Sunday, November 20, 2011

Piñon-Juniper Belt

Weather: Rained Sunday night; frost in the mornings and sunny afternoons since; changed into my heavier weight winter clothes yesterday; 10:06 hours of daylight today.

Can smell wood smoke some mornings. Seven pickup trucks were filled with firewood for sale in the parking lot of the local grocers Tuesday afternoon.

What’s blooming: Pansies.

What’s still green: Juniper, arborvitae and other evergreens, roses, prickly pear, yuccas, grape hyacinth, red hot pokers, oriental poppy, golden-spur columbine, coral beard tongue, snapdragons, soapworts, ladybells, Saint Johns wort, hollyhocks struggling, winecup, cheese, sweet pea, alfalfa, clovers, bindweed, yellow evening primrose, vinca, gypsum phacelia, anthemis, chrysanthemum, strapleaf and purple asters, June, cheat and other grasses; next year’s leaf buds on peach.

What’s red/turning red: Cholla, leaves on purple leaved plum, raspberry, privet, Japanese barberry, Japanese honeysuckle, Husker’s and purple beard tongue, coral bells, pink evening primrose, alfilerillo.

What’s blue or grey: Piñon, leaves on four-winged saltbush, California poppy, loco, catmints, snow-in-summer, pinks, baby’s breath, winterfat, young chamisa, creamtips, hairy golden and heath asters.

What’s yellow-green/turning yellow: Leaves on weeping willow, Siberian elm, Apache plume, rugosa rose, sea pink, snakeweed, perky Sue.

What’s blooming inside: Aptenia, asparagus fern, zonal geranium; fruit on pomegranate split open; aeonium put out new branch.

Animal sightings: Small birds, rabbit out in my neighbor’s yard where it lives.

Weekly update: Many people in this country may no longer live on a flat Earth, but they can still garden in two dimensions.

The earliest settlers only recognized latitude. They knew the sugar that grew in Barbados wouldn’t do in Virginia, that the tobacco that made Virginia wealthy wouldn’t survive in Boston, that Boston was more congenial to farmers than Maine or New Brunswick.

As people moved west, they gradually became aware that longitude mattered. However, it wasn’t important until they reached the 100th meridian where they saw the beginning of what they called the great American desert, the great dry plains that only supported settlement after they introduced artesian wells.

With the acquisition of the southwest from Spain after the Mexican War, US citizens moved into mountainous areas and discovered the importance of altitude. In 1889, Hart Merriam went to Flagstaff to investigate vegetation by elevation in the San Francisco mountains and Grand Canyon. He defined seven life zones: Lower Sonoran, Upper Sonoran, Transition, Canadian, Hudsonian, Timberline and Arctic-Alpine.

His terms, especially Sonoran, were specific to Arizona: the Chihuahuan desert south of New Mexico is considered a different ecological sphere. The labels used by the Forest Service have evolved to identify trees or plants characteristic of an altitudinal band: chaparral and grassland, piñon-juniper woodland, ponderosa pine forest, fir-aspen forest, fir-spruce forest, arctic-alpine-timerline, and alpine tundra.

This part of New Mexico lies in the Upper Sonoran or piñon-juniper belt between 5000' and 7000'. While Merriam was thinking specifically of Colorado Piñon and Utah Juniper, here it’s Colorado Pinus edulis and single-seed Juniperus monosperma that are common.

One of the things that’s always puzzled me about the category is the exact relationship between piñon and juniper. Did the hyphen imply they would be found together, or was it more of an and/or slash distribution.

Francis Elmore says that in some places the two coexist in equal numbers, but that generally juniper are found in the lower elevations and piñon in the upper. Along Pajarito Road, which runs between 7000' White Rock and 7500' Los Alamos, a lab team found large junipers tended to be associated with smaller piñons, and larger piñons with smaller junipers.

In this part of the valley, piñon are found in and around the village, especially near irrigation ditches, and juniper exists in the wild. I haven’t seen a piñon tree on the 5650' prairie, and many of the junipers I’ve see along the roads to the 5600' village could have been, judging from their positions, transplanted.

The piñon may originally have been moved for dietary reasons. Now nostalgia may be more important. Once introduced, they spread themselves by following lines of water, eventually finding my yard.

After I transferred some seedlings from under my eaves to the drive five years ago, I’ve been treating the new volunteers next to my garden hoses as prickly nuisances. The rate of growth for the transplanted trees slowed after they were moved to the dryer area. This summer the saplings reached above the protecting winterfat; their tips are just over 5' high.

When you drive around the village, you see place after place where piñon have taken over and people have done their best to accommodate them by trimming the lower or upper branches.

I drove north this week past Ojo Caliente and back south through El Rito to see if the distribution of juniper and piñon in this area is typical or anomalous. The only piñon I saw along the road were near homesteads. Juniper was almost everywhere, with denser stands at elevations near 7500' approaching the next vegetation zone where an occasional small pine was growing.

In this part of the piñon-juniper belt piñon can naturalize in the most domesticated of circumstances, but they don’t behave like true natives.

Elmore, Francis H. Shrubs and Trees of the Southwest Uplands, 1976.

Merriam, C. H. and L. Steineger. Results of a Biological Survey of the San Francisco Mountain Region and the Desert of the Little Colorado, Arizona, 1890.

Reid, Kevin D., Bradford J. Wilcox, David D. Breshears, and Lee MacDonald. “Runoff and Erosion in a Piñon-Juniper Woodland: Influence of Vegetation Patches,” Soil Science Society of America Journal 63:1869-1879:1999.

1. Piñon growing above the covered irrigation ditch that towers above the one-story house indicated by the utility wires, main road, 14 November 2011.

2. Juniper growing on the prairie, 8 November 2011.

3. Piñon growing in the village with lower branches cut up to the roof line so people could enter their house; 18 November 2011.

4. Several cropped piñon growing inside a yard wall; the roof line is just visible from the main road, 14 November 2011.

5. Pine growing with juniper going south on route 554 in the northern part of Wild Rivers National Recreation Area before the crest that leads down to the Carson National Forest and El Rito, 15 November 2011.

6. Piñon I transplanted from my garden to an area protected by winterfat along the drive in 2006, 19 November 2011; it’s still in the puppy stage when it looks like it’d be nice to have around the house.

See entry for 27 August 2006 that provides more information on piñon and describes my attempts to transplant them.

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