by Rebecca Shankland
If you're tired of the charcoal-grey devastated forests around Los Alamos and need some reassurance that green still exists, try the trail from Ponderosa Campground down to Frijoles Canyon's Upper Crossing, then climb out of Frijoles up to the long mesa leading to Alamo Canyon. The floral life is thin but encouraging.
The winner in the battle against the drought is the sturdy shrub buckbrush or mountain lilac (Ceanothus fendleri), blooming gloriously along the entire route. The name is derived from the fact that deer browse it heavily. Prickly thorns show its rugged determination to survive, but in contrast the delicate clusters of tiny white flowers cover the whole bush invitingly. If one could give the stems a thorn manicure, the dark green leaves and white bunches would make the ideal bouquet for a wilderness wedding.
Yellow puccoon must be the next most determined bloomer. Bright yellow half-inch tubular flowers droop from the top of foot-high stalks; they seem almost cheeky emerging from the solid mat of dry ponderosa needles. Lithospermum (stone-seed) multiflorum blooms later than its cousin fringed puccoon, also yellow but with fringed flower petals. As members of the borage or forget-me-not family, they are indeed impossible to forget as they sparkle along the trail.
Accompanying the puccoon are elegant, tall (up to two feet) stalks of fire-jacket yellow wallflowers (Erysimum capitatum). A few four-petaled flowers grow at the end of each stalk with the slender seed-pods of earlier flowers hanging along the stem. These pods, or siliques, are clues that this plant is a crucifer or mustard, related to a European spring flower that sprouts improbably from niches in castle walls and cliffs.
Try to find the occasional groups of an oval- and opposite-leaved plant with tiny pale pink nodding bells at the top. This is dogbane (Apocynum androsaemifolium). Its milky juice is a poison (the scientific name apocynum means "away from" and "dog"). It is a relative of hemp and was prized for its strong fibers.
If you keep a sharp eye out along the mesa from Frijoles to Alamo Canyon, you'll spot a little cluster of purple prairie clover (Petalostemum purpureum). Growing only eight inches high, the flower stem ends in a spike of tiny pea-like flowers in a neon purple. But the spike has flowers only part way along-the other part is short, brown bristles, giving the effect of the current fad haircut called a skater cut or a bowl. Besides the purple flowers, a circle of bright yellow-orange pollen sacs completes the show.
Where the trail crosses the Rito de los Frijoles, the stream creates a different habitat. Two favorites now in bloom are Franciscan bluebells (Mertensia franciscana), unmistakable with their pink-maturing-to-blue flowers. Growing next to the bluebells is one of the humblest and widespread of plants, known by many names: self-heal, heal-all, touch-heal, hearts-ease. Twist the stalk lightly in your fingers to find the square stem characteristic of the mint family. It has oval, long-stemmed, opposite leaves, and atop each stem a stubby clump of purple flowers. As the name suggests, it was used all over Europe and America as a remedy for sore throats, wounds, and perhaps heart pain. The scientific name Prunella vulgaris derives from Braune, the German word for tonsillitis, which became Brunella, and then Prunella. Vulgaris simply means common or ordinary.
In Alamo Canyon's trickle of water another feet-in-the-water plant may be found, the perky monkey-flower, a little yellow face grinning up mischievously from its damp green foliage. Mimulus (little face) guttatus (spotted) has jagged oval opposite leaves that can be used for salad greens. Like others in the scrophulariaceae (figwort) family, the flowers are two-lipped, the upper lip with two petals, the lower with three.
Thistles are easy to spot by the roadside, even thriving along State Route 501 near the Back Gate where the fire tried to get them. A few dot the Bandelier trails and evidently provide a sweet dessert for the tiger swallowtail-I saw two different swallowtails courting thistle flowers of Cirsium undulatum (named for its wavy, undulating leaves, which are also lethally spiky). The purple flowers grow like a bristly brush on top of a large scaly base called the involucre. According to Robert Hendrickson, the Scots chose the thistle as their heraldic emblem because barefooted Dane attackers stepped on thistles and were discovered by the defending Scots of Stirling Castle. So even those dreadful prickles can be useful.
As one walks the beginning of this Upper Crossing Trail, the evidences of old fires are clear-especially in the charred Ponderosa trunks. Yet the flowers and grasses are back, no doubt modified, but thriving even in this driest of dry years.