Trees are critical in our urban environment to mitigate some of the effects of climate change; they sequester carbon, provide cooling shade, and support life for all animals, including us. And on top of all that, trees are beautiful. But now they need our serious attention. Our tallest trees are referred to as our canopy. Along the bosque, the canopy tree is the Cottonwood and throughout the rest of Albuquerque, our canopy tree is the Siberian Elm. These canopy trees are decreasing due to drought, aging, and disease and now have many dead limbs. It is estimated that 30% of the canopy will be gone in the next ten years, and we are not planting enough trees to meet that decline. Even many of our “native” trees will not survive with climate change. Albuquerque has not had a tree planting campaign since the Siberian Elms were planted nearly 100 years ago.
ClimateReadyTrees: Tree Species Selection Guidelines for the Albuquerque Metro Area was published in 2020 by The Nature Conservancy. Drawing on local and international experts, the publication is informative and well written. The third chapter gives examples of seven types of planting environments one might find in the mid Rio Grande and suggestions on how to plant various species in those conditions. Appendix A lists all the species thought to be able to withstand both the heat and spotty rainfall predicted over the next 100 years. So how do we get to work?
Interview with Maria Thomas, curator of plants at the ABQ BioPark Botanic Gardens, as told to Sue Brown
When I think about being a person of place, I think about my commitment to making my place a better space in which to live. I grew up in northern New Mexico, and my roots are here in the Rio Grande valley and the surrounding mountains and mesas. When I left for six years, living in Oregon with its earthy-crunchy vibe, rocky beaches, tidepools, and (seemingly) endless tracts of old growth forests, there was a strong pull to stay there and make Oregon my long-term home. However, it remained important to me to eventually come back here where I felt a deeper connection, a deeper sense of place.
From growing up gardening with my grandparents, hiking in Northern New Mexico, cultivating medicinal plants in Oregon, and working as an archaeologist in the four corners area of the southwest, plants have always been a strong part of who I am. Working as the curator of plants at the Botanic Garden allows me to do many different things, but what I like most about my position is that I’m employed by the community. With everything I do there, I strive to create a better place for our community to visit and to live.
The work I do strengthening the native plant community and the conservation of our native endangered plants is also related to this purpose. I want kids growing up today and tomorrow to have the same opportunity I had to experience our wild local landscapes and discover the natural beauty of the state they live in. We have eight different biomes here in New Mexico which makes our state incredibly unique as far as plant diversity goes. It is something to take pride in and to protect as best we can. At the Botanic Garden, we work with botanists, watershed ecologists, and conservationists from local, state, and federal agencies who are dedicating their lives to protect our native environment, scouring the state for endangered native plants, and collecting seed that we are saving in seed banks. Unfortunately, statewide there are not enough resources allocated to this effort. What work is done is often dependent on grant-funding and other non-constant programs that require an incredible amount of volunteer time to make any sort of progress. In an ideal world, there would be greater recognition of the important work of these people and state-wide action plans would be implemented to give them the long-term support they need to accomplish this incredibly important work.
Sustainability is also a major issue that we emphasize through many program themes at the BioPark. Drought impacts everything we do and care about. We all want to reduce our water use since it is a limited precious resource, but it is important to understand that you can have a beautiful yard using native and desert-adapted plants that promote pollinator and wildlife habitat and still use very little water. Many local landscapes use massive amounts of crushed gravel with very few plants. This gets heated up by the sun and then continues to heat up the city, which then increases evaporation of the little rainfall we manage to get each summer. Hotter landscapes equal stressed out plants, stressed out wildlife, and stressed out people as well! We need a different story to engage new stakeholders, otherwise we just continue preaching to the choir and still end up with vast subdivisions of sterile, inhospitable “zero-scape.” With this in mind, we know we have to generate interest at the grassroots level, which is something we are now implementing at Tingley Beach.
Plants have been used as medicine by people in New Mexico for millennia. In the mid Rio Grande watershed, knowledge from Plains, Pueblo and Hispanic people have been shared as well for the last 400 years with healers using at least 70 plants found to have medicinal uses. One plant may have multiple, seemingly unrelated uses. This is because plants are complex, made of many compounds, while the pills we buy have been engineered to have only one compound/use. Fifty percent of the pharmaceutical products prescribed in Western medicine had their origin in plants. Some you might know include aspirin (pain) from willow bark, digitalis (heart failure) from foxglove, and Vincristine (leukemia) from periwinkle.
Here are some examples of medicinal plants found and used in our watershed: