DENIZENS OF A
STRANGE-FEELING FOREST

Coronado National ForestMarch 2, 1988
 
NEW MEXICO: Hidalgo County
 
Coronado National Forest three miles east of the Arizona border and fifteen miles north of the Mexican border, in the Peloncillo Mountains. Elevation between 6000 and 7000 feet.

We pull into an empty, seldom-used, very informal campground next to a stream. The most common tree around us is the Emory Oak, Quercus emoryi, with black bark breaking into rectangular blocks reminiscent of an alligator's hide. Curiously enough, the valley's second-most common tree is the very unrelated Alligator Juniper, Juniperus deppeana, so called because its bark also looks like alligator hide.

Farther upslope two species of pine dominate -- the Mexican Pinyon, Pinus cembroides, with needles in clumps of both twos and threes, and the Chihuahua Pine, Pinus leiophylla, with needles  in clumps of three only. My books list four species of pinyon pine found in the western U. S. Pinyons are especially interesting because of their half-inch long, edible seeds. On trains in northern Mexico often I buy pinyon seeds being hawked by Indians at train stations. Sometimes at mid slope Silverleaf Oaks, Quercus hypoleucoides, appear, their leaves curiously white-hairy on their undersides.

Especially on the lower, relatively moist slopes a single species of blossoming wildflower offers a hint of springy feeling. It's Fendler's Pennycress, Thlaspi fendleri, a Mustard-Family member with a head of white flowers. It's found in mountainous piney woods throughout most of the Southwest. Also, a red-stemmed bush of the Heath Family flowers conspicuously with pinkish, goblet-shaped flowers. It's the Point-leaf Manzanita, Arctostaphylos pungens.

I'd supposed that at this elevation (between 6000 and 7000 feet) winters would be too cold for cacti to survive. However, fairly common along rocky ridges I find our third species of cholla, one called the Handlegrip Cholla, Opuntia spinosior. Standing three to four feet high, it's similar to the Cane Cholla seen at Big Bend, except that its bumps, or tubercles, are smaller. A species of pricklypear new for us is the Clock-face Pricklypear, Opuntia chloritica, with their beaver tails stacked atop a massive, cylindrical, tree-like trunk very effectively armored with a mat of heavy spines.

Similar to our already familiar Strawberry Cactus and closely related to it is Fendler's Hedgehog Cactus, Echinocereus fendleri. Also common here is the Comb Hedgehog Cactus, Echinocereus pectinatus, which is cylindrical and averages about ten inches high. Finally, I've found one specimen of the Red-goblet Cactus, Echinocereus polyacanthus, famous for the beauty of its flowers.

All five of these species --the first two are Opuntias and the last three are Echinocerei --are "southwestern highland specialties." If we'd visited Big Bend's highlands, probably we'd have seen the Red-goblet Cactus, but Big Bend lies too far eastward for the other four species.

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