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Mavericks of the Desert Plant Community

The Desert Food Chain - Part 9

If you come from, say, the Eastern Woodlands or the Great Plains or the Pacific Northwest to visit the deserts of the Southwest, you will be taken immediately by prickly characters such as the showy Saguaro or the Teddy Bear Cholla or the Barrell Cactus.  You will quickly notice the signature yuccas such as the Joshua-tree or the Torrey or the Soaptree and agaves such as the Century Plant, the Parry or the Lechuguilla.  You will soon notice the dominant (and aggressively expanding) shrubs such as Creosotebush, Tarbush, the various acacias and the mesquites.  In the few areas spared from overgrazing by domestic livestock, you will see remnant stands of desert grasses.  With good timing and good luck, especially during the spring and early summer, you may discover – and thrill to! – a landscape awash in the colors of desert wildflowers. 

Given some time with the desert plant community, you will also begin to discover other, less showy, less dominant but highly individualistic plants that play important roles in the food chain.  These include, for a few examples, the Ocotillo, Ephedra, Sotol and Allthorn.


The Ocotillo, sometimes called the Devil’s Walking Stick, has several long, whip-like, spiny stems that spray upward for perhaps 20 to 30 feet from a root crown.  It bears a close familial relationship with Mexico’s strange and geographically restricted Boojum Tree, which grows on the Baja Peninsula as a 40- to 50-foot tall, often thick, single-branched and sparsely leafed plant. 

The Ocotillo’s native range spans the deserts of the Southwestern United States and northern Mexico, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Fire Effects Information System Internet site.  It grows in streambed floodplains and on mountain flanks.  It capitalizes on limestone-rich soils, which capture and hold heat, extending the elevation of the Ocotillo’s growth into the mountains.  The Ocotillo mixes freely with the cacti, yuccas, agaves, shrubs, desert grasses and streamside vegetation. 

As described by James A. MacMahon in his book Deserts, the Ocotillo has two-inch-long green oval leaves that appear soon after a respectable rain falls and wither and fall off as the soil dries—a cycle that may be repeated several times during the warm seasons.  As the leaves fall off, they leave behind the plant’s rigid, conical-shaped spines.  “No other plant family makes spines in this way,” according to Arthur C. Gibson in Mildred E. Mathias Botanical Garden Internet newsletter, Winter 2000 edition.  The Ocotillo’s long grey waxy stems, which sway gracefully in the desert winds, can perform photosynthesis after its leaves have fallen.  Like the cacti, the Ocotillo has a shallow radiating root system that puts itself first in line for any rainwater.  The Ocotillo produces a brilliant red cluster of flowers at the end of its stems during the spring.  It yields an abundance of small, flat, feathery seeds during the early summer, casting them to the desert winds.  The minuscule percentage of the seeds that germinate during the desert’s rainy season and survive over the next two years may yield plants that live for up to two centuries, according to an Internet site developed by Annette Lamb and Larry Johnson.

The Ocotillo has developed several strategies for survival in the desert environment.  For instance, its leaves, during their short lives, act swiftly to produce plant sugars needed for growth, according to Lamb and Johnson.  The plant sheds its leaves during drought, becoming dormant and minimizing transpiration (the evaporation of water through the leaf tissues).  A “stem succulent,” it stores water in the central tissues of its stems, which are covered by bark that is essentially waterproof.  Its shallow roots intercept rainfall before it reaches competing plants with deeper root systems.  Its showy blooms attract a host of pollinating insects.  Its abundant seeds increase the chances for future generations.

As a producer, the Ocotillo’s blooms serve as a major food source for hummingbirds during their spring migration northward, especially in the northern Sonoran Desert.  The blooms also attract other birds such as the Verdin as well as insects such as Carpenter Bees, and the flowers are “tasty to humans as well—straight or soaked in cold water,” said the Pima County College Desert Ecology of Tucson Internet site.


The Ephedra – also called Mormon Tea, Squaw Tea, Cowboy Tea, Whorehouse Tea, Canyon Tea, Jointfir, Joint-pine, Yellow Horse, Country Mallow and numerous other names in our deserts – looks much a like a three-dimensional game of pickup sticks.  Typically standing waist to chest high, it has “numerous jointed green, apparently leafless, branches,” according to MacMahon.  Its joints are quite distinct.  A “strange-looking plant” authority Clark Champie calls the Ephedra in his small book Strangers in the Franklins.  (The “Franklins” are a mountain range of the Chihuahuan Desert, in far west Texas.) 

Various species grow, not only in our Southwest, but also in the arid regions of Mexico, South America, the Mediterranean and Asia.  In our deserts, it grows in well-drained, sandy, rocky soils in flood plains and in mountain foothills.  “It occurs in large pure stands and in mixed pinyon-juniper woodlands, salt-desert, sagebrush and hot-desert transitional shrublands, and mountain and desert grasslands,” said Stanley G. Kitchen, Research Botanist, U. S. Department of Agriculture, in a brief paper called “Ephedraceae.” 

The Ephedra’s scale-like leaves, which grow at the joints of the stems, measure no more than a small fraction of an inch in length.  Its older stems may be sheathed with a gray bark, and the newer and greener branches can perform photosynthesis.  Its roots, said Kitchen, “are deep [perhaps six or seven feet] and fibrous extending from an expanded root crown.”  Classified as a gymnosperm, which means that it is a  nonflowering plant, like the pines, the Ephedra produces minute cones and seeds. 

The Ephedra’s desert adaptations include its small leaves and special-shaped stomata, or pores, which restrict transpiration; its stems, which conduct photosynthesis; and its root system, which reaches for both new rain fall and the deeper ground water.  Given the right conditions, it produces an abundance of small seeds that help assure the future of the species.

The Ephedra provides a welcome source of browse for wildlife, particularly during prolonged drought and hard winters.  Its stems, for example, are eaten by deer and pronghorns and its seeds, by various birds and small mammals.  According to Jane SpottedBird [sic] in her paper Ethnobotanical Information, Chihuahuan Desert Gardens, the Ephedra’s stems were used by prehistoric peoples of the Southwest in making teas, and its seeds were ground into meal or flour for making mush, breads and cakes.  Its stems were used in Utah for making tea, hence the common name Mormon Tea. 

The Ephedra has become most well-known for its medicinal uses.  It served indigenous peoples, who, said Kitchen, “used…various concoctions from seeds and stems to treat a variety of symptoms including coughs, headaches, cold, fever, and kidney ailments.”  Historically, according to SpottedBird, Ephedra found a place in Spanish Colonialists herbal treatments for fever, kidney problems and venereal disease.  It even found a place in medicinal teas brewed up by cowboys, who contracted venereal diseases in frontier bawdy houses, hence the common names Cowboy Tea and Whorehouse Tea. 

In modern times, Ephedra has been used as a source for extracting high concentrations of ephedrine, a popular constituent in dietary supplements and weight control products, according to The World Knowledge Library’s Internet site.  Moreover, Ephedra, says Cathy Wong, N. D., on her Internet site, “is a common ingredient found in herbal preparations for asthma, weight loss, athletic performance and cold and allergy medications.”

Unfortunately, according to the Federal Drug Administration, “155 deaths, including that of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, as well as dozens of heart attacks and strokes have been attributed to the use of ephedra,” and, said Wong, “Researchers examined the safety of popular dietary supplements containing ephedra and concluded that they pose serious health risks to come consumers”  It has been banned as a dietary supplement in the National Football League since 2001.


At first look, you might think that the Sotol bears a close relationship to the narrow-leaf yuccas or the agaves in our deserts of the Southwest.  All of them have similar rosette leaf arrangements.  However, the Sotol’s ribbon-like leaves have barbed, or saw-toothed, edges and, usually, a frayed point, and the plant produces a 10- to 15-foot bloom stalk with a dense cluster of tiny greenish or whitish flowers.  By contrast, the yuccas’ leaves have smooth margins and a dagger-like point, and the yuccas produce bloom stalks with large bell-shaped blossoms.  The Sotol may produce a bloom stalk and flower cluster nearly every year during its lifetime, given favorable conditions.  By comparison, the agaves typically produce a bloom stalk and flower cluster only once, signaling a climactic end to their lives.  Fairly recently, scientists have decided that Sotol holds a closer relationship with Sacahuista, a grassy-looking plant with serrated leaves that grow in thick fountain-like clumps.  The Sotol and the Sacahuista have both given rise to the common name of Beargrass, presumably, someone said, because their blooms smell like a bear’s breath.  I don’t recall who might have verified that claim.

The Sotol, with a range extending across the desert landscape from Western Texas to Southeastern Arizona and well down into Mexico, likes shallow and rocky soil with good drainage.  According to the USDA’s Fire Effects Information System Internet site, Sotol “grows on hillsides and slopes in chaparral, desert and semidesert grasslands and southwestern oak…woodland communities at 3,000 to 5,000 feet…in elevation.” 

The mature Sotol has hundreds of long, narrow, flattened, armed leaves that flare into a spoon-like shape at the bases.  (The plant is sometimes called the “Desert Spoon.”)  Typically, the Sotol leaf rosette emerges from a very short stem, but occasionally, says the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum in its Internet site, mature plants may develop a five- or six-foot-long stem, occasionally branched.  According to some very limited sources, its roots, apparently coarse and carrot shaped, extend straight down for several inches then branch radially.  Its flower cluster, which emerges in late spring and early summer, extends for several feet along the top of the bloom stalk, and it yields an abundance of seeds that are contained in three-winged capsules that scatter with the wind.

The Sotol’s adaptations to the desert’s harshness include the leaves’ rosette arrangement and spoon-shape bases, which serve to funnel rain water and snow melt to the plant’s roots.  Further, as a succulent, its leaves have tissues and a waxy coating to retain water.  Like the cacti, yuccas and agaves, the Sotol’s leaves close their stomata during the day to minimize transpiration, opening them at night to collect the carbon dioxide necessary for photosynthesis.  Its abundant seeds help assure the propagation of the species. 

The Sotol plays a diverse role in the food chain.  According to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Internet site, for instance, “Black Bears [presumably with the right breath odor] in Texas especially relish the succulent base of the sotol plant...  In desert environments, it’s common to find partially eaten sotol plants where bears have been.”  Additionally, according to the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum Internet Site, the blooms “attract huge numbers of insects, including flies, bees, wasps, and butterflies.”  In fact, if you stand near a blooming Sotol in the middle of the summer, you can sometimes hear the hum of insects around its flowers.  Among the indigenous peoples, according to the National Park Services Big Bend National Park Internet site, “The young flower stalks were eaten, as were the seeds.  The heart of the plant was cooked along with agave hearts in a stone-lined pit for several days and then eaten.”  Additionally, the leaves, stripped of their thorns, were woven into baskets and mats, twisted into ropes, and made into sandals.

Most famously, perhaps, the Sotol became a source for a fiery wine-like drink of the desert.  Weston La Barre, Yale University, writing in the American Ethnologist in 1938, noted that, “The watery juice is easily pressed out [from the fleshy crown at the apex of the stem], and is not unpalatable, but cooking alone sweetens it. As with mescal, the name of the drink derives from that of the plant, though it is sometimes called mezcal de sotol.”  According to an unnamed source, mezcal de sotol affects you “differently, but positively, like no other liquor.”  As far as I know, mezcal de sotol has not yet made the list of dietary supplements banned by the National Football League.  

Allthorn or Crucifixion Thorn

“No cactus plant can claim to be spinier than this weird plant,” said Clark Champie in Strangers in the Franklins.  “No one, having seen it, will wonder why it is called Allthorn.”  Virtually leafless, green, intricately branched, stunningly thorned, the Allthorn, or Crucifixion Thorn, sometimes grows in thickets that would have well served Brer Rabbit, who, as you will recall, pled with Brer Fox, “I don’t care what you do with me…just so you don’t fling me into the briar patch.” 

As biologist Arthur H. Harris, said in Desert Diary, an Internet site produced by the Centennial Museum and National Public Radio at the University of Texas at El Paso, the Allthorn “seems to consist of little but thorns, though a botanist will tell you that they’re really branches whose ends constrict abruptly to sharp points.  As if this armament wasn’t enough, the shrub sends its branches in all directions, intersecting in a virtually impenetrable tangle of branches and spines.”

Native to the northern Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts, the Allthorn grows on “Sandy or gravelly mesas in the upper desert and the desert grassland at 2,400 to 5,000 feet elevation,” according to Lyman Benson and Robert A. Darrow, A Manual of Southwestern Desert Trees and Shrubs, University of Arizona Bulletin.  It also “occupies medium- to fine-textures soils of broad intermountain plains of the Chihuahuan Desert and related outlying areas in southeastern Arizona.”  Another species, of the northwestern Sonoran Desert, grows on “rocky foothills and upper bajada [adjoining alluvial fans] slopes in the desert at 1,500 to 2,000 feet elevation.”  The Allthorn may grow in dense thickets or in Creosotebush-dominated desert shrublands. 

Typically, the Allthorn grows as a shrub five to 10 feet tall, but occasionally it reaches more than 20 feet in height.  According to the National Register of Big Trees Internet Site, one Allthorn plant, at Arizona’s Boyce Thompson Arboretum, has grown to 23 feet in height, with a spread of 21 feet.  The Allthorn’s leaves, which appear briefly after a spring rain, according to Virginia Tech Forestry Department’s Internet site, measure about a quarter of an inch in length.  They disappear promptly with the resumption of dry weather.  The Allthorn’s phalanx of rigid green to greenish gray branches bristle with one- to two-inch-long twigs that end in dark sharp points—a formidable botanical armament.  The Allthorn’s roots, according to L. H. Gile, R. P. Gibbens and J. M. Lenz, writing for the October 1995 Journal of Arid Environments, penetrated to extraordinary depths.  Secondary roots penetrated deeply then turned around and, remarkably, “grew vertically upward [and] branched profusely” near the surface.  The authors believe that “occasional deeply penetrating soil water moves down channels once occupied by roots and other openings in the soil, and that this is a source of water for growth of the deeply penetrating roots, as well as for the roots that grow upward.”  The plant produces small and generally inconspicuous whitish flower clusters and one-quarter-inch-diameter shiny black berries. 

The Allthorn’s desert survival strategies center on its small leaves and its incredible root system.  With small and quickly shed leaves, the plant minimizes transpiration.  (It branches and spines, equipped with stomata, perform the function of photosynthesis.)  Its roots reach into the soil both at shallow and deep levels to reach water. 

Its spines discourage browsing by the larger animals, but the Allthorn’s seeds, according to several sources, are eaten by quail and other birds.  Its more tender branches are browsed by jackrabbits.  The seeds were also apparently eaten by some indigenous peoples. 

If the Allthorn would seem to form a barrier in the food chain, “those animals able to wend their way into these fortresses delight in all of this,” said Harris.  “What coyote or fox would dare trying to poke its nose into this world of hurt merely to snack on bird eggs or young.  On the other hand, what’s impenetrable to one, may be a virtual heaven for others—it does seem like the perfect feeding ground for an enterprising snake.”

Next Outlaw desert plants


By Jay W. Sharp


Part 1 Desert Food chain - Introduction
Part 2 Desert Food chain - The Producers
Part 3 Desert Food chain - The Cacti: A Thorny Feast 
Part 4 Desert Food chain - The Yuccas
Part 5 Desert Food chain - The Agave
Part 6 Desert Food chain - Desert Grasslands
Part 7 Desert Food chain - Desert Shrubs
Part 8 Desert Food chain - The annual forbs
Part 9 Desert Food chain - Mavericks of the Desert Plant
Part 10 Desert Food chain - Outlaw desert plants
Part 11 Desert Food chain - Animals: The Consumers
Part 12 Desest Food chain - The Insects
Part 13 Desest Food chain - The Ugly, the Uglier and the Ugliest

Also see: The Desert Food Chain for the young student




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