24. THE FLORA OF ARIZONA.


Up: Contents Previous: 23. NATURAL CURIOSITIES.—GRAND SCENERY, ETC. Next: 25. ROUTES OF TRAVEL TO ARIZONA.

THE flora of Arizona approximates in character to that of tropical climates. It would require much time and study, and long continued research, to write up a full description of the flora of the Territory. A brief description was given in a preceding chapter, of timber forests, and the most common wood of the country. Brief mention will now be made of a few only of the numerous floral productions, and of some of their qualities and uses.

A very large proportion of the trees, shrubbery, plants, and flowers of the Territory are literally covered with thorns; so general is this, some wag in a former day in commenting on the Territory asserted, among other objections to the country, that “everything which grew there had a thorn.”

Of the cactus family (order Cactaceæ) there are over one hundred varieties. They are of all forms and sizes, from the tiny cross cactus, like two needle points crossed, to the giant cactus tree (the Cereus piganteus), which grows to the height of a forest


[page 243]

tree. The Cereus giganteus is often found sixty feet in height, with a diameter of three feet. It is supported by ribs of very great strength and toughness. These ribs are from one to two inches wide, about the same distance apart, and extend from the root of the plant to its apex. It is long lived, and when in a green state the interstices between the ribs and the interior part is filled with a dark green substance, resembling a green pumpkin. When the tree dies the whole of it, except the ribs, dries up and dissolves into an impalpable powder, which is blown away. The ribs being strong and elastic are used for covering the adobe houses, on which is put the earth covering in place of shingles or boards. They are also used for many other purposes where strength and durability are required. They often grow to a height of sixty feet without a branch, sometimes having a few which grow out laterally one or two feet, and then turn up like a crooked elbow, and run up parallel with the parent stem. On the apex of both parent stem and the limbs are beautiful clusters of white flowers, which produce a delicious pearshaped fruit, the size of a common pear, which has the combined flavor of the peach, strawberry, and fig. It is gathered and eaten in great quantities by the Indians, and is highly prized by the whites.

Another variety of the cactus is the Ocotea, so called by the inhabitants of the country. It grows


[page 244]

like a cane to a height of ten to twenty feet, in bunches of twenty to fifty from one root. The ocotea is sometimes cut and set out for hedges, making a fence impassable for anything larger than a small bird. It produces a cluster of bright scarlet flowers, but no fruit.

Of the Choya cactus there are many varieties. They grow in bush form, with numerous branches having long thorny prongs, and have a white flower, but no fruit.

The common prickly pear cactus (Cactus opuntia) is distributed over the whole Territory. It produces different colored flowers, and a pear-shaped edible fruit, having an acid and pleasant taste. The author counted on one bush, on the eastern declivities of the Bradshaw Mountains, over one thousand of these pears.

The barrel cactus resembles the Cereus giganteus, and grows to an extreme height of ten feet, with a diameter of nearly two feet. It produces no fruit.

The kind commonly called the nigger head is round, of the size of a cabbage, and covered with large, crooked, catlike thorns.

There are many other varieties worthy of description, and which would be interesting to the botanist and florist.

The maguey plant, of the genus agave, known in the Mexican States, Arizona, and New Mexico as


[page 245]

the mescal plant, is one of the most useful and important of all the indigenous plants of the country. It grows profusely at certain altitudes in all sections of the Territory. It produces a bulbous like root, partly in, and partly above the ground, which is rich in saccharine matter. These bulbs are from the size of a cabbage to a bushel basket, and when roasted are sweet and delicious. The Indians will live on it for a long time. From the root there grows up large, long, thorny pointed leaves, and from the centre a stalk rises to a height of ten or more feet, having a few branches and a flowering pod which incloses the seed. The juice of the plant when boiled down makes a good syrup. A liquor is made from the plant by distillation, which has the taste and flavor of old Scotch whiskey, and which is the favorite strong drink of the Mexicans.

The fiber of the leaves is strong, and from it ropes are made and used quite extensively among the Indians and Mexicans. A more useful plant would be difficult to find. The Indians at the San Carlos Agency gathered and roasted for use, in 1875, over seventy five thousand pounds of the mescal, and all the Indians of the Territory gather and use it quite extensively.

Another plant, called there the amole, with leaves similar to the mescal, has a bulbous root, which is very valuable as a detergent. It grows to the


[page 246]

height of three feet or more. It is successfully used for cleansing clothing, and makes a fine wash for the hair, to which it imparts a soft and glossy appearance.

It grows abundantly in the Territory, and offers an opportunity for some wide awake, ingenious Yankee, to make a fortune.

The mesquit tree, before mentioned, is probably a variety of the acacia, and like it, produces the gum arabic of commerce. There are two kinds of the mesquit, both of which produce a bean which is sweet and nutritious, and which the Indians gather in large quantities to be eaten either in the green or dried state. When dried they grind it into a kind of flour, living on it for months at a time. The bean is very fattening for all kinds of stock, and is well liked by horses, cattle, sheep, and hogs. One kind has a pod much like that of the large string-bean, and the other, which is called the screw bean, resembles a bunch of the alder tags and is screw shaped. The wood of the tree is very hard, excellent for firewood, and used to some extent for wagon felloes and other work.

It is a very durable wood, and for railroad ties would equal the lignum-vitæ of tropical climates. Its botanical name is Algarobia glandulosa.

There are many varieties of the pine found growing on the mountains and mountain plateaus of


[page 247]

Arizona, which are good for lumber and timber, which in time will become very useful for building purposes, and especially for timbering and working the numerous mines of the country.

One kind, the common piñon of the country (Pinus edulis) bears a large quantity of fruit known as the piñon nut, which is gathered and eaten in great quantities by the natives. The nut is of the size of the common hazel-nut, sweet and edible. Swine fatten on it readily, and other stock eat it with avidity.

There are many herbs and shrubs indigenous to the country possessed of rare medicinal qualities. One kind is much used by the Mexicans for fevers, with the best of results. Two kinds assimilate to the tea plant, and the leaves gathered in a green state make a pleasant and aromatic drink.

Edible berries are not very numerous, yet in the mountains there are varieties of the barberry, whortleberry, strawberry, and a few others.

A large variety of flowering plants grow profusely throughout the Territory, and during each rainy season, there being two in the year, the mountains, hills, valleys, and plains present a beautiful and gorgeous sight.

The blossoming willow is very beautiful, the flower resembling in form and size the honeysuckle. There is a rich field in Arizona for the florist, and the botanist,


[page 248]

as yet almost wholly unknown, though several parties have made partial examinations of the Territory, and gathered many choice specimens.

Long months and years could be passed in the Territory, in the examination and classification of the floral products of the country, and in thoroughly studying their properties and uses.

Up: Contents Previous: 23. NATURAL CURIOSITIES.—GRAND SCENERY, ETC. Next: 25. ROUTES OF TRAVEL TO ARIZONA.




© Arizona Board of Regents