Although much of the plant growth in New Mexico is nominally evergreen, the overall aspect of the landscape can skew toward brown, until you get up into the relatively lush alpine elevations.
New Mexico’s Upper Sonoran zone, covering the areas between 4,500 and 7,000 feet, is the largest vegetation zone in the state and includes most of Albuquerque and Santa Fe, where the Sandia and Sangre de Cristo foothills are covered with juniper and piñon trees. The Transition zone, from 7,000 feet to 8,500 feet, sees a few more stately trees, such as ponderosa pine, and a lot of the state’s colorful wildflowers: orange Indian paintbrush, bright red penstemon, purple lupine. Above 8,500 feet, the Mixed Conifer zone harbors just that sort of tree—along with clusters of aspens. The Subalpine zone, starting at 9,500 feet, is home to Engelmann spruce and bristlecone pine, while 11,500 feet marks the tree line in most places and the beginning of the Alpine zone, where almost no greenery survives.
Trees and Grasses
Trees are the clearest marker of elevation. In very low areas—such as on Albuquerque’s West Mesa—you’ll see very few trees, only some of the more desertlike plants that are more prevalent in the southern part of the state, but not in the northern: assorted cactuses, such as the common cane cholla; the spiky yucca plant, which produces towering stalks of blooms in May; and the humble tumbleweed. Along the river, thirsty cottonwoods provide dense shade; many of the biggest trees, with their gnarled, branching trunks, have been growing for centuries. In the spring, their cotton fills the air—hell for the allergic, but source of a beautiful fragrance—and in the fall, their leaves turn pure yellow. Willow and olive are also common.
In the foothills, piñon (also spelled pinyon), the official state tree, is everywhere, as a slow-growing, drought-resistant scrub tree tailor-evolved for the New Mexican landscape. Its wood produces the distinctive scent of a New Mexico winter night, and its pinecones yield tasty nuts. Alongside piñon is shaggy-bark juniper, identifiable by its loose strips of bark, its soft, fanlike needle clusters, and branches that look twisted by the wind; in season, it’s studded with purple-gray berries—another treat for foraging humans and animals alike. On the ground in the foothills, also look for clumps of sagebrush and bear grass, which blooms in huge creamy tufts at the ends of stalks up to six feet tall.
Up in the mountains, the trees are a bit taller—here you’ll find the distinctive, towering ponderosa pine, the bark of which smells distinctly of vanilla. Look for tall trees with thick, almost crusty chunks of reddish-black bark. At slightly higher elevations, dense stands of aspen trees provide a rare spot of fall color in the evergreen forests—the combination of their golden leaves and white bark creates a particularly magical glow, especially in the mountains near Santa Fe. The highest mountain areas are home to a number of dense-needled hardy pines, such as blue-green Engelmann spruce, corkbark fir, bristlecone pines, and subalpine fir, with its sleek, rounded pinecones. Hike your way up to stands of these, which are all tall but with sparse branches, and you’ll know you’re close to the peak.
© Zora O'Neill from Moon Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque, 2nd edition