This purple fall-blooming crocus (Crocus sativus) grows great in New Mexico. We have what is called a Mediterranean Climate and this crocus probably originated in Greece with a similar climate. It will take a couple years to mature. So why aren’t we growing it?

The answer to this question is the amount of labor required to harvest it. If you have a saffron patch, harvesting is done by crawling around on your hands and knees and then plucking a couple orange threads (stigmas) from each blossom. It is slow work. It is said that it takes about 75,000s threads to make one pound of saffron!

If you would like to have your own saffron patch, pick a place with well drained soil, add some compost to enrich it and then plant the bulbs in the Fall. Mulch your bed and water it as you might water perennials over winter. The crocus will start leafing out in Spring and bloom the next fall, a year after planting. Since they are bulbs, they will multiply so after a few years you need to dig them up, split the bulbs and replant.

So not only do you have beautiful purple crocuses in your yard but a valuable food.


Jujuba. Photo by Amirhadi Manavi / unsplash

Jujuba (Ziziphus jujuba) is a small deciduous tree with thorny branches and small green leaves. It will form a thicket over time by sending out runners underground. It is native to China and is often called the Chinese date since it has a pit, is slightly sweet and when ripe wrinkles like a palm date. It has been cultivated in China for over 4,000 years. Since it likes hot and dry climates, it is listed as a Climate Ready Tree in New Mexico as it’s very suited for our changing climate.

Every fall Jujuba’s produce a crop of small red fruits. You can eat them right off the tree, dry them, or cook them up to make juice. They are high in antioxidants, flavoids, and Vitamin C and have been used for food and medicinally for centuries. There are reports though that they can react with some antidepressants and seizure medications so some caution is needed.


Tobacco can grow well in the mid Rio Grande Watershed up to a height of three feet. There are two varieties which are available at the Santa Ana Nursery. Each is named for the tribe which has cultivated it for special sacred uses. One variety is called Santa Domingo and the other is Zia. It only requires a medium amount of water and the tobacco is easy to dry in this climate.

There are a couple surprising advantages of raising this annual in your yard. It has bright yellow flowers which are attractive to many pollinators. And then you can also make a spray for the coddling moth from its leaves. Cut some up, put them in an old sock and soak them in water for a few days. Then you can spray the solution on the apple fruit as it starts to set. In the Fall you can use some shredded up leaves at the base of stone fruit trees to deter the stone bore.


Priests from Spain first brought grapes to New Mexico. They thrived in our soil and Mediterranean Climate much the same as from where they originated. Now they are called Mission grapes. In Spring, cuttings are done before the vines leaf and sap is available to help for  rooting. The Mission grapes have nice Fall color.

Grapes are a cash crop for small boutique growers as well as for some local wineries. Santa Ana Pueblo has many acres of grapes which they market to Gruet Winery.

Caring for grapes takes time. They have to be trimmed in Spring ideally before leafing out and then the suckers removed later. Grapes require more water than many other crops but outside of occasional mites, they are not bothered by insects.

Planting grapes in your yard provides habitat for birds and the occasional racoon but grapes are bad for dogs so keep them out of your grape arbor.
by Sue Brown with input from Mike Halverson, Santa Ana Nursery



New Mexico landscape. Photo by Ethan Wright Magoon / unsplash

A weed is a plant we have not yet found a use for….

A lot of us have heard of using dandelions in salads or tea. Some of us have even sampled wild mustard which is now growing all around in roadsides and yards.  Rosehip jam is common in Europe, and wild rosehips were also used in various ways by Native Americans.  See mid Rio Grande Times – Gardening section for recipes for rose hip tea, mustard pesto, dandelion wine, etc.  

Many other useful plants are all around us! An important way to learn more about where we live, in order to feel connected to our place, is to study the non-cultivated plants growing naturally in our surroundings. There are many books and plant guides for those interested in knowing more about useful plants both for eating and medicinal uses. This article provides some suggestions for how to get started to learn more about edible and medicinal plants in New Mexico.

One valuable local resource is Dara Saville.  A local class she teaches through Albuquerque Herbalism ( is described as follows:

“Gardeners and Herbalists, put those pesky weeds to good use! In this 2 hour class, students will learn about local edible and medicinal weeks commonly found in parks, fields, yards, roadsides, and waste areas of the Albuquerque area.  Herb discussions will include identification, harvesting, preparation, herbal actions, and healing or culinary uses for each plant.”

Her classes are unique in that they distinguish plants by where they grow: in the separate ecological regions of the Desert Mesa, the Rio Grande Bosque, the Foothills, the Chihuahua Desert, and mountain ranges.  Saville is the founder and main instructor for Albuquerque Herbalism; she is also the executive director of the Yerba Mansa project focused on restoring native plants in our Bosque. This project welcomes community participants for restoration projects. Check  for upcoming teaching and restoration events.  This project is also working with community help to develop a free online plant guide for the middle Rio Grande Bosque (

At the other end of the book spectrum – more suitable for people just getting started in edible plant identification and potential uses — is a book by Charles W. Kane: Wild Edible Plants of New Mexico (one of a series for various states). With 64 pages covering 58 edible plants, it is easily carried in a daypack.  Plants are arranged alphabetically one page each, with photos large enough for plant identification.  Each description includes information about the plant’s Range and Habitat, Edible Uses, Medicinal Uses, and Cautions and Special Notes.  There is a preface page for Poisonous Plants (not a complete list).  This book is suitable to study before going out in the field as a means to pre-identify plants to look for in a particular type of geographic area.

A new concern about foraging for wild foods and medicines is destruction of plants and habitats.  For example, Osha is a New Mexico plant which is endangered. Gardeners are being encouraged to grow such plants in their gardens instead of wild-harvesting. Unfortunately, some plants like Osha are difficult to grow outside their native mountain habitat. 

At the same time, environmental groups such as The Nature Conservancy and Audubon are urging gardeners to use native plants for the sake of supporting local wildlife habitat ( In Albuquerque a good source for native plant information is Plants of the Southwest. The company publishes a catalog annually that includes many edible and medicinal plants as well as decorative plants and trees and shrubs, many of them with edible aspects. Also, Santa Ana Nursery in Bernalillo is another source which specializes in native plants.

WATER IS LIFE by Marian Goering

Jemez River. Photo by Stephanie Klepacki / unsplash

Water is important to all of us.

We use and depend on water every day.  We drink water and cook and wash with it.  We may enjoy swimming in water.  And we hope for rain to fall when crops are in the ground.  Water appears in numerous religious practices.  And water covers about 71% of the earth’s surface.  The chemistry of water is a source of wonder. 

A water molecule (H2O) consists of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom with the two hydrogens bonded to the oxygen atom in the center.  The H-O-H bonds occur not in a straight line, but at an angle of approximately 104.5 degrees. 

So the water molecule is “bent” and this fact leads to a quality called polarity.  Polarity means that one end of the molecule has a little more positive electrical charge and the other has a little more negative electrical charge.  In the case of water, the hydrogen ends become a little more positive and the oxygen a little more negative.  Because the water molecule has this polarity, water has unusual and marvelous characteristics that are important for life on earth.

  • Water as a substance has a very cohesive structure – water molecules are attracted to each other and stick together through hydrogen bonding.  That is, the positive and negative ends of the bent water molecule are attracted to the opposite charge ends of other water molecules.  The molecules want to stick together so it takes a lot of energy to interrupt the attraction of the hydrogen bonds. 

As a result of hydrogen bonds, water remains liquid at a wide range of common earth temperatures.  Water can be a solid in the form of ice (below 0o Centigrade or 32o Fahrenheit) or a gas in the form of steam. (above 100o Centigrade or 212o Fahrenheit).  Clouds are simply water vapor in the sky.

  • Water is a near universal solvent because the polarity of the water molecule makes it possible for many, many other substances to dissolve in water.  Dissolving means that other compounds break up into positively and negatively charged particles called ions that are attracted to the opposite charges of the polarized water molecule. As a result, water carries nutrients in soil, plants, and the bodies of animals including us.
  • Water tends to adhere to other substances leading to capillary action.  When water is in a narrow tube it moves upwards around the edges of the tube against gravity! This is capillary action and makes it possible for watery sap to rise in plants and trees against gravity!
  • Because water molecules are cohesive, liquid water has surface tension that supports some small things that would sink without surface tension.  Surface tension lets Water Striders walk along the surface.
  • As a liquid, water is transparent. This makes it possible for light to penetrate lakes, rivers, and oceans. Plants need to receive the light of the sun for photosynthesis anywhere they live. The light that penetrates water supports plant life, which benefits all the other aquatic creatures. 
  • Most substances contract and get smaller as they get colder and freeze.  Water, however, is different – it forms crystals and expands as it freezes! The polarity of the water molecule is the reason for this amazing difference. Like charges of the molecules are trying to avoid proximity to each other.  Because water expands on freezing, ice floats on top of the unfrozen water of a pond or lake, and even an ocean.  The ice protects all the aquatic life below from more severe cold. 

More importantly, if ice contracted when it freezes, it would not float but sink to the bottom.  And if ice sank, lakes and oceans would probably be frozen solid from bottom to top.  Only a shallow area of the surface water would thaw during warm periods.  Frozen solid, icy lakes and oceans would make it impossible for living creatures to develop on our planet!

  • Water has a high heat capacity, and bodies of water function as a heat sink.  Heat capacity means that a substance can absorb and hold heat.  Because of its high heat capacity, large bodies of water, especially the oceans, absorb and hold a great deal of the earth’s heat.  We know that some areas of the oceans are warming noticeably as the planet is warming – and for now our huge oceans are protecting us from more severe effects of the changing climate.

The chemistry of water is a wonder that makes possible our lives – and all life — on our beautiful and fragile planet!