Thursday, January 8, 2015

Christmas in El Paso 2

The arroyo park is nice, but not wild enough after flying all this way.  A bit wilder but almost as accessible is the Palisades (don't know why the name) above it, and more nearly in the mountains just north of the park.  Part of the family took an afternoon walk there, but I was quickly left behind by stopping for photos.

 Looking southward, the way we came.
 Looking ahead.  The conspicuous tan hill is artificial, I'm pretty sure.

 Panoramas looking down into El Paso, and up towards the mountains.

 Even if you don't look towards the city, telecommunications towers
on every peak rather spoil the wilderness illusion.

The tiny white dot dead-center is a person.
Zooming in proves my relatives are alive.

I am not that disappointed to miss seeing venomous snakes and scorpions (though I did see a tarantula one night years ago); I am conscious that I come from one of the most benign environments in the US: where rattlesnakes are endangered, copperheads almost unknown, coyotes well-behaved, no chiggers, and the most dangerous insect either a deer tick carrying lyme disease, or a mosquito carrying eastern equine encephalitis or Nile fever. 

Here in the desert, on the other hand, venomous animals are not the only danger hikers face: most plants are well-defended against anything that should so much as brush up against them.  I shudder to think what would happen to anyone who fell hard onto the dagger-spined leaves of a low-growing yucca, for example.  Even walking with care, as I made an ill-advised off-trail detour, I managed to imbed a lechugilla spine in my shin simply by leaning too far as I took a careful step.  Here are a few of the better-defended plants.

Yucca leaves each end in very sharp, stout spine.  I walk very carefully when near one.

The foreground Lechugilla, though not as stout-spined as Yucca, 
has spines on leaf tips AND leaf edges.

One of the many thorny members of the legume (pea & bean) family here.

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens) looks to me like something from another planet.
The spines that protect its octopus-like stems grow leaves during any prolonged rainy spell.
The second part of its Latin name is probably owing to its flowers.

 Though walking through creosote bushe (Larrea tridentata) would be rough on bare skin,
if you're properly dressed its no problem at all.

Dunno what this legume is either, but I'm not getting any closer.

 Sotol or Desert Spoon (Dasylirion wheeleri) looks pretty dangerous,
but although the leaves have toothed edges, they do not end in spines as yuccas do.
I find it quite handsome.

I cannot end without cacti.  These do not characterize the Chihuahuan desert they way the iconic Saguaro does the Mohave, but there are a number of cacti here.  Not included in photos is Jumping Cholla, whose spiny branches come off at a touch, imbedding numbers of spines in whatever brushes against it.

Prickly pear (Cholla) is the most common genus of cacti.  
I have not learned to distinguish the several local species.

Nastier if possible--but also less common--are things like this cactus
evocatively named Horse Crippler (Echinocactus texensis).

Next to these characters, the few entirely harmless plants seem positively glad to see you.

Mormon Tea (Ephedra nevadensis) though a flowering plant, 
vaguely resembles scouring rush (Equisetum) in look and feel.

Common Dogweed (Dyssodia pentachaeta) is one of the rare members
of the huge family of Composites (Aster family) that are woody.

I have grown fond of this diminutive grass
 that grows in clumps all over the desert, but have no idea what it is.

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