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.
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.
Including today’s post, I’m thinking of tackling six topics.
- Introduction to Chihuahua, the Chihuahuan Desert, and a teaser of things to come (this post)
- My observations of the differences between Mexico and the US
- Nurseries of Chihuahua
- A Mennonite nursery
- Parks and home gardens around Chihuahua (a car tour)
- 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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. gracilipes, A. lechugilla, A. palmeri, A. parryi, A. scabra, A. schidigera, and A. victoriae-reginae). Other related succulents include yuccas (Y. baccata, Y. elata, Y. 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Let’s just say I wasn’t sure what to expect, but these alternative plant pots were pretty cute.
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!