Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Texas Mountain Laurel

The cave’s protruding edge allowed only starlight from the east to illuminate his painted face. Dyes of red and yellow masked his cheeks with singular zig-zag streaks of charcoal carefully drawn on both sides of his nose. He sat now without moving on the buffalo hide staring into the mesquite fire. The residue of pulverized mescal beans was smeared around his lips and hands as water flowed below him between the steep canyon banks of the river.

The Texas Mountain Laurel tree, also known as Mescal Bean and scientifically as Sophora secundiflora is indigenous to the Trans-Pecos. Its beans may have been used as ceremonial sacrament by paleo Indians for thousands of years.

The Mescal Bean is an evergreen shrub with waxy leaves that prefers limestone soil. Like many plants growing in limestone, they are slow growing but can reach heights of 20 feet. Lavender flowers are produced in spring and have a grape aroma. The beans are mature when they reach a red-lacquer and come in kiwi-colored fuzzy pods.

Archeologists from the University of Texas excavated a site near Langtry in the 1960’s.Bones from a now extinct species of Bison, spear points known as Folsom projectiles and residues of Texas Mountain Laurel beans were found. Using radio metric carbon dating, the scientists estimate these items were in use 12,000 years ago by some of North America’s earliest humans.

The recovery of Sophora secundiflora, a nitrogen fixing legume, in the context of these items along with rock paintings suggest the beans were used as a phyto-chemical religious enhancer. Secondary compounds found in the beans include cytistine, an alkaloid related to nicotine and known to cause visions, convulsive fits as well as respiratory failure.

Ceremonial use of the mescal bean by these early American aborigines seems to have come to an end about 1000 AD which may coincide with the transition of the people from hunter-gather to farmers or may suggest a replacement plant was found.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Dragon and Damsel Flies

The sidewinder slithered down the steep dune. Clouds of sand whipped in the air. Bye and bye a sheet of plywood came tumbling out of the sky. It struck the snake severing it in half. Melbourne watched from the lee side of the hill as the snake momentarily paused, each half wiggling. Then a blue dragonfly came and hovered over the snake until the wiggling became unison and the two halves joined. Melbourne scratched his head. “Texas Joiner Snake,” he said. Joachim nodded. “Yep, with help from the snake doctor.”

Dragonflies and Damsel flies are insects from the order Odonata. Characterized by two pairs of transparent wings, six legs and an elongated body these predators diet includes mosquitoes and their larvae, flies, bees, ants, wasps and occasionally butterflies. Dragonflies are some of the fastest insects in the world and an Australian dragonfly, the Southern Giant Darner has been clocked at 60 MPH.

Both dragonflies and damsel flies have multifaceted eyes, but the damsel’s are separated. THe damsel also holds its wings, when at rest, parallel with the body whereas the dragon’s wings are perpendicular. The largest damsel fly, the Forest Giant in South America has a wing span of 7.5 inches.

There are over 250 species of damsel and dragon flies in Texas. The Common Blue Damsel fly is common in the Trans-Pecos and can usually be found in spring and summer near tanks, cienagas and rivers. These insects undergo a three stage metamorphosis; egg, nymph and adult. The nymph or larvae stage is an aquatic being.

In some places of the world, dragon and damsel flies are eaten. For example in Indonesia, they are caught on poles made sticky with glue and then fried in oil. In China and Japan they are used in medicine and in the southern USA they are known as snake doctors, watching over all serpents and nursing them when they get sick.

Saturday, May 15, 2010


Bina tapped the scarlet buds growing from the gray spiny stalk. She stripped the seeds, crushed them against a rock, and then added nopal cactus generating a gooey supper gruel. As the evening sun set she laid against the slope of the arroyo and watched the shadows in the thin forest of spiny stalks disappear with the night.

The Ocotillo plant also known as the Devil’s Walking Stick, Jacob’s Staff, desert coral, candlewood and coach whip is native to the Trans Pecos and the desert southwest including Baja California. The scarlet blossoms that grow from the slender spiny branches have been used by natives for food and beverage. The Cahuilla soaked the blossom in water for drink and the seeds, crushed into flour, have been eaten as cakes and mush. Hardened nectar from the blossoms was consumed as rock candy.

The plant’s spiny branches have been found in pre-historic wattle and daub structures in the La Junta region of the Rio Grande providing structural support for the earth plaster. The Seri tribe also used the Ocotillo for their brush houses. The branches are still used today to fashion fences that can become living hedges when posted in the earth with sufficient rain.

Heights of thirty feet have been recorded with widths approaching 10 feet. The Ocotillo blossoms produce nectar with the flavor of honey and are favorites for hummingbirds.

To survive in the hot harsh environment of the desert southwest the Ocotillo sheds its leaves during low water periods thereby reducing the energy and water requirement to survive. Most of the year the long stems of the plant are bare showing only a dead waxy gray with rigid spines but it can generate enough photosynthesis to produce new leave buds within five days after receiving water. In five weeks these leaves turn yellow and drop. These quick life cycles may occur 4 to 5 times a year and produce sufficient sugars needed for growth.

Monday, May 10, 2010


“Nothing quite like a field of Blue Bonnets against the white hide of a Brahma,” a Texas Representative was said to say during the 1901 debates of what bloom should be the state’s flower.

Representative Phillip Clements of Goldthwaite suggested instead the cotton boll, calling it the “white rose of commerce.”

Rep John Nance Garner of Uvalde begged to differ suggesting the prickly pear cactus bloom was far more beautiful and the plant itself symbolic of the rugged state. Although Cactus Jack went on to be Vice-President of the United States he lost this debate.

The Texas Bluebonnet actually comes in five species of the genus Lupinus. The Big Bend Bluebonnet, Lupinus Havardi which bloom in spring throughout the Trans Pecos, have violet flowers with a yellow stamen.

The Lupinus Subcarnosus also known as buffalo clover, was the official species selected by the House of Representatives in 1901 for the state’s flower. These smaller flowers are deep blue, but occasional random genetic mutation color them white. The flowers have a central greenish-yellow center that, with age, turns red. This species grows in the southern and eastern parts of Texas near the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1971 all five lupus varieties in Texas were deemed official.

Lupinus, which is a Latin word meaning wolf, was perhaps chosen by Swedish taxonomer Carolus Linnaeus, because bluebonnets or lupins were thought to devour the soil. In fact they enrich it.

Bluebonnets are part of the legume family which includes mesquite, clover, alfalfa, beans, and peanuts. All legumes are nitrogen fixers, meaning these plants are able to take nitrogen out of the atmosphere and convert it to a nitrogen form usable by the plant. Through a symbiotic relationship between the plants roots and microorganisms known as rhizobia, atmospheric nitrogen is converted to ammonia compounds that help the plant grow and compete with other plants. In return, in a form of classic mutualism, the plant supplies the bacteria with carbohydrates, proteins, and sufficient oxygen so as not to interfere with the fixation process. This is known as diaztrophy and occurs inside nodules growing on the roots.

Lady Bird Johnson convinced the state of Texas to seed wildflowers including bluebonnets across the state’s highways. It is legal to pick the state flower, but watch how you park.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Monahans Sand Dune Field

Bina laid in the shadow of the dune feeling the sand sift down her shoulders collecting in the damp of her stomach and forming yet another dune. The wind above blew more sand down the ridge creating tiny furled rows that avalanched in a steamy wave like sea foam coming off a breaker. She pushed her hand through the taupe, brown and red grains and marveled at their uniform size.

The dune field north of Ft Stockton, known as the Monahan’s Sand Dune field is a recent geologic phenomenon. Formed in the last 12,000 years as the Trans-Pecos became more arid, the windblown sands pile up against the western edge of the Llano Estacado and fan out west across the Pecos plains in a 60 x 20 mile swath to New Mexico.

Sparse vegetation and wind couple to shape these mobile sands into dunes. Constantly changing in shape, these elongated mounds are the result of the Aeolian process. Aeolia is the Greek god of wind. In science the Aeolian process is about how the wind shapes the surface of the earth through erosion, transportation and deposition of unconsolidated sediments in an area.

Wind erodes the surface by lifting up fine grained particles. Known as deflation these particles are transported often to nearby places but occasionally these particles reach the stratosphere and are sent far away. The turbulent eddy action of the wind also acts to change the shape of the surface sand. Abrasion is a third component of the Aeolian process whereby particles rub against each other changing their individual shapes.

Dunes are generally longer on the windward side. On the lee side the angle of repose is steeper making for a shorter slip face. The trough between dunes is called a slack.

Many specialized animals have evolved to adapt to the ever changing topography of a dune field. Most dunes form in arid and semi arid regions of the world but often water can be found several feet below the sand in the slacks of the dune.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Creosote Bush

With leathery hands, the shaman laid the creosote twigs across the corpse then placed the male cadaver in the prone position. Facing north in the shallow grave, fired clay jars of seeds and dried venison for the afterlife were sealed by creosote lac and tucked up next to the dead dark skin of the La Junta Warrior.

The creosote plant covers over 120 million acres of land in Mexico and the southwestern USA. Native people of this region used the plant medicinally from birth to death for centuries in its raw form, as tea, and smoked. Perhaps as common as penicillin today, the creosote bush or greasewood remedied rheumatism, menstrual cramps, coughing, sore throats and poisonous bites. Today the federal government considers it unfit for human consumption, but some people still use it for the treatment of lyme disease and the melting of kidney stones. Modern medical experimentation includes using the plant to combat fatigue in patients undergoing chemo-therapy.

Scientists believe that a creosote plant seed was deposited in North America from South America by birds during the last ice age some 10,000 years ago. A descendant of one of these early bird droppings lives in Johnson Valley, California. At 9400 years old it is thought to be the oldest living organism in the world.

Like pine, the creosote bush is a bodega of resins suspended in an amber syrup rich in flavinoids, oils and waxes. These resins shield the leaf from the strong UV light and heat of the desert allowing photosynthesis to go uninterrupted inside the leaf. Three hundred and sixty chemicals have been isolated in the oils of the creosote bush including forty-nine types of volatile oils.

After many days of drought, a fresh rain in the Trans-Pecos brings out the smells of vinyl, camphor, and methyl ketones from the washed leaves of the creosote plant that many still call hediondilla or “little stinker.”

Monday, November 23, 2009

Blue Grama Grass

In the cloudless sky the September sun burned the land with its fiery ring, branding all living things in the desert whether capable of conscious thought or driven only by the instinct of survival. The rains had stopped weeks ago and now Bina trudged an unmarked path between bald earth and the occasional carpet of the flag like blue grama grass.

Blue Grama is a perennial grass native to the Trans-Pecos. It grows in the hot lowlands of the Chihuahua Desert to the high forested areas of the mountain peaks. It grows throughout North America from Alberta and Manitoba to the Rocky Mountains, Great Plains and Midwest, thriving in a broad range of topography and soil types.
The plant height rarely exceeds 15 inches but the roots can grow as deep as five feet and outward as much as 16 inches, watering and aerating the soils as it burrows. The grass is graze, drought and cold resistant. It offers high protein for livestock tends not to freeze and uses water extensively when available but is capable of going dormant during low or no water conditions.

One way the Blue Grama propogates is with seeds and does best when they are dispersed by wind, birds, insects or mammals beyond the root reach of neighboring adult plants, as adult plants tend to exploit moisture in the seedling’s root zone.
But more often, Blue Grama propagates via a process known as vegetative reproduction. Tiny stems at the base of the plant known as tillers can produce multiple stems and thick tuffs with bushy seed heads from a single seedling indefinitely.

Vegetative Reproduction is more an expansion of biomass of the individual plant rather than the creation of a new organism. The tillers at the base of the plants are new individuals except they are clones, new in every aspect, except genetically. How this process appears to reset the aging clock remains a mystery.