Bienvenidos a Chihuahua!

This is the beginning of a series that I want to write about Chihuahua, Mexico. July 13-23, 2023 marked my fifth time (technically sixth if you count a day visit when I was eight) to Chihuahua, the largest state in Mexico. Chihuahua is located in the northern part of the country and shares a border with New Mexico and Texas. The largest city in Chihuahua is Juarez, which lies right across the Rio Grande from El Paso. However, when we visit, we head about five hours south of the border to the city of Chihuahua (the city and state share the same name), where L’s family resides. It is also the State Capital. I had originally planned on writing about Mexico and the nurseries I visited there back in 2021, but time got away from me and it didn’t happen. Well, now I have enough material for several posts. So, here we go.

The desert outside of El Paso

Before we get started, let’s get one little annoying detail out of the way. Yes, those little, excitable chihuahua dogs are named after the state of Chihuahua. They are one of two Mexican dog breeds (the other being the hairless Xoloitzcuintli) that have canine ancestry extending back to precolonial times.

I didn't have a picture of a chihuahua dog, but I did have one of a Chihuahuan cat! Excuse the blur.
Their extremely erratic behavior makes them difficult to photograph.

Including today’s post, I’m thinking of tackling six topics.

  1. Introduction to Chihuahua, the Chihuahuan Desert, and a teaser of things to come (this post)
  2. My observations of the differences between Mexico and the US
  3. Nurseries of Chihuahua
  4. A Mennonite nursery
  5. Parks and home gardens around Chihuahua (a car tour)
  6. The plants of El Vallecillo

Because it’s my blog, and I have the attention span of a gnat, I am probably going to be periodically interrupting the series with posts about other subjects. There’s a lot I wanted to write about this summer, but per usual, life has gotten complicated and there’s a lot to balance right now. Expect longer delays in between posts and in me being able to make the usual rounds to my favorite garden blogs. I’ve not forgotten.

Desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) and agaves at the border

One of the first things you see as you cross the border into Juarez from El Paso is the wall separating the US from Mexico. It’s the long, brown band running the length of the background in the photo below. Although it looks solid from this angle, it is actually a series of thick metal bars, allowing you to see flickering glimpses of a much richer El Paso as you drive by. Metal security bars and fences are a common sight in Mexico. We’ll see them again in later posts.

The wall between us: Juarez looking towards El Paso

Heading south from the border, we drove past dozens of giant malquiladoras (factories). Although they don’t look it, these are gigantic buildings, all busily manufacturing or warehousing stuff for export into the US. Juarez is the seventh largest manufacturing hub in North America – Toro, Bosch, Electrolux, Foxconn, Flex, Lexmark, TCL, Johnson & Johnson, Boeing, Lear, Costco, Sams, International Paper, Great American Paper, etc. About two thirds of the factories in Juarez are owned by companies in the US. Notice that there are two paper companies in the mix. Chihuahua state isn’t all desert – it has one of the largest timber industries in the nation providing oak and pine from up in the mountains. Unfortunately, up to 70% of that wood is illegally harvested by drug cartels

Maquiladoras supplying us with stuff, stuff, and more stuff
Satellite view of the maquiladoras (large white buildings) in one of the manufacturing districts

Leaving Juarez, the desert opens up, wide, empty, brown, hot. A smotheringly hot 104°F when we landed in El Paso. Not something I am accustomed to anymore. Thunderstorms flickered in the distance.

View of the brown, dry Chihuahuan Desert in between Juarez and Chihuahua City
Driving south from Juarez to La Ciudad de Chihuahua

The city of Chihuahua, where we spend most of our time, is the second largest city in the state with almost 1 million people. By the way, that “Ch” in Chihuahua is a soft “ch”, like in parachute, not a hard “ch” like in cheese. Chihuahua has one of the highest literacy rates in the country (99%, it’s a university town after all) and ranks second in terms of competitiveness. It also has a relatively high human development index of 0.840 (for comparison, the HDI in the US is 0.921). The city was founded in 1709 and the name Chihuahua derives from either the native Nahuatl or Tarahumara language meaning “between two waters” (the Sacramento and Chuviscar Rivers) and predates Spanish conquest.

The highway through one of the richer parts of Chihuahua

Both Chihuahua and Juarez are located in the largest desert of North America -the Chihuahuan Desert- extending across southeastern Arizona, southern New Mexico, and southwest Texas down into the Mexican states of Sonora, Chihuahua, and Coahuila and smaller areas within Durango, Zacatecas, and Nuevo Leon. It is perhaps the most biologically diverse desert on the planet, hosting an incredible assemblage of plants and animals. Unfortunately, much of it has been damaged by well over 500 years of cattle ranching.

Cattle path
Cow pat
Cattle wandering the neighborhood

The desert is located in the rain shadow of the Sierra Madre Occidental Mountains to the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains to the east. It is considered a high desert ranging in elevation from 1500 to 6000 feet. Rainfall averages anywhere between 6 to 16 inches annually, most of it falling during the monsoon season from June through early October. It is, of course, hot in the summer and fairly cold, with some freezing temperatures, in the winter.

Rain clouds gathering over an electric plant near Juarez

Characteristic plants include honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), the creosote bush (Larrea tridentata), huisache (Vachellia constricta – formerly Acacia constricta), and ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens). In addition, many of our most popular ornamental agaves come from the Chihuahuan Desert, including A. americana, A.bovicornuta, A. bracteosa, A. gracilipesA. lechugilla, A. palmeriA. parryi, A. scabra, A. schidigera, and A. victoriae-reginae). Other related succulents include yuccas (Y. baccata, Y. elataY. glauca, Y. linearifolia, Y. luminosa = Y. rigida, and Y. rostrata), sotol (Dasylirion leiophyllum and D. wheeleri), several nolinas (Nolina spp.), and Hesperaloe parviflora. There’s even a cool succulent euphorb called candelilla (Euphorbia antisyphilitica). 

Vachellia constricta growing outside the city limits. Locally called huisache - pronounced wee-saw-shay.

Of course, we can’t forget the cacti! The Chihuahuan Desert is one of the centers of diversity for cacti, hosting over 21% of the known species. Four genera are particularly abundant: the prickly pears (Opuntia spp.), hedgehog cacti (Echinocereus spp.), beehive cacti (Coryphantha spp.), and pincushion cacti (Mamillaria spp.). Other notable cacti include the chollas (Cylindropuntia spp.), peyote (Lophodora williamsii), and several species of the unusual-looking living rock cactus, Ariocarpus.

Chances are, that if you’re a plant person, you will recognize and have probably grown at least one these cacti or succulents in your own home or garden. We certainly owe a lot to this amazing region.

Many cacti, such as this prickly pear, start their lives underneath a bush.
. There, young seedlings are protected from from the hot sun.

Growing up as a young boy in southeast New Mexico, and then later spending a year at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, the Chihuahuan Desert in northern Mexico feels familiar, comfortable. At the time, I was ready to get away, to move on to the lusher woodlands of the Midwest. But the memories are still there and spring up unexpectedly, knocking me askew and creating odd moments where the past is overlaid on the present like a double exposed photograph. The crack of lighting and sudden rush of cool rain as a thunderstorm blusters overhead. The scent of creosote bush that saturates the air afterwards. The harsh, prickling sensation of the sun on my neck. Burning myself on the seat belt buckle in a car as hot as a preheated oven. Am I here, now, or there, then?

It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. You know what I mean? It’s awfully difficult.” – Little Edie, Grey Gardens.

Rain in summer, can you imagine? It's such a rarity in Oregon.
Villa Ahumada, a small town between Juarez and Chihuahua.

This is a country filled with stark contrasts. Drought versus deluge, bleak versus lush, degraded versus pristine. Even the cities and towns reflect a clear dichotomy between the poor and the rich, the dilapidated and the modern.

Garbage travels far in the desert, driven by strong winds until it lodges somewhere, like the mesquite along the highway.
Dust dry in the foreground, pouring rain in the background.

I’m especially looking forward to writing about my time in El Vallecillo (pronounced L Vie-yuh-see-yo), a small village south of Chihuahua City. This is one of those magical places that transforms quickly from dry and barren to a verdant wonderland once the rains begin. It was just beginning to green up when we arrived in mid-July.

Small farm with cattle, goats, and chickens In El Vallecillo

It was too hot to explore much while we were there this summer, though we did walk briefly in a grove of evergreen oaks on the outskirts of the village.

A highly grazed evergreen oak savanna in El Vallecillo

The ground underneath was was full of acorns, broken bottles, bottle caps, and cow pats for as far as the eye could see. Strangely, there were also hundreds of broken tiles of almost every imaginable color and pattern scattered everywhere. Evidently the grove is a place for parties and for dumping leftover construction debris. This doesn’t really show the extent of it, but I didn’t want to spend my time photographing trash.

Some welcome shade
Two bud lights and an acorn, the next country hit song
Broken tile and bottle cap
Old cow pats and broken bottle

The summer rains had begun a few weeks earlier, but there hadn’t been enough volume yet for full botanical throttle. Soon, the hillsides will explode with an astonishing array of plant life, even despite the intense pressure from grazing. Within days after a heavy rain, ferns, mosses, and annual flowers appear seemingly out of nowhere. Cacti and succulents swell and bloom.

Back in August 2021, we arrived late enough in the summer that we were able to experience that botanical explosion. Since then, El Vallecillo echoes in my mind as one of the most enchanting places I have been in the Chihuahuan Desert, right up there with Big Bend, the Guadalupe Mountains, and the Organ Mountains.

Agaves on a hill overlooking the village in August 2021
Mammillaria sp. growing on the hillside above El Vallecillo

And, as promised, I’ll also be working on a couple posts about the nurseries I got to visit down there. Here’s a taste.

That's a pom pom boxwood on the left. Yes, even in Mexico.

Let’s just say I wasn’t sure what to expect, but these alternative plant pots were pretty cute.

Alternative potting practices

Ok, that’s it for now and there is still much to discover ahead. Come with me as we take a little adventure tour to Chihuahua Mexico!

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. hb

    Marvelous. Looking forward to more. Many things I did not know, thank you!

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Glad you enjoyed it!

  2. Kris P

    Thanks for sharing this, Jerry! It’s interesting to be reminded about how close the industry ties between the US and Mexico are. My one and only trip to Mexico took my husband and I to a resort city along the ocean (very different!) but the scenery you’ve shown here reminds me some of areas in the desert Southwest of the US I passed through on a road trip with my family as a 13 year-old. I look forward to your future posts, whenever you choose to unroll them 😉

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Thanks Kris! The desert southwest was my home for many years as a child, so it has been nice to do some research to learn more about it. I was feeling bad at how long it has taken me to swing through my usual blog haunts and to get new posts out, but figured everyone gets busy sometimes. Hope things are going well!

  3. Jane / MulchMaid

    Not the post I expected to find on your blog, but interesting indeed. I had no sense of the diversity of Chihuahua and appreciate the eye-opener!

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Glad you found it interesting. One of the reasons I named my blog Botanica Chaotica was that I knew I would be barreling around to different topics over time. Mostly garden related, but veering into nature, travelogues, and whatever catches my interest. There has been a lot of travel this year and will be heading back to the desert southwest today. Good to hear from you!

  4. danger garden

    Oh this series going to be amazing! I loved this intro and appreciate your pronunciation guide. I butcher my own language so trying to say anything in another is a huge mistake. I’ve only spent an afternoon in El Paso (flying out after several days in Las Cruces) but found it beautiful, and the wall rather stark. As for the alternative planting pots, yikes! Those edges look like an accident waiting to happen. Interesting conifer needle mulch?

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      One might even say those edges bring a sense of danger to container gardening. Not only are the plants spiny, but the pots can get you as well! The pine needles cover soil dug directly from the ground. Many nurseries don’t use potting soil.

  5. Anna K

    “Unfortunately, up to 70% of that wood is illegally harvested by drug cartels.” Ugh… that makes me so sad… Other than that, this was a very interesting read and I’m looking forward to the other parts, now that you’ve teased us! It’s a part of the world I have yet to visit. Maybe some day, if it ever cools off enough… Thanks also for enlightening me in how to pronounce Chihuahua. I’ve been saying it wrong all along.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Yeah, the illegal wood harvesting is pretty bad. There are billboards along the road telling people to report illegal tree cutting activity. And, of course, all that illegally harvested wood is then mixed into paper and other wood products that are sold back to us.

      Back down in the Chihuahuan Desert this week and it is a good 20F cooler than it is in Oregon. Weird.

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