Last updated on Monday, February 24, 2003
Agaves, characteristic of New Mexico's Chihuahuan Desert and grasslands, live surprising lives. Agaves spend their first 5 to 35 years quietly growing a clump of long, stiff and leathery leaves in which they store food and water. But once mature, these succulent relatives of lilies squander all on one glorious-but terminal-burst of reproduction. A flower stalk spurts from the center of the leaf rosette, growing as fast as a foot a day and up to 15 feet tall. As the stalk grows, it draws its energy and water from the now-withering leaves. Soon dozens of buds swell along the stalk, and eventually open at night into big, tubular flowers that emit strong, musky fragrances, attracting bats, insects and other pollinators. By the time the flowers have matured into seeds, the agave plant itself is gray, shriveled, dead.
Chile is surely not going to go away in tiny Hatch, New Mexico. As a matter of fact, there's a bit of a frenzy this time of year. It's just the annual Chile Festival in Hatch, a forty-minute drive along the Rio Grande from Las Cruces. The madness happens on Labor Day weekend, with folks driving in from as far away as Tucson, Albuquerque and Fort Worth to load up their trunks with genuine Hatch chiles (that's the New Mexico spelling as decreed by the state legislature).
It is hard to find a cottonwood in the desert nowadays. Where tall cottonwood overstories once marked the high-water lines of desert rivers and traced the sputtering lines of streams and springs, only an occasional twisted survivor remains. The disappearance of the cottonwoods and the associated bosques, Spanish for "woodlands," and cienegas, "marshes," resulted from several causes. Woodland clearcutting and livestock overgrazing in the late 1800s denuded whole watersheds, stripping the plant cover so that rainwater roared off, carrying the precious soil and causing once-permanent streams to alternate between brown floods and dusty drought. Steep-walled arroyos now gouge the landscape where streams and rivers once meandered, lined by cottonwoods and bosques. Dams controlled river flooding, but without the scouring action and rich sediment deposited by high water, cottonwoods could not reproduce. Farmers cleared the bosques and cottonwood overstory to create fields in the fertile soils of the river floodplains.
Creosote bush's distinctive odor and the leaves' shiny appearance are due to a resinous, varnish-like coating which helps the plant keep from drying out. The sophisticated coating also screens the sun's harsh rays, sheltering the delicate inner cells from heat and ultraviolet light. And it discourages grazers - the mix of waxes, volatile oils and other compounds tastes terrible and is indigestible to most animals. Only one small grasshopper, which spends its entire life on creosote, happily munches the resinous leaves.
In winter, gardeners look to their mail boxes. The seed catalogs are coming. I stare hungrily at the pictures of impossibly healthy vegetables and fruit. I am not just hungering for deeply-purple eggplant or baskets of red, ripe tomatoes.
Mistletoe, the plant made into Christmas "kissing balls," is one of the few truly parasitic flowering plants. Instead of producing its own food, mistletoe feeds on trees. When a sticky mistletoe seed sprouts on a tree branch, it sends a root into the tree's veins, and draws its food and water from the tree. Mistletoe grows into a dense mass of many-branched stems, well-described by its Navajo name, "basket on high." Eventually, however, a mistletoe may be doomed by its own success: dense mistletoe growth may kill its tree host.
"Another glorious day, the air as delicious to the lungs as nectar to the tongue." John Muir wrote this in another time, another place, but his words beautifully describe New Mexico's Gila Forest country in September.
A symbol of the West in movies and popular songs, tumbleweed is actually not native here at all. As Russian-thistle, its other common name, suggests, tumbleweed comes from Russia's arid shrub steppes, half a world away. After hitching a ride to America in the 1870s with flax seed brought by Ukrainian farmers, tumbleweed spread like wildfire across disturbed places in the West, colonizing plowed prairies, overgrazed rangelands, road edges, corrals, and the bare earth of abandoned farms. No wonder that one Hopi name for tumbleweed is "white man's plant." By the time the Sons of the Pioneers recorded "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" in 1934, this invader had come to symbolize the rootless, restless Western culture.
Soaptree yucca is an interesting plant in all seasons. But its flowers are truly spectacular. In late spring and early summer, soaptree yucca sprouts flower stalks up to ten feet tall, laden with clusters of waxy, ivory-colored, bell-shaped blossoms. On moonlit nights, the tall, glowing columns inspire another common name: "Our Lord's Candles."
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