Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

By Branson, Branley Allan | The World and I, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument


Branson, Branley Allan, The World and I


In spite of its outstanding attributes, the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is doubtless the least visited of all our national monuments and parks. This nearly 331,000-acre park lies practically isolated in southern Arizona, reached by Arizona State Highway 85, which passes through the park and the tiny village of Lukeville on the Mexican border. With the exception of Lukeville, and the considerably larger Mexican town of Sonoyta a few miles south of the border, there are no other communities of any size nearby.

At first glance, the monument looks like an exceedingly dry series of plains and valleys crossed and bordered equally dry mountain ranges, the Cipriano Hills and Bates Mountains on the west, the Ajo Mountains on the east, which impings on the western border of the huge Tohno O'Odham Indian Reservation (previously referred to as the Pima Indians), the Puerto Blanco Mountains that cut diagonally across the monument, passing the visitor center.

The flatlands (more or less) that are most significant include the quite large Sonoyta Valley, in which the park visitor center is located, extends northward to make contact with the Ajo Valley. The La Abra Plain lies west of the Puerto Blanco and Sonoyta Mountgains. All of these areas are full of typical and beautiful Sonoran Desert plants and wildlife. Two well-maintained gravel drives allow visitors to become intimately familiar with this singular park. Both drives start at the visitor center. Both are one-way and return drivers back to the center.

The 53-mile Puerto Blanco Drive penetrates the desert country and circles the colorful Puerto Blanco Mountains. The drive passes through mind-boggling variety of sonoran scenery and a highly diversified plant community that includes growths of saguaro, organ pipe, and senita cacti, as well as a welter of woody plants such as the elephant tree (Busera microphylla), and ironwood (Olneya tesota), a member of the legume family. Ironwood is beautiful during the spring when it is covered with lavender flowers.

Careful observation often brings into view specimens of Mormon tea (usually Ephedra trifurcata, but there are others). This plant belongs to an ancient lineage (joint-fir family). We were startled to learn that these spindly-looking plants are actually gymnosperms related to pines. Close inspection of the stems reveals the presence of tiny joints that bear the minute leaves and nearly microscopic cones (male and female, borne on separate plants since the sexes are separate. The "cones" bear bear one to three seeds.

Mormon tea, as indicated above, is a name that may be applied to a variety of other American species, such as E. viridis. Several other common names have been applied to these plants, desert tea, whore's tea, among others.

Ephedra has been used for centuries as medicine for several illnesses, and still is. Chinese species (E. sinica), commonly referred to as Mahuang or Ma Huang, is probably the principal source of the active ingredients ephedrine and pseuephedrine, which are used for nasal decongestants and lung and bronchial constriction, although these same alkaloid drugs are present in American species as well.

A good place to look for Ephedra and other interesting plants along the Puerto Blanco drive (also along the Ajo Mountain Drive) is on the bajadas around the bases of the mountains. Bajadas are produced as the mountains erode and rocks and other debris fall to create the skirt-like slope which retain more water than the mountains themselves. Another name for bajadas is "alluvial fans." But whichever name is applied, the fans provide living space for an amazing diversity of life.

Visitors given to early-morning rising and walking may encounter a large array of birds, reptiles, and interesting mammals that are found on the bajadas during other parts of the day. However, there are two birds that are common at any time of the day, the cactus wren and the phaenopepla (built like a black cardinal). …

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