PO Box 2458, Tijeras NM 87059

Mountain Gardens--finding success with plants for the high desert and East Mountains of New Mexico

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Autumn Leaves & the Native Big Tooth Maple

 We took a few hours off and drove up to 4th of July Canyon to see the changing leaves that give the canyon its name. The fireworks were in full swing, coloring the landscape with deepest reds, delicate pinks and translucent yellows, to bright golds and oranges. Amazing how one tree can have so many expressions. When it colors, the leaves take on a tissue thin appearance, very soft and appealing.

The big tooth maple, acer grandidentatum, is a native New Mexican. It grows in moist canyons at higher elevations, but can be persuaded to come down. It's a nice choice for rain gardens; put it in a shallow bowl that captures run off from the roof or hillsides. It's an understory tree, but seems to be more robust in full sun. It's a sugar maple too, and can be tapped for syrup where the weather remains cooler.

 The cottonwood is another favorite change artist; the deep yellow truly glows, and the leaf color persists quite a while. The mountain alder turns a more prosaic yellow, pretty, but every leaf falls overnight at the first hard freeze. It can be tapped too, but mine have really suffered in the last two years of drought, losing a third of their mass. We'll need to clean out the dead wood soon.

 Aspens, of course, have beautiful gold fall color, especially at the highest elevations. At lower levels, they can be kind of sickly unless they get regular moisture. In ABQ they can sucker from one end of the yard to the other--best planted where there's a lot of space.

A native vine that can be relied upon for a burst of reddest reds, Virginia creeper was strutting its stuff in the canyon, too. It's also great at lower elevations, beautiful right now in ABQ. It has pretty berries too, relished by wildlife.

It took me a while to appreciate the oaks. The Gambel and Burr oaks we have up here seemed scrubby and dull after the live oaks of the deep south. But these oaks have many valuable assets--wildlife cover and forage, windbreaks (the leaves often remain all winter even after they turn brown) and screens. They hold soil on steep slopes. We were so fortunate that the wildfires several years ago stopped just short of 4th of July Canyon. As we drove in, the hillsides were daggered with the charred remains of the Ponderosas that had covered them, and beneath, a carpet of oak, already two and three feet tall, coloring the hills with red, brown, orange, and every subtle tint in between.

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