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Engaging wildflowers: Explore the great outdoors by observing what grows naturally in southern New Mexico


It is easy to see the appeal of blazing orange desert poppies covering a vast foothill slope.

For many, this delightful sight might get the ball rolling. Poppies come and go. The question is, what else grows and blooms out there in southern New Mexico? It turns out that there are hundreds of blooming plant species that can be seen throughout the growing season from the low desert to the pine forests. These native wildflowers of New Mexico beg to be noticed.

“The resident plant species that evolved within, or naturally dispersed to, these regions are ‘native’ or ‘indigenous,’” Bob Sivinki said in ‘What Is a Native Plant?’ “All of our native plants evolved here and have been subjected to long periods of natural selection. They are perfectly adapted to the climate and habitats of New Mexico. Native plants are in balance with the ecosystem, provide cover and food for native animals and have developed a surprisingly diverse array of relationships with soil fungi and other native microorganisms,” Sivinki said.

You have to hit the trails to find wildflowers in bloom. All trails in the Organ Mountain Desert Peaks National Monument (OMDPNM) provide good access to wildflower viewing. One approach is to let yourself be surprised by what you find on a hike. Another is to look specifically for spring flowers, mainly in March and April, or summer flowers that come with summer rains in July and August.

Sadly, the spring of 2021 has been second-rate for wildflower output. Inadequate rainfall during the winter and early spring is to blame. Maybe the coming summer will bring more moisture. We could all use it!

If you are not sure where to hike, this well organized and informative book from 2020 can help: “Best Wildflower Hikes of New Mexico: A Guide to the Area’s Greatest Wildflower Hiking Adventures,” by Christina M. Selby. This book is loaded with scrumptious photos, maps and flower profiles. The guide covers 40 hikes in New Mexico. Most of the meticulously described hikes are in the northern half of the state, or in higher-elevation areas. Included from our neck of the woods are the Pine Tree Trail and the Baylor Canyon Pass Trail in OMDPNM.

Many wildflowers are relatively easy to find because their colorful flower petals are perfect attention-getters. For example, it is effortless to realize from the road that the time to see blooming claret cup cacti is April. However, it pays to slow down and discover many exquisite, diminutive plants that hide in cracks, under bushes and in grasses. A hand lens or magnifying glass will reveal the structure of the flower, and often also the insects that visit or live there.

As you become a more experienced observer of native flora, you will learn which plants assemble in communities, or which plants prefer higher elevations. Hiking in the Organ Mountains will demonstrate which plants you are more likely to see on the western slope as opposed to the cooler eastern slope.

Photograph your finds with a smart phone. More satisfying still is the use of a camera with a macro lens or macro-lens setting, which will reduce your field of view to a few inches, thereby excluding anything that might distract from a flower portrait. Many people use the app “iNaturalist” to share their wildflower photos.

The old-fashioned way to identify blooming native plants is to acquire a field guide. Here are two books that hopefully are still available: “Northern Chihuahuan Desert Wildflowers,” by Steve West, and, because a number of Sonoran Desert wildflowers spill over into the Chihuahuan Desert, “Sonoran Desert Wildflowers,” by Richard Spellenberg.

The Native Plant Society of New Mexico (NPSNM) is an invaluable resource for anybody who wants to learn about New Mexico’s native plants. NPSNM is a nonprofit that strives to educate the public about native plants by promoting knowledge of plant identification, ecology and uses; fostering plant conservation and the preservation of natural habitats; supporting botanical research; and encouraging the appropriate use of native plants to conserve water, land and wildlife.

Visit www.npsnm.org.

I invite you to become aware of the native plants that surround us. No specialized knowledge is needed to become a wildflower enthusiast. All it takes is to go where the plants live. Best of all, the more you engage with native wildflowers, the more interesting it gets!