Central New Mexico Gardens
An expanded and revised version of Central New Mexico Gardens is nearing completion and will soon be available here.
What Is a Native Plant?
Bob Sivinski (Botanist for the New Mexico Forestry Division, retired)
Five floristic regions with different climates and geologic histories contribute to the rich native flora of New Mexico. These are the Northern Chihuahuan Desert, Mogollon/Southern Rocky Mountains, Great Plains, Colorado Plateau, and Apachean regions. The resident plant species that evolved within, or naturally dispersed to, these regions are “native” or “indigenous” species. Other plant species that have been introduced into these regions since Europeans began bringing plants to North America are “alien” or “exotic” species.
Botanists are able to distinguish native from alien plant species with the records of early botanical explorers and by inferences made from geographic distribution, relatedness to other species, and the types of habitats where they occur. Plants with small restricted ranges are obviously native, but several alpine and wetland plants, mosses, and ferns have circumboreal or even cosmopolitan distributions and are native to different continents.
Misinterpretations of native or alien plant characteristics remain common. The most frequent mistake is to identify naturalized alien plants as native species because they are common and reproducing within natural habitats. For instance, sweet clovers (Melilotus sp.) and many pasture grasses (Bromus inermis, Agrostis gigantea, etc.) are purposely introduced alien species that are often perceived as native. On the other hand, some native plants that are aggressive or occur on disturbed soils can occasionally be interpreted as not belonging to the natural flora.
Most people think all of our thistles (Cirsium sp.) are aliens. The truth is, there are more species of native thistles in New Mexico than there are alien thistles.
Now that the New Mexico flora is relatively well known, it is easy to make a “native or alien” determination by comparing the Index of New Mexico Plant Names to the list of Alien Plants Known in New Mexico. If a plant occurs in the New Mexico flora and is not on the list of alien species, then it is probably native.
Why Is It Important?
All of our native plants evolved here and been subjected to long periods of natural selection. They are perfectly adapted to the climate and habitats of New Mexico. Native plants are in balance with the ecosystem, provide cover and food for native animals, and have developed a surprisingly diverse array of relationships with soil fungi and other native microorganisms. What better plants to grow on any patch of ground than the species that have evolved upon that spot?
Alien species are out of place in the natural habitats of New Mexico. The specific soil and climatic characteristics that allow them to thrive and reproduce may not be here. Likewise, the insect herbivores, diseases, and climatic conditions that kept them in check in their native lands are also unlikely to be here. Most will persist on disturbed soils for a brief period and then die away. Some others are released from their natural constraints and proliferate to such an extreme degree they damage agricultural operations and entire ecosystems. These naturalized alien species deprive native plants, microorganisms and animals of their habitats and ultimately diminish the biodiversity of New Mexico. Most of New Mexico’s most damaging alien weeds were purposely brought to North America as garden, forage or erosion control plants.
NMSU has published a list of troublesome/invasive plants in New Mexico. Click here to access this list.
Publication Credits: 2005 Edition
Copyright: 2005, 2017 Native Plant Society of New Mexico
Authors: Carolyn Dodson & Peggy Wells with David Cristiani, Ted Hodoba, Barbara Kimball
Consultants: Aspen Evans, Bing Leroy, Phil Melnik, Judith Phillips
Editor: sally Wasowski
Photo Editor: Andy Wasowski
Map Areas: David Cristiani
Cover Image: Charles Mann
Photographers: David Cristiani, Carolyn Dodson, Ted Hodoba, Bob Sivinski, Andy Wasowski, Peggy Wells
Artwork: Sally Wasowski
Book Design: Melissa A. Haye-Cserhat
Printing: Albuquerque Printing Company
Project Coordinator: Virginia Burris
Contributor: Peggy Wells
Consultants: Bob Sivinski, Tom Stewart
Document Format & Revision: Deborah Farson