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Desert Willow

Whether you have lived in Las Cruces for decades or are new to the area, you may be curious about the plants of the Chihuahuan Desert. If you pursued this topic, you likely discovered the Las Cruces chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico (LCNPS), which has been active here for decades.

The mission of the nonprofit is to educate the public about native plants by promoting knowledge of plant identification, ecology, and uses; foster plant conservation and the preservation of natural habitats; and encourage the appropriate use of native plants to conserve water, land, and wildlife.

To fulfill this mission in our community, LCNPS leads a monthly hike during which participants learn about native plants and arranges speakers to talk about the Chihuahuan Desert we inhabit. In addition, LCNPS maintains a native plant garden at the Dripping Springs Natural Area visitors center in the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, with labels for native plants in English, Spanish, and Latin.

Do you want to learn which native plants are available locally? Do you wonder what the plants are outside your house? Do you enjoy getting out on the dozens of local trails for hiking, birding, and adventure? LCNPS is a valuable resource to help you learn about native plants and conservation while providing a wide range of resources and a deep base of knowledge.

A Growing Organization

Joan Woodward has been a chapter representative for LCNPS for several years. She described a recent LCNPS membership survey through which the board discovered most of those responding had been members for fewer than four years. They also learned the membership would appreciate more introductory-level programs from the society. “The membership is growing,” Joan states. “There is new energy in the organization.”

Some of this energy may be generated by new officers, including the president, former city councilor and mayor pro tem Gill Sorg. Recent Las Cruces transplants Ken and Mary Steigman have accepted officer positions and bring a lifetime of experience with native plants and conservation to LCNPS.

Mesquite Honey Locust seed pods
Mesquite Honey Locust seed pods

Finding Native Plants for Your Garden

Joan searched local nurseries and created a native plant availability chart published in the Las Cruces Bulletin in 2021. Except for Robledo Vista Nursery in Radium Springs, she noted there were “so few native plants available for sale in Las Cruces.”

“The limiting factor for gardeners purchasing native plants is plant availability,” Joan says.

Joan has been developing her native plant garden for years, beginning with trees to build a shade layer. Her favorite trees include hoptree (Ptelea trifoliata), which is found at Dripping Springs and Bar Canyon, and Texas madrone (Arbutus xalapensis), one of which was gifted to her by Jeff Anderson, the Doña Ana County Cooperative Extension Service agent. She acknowledges that these trees are not readily available.

For local gardeners, she recommends desert willow (Chilopsis linearis) for “the flowers [and] the sculptural shape. It’s so beautiful and tough.” Desert willows can usually be found at Color Your World, Guzman’s Greenhouse, and the Garden Center. She also proposes Texas honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) to build shade and nutrient-rich soil and provide edible seed pods. With its draping foliage, honey mesquite is an excellent substitute for water-loving weeping willows. And instead of planting oleanders, which often freeze back in Las Cruces winters and have leaves poisonous to pets and livestock, Joan recommends Arizona rosewood (Vaquelinia californica), which is usually available at Sierra Vista Growers south of Las Cruces and Robledo Vista Nursery.

LCNPS Activities and Goals

Gill, who also serves on numerous local and state conservation and environmental boards, plans to continue the LCNPS hikes and educational meetings with an emphasis on forming connections with university specialists and other environmental and conservation groups.

He provided as an example a recent tour to Ropes Springs on the Jornada Experimental Range. The tour was a joint project between LCNPS and the Jornada Range led by botanists from New Mexico State University and the University of Texas at El Paso.

A group of about 35 hikers, which included LCNPS members, San Andres Wildlife Refuge volunteers, and other community members, carpooled to a perennial spring at Ropes Ranch, where they were treated to a lush environment brimming with blooming yellow columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha), purple blooming spotted monkey flower (Mimulus guttatus), and chokecherry trees (Prunus virginiana).

Gill is particularly concerned with flooding, such as what occurred in La Union. As a member of the Paseo del Norte Watershed Council, he is committed to developing models to capture and hold rainwater to prevent flooding and support the expansion of native plant habitats.

Perry's Agave
Perry’s Agave

The Steigmans

Ken and Mary Steigman retired to Las Cruces from northern Texas, where Ken was active in bird banding and conservation. He was instrumental in the work at Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary and the Lewisville Lake Environmental Learning Area. He instituted an annual plant sale that continues to this day. At their new home in Picacho Mountain, Ken has begun training university students to band birds.

“Big Bend is my favorite place,” Ken declared. When he and Mary discovered Las Cruces, they moved here to be closer to Big Bend and for better hiking and outdoor opportunities. Ken and Mary are also birders and members of the Mesilla Valley Audubon Society.
Like many gardeners, Ken shares his plants. He has given Marcy Scott of Robledo Vista Nursery some rare Big Bend plants he has grown. Ken and Mary’s new home has many native plants to which Ken added some of his Big Bend treasures.

How Joan’s Garden Grows

Joan’s garden features Mexican feather grass (Nassella tenuissima). “I’m super happy with that plant, although some find it too invasive if it’s planted in a small space,” Joan said. She described how it has naturally moved around in her garden as the garden has matured. A sun-loving grass, it would disappear when the shade of a tree would overtake it but appear in another dry spot. She appreciates “how the plants move around at will.” She shares a delight for native grasses with Gill and Ken, both of whom worked with grassland projects in several states.

LCNPS Leadership

LCNPS officers include John Freyermuth, in charge of membership and a longtime member; Cheryl Beymer, recording secretary; and Marcia Corl, conservation contact.

These passionate members of the LCNPS want to share their enthusiasm for the Chihuahuan Desert with our community. Catch up with them on one of their monthly hikes or Zoom programs. For more information or to find out about upcoming hikes and speakers, visit their website.

 

Story by Jackye Meinecke
Photography by Cheryl Fallstead
Originally published in Neighbors magazine | 2022

Posted by LasCruces.com

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