Desert Arboretum Manager, Cari Powell

What signifies spring to you? In Kansas it was always the tiny purple and yellow crocuses planted out by the mailbox at the home where I grew up.  I began to feel winter loosen its grip as soon as I saw those tender shoots.  Of course, back home we had reliable showers to bring out flowers.  Here in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, neither flowers nor rain are ever promised, and certainly not on a rigid schedule. At the Desert Arboretum, our Chihuahuan Pineapple Cactus (Echinomastis intertextus) is the harbinger of Spring.  This year, even without regular moisture, it was right on schedule forming buds the first week of March. To me this is the biggest wonder of the desert – life with little water!

Chihuahuan Pineapple Cactus blooming at arboretum

While most people associate flowers with spring, you’d be delighted to find blooms around the arboretum from early spring through late summer. Early blooming plants include Banana Yucca (Yucca baccata), Claret Cup Cactus (Echinocereus coccineus), and New Mexico Olive (Forestiera pubescens). As the days lengthen and May slides into July, prickly pears (Opuntia) begin to open their yellow, red and orange flowers. There are 15 species of opuntia at the arboretum and during their peak blooming the air is abuzz with bees and other pollinators.

Engelmann’s prickly pear fruit is a favorite of many of the animals on the refuge (including humans!)
Bee flying to a long spined prickly pear at arboretum.

Late summer monsoons bring many of the native wildflowers out of the parched earth. Last year we had an abundance of Devil’s Claw (Proboscidea parviflora), Redwhisker Clammyweed (Polanisia dodecandra), Globe Mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) and Evening Primrose (Oenothera tetraptera). The symbiosis of pollinating insects, pollinated plants, and larger animals who depend on the fruits, nuts and seeds of these plants is nothing short of marvelous. In the desert, where over millennia these relationships have formed, the balance of this system can easily be thrown off by outside forces.

Redwhisker clammyweed with orange globe mallow behind at arboretum
Orange globe mallow with bees at arboretum

When I came to Socorro, New Mexico in the summer of 2017 I moved for lots of reasons, but number one was the chance to be closer to and learn more about cacti. I honestly had no idea how I would accomplish that goal, but I knew it would work itself out. In the fall of 2020 when a friend invited me to a volunteer effort to expand the Desert Arboretum, I jumped at the opportunity (and I might have even taken off work to join in!) That first day at the Arboretum I knew there were agaves, prickly pears, chollas and yuccas, but I couldn’t have begun to tell you any of the scientific names. Since then, with the patient assistance of longtime arboretum volunteer, Tom Hyden, a couple of new books and many, many google searches, I’ve started to learn to pronounce and even memorize many of the scientific names for the plants in the arboretum. Armed with these resources and weekly trips to work with the plants, I’ve also learned about the other residents of the refuge – the birds, the bees, (the garden’s resident packrats!), the invasive plants and the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse. I’ve learned how the refuge staff work year-round, doing their best to manage habitat for these residents, despite ongoing drought, hotter temperatures and aging infrastructure.

As part of the Friends’ efforts to support the refuge, Tom and I are working with refuge staff to sustain pollinators (including the threatened Monarch Butterfly) by creating a master planting plan for native plants and flowers around the observation blind on the North Loop. There will be a focus on milkweed, which is necessary for Monarch caterpillars as it is the only thing they have evolved to eat. We hope to be planting Broadleaf milkweed (Asclepias latifolia), Horsetail milkweed (Asclepias subverticillata) and Showy milkweed (Asclepias speciosa) by the fall of 2022. Please stay tuned for updates!

Horsetail milkweed in bloom on the refuge.
Broadleaf milkweed in bloom (in the Quebradas).

In addition to assisting with this pollinator project, I am also researching and writing Ethnobotanical articles for some of the species found at the arboretum and throughout the refuge. Ethnobotany is the study of how people of a particular culture and region make use of indigenous (native) plants. These articles will be available to visitors of the refuge to help them understand the history of this area and the great diversity of plant life in what can look like a dry, pokey or even hostile environment.

If you want to come test my knowledge, or maybe even teach me something, we’ll be hosting the Desert Arboretum Stroll (IN PERSON) on Saturday April 23 from 10am – 12pm. I hope to see you there. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this special place and I can’t wait to share all that I’m learning with you!

Article and all photos by Cari Powell, Desert Arboretum Manager