When Tom Stewart moved to New Mexico from Long Island, New York, he was amazed by the variety of wild plants blooming in the deserts and forests.
Now, the current president of the Native Plant Society of New Mexico said he appreciates more than ever the biodiversity of the state’s 3,000 native plant species.
“Native plants are essential,” said Stewart, a former environmental scientist at Sandia National Laboratories. “They evolve with the landscape, and they are the basis of our watersheds and wildlife. They’re part of our traditions.”
The Native Plant Society’s seven chapters span all of New Mexico and include El Paso. Chapters host monthly meetings, restoration projects and occasional field trips.
The society has published guides for gardening with native plants, and field guides for spotting native plants on public lands.
Before the pandemic, the group hosted workshops and classes. Now, those events are mostly conducted via online webinars.
The group’s focus on education and plant protection means local chapters play an important role in conservation projects.
“We’ve been doing this since 1976, when people first came together to form the society here,” Stewart said. “It started with mostly academic people and gardeners. But as time has gone on, our mission has expanded in response to the threat of climate change and the greater awareness of the environment.”
The Albuquerque chapter is working with the Friends of Valle de Oro on the Backyard Refuge program. Participants make their properties welcoming for pollinators and wildlife, and native plants are key in that effort.
The chapter also helped create a pollinator habitat garden east of El Oso Grande Park. Once a dusty patch of land dotted with scraggly prickly pear cacti, the space now boasts colorful native plants that attract bees and butterflies.
In Silver City, the Gila chapter helped transform an old equipment depot near an elementary school into a botanical garden.
The Las Cruces chapter paid for signs at a native plant garden outside the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument visitor’s center.
Each year, the society presents awards to New Mexico teachers who educate about native plants. The group also gives small grants for school and park projects, education, and invasive plant species removal.
In New Mexico, even urban areas like Albuquerque showcase diverse flora for native plant newbies.
“If you take the (Sandia) tram and just walk in either direction, you can see a whole different environment of native plants,” Stewart said. “If you’re really curious, get a book to learn about their history, how people have used them in the past and how they support other wildlife.”
Stewart recommends the book “Common Southwestern Native Plants: An Identification Guide,” by Donna J. Stevens, Jack L. Carter and Martha A. Carter.
The plant society’s meetings are opportunities to connect with plant enthusiasts, gardeners, hikers and birders.
“Everyone’s welcome on field trips, or to just drop by at a meeting. You don’t have to be a member,” Stewart said.
The society’s annual conference is scheduled for August in Alamogordo. The event may be held in person or virtually, depending on state virus trends. The conference’s theme is “People and Native Plants: A Journey through Time.”
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.