Tree tales and shrub love stories

By Jan Martenson
Posted 4/11/19

The Wednesday (April 17) meeting of the Taos Chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico will feature Dr. Marisa Thompson, a horticultural specialist with New Mexico State University

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Tree tales and shrub love stories


The Wednesday (April 17) meeting of the Taos Chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico will feature Dr. Marisa Thompson, a horticultural specialist with New Mexico State University at Los Lunas. Thompson will enlighten us about appropriate trees and shrubs for our Northern New Mexico landscapes and how to care for them.

Thompson holds a Master of Science degree in horticulture and a doctorate degree in plant and environmental sciences. Both her research projects focused on pecan trees: orchard floor management and pecan flowering mechanisms. Earlier, she focused on urban horticulture and worked on "pairing plants and people at nurseries in Albuquerque before becoming an Albuquerque area extension master gardener in 2009 and a Las Cruces tree steward in 2014."

Currently she teaches at master garden programs throughout the state, writes an online blog called Desert Blooms ( as well as a gardening column, Southwest Yard & Garden, which is published in several newspapers and magazines across the state. She can be found on social media @NMDesertBlooms (Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Pinterest).

What is the difference between trees and shrubs?

Thompson will talk about the differences in trees and shrubs. What differentiates trees and shrubs from other members of the plant kingdom is the presence of bark - the outer covering on the trunk, twigs and woody roots. Thus, trees and shrubs are all woody plants but belong to different plant families. They can be evergreen or deciduous (shedding their leaves annually). According to Michael Kuhns, a forestry specialist at Utah State University, "Though no scientific definition exists to separate trees and shrubs, a useful definition for a tree is a woody plant having one erect perennial stem (trunk) at least 3 inches in diameter at a point 4 1/2 feet above the ground, a definitely formed crown of foliage, and a mature height of at least 13 feet. This definition works fine, though some trees may have more than one stem, and young trees obviously don't meet the size criteria. A shrub can then be defined as a woody plant with several perennial stems that may be erect or may lie close to the ground. It will usually have a height less than 13 feet and stems no more than about 3 inches in diameter."

The most familiar trees to us in Taos are the deciduous Siberian elms and Russian olives - both of which, sadly, are not native. But in the years since their introduction they have come to serve as major providers of shade and bird habitats. Our most common evergreen native trees are the piñon pines, junipers and ponderosa pines; common deciduous trees are cottonwoods, New Mexico locust, aspens and willows.

Shrubs that we know and love

Who among us doesn't marvel at the scent and colors of our lilac shrubs in early May (although not native)? And who doesn't love our native Apache plume shrubs with their dainty white blossoms and ethereal pink feathery seeds when backlit by sunshine? Native sagebrush and yuccas are also considered shrubs.

One of my favorite native shrubs, unremarkable until it bursts into bloom in the spring, is the cliff fendlerbush (Fendlera rupicola). It is easily seen blooming on the canyon slopes of State Road 68 heading toward Española. It deserves a close look as each of the four white petals of the blossoms is attached to the center of the flower by a short stalk. A more common shrub is the New Mexico (or desert) olive, also called a privet. It is a hardy deciduous shrub found many places in the wild and is also a useful plant for low-water landscaping. It has tiny yellowish flowers in May followed by black berries loved by birds. This is a shrub that can be pruned to one main stem and then be considered a small tree.

So a shrub can be a tree, but can a tree ever be a shrub? Come to Thompson's talk Wednesday (April 17) and find out!

Calendar - Native Plant Society of New Mexico -Taos Chapter

Our monthly meetings, open to the public, are held on the third Wednesday of the month at 6 p.m. in the boardroom of the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, 118 Cruz Alta Road. Look for updates in The Taos News calendar, on our chapter webpage, or our Facebook page (search for "Native Plant Society New Mexico Taos Chapter"). Hikes and field trips will start in May. Join in on the fun and support the education and outreach efforts of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico:

Videos of past meetings can be found at:


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