IN THE HIGH DESERT OF SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO
Parched and Waiting for the Rains
WAITING FOR THE RAINS TIME
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.
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
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
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.
OPUNTIA: THE PRICKLY PEAR CACTUS –
QUINTESSENTIAL CACTUS OF THE NEW MEXICAN HIGH DESERT
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
USES OF CANE CHOLLA
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, 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
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.
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.
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