Spring Bloom in the Chihuahuan Desert

Rainbow Cactus, Mesilla Valley
Rainbow Cactus, Mesilla Valley

There are four generally-identified deserts in North America: the Great Basin, Sonoran, Mojave, and the Chihuahuan. Each has its unique plants and animals, distinctive climate, and other identifying features.


The Chihuahuan Desert is the largest of the four, covering 175,000 square miles. Though this desert is located in New Mexico, Texas, and a small portion of southeastern Arizona, more than 70% of it is in Mexico.


Overall, the Chihuahuan Desert is colder and wetter than the Sonoran. It has extremely rich flora, with at least 1,500 species of plants. Elevation ranges within the Chihuahuan Desert are extreme; 820 feet along the Rio Grande near the Texas-Mexico border to a high point of 6,562 feet.



Spring does not creep across the desert on little cat's feet;

nor does it come in with frolicking lambs and sweet breezes.

Spring can bring an explosion of vibrant and colorful life;

it can be a succession of frigid snowstorms;

it can blow in dry and hot on gritty winds.

--- Susan Tweit,

Seasons in the Desert



DATURA - Jimson Weed


Don't let the beauty of the plant or flowers fool you. See these next four photos? That is Datura, also referred to as Jimson Weed.


Datura is a member of the Potato (Solanaceae) family and is sometimes referred to as the Deadly Nightshade Family.


This plant is found all over southern New Mexico, growing in the most unlikely of places (usually sand beds). Large, white, trumpet-shaped flowers bloom March through November. The flower typically opens after dusk and closes by mid-morning; later if it is overcast. The plant is regarded as a perennial. That means it lives for at least three years. It loses its leaves in the winter, and its stems are woody.


All species of Datura have been used by Native peoples of the Southwest in puberty and other ceremonies, because of the plant's hallucinogenic alkaloids. People trying to imitate Native American ways have sometimes poisoned themselves to death.


Datura evokes a feeling of mystery and it has long been used as a portal to the spirit world, visions, hallucinations, and witchcraft. Datura has been used since ancient times by spiritualists, holy men, medicine men, and even modern reacreational drug users. Native peoples also made a paste from it, to treat pain 


The Sacred Datura Blossom has long captivated artists and poets. It appears in paintings by artist Georgia O'Keefe. It is believed to be the plant she had in mind when she said, "When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your world for the moment."





Most of the photos you see posted here were taken in Las Cruces in April 2014. Some are on residential property---where they receive supplemental water---but most were growing wild, typically by the side of the road.



There are numerous stereotypes about the desert. Perhaps the most common is that deserts are void of life, short of a few rattlesnakes or scorpions.








Imagine what is missed, however, if this is what you expect when you come to the desert.


But even those who passed through here before didn't always see the beauty in the desert, perhaps because their attention was elsewhere.


John Russell Bartlett, for example, explored much of the southwest in the 1850s. In Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua, Bartlett wrote:


We toiled across sterile plains, where no tree offered its

friendly shade, the sun glowing fiercely, and the wind hot

from the parched earth, cracking the lips and burning

the eyes .... As far as the eye can reach stretches one

unbroken waste, barren, wild and worthless.


Similarly, in 1901, John Van Dyke wrote one of the premier books on the desert environment, The Desert. Even so, in a chapter on trees and plants in the desert, Van Dyke wrote:


Aside from the blossoms upon the bush and tree, there are few

bright petals shining in the desert. It is no place for flowers.

They are too delicate and are usually wanting in tap root and armor.

If they spring up, they are soon cut down by drouth or destroyed

by animals. Many tales are told of the flowers that grow on the

waste after the rains, but I have not seem them,

though I have seen the rains.





When most people think of the Southwest, they think of Cacti. And rightly so. More kinds of cacti grow throughout the Southwest than in any other region of the country.


But the Southwest is home to many different kinds of plants. Some need a lot of moisture, while others grow and flower even in the midst of drought.


Elevation provides one general way to sort out what grows where in the Southwest.


Cacti and other succulents, shrubs, and grasses dominate the lowest, hottest elevations in the Southwest.


Agaves, Yucca, and Creosote Bush, in particular, dominate in the Chihuahuan Desert ... and all three produce bloom with spectacular flowers.



So how does all this vegetation manage to survive?


The basic strategy is to conform to Liebig's Law of the Minimum, which simply states that the growth of a plant varies with the nutrients (including water) it is provided. When the plant is deprived of nutrients, it cuts back.


--- Alex Shoumatoff [1997]

Legends of the American Desert



In order to survive in the desert, the plants and animals here are interdependent. The plants give the animals food and shelter, and the animals play a key part in distributing the seeds that ensure continuation of the plant species.


If you look at the flowers in the desert, they are usually filled with insects and bees. If you stand at a good distance, you'll see the numerous kinds of birds which also depend upon the plant for survival.


Whether you live here or are visiting, take the time to enjoy the abundant plant life that thrives in the Chihuahuan Desert. You will find numerous opportunities to do this; in town, in the mountains, near the rivers, and in the far reaches of the desert terrain.