Sunday, February 19, 2012

River Willow

Weather: Dustings of night time snow early in the week, ending with thunder and lightening Tuesday; 11:12 hours of daylight today.

What’s blooming: Black mustard, biological crust, moss.

What’s still green: Juniper and other evergreens; stems on hybrid roses and young chamisa; leaves on grape hyacinth, sweet pea, alfilerillo, gypsum phacelia, snakeweed, chrysanthemum, anthemis, strap leaf aster; cheat grass.

What’s red: Cholla; branches on Russian olive, tamarix, sandbar willow, apples, apricots, spirea, wild roses and raspberry; leaves on coral bells, pinks, soapworts.

What’s blue or gray: Piñon; leaves on four-winged saltbush, snow-in-summer, stickleaf, beardtongues, golden hairy and purple asters; tansy mustard germinating.

What’s yellow-green/yellow-brown: Arborvitae; weeping and globe willows.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: Light slate blue bird in new sand in drive, usual small birds.

Weekly update: Even nice dogs spread madness. After their owners led me to the local acequia, my interest in sandbar willow and its cottonwood cousin was subsumed by my desire to find the source of the ditch.

First I found where the Santa Cruz river flowed through Española. While there are places where large cottonwoods still grow, desolation is more common.

In some places the destruction was probably deliberate, part of the effort to drain the malaria producing swamps in the 1930's. In other areas, it was probably the consequence of damming the river in the late 1920's, an act which reduced the cottonwood habitat and led to its clearance by people fearful of fire.

Still, closer to the river, willow and cottonwood have grown back, with the one closer to the water than the other.

The relationship between sandbar willow and cottonwood became clearer when I drove to a place upstream where the ditch was still following the badlands before it could cross the highway to get to the point where the dogs had led me.

Downhill from the highway, I found willow growing outside a section of concrete walled ditch that trapped draining water.

Although the rest of that section of ditch was generally bare of trees, there were scattered cottonwoods and a few junipers.

When I looked across the flat lands below this section of ditch I could see the course of the Santa Cruz river picked out by red willow. Behind it, on both sides, were the light grey forms of cottonwoods. Behind them, were the occasional junipers.

From there I went looking for the point where the ditch left the Santa Cruz river and came upon a control point on the river that tempers the flow during monsoon storms into Española and the Rio Grande. The ditch diverges just a bit downstream.

Last summer, water, trapped behind the concrete, washed away any vegetation. In January, there were remains of goldenrod, cockleburs and the usual pigweed.

Most important, there were willow saplings, bent but not broken. It would seem willow must be near water to survive, but cottonwood can grow a bit back so long as water is seeping into the soil. As a result, willows must be able to withstand the turbulence of a wild river, but cottonwoods can enjoy the luxury of settled banks.

Photographs: 1. Santa Cruz river in Española near the route 84/285 bridge, 20 January 2012.

2. Santa Cruz bosque behind businesses along route 84/285 in Española, 20 January 2012; the line of red sandbar willow marks the location of the river.

3. Farther back from the above businesses where cottonwoods and willow grow near the river, and Russian thistles and shrubs have colonized the cleared land, 20 January 2012.

4. Willow growing on the banks of the Santa Cruz river behind the businesses, 20 January 2012.

5. Willow growing along the ditch downhill from route 84/185, 3 February 2012.

6. Cottonwood growing along the same section of ditch, 3 February 2012.

7. Bosque from the ditch bank, 3 February 2012. The red willow marks the river, with cottonwoods and junipers behind. The white trailers in the far distance are in the village of Santa Cruz.

8. Willow growing at a control point on the Santa Cruz river near route 106, 27 January 2012.

9. Willow growing in the flood plain of the control point, 27 January 2012.

10. Cottonwood growing along the more tranquil section of the Santa Cruz above the control point, 27 January 2012.

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