Wonderful World of Native Plants: Use holiday colors to spruce up the season

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Let’s talk about holiday colors. While the green of our deciduous trees and bushes is gone, and we’ve had our first snow, still some of our winter wonderland foliage can deck our outside halls with the colors we associate most with Christmas — red, blue, green and white. Here are a few sparkling choices.

Red

The barberries are thick, hardy shrubs that do well in drought and cold. Numerous varieties exist. They are also called mahonias. As an overall species, most are hedge-like, hardy, evergreen with pleasantly-scented clusters of small yellow flowers in spring. And depending upon the species, they are beautiful — usually red berries fall through winter. Some have thorns or spiny leaves which, in a hedge can discourage wildlife from coming into your yard, or encourage pets to stay.

A popular barberry is fendler’s barberry. While botanists are in disagreement about naming it berberis fendleri or mahonia fendleri, we just admire its colors. Bright green leaf clusters turn red in fall, while yellow spring flowers ripen into large clusters of edible (by birds and people) shiny, red berries rich in vitamin C that are used in jams, jellies and pickles. The celebrated French jam, confiture d’epine vinette, a specialty of Dijon and Rouen, is made from a type of barberry. Barberries also flavor many dishes in eastern cooking.

While all of the barberries sport holly green leaves, a couple of others add blue to the reds and greens. Berberis fremontii grows four to five feet wide in a dense, compact form. It has frosted blue evergreen leaves barbed at the tips which are nice contrast to the red berries. Mahonia repens, also called creeping mahonia, is more of a ground-cover with holly-shaped leaves turning plum to red in cold weather, while its berries are black with a bluish blush to them.

The sumacs are another family which turn red in fall and last at least through early winter. Smooth sumac (rhus glabra) and three-leaf sumac (rhus trilobata) are a few which are fast growing and produce tart red berries the birds love. Littleleaf sumac (rhus microphylla) is a shrub which likes arid hills. It has small, deep green leaves with white flowers followed by bunches of red berries which can be eaten.

White

The appropriately named snowberry (symphoricarpos albus), also known as waxberry and ghostberry, produces luscious, snow-white berries. While the berries are poisonous if eaten by humans, some birds, small mammals and browsers still use this shrub for food, cover and nesting sites. This plant grows well on rocky, open slopes and hillsides.

Winterfat (krascheninnikovia ceratoides, subspecies lanata) is a small evergreen shrub whose silver, blue-green foliage fits as well into the winter season as the woolly white seed heads in late fall which take on a kind of “glow.” Winterfat is an important pioneer species on disturbed land, and is good for erosion control. The seed heads can be dried, another great use for wintertime. They like full sun, are drought tolerant and not at all picky about soil type. This is an important plant for wildlife as a winter forage food as it is almost as nutritious as alfalfa. The Navajos boil the leaves and eat them for expectoration of blood from the lungs — and the plant can also be thrown on the hot stones of a sweat lodge for a lovely aroma.

Green

Of course, we have many evergreen pines, firs and spruces. Our very familiar Rocky Mountain juniper (juniperus scopulorum) can grow to a large upright 30-to- 40 foot evergreen with reddish-brown bark and blue-green berries that attract birds and last all winter. The evergreen foliage turns reddish purple in winter. It makes an excellent windbreak and soil erosion control on slopes or hillsides. It will grow in any soil, is moderately drought tolerant, and likes full sun. It can be decorated as a Christmas tree, with strings of popcorn, bits of apple, oranges and nuts hung about is as a gift to the birds and wildlife.

Blue

And of course, the Colorado blue spruce (picea pungens) is a classic Christmas tree — even good enough for the White House lawn in years gone by. It is now planted country-wide for its sheer beauty. While this plant fulfills a need for blue, as you can see by the immature cones, you may also have red with your blue. Though it is the state tree of Colorado, we in New Mexico have bragging rights to it as well — especially in the north-central area. Pungens refers to the fact that its leaves are sharply pointed. The Navajos used this tree medicinally and ceremonially. An infusion of the needles can be used for colds and to settle the stomach. Twigs are given as gifts to bring good fortune.

Upcoming events, information

Save the date! The Taos chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico is the proud host for the 2017 annual conference Sept. 14-17, 2017. The theme is “The Seed: Past, Present and Future.” Presentations, field trips and workshops will explore the archaeological, botanical and cultural heritages of Northern New Mexico. The location will be at the SMU-in-Taos/Fort Burgwin campus on Highway 518.

Monthly meetings will begin again in March.

This column is published the second Thursday of the month. We are planning programs for 2017 and welcome suggestions for topics, speakers, special events, field trips, community outreach activities or any other learning opportunity.

Please contact us at taosnps@gmail.com. The chapter webpage is at npsnm.org/about/chapters/taos. On Facebook, search for “Native Plant Society New Mexico Taos Chapter.”

May you have a fortunate and fine holiday season. Merry Christmas and happy Winter Solstice from the Native Plant Society of Taos.

Johnson is a member of the Florida Outdoor Writers’ Association and the national Outdoor Writers’ Association.

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