Originally Published: November 21, 2012 8:18 p.m.
Hiking to Alkali Flat at White Sands National Monument is nothing short of strange. Is there any place in the Southwest where you can plunge your bare feet into pure white, cold sand and walk for miles in the full sun and see no life for miles except for a lone plant and a spider crawling out of a tiny hole, inspecting you as you pass? Since I am too big for the spider to eat, I had no worries, but I wondered, what is there to eat out here? From the perspective of a spider, there must be enough. From the perspective of a hiker, I was happy that I brought lunch and that it was not summer. According to the Monument's website, it's tough out here for plants too. They stand in stark contrast to the land, islands of green in a sea of white. If life can make it here, it can make it anywhere.
The Monument's checklist of plants begins with an overview of the area's ecology. White Sands National Monument preserves a sea of graceful white gypsum sand dunes--a landscape of stark natural beauty. Life is difficult in the dune field, even for plants adapted to desert conditions. The dune field environment is unusually harsh: plants must endure burial by moving dunes, nutrient-poor gypsum soil, and extreme fluctuations of temperature. Only about 60 species of plants, one quarter of those growing in the adjacent Tularosa Basin, have found a way to survive in the dunes. Read more ... http://www.nps.gov/whsa/naturescience/checklist-of-plants.htm
The book, "Sand: A Never Ending Story" by Michael Wellend leaves plants behind, focusing on the substrate in which they grow and upon which we walk. He quotes Robert Twigger on page 147, which is the chapter devoted to desert landscapes as shaped by the wind. Twigger wrote in "Lost Oasis: In Search of Paradise," that the real lost oasis is the desert itself. He described the desert as oasis by saying, "An oasis of light and contemplative beauty that replenished our inner reserves." White Sands National Monument offers plenty of beauty to contemplate whether you focus on the light above, the sand below, or the plants in between. You may even be tempted to cast off your shoes and let your toes do the walking, immersed in the sand, illuminated by the light.
I don't go anywhere barefoot, not even at home. But, seeing nothing but soft, pure, white sand stretching out before me for miles, I couldn't resist. I walked barefoot for two miles to Alkali Flat. I started shortly after sunrise in the fall and the sand was quite cold. I am sure it can be quite hot in the summer. The surface of the sand varies from hard to soft and from flat to steep. There is virtually no elevation change to speak of on this hike. The views are stunning. The whiteness is quite brilliant in the full sun, a unique experience, not to be missed in the Southwest.
No permits are needed for day hiking. There is no camping in the Monument. The facilities at the Visitor Center include restrooms, gift shop, theater presentation, and helpful staff. There is a fee to enter the park and their hours are limited to daylight, except for special programs such as star talks/walks. If you have an annual interagency pass, the entrance fee is waived. There is ample parking at the trailhead and there is a toilet.
The Monument is easy to find. From the intersection of I-25 and I-10 in Las Cruces, New Mexico go north on I-25 to US70. Go east on US70 about 54 miles to the Visitor Center. The trailhead is even easier to find. Go north on Dunes Drive to its end (8 miles). The trailhead is well signed to get you off on the right foot. Soon (about 100 yards later) there is a post with a blank placard. This marks the split of the Alkali Loop Trail. It doesn't much matter which direction you walk around the Loop, clockwise or counter-clockwise. The trail is marked by plenty of signs, which is good as there are no other prominent landmarks across the dunes. Topo Map: Heart of the Sands quad. 7.5'
The four plants presented here are woody plants that can be observed any time of year in the Monument. They stand out easily against the sand and occur widely across the West. With so much aridity out here, we can expect these species to pop up wherever places like White Sands are encountered: across the Intermountain states, east of the Cascades, eastern New Mexico and Colorado, into Texas.
It's a thirsty land, where evaporation exceeds precipitation, leaving behind salty soils with little organic matter. Gentle, green slopes are absent. Shade is precious, rare as costly gemstones. Instead, we find sharp, bold lines where naked peaks and canyons invite us to come up to higher summits and down into deeper cracks. Rock, wind, and sun confront us. Sometimes we are the only life discernible in the immediate vicinity. Stumbling upon these stationary plant inhabitants in a land that is not stationary is like seeing a smile on a friendly face when crossing enemy territory. They refresh the soul like water refreshes the body. They give us hope when we are ready to give up. If they can make it here, we can make it through our current desert journey.
Iodinebush, Allenrolfea occidentalis (Goosefoot Family)
It's a tough problem to be confused over which family you belong too, but that's the case with Iodinebush. Some say Goosefoot, others say Pigweed. Plants with inconspicuous flowers have been difficult to classify, historically. But with advances in chemical and chromosomal data, you'd expect a clearer picture of the relationships between plants. However, opinions vary and in spite of the complex and exacting nature of biochemistry and plant systematics, it still boils down to personal judgment. The evidence must be interpreted and interpretations vary. More often than not, the majority opinion, that shared by the greatest number of investigators, dominates the discussion as time marches on. Iodinebush was named after Robert Allen Rolf, a mid 19th to early 20th century British botanist. Woody, at least at the base, Iodinebush nearly reaches one meter in height. The stems are somewhat succulent and have the ability to take up salt from the soil. In an effort to conserve moisture, the leaves are little more than scales, much like Juniper in appearance. The flowers lack petals and are arranged in compact spikes toward the ends of the stems. The fruit is a utricle, that is dry, bladder-like, and indehiscent. It does not split open to expose the seeds. The entire structure/fruit is dispersed rather than the individual seeds. Iodinebush is a dominant shrub of salt playas and mudflats in the American Southwest. Iodinebush is easily distinguished from great distances by the dark hue of its stems. The blackish-colored shrubs stand in stark contrast to surrounding landscape, especially at White Sands National Monument. Like many family members you might know, Iodinebush is a loner. It is easy to spot due to its contrasting color, but also because it stands alone, therefore, it stands out. Outstanding. You can't miss it.
Four-wing Saltbush, Atriplex canescens (Goosefoot Family)
Like Iodinebush, Four-wing Saltbush bears utricles. These persist for some time, so you are likely to notice them, stacked in compact fashion at the end of the stems. As the name suggests, the bladder-like fruits have four wings or membranes that flare out from the dry, central bladder. The leaves are narrow, about two cm long and grayish-green. The stems are quite woody, rather whitish. Standing up to two meters in height, Four-wing Saltbush is an unassuming standard inhabitant of the arid Southwest. Like Iodinebush, it too collects salt, exuding the toxin out of its leaves. Though salts are essential for proper chemical balance in all organisms, arid landscapes have more than most plants and animals need, to the point that it becomes a problem, resulting in dehydration. While there are several mechanisms to deal with excess salt, Saltbush takes the straightforward approach of expelling it from its system through its leaves. I have munched on some leaves to taste the salt, but I was unable to detect much. Never-the-less, various grazing animals can detect the salt and prefer to eat this plant for its salt content. People too, have used the plant to flavor some dishes, cooking the leaves with meat, for example. A little goes a long way, especially if you have a subtle, well developed palate, like a donkey.
Frankenia, Frankenia jamesii (Frankenia Family)
As you might expect, Frankenia or Frank Bush is adapted to tolerate landscapes with a high salt content. These plants are classified as halophytes and White Sands National Monument offers plenty of sites where these organisms can get established. The family is small and often closely aligned with the Tamarisk Family. According to Weber and Wittmann in Colorado Flora, Eastern Slope: A Field Guide to the Vascular Plants (4th edition), Frankenia is restricted to gypsum rich soils. They consider its occurrence in Australia, the Mediterranean region, southern South America, and southwestern North America as something of a puzzle. Love a mystery? Here it is. Love distinctive plants that are relatively easy to pick out on the landscape? Here it is again. According to Weber and Wittmann, Frankenia is very easy to recognize. It has prominently jointed stems with opposite, linear, tightly revolute leaves. The leaves are tightly arranged on the stems so as to appear fascicled or clustered. They say that the flowers are very distinctive with its sepals united into a narrow tube, from which emerge clawed, conspicuous, white petals. There are two groups of stamens, three long and three short. The style has three branches as well, not surprisingly. There you have it, a puzzle that is easy to identify. Difficult to understand, but that's what makes puzzles fun.
Salt Cedar, Tamarix gallica (Tamarisk Family)
Tamarix has a bad reputation in the Southwest, displacing native Cottonwood and Willow trees in the fast disappearing riparian zone. Native to the Mideast, this species like others in the genus, spreads rapidly in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Once it becomes established it is almost impossible to get rid of. The USDA lists the entire genus as a noxious weed in Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, Texas, and Wyoming. There is disagreement over the identification of some specimens, but the attitude is that the only good Salt Cedar is a dead Salt Cedar. This particular species may reach a height of 15 meters, but the ones I saw at White Sands NM, were barely two meters tall. Growing conditions are tough at White Sands due to the constantly shifting substrate and lack of moisture. The leaves are scale-like, resembling Juniper, grayish green. The flowers are pinkish and crowded at the end of the stems. Each flower is rather small, perhaps 2 mm across, but collectively, they are quite attractive. Not all weeds are ugly, but they are opportunists and quick to respond to favorable conditions. Lacking predators, they have an advantage over the local flora. In the Old World, several species of Tamarisk were used as a source of tannin, dyes, and medicinal extracts. In the Southwest, they are a pain and many native plants and animals struggle to survive on their account.