Archive for June, 2015

As many of you know, I love maps, and one that recently caught my attention was this one of the North American deserts; the mapmaker’s depiction of Idaho is especially fine.

North American Deserts (Missouri Botanical Garden-Deserts of the World)

North American Deserts
(Missouri Botanical Garden-Deserts of the World)

There are, of course, a great many other maps that far better represent the western part of the U.S. and the northern portion of Mexico in that they have a lot more detail, straighter lines, a sense of proportion, and most of them do not allow Kansas to claim the lower fourth of Nebraska.

But to be successful, a map needs only to show what you are interested in and this one does that, by which I mean my interest is in the area just north of the short black line that cuts across the finger between the Sonoran and the Chihuahuan deserts.

Not only is that where Tumacácori National Historical Park (TNHP) is located, it is also the place where all kinds of other interesting things happen. For example, it is northern limit for you to hear the mournful cries of the grey hawk, see the brilliant hues of the elegant trogon, and catch the hoots of two different owl species that only make it that far north by going right up that narrow swath of olive drab. It is also one of three routes in Arizona preferred by migrating neo-tropical songbirds as well as by migrating neo-tropical job seekers and two-legged mules.

Border Patrol Warning Ubiquitous along the U.S./Mexico Border

Border Patrol Warning
Ubiquitous along the U.S./Mexico Border

With important exceptions, many of the same plant and animal species occur in both the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, (i.e. any living thing that has thorns, stickers, stingers, fangs or is called a “cactus” pretty much grows in both deserts as well as in that skinny area between the two which, for very obvious reasons, is called “THORN-scrub.”) The THORN-scrub exists because it is relatively more frost-free and a bit more moist than are its two neighbors and this allows species from further south to hang on in certain protected spots. It is a fascinating place to spend the winter. It is also where I found the treasure I was looking for.

Now, saying, “I found the treasure. . .” could be a bit of a problem given that this blog is about Forrest Fenn’s hidden treasure chest and some of you may even now be abusing your favorite cuss-word.

But I am talking about something else. I’m talking about the northernmost population of Capsicum annuum L. var. glabriusculum; the native chiltepin; the wild ancestor of all American chili peppers; the pea-size fruit that hits “max” on any scale of hotness you want to talk about. And, there is a population of it somewhere in that THORN-scrub just across the road from the Tumacácori National Historical Park.[1] I wanted to find it.

But chasing the wild chiltepin is not unlike chasing after Forrest Fenn’s treasure except there are people who know where this population is. They just don’t want to tell you. You see, the wild chiltepin is a very expensive thing to eat (up to $70/pound) and efforts to grow it commercially most always fail. Thus, populations of wild chiltepin are like populations of wild edible mushrooms—those who know where they are just ain’t gonna say.

I came across a reference to this particular chiltepin population while reading up on the human and natural histories of the area of the Tumacácori Mission before we came down. It whetted my appetite. Further investigation found that the population is in “Rock Corral Canyon.

Rock Corral in Rock Corral Canyon, Tumacacori Mountains, Arizona

Rock Corral in Rock Corral Canyon, Tumacacori Mountains, Arizona

Armed with its botanical description (that pretty much describes a number of other of the THORN-scrubs in the area) [2] the search began. I found the rock corrals fairly quickly just a few miles up the arroyo that empties into the Santa Cruz River a quarter mile south of TNHP, but there was nothing that could be called a chiltepin.

When asked, the locals who worked at TNHP said that the plants are “not exactly at the corrals and that the canyon was a big place.” One suggested that I take a gun because of all the stuff that goes on up there. I declined saying that the “last thing I needed was a gunfight with a drug cartel” but later decided that it was his polite way of saying, “I know where they are but I ain’t gonna say.”

A couple of other scientific papers said the chiltepin grow under “nurse trees” of desert hackberry and wolfberry. One of the papers even gave coordinates for the study area where the chiltepin were growing. They gave the coordinates in “degrees” and “minutes” but no “seconds” just to confuse anyone who might want to go find them.

The scientific papers further said that the plant is drought deciduous and dies back with heavy frost. I also found out that the stem architecture of the chiltepin is a pronounced zig-zag.

Zig-zag Architecture of the Chiltepin Plant

Zig-zag Architecture of the Chiltepin Branch

I went to see Gloria. Gloria is an 83 year-old Mayo/Yaqui lady from Nogales, Mexico who sometimes is the tortilla maker for the tourists at TNHP. She likes me because I listen to her sermons and her poetry, and applaud when she sings me the rancheras she has composed. She puts an extra scoop of refried beans on my tortilla.

I asked her if she knew where the chiltepines grew. She answered with a near toothless smile that, “Los chiltepines están detrás aquel cerro,” as she pointed with pursed lips toward the omnipresent Tumacácori Peak. My authoritative translation of that answer was, “I ain’t gonna tell ya.”

Tumacácori Peak in the Tumacácori Mountains of Southern Arizona

Tumacácori Peak in the Tumacácori Mountains of Southern Arizona with the dome of the Mission Church at the TNHP (White)

Then, the strangest thing: little bags of chiltepin started showing up on our Casita doorstep. Evidently, everybody had decided that I wanted to eat them when all I wanted to do was to see the beast in its native habitat.

Having been skunked on three tries already, I decided to use what the old ecology professor had told me and “just go up there with no objective other than to enjoy the place” (Mountainwalk.org/Waterholes and Single’s Bars-July 19, 2012).

So I filled my camelback with water, stuck a few caffeine-laced candies in my pocket, put a whistle in my day-pack, donned a hat and took off. It was beautiful.

Ocotillo plant in bloom. (Tumacácori Mountains of Southern Arizona)

Ocotillo plant in bloom. (Tumacácori Mountains of Southern Arizona)

I followed game trails and scared up a family of javalina. Dead-ends were the norm and bushwhacking a common strategy. After a couple of miles I topped out on a ridge about an eighth of the way up the front of Tumacácori Peak and walked up the ridgeline until I hit about an acre of giant prickly-pear cactus, all of them in bloom.

Prickly Pear Cactus (Tumacácori Mountains of Southern Arizona)

Prickly-Pear Cactus (Tumacácori Mountains of Southern Arizona)

Since cactus-whacking didn’t look all that appealing, I turned to go back down into the canyon and saw some small bushes growing under a desert hackberry. The bushes had zig-zaggy branches and way back in there were a couple of pea-sized fruits that the birds had missed.

Chiltepin branch

Chiltepin branch

I reached in, pulled one of the slightly reddish-orange thingies off its parking place, and crushed it between my thumb and finger; seeds went flying everywhere. I put said thumb in my mouth and immediately went to my water. There is no mistaking the wild chiltipin, the mother of all American chili peppers, the hottest thing not a red-hot poker you will ever put in your mouth. It was wonderful.

I found two more fruits on a nearby bush, put them in my pocket, and with a really big grin, started back toward the pickup.

Chiltepinl fruits from northernmost  population,   Tumacácori Mountains of Southern Arizona

Chiltepinl fruits from it’s northernmost wild population, Tumacácori Mountains of Southern Arizona

Now, you may be curious as to where I was. That’s good. I would want to know myself if I were you. But, I ain’t gonna say.



[1] Nabhan, Gary Paul. 1985. Gathering the Desert. University of Arizona Press. Tucson. 123-33.

[2] Arizona Game and Fish Department. 1991. Capsicum annuum var. glabriusculum. Unpublished abstract compiled and edited by the Heritage Data Management System, Arizona Game and Fish Department, Phoenix, AZ. 3pp.

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