A walk down the Carpenter Natural Area is made all the more interesting during a plant tour with nature guide April Baisan of the Four Corners Native Plant Society.
The group began offering free tours this year of the popular network of paved and dirt paths behind Southwest Memorial Hospital.
“The wildflowers are past their peak, but there are still interesting finds,” Baisan said. “The idea of doing these tours is to help people get information on their own about their environment.”
On either end of the 1.5 mile paved path are informative plant brochures on the hundreds of plant varieties spreading out in boggy meadows, up on the mesas and tucked into rocky cliff zones.
“This area is a real treasure for Cortez, featuring 100 species of native wildflowers,” Baisan says.
Plant touring is a work out for the mind, learning Latin names of species, thumbing through guide books, and staring intently at pestomens through a specialty lens. Don’t expect a rigorous hike. A plant tour forces one to stop and literally smell the flowers, one of the identifying factors.
“Rub the leaves between your fingers. Is it aromatic? That is one clue,” Baisan says to a group of two on the tour. “We hope as the word spreads we will have more participation.”
True to form, the tour makes it 10 yards, and a discussion is underway about lichen.
“It is symbiotic relationship between a fungus and algae,” Baisan says.
What is native and non-native is a common query, with complicated answers. The Russian olive is non-native, but it feeds wildlife, evident by a rock squirrel eating its flowers. Tamarisk is considered a scourge of the West, but the rare Southwestern willow flycatcher has adapted to nesting in its branches.
“Humans are have been bringing invasive species to different countries all over the world since forever,” Baisan says.
A yard further down the trail, an ordinary native sumac bush takes on new meaning. Its branches are used by Native Americans to weave, and its berries impart a lemonade flavor when added to water.
Much excitement is made about the interesting 1- to 2-foot green stalks spaciously distributed below the cliff band.
“They are called blazing stars and have a gorgeous flower. I counted 72 of them,” Baisan says. “Observe them in the evening when the flowers come out. They are pollinated by evening insects, probably moths.”
“This is why I come on these tours,” says Mike Gawdun, “because I don’t recognize the different layers of plants or know what they are.”
Baisan points out a micro habitat in a small drainage easily passed by, but upon inspection features a half dozen varieties of native plants, some flowering pink and purple.
After much paper flipping in the wind of the brochure, scratching and sniffing of the plant, the group concludes the purple flower is a type of mint, and the yellow is a golden aster.
“We proved it. You can use this guide to identify plants here,” Baisan exclaims.
Next stop is a 50 yards up a slope to a creeping milkweed, a rarity in the Carpenter area. A close-up look reveals budding flowers with swirl of burgundy, white, and crimson colors. Conversation turns to wildlife, local birds, dragonflies, foxes and deer seen in the Carpenter Natural Area. Because of the interesting instruction and conversation, the two-hour tour goes by quickly, and the group members wander off on their own with a better appreciation of the surroundings.
Baisan hopes side trails and informative signs can some day be developed to areas with interesting flowers and plants.
“Getting on your hands and knees to investigate plants, why would you want to do anything else?” she says.
The next tours will be June 23, July 12, Aug. 9, and Sept. 9. Meet at 9 a.m. at the west trailhead off of Lebanon Road.
Visit http://www.swcoloradowildflowers.com for more information.