These Iconic Plants of Southern New Mexico Were
Nature’s Grocery Store, Pharmacy, Fabric Shop, and Hardware Store
for the Native Americans of Southwest New Mexico
Soaptree Yucca at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses
Beargrass along Turkey Creek Road in the Gila National Forest
Sotol along Turkey Creek Road in the Gila National Forest
SHOWTIME IN THE HIGH CHIHUAHUAN DESERT
Soaptree Yucca outside the Gallery
Sotol along the road approaching the Casitas
Beginning sometime in June, and generally peaking in early July, the Juniper and Piñon dominated High Chihuahuan Desert landscape surrounding Casitas de Gila Guesthouses often delights our guests with an extravagant Welcome-to-Summer white and golden flowering of the ubiquitous Yucca, Sotol, and Beargrass plants that thrive across this arid terrain. The magnitude of the flowering is a function of several factors, but primarily reflects the amount and timing of the previous Winter and Spring precipitation.
It was obvious that all of the various factors were optimum over this past Winter and Spring because this year’s display was simply magnificent! No matter where one looked, the brilliant white flowering plumes of the Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata) atop their 6-to-12 foot stalks, and the golden plumes crowning the soaring 10-to-16 foot stalks of the Sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri) could be seen in glorious contrast against the deep green of the Juniper trees or the cobalt blue of the New Mexican sky.
THE DESERT YUCCA
Soaptree Yucca along the Nature Trail at the Casitas
Flowers of the Soaptree Yucca at various stages of blossoming
In 1927 the New Mexico Legislature established the blossom of the desert Yucca plant as the State flower. Only the Genus was specified, allowing the designation to apply to the several species of the plant growing within the State. Early settlers referred to these lovely flowers, which are found in all sectors of New Mexico, as “Our Lord’s candles” — “las lamparas de Dios” or the lamps of God. A magnificent flower at any time, for many it is when viewed on a full moon night, when the snow white plumes appear to float suspended in space high above the desert floor, that the ethereal beauty of the bloom is best appreciated.
There are some 40 to 50 species of Yuccas in the Americas and the Caribbean, all of which share the common characteristics of a basal, rosette, or circular arrangement of sword-shaped leaves and clusters of white or whitish flowers set at the top of a tall stem or stalk. Here at the Casitas there are two species of Yucca: the abundant Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata) and the much less common Banana Yucca (Yucca baccata).
Soaptree Yucca along the road at the Casitas that’s bent by the strong prevailing west winds.
The Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata) has narrow, 0.25 inch, sword-shaped leaves 1 to 3 feet long, with needle-sharp tips, and grows to heights of 15 feet or more with a small diameter, occasionally branching, cylindrical trunk that is generally covered with a dense mat of dead leaves. Following the flowering phase, which consists of an inflorescence of large 1.25 to 2.25 inch bell-shaped flowers, the fruit appears in the form of numerous, large, three-chambered seed pods or capsules, two to three inches long and an inch in diameter. Each of these chambers contains two poker-chip-like stacks of flat black seeds. Eventually these pods dry and crack open, releasing the seeds to be spread by wind, surface water runoff, birds and animals. Various insects love the nectar of the Soaptree Yucca, but the flower is only pollinated by a species of the Yucca Moth.
Honeybees love Soaptree Yucca flowers but do not pollinate them.
The fruit of the Soaptree Yucca is a three-chambered pod or capsule.
Opened Soaptree Yucca seed pod showing three-chambered structure.
Flowering Banana Yucca near the Gallery at the Casitas.
The Banana Yucca (Yucca baccata) grows close to the ground, with only a short trunk, if present at all. The sword-shaped leaves are 1.25 to 1.5 inches wide, up to 3.5 feet long, with curled fibers along the margins, and needle-sharp tips. Height of the plant, including both the leaves and flower stalk rarely exceeds 4 or 5 feet high. While the flowers of the Soaptree Yucca and Banana Yucca are similar, their fruits are quite different. Unlike the more woody, tough, chambered seed pods or capsules of the Soaptree Yucca fruits, the Banana Yucca fruits are large, 3 to 6 inches long and 2.5 inches thick, fleshy, and soft and sweet when ripe. As a result they are much sought after as a food source by insects, birds, animals, and humans. Rarely do they reach ripening stage on the plant before being eaten. Like the Soaptree Yucca, the Banana Yucca is pollinated by a species of the Yucca Moth.
THE YUCCA AND THE YUCCA MOTH: A 30-50 MILLION YEAR OLD ROMANCE
Yuccas and Yucca Moths have been enjoying a romantic relationship for some 30 to 50 million years now. What has kept them together all those years makes for an interesting love story in intra-specifc relationships . . .
Seed pod of Soaptree Yucca showing hole where Yucca Moth larvae bored out prior to the drying out and splitting open of the seed pod.
Yuccas reproduce by seeds produced from the pollination of the flowers. The flowers of Yucca plants are pollinated by three genera of the family of moths known as Prodoxidae. Certain species of two of these moth genera, the Tegeticula and the Parategeticula, have what is called an obligate pollination mutualism arrangement with particular species of Yucca. What this means is that certain species of Yucca are only pollinated by a particular species of Yucca Moth, an evolutionary development in which both species are mutually benefited, which, in this case, is by successful reproduction.
For the Soaptree Yucca the mutualistic Yucca Moth is Tegeticula yuccasella1. In this torrid relationship, the female moth first deposits an egg in the flower’s ovary, after which, in a display of impassioned gratitude, she collects a large ball of pollen from the flower, two or three times the size of her head, and then inserts it into the stigma of the flower! After a week or so the egg hatches there and the baby moth larvae will munch on some of the seeds developing from the ovules. After a few weeks, the seed capsules begin to open, at which time the mature larvae now bores its way out of the capsule and tumbles to the ground where it bores down into the ground, forms a silken cocoon, and begins a long winter’s nap while waiting for next season’s Yucca flowers, at which time it will complete the cycle and emerge from the ground as a new Yucca Moth!
The Banana Yucca and the Yucca Moth also have a obligate pollination mutualism relationship in which the romantic modus operandi of the moth, Tegeticula baccatella, is essentially the same as that of Tegeticula yuccasella.
MODERN USE OF YUCCA
Dried Soaptree Yucca stalks are strong and light, a perfect combination for the handcrafted walking sticks made by Jeff Ross for the Gallery at Casitas de Gila.
Today, all species of New Mexican Yucca are extensively used in xeriscaping because of their extremely low water requirements and their iconic Southwestern beauty. They are easy to grow and once established require virtually no maintenance.
The flower stalks of the Yucca are extremely strong and light, therefore they make excellent walking or hiking sticks. Here at the Casitas we provide them as walking sticks, and also use and decorate them as a Christmas tree in each Casita. Compared with other natural woods, Yucca as well as Sotol stalks have an exceptionally low ignition temperature. Consequently, they are excellent as drill and hearth or fireboard material for outdoor primitive friction fire starting using the plough, handrill or bow techniques as used by hunters, campers and practitioners of wilderness survival skills.
The use of Yucca as well as Sotol stalks in various types of building construction was widely practiced by both Anglo and Hispanic settlers in the traditional architecture of the Southwest, from crude enclosures of various kinds to the unique latillas over vigas in room ceiling construction. Modern construction of traditional architecture continues such use.
Sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri) is a common flowering plant of the arid Southwest found in both the Sonoran and Chihuahuan Deserts. At first glance the plant can be mistaken for a Soaptree Yucca with its rosette or globe-shaped mass of 0.50 to 1 inch wide and 1 to 3 foot long sword shaped leaves radiating in all directions at the top of a short, 5 foot or less, brown unbranched trunk cloaked in dead leaves. Looking closer, however, one quickly sees or perhaps is unfortunate enough to feel that the leaves have dangerously sharp barbs or saw-tooth spines lining the leaf margins.
Sotol replace the Soaptree Yucca above 5,000 feet elevation at the Casitas, and here along Turkey Creek road in the Gila National Forest.
A phalanx of Sotol plants marching south down the mountainside along Turkey Creek Road in the Gila National Forest.
Close up of flowering inflorescence of Sotol along the road into the Casitas. Honey Bee shows size of individual flowers!
MODERN USE OF SOTOL
In the U.S. the Sotol plant is often used for xeriscaping like the Yucca, although its flower is less showy and and saw-tooth barbs on the leaves render it less friendly or desirable in gardens. The woody flower stalks are strong and light like the Yucca and are frequently handcrafted into walking and hiking sticks, and some practitioners of friction fire starting prefer Sotol over Yucca as a hearth or drill material.
In Northern Mexico, mostly in the region of Chihuahua, however, Sotol is wild-harvested on a commercial scale where the hearts of the crown are baked, femented, and double-distilled to make a spirit liquor that is somewhat similar to tequila and mezcal.
Beargrass (Nolina microcarpa) can be considered a distant relative of both Yucca and Sotol in that all three belong to the family of flowering plants known as the Asparagaceae, of which the namesake Genus Asparagus belongs, as well as our favorite Spring vegetable species, Asparagus officinalis.
Plumes of flowering Beargrass catching the early morning Sun along Casita Flats Road.
Clump of Beargrass. Fibers from the long, narrow leaves were used extensively by all cultures of Native Americans for cordage, basketry, and woven mats of all types.
Many Native American cultures used flowering Beargrass for food, eating the emerging young flower stalks, the small fruit that followed the flowering, as well as the seeds that developed within the fruit.
Beargrass is widely spread over the American Southwest and Northern Mexico. Its growth form is that of a globular clump of narrow, 0.50 inch, coarse, thick, wiry, and serrated grass-like leaves up to 4 feet long with dry, curled and string-like tips. It grows in a variety of habitats from desert grasslands to juniper and piñon woodlands, and especially in overgrazed ranch land where the plant can attain dense concentrations with individual plant diameters of 6 feet and a height of 4 to 5 feet.
Beargrass has no above ground stem or stalk, but rather an underground woody caudex from which the leaves and flower stalks grow. Like the Yucca and the Sotol at the time of flowering it puts up a stem or stalk 4 to 6 feet tall, at the top of which is found a much-branched inflorescence of tiny white flowers, 0.10 inch, which produce small green fruits and eventually encapsulated seeds.
MODERN USE OF BEARGRASS
Beargrass is another southwestern plant mostly used in xeriscaping, particularly as an accent, in borders, and in stabilizing hillsides.
Clumps of Beargrass at the top of Telephone Mountain near the Casitas, looking northeast to the Mogollon Mountains in the Gila Wilderness.
NATIVE AMERICAN USE OF YUCCA, SOTOL AND BEARGRASS
Various species of Yucca, Sotol and Beargrass were widely used by all cultures of Southwestern Native American Cultures from pre-historic to historic times. These three plants were extremely important to these cultures, serving as Nature’s grocery store, pharmacy, fabric shop, and hardware store in those times. Many of these uses and customs are still practiced today.
The following categories, uses and practicing cultures are documented in the University of Michigan at Dearborn Ethnobotany Database.2
Soaptree Yucca (Yucca elata)
Peeled stalk shaped like a short snake eaten by a practitioner and spit at the sick (Apache)
Flowers boiled and eaten as vegetable, added to soups, or dried for later use. (Apache)
Trunks baked overnight in rock-lined pits and dried in pieces for later consumption after softening in water (Apache)
Trunks pit cooked, dried, and pounded into flour (Apache)
Young flower stalks cooked, peeled, and eaten hot (Apache)
Flower stalk charred and eaten like sugar cane (Apache)
Leaves woven into shallow baskets or trays for carrying things (Apache)
Leaves used as the binding element in coarse coiled ware (Papago)
Red roots used as basket decorations (Apache)
Fiber Cordage (ropes, string, binding material)
Leaves used to make cordage (Apache)
Leaves tied to make a fastening loop for sandals (Southwest Native Americans)
Leaves used for the headshade of cradleboards (Apache)
Fiber Building Material
Used for weft (horizontal lashing) in house frames (Papago)
Fiber Sewing Material
Thread-like fibers from pounded leaves used to sew fiber coils into tight baskets (Papago)
Thread-like fibers woven into nets for carrying things (Pima)
Fiber Mats, Rugs and Bedding
Leaves woven into mats (Pima)
Roots used for making soap (Apache, Pima, Navajo)
Banana Yucca (Yucca baccata)
Dermatological aid for washing hair (Keresan Pueblo, Apache)
Infusion of pulverized leaves remedy for vomiting, heartburn (Navajo)
Fruits eaten raw as as a purgative or laxative (Pima)
Unspecified parts chewed as emetic to induce vomiting (Tewa)
Fruit eaten to promote easy childbirth (Tewa)
Dried fruits dissolved in water for beverage (Acoma Pueblo, Papago)
Fruit used to make a fermented beverage (Hualapai)
Fruits eaten raw, baked or boiled, or dried, made into cakes or rolls, and stored for future or winter use (Acoma Pueblo, Keresan Pueblo, Apache, Havasupai, Hopi, Hualapai, Navajo, Papago, Pima, Zuni)
Ripe fruits dried, ground, made into cakes and roasted (Navajo)
Ground dried fruit cooked with cornmeal to make gruel (Navajo)
Dried fruits eaten as a preserve or dissolved in water and used as a dip (Acoma Pueblo, Hopi, Navajo, Zuni)
Fruits made into a syrup (Keresan Pueblo, Apache, Zuni)
Tender crowns roasted and eaten in times of food shortage (Acoma Pueblo, Laguna Pueblo)
Young leaves cooked in soups with meat (Apache)
Flowers eaten before summer rains (Apache)
Pods roasted and eaten or dried for future use (Apache)
Seeds dried and eaten (Papago)
Flower stalks gathered before blossoming, roasted in fire and eaten (Yavapai)
Dyes, Pigments, Painting
Leaf juice used as medium for pigments of pottery paints and slips (Navajo)
Brushes and Brooms
Leaf fibers used to make small brushes for pottery decoration (Isleta Pueblo, Navajo)
Leaf fibers made into brushes for cleaning baskets (Navajo, Yavapai)
Leaf fibers made into hair brushes (Pima)
Leaves woven into baskets (Apache, Hop, Isleta Pueblo, Jemez Pueblo, Papago, Pima, Zuni)
Small red roots used as basket decorations (Apache)
Fiber Cordage (ropes, string, binding material)
Leaves used to make rope or twine (Apache, Havasupai, Hualapai. Isleta Pueblo, Navajo, Pima, Tewa, Zuni)
Leaves reduced to fiber and made into cloth (Apache, Zuni)
Stems (trunks?) used to make shoes (Hualapai)
Fiber Building Material
Used for weft (horizontal lashing) in house frames (Papago)
Fiber Sewing Material
Terminal spines used as needles (Havasupai)
Thread-like fibers woven into fishing nets (Tewa)
Fiber Mats, Rugs, Pads and Bedding
Leaves woven into mats to cover various openings and vessels (Zuni)
Leaves woven into water jug-carrying head pads (Zuni)
Crushed leaves mixed with water for soap (Keresan Pueblo, Pima, Papago)
Roots pounded and placed in water for suds for bathing and shampooing or soap (Apache, Havasupai, Hopi, Hualapai, Navajo, Zuni)
Fire Starting Material
Thick portion of flower stalk used as hearth for friction fire making (Apache)
Stalk used to make fire drills (Apache)
Sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri)
Crown of plant pit-baked, peeled, crushed, mixed with water, fermented, and drunk as beverage (Apache)
Crown of plant pounded and used as drink (Apache)
Crown of plant baked in pit, stripped, pounded to a pulp, dried, and eaten like cake (Apache)
Crown of plant pit-baked, dried, pounded into flour, and made into cakes (Southwest Indians)
Flower stalks roasted, boiled, or eaten raw as greens (Apache, Papago)
Flower stalks boiled, dried, and stored for use as vegetables (Apache)
Head (crown) hearts cooked with bones as soup (Apache)
Flower stalks used as cross pieces for cradleboard backs (Apache)
Leaves used in coiled basketry (Papago)
Leaves used to make headbands and headrings (Papago)
Stalks used in the head dress of Mountain Spirit dancers (Apache)
Fiber Mats, Rugs, Pads and Bedding
Leaves woven into mats (Papago, Pima)
Leaves used to make large sleeping mats, cradle mats, and back mats for the carrying frame (Papago)
Fire Starting Material
Stalks dried, split, drilled to make small holes and used as fire drill hearths (Apache)
Beargrass (Nolina microcarpa)
Decoction of root taken for rheumatism (Isleta Pueblo)
Decoction of root taken for pneumonia and lung hemorrhages (Isleta Pueblo)
Flower stalks roasted, boiled, eaten raw, or dried and stored for use as vegetables (Apache)
Seeds made into a meal and used to make bread (Isleta Pueblo)
Seeds used to make flour (Isleta Food)
Fruit eaten fresh or preserved (Isleta Pueblo)
Seeds made into a meal and used to make mush (porridge) (Isleta Pueblo)
Dyes, Pigments, Painting
Plant used to make a dye for blankets (Navajo)
Brushes and Brooms
Leaf fibers used to make brushes (Isleta Pueblo)
Leaves woven into baskets (Keresan Pueblo, Isleta Pueblo, Jemez Pueblo, Papago, Southwest Native Americans)
Leaves used to make baskets for storage and washing of grains (Jemez Pueblo)
Leaves used as the foundation in coiled basketry (Papago, Pima, Southwest Native Americans)
Fiber Cordage (ropes, string, binding material)
Leaf fibers used to make cords, ropes and whips (Isleta Pueblo)
Leaves used as tying material (Southwest Native Americans)
Fiber Mats, Rugs, Pads and Bedding
Leaves used to make mats (Keresan Pueblo)
Leaves woven into a coarse mat and used for drying mescal (Havasupai)
Leaves used as a dwelling ground covering (Apache)
Leaves used as a thatching material for wickiup or ramada (Apache)
Leaves used for thatch (Havasupai, Yavapai)
Leaves used to make matting to cover the dead (Southwest Native Americans)
Leaves woven to trays for procesing datil (Banana Yucca) and mescal (Apache)
Leaves used as wrapping material for foods to be transported or stored (Apache)
Roots used as soap (Apache)
Fire Starting Material
Thick portion of flower stalk used as hearth for friction fire making (Apache)
Stalk used to make fire drills (Apache)
1. Craig D. James, et. al., 1993, Pollination ecology of Yucca elata, Oecologia, Vol. 93, No. 4
2. University of Michigan at Dearborn Ethnobotany Database
THE MARVELOUS LATE SPRING FLOWERING OF CACTUS
IN THE HIGH DESERT OF SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO
During the Driest Months of the Year, Cactus Blooms Accent a Landscape
Parched and Waiting for the Rains
Englemann’s Prickly Pear on Turkey Creek Road, Gila National Forest
WAITING FOR THE RAINS TIME
By Mid-June, spring-fed Bear Creek below the Casitas has shrunk to a trickle due to uptake of water by the lush Cottonwood, Willow, and Sycamore riverine forest
Once again it’s Waiting for the Rains Time here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses. Similar to the previous two years, this past Winter and Early Spring were dry here in Southwest New Mexico due to a persistent, residual La Nada (neutral) to Weak La Niña climatic situation, during which Late Winter and Early Spring precipitation was negligible. Here at the Casitas, for example, as of June 23, a total precipitation of 1.26 inches has been recorded since January 1.
It’s a Late Spring morning as one looks down from the front of the Casitas into Bear Creek Canyon where a small, spring-fed creek is observed flowing through an inviting lush, cool, green riverine forest of Cottonwood, Willow, and Sycamore. Other than the fact that the creek itself has now shrunk to a small fraction of its normal flow due to the immense daily up-take of thousands of gallons water by the dense vegetation covering the floodplain, there is little evidence of the dry times that the adjacent landscape of surrounding hills is experiencing.
In the High Chihuahuan Desert, Bear Creek is an oasis of life-giving water for all creatures large and small during the Waiting for the Rain Times.
Above the Creek, a parched brown landscape waits for the Monsoon Rains to begin
Raising ones’ binoculars from the floodplain to observe the hills bordering the creek, the stark contrast presented by the adjacent landscape is striking. For here, just a few hundred feet away from the creek, is a totally different——a parched, drab landscape of predominantly brown-to-tan grasses, weeds, and leafless shrubs left over from the previous summer’s rain, broken only by the scattering of small, dark green juniper trees and bright green mesquite bushes. Yet as one slowly glasses the hillside, one soon detects, here and there, nestled within the ubiquitous field of brown, small flashes of bright red and yellow. Yes! Oh yes! One smiles, recognizing at once the source of the color: the Cactus are blooming!
THE HIGH CHIHUAHUAN DESERT
In this photo, the High Chihuahuan Desert stretches from Turtle Rock (elev. 5,480 feet in foreground) across the Gila River Valley (elev. 4,500 feet in middle ground with white buildings) to the base of the distant Mogollon Mountains (elev. 6,000 feet) (click on picture for full and larger image)
The landscape surrounding Casitas de Gila Guesthouses is classified as High Chihuahuan Desert. Situated at elevations of 4,000 to 6,000 feet, in the form of rugged, hilly topography adjacent the soaring Mogollon and Pinos Altos mountains of the Gila Wilderness just a few miles away, the High Chihuahuan Desert is a transitional landscape where the vegetation of higher elevations can be observed intermingled with that of lower elevations. It is a landscape of extreme climatic variation, where during the course of a year temperatures commonly range in excess of 100 degrees, where daily temperature swings of 30 to 50 degrees are the norm, and annual precipitation can vary from 6 to 30 inches. As a result, the High Chihuahuan Desert is a landscape where only the strongest, the most adaptable, and the most persevering flora and fauna can survive. (And up until modern times, this was also true for both the early Native Americans cultures and the later Hispanic and Anglo pioneers and settlers who chose to live here.) Essentially, this High Desert terrain can be thought of as a landscape delicately balanced on an environmental cusp, where the effects of subtle cycles of climate change are quickly reflected, and for the serious, observant naturalist, open to discovery and understanding.
HIGH DESERT CACTUS AT CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES
A Pincushion Cactus nestles among the dry gravels on the flat behind Casitas de Gila
A Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus lights up a dry landscape at Casitas de Gila
In terms of abundance and diversity, cactus are of minor significance among the High Desert flora found on the landscape surrounding Casitas de Gila. However, in terms of ecologic significance they play an important role as a food source and shelter for mammal, reptile, amphibian, bird, insect, and in times past, human populations.
Here at Casitas de Gila there are four genera and seven species of cacti that are common. These include: four species of Opuntia or Prickly Pear Cactus: the Engelmann’s Prickly Pear (Opuntia englemannii), the Pancake Prickly Pear (Opuntia chlorotica), the Purple Prickly Pear (Opuntia macrocentra), and the Brown Spined Prickly Pear (Opuntia phaeacantha); the Cane or Walking Stick Cholla Cactus (Cylindropuntia spinosior); Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus (Echinocereus fendleri); and the Pincushion or Spinystar Cactus (Escobaria vivipara or Coryphantha vivipara).
An excellent online reference that includes detailed descriptions and photographs for each of these cactus, as well as all other vascular flora found in the Gila Wilderness region, is Vascular Plants of the Gila Wilderness by Dr. Russ Kleinman at Western New Mexico University.
Engelmann’s Prickly Pear cactus on the Casitas de Gila Self-Guided Nature Trail
Large Cane Cholla on the Casitas de Gila Self-Guided Nature Trail
OPUNTIA: THE PRICKLY PEAR CACTUS –
QUINTESSENTIAL CACTUS OF THE NEW MEXICAN HIGH DESERT
At the end of a dry winter, an armament of three-inch spines and hairlike glochids have protected this Purple Prickly Pear pad being eaten by hungry javelinas
A Purple Prickly Pear Cactus displays numerous immature fruit or tuna beneath withered flowers along the entrance road to Casitas de Gila
Prickly Pear Cactus, or Nopal as they are known in Mexico, belong to the genus Opuntia, of which there are over 200 different species distributed throughout North, Central, and South America. More than 100 species are known from Mexico alone. Prickly Pear Cactus take their name from the spine-covered fruits (known as tuna in Spanish) that develop on the pad-shaped, flattened stems of the cactus (technically termed cladodes) after flowering.
Most species have two types of needle sharp spines: large fixed spines which can be 2 or more inches long that are found on the pads, and small, short, hairlike, prickly spines called glochids, that occur on both the pads and the fruit. These hairlike spines will penetrate the skin upon the slightest touch and then detach causing significant, and unless removed, lasting discomfort. While capable of inflicting a deep wound to the unwary hiker, in ancient times the large spines found extensive use by Native Americans as needles for sewing, tattooing, piercing ears, lancing abscesses, and fishhooks.
In early June this old Pancake Prickly Pear along the Gila River puts out new pads, flowers and eventually bright red fruit having survived another dry winter’s predation despite the jaws of ravenous javelina chomping at its lower extremities
Tuna gathering time in the Gila! By Late August the fruit or tuna are ready for harvest on this Engelmann’s Prickly Pear on Turkey Creek Road in the Gila National Forest
USE AS A FOOD SOURCE
During times of drought, particularly at the end of a dry La Niña winter, Prickly Pears become an important survival and forage food for both man and beast. During these times it is common when hiking to come across a large clump of prickly pear that have been completely decimated by a herd of Javelina or Collared Peccary, who have eaten them right to the ground, spines and all, and then have dug up the roots and eaten them, too.
Both the fruits and the pads of most Prickly Pear species are edible, and have been a staple food source of numerous Native American cultures for thousands of years. Fruits were eaten raw, dried, or boiled, or used to make juices, syrup, or jellies. The pads were peeled, then roasted or boiled to be eaten as a vegetable, or the pulp could be pounded into cakes which were then dried for future use1
Today, Nopal remain a major ingredient in the traditional cuisine of Mexico, supporting a large and expanding horticultural industry.
USE FOR MEDICINAL PURPOSES
With the colonization of the New World by the Spanish in the 1500s, the Prickly Pear was brought back to Europe where it soon spread throughout the Mediterranean area. Prickly
Pears contain a high vitamin C content. When it was discovered by early expeditions to the New World that the plants were effective in preventing scurvy, the debilitating disease of extended sea voyages caused by vitamin C deficiency, sailing ships began carrying the plant, thus promoting the spread of the plant throughout the globe.
For Native Americans in the Southwest the Prickly Pear Cactus was as important as today’s corner drug store, and was collected for treating a variety of ailments including1:
Pads used as poultice for cuts, wounds, infections, boils, and as a hemostat
Pads used on rattlesnake bites
Mucilage of pads used for treating burns and analgesic for pain
Infusion of pads and pieces of raw pad ingested for stomach troubles, diarrhea, and urinary problems
Infusion of roots used as laxative and for urinary problems
Dried pads ground or burned to powder for use on cuts, wounds, sores, and earache
Today, Prickly Pear is enjoying a modern comeback, available as a pulp-rich juice and in capsule form, for treating various medical problems, some clinically proven and others yet to be tested, including: Treatment of Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, alcohol hangover, colitis, diarrhea, benign prostatic hyperplasia (BHP), viral infections, and arthritis.2
DISTINGUISHING CHARACTERISTICS OF PRICKLY PEAR CACTUS FOUND AT THE CASITAS
The four species of Prickly Pear Cactus at the Casitas are readily identified by a few distinguishing characteristics such as overall size, growth form, flowers, and spine distribution.
This photo, taken in 2001, is of a large, extremely healthy Engelmann’s Prickly Pear near the “Entering Stress Free Zone” sign on Casita Flats Road coming into the Casitas. A magnificent cactus that welcomed all arriving guests, modeled for an oil painting, and posed for innumerable photographs, it was eaten by the javelina during a dry winter two years ago, down to, and including the roots.
Similar to the Engelmann’s Prickly Pear in overall size, pad characteristics and flowers, the Pancake Prickly Pear is easily distinguished by the fact that it grows from a single central stem or stalk. This specimen is growing from a fracture in volcanic rhyolite welded tuff at the Gila River Gaging Station in the Gila Riparian Preserve.
The Engelmann Prickly Pear and the Pancake Prickly Pear are similar in several aspects: they grow to a large size, have large, thick, fleshy pads (although the Engelmann pads tend to be larger), have a large purple red fruit, and have pure yellow flowers. However, the Englemann Prickly Pear grows in clumps of numerous pads close to the ground, whereas the Pancake Prickly Peas grows tall, having a central trunk or stem, from which the numerous pads grow in sequential links.
This specimen of Purple Prickly Pear displays a somewhat anemic appearance along the road into Casitas de Gila following the dry La Nada winter of 2013-14.
The Purple Prickly Pear is a smaller cactus than the Engelmann or the Pancake, with smaller pads growing in clumps close to the ground. It has purple spines along the edges of the pads, and a paucity of spines in the central areas of the pads.
This Brown Spined Prickly Pear on the Casitas de Gila Self Guided Nature Trail displays its characteristic growth form of chains of pads growing close along the ground.
The Brown Spined Prickly Pear is the most common prickly pear of the Gila Wilderness region. It tends to grow in long chains of pads that sprawl along the ground. Its flowers are yellow with either a red or orange center.
CYLINDROPUNTIA SPINOSIOR: THE CANE OR WALKING STICK CHOLLA
This magnificent Cane Cholla at Casitas de Gila shows off a heavy June blossoming with numerous ripening fruit.
Close up of same specimen to Cane Cholla showing new joints, blossoms and ripening fruit on river terrace just above Bear Creek floodplain.
The Cane or Walking Stick Cholla, Cylindropuntia spiniosior (formerly classified as Opuntia spinosior), is a striking and unique cactus of the High Chihuahuan Desert. The dark green joints or cylindrical segments of the cactus do not have the long fixed spines like the Prickly Pear, but are covered with short, barbed spines that extend from spiral-shaped ridges on the joints. These fine, needle-sharp spines readily detach into the skin if bumped against, and are quite painful and difficult to get out.
The cactus takes its common name from the dried, woody skeleton of the plant which has been traditionally used for making attractive walking canes, as well as other hand-crafted, ornamental sculptures typically having a western motif. It is abundant throughout the Gila Wilderness region and is found all over the Casitas de Gila lands, where its tall, cylindrical growth forms (in maturity reaching up to six feet or more) are found interspersed among the mesquite and yucca plants on the flats, the grass and juniper covered hillsides, as well as the river terraces just above the floodplain along Bear Creek.
In Late Spring, generally May and early June, the Cane Cholla puts out an abundance of large magenta flowers that contrast beautifully against the maze of deep green cylindrical segments of the cactus. Once the flowers wither they are replaced by the growth of a bright yellow spineless fruit or tuna, containing numerous seeds in a pulpy matrix.
When Cane Cholla die, after several years the fleshy covering eventually rots away leaving a unique woody core that is often used for making canes or walking sticks.
Close-up detail of Cane Cholla with outer fleshy and spine covered layers in process of coming off woody core.
USES OF CANE CHOLLA
Close-up detail of Cane Cholla mature yellow fruit and unopened flower bud.
The Cane Cholla has been reported as a staple food source of the Tohono O’odham Native American culture (formerly known as the Papago) of the Sonoran Desert in southeastern Arizona and northwestern Mexico.1 The Tohono O’odham pit baked the buds, fruits and joints or stem segments. It is likely that the cactus was widely used by other Native American cultures in the Southwest, including those living in the Gila Wilderness region, as well.
In modern times the Cane Cholla has been used to a minor extent as a native material for making the aforementioned handicrafts, such as walking sticks, but in recent years has found great use as ornamental horticultural plant in desert landscaping projects.
FENDLER’S HEDGEHOG CACTUS
Close-up of same specimen of Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus flowers showing green stigma, surrounded by a multitude of yellow stamens with pollen on petals.
Old growth Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus coming out of hiding at base of Honey Mesquite with multiple blooms in Late April at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses.
Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus, Echinocereus fendleri, is an interesting little cactus that is found throughout the lower to middle elevations of the Gila Wilderness region. Its growth form is that of dark green, single individual to compound clumps of vertically ribbed or furrowed cylinders, two or three inches in diameter and six to nine inches tall, that are heavily armored with half-inch spines. At Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus vegetates in relative obscurity, well hidden at the base of the ubiquitous Honey Mesquite bushes and One-seed Juniper trees scattered over the dry sandy flats and adjacent rocky hillsides. Because of its low profile, drab appearance, and enclosing camouflage of brownish gray spines, it is hardly ever noticed by the passing hiker for eleven months out of the year. Then, in Late April to Early May, it suddenly flaunts large, very ostentatious, magenta flowers, each set off by a complementary central green stigma surrounded by a multitude of bright yellow stamens, that virtually shout out for attention! When illuminated by the early morning sun, these flowers are iridescently brilliant and showy, a High Desert delight for both photographer and artist alike. Once the flowers have withered they are replaced by a small, juicy red fruit.
USES OF FENDLER’S HEDGEHOG CACTUS
Single Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus waving twin flowers like pom-poms, screaming “Look at Me, Look at Me” near the hot tub.
Javelina love this fleshy, little cactus and, like the Prickly Pear, during a dry La Nina winter they will gobble them up right down to the ground. Quite often, and certainly more than can be written of as just coincidence, it will happen that a dedicated Naturalist, having scouted out just the perfect specimen for that special photograph or painting and having waited patiently for just the right day when the cactus is calculated to bloom, will return only to find that perfect specimen completely missing, having been eaten by the javelina the night before!
Native American cultures used both the cactus as well as the fruit as food, the cactus body or stem being pit roasted before consumption, and the fruit eaten either raw or dried for future use as a sweetener. It is also reported that a poultice of the stem was sometimes used for arthritis.
Like many of the cactus of the Southwest, Fendler’s Hedgehog and other species and subspecies of the genus have become a highly sought after and collected ornamental, leading in some cases to their being classified as an endangered species. Because of their relatively low abundance here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses, collecting of all cactus on the property is not allowed.
PINCUSHION OR SPINYSTAR CACTUS
The Pincushion or Spinystar Cactus, Coryphantha vivapara or Escobaria vivipara is a common cactus found in the Gila Wilderness region at both lower and middle elevations. Its growth form is typically an individual or small clump of spheres or globular shapes up to six inches high that are covered in a dense mat of star-shaped arrays of straight white spines, a quarter to one inch long. At Casitas de Gila this cactus tends to “hide out in plain sight” in the same habitats as Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus, only becoming obvious when it flowers in April or May. The one to two inch flowers are also similar to Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus, but are an even more electric and garish magenta, with numerous flowers common on a single globe-shaped cactus stem. The fruit is a small globose green berry that gradually turns purple as it matures, containing numerous small black seeds.
Beautiful Pincushion Cactus in full bloom at Casitas de Gila. Note complete armament of star-shaped spines, which thwart all predators except the starving javelina.
Honey Bees love the Pincushion Cactus at the Casitas, especially when a single cactus puts out 12 blooms!
USES OF THE PINCUSHION CACTUS
In addition to Fendler’s Hedgehog Cactus, the javelina also like to eat the Pincushion Cactus, gobbling them up whole as they travel down the Casitas de Gila Self-Guided Nature Trail. Especially tasty, it seems, are those specimens that have been designated, numbered, and described as official stops in the Trail Guide … bad javelina … bad!
In more ancient times, both the stems, flowers, and fruit of the Pincushion Cactus were eaten by Native American cultures, the fruits raw and the whole cactus being roasted to remove the spines, or boiled after they had been dried.3
Like the Hedgehog Cactus, In modern times the Pincushion Cactus has also become a favorite ornamental in horticultural landscaping applications.
Close-up of 12 blooms on Pincushion Cactus. Note two Honey Bees!
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
TWO UNIQUE GEMSTONES FOUND IN THE GILA COUNTRY
OF SOUTHWEST NEW MEXICO
Pink Chalcedony Rose
Red and Yellow Jasper
CHALCEDONY AND JASPER: QUARTZ GEMSTONES OF UNIQUE FORM AND COLOR
Chalcedony and Jasper are two distinct gemstone varieties of the diverse quartz mineral family that occur abundantly throughout the Gila Country of Southwest New Mexico. Both of these gemstones are composed of cryptocrystalline quartz, meaning that they consist of a tightly-bound aggregate of tiny crystals of quartz, SiO2, so small that it requires a polarizing or electron microscope to resolve the individual crystals. While chalcedony and jasper are commonly found together in areas where volcanic activity has been extensive, they differ markedly in appearance and their origins involve somewhat different processes.
Large Chalcedony vug filling showing botryoidal texture.
Chalcedony is best described as a dense, semitransparent or translucent variety of SiO2 consisting of a cryptocrystalline intergrowth of mostly quartz and lesser amounts of moganite, another form of SiO2 that has a different crystal form. Chalcedony breaks with a conchoidal fracture and commonly displays a waxy, vitreous, or silky luster. In terms of color it is most commonly white to gray, sometimes displaying a blue or pink tint due to mineral impurities or an optical phenomena known as Rayleigh Scattering. (Chalcedony by definition does not show distinct layers of color banding; if color banding is present then the specimen is called “agate”.) It has a hardness of 6 to 7 on the Moh’s Scale and a Specific Gravity of 2.6. In the Gila County, chalcedony can assume a wide range of unique and interesting shapes and forms, depending on how, where, and when it formed in the volcanic host rock.
In general, chalcedony forms by filling cavities in rocks. Such cavities may form as gas bubbles in a lava flow; irregular vugs or open space within a solid rock; or horizontal cavities along bedding planes, that result from solution of the preexisting rock, faulting or movement within the rock, or other geologic processes. Geodes, for example, form from the partial filling of gas bubbles in this manner, often consisting of layers of chalcedony which only partially fill the void which is then lined with macro-crystals of quartz. In other cases, the chalcedony (or if it shows banding, agate) will completely fill the cavity, resulting in what is known to rockhounds as “thunder eggs”.
White Chalcedony lens-shape deposit showing botryoidal texture on upper surface of specimen. Chalcedony was precipitated from low-temperature, silica-rich aqueous solutions circulating within a horizontal bedding plane cavity within an earlier deposit of volcanic welded ash-fall rhyolite tuff. Brown material at top of specimen is a layer of iron-stained rhyolite ash-fall welded tuff host rock that overlies the chalcedony.
Chalcedony Spheres and Ellipsoids. Gas bubbles in lava flow rock are often filled over time with Chalcedony precipitated from silica-rich aqueous solutions that penetrate the rock. The two ellipsoids on either side of the two spheroids are gas bubble fillings where the gas bubbles were stretched and elongated before the lava flow cooled and hardened. Sometimes the gas bubbles are only partially filled with Chalcedony leaving a flat spot on the up-side of the spheroid or ellipsoid, as can be seen at the bottom of the top spheroid (in the flow rock the flat surface would of course been at the top of the gas bubble).
Minute changes in amount of impurities in the silica-rich solutions can result in faint color banding or layering in the Chalcedony as in the top specimen, or as intersecting or impinging growth forms such as these two Chalcedony Roses in the bottom specimen. These represent just two of the various processes that produce the endless variety of shapes and forms of Chalcedony.
“Wormy” Chalcedony. Sometimes the injected Chalcedony takes the form of masses of undulating tubes or “worms”. In this specimen two distinct compositions of Chalcedony are present, representing a complex history of silica gel injection and slow deposition and formation.
Given an open space or cavity within a rock, chalcedony forms when subsequent silica-rich watery fluids or viscous silica gels enter or are injected into the cavity. This process occurs as a result of hydrothermal circulation at low temperatures and pressures, from which the chalcedony is either deposited in molecular thin layers that slowly over time either partially or completely fill the cavity, or all at once in the form of a viscous gel. Commonly, the surface of the chalcedony deposited within a partially-filled cavity will display a smooth, but lumpy, surface known as a botryoidal texture or habit, resembling a bunch of grapes. Another common occurrence is that of the surface of the chalcedony filling being covered with small quartz crystals, known as druzy quartz.
A half-dozen Chalcedony Roses. No two alike, these cup-shaped Chalcedony specimens “grow” when low-temperature silica-rich aqueous solutions or silica gels fill vugs and open cavities in previous volcanic rocks, either slowly depositing layer upon layer of cryptocrystalline quartz or a much more rapid injection as a viscous silica gel. Highly resistant to chemical and physical weathering the roses are released when the enclosing host rock is weathered away at the surface of the earth.
Four Chalcedony Conchos. Named after the silver button-like ornaments found on belts and other pieces of traditional clothing in the Southwest, these interesting forms are essentially smaller versions of Chalcedony roses, both in appearance and manner of formation. Like the larger roses, no two conchos are alike and often display coatings of tiny, sparkling druzy quartz crystals as displayed by the two conchos on the bottom row.
This exceptional specimen displays a snow-white Chalcedony Rose “growing” on a botryoidal surface of a layer of fire agate. Considering the fact that the Chalcedony Rose and the Fire Agate layers represent deposition from silica-rich aqueous solutions of greatly different compositions, the exact sequence and manner of formation of this specimen reflects a highly complex history.
A unique and highly sought after form of chalcedony that is commonly found within the Gila Country is a type known as “Chalcedony Roses”(see excellent photos towards the bottom of the linked page). These unusual specimens consist of flower-like growths that formed when a hot silica gel of chalcedony composition, having a viscosity perhaps similar to that of toothpaste, was injected under pressure into the open cavity. No two roses are alike in size and form, making them highly collectible.
Six specimens of Fire Agate as found in the field. Only with careful cutting and polishing can the translucent Chalcedony layers be removed to reveal the possible presence, absence or degree of fire in the stone.
Fire Agate and Chalcedony Rose Pendant. In this artistically crafted gold wire-wrapped pendant, an exquisite cabochon of Fire Agate has been set in the natural cup of a Chalcedony Rose.
However, for most discriminating and serious collectors, the most precious form of chalcedony that can be found in the Gila Country and neighboring Southeast Arizona is a form known as “Fire Agate”. Fire Agate is generally not considered a true agate as it does not display the typical color banding of agate. Rather, this interesting form of chalcedony consists of inclusions of molecular-thin layers of iron III oxide minerals Goethite FeO(OH) and Limonite (FeO(OH).nH2O. crystals which are deposited on the botryoidal surface of colorless, translucent to transparent chalcedony. The Goethite and Limonite layers are in turn then subsequently covered over by additional thin layers of colorless chalcedony. When this sequential process is repeated several times it produces a gemstone, that when properly cut and polished gives a vivid, brilliant and complex play of various colors of yellow, orange, red, brown, green, purple, and sometimes blue. The cutting and polishing of fire agate is a fine art, requiring considerable experience to preserve and display the desired play of colors and not grind and polish the thin, delicate layers of color away.
Is there Fire down below? Here a 1-3 mm layer of translucent botryoidal Chalcedony covers a 1-2 mm layer of Fire Agate (note Fire Agate layer showing on broken corner in upper right of specimen). Is the Fire there? Only hours of careful cutting and polishing will tell.
WHERE TO FIND CHALCEDONY IN THE GILA COUNTRY …
Petrified Alien Eyeball! Well, actually no. It’s simply a really bizarre Chalcedony Ellipsoid that filled a gas bubble. Specimen is exactly as found, and has not been altered in any way.
The short answer is almost everywhere. The dominant geology of the Gila Country of Grant and Catron Counties is that of volcanic rock deposited between 34 and 15 million years ago. An earlier blog on this site, the Super-Volcanoes of the Gila Wilderness, gives a brief history of the major volcanic events that occurred here. Compositionally, the volcanic rocks of the Gila range from silica-rich rhyolites to silica-deficient basalts; however, in terms of absolute volume the silica rich rhyolites are by far the dominant rock type.
Throughout Grant and Catron Counties are vast areas of uplifted mountain masses of these silica-rich volcanic rocks. The Gila National Forest alone, for example, encompasses some 3.3 million acres consisting primarily of such terrain. Surrounding these uplifted volcanic masses are adjacent, down-dropped trenches and basins that are filled with volcanic sedimentary rock debris that has been weathered, eroded, and subsequently carried by streams and rivers flowing out of the uplifted mountains. These sedimentary deposits range from older (5-10 million years), tightly-cemented sandstone conglomerates and sandstones, such as the widespread and ubiquitous Gila Conglomerate Formation, to more recent deposits, such as are currently being carried downstream in modern floodplains.
Almost all of these rocks and sediments are likely to contain collectible specimens of chalcedony. Of course, some areas are better than others … and that’s where experience and the thrill of the hunt begins! While there are areas where collectible chalcedony can be discovered and extracted (generally with great expenditure of energy) from the matrix of solid volcanic host rock, such as around the tailings dumps of old mines, most experienced collectors will instead choose to let nature do the hard work, and hunt for specimens in the shallow, unconsolidated, weathered surface deposits covering the unweathered volcanic rock bedrock. For the less-than-determined collector the best method, and quite often the method that yields the greatest return both in terms of number and quality of specimens found, involves extensive walking across the surface of the vast areas of sedimentary deposits surrounding the uplifted mountain masses. The reason for this is that chalcedony has a hardness of 6 to 7 and is highly resistant to both chemical and physical weathering, whereas the host matrix volcanic rock consists of a high percentage of minerals that are both softer and more-readily broken down through weathering and erosion. Hence, over time, the chalcedony remains unaltered, is totally freed from the matrix rock, and is concentrated in the sedimentary deposits. Collecting chalcedony in this manner is thus a walker’s or hiker’s delight, where success is proportional to the area covered.
Jasper was used extensively by stone age cultures in the making of projectile points and other tools, and has been prized as a gemstone for thousands of years. Today, it is a highly sought after gemstone material that is mined from diverse deposits worldwide, and marketed under a variety of descriptive names depending upon the color and patterns displayed by the polished stone, such as “picture jasper”, “poppy jasper”, “ocean jasper”, “bloodstone”, etc.
Vein Jasper. Originally a three to four-inch thick vein of Jasper in volcanic host rock, this specimen was subsequently eroded from the host rock and transported by stream action, surviving as an elongated boulder in sedimentary deposits.
Stream worn specimen of Vein Jasper with surfical coating of white Chalcedony.
Exceptionally pure and dense specimen of Red Vein Jasper showing conchoidal fracture.
Worn stream pebble of Yellow Jasper showing conchoidal fracture.
Worn stream pebbles of welded rhyolite ash-fall tuff displaying veinlets of Red Jasper precipitated along hairline fractures.
Thin veins of Red and Yellow jasper injected along fractures and cracks within shattered welded rhyolite ash-fall tuff. Note how iron-bearing, silica-rich aqueous solutions diffused outward from the veins into the somewhat porous and permeable welded tuff.
Red Jasper and White Chalcedony Breccia. Jasper was originally emplaced as a vein filling, but subsequently shattered through faulting which allowed later deposition of Chalcedony by silica-rich fluids circulating through the broken rock.
Jasper most commonly occurs in veins, or as fillings in cracks and fractures in volcanic rocks where it has been later injected and deposited from hot, silica-rich aqueous solutions percolating through the rock. Sometimes jasper is deposited in fault zones where there have been repeated injections and precipitation from iron-rich silica bearing solutions which have been subsequently broken up by repeated faulting and internal crushing, and then re-cemented by further jasper deposition. Such deposits are called jasper breccias. Jasper breccias can be quite distinctive and striking, displaying a complex assemblage of jasper fragments of diverse color, sometimes along with fragments of chalcedony and macro-crystalline quartz, and are thus highly sought after for use as a gemstone.
Micro-veins of Red and Yellow Jasper penetrating and diffusing along fractures through welded rhyolite ash-fall tuff.
Chalcedony with slight impurities of cryptocrystalline Jasper and Jasper veinlets grading to pure Jasper with pure Hematite on upper joint surface.
Purple Jasper and Chalcedony Breccia. This spectacular specimen shows numerous periods of Jasper and Calcedony deposition followed by subsequent crushing through faulting and subsequent cementation by more Jasper.
WHERE TO FIND JASPER IN THE GILA COUNTRY …
Jasper is often found in all of the same places where chalcedony occurs. Since it forms in veins and rock fractures, where it is discovered in solid rock outcrops it can be hand quarried with modest effort using a hammer and chisel. Such veins are not common, but can be found in areas of old mines and prospects. However, for the novice collector or person unfamiliar with the area and known localities, as was suggested for collecting chalcedony, the best (and easiest) approach is to walk the surfaces of modern sedimentary deposits which have been transported out of nearby volcanic mountains such as along river and creek floodplains, and dry washes, or to explore areas where there are exposed surfaces of weathered and eroded Gila Conglomerate.
Jasper Breccia. Untold episodes of repeated Jasper deposition, followed by crushing through faulting, and re-cementation have produced this unique specimen.
Colorful Red and Yellow Jasper Breccia showing coatings of pure Hematite (black) on fracture surfaces. Very complex history of formation.
ROCKHOUNDING AND GEM AND MINERAL COLLECTING
USING CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES AS YOUR BASE
Within day-trip driving range of the Casitas de Gila Guesthouses there are unlimited locations where chalcedony, jasper, and other semi-precious gemstones, diverse minerals, and just plain interesting rocks can be searched for on the public lands of the Gila National Forest or Bureau of Land Management. Some of these areas are officially designated tracts of public land set aside specifically for rockhounding (i.e., Rockhound State Park, Black Hills Rockhound Area, and Round Mountain Rockhound Area). Casitas de Gila Guesthouses is familiar with many of these areas and will be pleased to provide maps, directions, and local information to our guests.
Guests staying at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses are, of course, also most welcome to search for chalcedony, jasper, and other minerals and interesting rocks on the Casita lands. Except for around our home … where we place the rocks we have collected!
Multicolored Jasper at its finest!
WINTER AND SPRING BIRDS AT CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES
Along Bear Creek, at the Edge of the Gila Wilderness
in Southwest New Mexico
Sandhill Cranes and Red-Wing Blackbirds in fields along NM211 bordering the Gila River in Gila, New Mexico, February 18, 2014. These Sandhill Cranes winter along the River annually from October thru February.
THE GILA NATIONAL FOREST – EXTREME DIVERSITY IN BIRD HABITAT
Map of Gila National Forest and Wilderness, New Mexico
The Gila National Forest is vast — comprising some 3.3 million acres — and pristine, with roughly one-quarter of its acreage officially classified as Wilderness, including the Gila, the Aldo Leopold, and the Blue Range Wildernesses. Within this area elevations range from 4,200 feet along the Gila River to 10,895 feet on Whitewater Baldy in the Mogollon Mountains. Within this 6,700 topographical range, the U.S. Forest Service in its excellent publication Birds of the Gila National Forest: A Checklist, recognizes 10 different major bird habitat zones, including Desert, Oak Woodland, Oak-Juniper, Pinyon-Juniper, Ponderosa Pine, Spruce Fir, Mountain Grassland, Open Marsh, Deciduous Riparian, and Coniferous Riparian. Because of this great diversity in habitat, the Gila National Forest is home to or visited by some 377 different species of birds.
Observable species of birds in the Gila National Forest varies dramatically with the seasons due to the fact that it is located on the Rocky Mountain leg of the Central North American Migration Flyway, one of the four Flyway Bird Migratory Systems that cross the United States and Canada in a north-south pattern.
Waterfowl Flyways Map
BIRD HABITATS IN THE GILA NATIONAL FOREST ACCESSIBLE FROM CASITAS DE GILA GUESTHOUSES
All 10 of the different major bird habitat zones of the Gila National Forest listed above occur within a 25-mile radius of Casitas de Gila, and are easily accessed by day-trip excursions from the Casitas. Recently, a joint project of several State and Federal agencies, plus non-profit conservation groups, has resulted in the creation of the New Mexico Birding Trail, which identifies some 40 of the most attractive birding locations in Southwest New Mexico. Eighteen of these sites, Sites 14–31, are excellent day-trip destinations from the Casitas. Several of the best sites are found along the Gila River, just 5 to 10 miles from the Casitas, including Site 21, The Nature Conservancy’s Gila Riparian Preserve at the junction of Mogollon Creek and the Gila River; Site 20, the Billings Vista Birding Area; and Bill Evans Lake. An interesting article describing a few more of these birding sites within the Gila National Forest can be found in the June 2003 issue of Winging It, the Newsletter of the American Birding Association.
BIRD HABITAT AND DIVERSITY AT CASITAS DE GILA
The landscape comprising the 265 acres on which guesthouses of Casitas de Gila are situated offers a unique combination of bird habitat and species diversity for the birding enthusiast. Three of the 10 bird habitat zones are represented here, including the Deciduous Riparian along the bottom of Bear Creek Canyon, a narrow zone of Oak-Juniper bordering the Riparian zone, and an expansive zone of Pinyon-Juniper that extends away from the Canyon into the adjacent surrounding hills and low mountains. As the guesthouses are situated on cliffs at the very edge of Bear Creek Canyon overlooking Bear Creek a hundred feet below and the slopes of the mountainous terrain rising from the creek on the opposite side, all three habitats and accompanying species diversity can be observed right from the front porch of each Casita! For 15 years the Casitas have maintained a year-round feeding program that keeps the resident species close at hand and brings the migratory species back year after year. From April through September hummingbird feeders are hung on the porch of each Casita, and a supply of necter is available to keep them refilled.
SOME TYPICAL WINTER BIRDS AND HABITAT AT CASITAS DE GILA
Winter along Bear Creek at Casitas de Gila is generally mild with overnight lows in the high teens to 20s F, and daytime highs in the 40s to 50s F. Precipitation from the occasional low pressure fronts moving through generally starts out as rain and then turns to light snow as the system passes by. Typically, at 4,800 feet, the Casitas will only receive 2 to 4 light snowfalls during the Winter, with accumulations of 2 to 3 inches, which generally melt away within 24 hours. To the north in the higher elevations of the Gila Wilderness, snow accumulations are heavier and will last for weeks, particularly on north-facing slopes. Consequently, the landscape around the Casitas and the adjacent Gila River Valley is bare 95% of the Winter, providing the birding enthusiast with excellent opportunities for hiking and observing the numerous species of birds that make this area their home during the Winter months.
Winter morning on Bear Creek Canyon at Casitas de Gila after a rare overnight snow.
Typical Winter morning on Bear Creek Canyon at Casita de Gila, showing diverse bird habitat.
These photos of Winter Birds were all taken at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses (click on photo for full-size image):
SOME TYPICAL EARLY SPRING BIRDS AND HABITAT AT CASITAS DE GILA
By the third week in March, Spring is very much in the air at Casitas de Gila. The Cottonwoods and Willows are showing green buds and various grasses and plants along the Creek are beginning to put out green shoots. Daytime temperatures are in the low 60s and the nights are in the low 30s to 40s. By the last week of April, it has warmed up with daytime temperatures in the high 60s and into the 70s. By this time, Bear Creek Canyon below the Casitas is once more a ribbon of green, with the Cottonwoods and Willows well leafed out, and the Mesquite on the hillsides are putting out leaves as well. While it is still possible for a late frost, this year it doesn’t happen, once more confirming the local conventional wisdom that the Mesquite always waits until the frosts are over before leafing out.
Typical first-week-in-April Spring morning on Bear Creek Canyon at the Casitas
Typical last-week-in-April Spring morning on Bear Creek Canyon at the Casitas
By the last week in March, the annual Spring Migration is starting. While most of the birds of Winter are still dominant in numbers, new faces appear daily at the Casita bird feeders. And most colorful and varied these newcomers are! Depending on the year, within a few days either side of April 1, the first telltale zoom-zoom of the hummingbird, generally the Black-chinned, is heard announcing their arrival. And embedded in the the zoom-zoom is the not-so-subtle demand “Where are the feeders, where are feeders! We’re starved!” And so, up go the feeders at each Casita, which will consume untold gallons of sugar water on a daily basis between April and October when they are purposely taken down, sending a message to those ravenous little travelers that it’s high time to head South!
The Gila National Forest Bird Checklist lists seven species of hummingbirds that can be found in the forest: Blue-throated, Magnificent, Black-chinned, Anna’s, Calliope, Broad-tailed, and Rufous. Here at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses we will generally see five of the seven over the course of the Spring and Summer months. In order of abundance they would be: the Black-chinned and the Broad-tailed which are here all season, the Rufous which arrives in late July, with occasional visits by the Calliope and the Magnificent. By July and August the hummers are at their peak here, when literally swarms of them will be at the feeders from the first light of day until dusk. Since the feeders at each of the Casitas are under the porch just outside the bedroom window, most guests find it quite a unique experience to be awakened by the whirring drone of numerous little wings beating at 50 to 100 times per second as the hummers begin their day-long siege on the feeders.
These photos of Early Spring Birds were all taken at Casitas de Gila Guesthouses (click on photo for full-size image):