by Brady Raymond
I couldn’t get the idea out of my head that Morel season may be starting early for me this year, as I jetted across western skies on my way south to Silver City, New Mexico. I had found a few articles online about mushrooming down yonder but I couldn’t find much on the topic. All I really had to go on was the weather and as things go around here, things down there seemed just about perfect. For those of you interested only in mushrooms, I’ll be up front, I didn’t find much. However, it was a good exercise in getting my eyes tuned up for the season albeit maybe tuned a little sharp as I was looking for cacti.
Silver City is located in Grant County in Southwestern New Mexico, it rests at 5900 ft. and is home to around 10,000 people. I’ve visited this region some fourteen years earlier on a road trip with a friend just out of high school and things still looked pretty much the same. One thing that caught my attention on this trip was the incredible abundance of lichen, all sorts of the stuff coating rock and tree alike. I’m no lichen expert so these couple of photos will have to suffice, but trust me when I say it was everywhere, adding little splashes of color to the browns and grays that dominate the landscape.
Just North of Silver City lays the Gila National Forest, one of the least developed national forests in the lower 48. As far as I can tell no road passes entirely through it, only into it. The Mogollon Mountains boast peaks surpassing 10,000 ft. in elevation and are quite breathtaking as seen from the passes that give entrance to the forest. The photo above is from Emory Pass in the Mimbres Mountains whose peaks are a slightly lower than the Mogollon range but still just as spectacular.
Somewhere around 8400 ft. I happened across the only gilled mushroom I found, and what I assumed was considered “prime condition” for the region. At least I knew my mushroom eyes were still working. Spotting this wasn’t easy and I only noticed it heading back in the opposite direction. The trail we were on burned in 2013, I was curious if anyone had found Morels but in passing conversation, I would bring up mushrooms with locals but no one seemed to bite, seemingly oblivious to fungi entirely. I would guess though that there are at least few in the region who count mushrooming as a hobby.
44 miles as the Raven flies, northward at a two-hour drive from Silver City is the Gila Cliff Dwellings. The drive alone is worth it so long as twisting mountain roads are something you’re fine with. Although paved, the roads are narrow and there are few guard rails along the many precarious drop offs. The dwellings date back some 700 years, although little is actually known about the inhabitants who called these cliffs home. It is a unique and beautiful place with quite a history, read more here: Wikipedia
The wildlife is equally interesting and the region boasts habitat for Elk, Mule Deer, Bighorn Sheep, Mexican Wolf, Javelina, Black Bear, Cougar, Bobcat, Gray Fox, White-Nosed Coati and Skunk just to name a few of the mammals. There are myriad other lizards, snakes, birds, and fish. Oh, and insects and spiders, centipedes, etc… You get the picture, the place is incredible and every vista seems like a painting in the flesh.
The plants of the Gila are diverse and well suited to their desert environment. On this trip, we ranged in elevation between 4200-8500 ft. The landscape is dotted with Juniper, higher up gives way to Ponderosa Pine, Douglas-Fir, Englemann and Blue Spruce as well as a couple of Pinyons and the Southwestern White Pine. There are grasses, and shrubs more diverse than I could list here and of course succulents.
Agave is a dangerous desert plant and one to be especially cautious of. A slip and fall into this plant could really mess you up. I wonder if somewhere in history maybe someone has died from this plant, their body pierced in some vitalorgan far from any help.
The Agave after some years produces an inflorescence reaching 12 ft. or more. This drains the plant entirely, to the point of death, only surviving by its recently spread seeds or one of its pups if it was successful in producing any. As far as I could tell I only saw one species, Agave perryi aside from some non-native varieties grown in peoples yards.
At least four Species of Prickly Pear can be found in the Gila. Opuntia engelmannii, O. chlorotica, O. macrocentra and O. phaeacantha. Cylindropuntia imbricata or the Cane Cholla is another abundant cactus species found throughout the area. Both of these genera are very hardy and range high and low in elevation but seem haphazard as to where they grow. Maybe it is something unseen to my eyes, like soil structure or possibly how cattle range in the area, I just don’t know. There are areas chalked full then around the bend or over a hill you may not see anything of the sort, just grass and Juniper.
Finding other cactus species is a little more difficult and reminiscent of mushroom hunting. Your eyes really need to tune into them, and the few other cacti species in the area are small relative to their Opuntia and Cylindropuntia cousins. The Fendler’s Hedgehog or scientifically known as Echinocereus fendleri is a beautiful species and the specimens I found were old growth as cacti go. I found three nice clusters all in a small area right off the trail. I had totally missed them hiking in and it wasn’t until I reversed course heading back that I noticed them. From a distance, they looked like just another tuft of the endless desert grass which carpets the ground. Most folks probably wouldn’t even notice the Pincushion Cactus, Escobaria vivpara syn. Coryphantha vivpara. My mushroom eyes came in handy spotting these, a task that would be made easier if either of the species happened to be in bloom.
If you find yourself in a desert with nothing to do, keep your eyes peeled for interesting and unusual cacti and other succulents. I know they’re not mushrooms but they are just about as fun to find in my opinion. Rock hounding is another fun thing to do too. We lucked out and found some pretty interesting rocks as well, just remember there are venomous critters that call these parts home. Be sure when picking up rocks, Cholla wood, etc. to look them over good before handling them to much. Under one rock I found a 4 in. centipede and under yet another I found a Black Widow.
The desert Southwest is an awesome place, a place I hope to visit more in the future. However, I do like water and the PNW is an awesome place too and one I’m glad to call home, especially when I’m finding Morels. Soon, I will be out in the woods looking, searching and picking. Until then, I hope you enjoyed a little about the desert Southwest.