Friday, January 25, 2013

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

View from the visitors center trail at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.  In this photo jumping cholla, saguaro, and organ pipe cacti can all be seen with the Ajo mountains in the background.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is located right on the boarder of Mexico as far south as you can go in Arizona. The monument is quite a ways off the beaten path and probably the most dangerous monument in the national park system. There are multiple boarder patrol checkpoints that are actually in or near the park and boarder patrols can be found all over the park. Tragically, a few years back a park ranger was killed in a boarder incident and things were quite dangerous within the park. Today however, a barrier fence has been put into place along the monuments boarder and dangerous sections of the park have been closed to visitors. The park is significantly safer today than it was several years ago. Unfortunately, Senita Basin, the only population of the columnar senita cactus is currently closed due to these issues. Fortunately, other sections of the park such as the Ajo Mountain Drive are open and offer spectacular views of the Sonoran Desert. For a desert, the monument is quite green and hope to a decent amount of vegetation. This unusually green desert is a result of this particular desert being one of the wettest deserts in the world. Organ Pipe receives about 10 inches of rain annually with significantly more falling at higher elevations. Both winter and summer rainfall seasons also contribute to the amount and diversity of vegetation here.
View along the Ajo drive in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
A total of 28 species of cacti can be found within the park. Several of these are at their northern most limits, and are prevented from migrating further north due increased number of days with freezing temperatures to the north. Organ pipe cacti are one of these species and can be found in abundance within the park. The amazing diversity of cacti can be found on the Ajo Mountain Drive, and it is spectacular for organ pipe viewing. Most commonly, the organ pipe is found on upper slopes facing south. The sun warms southern slopes just enough to prevent colder freezing temperatures that prevents the cacti from growing on colder northern slopes. Upper slopes also are slightly warmer due to warm air rising up these slopes. If the growing tissue of an organ pipe freezes for too long of a period of time or too many times in the winter it will kill the plant. So these slightly warmer areas give the cacti an added edge so they can become established. I also have a strong suspicion that organ pipes prefer soil types typically found on upper bajada slopes. Even with this added warmth however, conditions are not absolutely perfect. The organ pipe sill needs some help from what is called a nurse plant. Small shrubs, mesquites, ironwoods, and palo verdes all help protect young organ pipes from the intense summer heat and sun. The cooler temperatures and shady conditions also help hold the water in the soil for longer. On occasion, large rocks can even provide these added benefits of shadier, cooler, and slightly wetter conditions. Nurse plant associations can be found for several different species. The saguaro cactus has very similar nurse plant requirements. A different type of nurse plant association that can be found within the park is that of the jumping cholla and pincushion cactus. The jumping cholla is a rather large shrubby-tree like cactus that looses an abundance of spine dense joints. These joints naturally fall from the cholla and often will form a mat around the mother plant. Nothing really wants to go close to these piles of spiny cactus joints making it a perfect place for the small pincushion cactus to live.
Organ pipe cactus

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