CHAPTER VIII. SOME DESERT PLANTS


Up: Contents Previous: CHAPTER VII. A MODEL RANCH Next: CHAPTER IX. HOOKER'S HOT SPRINGS


[page 102]

MUCH of the vegetation that is indigenous to the southwest is unique and can only be seen at its best in the Gila valley in southern Arizona. The locality indicated is in the arid zone and is extremely hot and dry. Under such conditions it is but natural to suppose that all plant life must necessarily be scant and dwarfed, but such is not the fact. Upon the contrary many of the plants that are native to the soil and adapted to the climate grow luxuriantly, are remarkably succulent and perennially green.

How they manage to acquire so much sap amidst the surrounding siccity is inexplicable, unless it is that they possess the function of absorbing and condensing moisture by an unusual and unknown method. It is, however, a beneficent provision of nature as a protection against famine in a droughty land by furnishing, in an acceptable form, refreshing juice and nutritious pulp to supply the pressing wants of hungry and thirsty man and beast in time of need. Another peculiarity of these plants is that they are acanaceous; covered all over with sharp thorns and needles. Spikes of all sorts and sizes bristle everywhere and admonish the tenderfoot to beware. Guarded by an impenetrable armor of prickly mail they defy encroachment and successfully repel


[page 103]

WILLCOX, ARIZONA.

ON THE VERDI RIVER.


[page 105]

all attempts at undue familiarity. To be torn by a cat-claw thorn or impaled on a stout dagger leaf of one of these plants would not only mean painful laceration but, perhaps, serious or even fatal injury. Notwithstanding their formidable and forbidding appearance they are nevertheless attractive and possess some value either medicinal, commercial or ornamental.

The maguey, or American aloe, is the most abundant and widely distributed of the native plants. It is commonly known as mescal, but is also called the century plant from a mistaken notion that it blossoms only once in a hundred years. Its average life, under normal conditions, is about ten years and it dies immediately after blossoming.

It attains its greatest perfection in the interior of Mexico where it is extensively cultivated. It yields a large quantity of sap which is, by a simple process of fermentation, converted into a liquor called pulque that tastes best while it is new and is consumed in large quantities by the populace. Pulque trains are run daily from the mescal plantations, where the pulque is made, into the large cities to supply the bibulous inhabitants with their customary beverage. In strength and effect it resembles lager beer, and is the popular drink with all classes throughout Mexico where it has been in vogue for centuries and is esteemed as ‘‘the only drink fit for thirsty angels and men.’’

The agave is capable of being applied to many domestic uses. Under the old dispensation of Indian supremacy it supplied the natives their principal means of support. Its sap was variously prepared and served as milk, honey, vinegar, beer and brandy. From its tough fiber were made thread, rope, cloth, shoes and paper. The strong flower stalk was used in building houses and the broad leaves for covering them.


[page 106]

The heart of the maguey is saccharine and rich in nutriment. It is prepared by roasting it in a mescal pit and, when done, tastes much like baked squash. It is highly prized by the Indians, who use it as their daily bread. Before the Apaches were conquered and herded on reservations a mescal bake was an important event with them. It meant the gathering of the clans and was made the occasion of much feasting and festivity. Old mescal pits can yet be found in some of the secluded corners of the Apache country that were once the scenes of noisy activity, but have been forsaken and silent for many years.

The fiery mescal, a distilled liquor that is known to the trade as aguardiente, or Mexican brandy, is much stronger than pulque, but less used. Both liquors are said to be medicinal, and are reputed to possess diuretic, tonic and stimulant properties.

Next in importance to the mescal comes the yucca. There are several varieties, but the palm yucca is the most common, and under favorable conditions attains to the proportions of a tree. Fine specimens of yucca grow on the Mojave desert in California that are large and numerous enough to form a straggling forest.

The tree consists of a light, spongy wood that grows as a single stem or divides into two or more branches. Each branch is crowned by a tuft of long, pointed leaves that grow in concentric circles. As the new leaves unfold on top the old leaves are crowded down and hang in loose folds about the stem like a flounced skirt. When dry the leaves burn readily, and are sometimes used for light and heat by lost or belated travelers. White threads of a finer fiber are detached from the margins of the leaves that are blown by the wind into a fluffy fleece, in which the little birds love to nest.


[page 107]

YUCCA.

A MESCAL FIELD.


[page 109]

A grove of yucca trees presents a grotesque appearance. If indistinctly viewed in the hazy distance they are easily mistaken for the plumed topknots of a band of prowling Apaches, particularly if the imagination is active with the fear of an Indian outbreak.

The wood of the yucca tree has a commercial value. It is cut into thin sheets by machinery which are used for surgeon's splints, hygienic insoles, tree protectors and calendars. As a splint it answers an admirable purpose, being both light and strong, and capable of being molded into any shape desired after it has been immersed in hot water. Its pulp, also, makes an excellent paper.

Another variety of yucca is the amole, or soap plant. Owing to the peculiar shape of its leaves it is also called Spanish bayonet. Its root is saponaceous, and is pounded into a pulp and used instead of soap by the natives. It grows a bunch of large white flowers, and matures an edible fruit that resembles the banana. The Indians call it oosa, and eat it, either raw or roasted in hot ashes.

A species of yucca called sotal, or saw-grass, grows plentifully in places, and is sometimes used as food for cattle when grass is scarce. In its natural state it is inaccessible to cattle because of its hard and thorny exterior. To make it available it is cut down and quartered with a hoe, when the hungry cattle eat it with avidity. Where the plant grows thickly one man can cut enough in one day to feed several hundred head of cattle.

There are several other varieties of yucca that possess no particular value, hut all are handsome bloomers, anti the mass of white flowers which unfold during the season of efflorescence adds much to the beauty of the landscape.

The prickly pear cactus, or Indian fig, of the genus Opuntia is a common as well as a numerous family. The soil and climate


[page 110]

of the southwest from Texas to California seem to be just to its liking. It grows rank and often forms dense thickets. The root is a tough wood from which, it is said, the best Mexican saddletrees are made.

The plant consists of an aggregation of thick, fiat, oval leaves, which are joined together by narrow bands of woody fiber and covered with bundles of fine, sharp needles. Its pulp is nutritious and cattle like the young leaves, but will not eat them after they become old and hard unless driven to do so by the pangs of hunger. In Texas the plant is gathered in large quantities and ground into a fine pulp by machinery which is then mixed with cotton-seed meal and fed to cattle. The mixture makes a valuable fattening ration and is used for finishing beef steers for the market.

The cholla, or cane cactus, is also a species of Opuntia, but its stem or leaf is long and round instead of short and fiat. It is thickly covered with long, fine, silvery-white needles that glisten in the sun. Its stem is hollow and filled with a white pith like the elder. After the prickly bark is stripped off the punk can be picked out through the fenestra with a penknife, which occupation affords pleasant pastime for a leisure hour. When thus furbished up the unsightly club becomes an elegant walking stick.

The cholla is not a pleasant companion as all persons know who have had any experience with it. Its needles are not only very sharp, but also finely barbed, and they penetrate and cling fast like a burr the moment that they are touched. Cowboys profess to believe that the plant has some kind of sense as they say that it jumps and takes hold of its victim before it is touched. This action, however, is only true in the seeming, as its long transparent needles, being invisible, are touched before they are seen. When they catch hold of a moving object, be it horse or cowboy, an impulse is imparted


[page 111]

SPANISH BAYONET.

SAGUARO.


[page 113]

to the plant that makes it seem to jump. It is an uncanny movement and is something more than an ocular illusion, as the victim is ready to testify.

These desert plants do not ordinarily furnish forage for live stock, but in a season of drought when other feed is scarce and cattle are starving they will risk having their mouths pricked by thorns in order to get something to eat and will browse on mescal, yucca and cactus and find some nourishment in the unusual diet, enough, at least, to keep them from dying. The plants mentioned are not nearly as plentiful now as they once were. Because of the prolonged droughts that prevail in the range country and the overstocking of the range these plants are in danger of being exterminated and, if the conditions do not soon change, of becoming extinct.

The saguaro, or giant cactus, is one of nature's rare and curious productions. It is a large, round, fluted column that is from one to two feet thick and sometimes sixty feet high. The trunk is nearly of an even thickness from top to bottom but, if there is any difference, it is a trifle thicker in the middle. It usually stands alone as a single perpendicular column, but is also found bunched in groups. If it has any branches they are apt to start at right angles from about the middle of the tree and curve upward, paralleling the trunk, which form gives it the appearence of a mammoth candelabrum.

The single saguaro pillar bears a striking resemblance to a Corinthian column. As everything in art is an attempt to imitate something in nature, is it possible that Grecian architecture borrowed its notable pattern from the Gila valley? Southern Arizona is the natural home and exclusive habitat of this most singular and interesting plant and is, perhaps, the only thing growing anywhere that could have suggested


[page 114]

the design. Wherever it grows, it is a conspicuous object on the landscape and has been appropriately named ‘‘The Sentinel of the Desert.’’

Its mammoth body is supported by a skeleton of wooden ribs, which are held in position by a mesh of tough fibers that is filled with a green pulp. Rows of thorns extend its entire length which are resinous and, if ignited, burn with a bright flame. They are sometimes set on fire and have been used by the Apaches for making signals. The cactus tree, like the eastern forest tree, is often found bored full of round holes that are made by the Gila woodpecker. When the tree dies its pulp dries up and blows away and there remains standing only a spectral figure composed of white slats and fiber that looks ghostly in the distance.

Its fruit is delicious and has the flavor of the fig and strawberry combined. It is dislodged by the greedy birds which feed on it and by arrows shot from bows in the hands of the Indians. The natives esteem the fruit as a great delicacy and use it both fresh and dried and in the form of a treacle or preserve.

The ocotillo, or mountain cactus, is a handsome shrub that grows in rocky soil upon the foothills and consists of a cluster of nearly straight poles of brittle wood covered with thorns and leaves. It blossoms during the early summer and each branch bears on its crest a bunch of bright crimson flowers.

If set in a row the plant makes an ornamental hedge and effective fence for turning stock. The seemingly dry sticks are thrust into yet drier ground where they take root and grow without water. Its bark is resinous and a fagot of dry sticks makes a torch that is equal to a pineknot.

The echinocactus, or bisnaga, is also called ‘‘The Well of the Desert.’’ It has a large barrel-shaped body which is covered with long spikes that are curved like fishhooks. It


[page 115]

PALO VERDE.

COCONINO FOREST.


[page 117]

is full of sap that is sometimes used to quench thirst. By cutting off the top and scooping out a hollow, the cup-shaped hole soon fills with a sap that is not exactly nectar but can be drunk in an emergency. Men who have been in danger of perishing from thirst on the desert have sometimes been saved by this unique method of well digging.

Greasewood, or creasote bush as it is sometimes called on account of its pungent odor, grows freely on the desert, but has little or no value and cattle will not touch it. Like many other desert plants it is resinous and if thrown into the fire, the green leaves spit and sputter while they burn like hot grease in a frying pan.

The mesquite tree is peculiarly adapted to the desert and is the most valuable tree that grows in the southwest. As found growing on the dry mesas of Arizona, it is only a small bush, but on the moist land of a river bottom it becomes a large forest tree. A mesquite forest stands in the Santa Cruz valley south of Tucson that is a fair sample of its growth under favorable conditions.

Its wood is hard and fine grained and polishes beautifully. It is very durable and is valuable for lumber, fence posts and firewood. On the dry mesas it seems to go mostly to root that is out of all proportion to the size of the tree. The amount of firewood that is sometimes obtained by digging up the root of a small mesquite bush is astonishing.

It makes a handsome and ornamental shade tree, having graceful branches, feathery leaves and fragrant flowers, and could be cultivated to advantage for yard and park purposes.

Its principal value, however, lies in its seed pods, which grow in clusters and look like string beans. The mesquite bean furnishes a superior article of food and feeds about everything that either walks or flies on the desert. The Indians make meal of the seed and bake it into bread. Cattle


[page 108]

that feed on the open range will leave good grass to browse on a mesquite bush. Even as carnivorous a creature as the coyote will make a full meal on a mess of mesquite beans and seem to be satisfied. The tree exudes a gum that is equal to the gum arabic of commerce.

The palo verde is a tree without leaves and is a true child of the desert. No matter how hot and dry the weather the palo verde is always green and flourishing. At a distance it resembles a weeping willow tree stripped of its leaves. Its numerous long, slender, drooping branches gracefully crisscross and interlace in an intricate figure of filigree work. It has no commercial value, but if it could be successfully transplanted and transported it would make a desirable addition to green-house collections in the higher latitudes.

The romantic mistletoe that is world renowned for its magic influence in love affairs, grows to perfection in southern Arizona. There are several varieties of this parasitic plant that are very unlike in appearance. Each kind partakes more or less of the characteristics of the tree upon which it grows, but all have the glossy leaf and waxen berry.


[page 119]

OCOTILLO.

ESQUITE FOREST NEAR TUCSON.

Up: Contents Previous: CHAPTER VII. A MODEL RANCH Next: CHAPTER IX. HOOKER'S HOT SPRINGS




© Arizona Board of Regents