If you need some fresh air and haven't tread on a trail yet this spring, now is the time to catch our early native wildflower blooms on the Rift Valley Trail system.
The flora of the higher altitude trails are still in their winter dormancy, but out amidst the sagebrush and pinyon-juniper habitats, colors are popping.
Living on the south side of town I am partial to the Rift Valley trails, which I also call the Overlook trails. I access the trailhead at the end of County Road 110 - just drive to the end a few miles past University of New Mexico-Taos campus and the golf course. Be aware that this upper trail (not the Slide Trail which also starts from the parking lot) is also a mountain biking trail.
Once on the trail, you can see blooms of purple, blue, white, yellow, pink, red and orange. The early blooms started in mid-April: stemless white Easter daisies are past prime now but the pink phlox is still to be seen (as of May 7) along the edge of the trail.
The purple flowers of milk vetches (a species of Astragalus) should be blooming by mid-May but are in the process of going to seed. Their puffy brown seedpods are what distinguish one species from another. All along the trail paintbrush ( Castilleja integra) abounds, from single stems to multiple-stemmed clumps, exhibiting varying shades of red and orange. Paintbrushes are hemiparasitic, meaning that, although they are capable of photosynthesis, they also rely on other plants, especially perennial grasses, for their roots to feed on.
Low-growing orange-flowered globemallows ( Sphaeralcea coccinea) are also starting to brighten the trail, along with white evening primroses whose blossoms close up by midday.
Lavender flowered side-bells penstemons ( Penstemon secundiflorus) are in abundance in certain areas of the entire trail, blooming on into early June.
You'll see several varieties of yellow-flowered plants along the trail. A yellow daisylike flower with short gray-green leaves will pop up frequently in the first half-mile. This is Tetraneuris acaulis - stemless daisy (the flowers actually do have stems but the stems are leafless).
Later in May, another yellow daisy-like flower will be appearing in large upright clumps - this is lobe-leaf ragwort or groundsel ( Packera multilobata). Occasionally you may get a peek of short cluster of five-petalled yellow flowers, called puccoons ( Lithospermum incisum), often tucked under a sagebrush. If you see tall stems with four-petaled yellow flowers clustered at the top, that's Western wallflower ( Erysimum asperum).
You will start noticing low gray-green mounds in the middle of the trail, often with the stemless daisies growing within or at the edge of the mound (they have larger leaves than those in the mound). About a half-mile in you'll come to an area on the right that is covered in these gray-green low mounds, which should be bearing tiny yellow flowers by the first of June (see the tip of my hiking pole in the photo). These mounds are nailwort ( Paronychia sessiliflora).
Nearby you'll also see many large of cream-colored flowers known as white locoweed ( Oxytropis sericea).
About 100 feet farther is the first bench overlooking the Taos Junction Bridge below. Take a pause and enjoy the panorama, surrounded by dozens, if not hundreds, of reddish-orange paintbrush and native grasses just starting to green up.
From the bench the trail turns to the left and parallels a deep arroyo, becoming shallower until you cross it after maybe a quarter-mile and then follow the trail to the right. Along this first stretch, on the left, I've seen a small (3 to 6-inch high) brown plant that is parasitic on the roots of sagebrush. It's a broomrape ( Orobanche fascicularis). Multiple brown stems push their way up from through soil and are topped off with yellow-throated lavender-petaled flowers.
Also look also for tiny (1/4-inch) white flowers at the stem tips of clumps of green fuzzy leaves. These are Cryptantha crassisepala - cryptantha meaning "hidden flower," but they are often called cat's eyes.
Small white baby asters ( Chaetopappa ericoides), less than 6 inches high, often fill the spaces between sagebrush.
Sego lilies ( Calochortus nuttallii), with their three cream-colored petals marked with maroon and yellow at their base, will have made their appearance by late May.
In late May/early June the yellow-flowered prickly pear cactus should be in full bloom all along the trail, and you'll see an occasional red-flowered scarlet hedgehog or claret cup cactus. Eventually you come to the second bench with another view to the junction of the Río Pueblo and Río Grande. You can hike on beyond the bench to the south, or return and enjoy looking for blooms you missed on the way out.
So who thought our high mesas were boring and devoid of anything but sagebrush? Enjoy our spring colors and be safe out there!
Note: Photos of all the flowers mentioned can be found on our Facebook page (search for "Native Plant Society New Mexico Taos Chapter").
How to contact us
For questions or suggestions, contact Jan Martenson, president of the Taos Chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico, at TaosNPS@gmail.com or call (575) 751-0511. Get in on the fun and support the education and outreach efforts of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico by joining: npsnm.org/about/join. Be sure to select Taos as your chapter affiliation.
Calendar for Native Plant Society of New Mexico - Taos Chapter
Our monthly public meetings and wildflower hikes are on hiatus for the time being. When we can reconvene and take group hikes we will post in the Taos News calendar, on the NPSNM website ( npsnm.org/about/chapters/taos), and on our Facebook page (search for "Native Plant Society New Mexico Taos Chapter"). Emails are sent to members.
Meanwhile, videos of past meetings can be found at tinyurl.com/TaosNPSvideos.