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.

USES

Golden Smoke has been used by Native Americans and modern cultures for medicinal purposes for both humans and livestock, including:

• Diarrhea
• Sores on hands
• Infections during childbirth
• Bronchitis
• Sore throat
• Stomach aches
• Rheumatism
• Heart disease
• Snakebite in livestock

 

BLOODWEED (Plagiobothrys arizonicus)

Bloodweed

Close-up of Bloodweed flower

bloodweed

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)

Red-stemmed Filaree

Close-up of Red-stemmed Filaree flowers

Red-stemmed Filaree

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)

Blue Docks or Wild Hyacinth

Close-up of Blue Dicks or Wild Hyacinth flowers

Blue Dicks or Wild Hyacinth

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.

USES

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)

Rattlesnakeweed

Close-up of Rattlesnakeweed Flowers

Rattlesnakeweed

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.

USES

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)

Stemless Evening Primrose

Close-up of Stemless Evening Primrose flowers; note old blossom (pink)

Stemless Evening Primrose

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.

USES

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)

Banana Yucca

Close-up of emerging Banana Yucca flower stalk, buds, and flowers

Banana Yucca

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!

USES

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:

Medicinal
• 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

Food
• 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

Utilitarian
• 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

Ceremonial
• 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)

Silverline Locoweed

Close-up of Silverline Locoweed in bloom

Silverline Locoweed

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

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.
 

Desert Buckthorn and Juniper Hairstreak Butterfly

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!
 

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The Paradise Overlook Mountain Trail

A HIGH-DESERT NATURE HIKE TO A MOUNTAINTOP VISTA
OVERLOOKING THE GILA WILDERNESS IN SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO
AT CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES

view of trail

View from the top of Paradise Overlook Mountain loo­king northwest over Turtle Rock to Mogollon Mountains in the Gila Wilderness

A VIEW FROM THE TOP

Hiking in Nature, regardless of where it is undertaken, is a simple pleasure that is always good for the body as well as the soul. However, there’s something uniquely special about completing a hike to the top of a hill or mountain that cannot be sensed when hiking in lowland terrains. It is an elusive something that transcends the descriptive word, a something that can only be perceived and experienced at the personal level. Elements of the reward at the top can be described, of course: the reward of a magnificent view, the psychological and physical satisfaction of having made it all the way to the top, the absolute silence and stillness of vast open spaces on a quiet day, or conversely, the bluster and buffeting of the wind as it rushes past one to the other side. But, yet, there is always something more, an ineffable something that strikes a deeper chord within one’s being, and that, once experienced, keeps drawing one up that beckoning hill or mountain again and again.

At Casitas de Gila Guesthouses there is such a hike, a mile-long trail that winds its way up a small mountain that rises up directly in front of the Casitas on the other side of Bear Creek. We call it “The Paradise Overlook Mountain Trail”.
 

THE GEOLOGIC SETTING OF THE PARADISE OVERLOOK MOUNTAIN TRAIL

Casitas de Gila is situated at the very edge of a series of cliffs that crop out along the west side of Bear Creek Canyon, a narrow, hundred-foot-deep canyon that has been incised into the 5 to 10 million-year-old Gila Conglomerate Formation. The Gila Conglomerate is a widespread sedimentary formation consisting almost entirely of volcanic rock and pyroclastic fragments that were eroded from uplifted volcanic rock formations formed by large-scale volcanic activity. This volcanic activity consisted of four extremely explosive, large, caldera-type eruptions, commonly known as super-volcanoes. These four super-volcanoes occurred within what is now the Gila Wilderness in two episodes that occurred 34 and 28 million years ago. Ancient rivers and creeks flowing out of these volcanic mountains over subsequent millions of years carried the eroded volcanic material downstream where it was deposited within adjacent down-dropped fault basins caused by tectonic subsidence to form the thick sedimentary layers of rock formations that are now called the Gila Conglomerate.

hiking in southwest new mexico

View of trail up Paradise Overlook Mountain from Casitas de Gila


geology in southwest new mexico

Geology of Paradise Overlook Mountain Trail


The mountainous terrain directly east of Casitas de Gila constitutes the western end of the Silver City Range, a 20-mile-long, uplifted fault-block range of mountains that extends northwest from Silver City to terminate on the east side of Bear Creek in front of the Casitas, where the mountain range is truncated by a major, north-south trending, high-angle, normal dip-slip fault. Close examination of this fault and the rock formations that lie on either side of the fault yields considerable information regarding the geologic history of rocks found along the Paradise Overlook Trail:

  1. The volcanic rocks comprising the small mountains and peaks east of the fault (Turtle Rock, Paradise Overlook Mountain, and North and South Peaks—see photo above) were ejected from the Bursum Super-Volcano caldera 28 million years ago, the center of which was located about 25 miles north of the Casitas. These rocks consist of an alternating sequence of primarily three distinct rock types, including, from oldest to youngest: rhyolite welded ash-fall/flow tuff, andesite lava flow, and various types of fine to coarse grained pyroclastic rock. Originally deposited in horizontal layers, these volcanic rocks were subsequently uplifted and tilted approximately 30° to the north during regional mountain building that occurred in Southwest New Mexico around 20 to 15 million years ago, which included the uplift of the Silver City Range.
     
  2. Following the uplift of the Silver City Range and other nearby mountains, the Gila Conglomerate was formed between 6 and 10 million years ago by numerous rivers and creeks carrying eroded material out of the mountains. This eroded material was then deposited in adjacent down-dropped fault basins such as the Gila River Valley, lying just to the west of the Casitas.
     
  3. Fault movement along the margins of these uplifted fault-block mountains continued for a long time as evidenced by the great thickness of the deposits of the Gila Conglomerate that are found throughout in the area, such as those now exposed along the cliffs of Bear Creek Canyon in front of the Casitas. The vertical cliffs as seen today across from the Casitas were carved and sculpted by the abrasive down-cutting action of sediment being carried downstream by the running waters of Bear Creek operating over many hundreds of thousands of years.

 

A MORNING’S HIKE UP THE PARADISE OVERLOOK MOUNTAIN TRAIL

hiking at casitas de gila

Start of the Paradise Overlook Mountain Trail immediately after leaving the Bear Creek floodplain

hiking in silver city new mexico

View from the trail on the level spot just above Bear Creek, looking out to the southwest past the Casitas to the the Burro Mountains on the skyline


Passing under the gnarled white branches of an ancient sycamore and then through a gate, the Paradise Overlook Mountain Trail immediately begins a steep climb to the north as it leaves the Bear Creek floodplain. Within a couple of hundred feet, outcrops of Gila Conglomerate surface here and there, exposed by the runoff from the previous summer’s Monsoon rains. After a short climb, the trail levels off just above the tops of the old cottonwoods lining the creek and the view to the west begins to open up. And what a view it is, as the entire southern front of the majestic Mogollon Range and the northern end of the Burro Mountains emerge from behind the low rolling hills that border Bear Creek to the west.

gila conglomerate

Gila Conglomerate in Paradise Overlook Canyon, 100 yards south of the Paradise Overlook Mountain Trail. Note the cross bedding and the large, well-rounded boulder, conclusive evidence of the sedimentary fluvial origin of the Gila Conglomerate.

 

 
For the next hundred yards, the trail crosses a gently sloping surface of thick, clayey soil washed down from the mountain above. Previous studies in the adjacent Paradise Lookout Canyon 350 feet to the south of the trail have revealed that a few feet below this gently-sloping, soil-covered surface lies a smooth, flat terrace-like surface of Gila Conglomerate bedrock, cut hundreds of thousands of years ago by the running waters of an ancestral Bear Creek. At the eastern, upper end of the soil covered terrace, the trail steepens considerably once more, and begins a steady upward climb which will continue for most of the remaining hike up the mountain.

andesite flow rock

Elongated and crystal-filled gas bubbles in andesite flow rock

Immediately past the point where the trail begins to steepen, the thick soils covering the terrace disappear and fresh bedrock is exposed at the surface and sides of the trail. This bedrock, however, is not Gila Conglomerate, but rather a dark gray, very fine grained volcanic rock which is classified compositionally as andesite. Looking closely, one observes that much of the rock contains abundant spherical to ellipsoidal holes ranging in size from a millimeter to two or three centimeters or more, many of which are lined with white crystals of quartz and other minerals known as zeolites. These are gas bubbles formed when the rock was still in the molten state, and which offer mute testimony that the rock formed as a lava flow. The ellipsoidal gas bubbles show not only that the flow rock was still moving immediately prior to cooling and solidification, but with further detailed field analysis could indicate the actual direction in which the lava was moving at the time of deposition.

hiking in new mexico

Looking north along, and parallel to, the high-angle normal fault between sedimentary Gila Conglomerate (tan rock on left of fault) and gray volcanic rock on right. Note how beds of Gila Conglomerate turn up as they approach the fault, indicating that the Gila Conglomerate moved down relative to the uplifted volcanic rock.

 

 
As often happens in doing geologic field studies, the nature of the contact between the sedimentary Gila Conglomerate underlying the terrace and the volcanic rock is totally obscured by the thick soils covering the bedrock, making it impossible to determine the age and spacial relationships between the two rock types. Fortunately, however, the contact is beautifully exposed 350 feet to the south in the bottom of Paradise Lookout Canyon. Here the contact is revealed to be a north-south trending, high-angle fault contact that dips to the west. Further examination of the rocks on either side of the contact show that as horizontal beds of the Gila Conglomerate are traced towards the contact from the west they gradually turn upward to intersect with the fault, clearly indicating that the block of Gila Conglomerate had moved down relative to the block of volcanic rock which had moved up (see photo).

pyroclastic rock

Pyroclastic rock of angular fragments of andesite set in fine-grained matrix

pyrochastic rock

Resistant pyroclastic rock forming backbone of ridge upslope 200 feet north of trail. Note Sotol agave and Wait-a-Minute Bush in foreground.


pyroclastic boulder

Boulder of weathered pyroclastic boulder with angular andesite fragments set in fine-grained matrix that rolled down from ridge in adjacent photo.


Continuing on beyond the soil covered terrace, the trail soon comes to series of switchbacks where a new type of bedrock is encountered. These rocks are highly variable in composition and texture, consisting of a chaotic mix of dark reddish to gray rock fragments of various sizes and compositions welded together in a very fine grained, light gray to tan colored matrix. Closer examination reveals these are pyroclastic rocks that were explosively ejected when the Bursum Cauldera blew its top. While some of the exposures along this segment of the trail might be mistaken for Gila Conglomerate sedimentary rocks, the freshly broken, angular texture of most of the smaller fragments and the fact that these fragments are predominantly composed of the same rock type of fine-grained andesite indicate the volcanic pyroclastic origin.

Andesite flow rock with crystal-filled gas bubbles

Andesite flow rock with crystal-filled gas bubbles

hiking in new mexico

Looking east on trail up Paradise Overlook Canyon. Note difference in vegetation on north and south sides of Canyon due to moisture retention of soil relative to exposure to sun.


Exposures of pyroclastic rocks alternate with highly weathered outcrops of the andesite lava flow rocks as the trail switchbacks across the contact between the two rock types. At this point, about halfway up the mountain, the soil cover is thin, generally only a foot or two thick over the bedrock on these mountain slopes. In many places along the trail it is easily seen that the soil has formed in place from the highly weathered and altered underlying bedrock.

Up to this point, the trail has been ascending the mountain along a steep slope on the north side of Paradise Overlook Canyon, a prominent canyon that drains from a topographic saddle between Paradise Overlook Mountain and North Peak, located a third of the mile to the southwest. Vegetation along this section of the trail is sparse due to the dryness of its south facing exposure and consists mostly of various grasses, Honey Mesquite, Wait-a Minute Bush or Catclaw, and Prickly Pear Cactus, with increasing stands of Sotol agave, as the trail climbs higher. Looking across the canyon to the south, however, one notices that the vegetation on the steep, north facing slope is considerably different. It is much denser with a greater diversity of plants, characterized by abundant One-Seed Juniper and Scrub Live Oak scattered over a thick grass-covered slope of various species that flourish there due to the greater retention of soil moisture on the north-facing slopes.

casitas de gila new mexico

Looking south where trail crosses Paradise Overlook Canyon, person is standing in the Canyon bottom at contact between andesite flow rock on north side of canyon and rhyolite welded tuff on south side. Trail makes sharp turn to east (left) 150 feet past contact to continue up mountain on south side of Canyon.

casitas de gila new mexico

Looking west from trail on north side of Paradise Overlook Canyon across Sacaton Mesa towards Mogollon Mountains in Gila Wilderness on right and Blue Range Wilderness in center far horizon


Two-thirds of the way up the mountain, the trail finally crosses Paradise Overlook Canyon to begin the steepest ascent of the trail up the north side of the canyon to terminate at Paradise Overlook at the top of the mountain. As the trail climbs ever higher on the mountain, the vista to the west becomes increasingly expansive, carrying the eye first across the Gila River Valley to Sacaton Mesa, then into the Gila Wilderness and the distant Blue Range Wilderness beyond.

rhyolite welded ash-flow tuff

Weathered surface of rhyolite welded ash-flow tuff in trail just north of where trail crosses Paradise Overlook Canyon. Note what appears to be cross-bedding structures in welded tuff.

pyroclastic rock

Pyroclastic rock showing well-sorted angular fragments of fine-grained andesite set in fine-grained matrix


casitas de gila silver city

Pyroclastic rock showing poorly-sorted fine to very coarse fragments of diverse compositions set in a fine-matrix


Immediately upon crossing the canyon, one finds that the rock type has changed to a dense, hard, light tan to white fine-grained welded ash-fall or ash-flow tuff, the oldest of the three main volcanic rock type deposits found along the trail. Continuing up the final one-tenth of a mile, the welded tuff soon changes back to an alternating sequence of pyroclastic rocks that crop out along the trail, ranging from fine-grained welded tuffs, to medium-coarse pyroclastic rocks with mostly homogeneous angular fragments of fine-grained andesite, to complex pyroclastic aggregates of diverse volcanic rock types ranging from small angular fragments a centimeter or less in size to large, well-rounded boulders up to 30 centimeters or more in diameter of andesite and rhyolite many of which contain crystal-lined gas bubbles.

lunch spot hiking

The much-welcomed flat spot near the end of the trail affords the hiker a good place to relax, quench one’s thirst, and enjoy a marvelous view.

gila national forest new mexico

Looking northwest from the top of the Paradise Overlook Mountain
Trail across Turtle Rock to the entire southern flank of the majestic Mogollon Range


Near the top of the trail, a final short, but steep … yes, we can do it … switchback brings the intrepid hiker to a much-welcomed wide, flat spot in the trail where thoughtfully placed large boulders make for a nice resting and watering spot with a marvelous view. But, nice as this spot is, the best part of the trail is yet to come! On the north side of the flat spot a small rock cairn marks the beginning of a final 250 foot scramble to the very top of Paradise overlook Mountain. Here, at an elevation of 5,540 feet, some 800 feet above Bear Creek below, is the perfect lunch spot you’ve been waiting for, a spot where an incredible 360° view awaits. To relax here, looking out over the Gila Wilderness and the surrounding panorama in all directions, you most likely will agree that indeed it is a Paradise Overlook …

Gila Wilderness

Looking east across a pristine mountainous landscape from the top of the Paradise Overlook Mountain Trail towards the commanding 8,000 foot peak of Bear Mountain near Silver City on the far distant horizon on right


 

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The Great Snow of January 2015

AN EXCEPTIONAL SNOWFALL
THAT TRANSFORMED CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES
INTO A WINTER WONDERLAND

winter snow in the southwest

Turtle Rock rises above Bear Creek with the Gila Wilderness in the background after the Great Snow of January 2, 2015

WINTER CLIMATE IN THE SOUTHWEST:
CONTROLLING FACTORS, AVERAGES, AND EXCEPTIONS

The average Winter snowfall received at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses and Southwest New Mexico is a function of several factors, including:

  1. the large scale alternating weather pattern in the Pacific Ocean known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), which results in the periodic warming and cooling of sea surface temperatures across the Pacific within the tropics and subtropics, and the creation of the important climatic patterns commonly referred to as El Niño (warm) and La Niña (cool) episodes
  2. large-scale Jet Stream patterns over western North America
  3. prevailing local atmospheric pressure and temperature
  4. local elevation

 

Climatic Affects of El Niño and La Niña Winters on New Mexico

Historical records show that El Niño winters in the Southwest are marked by increased precipitation and warmer temperatures, and La Niña winters by decreased precipitation and colder temperatures. During El Niño years, moisture-laden Low Pressure systems coming in off the Pacific Ocean tend to follow a southern route, carried along by the west-to-east flow of a persistent Pacific Jet Stream across the Southwest and into southern New Mexico (see figure below.) During La Niña years, however, eastward-moving, moisture-laden Low Pressure systems coming in off the Pacific Ocean tend to take more northerly routes across the western U.S., carried along by the west-to-east variable flows of the Pacific and Polar Jet Streams, bringing dry, sunny High Pressure conditions to prevail over the Southwest and New Mexico.

el nino and la nina

Schematic drawing showing climatic weather patterns of El Niño and La Niña for North America. Prepared by NOAA/ National Weather Service/ National Centers for Environmental Prediction.

Monitoring Oscillations of El Niño and La Niña by the Oceanic Niño Index

Sea surface temperatures fluctuate constantly in the Central Pacific along the equator, and when monitored and averaged over time demonstrate repeated oscillations between El Niño (warm) and La Niña (cold) episodes. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) monitors these oscillations by averaging monthly measurements of surface sea water temperatures collected over an area that covers the central portion of the Pacific Ocean between 5°N and 5°S latitude and 120° to170° W longitude. These temperature fluctuations, when averaged over successive three-month intervals during the year (which NOAA refers to as “seasons”), yield temperature anomalies that NOAA calls the Oceanic Niño Index (ONI). ONI values generally lie within 3°C of the average temperature for any given area at any specific time of the year. Anomalies that deviate from the average temperature in excess of +0.5°C mark a shift towards a warm El Niño episode, whereas anomalies in excess of -0.5°C mark a shift towards a cold La Niña episode. Anomalies that are between ±0.5°C are called a Neutral Episode, or, as they are sometimes humorously referred to, a La Nada episode. By NOAA’s definition, an El Niño or La Niña Episode can only be so named when the average of three consecutive ONI three-month seasonal values exceed the ±0.5°C threshold.

The Oceanic Niño Index has been in a Neutral or La Nada episode since the March-April-May seasonal ONI of 2012, and current projections (.pdf file) as of January 19, 2015 are that of a 50-60% chance of weak El Niño conditions during February and March, with a ENSO Neutral episode thereafter.
 

PREVAILING CLIMATIC CONDITIONS THAT SET UP
THE GREAT SNOW OF JANUARY 2, 2015

Typically, winter snowfall at the Casitas for the past 16 years has consisted of two or three light snowfalls each year, with each amounting to two or three inches or less. Generally, these snowfalls occur in the following predicable pattern: As low pressure systems come in from the west, winds are out of the southeast bringing warm air up from Mexico, which causes the precipitation to start as rain. Then, as the low pressure system passes by heading east, the precipitation may turn to snow overnight as the winds shift to the north. Once the storm has passed by, the skies clear, and the brilliant New Mexico Sun returns, the snow melts off quickly, typically during the following day.

Casitas de Gila is situated at an elevation of 4,800 feet. Small differences of elevation on the order of just a few hundred feet can result in a change in precipitation falling as rain or snow. For example, it is not uncommon during a Winter precipitation event at the Casitas for the 5,500 foot summits of North and South peaks (they rise up directly east of the Casitas on the other side of Bear Creek) to be coated with snow, while the Casitas receive nothing but rain. As another example, Silver City, which lies at an elevation of 6,000 feet, gets at least twice as much snow as the Casitas during the Winter.

The Great Snow of January 2, 2015, however, did not follow this usual pattern at all, but instead resulted from an unusual set of climatic factors: 1) A La Nada to very weak El Niño pattern had prevailed during the last weeks of 2014, and 2) Jet Stream patterns in the western U.S. were complex, not resembling either of the simple patterns shown in Figure 1. Instead, the Jet Stream patterns were repeatedly developing into very unusual, complex loops that came south down along the west coast of the U.S. from Canada, bringing masses of cold arctic air to the Southwest before angling northeast to bring rain to East Coast. By January 1, the Jet Stream had split, developing a pattern more like the El Niño pattern shown in Figure 1, with a Northern Polar Jet Stream and a southern Pacific Jet Stream which was now bringing up warm, moist air from Baja California. With cold air still lingering in the upper atmosphere from the previous loop pattern and the subsequent influx of moist air from the south, the stage was now set for the Great Snow of January 2, 2015. On that day it snowed all day, dropping a total of between 7 and 8 inches and turning Casitas de Gila into a Winter Wonderland. While old timers of the Gila area said they could remember greater snowfalls in the past, younger locals could not, and for certain it was the greatest snowfall the Casitas had experienced in 16 years of operation. Even so, by noon the following day with the combined efforts of El Sol and the trusty Casita tractor, all roads were passable, permitting both departing guests to leave and arriving guests to arrive.
 

A WINTER WONDERLAND AT CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES

The snowfall began in the early morning hours of January 2 with a couple inches of light dry snow on the ground by 8 AM. Despite a few brief periods when it appeared that the snow would soon stop, in never did until late in the afternoon when, as darkness approached, the skies finally began to clear.

dogs in the snow

Chloe wondering what has happened to her world, while Bower wonders what has happened to Turtle Rock.

snow in the southwest

Snow covered young Soaptree Yucca recently visited by a Desert Cottontail Rabbit looking for breakfast of grass, not yucca.


bobcat and rabbit tracks

Bobcat looking for breakfast of Cottontail Rabbit.

cane cholla with snow

Cane Cholla Cactus decked out with snow.


With dawn, the habitual early morning walk past the Casitas and down along Bear Creek to the horse corral revealed a true Winter Wonderland. On the flat to the west of the Casitas, Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus) and Desert Cottontail Rabbit (Sylvilagus auduboni) tracks criss-crossed the snow-covered road. Here and there Bobcat tracks followed the rabbit tracks, although evidence of an actual encounter was not found. Our two English Springer Spaniels were very excited by it all, sniffing, frolicking, rolling, and chasing one another all the way to the corral and back. The One-seed Juniper (Juniperus monosperma), Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata), and Cane Cholla Cactus (Cylindropuntia spinosior) were all resplendent in their new, thick blanket of white, the juniper branches sagging under the unaccustomed weight. For most of the guests, it was a great day for hunkering down inside their Casita, enjoying the cheer of hot chocolate and a good book by their kiva fireplace; but by the afternoon the incredible natural beauty steadily enveloping the Casitas was too much to ignore, prompting several photographic pilgrimages down to the Creek.

snow covered casitas

As the Great Snow day continued, not a creature was stirring, not even a guest (except those inside by their kiva fireplace).

full moon in new mexico

Full moon rising over North Peak across from the Casitas


With the low pressure system now past and heading east, the night of January 2 came on cold and clear. Slowly, the near-full moon rose above North and South peaks, casting the snowscape in the mystic bluish light and dark shadow that can only be experienced following a fresh heavy snowfall. Magical!

snow in southwest new mexico

Heading down to Bear Creek on the Corral Road before dawn the day after the Great Snow.

snow silver city new mexico

The Casitas, Turtle Rock and the distant Gila Wilderness the morning after the Great Snow.

snow in silver city new mexcio

On the trail down to Bear Creek, with Turtle Rock and the Gila Wilderness in the Distance.


sycamore with snow

A young sycamore steps from the forest shadows, its rusty-red leaves ablaze in the morning Sun.

cottonwoods covered with snow

Cottonwoods and Willows frosted with snow.

With the next morning’s light, the dogs found the trip to the Creek even more exciting, the deeper snow coming up to their bellies. It seemed, however, that most of Nature’s furry friends were still sleeping in, as only a few deer and rabbit tracks were found crossing the road by the Creek. As expected, when dawn broke and the first rays of El Sol emerged from behind North and South peaks, the landscape surrounding the Casitas was immersed in endless waves of brilliant light. A trip along the Creek was a must to document this rare natural spectacle before it melted away.

Traveling upstream from the Casitas’s southern boundary, it was hard to progress more than a few yards before yet another photo opportunity would present itself. Bear Creek gurgled sharply in the morning silence. The maze of cottonwoods and willows lining the creek glistened yellow-white in the morning light, with every snow-frosted branch and twig etched in sharp contrast against the cerulean sky, while deep shadows of cobalt blue criss-crossed at their feet. Here and there the maze of yellow-white and blue would suddenly be broken, as a lone sycamore would burst into view, its rusty-red leaves ablaze in the light.

Frozen creek new mexico

The waters and even the margins of Bear Creek rarely freeze because of constant vertical circulation and mixing of warmer waters rising, and colder waters sinking, within the thick layers of loose sand and gravel sediment of Bear Creek.

watercress

Cycles of Nature abound in the quiet, shallow margins of Bear Creek. Here, Duckweed and Watercress encroach on a fallen sycamore leaf and willow leaves.


Along the margins of the Creek, narrow bands of wet, reddish-brown sand and gravel marked the edge of the warm, upwelling spring-fed waters. For most of its course past the Casitas, the waters of Bear Creek rarely freeze in the Winter because of the vertical circulation and mixing of warmer waters rising and colder waters sinking within the thick deposits of loose sand and gravel sediment that make up the stream bed of Bear Creek. Through this upwelling circulation the waters are warm enough in places that occasional patches of bright Springtime-green Watercress (Nasturtium officinale) and Pale Duckweed were encountered, flourishing in defiant counterpoint to the surrounding Mid-Winter snowscape.

Continuing further up the creek, immersed in the cold shadows of the towering cliffs above, one soon came to a higher-energy, rocky portion of the creek where, during the Great Bear Creek Flash Flood of last Fall, concentrations of large pebbles, cobbles, and boulders were deposited in thick gravel bar deposits along the margins of the Creek, while the finer sediments were swept away. Here in this cliff-shadowed segment of the Creek, there were no signs of the warm, upwelling spring-fed waters just observed a short distance downstream. Instead, the stream bank remained frozen solid to the water’s edge, and where former gravel bars were once observed, the Creek margin was now transformed into a lumpy expanse of stoney-cored, oversized marshmallows glistening in the morning Sun.

winter in the southwest

Stoney-cored marshmallows emerge from the deep shadow of the cliffs to glisten in the morning Sun.

coatimundi tracks

The telltale track of the White-nosed Coatimundi (Nasua narica).

Tracks of animals, some fresh, some old, were abundant in most places along the Creek – Mule Deer coming to drink and feed on the Watercress and Duckweed, Rocky Mountain Big Horn Sheep coming down off the cliffs to the water, the five-toed, telltale track of the elusive White-nosed Coatimundi (Nasua narica), small tracks of Mice (Family: Cricetidae) and larger tracks of the Gray Fox (Urocyon cineroargenteus) hunting the mice; but on this day, no sign of Mr. or Mrs. Mountain Lion (Puma concolor).

ruby-crowned kinglet

Female Ruby-Crowned Kinglet hunting for insects on the Watercress and Duckweed-lined pool.

Black Phoebe

Black Phoebe hunting for insects at the pool.

As the morning wore on and the snow began to fall from the trees, creating a little plop here and a little kerplop there, a variety of birds including the Wood Thrush, the Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, and the Black Phoebe were found feeding on insects near a large pool of water situated in the middle of the floodplain, a short distance east of the main Creek Channel. The pool, which has persisted at this particular location for several years now, is elongated in shape, measuring up to several feet across and a couple of hundred feet long, with water depths ranging from a few inches to up to a foot. Interestingly, the water level in the pool is elevated a foot or two above the level of the main channel of the Creek into which it drains.

Red-naped Sapsucker

Red-naped Sapsucker hunting for insects on an old juniper.

Observations made over the years reveal that this pool is formed by confined subsurface creek waters that rise to the surface of the floodplain at this spot from an abandoned main creek channel that was buried with fine silt and mud when the creek changed its course during the Great Flood of 2005. Because the pool is fed by warm water rising to the surface of the floodplain, Watercress and Duckweed flourish on the pool’s surface year around, which seems to be a delicacy for the Mule Deer in the winter, judging by the abundance of tracks at the water’s edge. Peering into the water, small minnows could be seen cruising up and down the length of the pool continuously, only to instantly disappear and hide beneath the floating Watercress and Duckweed whenever danger was sensed in the shadows cast from above. A variety of small insects also abound here year around, in the water, along the margins of the pool, and incredibly and to the obvious delight of the Black Phoebe on this sunny warming day, even flying just above the surface of the water. Observing this smorgasbord of Nature’s bounty it was as if one had suddenly time-travelled from a Mid-winter Snowscape into Early Spring.

By noon the melting of the snow was in full display, with snow dropping noisily from the branches of the large oaks and junipers bordering the floodplain. Having just started the short hike back to the Casitas, a bird flew close overhead to land on the trunk of a tall juniper about 60 feet distant and instantly began pecking away. At that distance, it appeared to be a Ladder-Back Woodpecker and remained there fully engaged in its foraging for about a minute, quite long enough to permit several telephoto pictures. Looking at the photos back in the studio, it was quickly obvious that the bird was not a Ladder-back, but rather a new bird that had never been reported at the Casitas. It was a Red-naped Sapsucker! What a colorful and handsome bird they are. And, what a marvelous hike it had been!

melting snow in southwest new mexico

Leaving Bear Creek at noon, the snow was melting fast, and within a short time the Great Snow of January 2015 would be but a memory.


 

Posted in Bear Creek, snow in Gila, winter | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

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