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Southwest Wildlife

Mavericks Among Us

The ocotillo, ephedra, sotol and allthorn — all highly individualistic plants — play important roles in the desert food chain.

by Jay W. Sharp

 

 

If you come from, say, the Eastern Woodlands or the Great Plains or the Pacific Northwest to visit the deserts of southwestern New Mexico or southeastern Arizona, you will be taken immediately by prickly characters such as the cane cholla or the barrel cactus or the prickly pear. You will quickly notice the signature yuccas such as the torrey or the soaptree and agaves such as the lechuguilla or the century plant. You will soon notice the dominant (and aggressively expanding) shrubs such as creosote bush, tarbush, the various acacias and the mesquites. In the few areas spared from overgrazing by domestic livestock, you will see remnant stands of desert grasses. With good timing and good luck, especially during the spring and early summer, you may discover — and thrill to! — a landscape awash in the colors of desert wildflowers.

Given some time with the desert plant community, you will also begin to discover other, less showy, less dominant but highly individualistic plants that play important roles in the food chain. These mavericks among our desert plant community include, for a few examples, the ocotillo, ephedra, sotol and allthorn.

 

Ocotillo

The ocotillo, sometimes called the "devil's walking stick," has several long, whip-like, spiny stems that spray upward for perhaps 20 to 30 feet from a root crown. It bears a close familial relationship with Mexico's strange and geographically restricted boojum tree, which grows on the Baja Peninsula as a 40- to 50-foot-tall, often thick, single-branched and sparsely leafed plant.

ocotillo
Ocotillo in full bloom.

The ocotillo's native range spans the deserts of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, according to the US Department of Agriculture's Fire Effects Information System website. It grows in streambed floodplains and on mountain flanks. It capitalizes on limestone-rich soils, which capture and hold heat, extending the elevation of the ocotillo's growth into the mountains. The ocotillo mixes freely with cacti, yuccas, agaves, shrubs, desert grasses and streamside vegetation.

As described by James A. MacMahon in his book Deserts, the ocotillo has two-inch-long green oval leaves that appear soon after a respectable rain falls and that wither and fall off as the soil dries — a cycle that may be repeated several times during the warm seasons. As the leaves fall off, they leave behind the plant's rigid, conical-shaped spines. "No other plant family makes spines in this way," according to Arthur C. Gibson in the Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden's online newsletter. The ocotillo's long gray waxy stems, which sway gracefully in the desert winds, can perform photosynthesis after its leaves have fallen.

Like the cacti, the ocotillo has a shallow radiating root system that puts itself first in line for any rainwater. The ocotillo produces a brilliant red cluster of flowers at the end of its stems during the spring. It yields an abundance of small, flat, feathery seeds during the early summer, casting them to the desert winds. The minuscule percentage of the seeds that germinate during the desert's rainy season and survive over the next two years may yield plants that live for up to two centuries, according to a website developed by Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson.

The ocotillo has developed several strategies for survival in the desert environment. For instance, its leaves, during their short lives, act swiftly to produce plant sugars needed for growth, according to Lamb and Johnson. The plant sheds its leaves during drought, becoming dormant and minimizing transpiration (the evaporation of water through the leaf tissues). A "stem succulent," it stores water in the central tissues of its stems, which are covered by bark that is essentially waterproof. Its shallow roots intercept rainfall before it reaches competing plants with deeper root systems. Its showy blooms attract a host of pollinating insects. Its abundant seeds increase the chances for future generations.

The ocotillo's blooms serve as a major food source for hummingbirds during their spring migration northward, especially in the northern Sonoran Desert. The blooms also attract other birds such as the verdin, as well as insects such as carpenter bees. The flowers are "tasty to humans as well — straight or soaked in cold water," notes the Pima County College Desert Ecology of Tucson website.

 

Ephedra

The ephedra — also called Mormon tea, squaw tea, cowboy tea, whorehouse tea, canyon tea, jointfir, joint-pine, yellow horse, country mallow and numerous other names in our deserts — looks much a like a three-dimensional game of pickup sticks. Typically standing waist to chest high, it has "numerous jointed green, apparently leafless, branches," according to MacMahon. Its joints are quite distinct. A "strange-looking plant," authority Clark Champie calls the ephedra in his small book Strangers in the Franklins. (The "Franklins" are a mountain range of the Chihuahuan Desert, in far west Texas.)

ephedra
Ephedra branches.

Various species grow, not only in our Southwest, but also in the arid regions of Mexico, South America, the Mediterranean and Asia. In our deserts, ephedra grows in well-drained, sandy, rocky soils in flood plains and in mountain foothills. "It occurs in large pure stands and in mixed piñon-juniper woodlands, salt-desert, sagebrush and hot-desert transitional shrublands, and mountain and desert grasslands," writes Stanley G. Kitchen, a USDA research botanist.

The ephedra's scale-like leaves, which grow at the joints of the stems, measure no more than a small fraction of an inch in length. Its older stems may be sheathed with a gray bark, and the newer and greener branches can perform photosynthesis. Its roots, notes Kitchen, "are deep [perhaps six or seven feet] and fibrous extending from an expanded root crown." Classified as a gymnosperm, which means that it is a nonflowering plant, like the pines, the ephedra produces minute cones and seeds.

The ephedra's desert adaptations include its small leaves and special-shaped stomata, or pores, which restrict transpiration; its stems, which conduct photosynthesis; and its root system, which reaches for both new rainfall and the deeper groundwater. Given the right conditions, it produces an abundance of small seeds that help assure the future of the species.

The ephedra provides a welcome source of browse for wildlife, particularly during prolonged drought and hard winters. Its stems, for example, are eaten by deer and pronghorns and its seeds, by various birds and small mammals. According to author Jane SpottedBird, the ephedra's stems were used by prehistoric peoples of the Southwest in making teas, and its seeds were ground into meal or flour for making mush, breads and cakes. Its stems were used in Utah for making tea, hence the common name "Mormon tea."

The ephedra has become most well-known for its medicinal uses. It served indigenous peoples, who, says Kitchen, "used... various concoctions from seeds and stems to treat a variety of symptoms including coughs, headaches, cold, fever and kidney ailments." Historically, according to SpottedBird, ephedra found a place in Spanish colonialists' herbal treatments for fever, kidney problems and venereal disease. It even was used in medicinal teas brewed up by cowboys, who contracted venereal diseases in frontier bawdy houses — hence the common names "cowboy tea" and "whorehouse tea."

In modern times, ephedra has been used as a source for extracting high concentrations of ephedrine, a popular constituent in dietary supplements and weight-control products. Moreover, ephedra, says Cathy Wong, ND, on her website, "is a common ingredient found in herbal preparations for asthma, weight loss, athletic performance and cold and allergy medications."

 
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