Seventeen members of the Taos Chapter of Native Plant Society of New Mexico hiked the Agua Sarca trail (near Sipapu) on July 29 and were delighted to identify more than 60 species of wildflowers and shrubs while wandering the first mile of the trail and its adjacent meadows. Some of the most colorful and unusual plants we identified were the mountain figwort, fernleaf lousewort, pallid thistle and violet wood sorrel.
In a meadow off to the left near the start of the trail, we spotted some tall plants that appeared flowerless. As we got closer we saw these 3-4-foot tall plants were topped with clusters of past-prime flowers gone to seed.
It is difficult to locate a wildflower in any field guide without a flower. Then we spotted one plant with small, ¾ inch-long flowers - pale maroon to yellow in color. They reminded us of snapdragon flowers, so that gave us a hint for searching in the field guide.
We found it - Scrophularia montana - a plant endemic (native) to New Mexico. It is indeed in the snapdragon family.
We learned that the flowers, being small but deep-throated, are often visited by hummingbirds for nectar. The field guide also described medical uses of the plant: applied topically it has been used to soothe irritated skin and heal wounds.
Continuing up the trail we came upon more tall plants, mostly past their blooming prime, with distinct fernlike leaves. Finally, we discovered a few plants with two-lipped brownish-yellow flowers ,which gave us a clear means of identification.
These were identified as Pedicularis procera or fernleaf lousewort. The description of fernleaf is most appropriate but why lousewort? A search of botanical literature produced the explanation that at one time this plant in fields was thought to produce lice in sheep. Even the Latin name, Pedicularis, means "relating to lice."
A bit further on, an opening in the trees revealed a meadow aflutter with fritillary and other butterflies diligently feasting on the flowers of dozens of tall plants. Spiky leaves indicated that these were thistles, but with pale yellow flowers. We had come upon the pallid, or Parry's, thistle ( Cirsium parryi), endemic to the Rocky Mountains of New Mexico and Colorado. They thrive in damp mountain forests at elevations of 7,000-10,000 feet.
As much as thistles are hated, and the introduced species (musk, bull and Canada thistles) are indeed problems in many ways, several species of native thistles need to be respected as they serve as hosts to many native pollinators.
These natives, especially in Northern New Mexico, are often white or yellow flowered. You can find a downloadable booklet of thistles found in New Mexico at npsnm.org/plant-id-collection
As we headed upward, we had to pay attention to our footing as the trail became crisscrossed with exposed roots. With our eyes cast down, off to the side, we spotted delicate little violet flowers with five petals.
Stopping for a closer look and poking around the flowers' apparently leafless stems, we found it did have leaves resembling three-leaved clover. Our field guide quickly led us to the wood sorrel, Oxalis violaceae (aka O. metcalfei).
Our Favorite Field Guide
Like many wildflower aficionados throughout the mountains of Northern New Mexico, we have come to appreciate the field guide "Wildflowers of the Northern and Central Mountains of New Mexico " by Littlefield and Burns. Illustrated with color photographs and organized by flower color, as are many field guides, the most useful attribute of this book is the inclusion of photos not only of the flowers, but also the leaves and often an overview of the growth habit of the entire plant. The plant descriptions, in nontechnical terms when possible, include unique biological features and ethnobotanical uses.
Native Plant Day
August 18 has been designated Native Plant Day by the governor's official proclamation: "Whereas, New Mexico contains more plant habitats than nearly any other state in the country, from the Chihuahuan desert to the alpine tundra; …and whereas, New Mexico also supports a larger number of native plant species than nearly any other state in the country; …. and whereas these native plants support a great variety of birds and animals…"
To commemorate this day, the Taos Chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico will celebrate Friday, August 17, 11 a.m.- 6 p.m. We'll be outside Cid's Market offering information and selling native plant seedlings and new and used books. Books we are featuring this year are "Common Southwestern Native Plants - An Identification Guide" for $22 (retail price $25) and "Wildflowers of the Northern and Central Mountains of New Mexico," mentioned above, for $28 (retail price $30). Stop by and celebrate with us!
Got GreatPhotos of Native Plants?
Don't forget to enter the NPSNM Snap That Plant contest. Deadline is September 30. We are calling on all photographers, young and old, to join us in our exploration of New Mexico's native plants.
Submit your native plant images -- in their natural habitat or in gardens, being used as food or medicine, interacting with people, animals, or insects -- you name it. We want to showcase our community members and highlight the beauty of the Southwest. Get creative!
For full information on the contest and how to submit your photos online, visit: npsnm.org/summer-photo-contest.
Join in on the fun and support the education and outreach efforts of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico: npsnm.org/about/join, or pick up a membership form at a meeting or hike.
Martenson is the president of the Taos Chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico and a member of the board of NPSNM.
How to contact us
This column is printed every second Thursday of the month. For questions or suggestions, please contact us at TaosNPS@gmail.com or call (575) 751-0511.