Yellow crustose and greenish-gray foliose lichens on boulder of vesicular andesite on north-facing slope
Sitting in front of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, one is presented with an overwhelming panorama of pristine natural beauty stretching from the distant mountainous ramparts of the Gila Wilderness to the close-up verdant oasis of the Bear Creek drainage in the canyon below. The scene is ever changing with the seasons, offering unlimited photographic opportunities for both novice and professional alike. Hiking the numerous trails at the Casitas offers a closer and more intimate photographic exploration into Nature, from shear, vertical cliffs of Gila Conglomerate towering over gnarled, ancient, and massive sycamores and cottonwoods to the challenging pursuit of the diverse birds and animals that inhabit the Casita Nature Preserve. Yet, while these photo opportunities are exceptional and can provide hours of enjoyment at the Casitas, there is another natural world awaiting, hardly noticed and even more rarely travelled: The Colorful World of the Lichens of the Gila.
Orange, yellow, gray, and dark brown species of crustose lichens on boulder of welded tuff on south-facing slope
Gray crustose lichen on east-facing cliff outcrop of Gila Conglomerate
Lichens are some of most bizarre and interesting organisms found on our planet. They thrive in all climates and geographic zones of the Earth, from barren frozen polar regions, to the lowest, hottest deserts, to the highest rocky mountain peaks, to the edge of the ocean, to temperate and tropical forests. However, for the greater part of humanity, they are little understood. So to begin, exactly what are Lichens?
First of all, lichens are not individual species of organisms at all. Rather, they are a composite life form consisting of two, and sometimes even three, completely different species which live in a symbiotic, mutually-beneficial relationship. The greatest number of lichens species consist of a species of fungus, which is used for the scientific name of the lichen, and a species of plant called green algae. In some lichens, a species of photosynthesizing bacterium, called a cyanobacterium, takes the place of the green algal species. And in some lichens, all three species of organisms are present. The fungal component is dominant and makes up the main body of a lichen. It consists of a dense matrix of filaments completely enclosing, and thus benefitting, the photosyntheisizing algal or cyanobacterium components by shading them from intense sunlight and preventing them from drying out. In turn, the chlorophyll bearing algal and cyanobacterial components are able to use the sunlight’s energy to produce and provide food and nutrients for the fungal component through the photosynthetic conversion of water and carbon dioxide.
Greenish-gray foliose lichen with cup-shaped spore producing apothecia on small boulder on north-facing slope
Yellow crustose lichen on boulder of pink rhyolite on southeast-facing slope
The main body of the lichen, called the thallus, can be classified on the basis of growth form into several categories: crustose (flat, paint-like coatings), foliose (leaf-like), fruticose (branched, miniature shrub-like), leprose (powdery), filamentous (hair-like), or gelatinous. Of these, it is the crustose and foliose lichens found on the various loose surface rocks and exposed bedrock that are most likely to catch the eye of the visitor to the high desert Gila area of the American Southwest here at the Casitas.
Lichens are very slow growing, spreading laterally outward from their point of inception in most species at rates typically ranging from 0.1 to 1.5 mm per year. Growth rates within certain species, particularly the crustose species, tends to be very constant through time. Consequently, the scientific discipline of lichenometry (age determination of exposed rock surfaces by lichen measurement) has become an important tool in archeology and geology and related disciplines. By measuring the diameter of the largest lichens, scientists can determine dates of specific events, such as at sites of human habitation, or in determining cycles of climate change by examining moraine deposits (rock debris) left by the retreat of melting alpine glaciers. Growth rates for various species can be easily determined by measuring lichens on dated tombstones or old buildings. In more recent years, C14 dating using AMS (accelerator mass spectroscopy) has proven very successful in lichen dating, providing corroborating data for rates of growth determined by direct measurement methods. Lichenometry is most accurate on surfaces exposed for less than a 1,000 years; however, it can be used on ancient rock surfaces up to about 10,000 years. Here at the Casitas, one can observe crustose lichens on boulders and bedrock surfaces that are hundreds of years old.
Five crustose lichen species on east-facing cliff outcrop of Gila Conglomerate
Bluish-black crustose lichen growing on top of gray crustose lichen on boulder of welded tuff on north-facing slope
Lichens have been utilized by humans for thousands of years in diverse ways, including:
- Food – For most human cultures lichens have served primarily as a famine food, particularly for peoples living in the northern latitudes. However, in some cultures lichens are considered a staple, even a delicacy. Very few lichens are poisonous, but most contain poorly digested compounds which can be removed by simple processes, such as boiling. Human use as a food in North America’s Southwest was apparently never significant.
For wild and domesticated animals a few lichens serve as both forage and fodder, primarily in extreme environments of the far north and in lower latitude desert areas. In New Mexico lichen has been reported as a forage for antelope.
- Natural Dye – Lichens have long been used as a natural dye for yarn, textiles and basketry. The dye is extracted by boiling or steeping in ammonia or urine. Common colors are shades of yellow and tan, however, a few species produce reds and purples. Here in New Mexico lichens have a strong tradition of use in woolen rugs and blankets woven by the Navajo, and in basketry by other tribes in the Southwest.
- Medicine – Lichens have been and are still used medicinally by numerous cultures around the globe. Their primary use stems from a variety of secondary compounds found in the fungal component of the thallus which can be used as an antibiotic for a wide variety of ailments, both internal and external. Here in New Mexico lichens have a long history of medicinal use by both Native American and Hispanic cultures.
- Other Uses – Lichens have a long history of use in numerous and highly diverse ways around the globe, including cosmetics, perfumes, fibers, poisons, hallucinogens, preservatives and hide tanning!
Yellow, brown, and orange crustose lichens on boulder of welded tuff on southeast-facing slope
Close-up of greenish-gray foliose lichen showing detail of fractal growth pattern on boulder on north-facing slope
THE ROCK-COVERING LICHENS
OF THE CASITAS DE GILA NATURE PRESERVE
As one explores the various hiking trails at Casitas de Gila, it will be noticed that the type and abundance of lichens found growing on the rocks observed along the way vary considerably, both in species type, form, size and color. Major controls for this variation include:
- Rock Composition – Even a cursory study of the type of lichens covering the various rock surfaces at the Casitas will show that specific types of lichens seem to show a preference for specific types of rocks. This is due not only to the composition of the rock but also to the degree and ease to which a specific rock type is broken down by mechanical and chemical weathering to provide nutrients to the algal component of the lichen.
Almost all of the rocks found around the Casitas are volcanic in origin. Compositionally, they consist primarily of light-colored rhyolite and andesite, plus a much smaller amount of dark-colored basalt, which formed as lava and pyroclastic flows and welded tuffs. Across Bear Creek from the Casitas these volcanic rocks are well exposed in outcrops found on the mountain side along the Paradise Overlook Trail. Closer to the Casitas, the cliffs on both sides of Bear Creek consist primarily of rounded pebble-size to boulder-size pieces of similar volcanic material that was carried down from the surrounding volcanic mountains by rivers and streams to be subsequently deposited as the Gila Conglomerate some 6 to 10 million years ago. Over hundreds of thousands of years, the upper surfaces of the weakly consolidated and cemented Gila Conglomerate were broken down through mechanical and chemical weathering to release the abundant small pebbles to large boulders found on the flats around the Casitas on which lichens subsequently became established.
- Surface Reflectivity of the Rock Substrate – The surface reflectivity of rocks is a function of both rock composition and surface texture. Light-colored rocks and a smooth surface texture will reflect the Sun’s rays and heat, while dark-colored rocks and a rough surface will absorb the Sun’s rays and heat up. The degree of surface reflectivity also has an effect on the length of time moisture is retained on or within the rock surface, which of course is an important factor for lichen growth.
- Directional Orientation of the Rock Surface – The orientation of a rock’s surface relative to compass directions and inclination from the horizontal greatly influences lichen growth by determining the amount and angle at which the Sun’s rays strike the rock surface. These factors in turn influence the temperature and moisture retention of the rock substrate.
- Amount of Daily and Seasonal Sunlight vs. Shade over the Rock Surface – Location of a rock surface relative to shade-producing features such as trees, and adjacent topographic features such a canyon walls or cliffs, can greatly affect and control lichen development and growth rates by regulating the amount of sunlight received and the time of year that it is received.
- Amount of Rainfall Received and moisture retention potential of the rock surface and surrounding ground surface – Water is essential for lichen growth and survival and the amount of rainfall received on the rock surface annually and seasonally can be further affected by the orientation of the surface and how rapidly rainwater drains from the surface. Moisture retention at and within the rock surface is also a factor since some rocks are somewhat permeable and can soak up and retain water like a sponge or have thin accumulations of soil which will retain water.
- Stability of the Rock Surface Itself – The old adage “a rolling stone gathers no moss” applies to lichens as well. While some outcrops of bedrock can be stable for thousands of years, favoring the growth of ancient lichens, other outcrops can erode so quickly through mechanical and chemical weathering that lichens cannot establish on them. For loose rocks and boulders, the degree of slope of the surface on which they rest is critical since gravity, animal activity, and soil erosion and deposition can move or cover up loose rocks prohibiting lichen growth. Indeed, by walking the trails around the Casitas one can observe and determine soil surfaces of all degrees of stability simply by noting the presence and size of the lichens.
Complex patterns of greenish-gray foliose lichen on boulder of black basalt on north-facing slope
Complex patterns of greenish-gray foliose lichen on red rhyolitic boulder on north-facing slope
All of the photographs presented in this blog were taken within a few hundred feet of the Casitas’ guesthouses. A wide variety of species can be found which exhibit a gamut of colors from brilliant yellows and reds to steel-blue grays and drab browns. Their textures range from simple pain-like encrustations to bizarre leafy forms displaying incredibly detailed fractal patterns. If you have a camera with even minimal macro-photographic capability, you will find that a whole new world of Nature’s color, texture, and design awaits you at Casitas de Gila!
Boulder displaying influence of directional orientation of rock substrate (and resulting temperature and moisture retention differences) upon growth of specific lichen species — yellow crustose lichen on southeast-facing side of boulder; greenish-gray foliose lichen on northeast-facing side of boulder
Relaxing by Bear Creek at Casitas de Gila
Given a few days off from the daily grind, most of us relish the thought of spending some time at the beach or in the forest or mountains. And when one can manage to make that escape, it is rare to not return refreshed, invigorated, and inspired to once more pick up the reins and plow ever onward through the routine of our daily lives.
Indeed, the positive effects of nature upon the human condition has been extolled by philosophers, naturalists, artists, poets, musicians, scientists, outdoor enthusiasts, and everyday folk from all walks of life for as long as there have been words to express them.
Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.
John Muir (1838-1914), Scottish-born American Naturalist
There is pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.
Lord Byron (1788-1824), British Poet of the Romantic Movement
I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright.
Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), American Author, Poet, and Naturalist
I remember a hundred lovely lakes, and recall the fragrant breath of pine and fir and cedar and poplar trees. The trail has strung upon it, as upon a thread of silk, opalescent dawns and saffron sunsets. It has given me blessed release from care and worry and the troubled thinking of our modern day. It has been a return to the primitive and the peaceful. Whenever the pressure of our complex city life thins my blood and benumbs my brain, I seek relief in the trail; and when I hear the coyote wailing to the yellow dawn, my cares fall from me – I am happy.
Hamlin Garland (1860–1940), American Novelist, Poet and Essayist
There is new life in the soil for every man. There is healing in the trees for tired minds and for our overburdened spirits, there is strength in the hills, if only we will lift up our eyes. Remember that Nature is your great restorer.
Calvin Coolidge (1872–1933). 30th President of the United States
THE DRAW OF NATURE
Looking back over the years, it’s clear that the dominant constant in my own life has been the continual draw of Nature upon me, an undeniable attraction which shaped my chosen profession in geology and my long-term avocations. It is also clear that, with few exceptions, my times of greatest solace, joy, and insight have come when surrounded and immersed in the natural world of the sea or mountains, and now the high desert of New Mexico.
Turtle Rock: View from your Casita porch
While one part of me has always simply accepted this draw as a personal preference, much as the above writers were moved to express. It’s also a fact that as a scientist, the WHY of this inexplicable attraction has puzzled me most of my adult life!
But of all my experiences in Nature, at no time have I had the continual immersion in the natural world as I have had during the past 13 years while Becky and I have been involved in the creation and operation of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses.
Perched on cliffs of Gila Conglomerate above the free-running flow of Bear Creek, and overlooking the Gila Wilderness, Becky and I have been privileged to live and work in one of the most visually spectacular and geologically and ecologically diverse areas in Southern New Mexico. The essence of Nature is incredibly strong here at the Casitas, enveloping us with a quiet and peaceful solitude and beauty that continues to amaze and overwhelm us. The Casitas are a place removed from the “out there” world beyond our gate, a place where weeks pass by like days and years pass by unnoticed. We frequently find ourselves wondering how 13 years have passed since we came to Gila. It hardly seems possible to us.
THE STRESS-FREE ZONE OF NATURE AND THE CASITAS
Casita guests enjoying the solitude of Nature
In the early days of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, it became obvious to us that we were living in our own “stress-free zone” of Nature.
We began to notice that many of our guests would arrive stressed-out from their travel experiences. Yet we also observed how quickly they would calm down, relax, and unwind once they settled down in their Casita. For some guests, the change seemed to come from that first short walk along Bear Creek on one of the many trails of the Casita Nature Preserve. For other guests, it seemed to be nothing more than just sitting in front of their Casita enjoying the view of the Bear Creek canyon below and the Gila Wilderness beyond.
My scientific mind was noting that this calming was a repeatable effect, and I continually was wondering what had happened here, and WHY. And then, one hot day this past summer, a very short answer came. “Entrainment,” said the little voice in my mind. “Entrainment” was a phenomena I had long been familiar with, which, in its simplest form, means “when things come into sync”, and so I began to research. Here’s what I found.
WHAT IS ENTRAINMENT?
Entrainment is one of the more curious and interesting phenomena found in physics and other sciences. The prominent 17th century mathematician, astronomer, and physicist Christian Huygens is generally considered the first person to experiment and research the phenomena. In 1666, Huygens observed that when the pendulums of two clocks were set in random motion on the same wall, over a period of time the two pendulums would end up moving in synchrony in exactly opposite directions (anti-phase), regardless of their initial motion, a phenomena which he described as an “odd kind of sympathy”. Today, Entrainment in physics is referred to by the heady term of “mode locking of coupled driven oscillators” or the general process in which two interacting oscillating systems assume the same period.
Biomusicology and Chronobiology are two other sciences where Entrainment is observed.
In Biomusicology the term “entrainment” is used in reference to the synchronization of organisms to an external rhythm produced by other organisms. For example, you are biomusicologically entrained when you start tapping your foot in time with the band on stage.
Chronobiology is broader in application, in that it refers to the type of entrainment that occurs when endogenous or self-sustained physiological or behavioral events within an organism become synchronous in period or phase to that of an external environmental oscillation. An example would be the well-known entrainment of the circadian rhythm or “body clock” cycles found in humans, animals, plants, and other forms of life in response to the external natural cycles of the light of day and dark of night. The familiar jet-lag syndrome is a response to your body going out of synchrony with your established circadian rhythm.
Pursuing the foot tapping and jet lag examples a little further, one might ask just what is the process here? In the case of foot tapping, sound waves from the band’s instruments enter our ear and are processed in the brain, which sets up a rhythmic motor response in the muscles and tendons of the foot. If you are really into the music being played, the motor response spreads contagiously through the whole body, and, maybe to the embarrassment of your partner, you get up and start movin’ and groovin’ to the pulsing rhythmic sounds!
A similar thing happens in jet lag, where the brain, as it perceives the photons coming from the sun, establishes a light-sensitive internal clock, which determines various types of hormone regulation, bodily functions, and activities such as sleeping and eating. A simple proof for the fact that the brain is perceiving the external progressive rhythmic change of daylight versus darkness is offered by the fact that jet lag only occurs on flights traveling east or west across times zones (such as flying from New York to Los Angeles). In flying a similar distance south or north from New York to South America or Canada, one experiences no jet lag. In both of these examples it is the brain, of course, that acts as the primary agent of entrainment for the rest of the body.
Since the 1930s there has been extensive interest in and research investigating the various states of human consciousness and the corresponding rhythms of electrical brainwave frequencies within the brain during during different stages of wakefulness and sleep. Research has determined that these are the primary states of human brainwaves:
Delta (less than 4 Hz) — deep dreamless sleep
Theta (4 to 8 Hz) — light sleep; dreaming; meditation
Alpha (8 to 12 Hz) — awake but relaxed; daydreaming; meditation
Beta (12 to 39 Hz) — wide awake; working or focused concentration
In recent years a fascinating segment of this brain research has focused on developing equipment which produces specific frequencies of sound and light to entrain the brain to achieve these states of consciousness. Although this field of brain study is in its infancy, numerous studies have shown conclusively that, indeed, the brain does entrain to specific frequencies of artificially-induced auditory and visual stimulation.
This raises an interesting question. If artificially-induced entrainment of the brain is a proven phenomena, then could it also be possible that the state of mental and bodily well-being so often praised in prose and poetry, and what is being referred to here as the “Stress-Free Zone of Nature”, might be due to some form of naturally-induced entrainment acting on our brains? And if so, just what might be causing this entrainment?
While researching the types of natural electromagnetic frequencies occurring on our planet Earth that could possibly be involved, I eventually came to the conclusion that the most likely candidate is a natural phenomena known as the Schumann Resonance.
THE SCHUMANN RESONANCE — The Rhythm of Nature
Schumann Resonance frequencies are the principal electromagnetic frequencies in the Earth’s electromagnetic spectrum, and are global in distribution. They are produced in the spherical cavity between the Earth’s surface and the lower part of the upper atmosphere known as the ionosphere (a layer of electrons and electrically charged atoms and molecules extending upward from a height of about 30 miles). The ionization of these atomic particles is caused primarily by incoming radiation from the sun. The Schumann Resonance frequencies are produced by, and are constantly being re-energized by, the 50 or so lightning strikes that are occurring around the world every second of every day. When measured, these electromagnetic waves consist of a spectrum of extremely low and very low electromagnetic frequencies ranging from 3 Hz (Hertz or cycles per second) to 60 Hz. When this spectrum of frequencies is further measured and analyzed, it is found that the strongest frequency signal occurs at a dominant or fundamental frequency of 7.83 Hz, with a series of decreasingly intense higher resonance overtones spaced at 6.5 Hz intervals, (14.3 Hz, 20.8 Hz, etc., out to about 60 Hz).
In 1952, the German physicist Dr. Winfried Otto Schumann at the Technical University of Munich theorized, and later with the help of Dr. Herbert Konig, attempted to measure a series of naturally-occurring, extremely-low frequency resonances or oscillating electromagnetic waves in the atmosphere. In was not until the early 1960s, however, that the science and technology had advanced sufficiently to extract the exact frequencies of what are now known as the Schumann Resonances from the background electromagnetic noise in the atmosphere.
Basically, the discovery of the Schumann Resonances means that the natural world around us is pulsing along at 7.83 Hz — the Rhythm of Nature … the Heartbeat of the Earth.
HOW THE SCHUMANN RESONANCES INFLUENCE OUR LIVES
I have spent some time examining and comparing the available research concerning the phenomena of the Schumann Resonance and human brain entrainment. I have listed here a synthesis of some key aspects and understandings of that research.
- Schumann Resonances have existed on Earth since the beginning of life on the planet. Consequently, all life, including humans, has evolved within the constant presence and influence of these frequencies.
- Schumann Resonance frequencies are very weak in intensity but are global in effect. They are currently measured continuously at research stations around the world. Because they are so weak, Schumann frequencies are best measured in rural areas away from the ever-expanding and overpowering electromagnetic noise of modern civilization (such as power lines, cell phones, TV, wifi, etc.).
Human brains can detect and react to weak external electromagnetic frequencies having the same intensity or strength as those of the Schumann Resonance.
Various human biological mechanisms, processes, and health effects have been shown to be linked with, and influenced by, variation in the frequency and intensity of those frequencies within the range of Schumann Resonances. A few of the areas of such investigation include circadian rhythm, physical motor response reaction times, and hormone production and regulation.
- Dominant brain wave frequencies within humans show a range in frequency from less than 4Hz (Delta) to 39 Hz (Beta). This range corresponds precisely to the range of the strongest frequencies within the Schumann Resonance: 3 Hz to 35 Hz. Even more interesting is the fact that when we normally are asleep at night and our brain is cycling up and down in Delta and Theta frequencies, the Schumann Resonance frequency spectrum shifts downward to display an abundance of 3 Hz (Delta) frequencies.
- The fundamental or dominant frequency of the Schumann Resonances is found to average out at 7.83 Hz. It is this fact that is perhaps the most important and intriguing of all when attempting to fully understand that unique state of consciousness experienced in the Stress-Free Zone of Nature. As we now know, a frequency of 7.83 Hz falls precisely at that curious boundary between the Alpha and Theta states of consciousness frequencies of the human brain. This is the unique transitional boundary where our brain passes from the awake but stressless, greatly relaxed and meditative zone of Alpha consciousness through a hazy twilight region of barely awake/nearly asleep, and then on to pass into the mentally and physically refreshing and restorative light sleep zone of Theta.
THE SCHUMANN RESONANCE AND THE CASITAS’ STRESS-FREE ZONE
What does the Schumann Resonance have to do with the Casitas de Gila Stress-Free Zone?
The way I see it, the outside world has been humming along at 7.83 Hz since the beginning of time. For the human brain, 7.83 Hz is right at the boundary between Alpha and Theta, between awake-but-relaxed/daydreaming and light sleep/dreaming … a totally relaxed and refreshing state of being.
Once you arrive at Casitas de Gila, leaving the noise and stress of your regular world behind, your own rhythms synchronize with those of the natural world and you, in effect, are free to become one with nature. For me, that explains how our guests become “entrained” to the Casitas de Gila Stress-Free Zone. And why it is rare for me to want to leave the premises.
So, there you have it folks … the cogitations and deliberations of a left brain, scientific, and logical mind over the rhythms of the Stress-Free Zone of Nature.
As a scientist pointed out years ago, there seem to be two different methods by which correct answers to perplexing problems in science are arrived at. One is by capturing the answer to the problem in a logical, objective box, and the other is by capturing the answer in an intuitive, subjective box. While the former generally requires a lot of time in the doing, is distinctively elegant, and definitely very strong, the latter often requires no time at all in perception, is certainly not as elegant, but over time will often prove to be just as strong.
So, now, dear reader, having endured no little stress in the researching of this blog, I definitely think it’s time for me to retire to our hammock down by Bear Creek, to once more totally relax and unleash my right brain in the Stress-Free Zone of Casitas de Gila Guesthouses!
Hope to see you here soon, so you can try it out for yourself!
Mogollon Mountains and Gila Valley from Turkey Creek Road
October and November are spectacular months in the Gila Country of Southwestern New Mexico. With the ending of the monsoon rains, the days are noticeably shorter and the skies have taken on a deeper shade of cobalt blue as the noonday sun tracks ever lower in the southern sky. The nighttime sky is changing too: clear and crisp, the stars in the Milky Way beg to be seen as they shine overhead with an incredible Fall brilliance that is impossible to describe. Here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, Jupiter is now rising early over Turtle Rock, heralding the much anticipated and slightly later arrival of the brilliant Pleiades or Seven Sisters star cluster. After another hour spent stargazing, and another log or two in the outdoor chimenea, the magnificent constellation of Orion, Great Hunter of Antiquity, slowly emerges from behind North and South Peaks to illuminate and dominate the Late Fall sky.
Sycamore Leaves on Bear Creek
Fall Color on Bear Creek
With dawn, and the streaming of crystal clear, sharp, morning light cascading into the Bear Creek floodplain below the Casitas, one notices that the leaves of the floodplain trees are changing color in earnest now. By late afternoon, different branches in the cottonwoods and willows are seen to flare up brilliantly in yellows and golds, awash in the last rays of the setting sun behind the Casitas. Having observed this spectacle of color for some 13 seasons now, we know that the many-hued oranges and reds of the Willow and Sycamore are still a few weeks off, patiently waiting their turn in Nature’s glorious pageant of Fall change.
A few Late Summer flowers are still holding on, especially the large stands of Giant or Toothed Goldeneye (Viguiera dentata) which was so prolific this year all over the floodplain. In the dry washes the Desert Marigolds (Baileya multiradiata) still sparkle golden along the Corral Road in the noon sun. In the sandy gravel deposits along Bear Creek, the Golden or Rubber Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus) is now ablaze with bright yellow swaths of little flowers covering their blueish-gray, frond-like branches. Walking the hillside trails, one also notices that the lush green grasses of the hills surrounding the Casitas have gone to seed and are beginning to brown off. No matter where you look, change is everywhere. The first frost may not be far off …
Aspen Gold on Bursum Road
An original painting by Michael O'Connor
Fall is an especially wonderful season for hiking or motoring throughout the Gila Country of Southwestern New Mexico. For the experienced hiker, the hundreds of miles of High Country hiking trails within the Gila National Forest and Gila Wilderness beckon with an early-season call that is impossible to ignore. Now, and for the next few weeks, the highest trails, such as the Crest Trail (FT 182) accessed at Sandy Point on the Bursum Road (State Road 159) near Mogollon ghost town, are a hiker’s delight. For it is this time of year in early Fall when the vast groves of Aspen capping the high peaks of the Mogollons turn the trails into pathways of gold. To hike only a portion of the Crest Trail, immersed in the murmuring silence of the softly quaking and slowly falling golden leaves of the majestic Aspen, is an experience to be cherished forever. Closer to the Casitas, shorter and less strenuous but no less beautiful half-day hikes can be enjoyed this time of the year at the Catwalk or Mineral Creek or the Gila Riparian Preserve. These hikes are especially wonderful towards the end of October and early November when the lower elevation foliage of the old-growth cottonwoods and sycamores reach their peak.
For the motoring guest staying at the Casitas, a day’s drive to the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is an unforgettable journey during October and November, as each curve in this 40-mile, scenic, paved road unveils a new mountainous panorama more spectacular in its Fall colors than the last. Once reaching the Cliff Dwellings, it is just a short half-mile hike up to the Dwellings where an incomparable experience awaits when one sits quietly in one of several rooms of this ancient abode while looking out at the Fall foliage in the canyon below, with the cliff tops of ponderosa pine across and the cloudless blue sky above.
Gila River at the Gila Riperian Preserve
An original oil painting by Michael O'Connor
If your vehicle has moderate road clearance, a trip into the Gila National Forest to access pristine interior reaches of the Gila River via Turkey Creek Road (just a few miles from Casitas de Gila Guesthouses) offers spectacular Fall foliage and incredible vistas of the Gila Wilderness.
Turkey Creek Road (SR 153) enters the Gila National Forest (where it becomes FR 155) on the south side of the Gila River, about 6 miles from the Casitas and the small community of Gila. Leaving the Gila River Valley, this gravel, but fairly-well maintained, forest road climbs steeply some 1,400 feet to an elevation of 5,800 feet where it runs along a mile-long ridge before descending to the Gila River. To stop, sit, or walk anywhere along this ridge and gaze south and west across the vast Gila River Valley below or west and north into the deeper mountain ramparts and recesses of the Mogollon Mountains and Gila Wilderness beyond when they are bathed in the hard afternoon light of Fall, is to become immersed in the eternal and unsurpassed Solitude of the Gila.
While it may be true that the pictures shown in this blog may convey a thousand words, to personally witness the Fall light and leaves of the Gila Country during October and November is without question an experience of a thousand memories.
Fall on the Gila River
There's never just one Summer Poppy!
For many parts of New Mexico and Arizona, this year’s Monsoon rains have remained spotty and below average (see the CLIMAS Southwest Monsoon Tracker) But not so here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses! As of today, we have received over 9 inches of rain since early July (which marked the beginning of this year’s Monsoon Season), with the result that the lands of the Casitas de Gila Nature Preserve are now luxuriously green. There are wildflowers growing in profusion everywhere.
Based on the latest 10-day forecast, this week will probably see the end of this year’s Monsoon Season as Summer begins to fade. The early signs of Fall are everywhere now. Yesterday there was a widespread, gentle, all-day rain, but it seemed more a Fall type of rain than Monsoonal. This morning it dawned clear, cool and actually brisk, with temperatures in the high 50s. Many of our summer birds have already gone. Yesterday, while driving back from Silver City, there was a small group of Turkey Vultures perched in a circle on some yuccas and fence posts at the side of the road. They do this every year shortly before migrating back to Mexico. It’s the only time those Turkey Vultures gather together like this. Whether or not they do it to go over various route options and departure times remains an open question. And then this morning, we observed over a hundred Cliff Swallows packed side by side on the power lines near the entrance to Casitas de Gila. It won’t be long before they will be leaving as well.
There are signs along Bear Creek, too. Looking out from the Casitas these days upon the deep green foliage of the Bear Creek floodplain, here and there one’s eye will be drawn to an occasional branch high up in the Cottonwoods whose leaves have already turned golden yellow. One observes this phenomena every year about this time. With the general Fall turning-of-the-leaves still a good month off, this early turning phenomena remains an unsolved mystery. Could it be some sort of isolated Cottonwood stress? Possibly the result of partially broken limbs from that big thunderstorm in July? Or, to fantasize a bit, maybe it’s some sort of early warning system that these Cottonwoods, ancient Patriarchs of the Floodplain, use to signal the other denizens of the Creek bottom that Fall is on the way? So many interesting observations to ponder … But on this morning such rumination must wait, for today it is the magnificence of the late Summer Flowers now surrounding the Casitas that commands our attention, and demands a photographic journey to the Creek below.
Hiking down from the Casitas and along the Corral Road, at each bend and turn in the trail an incredibly diverse array of wildflowers greets one’s eye. The walk progresses ever more slowly as one’s journey is repeatedly brought to a halt. Again and again the photographer’s eye is arrested by those especially lit places where blossoms radiate with an unbelievable crystalline brilliance, as rays of sunlight filtering through the deep green canopy above refract in the lingering drops of the early morning dew.
The diversity of flowers this morning is perhaps the greatest we have seen in our 13 years here. Perhaps, this is due to the complete lack of rain for the first half of this year. The life cycles of most of the plants native to this area respond more to the occurrence of rain rather than the seasons. With no rain until July, many species that would normally bloom in the Spring and Early Summer are this morning found blooming with the Late Summer varieties. The day is perfect for photography and the flowers and camera cooperate fully. After about an hour and a half, the Sun has risen high enough to both heat things up as well as eliminate most of the wonderful contrast of light and shadows that has been so captivating. Time to pack up and head back to the studio to view the results of the morning’s endeavors.
After sorting through the 170 or so photos, some 21 different flowering plants are recognized, either old friends known from the past or new ones which are easily identified. Another 10, mostly those difficult little yellow ones that look so much alike, will take longer to key out.
May the joy you have in viewing these photos be as great as as I had in taking them!
**Click on the photo and a larger version will open in a new window.
SUMMER POPPY (Kallstroemia grandiflora)
Not a true poppy, this plant is related to the creosote bush! It doesn’t bloom every year, having germination inhibitors coating the seeds that require several seasons to wash off. Here at the Casitas, when they do germinate and bloom, the hillsides are literally covered with them, as they are right now!
Wild Four O'Clock
WILD FOUR O’CLOCK (Mirabilis multiflora)
One of our favorites here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses. These flowers open late in the afternoon and close in the morning when the Sun reaches them. At night they emit a musky odor which attracts the large hawkmoth, the dominant pollinator for the plant.
Long-flowered Four O'Clock (Mirabilis longiflora)
LONG-FLOWERED FOUR O’CLOCK (Mirabilis longiflora)
Like the Wild Four O’Clock these flowers unfold at dusk and shrivel with the day. Only a few hawkmoths have long enough tongues to feed on these flowers and are their only pollinators. Whereas the Wild Four O’Clock grows around the Casitas, this species prefers the much damper soils down along the Creek.
CLAMMYWEED (Polanisia dodecandra)
So named because of the sticky hairs that line their stems. Found along the dry washes at the Casitas.
APACHE PLUME (Fallugia paradoxa)
A member of the Rose Family, this plant takes the form of a small shrub, 3-6 feet high. The flowers are large, five-petaled and cup shaped, which after blooming produce pinkish-plumed fruits.
SACRED DATURA (Datura meteloides)
A premier hallucinogenic plant of Southwest Native Americans, every part of this plant, including roots, stems, leaves and flowers, is toxic, dangerous and can cause death when ingested. Absolutely not to be fooled with! Having said that, its large, 6-inch white trumpet or lily-like blossoms are as gorgeous as they are prolific. Found everywhere in our area, they are abundant all over the Casita lands. Like the Four O’Clocks, their long blossoms unfurl at dusk and curl back up by mid-morning. They also are pollinated mainly by hawkmoths, which become quite intoxicated by the nectar as they stagger around on the plant and then wend a crooked flight off to the next flower! The nature of their strong perfume is strictly in the nose of the beholder, some people find it exotically attractive, while others totally abhor it!
TELEGRAPH PLANT or CAMPHORWEED (Heterotheca subaxillaris)
A very widespread weed in the U.S., the Telegraph Plant is just one of the approximately 20,000 members of the Sunflower Family. Bane of farmers, ranchers, and the Casitas’ Maintenance Man it is very prolific in germination and virtually impossible to eradicate. Its alternate common name comes from the camphor-like odor given off when crushed.
PRAIRIE ZINNIA (Zinnia grandiflora)
Another member of Sunflower Family, each ray of the yellow blossom is a separate flower and in the disk-like center of the head are another two dozen tubular flowers. Both types of flowers produce seeds; the ray flower seeds are dispersed on the wind by the wing-like dried rays, while the disk flower seeds drop to the ground near the base of the plant. Clumps of these flowers are found throughout the Casita upland flats and hills.
DESERT ZINNIA (Zinnia acerosa)
Very similar to the Prairie Zinnia, except that the blossoms are white instead of yellow, and the central disk has only 6 to 8 central tubular flowers. It thrives in caliche-rich soils, and can be found in the washes around the Casitas.
SCARLET CREEPER (Ipomoea coccinea)
The delicate brilliant scarlet tubular flowers of this creeping vine-type plant are a favorite attraction for the hummingbirds here at the Casitas. A member of the Morning Glory Family, their bright scarlet flowers are vibrant in the morning Sun against the deep green leaves of the plants that they climb.
Mexican Morning Glory
MEXICAN MORNING GLORY (Ipomoea hirsutula)
A member of the Morning Glory family, the Mexican Morning Glory opens for business at Sunrise and closes just 4 or 5 hours later, encouraging the pollinating bees to get up and get going! The violet blue of the outer blossom becomes whitish at the interior base. Whether viewed in the shade or back lit by the Sun ,it is simply gorgeous against the deep green leaves of the vine.
WHITE THORN (Acacia constricta)
This thorny little shrub is easily recognized by its thorns, delicate compound leaflets, and the little fluffy, ball-shaped flowers that bloom, depending on rain, both in the Spring and in the Summer. A beautiful plant which initially might be confused with the more densely foliaged Cat Claw or Wait-A-Minute Bush, White Thorn is fairly common on the rocky cliffs and hillsides leading down to the Creek.
COMMON SUNFLOWER (Helianthus annuus)
Abundant along roadsides and fields throughout the Southwest, this plant is prolific along the margins of Bear Creek and the Gila Valley in Late Summer. Pre-Columbian Hopi tribes domesticated a large-headed variety of this plant, the seeds of which were used as food and a source of dye in basket making. The Spaniards introduced seeds from this plant to Europe, which was further developed in Russia into varieties having a much larger head. Subsequently, the seeds of this giant variety were brought back to the U.S. where today it is a widely-grown crop for use as bird seed, vegetable oil, and, of course, human snack food!
DESERT MARIGOLD (Baileya multiradiata)
When little or nothing else is blooming, and the ground is seemingly bone dry, as long as the weather is good and warm you can often find this interesting little plant along the roadsides and dry washes at the Casitas. Another member of the Sunflower family, Desert Marigolds flaunt bright yellow multi-petaled flowers on tall, spindly, and gracefully-arcing blue-green stems; as such they are truly an eye catcher and a photographer’s delight.
UMBRELLA WART (Allionia incarnata)
This pretty little plant is found creeping along the ground near the dry washes at the Casitas. The purplish-pink flowers are actually a composite of three flowers which open at Sunrise and close at mid-day to early afternoon. They are a member of the Four O’Clock family.
FENDLER GLOBEMALLOW (Sphaeralcea fendleri)
This member of the Mallow family grows in the form of tall vertical spikes covered in abundant orange to red cup-shaped flowers. It is found in all parts of Casita lands and serves as a browse for deer.
SILVERLEAF NIGHTSHADE (Solanum elaeagnifolium)
This plant with purple flowers and yellow centers is one of several members of the Nightshade family found in our area. Sharp, hair-like spines cover the stems and wavy, elongated leaves of this plant, which after flowering puts out round, green-striped fruit that turn yellow when ripe. The fruit is poisonous. Abundant in dry sandy soils, it is considered a native ornamental plant by some because of its colorful flowers; here at the Casitas, however, it persists as a highly invasive, prickly, and undesirable species that is virtually impossible to eradicate!
Mellon Leaf Nightshade
MELLONLEAF NIGHTSHADE (Solanum heterodoxum)
This local Nightshade family member has a flower that is almost identical to the Silverleaf Nightshade. Its leaves, however, are very different, having highly intricate, crenulated margins. This species is even more prickly; interesting to look at but not much fun to touch.
Southwest Indian Paintbrush
SOUTHWEST INDIAN PAINTBRUSH (Castilleja integra)
The Indian Paintbrush is an unusual plant having bright red floral bracts. Reportedly there are some 200 different species of Indian Paintbrush in Western North America. Here in the Gila area, there are at least four different species which grow at different elevations. Most species of Indian Paintbrush are hemiparasitic, depending on host plants for water and nutrients. Below the surface of the ground the plant has tubes which attach to the roots of the host plant, such as oaks or grasses.
SNAKEWEED (Gutierrezia microcephala)
Snakeweed is another common weed in our area that is detested by ranchers because it is not eaten by cattle and it quickly multiplies to take over and degrade range land. Yet another member of the Sunflower Family, it puts out a massive flowering of tiny yellow flowers in Late Summer on a dense, fan-like array of thin, bright green stems. Yet while the plant is a bane to the rancher, traditionally it has been a treasured pharmaceutical for Native Americans and Hispanics in the Southwest, who make a tea from the leaves and stems for treating malaria, rheumatism, and snakebite.
Vascular Plants of the Gila Wilderness. Presented in Association with the Western New Mexico university Department of Natural Sciences.
1987, Janice Emily Bowers, 100 Roadside Wildflowers of Southwest Woodlands, Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, Tucson, Arizona.
1989, Janice Emily Bowers, 100 Desert Wildflowers, Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, Tucson, Arizona.
2000, Steve West, Northern Chihuahuan Desert Wildflowers, Carlsbad Caverns-Guadalupe Mountains Association, A Falcon Guide.