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The Nature Corner: An exotic plant bearing memories

Reading the Sunday, June 7 issue of The Coastland Times, I did a double take seeing the photo of the century plant in Shirley Lutz’s yard at Nags Head Cove. It is not only a very unusual plant in North Carolina, but it brought back a flood of memories of a trip years ago. I was then able to spend a couple of weeks exploring the Chihuahuan Desert in southeastern Arizona, where the century plant is quite common in that exotic landscape.

The century plant (Agave americana) is the signature plant of the Chihuahuan Desert, dominating the terrain as abundant and ordinarily the tallest of the desert vegetation. As you saw in the photo in the Times, it has a central stem that grows to twenty to thirty feet, bearing its flowers at its pinnacle.

It acquires it name because it lives twenty or thirty years — but not a hundred years — suddenly sends up it flower stalk producing showy flower clusters (usually yellow) and then dies. It’s something like a Shakespearean performance where the actor suddenly dashes on stage in the last act, gives a heart-rending soliloquy, then stabs himself with his dagger and falls dead.

The reason for the tall flower stalk, I surmise, is to put the flower well out of reach of browsing mule deer and pronghorn antelope to ensure time for pollination. Hummingbirds, various insects and moths and bats in the night are among the frequent and eager pollinators visiting its tubular blossoms.

The Chihuahuan Desert is the largest of our continent’s four deserts, including the adjacent (to the west) Sonoran, Great Basin and Mohave. It spreads across west Texas, southern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona and to the south into Mexico, mostly in the Mexican state of Chihuahua from which the desert derives its name. (The dog breed by this name was presumably named for the state and not vice versa, but the breed is supposed to go back to Aztec and Toltec times. So who knows?)

Deserts at a distance, just driving through to somewhere else, seem quite deserted (as the name would imply). But they are rather like those persons who first strike you as and plain and dull until you get to know them. In their efforts to adapted to a difficult landscape, primarily due to the scarcity of water, their flora and fauna have taken on many interesting forms of adaptation.

The Chihuahuan Desert receives about ten inches of rainfall per year. By contrast, Manteo gets about fifty. This desert has about 3500 plant species and about one quarter of the world’s cacti species. Most of it is naturally armed with thorns, spines, barbs and prickles, but that comes with a pleasant paradox. The spiniest cactus can have brilliantly scarlet, gold and purple rose-like blossoms. Do stop to smell the desert roses, but beware the thorns and perhaps the rattlesnake coiled beneath.

My trip to the Chihuahuan Desert centered in Portal, Arizona, just a few miles from the New Mexico state line (and our nearest source of gas). It was a small community with a general store and a place to camp and cozy cabins. The road through Cave Creek Canyon took us through cottonwood and sycamore groves, the road to Chiricahua and Butler Peaks to cool pine and spruce forest at over nine thousand feet and past miles of desert scrub including many century plants. I use the word “road” loosely; it was a narrow, deeply rutted road including gravel the size of baseballs. We just hoped our rental car would hold together.

We met a woman in the community of Paradise, which despite its promising name consisted of just a cluster of houses among scrub oak and mesquite. She had two big boxers, whom she named Butch and Sundance for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford in a 1969 film of that name. They had just come back from the vet with surgical staples to suture large gashes inflicted in the bellies of the two dogs by a collared peccary, better known in the region as a javelina (Pecari angulatus). It is the only native representative of the pig family in the western hemisphere, found in the American southwest and south as far as Argentina. There are plenty of feral domestic pigs in North America that have gone back to the wild ever since colonial days and some European wild boars brought to western North Carolina for hunting in the early twentieth century, but they are of course not native fauna.

All pigs have tusks for rooting in the dirt, good for that purpose, but also quite effective as a defensive weapon if provoked (as folks who raise pigs well know). This was a showdown that Butch and Sundance should have backed away from.

Portal had a plethora of wildlife, including a comical version of our raccoon with a longer snout and tail known as a coati, that shared a raccoon’s penchant for rummaging through your belongings at your campsite. But the main draw of our southwest desert country is birds.

The number of bird species increases dramatically as you venture south into Mexico and Central America, so southern Arizona has species not found further north. Additionally, the region is awash with what are called neotropical species every spring, birds that winter in Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean and migrate to North America to breed.

Hummingbirds are a good example of this phenomenon. There are about two dozen hummingbird species in the U.S. Of these, only a single species is common east of the Mississippi River, the familiar ruby-throated hummingbird. It is the only one to regularly make the intrepid flight of over a thousand miles across the Caribbean Sea. The south-north land mass of Central America and Mexico are a natural interstate for migration. So here come the hummingbirds! They all have that feisty hummingbird disposition and the males display dazzling patches on throat, forehead, “sidewhiskers,” etc., in scarlet, violet, emerald and other hues. What a rainbow-like array!

I only saw the rear end of a few javelinas as they skeedaddled at my approach. Just as well we failed to get acquainted, I’d say.

Ernie Marshall taught at East Carolina College for thirty-two years and had a home in Hyde County near Swan Quarter. He has done extensive volunteer work at the Mattamuskeet, Pocosin Lakes and Swan Quarter refuges and was chief script writer for wildlife documentaries by STRS Productions on the coastal U.S. National Wildlife Refuges, mostly located on the Outer Banks. Questions or comments? Contact the author at marshalle1922@gmail.com.

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