Upcoming Missile Tests:
From time to time the missile range that surrounds us performs missile testing that may require the closure of the park or Highway 70. Please follow the link below for up to date information on closures
This video looks at the history of our visitor center and other adobe buildings that are part of the park's historic district. Also included are demonstrations of making combed glass and how to mix adobe.
Greetings and welcome to White Sands National Monument. During this podcast we will look at the visitor center and other adobe buildings included in the historical district of White Sands National Monument. These buildings were officially recognized and placed on the National Historic Register in March 1988.
The buildings in the Historic area were constructed during the Great Depression by various government agencies including the Works Progress Administration (renamed in during 1939 to Work Projects Administration.) The WPA provided jobs for un-skilled workers. Many of these jobs were in national and state parks. When White Sands National Monument was created in 1933 by President Hoover, there were no facilities, just the beautiful white gypsum sand dunes. The WPA created a way to provide jobs for the local unemployed and provide needed facilities for the Monument.
Each of the White Sands buildings reflect the Spanish pueblo-adobe style, also known as Pueblo-Revival architecture. Architect Lyle Bennett, who was considered the master of the Pueblo-Revival style, designed and worked the original White Sands National Monument buildings. Wall construction of these buildings is of adobe bricks with stucco finish on the outside walls and plaster finish on the inside walls.
Resting on the adobe walls are the beams that support the roof. These beams are called VIGAS and rest on CORBELS which serve two purposes. One is decorative and the other is to distribute the weight of the vigas and roof.
Often the vigas extend to the outside of the wall and are visible from the outside of the building. Also visible on the outside wall are canales which are designed to drain water from the roof.
Running at right angles on top of the vigas are groups of three aspen poles called savinas. On top of the savinas is a split wood covering called latillas. To be completely authentic the roof would be covered with brush and several feet of compacted dirt. In the case of the buildings at White Sands, the initial roof covering was tarpaper and asphalt, and is now insulation and rubber membrane.
Tin was the poor man’s substitute for silver on the Spanish-Mexican frontier. Each village had at least one tinsmith and often individuals crafted their own tin-ware - since all that was needed was a nail to punch dents into a design drawn on the tin - and something to cut the sheet of tin. Many of the designs in tin-ware show a strong New England influence. Now let’s take a look at a wall lighting fixture.
Glass was one of the most prized articles of trade to reach the frontier of New Mexico. The lights shown here are combed glass and decorated tin.
Let’s take a look at how the glass was decorated. After the glass was cut to the required size, it was painted and allowed to dry for a few minutes, then a common hair comb was dragged across the painted surface to make the design. Once the paint was completely dry the glass was mounted in the decorated tin lamp fixture.
Let’s go outside to an area where it would be suitable to make adobe bricks. Adobe is simply a mixture of clay, silt/dirt/sand and straw or animal manure. The proportions of the mixture are not exact but are roughly three parts clay, seven parts sand and one part straw. This mixture seems to produce the best bricks. When mixing adobe the amount of water needed varies, but the mixture should have the consistency of bread dough. Brick size depends upon the form used but a common size might be 4” x 10” x 14”.
Adobe buildings are used in areas where annual rainfall is less than 20” per year. Stucco covering on the outside of the wall is necessary to prevent the erosive forces of rain and wind. The mortar that holds the bricks together is simply adobe.
Let’s mold an adobe brick by placing the wet adobe into a form. The form is removed as soon as the block will retain its shape and the brick is turned on edge and left to dry in the sun. The brick will reach full strength after approximately 30 days. Just imagine making 100 bricks a day by hand until buildings like the ones here at White Sands were completed. Materials may be inexpensive but adobe buildings are indeed labor intensive to construct.
Today White Sands National Monument continues to provide a place of hope, community, and wildness for the nearly half a million visitors who visit every year. These buildings stand as sentinels to our past and beacons of hope for future generations of visitors looking for solace in chaotic times.
00:06 Becky Wiles, Chief of Interpretation, White Sands National Monument: I’m Becky Wiles, Chief of Interpretation at White Sands National Monument.
00:11 Becky Wiles: Many people think the desert is a dry, barren expanse, but as you can see around here, there’s quite a bit of vegetation and a lot of that is because of water. Water functions as the glue; it percolates up through the soil and keeps the dunes very, very moist, which prevents them from completely disintegrating and blowing away.
00:30 Becky Wiles: Water is a key part of creating the dune fields themselves, it helps sustain and stabilize the dune system; without water, we wouldn’t even have these dunes here.
00:40 Becky Wiles: High up in the surrounding mountains around here, there’s gypsum deposits. When it rains or snows up in the mountains, that gypsum-laden water comes into the basin and it evaporates in the hot desert sun. Through that process, selenite crystals are formed – selenite crystals break down from wind and water, and the eventually go into smaller and smaller particles. Water is a key part of that, because if water didn’t come from the mountains, bringing the gypsum from the mountains, the gypsum supply would not be replenished, which allows for the formation of the dunes.
01:13 Becky Wiles: The importance of science at White Sands National Monument is really understanding the key role of water in this ecosystem, from sustaining the plants and animals to understanding dune dynamics. Through research studies, we are gaining a better understanding of the hydrology of the dune field, how water moves through the ecosystem and sustains the plants and animals that are here. In addition, how it holds the dunes together and how that influences dune morphology and dune movement.
01:42 Becky Wiles: Plants are extremely important here at White Sands National Monument. First off, they stabilize the dune field. So we can see here at the transition zone, we have the dune field meeting up with the Chihuahuan Desert scrub community, the plants really help keep the dunes in place. They also help support the variety of wildlife we have out here – provides a nesting habitat, provides a food source, and provides shelter, which is all key for the rodents, the small animals like the kit fox and the badger, as well as the numerous birds that live out here.
02:12 Becky Wiles: So through the science that we are doing at White Sands National Monument, it helps us achieve our mission, which is to preserve and protect the world’s largest gypsum dune field. Through research, science, and education, we are able to better preserve and protect this resource for our enjoyment today, as well as for future generations.
A Brief History of the National Park Service and White Sands
A Brief History of the National Park Service and White Sands
Hello and welcome to White Sands National Monument. We hope you enjoy this tour of our native plant garden. The tour will take approximately 30 minutes. The direction of the tour route is detailed on the map you received.
After each plant is introduced, there will be a brief pause to allow you time to find it before you hear its description. Not all plants in the garden have been included in this tour. For information or questions about these plants, please check at the Visitor Center desk.
At the end of the audio tour, please return the equipment and map to the Visitor Center.
Although White Sands is a desert park, it’s also a place of amazing life and diversity. This is reflected in the wide variety of plants found in our native plant garden.
As you exit the visitor center and head towards the restrooms, you will see our first stop, marked stop A on the map, behind the bench. This is the Ocotillo.
A The Ocotillo is found throughout the deserts of the Southwest. Although this plant looks very much like a cactus due to its long spines and desert habitat, it is not a member of the cactus family. Instead, it has its own family – the ocotillo. Each spring, hundreds of brilliant red tubular flowers crowd the ends of the branches and after spring or summer rains, the branches burst with leaves. Being a very hardy plant, the ocotillo can live up to 200 years.
A fresh bark tincture is the only practical way to prepare ocotillo. The tincture is useful for symptoms caused by fluid congestion. Other uses include the relief of fatigue by bathing in water containing the crushed flowers or roots.
Many Indian tribes used the flowers and roots of the ocotillo to slow the bleeding of fresh wounds. Ocotillo is also used to alleviate coughing, achy limbs, and varicose veins. Gum resin from the bark was used for waxing leather, as an adhesive and waterproofing agent, and as varnish. Its thorny stems are sometimes placed in the ground to provide living fences.
For our next stop, head back toward the Visitor Center entrance to the tree on the right – marked B on your map. This is the Desert Willow.
B The Desert-Willow is a 15-20 ft. tall small tree or large shrub with slender twigs. It blooms from May to June, producing dark pink or purple flowers that are funnel-shaped and fragrant.
Bows and basketry are made from its wood. The desert willow’s flowers, leaves, and bark can be used as a hot poultice for skin infections or as a soothing tea for coughs. Other uses treat yeast infections, athlete’s foot, and various scrapes and scratches. A tea from the flowers produces a natural anti-oxidant that promotes cardiovascular health and regulates glucose metabolism.
From the Desert Willow, walk to your right to our next plant marked C on the map. This is Indian Rice Grass.
C Indian Rice Grass is a 1-2 ft. tall perennial bunchgrass. The sage-green, wiry foliage and ivory-colored seed heads give the grass an overall light and airy appearance. The foliage turns tan when dormant. This beautiful grass often dominates sand dunes.
The seeds were ground for flour, mixed with water and cooked into a mush by many American Indians. Flowers are yellow/green and bloom June through September.
Next to the Indian Rice Grass is the Colorado Four O’Clock – stop D on the map.
D The Colorado Four O’Clock, also called the Desert Four O’Clock, has large, showy, magenta-purple flowers which open in late afternoon and close in the morning. Thus its name Four O’Clock.
This plant has a long and varied history with many Native peoples, and its uses differ even among clans. From it, the Navajo make a tea and a light purplish-brown dye for wool. They use the plant internally for rheumatism and externally as an oral aid for mouth disorders. The roots are used to reduce swellings.
The Hopi use the unusually heavy root as an anchor in bird traps, an antiseptic for wounds on their horses, as a blood strengthener for pregnant women, and to induce visions while making a diagnosis.
The Zuni mix the powdered root into their bread dough to suppress appetite. Other Native peoples use the plant to treat indigestion, eye infections and colic in babies.
Continue down the sidewalk to our next stop, E, on your right– Torrey’s Jointfir.
E Torrey’s Jointfir is a small to medium sized perennial shrub 1-3 feet tall, with jointed needles. The general appearance of this plant is that of a weather-beaten, long needled, stunted pine.
Flowers and fruit are green cones that become very brittle and brown when dry. The leaves are tiny scales and grow only at the plant’s nodes giving it a bamboo-like appearance. They bloom and mature in the spring.
The stems can be made into a distinctive but pleasant tasting tea, thus the common name Mormon Tea. The tea has a strong diuretic effect and contains enough ephedrine to make it a functional stimulant. The branches yield dyes of tan, peach and gray.
On the other side of the sidewalk across from the jointfir, you will find the Creosote Bush – stop F on the map.
F Creosote Bush is one of the most characteristic species of the hot deserts of North America. Often called chaparral, its pungent order fills the air following rains.
The Creosote bush serves many medicinal purposes: cure of fever, influenza, colds, upset stomach, gas, arthritis, sinusitis, and anemia just to name a few. It also has antimicrobial properties, making it useful in first aid. Creosote can be used on the skin as a tincture or salve, and can be taken internally as a tea or capsule.
In addition to medicinal purposes, the Creosote bush is used as livestock feed, firewood, and roofing material for adobe houses. It also serves as a yellow dye for skin painting and dyeing fabrics, a disinfectant for homes, an insecticide, as fish poison and as fuel. The resin from the branches was used as glue for pottery and for fixing arrow points.
Moving past the White Sands sign and looking to your left – stop G is the Honey Mesquite.
G Honey Mesquite is a perennial shrub or small tree 2 – 10 feet tall. Twigs are armed with sharp thorns up to 2 inches long especially on young plants.
Mesquite is commonly used to treat eye conditions, open wounds and dermatological ailments. Acting as an antacid it can also treat digestive problems. It has soothing, astringent, and antiseptic properties.
When used for cooking, mesquite wood gives food an excellent flavor. Flour can be made by grinding the ripe pods. The pods can also be fermented to produce a slightly alcoholic beverage. The green pods can be boiled in water to make a syrup or molasses. A tea or broth can also be made from the pods.
The hard and durable wood of mesquite is often used for building purposes, weapons, tools and furniture. The bark is used to make cloth, baskets and rope. The gum or pitch is used to make candy, face paint, hair dye, and pottery paint and is also used as glue for mending pottery.
From here, turn right onto the curved section of the sidewalk. Stop H – the New Mexico Agave is on your left.
H The New Mexico Agave has stiff, succulent, sword-like leaves with spined tips. A 7-10 ft. flowering stalk appears after 8-20 years and bears yellowish, tubular flowers in clusters.
The New Mexico agave only flowers once in its lifetime (hence the name century plant). After it flowers, the original plant dies; but since it suckers freely, new plants will quickly replace it.
It is a common misconception that agaves are cacti. They are not related to cacti, nor are they closely related to aloe whose leaves are similar in appearance. They are members of a family all their own – Agave.
All major parts of the agave are edible: the flowers, the leaves, the stalks or basal rosettes, and the sap. Its bruised leaves afforded a paste from which paper was once manufactured. Its juice was consumed as a fresh drink or fermented into an intoxicating beverage known as pulque. Early Europeans distilled the juice to make mescal or tequila.
Its leaves supplied an impenetrable thatch for dwellings. Pins and needles were made from the thorns at the extremity of its leaves. The fibers were used for making many items, including bowstrings, brushes, cradles, nets, slings, shoes, skirts, mats, rope, thread, baskets, and snares. The fresh root was used as soap and shampoo.
Next to the New Mexico Agave is Stop I - the Lechuguilla.
I Lechuguilla is one of the most widespread of the agaves. Its succulent, yellow-green rosettes are 1-2 ft. tall and widely suckering.
Thick, leathery leaves are tipped with a strong spine and have hooked teeth along the margins. The lechuguilla, like its relative, the century plant, requires 12–15 years to store up enough food for the production of a large flower stalkwhich then grows amazingly fast up to 15 feet tall. After producing flowers and seeds, the stalk dies.
Toxic juice from the leaves was used as arrow poison, a fish “stupefier”, medicine and soap. Leaf fibers were used as cordage for bow strings, nets, baskets, mats, sandals, blankets, and cloth. In Mexico, the plant is still harvested for its fiber to make rope. Roots pounded and soaked in water were used for soap and shampoo.
The leaves of Lechuguilla are so sharp they can cause injury to animals and humans and can even puncture the tires of off-road vehicles. This gives them the well-earned nickname of “shin daggers”.
Across from the Lechugilla and the agave, on the other side of the sidewalk is Stop J – the Soaptree Yucca.
J The Soaptree Yucca is a 5-20 ft. tall tree-like yucca and is the state flower of New Mexico. The flowering stem in 3-7 ft. long with branches covered with clusters of creamy-white, bell-shaped flowers.
Soapy material in the roots and trunks of this abundant species can used as a soap substitute. The leaves are a source of coarse fiber and were used by Native Americans in making baskets, rope and sandals.
The young flower stalks which resemble overgrown asparagus are rich in Vitamin C and were eaten by native peoples. The flower pods were boiled or roasted like potatoes.
At White Sands, the yucca uses stem elongation to stay above the moving dunes. Yuccas seen on top of a dune are actually taller than the dune itself.
Continue down the sidewalk to our next stop on your right – K – the Skunkbush Sumac.
K Also known as Three Leafed Sumac, this is a low, spreading, deciduous shrub. The leaves have a disagreeable odor when crushed which is the reason for the name “skunkbush.” Flowers are yellow and grow in clustered spikes. They are followed by bright crimson pea-sized berries.
Crushed leaves were used as an astringent to treat stings, bites, rashes and sunburn. The bark was chewed as a cold remedy, the fruit was chewed for toothaches and the roots were used a deodorant.
Branches are strong and flexible and were used for basketry. Twigs were used to make cradles, fishing tools, and decorations. Large stems were used to make bows. Stems can also be used as a string to sew up water containers.
Its berries are used for food and as a beverage –when crushed and added to water, they make a tart lemonade-type drink. All parts of the sumac can be used to make dyes for baskets and rugs.
Within the dunefield at White Sands, the skunkbush sumac forms pedestals to help it survive amidst the moving dunes.
From the sumac, the next stop – L – is straight ahead and next to the trash can.
L This large plant is the Torrey’s Yucca. The Torrey’s Yucca is a perennial evergreen that grows 3–10 feet tall. The trunk is often branched. Its creamy-white flowers are bell-shaped and grow 2–3 inches long. The leaves can reach 2 to 4½ feet in length and are straight and rigid, ending in a sharp spine that is 1½ to 2 inches long. These imposing leaves radiate around the stem.
Native Americans ate the pulpy fruits of this and related shrubby species either raw or roasted; they also dried and ground them into meal for winter use. The coarse fibers of the long leaves were made into ropes, mats, sandals, baskets, and cloth.
Turn around so that the yucca is now at your back. Directly in front of you, you’ll find the Desert Spoon – stop M.
M Also known as Sotol (soh-tohl), the Desert Spoon gets its name from the spoon-like depression at its leaf base. The plant’s form is similar to agave, but it does not die after flowering.
By roasting the flower head in a pit for 24 hours and then distilling the juice, Indians and Mexicans prepared an alcoholic drink known as sotol, which is colorless with a penetrating odor and peculiar taste. The tough leaves are used to make mats, baskets, ropes, thatch, and paper. The broad, spoon-like base is often used in dried floral arrangements.
Now, turn right towards the parking lot and head left on the sidewalk. The parking lot should be on your immediate right. Just a few feet past the Desert Spoon is the Purple Prickly Pear Cactus – stop N.
N The Purple Prickly Pear Cactus grows in clumps, usually to about 4 feet tall by 5 feet wide. This cactus appears much like a shrub. The large leaf pads are purple tinged. The pads are covered with large, tan spines. Its bright yellow flowers produce red to purple fruit.
Unlike many other types of prickly pear cacti, the purple variety has fewer long spines. It also has a light jasmine scent which is used to attract nocturnal insects.
Prickly pear cactus is part of the diet in Mexican and Mexican-American cultures. Only the young plant is eaten; older plants are far too tough. Prickly pear cactus is also used for medicine. In foods, the prickly pear juice is used in jellies and candies. Its juice has also been used to strengthen adobe mortar.
The large bush to the right of the prickly pear is Stop O – the Fourwing Saltbush. This plant does not have a placard.
O At maturity, the typical Fourwing Saltbush, also called chamisa, will reach up to 4 feet high. The plant derives its name from the four ‘winged’ capsules, which encompass the seed on female plants and from the salty tasting foliage. The leaves remain on the plant throughout the winter.
American Indians boiled fresh roots and drank the brew for stomach pain and as a laxative. Roots were also ground and applied as a toothache remedy. Soapy lather from leaves was used for itching and rashes from chickenpox or measles.
Fresh leaf or a poultice of fresh or dried flowers was applied to ant bites. Leaves were used as a snuff for nasal problems. Smoke from burning leaves was used to revive someone who was injured, weak, or feeling faint. The leaves also provide a yellow dye.
Just past the Fourwing Saltbush you’ll find another ocotillo like the one described earlier.
Next up is the Hoary Rosemary Mint – stop P on your map.
P Hoary Rosemary-Mint or mintbush is a 2 to 3½ foot tall aromatic shrub covered with short, silvery hairs throughout. These hairs help prevent the plant from drying out. Tubular flowers grow in small clusters toward the ends of the branches and are pale purplish-blue. Rosemary mint blooms from May to August.
The plant was used for seasoning foods. The leaves were boiled and used for tea.
At Whites Sands, the plant forms pedestals to survive the moving sand dunes just like the sumac. To the right of the rosemary mintbush, you’ll find our final stop Q.
Q It is the Cane Cholla and it does not have a placard. The Cane Cholla is the most common species of cholla in southern New Mexico. The spines are very finely barbed and difficult to remove from flesh.
This species blooms in late spring or early summer. The flowers are purple or magenta. The fruits, which are often mistaken for flowers, are yellow and shaped something like a cone with a hollow at the wide end where the flower fell off. The plant retains them all winter.
The name "cane cholla" derives from the fact that canes, furniture and other souvenirs are often made from the attractive woody skeleton of dead plants of this species. The thorns can be used for sewing needles or to make improvised fish hooks. Cholla buds are high in calcium. Local native peoples ate the fruit raw, stewed or dried and ground into flour.
Once again, we appreciate your interest in our native plant garden. It is our hope that we have shown you the value of these and other native plants and why it so very important that we protect both them and the other unique natural resources at White Sands. Each is an essential piece of the heritage that our parks protect.
Having come to the end of our tour, please return the audio equipment and map to the Visitor Center desk and have a wonderful day exploring the dunes.
This brief vidcast was made by Explore! New Mexico in 2010. This quick overview will give you an idea of what we're all about here at White Sands! See the video here.
Did You Know?
Unlike most other birds, which have three front toes and one back toe, the roadrunner has two front and two back toes, allowing it to run down its prey. Look for its distinct X-shaped tracks on the white sands.