Illustration by Jameson Simpson.
AS THE DUNES AT WHITE SANDS SHIFT, the environment itself changes from dune to dune, enabling distinctive communities of plants on and between each one. “Every step along the way, we have plants and animals and insects that are unique,” says David Bustos, resource program manager with White Sands National Park.
The plants have had to develop tactics to survive in this austere landscape. Some have learned to stock up on nutrients for years before blooming. Others grow a mesh of roots in the sand, holding that ground in place as the dune moves around them. Only the most clever ones survive; most find they can’t keep pace with the rate at which the dunes move, leaving the landscape largely bare and open to the sun.
Purple sand verbena
Pale pink to purple flowers bloom from this low-growing, bushy plant found easily along the Dune Life Nature and Interdune Boardwalk trails. Useful as well as pretty, it can be used as a diuretic and as a dressing for burns. “This wildflower blooms in spring and provides an extra bit of color against the bright white landscape,” Bartow says. “Its tolerance for the salty gypsum sand allows it to thrive.”
Read More: How Animals Adapt at White Sands
One of several species that grow on “pedestals” of sand that are held together by their roots. Along the Dune Life Nature Trail and the Sunset Stroll meeting area, skunkbush sumac blooms yellow and white in spring and produces red berries in fall. “If you see a pedestal with a plant on top, it is likely a skunkbush sumac,” Bartow says. “The way its roots take in water helps compact the sand, and when the dune moves past the plant, the compacted sand stays as a pedestal.”
Claret cup cactus
Also charmingly called a strawberry hedgehog, these cacti sprout chalice-shaped, bright red flowers in late spring. Look for them throughout the Chihuahuan Desert, including near the entrance station before the start of the dunes and between the dunes. “The claret cup cactus provides both aesthetics and safety,” Bartow says. “In the spring, it produces beautiful red flowers and provides a safe haven year-round for many rodent species.”
Illustration by Jameson Simpson.
The soil itself sprouts life in community groups that look like granola or cobbler topping: algal crust, moss crust, and microalgae. A tiny, hairy brown carpet (or sometimes green after a recent rain), moss crust ranks among the more visible of these tiny growths. Biocrust can be found along the Dune Life Nature Trail, often in the shade of other plants, but watch your step. “When it’s dry, they’re in a dormant state,” says Nicole Pietrasiak, assistant professor of environmental soil microbiology at the University of New Mexico. An entire community of the fragile, dried crusts can be destroyed by a single human footfall. “It literally turns into dust, and that gets easily blown away, so you lose that critical structure from the soil surface.”
One of the few plants that survive far into and atop the dunes, this spiny desert icon can grow to over 30 feet tall and blooms in cream-colored clusters of flowers along a single tall stalk. “The soaptree yucca can grow extremely tall in order to avoid being smothered by the moving dunes,” says Emily Bartow, a Student Conservation Association intern at White Sands. “If you spot a soaptree yucca on top of a dune, it’s very likely that there’s 30 feet of it buried below the sand.”
Río Grande cottonwood
Cottonwood trees, with spade-shaped dark green leaves, send roots and sometimes much of the trunk deep into the soil to tap water far underground. “This species of tree is heavily dependent on water,” Bartow says. “Because our dunes are so wet, the Río Grande cottonwood can survive in a harsh climate.”