A Good Walk Unspoiled
Walking — and painting — Silver City's Boston Hill

Local Characters
You know these New Mexicans — even though none is real

Mavericks Among Us
The ocotillo, ephedra, sotol and allthorn — all highly individualistic plants

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About the cover

Mavericks Among Us, p2

Unfortunately, according to the Federal Drug Administration, "155 deaths, including that of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, as well as dozens of heart attacks and strokes have been attributed to the use of ephedra." Wong adds, "Researchers examined the safety of popular dietary supplements containing ephedra and concluded that they pose serious health risks to come consumers." It has been banned as a dietary supplement in the National Football League since 2001.



At first look, you might think that the sotol bears a close relationship to the narrow-leaf yuccas or the agaves. All have similar rosette leaf arrangements. But the sotol's ribbon-like leaves have barbed, or saw-toothed, edges and, usually, a frayed point, and the plant produces a 10- to 15-foot bloom stalk with a dense cluster of tiny greenish or whitish flowers. By contrast, the yuccas' leaves have smooth margins and a dagger-like point, and the yuccas produce bloom stalks with large bell-shaped blossoms. The sotol may produce a bloom stalk and flower cluster nearly every year during its lifetime, given favorable conditions. By comparison, the agaves typically produce a bloom stalk and flower cluster only once, signaling a climactic end to their lives.

Sotol with bloom stalks.

Fairly recently, scientists have decided that sotol holds a closer relationship with sacahuista, a grassy-looking plant with serrated leaves that grow in thick fountain-like clumps. The sotol and the sacahuista have both given rise to the common name of beargrass — presumably, someone said, because their blooms smell like a bear's breath. I don't recall who might have verified that claim.

The sotol, with a range extending across the desert landscape from western Texas to southeastern Arizona and well down into Mexico, likes shallow and rocky soil with good drainage. According to the USDA's Fire Effects Information System, sotol "grows on hillsides and slopes in chaparral, desert and semi-desert grasslands and southwestern oak... woodland communities at 3,000 to 5,000 feet... in elevation."

The mature sotol has hundreds of long, narrow, flattened, armed leaves that flair into a spoon-like shape at the bases. (The plant is sometimes called the "desert spoon.") Typically, the sotol leaf rosette emerges from a very short stem, but occasionally, says the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum in its website, mature plants may develop a five- or six-foot-long stem, occasionally branched. According to some very limited sources, its roots, apparently coarse and carrot-shaped, extend straight down for several inches, then branch radially. Its flower cluster, which emerges in late spring and early summer, extends for several feet along the top of the bloom stalk, and it yields an abundance of seeds that are contained in three-winged capsules that scatter with the wind.

The sotol's adaptations to the desert's harshness include the leaves' rosette arrangement and spoon-shape bases, which serve to funnel rain water and snow melt to the plant's roots. Further, as a succulent, its leaves have tissues and a waxy coating to retain water. Like the cacti, yuccas and agaves, the sotol's leaves close their stomata during the day to minimize transpiration, opening them at night to collect the carbon dioxide necessary for photosynthesis. Its abundant seeds help assure the propagation of the species.

The sotol plays a diverse role in the food chain. According to the Texas Parks & Wildlife website, for instance, "Black bears [presumably with the right breath odor] in Texas especially relish the succulent base of the sotol plant.... In desert environments, it's common to find partially eaten sotol plants where bears have been." Additionally, according to the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum, the blooms "attract huge numbers of insects, including flies, bees, wasps and butterflies." In fact, if you stand near a blooming sotol in the middle of the summer, you can sometimes hear the hum of insects around its flowers.

Among indigenous peoples, according to the National Park Service's Big Bend National Park website, "The young flower stalks were eaten, as were the seeds. The heart of the plant was cooked along with agave hearts in a stone-lined pit for several days and then eaten." Additionally, the leaves, stripped of their thorns, were woven into baskets and mats, twisted into ropes, and made into sandals.

Most famously, perhaps, the sotol became a source for a fiery wine-like drink of the desert. Weston La Barre of Yale University, writing in American Ethnologist in 1938, noted, "The watery juice is easily pressed out [from the fleshy crown at the apex of the stem], and is not unpalatable, but cooking alone sweetens it. As with mescal, the name of the drink derives from that of the plant, though it is sometimes called mezcal de sotol." According to an unnamed source, mezcal de sotol affects you "differently, but positively, like no other liquor." As far as I know, mezcal de sotol has not yet made the list of dietary supplements banned by the National Football League.


Allthorn or Crucifixion Thorn

No cactus plant can claim to be spinier than this weird plant," observes Clark Champie in Strangers in the Franklins. "No one, having seen it, will wonder why it is called allthorn." Virtually leafless, green, intricately branched, stunningly thorned, the allthorn, or crucifixion thorn, sometimes grows in thickets that would have well served Br'er Rabbit, who, as you will recall, pleaded with Br'er Fox, "I don't care what you do with me... just so you don't fling me into the briar patch."

Closeup of allthorn plant’s pointed stems.

As biologist Arthur H. Harris said in Desert Diary, a website produced by the Centennial Museum and National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso, the allthorn "seems to consist of little but thorns, though a botanist will tell you that they're really branches whose ends constrict abruptly to sharp points. As if this armament wasn't enough, the shrub sends its branches in all directions, intersecting in a virtually impenetrable tangle of branches and spines."

Native to the northern Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts, the allthorn grows on "sandy or gravelly mesas in the upper desert and the desert grassland at 2,400 to 5,000 feet elevation," according to Lyman Benson and Robert A. Darrow in the University of Arizona's "Manual of Southwestern Desert Trees and Shrubs." It also "occupies medium- to fine-textured soils of broad intermountain plains of the Chihuahuan Desert and related outlying areas in southeastern Arizona." Another species, of the northwestern Sonoran Desert, grows on "rocky foothills and upper bajada [adjoining alluvial fans] slopes in the desert at 1,500 to 2,000 feet elevation." The all­thorn may grow in dense thickets or in creosote bush-dominated desert shrublands.

Typically, the allthorn grows as a shrub 5 to 10 feet tall, but occasionally it reaches more than 20 feet in height. According to the National Register of Big Trees, one allthorn plant, at Arizona's Boyce Thompson Arboretum, has grown to 23 feet in height, with a spread of 21 feet.

The allthorn's leaves, which appear briefly after a spring rain, according to the Virginia Tech Forestry Department, measure about a quarter of an inch in length. They disappear promptly with the resumption of dry weather. The plant produces small and generally inconspicuous whitish flower clusters and one-quarter-inch-diameter shiny black berries. The allthorn's phalanx of rigid green to greenish-gray branches bristles with one- to two-inch-long twigs that end in dark sharp points — a formidable botanical armament.

The allthorn's roots, according to an article in the Journal of Arid Environments, penetrate to extraordinary depths. Secondary roots have been known to penetrate deeply then turn around and, remarkably, "grew vertically upward [and] branched profusely" near the surface. The authors believe that "occasional deeply penetrating soil water moves down channels once occupied by roots and other openings in the soil, and that this is a source of water for growth of the deeply penetrating roots, as well as for the roots that grow upward."

The allthorn's desert survival strategies center on its small leaves and its incredible root system. With small and quickly shed leaves, the plant minimizes transpiration. (Its branches and spines, equipped with stomata, perform the function of photosynthesis.) Its roots reach into the soil both at shallow and deep levels to reach water.

Its spines discourage browsing by the larger animals, but the allthorn's seeds, according to several sources, are eaten by quail and other birds. Its more tender branches are browsed by jackrabbits. The seeds were also apparently eaten by some indigenous peoples.

If the allthorn would seem to form a barrier in the food chain, "those animals able to wend their way into these fortresses delight in all of this," says biologist Harris. "What coyote or fox would dare trying to poke its nose into this world of hurt merely to snack on bird eggs or young? On the other hand, what's impenetrable to one, may be a virtual heaven for others — it does seem like the perfect feeding ground for an enterprising snake."



Jay W. Sharp is a Las Cruces author who is a regular contributor to DesertUSA, an Internet magazine, and who is the author of Texas Unexplained, now available as an e-book from Amazon or iTunes. To read all his guides to plants and animals of the Southwest, see www.desertexposure.com/wildlife.



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