Las plantas nativas del Vallecillo

Preface

Title translation: Native plants of El Vallecillo (pronounced “L Vah-yeh-See-yo” those double ll’s are pronounced like y’s in English).

Hooray! At long last we’ve finally reached the penultimate post of the Mexico series. I am so excited to share these last two posts with you because they cover one of my favorite topics, plant diversity. Today, we are admiring desert plants from El Vallecillo , a small village south of the city of Chihuahua. I was there in August 2021 after some significant rainfall had occurred. So, the hillsides were awash with lush vegetative growth.

All plants were identified using the references listed at the end of the post. At first, I used old-school books, because I had them available. But then, at some point, they weren’t enough and I switched to using iNaturalist, an online database that uses pictures to identify plants and animals. I’ll say more about that later.

Maybe you will recognize this photo from the first post of the series

As you will see, I had problems getting my camera to focus and was disappointed with the picture quality for some photos. My apologies for that. I also realized, as I started identifying the plants, that not all of them are native. Some are introduced weeds. I’ll call those out as we go along.

Lastly, I want to mention that the land around El Vallecillo is used to raise beef cattle. At any one point in time, cattle are wandering through the village or munching their way across the hillsides. This is beef country and I was a little worried that the ecosystem would be severely degraded by overgrazing. I needn’t have worried as I was still easily able to find an incredibly diverse array of plants to admire. Buckle up, my little ranunculites (buttercups), this is a long post!
 

The morning hike

Starting in the village proper, we will be heading up into those hills. But first, we’ll start with the plants in the foreground that grow along a seasonal creek running through the village.

Mule fat (Baccharis salicifolia) is common along waterways of the region. It looks quite different from our native coyotebush (Baccharis pilularis) in Oregon, which has much smaller leaves and grows in drier habitats.

Mule fat is a rather large, unkempt thing that is hard to photograph, particularly on a sunny day. Even so, the genus Baccharis holds a special place in my botanical heart as one of those relatively rare woody shrubs from the daisy family (Asteraceae) – most of the other plants from this family are annuals or perennials. Despite the sun and camera troubles, I did manage a few okay closeups.

White fluffy flowers of mule fat, Baccharis salicifolia
Flowers
Long thin leaves of mule fat, Baccharis salicifolia
Leaves
Seeds developing on mule fat, Baccharis salicifolia
Seedhead

Down at the base, I found a purple and yellow flower of silverleaf nightshade (Solanum eleagnifolium). It’s considered a weed, but it is native and I’ve always thought it was pretty. We had this where I grew up in NM, so seeing it brought back nostalgic memories of the desert.

There was another interesting shrub nearby with pungent, herbal leaves and spiky white flowers that I identified as beebrush or jazminillo (Aloysia gratissima). At first, I thought it was some sort of white Vitex species, but the leaves were wrong. Pretty, in a wild sort of way. Supposedly hardy to zone 7 with flowers scented like vanilla/jasmine and, of course, very attractive to bees.

I think this next one has promise as a garden plant, sort of a more refined version of wormwood/Artemisia with far more interesting flowers. It is mariola (Parthenium bipinnatifidum). Really pretty, but I couldn’t find much information about it. This plant is a perfect example of a species that, if I ever live in the Chihuahuan Desert again, I would grow in the garden and write up my own description of its habit and ecology.

This next one is a noxious weed from Eurasia and Africa. Puncturevine (Tribulus terrestris). With a name like that, you know it’s got to be nasty. And it is. Each plant produces dozens of little burs with hard, viciously sharp spines. The spines are arranged in such a way so that the longest,most excruciatingly painful spine on each bur always seems to point up towards an approaching foot. Extremely painful to step on and hard enough to puncture thin tires. They definitely go through flip flops. I quickly learned to avoid this plant as a kid.

I was super excited to see this next one, devil’s claw (Proboscidea parviflora), probably one of the weirdest, most interesting native desert plants I’ve ever grown. The leaves are tropical-looking, sticky, and stinky, the flowers like a pink gloxinia, and the seed pods… oh the seed pods are the best part – massively, wickedly cool. They emerge like an elongated bird’s head with a hooked beak (thus the name Proboscidea, referring to a long snout). But, once they dry, that’s when the magic happens. The outer skin shrivels and peels off to reveal a black, skeletal pod with two long horns – like a creepy alien, devil cow skull. Easy from seed, definitely worth growing. I grew it as a summer container plant while I was a student back in Wisconsin. I cannot recommend it enough. Check out this amusing, somewhat hyperbolic description by John Brittnacher from the International Carnivorous Plant Society. I’ve just ordered some seeds myself, so maybe I will do a post on devil’s claw later this summer.

Another wickedly thorny plant, related to the silverleaf nightshade mentioned above, is buffalobur (Solanum rostratum). Pretty, but it is toxic and the spines contain an irritant that causes a rash. Both silverleaf nightshade and buffalobur are considered invasive here in the Pacific Northwest and are targets for eradication. The rostratum part of the name refers to it’s beak-like schnozz that projects forward out of the center of the flower. One of the last plants Darwin was working on when he kicked the bucket in 1882.

Moving on out of the lowlands and up into the hills. Cattle were sauntering about mooing and chewing, but somehow I didn’t end up with a photo of a single one. I personally find cows to be a little creepy, which is ironic considering I’m from a family with a history of dairy farming back in Wisconsin.

Looking over my shoulder back to the village below. The trees and shrubs dotting the hillsides are a mixture of native oak (at least 11 different species), alligator juniper (Juniperus deppeana) and a few acacia relatives (Mimosa species and Vachellia constricta).

The ground was covered in rocks and cow pats, so I had to step carefully. Plus, I had to keep an ear out for rattlesnakes. But, in amongst all of that rocky jumble was an incredible wealth of plant diversity. Let’s take a closer look.

Initially, I couldn’t figure out what this little bluish-purple flower was. I thought maybe a type of browallia, ruellia, or ??? It didn’t take too long after hitting the books to find out it is Bouchea prismatica. Sadly, I didn’t find much information about it in the literature or online, which is a shame because it looks like a very garden-worthy plant to me.

This next plant was growing everywhere in amongst the rocks and proved tricky to identify. At first I was thinking it was a type of true moss (bryophyte), but it didn’t “feel” right. It didn’t have those little spore capsules held aloft like little fish on fishing poles. Perhaps something more closely related to the clubmosses (Lycopodium) or even a spikemoss (Selaginella)?

It was at this point that I started to rely on iNaturalist for IDs. It’s a relatively new online resource (for me) and came highly recommended by my friend Jennifer, who uses it to track plants and birds that she and her husband, Charlie, find at home in Boston and on their travels. Basically, you upload a photo and then iNaturalist tries to identify the plant based on the picture and the latitude/longitude where the photo was taken. Apparently, a number of scientists rely on on iNaturalist databases for their research, so I decided to give it a try.

Although iNaturalist couldn’t identify this plant to species, it did suggest that it was indeed a Selaginella based on the presence of strobili, these little leafy structures (white arrows) where the spores are produced. There are at least three species in the desert surrounding El Vallecillo, but I didn’t have enough other botanical characteristics to identify it further.

This isn’t an advertisement for iNaturalist, but I did find it useful for identifying plants for the rest of this post. One of the best features is their map function, where you can narrow down the list of species to those only known to occur in a particular area.

I was a little bummed that the picture on the left was so blurry. The flower is an interesting papery affair, similar to globe amaranths (Gomphrena) that many people grow as an everlasting cut flower. Gomphrena nitida has been found nearby, but the leaves and sprawling nature of the plant I found are all wrong for that. Instead, I suspect it might be the closely related Alternanthera caracasana even though the flowers were somewhat too large and pink for this species – perhaps a variant?

On the right, the yellow-flowered water hyssop (Mecardonia procumbens), which is considered a wetland plant. Initially, I was convinced I had found a monkeyflower (Mimulus or Erythranthe) of some sort, but that was wrong. I’m a little confused what it was doing way up on a desert hillside, far away from any consistent source of water and where it would be very dry for months on end. But, there it was nevertheless. Obviously it must be more drought tolerant than the botanists think it should be.

I was thrilled to discover three species of desert fern. These were everywhere. Carpets of them, which was something I never expected to see in the Chihuahuan Desert. If I had visited just a few weeks earlier or later, I might not have seen them at all because the fronds shrivel up and disappear as soon as the soil dries out. This fern was my favorite of the three and very easy to identify by its distinctive leaves. It’s the copper fern (Bommeria hispida). Perhaps my favorite plant find of the morning.

The other two were more difficult to identify. However a fern expert on iNaturalist weighed in and suggested that the one on the left might be Wright’s lipfern (Myriopteris wrightii) and the one on the right a golden lipfern (Myriopteris aurea).

 

In this same area, there were also a few familiar, bright little red flowers popping up, maybe 1.5 to 2 inches or so across. Zinnias! Yes, the exact same species (Zinnia peruviana) that many of us grow in our gardens as an annual is found growing wild as a native plant of the Chihuahuan Desert.

Not only that, but there were at least two species of marigold, the first of which was the golden marigold (Tagetes tenuifolia). The second, the fine-leaf marigold (T. filifolia), wasn’t in bloom quite yet (not shown). I’ll show that one next time.

And, bonus, bonus! On the left, the flower of Evolvulus arizonicus, which is closely related to the popular bedding plant Evolvulus glomeratus. And, on the right, Portulaca umbraticola, a species that is closely related to another bedding plant, flowering purslane (Portulaca grandiflora).

So there you have it. All in the space of a few square feet, four native Chihuahuan Desert species whose close relatives can all be found in the bedding plant section of your local nursery next spring!

This next photo isn’t the best, but it shows some of the browse damage (left side) caused by cattle that had been there just minutes before I arrived.

Perhaps in the not-so-special category are the white flowers of one of the bedstraws (Galium species). I wasn’t able to identify this one further than to genus. On the right, the best photo that I could get of the sawtooth sage (Salvia subincisa). Everything else was a blurry mess. My camera seemed to have a particularly hard time focusing on blues and reds that day.

I came across two distinct color variations of spreading fanpetals (Sida abutifolia). Cute. Especially with those consistently uneven, wavy petals (most visible on the left). I’ve read conflicting reports about whether it is native or not. My hunch is that it is native and I would definitely grow this in a Southwest desert garden as a groundcover.

I don’t usually pay much attention to grasses, sedges, or reeds while out botanizing, but I did appreciate Texas flatsedge (Cyperus sesleriodes) for its unusual, almost cone-like flowers. This is another one I would like to trial in a garden and potentially propagate for the nursery industry (future retirement plan?) if it isn’t too aggressive.

Next, the purple flowers of blue milkwort, Hebecarpa barbeyana. Another very nice plant. I’ll never understand why more of these plants aren’t available in the nursery industry.

This next one is a real beauty, sandwort drymary (Drymaria arenarioides). A happy-go-lucky groundcover with deeply incised brilliant white petals, sparkly nubbins on the leaves, and the flowers are almost… just almost… reminiscent of a pure white passionflower. Come on, you see it don’t you? Highly toxic to cattle, so ranchers don’t like it. One could almost say that sandwort drymary is to die for if one had a terrible sense of humor. I want to grow this in my Oregon rock garden.

One of two species of spiderwort I saw up in the hills. This one is the pinewoods spiderwort (Tradescantia pinetorum), even though there are no native pines in this immediate area. The other species wasn’t blooming (leatherleaf spiderwort, Tradescantia crassifolia), so I didn’t bother with any photos. I have to say, though, the pinewoods spiderwort is very elegant, less brash than some of the other species and cultivars that are available in commerce. An A+ plant worth trying in my book.

We’ll round out this post with some broader shots of the area. I want to point out that many cacti begin their lives at the base of a tree or shrub. This prickly pear (Opuntia species, right), for example, grew up at the base of an alligator juniper (left), which offered just a little extra protection against the sun. Many cacti also start in little protected pockets in amongst the rocks. We’ll see examples of that next time.

I wasn’t able to identify this prickly pear to species. Each pad was absolutely massive. More than a foot across. There are at least six different species of prickly pear in this region, but I wasn’t there at the right time to see the flowers to help narrow down which one was which. Beautiful plant, just the same, in front of a beautiful view. It’s posts like this that make me realize I need to expand my list of superlatives.

Oh, lookit that! An agave surrounded by golden marigolds. Now which one is it? Species reported from this area include A. applanata (possibly), A. asperrima, A. havardiana, A. lechugilla (I know it’s not this one), A. macroacantha (purty, not this one though), A. palmeria (probably not this one either), A. parryi (a distinct possibility), A. polianthiflora, A. potreriana, and A. schidigera. So, if I had to hazard a guess as a complete agave novice, I’d say it’s either an A. applanata or A. parryi, and more likely the latter given location reports. Any agave experts out there care to venture an opinion?

A better view without all those pesky native marigolds in the way. Strangely, I think this was the only species of agave I found up in the hills.

By this time, it was noon. I headed back into the village for lunch, sad to have to stop exploring. But, I knew I would return later that afternoon to continue botanizing. Next time, we’ll conclude the Mexico series with the plants I saw during that afternoon hike.

Resonance points

El Vallecillo holds a special place in my heart. It’s one of those rare places that I call a resonance point. A place that resonates with my soul and sets every nerve and fiber of my being aflame with a wealth of botanical diversity all accentuated against a backdrop of stunning natural beauty. Somehow invigorating, yet peaceful at the same time, resonance points echo in my mind long afterwards. I use my memory of them to guide my way forward both in life and in the garden. This, THIS is what I would like to try and recreate in some form back home in my own garden.

The wrap

So, there you have it. Part 1 of the native (and non-native) plants of El Vallecillo, one of my resonance points on planet Earth. This place brought me so much joy and I learned oodles trying to identify and learn more about the beautiful plants of the Chihuahuan Desert. I wish I could spend months in El Vallecillo, propagating all of the plants, getting them into the nursery industry, getting people excited about those all of those really outstanding plants.

Oh, and there’s absolutely no way I am going to finish the series by the end of January as I so earnestly promised. I was happy to be able to go to my first International Plant Propagators Society meeting last week in Temecula, California. I had a wonderful time, but this meant leaving L taking acre of Linnaeus, a very sad, little kitty with second degree burns. Linnaeus has been very two steps forward, one step back in his recovery, pulling off his bandages (while L was at work) and licking his paws until they bled profusely. I’m stuck at home for the short run, spending the weekend trying to keep Linnaeus from doing anything else that might delay his recovery, but it’s my turn to pay the piper, so to speak. We’re pretty sleep deprived here at Botanica Chaotica, grumpy, and waxing poetic. But, I predict good things in our future. At least it gave me a chance to work on a post that I had a lot of fun writing.

References

  • Anderson, Wynn. 2006. Recommended Southwestern Plants for the El Paso/Las Cruces Area of the Chihuahuan Desert Region.
  • Dodson, Carolyn. 2012. A Guide to Plants of the Northern Chihuahua Desert. University of New Mexico Press. ISBN 978-0-8263-5021-3.
  • Everitt, James H., Drawe, D. Lynne, and Lonard, Robert I. 2002. Texas Tech University Press. ISBN 0-89672-473-5.
  • iNaturalist. Accessed 21Jan2024.
  • Loughmiller, Campbell and Loughmiller, Lynn. 2006. University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-0-292-71286-7.
  • MacMahon, James. 1997. Deserts. National Audubon Society Nature Guides. Alfred A. Knopf. ISBN 0-394-73139–5.
  • Mielke, Judy. 1993. Native Plants for Southwestern Landscapes. University of Texas Press. ISBN 0-292-75553-8.
  • Sturla, Gene. Southwest Desert Flora website. Accessed 21Jan2024.
  • West, Steve. 2000. Northern Chihuahuan Desert Wildflowers. Falcon Publishing. ISBN 1-56044-980-2.

This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Tracy

    oooh, poor kitty! Darn, I hope his little paws heal up quickly.

    Thank you for your expansive review of El Vallecillo. The devil’s claw looks (close-up anyway) so much like a penstemon flower.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Thanks Tracy! He’s doing a little better each day! Yes, the devil’s claw flower does look a bit like a Penstemon, except that it is much larger. It is an interesting plant.

  2. Kris P

    El Vallecillo does look lush by comparison to much of the scenery you’ve shown in your other posts. Your botanical survey was very interesting, although I had to wonder how you (not to speak of the cows that forage there) managed to keep yourself from getting stabbed or otherwise injured. The devil’s claw is remarkably pretty even if its details are a bit off-putting. The sandwort and the blue milkwort are also attractive plants even if the sandwort’s toxicity would have me steering clear of it.

    I’m sorry to hear that Linnaeus had a set-back. He does look sad. Give him a scratch behind the ear for me.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      El Vallecillo was the greenest I have ever seen it that August. They must have had a lot of rain. It would be hard to enjoy it as much for the other 11 months or more when everything just looks brown and crispy. All the pokey plants were far enough apart that I didn’t have too much trouble navigating without pain. I do wonder about the cows though. My assumption is that they wouldn’t pay as much attention as I do, but then again, I didn’t see any of them showing any signs of having been injured. Linnaeus got lots of tummy rubs today and was quite happy about that. Oh, and he found an open paper bag, which was even better.

  3. danger garden

    Oh poor Linnaeus, that photo says so much.

    Great post! I almost felt like I was there with you. I am no expert, but I agree the agave appears to be Agave parryi. I also agree the Parthenium bipinnatifidum looks like it would be a great garden plant. While I’ve long loved the seed pods of the devil’s claw/Proboscidea parviflora I don’t think I’ve even seen the flower. It’s disappointingly sweet. I have a small patch of Bommeria hispida and adore it, how fortunate to see it and the other ferns in the wild. Finally, the sandwort drymary/Drymaria arenarioides flower is fabulous. I mean it’s no passionflower (ha!), but it’s cool. Also I can safely say none of your readers are holding you to your January timeline. We are happy to read what you put out into the world on whatever schedule works for you.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      The devil’s claw does seem like something that should have black flowers, or prickly flowers, or both. I’d love to grow Bommeria hispida. I’ve tried quite a few of those desert ferns and they just don’t like how wet our place gets in the winter. I’ve never had one make it through two winters in a row. Although I know no one is holding me to the deadline, I was just looking forward to finally finishing the series so I could finish another post on my 2023 pathway project. Then, I can finally work on 2024 stuff!

Leave a Reply