Sunday, July 01, 2007

Cholla Cactus

What’s blooming in the area: Roses, cholla, trumpet creeper, silver lace vine, sweet peas, lilies, Russian sage, datura, bigleaf globemallow, velvetweed, purple mat flower, milkweed, tumble mustard, squash, pink and white bindweed, wooly plantain, toothed spurge, Queen Anne’s lace, yellow sweet clover, purple coneflower, áñil del muerto, golden hairy aster, paper flower, goatsbeard, hawkweed, native dandelion; apples visible from road.

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Miniature roses, red hot poker, golden spur columbine, coral beardtongue, hartwegii, butterfly weed, perky Sue, fern-leaf yarrow, chocolate flower, blanket flower, coreopsis, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, first chrysanthemums; sour cherries more edible.

Looking east: Dr. Huey rose, coral bells, pinks, small-leaf soapwort, snow-in-summer, bouncing Bess, pink evening primrose, sweet alyssum from seed, pink salvia, veronica, larkspur, winecup, hollyhock, sidalcea, California and Shirley poppies, Mount Atlas daisy.

Looking south: Tamarix, daylily, cosmos from last year’s seed, rugosa, floribunda and Blaze roses; fruit on raspberry and tomatilla.

Looking west: Flax, catmint, purple ice plant, sea lavender; buds on ladybells and Monch asters.

Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, snapdragons, petunia, Dahlberg daisy, marigold, tomato.

Inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: Good sized yellow-bellied raucous bird on utility pole; humming bird; white, gray and black-with-yellow butterflies; bees, ladybug, crickets, ants; grasshoppers eating hollyhocks and buddleias; gopher active in neighbor’s garden.

Weather: Hot days cooling off later despite afternoon clouds and winds; rain Wednesday.

Weekly update: The cholla going out of bloom in empty fields stand as reminders of some time before. But when, I wonder, was that before.

Certainly before people settled the area where I live. Only one grows near a village road, and groups are scattered along the ridge to the Española highway. Across the arroyo more survive in a vacant field and a house once had a yard filled, but recent owners tore them out for their dogs.

There are no more cactuses for another mile and a half, then they appear in empty fields and isolated plants bloom in yards, two just beyond fences. I have two, my uphill neighbor has one. Between us and that last vacant land, another has surrounded a 3' shrub with protective rocks in the drive and a nearby neighbor has one by a fence with yucca.

They weren’t always here. In the Cenozoic, this area of alluvial Santa Fe deposits was tilted, the Rockies lifted and a rift opened. In those long eons, some 30 million years ago, the Cactaceae broke away from their portulaca cousins in northern South America, then began moving north.

With the ice age came waters from the north that eroded land and filled the trench to form the Rio Grande. The Jemez volcano collapsed, but not before spewing ash. Ours is the resulting dissected bench land that supports black grama and four-winged saltbush that coexist with Opuntia imbricata elsewhere. There could be no cactuses here before.

Sometime between the great glaciers and 1500 years ago, people in the dry valleys of Mexico, who knew more about wresting an existence from recalcitrant plants than our ancestors, began nurturing wild foods, including agave and opuntia. Pollen from cane cholla has been found in a pithouse near Petroglyphs National Monument in Bernalillo county from a time before pottery and corn.

Perhaps they came here with the Anasazi; pueblos to the south mention cholla more than local ones. Lucile Housley believes its existence near Jemez Pueblo, higher than its normal range, is because humans took it there. Several have suggested they need some active agent to move them any distance from where the fruits and broken branches fall.

Some say they are invaders who’ve encroached on the pure grass lands grazed by cattle after the Denver and Rio Grande created markets for cattle and lightening found less to burn. Others, that they are part of the black grama prairie we’ve lost and disappeared when stockmen burned the spines to feed their animals in bad years.

On the other side of the river, on pueblo and ranch lands where cattle still wander, they are simply there - part of the nondescript scrub blazoned, this time of year, by glints of magenta when tepals catch the light. You no more can see their swollen brush skeletons from the highway than you can know when they came in that far time before.

Notes:Dunmire, William M. and Gail D. Tierney. Wild Plants of the Pueblo Province, 1995.

Flannery, Kent.V. "Los Orígenes de la Agricultura en México: Las Teorías y Las Evidencias" in T. Rojas & W. T. Sanders, Historia de la Agricultura. Epoca prehispánica. Siglo XVI. México, 1985, cited by Marco Antonio Anaya-Pérez, "History of the Use of Opuntia as Forage in Mexico," available on-line.

Hershkovitz, Mark A. and Elizabeth A. Zimmer. "On the Evolutionary Origins of the Cacti," Taxon 46:217-232:1997.

Housley, Lucile Kempers. Opuntia imbricata Distribution on Old Jemez Indian Habitation Sites, 1974, cited by Dunmire and Tierney.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany on-line database.

Photograph: Cholla cactus, 30 June 2007.

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