During the summer months, the mountains around Taos explode with colorful wildflowers. As you hike along the trails, you may see yellow, purple and pink blooms in an amazing range of shapes and sizes. If you really slow down and look, you may notice even more flowers and learn something about nature, too.
According to naturalist David L. Witt, when botanists survey a field for wildflowers, they may focus on an area as small as one-by-one meter - just over a yard square - and count every plant in order to truly understand the ecosystem.
On a recent visit to Amole Canyon south of Taos, Witt pointed out many colorful flowers like the tall yellow clover, white yarrow and clusters of purple daisies or the close relative known as fleabane and these flowers were all right next to the parking lot at the trailhead. Crossing the road, we saw the scarlet gilia fairy trumpet, purple penstemon, and yellow owl clover. In a loop of just over three-quarters of a mile, there were more than 30 different kinds of flowers.
Witt has had an interest in New Mexico wildflowers since he came here more than 40 years ago as a Boy Scout to the Philmont Ranch. "Wildflowers are easier than birds to study; they don't fly way. And they are more plentiful than reptiles," said Witt. However, he added that being quite still to study flowers, you may hear more birds and see more wildlife than you would if you were hiking quickly through the forest.
The types of wildflowers to be seen near Taos vary by season, altitude and weather conditions; some don't flower every year. The Amole Canyon area that we visited is located at 8,300 feet in elevation. Witt led a wildflower walk for the Native Plant Society in late July and noted more than 10 types of flowers in the area next to the trailhead parking lot alone. The group ventured into the first meadow across the road and he noted an additional 10 flowers and then more than that as the group climbed into the ponderosa forest. Some of the same flowers were still in bloom, when I visited the area with Witt in mid-August.
The open meadow below the forest was covered with a profusion of blooming purple, white, red and yellow flowers. Moving slowly through the meadow, more flowers revealed themselves, including a low bush with small purple flowers that Witt had not seen before. Upon further research, he identified it as a willow herb from the evening primrose family.
A good field guide is helpful in identifying plants. I carry a small guide called "Rocky Mountain Wildflowers - pocket guide" by David Dahms. Witt's favorite is "Flowering Plants of New Mexico" by Robert DeWitt Ivey. "Ivey was also an artist," Witt said. "He wrote this guide, now in its fifth edition and it is used as a standard reference by the Native Plant Society chapter in Taos."
New Mexico is among the states with the most varied flora, ranking among the top five in the United States. Up higher in the Rio Hondo Valley alone, there are more than 300 species that have been identified, including the cotton grass, discovered here by Witt at what is thought to be its southernmost occurrence.
Identifying a flower
Witt demonstrated how to identify a wildflower: observe its color, along with the pattern of its petals and leaves to help identify the flower's family. Witt pointed out a tall yellow flower that could be a buttercup or a flower in the rose family. Looking at it closely and consulting the drawings in Ivey's book, he sees the white hairy undersides of the leaves and the solitary yellow flower that convince him the flower is a silverweed cinqeuefoil, part of the rose family. He explains that one way to identify a flower is to eliminate descriptions that don't fit and see what remains as a possibility. His copy of Ivey's book is well-used and decorated with color-coded tabs and highlighted drawings, which match the color of the flowers he has seen.
Although many flowers can be identified in the field, some must be taken home and viewed under a microscope and with the help of a more detailed technical key. Some related flowers such as the aster, daisy and fleabane can appear so similar that their tiny parts must be examined in this way to tell the difference.
Wherever you hike, be on the lookout for the wildflowers changing with the seasons. The higher elevation trails are full of color now, but the lower trails are easier to reach and have their own array of beauty. Witt recommends Amole Canyon as a place that anyone can visit. "It is easy walking, without too much change in altitude," he said.
Reminding us of our impact on the ecosystem and the enjoyment of others to visit after we do, he added "In the name of wildflower conservation, please don't pick the flowers."