New Mexico is known as the Land of Enchantment, and it’s easy to see why. Startlingly blue sky, vast open spaces, hidden canyons and crevices. Plant life is diverse, ranging from the tallest trees to the tiniest succulents. The climate can be daunting, but plants here rise to the challenge and produce impressive natives and native hybrids.
So last October, a small group of hort professionals visited New Mexico to visit a couple of growing operations and to search the surrounding wildlands for their individual Holy Grails. Each had his own purpose in joining the short expedition, but they all ended up sharing and learning from each other.
It wasn’t a major undertaking; no visas or passports were required, no international phytosanitary regulations to observe. The plants they explored live right in our own backyard. Because of their provenance, they hold the promise of being easily adapted and requiring minimal input – a must in a time of limited resources and dwindling access.
It’s a trip that should inspire any plant professional to get out of the office or lab, away from the greenhouse or field, and set out to find what sort of treasures are available.
Ross Shrigley, executive director of Plant Select in Fort Collins, Colorado, says it took “only about a week” to plan the trip. Expenses were shared and the itinerary was flexible. The group visited David Salman’s Waterwise Gardening LLC facility in Santa Fe, then headed out to Don Davenport’s Plants of the Rio Grande LLC in Letimar. Shrigley made a couple of stops on behalf of Dog Tuff™ grass. They collected seed. The shared discoveries and stories. Here’s what they had to say.
Field Notes and observations, Socorro and surrounding area
There is still so much field exploration to be done to identify superior populations of Western native plants. Myself and other nursery professionals are looking for attributes, such as improved cold hardiness, improved size or form, larger and more brightly colored flowers, colorful fall foliage and other ornamental characteristics. Bringing improved, more ornamental selections of native plants into cultivation is an essential step to encourage the U.S. ornamental plant industry to grow more native plants. This is an essential step as part of an overall effort to create more resilient, habitat-friendly landscapes and gardens that will benefit the native fauna of our continent and conserve valuable water resources by using xeric species.
Populations of native plants can show considerable diversity across their native range. This was dramatically demonstrated as we sought out a population of giant Quercus gambelii (Gambel oaks). This group of plants grows as single-stemmed trees at high elevation in the Datil Mountain west of Magdalena, New Mexico, where they reach a height of over 50 feet and the trunks get to be more than 6 feet in circumference. Plant Select is looking to introduce these incredibly large and vigorous native oaks into wider cultivation.
This whole area, west of Socorro and Truth or Consequences, is a botanically diverse region where the Colorado Plateau meets the Chihuahuan Desert. Here, we visited a high elevation, cold hardy population of Quercus hypoleucoides (silver leaf oak) on the eastern edge of Gila Mountain range. Outstanding individual plants and groups of the oak were located, and it was noted that the trees had acorn primordia (immature acorns) indicating that the trees would be producing a crop of acorns next summer (2018). A huge, 130,000+ acre fire swept through the area in 2013, burning many of the oaks to the ground. But they are resprouting and will help to rebuild the soil and provide copious acorns in future years to help build wildlife populations affected by the fire.
Much to our surprise, the fire exposed many ravines where Big Tooth maples live. They, too, had been scorched to the ground, but were regrowing from their roots. They were in brilliant fall color, which helped us to spot them.
A population of Alnus oblongifolia (Arizona alder) was located along South Percha Creek. These giant alders grow along the stream banks in Arizona, western New Mexico and northern Mexico. Their extensive root systems anchor the stream banks and shade the streams that provide valuable riparian habitat in this arid region. The trees were in seed that we were able to collect.
We also stopped to collect seed of Yucca elata (soaptree yucca) from an exposed, mile-high site west of Socorro. On a drive through the area in July, I had seen that this colony of handsome plants had numerous green pods. So I had made note of their location and came back this trip to collect ripe seed, which was found to be abundant. This tree-type yucca is the state flower of New Mexico. The species has demonstrated considerable cold hardiness, and plants grown from this seed will be usable across USDA Zone 5 and warmer areas of the western U.S.
We also spotted two unique hybrid cottonwood trees along a seasonal stream/wash outside of Socorro. They were clearly hybrid individuals, as we spotted two species growing along this large wash area. It was their foliage that demonstrated that they were natural hybrids. The leaves had unusual thickness and size and were unblemished by disease or insects. But most interestingly, the branch canopy grew as a perfect dome. I collected some twigs, removed the leaves and brought them back to Santa Fe where they were placed into cold, moist storage to be potted for rooting this coming spring.
Founder and chief horticulturist, Santa Fe Greenhouses and Waterwise Gardening LLC, Santa Fe
In search of the “Gila Monster” oak
In 1989 I was gifted an oak tree from retired Colorado nurseryman Harry Swift. Harry had a nursery on the west side of Denver called Western Evergreens. I was working as a nurseryman at Paulino Gardens when I met Harry. Like myself, Harry was very passionate about cultivating native plants. I was building a new display garden at the nursery and Harry gave me one of his “nonsuckering” Gambel oaks (Quercus gambelii).
Harry told me, “This will be a very important landscape tree in the future. Our native oak is beautiful but suckers terribly, giving it limited use in the landscape. If Gambel oak could be cultivated in a nonsuckering form, we would really have something.”
I recall him saying the genetics were from New Mexico, and I didn’t think much more about it for over 20 years when I observed that the beautiful tree (now 20 feet tall and 14 feet wide with a trunk 12 inches in diameter) truly was nonsuckering. Harry had long-since passed away, so I couldn’t inquire about more details of the oak’s history.
Seedlings from Harry’s original tree are approaching 20 feet in height now in my home garden (still no suckers). I was delighted to go on a search for the oak with my fellow nurserymen this fall. When we found them, I was stunned at their beauty and size. The biggest specimen was 12 feet in circumference at DBH. It was about 35 feet tall and 50 feet in diameter. What a spectacular plant! I’m guessing the plant is hundreds of years old. The Gila Monster Oak saga begins.
New Mexico trip – plant hunting through fresh eyes
As a person who is new to the horticulture industry, this trip was very exciting for me! I am an electronics technician by trade and have worked my entire adult life on the ocean. I have always enjoyed plants and landscapes but have never been trained in or formally studied in this field. I married into a sod farm business in Nebraska (Todd Valley Farms). Eventually, I was drawn into the business and now run the greenhouse operations.
My goal is to expand our grow operations from simply turfgrass plugs to an assortment of grass varieties, including ornamentals. Todd Valley Farms specializes in buffalo grass. These low-water use grasses fit well with the goals of Plant Select and led to us propagating and distributing Dog Tuff grass, developed by Kelly Grummons. As this grass is a growing success, I was contacted by Ross Shrigley to expand the marketing of Dog Tuff and possibly grow other varieties.
Enter David Salman. David has a product that is booming in popularity around the country called ‘Blonde Ambition’, (Bouteloua gracilis) a grama grass. As it turned out, David had been involved with Todd Valley Farms in the early years of their involvement into buffalo grass. So with coordination through Ross at Plant Select, we worked out a plan to expand David’s growing operation of Blonde Ambition in our facilities.
This string of events leads to the “field trip” to New Mexico. My goal was to learn as much as I could about the way David propagated and grew his Blonde Ambition, mainly tagging along for the rest of the time. These men were extremely knowledgeable, seemingly, about every plant we came across. It was honestly amazing to watch them as we were driving down the highway at 60 mph, spot a plant, notice some oddity about it and get so excited to go investigate it! I laugh to see how they “geek” out on these plants! Honestly though, it is very inspiring! So much so, in fact, that I now have an area in one of my greenhouses dedicated to trial growing of new plants and (thanks to Scott Skogerboe) have a developing passion for tree propagation and grafting!
It’s not often that you get to have so many knowledgeable people in one place who are willing to let you pick their brains and are so eager to pass on what they know.
I cannot speak in the technical plant terminology like these men. However, I am smart enough to see that what they are doing is crucial. If we are to have plants and landscapes as a part of our homes and businesses in the future, we must have this type of exploration.
Greenhouse Operations Manager, Todd Valley Farms Inc. Mead, Nebraska
Plant Exploration of Central New Mexico, October 2017
Over many years I have developed a friendship with New Mexico nurseryman Don Davenport and his wife, Marilyn, who operate Plants of the Rio Grande in Lemitar. He has come up to visit our operation at Fort Collins Wholesale Nursery in northern Colorado, but I had never been down to see his nursery. After several years of telling me about the interesting native plants growing in his area of south central New Mexico, we made a plan for me to drive down to his place along the Rio Grande valley to spend several days together in October and explore his neck of the woods. I’m a longtime plant explorer in the Rocky Mountain States, and New Mexico had never disappointed me – and with Don Davenport eager to share the plants he had discovered over his long career, I knew I was in for a treat.
During the planning stage, every time I mentioned the trip to a friend each one wanted to join in and before long our contingent had grown to four other plantsmen: Ross Shrigley, the director of Plant Select in Fort Collins, Colorado; Nick Radford of Todd Valley Farms of Mead, Nebraska; Kelly Grummons of Paulino Gardens in Denver; and David Salman, founder and Chief Horticulturist of High Country Gardens and Waterwise Gardening LLC of Santa Fe.
After we toured Don’s nursery, he led us to an ancient grape vine and told us it was one of just a few old remnants left over from the Spanish Mission grapes first planted in the area in 1620; these originated from the San Miguel Mission built in nearby Socorro in 1598. It was evident this vine wasn’t an original from 397 years ago, but rather regrown from seed or cuttings from the original Spanish colonial vineyards. Don knew this because he had submitted leaf samples to the University of California at Davis, to test its DNA to find out its identity. It came back as a hybrid between two ancient Old World varieties, Damascus and San Geronimo. It was 100 percent Vitis vinifera without a bit of North American grape DNA. U.C. Davis told Don this grape was the most obscure grape DNA they had ever tested. Previously Don had shared cuttings with me and it failed to be hardy in Zone 5 Northern Colorado, but it holds promise to trial in the areas of the country where Vitis vinifera grapes can be grown well.
On the second day we traveled to San Lorenzo Canyon, where there were many different hybrid white oaks in a wide range of sizes, shapes and leaf colors that Don thought we might enjoy seeing. The main parent to these hybrids is Quercus turbinella, the desert live oak, but because all members of the white oak group can pollinate any other member of its group, we could only guess at the exact parentage of many of these trees. As the acorns had been long gone, we could only make notes on which trees caught our fancy and make plans to return next August during acorn harvesting season. We found slender lip ferns, Cheilanthes feei, growing on the northern walls of the canyon that were being fed on by the colorful larvae of the giant northern flag moth.
Finally, after having run out of arroyo to drive in we took to hiking up the trail by foot. It was on this leg of the journey that we came across a unique cottonwood tree that might have merit in the nursery trade. This tree had a perfect globe-shaped top. Our initial guess was that it was a variant of the Rio Grande cottonwood, Populus wislizeni, as this is the predominant cottonwood throughout New Mexico, but is also found in west Texas, Arizona, Utah and western Colorado. If this tree is a male cottonless tree, then we might have found a unique cultivar.
After we left the canyon, we headed on Highway 60 west toward the mountain town of Datil, to see a massive individual of the tree-form Gambel oak that Don had christened “The Gila Monster.” Of all the plants Don had planned to show us, he was most excited about this tree and so were we. I had seen big specimens of tree-form Gambel oaks, but I had seen nothing like this magnificent specimen. From what we’ve learned since then this tree isn’t even close to be the record tree. We were blown away. Don has been growing seedlings from the Gila Monster for many years and they have proved to be fast growers in the nursery – and all of them inherit the tree-form characteristic.
In my home state of Colorado, the Gambel oak is a suckering, short- to medium-sized shrub oak. It’s a useful shrub for drought tolerance and for wildlife feeding purposes, but it’s not a shade tree by any means. How is it that these Gambel oaks near Datil, New Mexico, grow to be stately, xeric, lovely shade trees? The theory provided by botanist Dr. Jack Maze in 1968 is that these trees are hybrids between the bur oak, Quercus macrocarpa, and the Gambel oak, Quercus gambelii, which grew alongside each other during the last ice age when the climate was cooler and wetter in New Mexico. This more moderate climate allowed the bur oak to move gradually west into the native stands of the gamble oak. After the Pleistocene ended, the climate became hotter and drier, and pure-blooded bur oaks couldn’t survive the harsher climate. But those that had naturally hybridized with the much more xeric Gambel oaks survived to pass along their tree-form genetics. And as these tall, stately trees grew, they blocked out the sun of the shorter, pure Gambel oaks to the point of being locally extinct in central New Mexico.
In a final note, it is important to mention that the elevation of Datil is 7,200 feet above sea level, and the weather station there records that the area has experienced 36 degrees below zero. The average precipitation is just under 12 inches per year. Datil, New Mexico, is a tough place to live for a tree.
Chief Propagator, Fort Collins Wholesale Nursery Fort Collins, Colorado