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Stories from our Travelers

Four Seasons in a Desert Wetland


Looking out over the wetland pond

Animal tracks in winter

Fall colors at the preserve
by Jeanne Tasker
[From Fall 2009]

A desert wetland; impossible, you say? Yet just outside of Santa Fe, one of the few remaining wetlands in the state of New Mexico is there for public enjoyment. The Leonora Curtin Wetland Preserve is open every weekend from May to October, under the guidance of the Santa Fe Botanical Garden and its crew of dedicated docents. Walking paths meander throughout the preserve, on boardwalks and over bridges in the wetland, up and down the rolling dry areas, and over a wagon wheel depression that just might be a branch of the storied Camino Real (royal road) which led from Mexico City to “La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco d’Asís.”

May brings the first of the wildflower blooms – the sweet yellow, low growing blossoms of the Potentilla or Silverweed, a Rose family member; yellow Perky Sue, Aster family; pink, lavender, and purple Penstamons. Spring into summer sees the rare Lizard Tail (or Yerba Mansa), a major medicinal plant for early Spanish settlers and Native Americans, parade its showy white bracts and cone-like flowers. Summer showcases the wetland plants. Cattails hold up their chubby tails above the marshy areas and circle the pond. Red-winged Blackbirds chase down insects amid the Cattails. Swamp Verbena’s blue spikes hold sway in the wet area. In the transition zone between wet areas and dry upland, tall Hooker’s Evening Primrose, pink Butterflyweed, and white Germander announce their presence. Later, pink New Mexico Checkermallow and mauve Rocky Mountain Beeplant hold the stage, along with brilliant, red Indian Paintbrush.

Ducks, such as the Cinnamon Teal, rest on the pond while making their northern migration. Mallards come to spend most of the year on the little pond, their babies at risk from the voracious bullfrogs. A pair of coots (also waterfowl) raises its young to adolescence. Mother and father Cooper’s Hawk return to their twiggy nest from last year, successfully fledgling a family of five chicks in a big Cottonwood tree near the visitors’ kiosk. A Bewick’s Wren chooses the donation box for her nursery, making it off-limits for the season.

In the meantime, the dry, upland areas of the 30+/- acres of the preserve have had their own show: purple, pink and white Astragalus (commonly called Locoweed because it can intoxicate cattle who eat it), bloom on the dusty slopes. Cacti – Prickly Pear, Cholla, Pincushion, and Dagger cactus – sport fuschia, green, yellow, and red exotic blooms. Succulent relatives of cacti, Yucca send up swords of odd, ivory–colored flowers.

In the fall, these various colors give way to a palette of yellows, golds, and oranges. Sunflowers stand tall above the browning early bloomers. Chamisa, or Rabbitbrush, are huge, billowy mounds. Residing above all are the huge Cottonwood trees, always indicative that water is nearby, whose leaves echo the orange/yellow/gold palette of the last blooming flowers. Reflected in the pond, the images of these beautiful trees, among the floating ducks and visiting Great Blue Heron, gliding in to a graceful landing, make one wonder if it could be more beautiful.

Fecundity reigns, as bushes and trees abound with ripe berries. Three-leaf Sumacs’ tart red berries, rich in Vitamin C, tempt birds and humans; it is sometimes called the Lemonade Bush because a lovely drink can be made from the fruit. The deep blue berries of the New Mexico Privet also provide food, as do the berries from the One-Seed Juniper trees. Jays and coyotes love Juniper berries, attested to by the berry-filled scat of the coyote. This cycle ensures the propagation of the bushes and trees.

Winter brings snow and peaceful tranquility to the preserve. Only the tracks of the resident coyotes and rabbits break the snow’s surface. Ice covers the pond and the sleeping frogs hibernating in the mud below, all waiting to bring on another wonderful season of visiting for the public.

Again, could there be a wetland, with four seasons, in a desert? It is made possible because Santa Fe, the capital of New Mexico, lies at 7,000 feet above sea level. While arid, there are four distinct seasons and many plants grow that can withstand very cold temperatures. The opportunity for challenging skiing lies 15 miles above the city at the Santa Fe Ski Area in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. For those tourists who visit the desert of Santa Fe in the winter with a wardrobe of shorts and flip-flops, it is a chilly surprise!

The Leonora Curtin Wetland Preserve (LCWP) is maintained by the Santa Fe Botanical Garden, whose mission is to cultivate and preserve the botanical heritage and biodiversity of Santa Fe’s high desert landscape through education and service to the community. For information about the LCWP, the Santa Fe Botanical Garden and a schedule of events, go to SANTA FE BOTANICAL GARDEN.

Photo credits: (middle above) "Animal tracks in winter," by Carl Troy. All other photos by Janice Tucker.

Traveling to Santa Fe? Daily commercial air service to Albuquerque Sunport (about 45 minutes south of the LCWP) on American, Delta and Continental. Daily service to the Santa Fe airport on American Eagle through Dallas. For Santa Fe lodging and dining tips, go to www.santafe.org.

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