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Walk on the wildflower side

It used to be that “you didn’t need a flower guide if you had Pearl along,” says Bob Lowder, president of the Friends of the Sandia Mountains. “You could bring up any flower and she would identify it.”

But Pearl Burns, now 92, doesn’t lead wildflower hikes these days. You still, however, can bring her along. She and Larry J. Littlefield have written “Wildflowers of the Northern and Central Mountains of New Mexico.” It’s published by University of New Mexico Press.

This 408-page field guide features more than 1,000 photographs and describes more than 350 wildflowers, according to UNM Press. The book includes wildflowers from all ends of the state, stretching through the Sangre de Cristo, Jemez, Sandia and Manzano mountains, as well as other ranges.

On a recent Friday morning, Burns pointed out that the “weeds” sprouting out of the gravel landscaping – as is the case in her yard – could turn out to be California poppies in tangerine orange, or larkspur shooting purple, not your usual weed variety.

And, did you know that chocolate flowers really do smell like chocolate? She encouraged visitors to kneel in close to smell the yellow petaled, brown-centered flower. It’s one example of Burns’ vast knowledge of the wildflowers in our great New Mexico landscape. And that was just in her front yard.

Burns and Littlefield had previously self-published the wildflowers book, which was quite popular, Burns says. They also wrote the wildflower chapter of the “Field Guide to the Sandia Mountains” by Robert Julyan and Mary Stuever.

Recently, UNM Press picked up the authors’ self-published book.

“It’s very satisfying,” Burns says of having the book published by UNM Press.

She says she enjoys sharing her knowledge of wildflowers. And she encourages those interested in learning about them to go on a wildflower walk. They are held every Saturday at 9 a.m. beginning June 6 at the Sandia Ranger Station.

Her love of wildflowers began when she was a child growing up in Las Vegas, N.M.

“Wildflowers grew in proliferation” in the vacant lot near her home. “My mother didn’t know the names of wildflowers … and she would give me erroneous names. Only not till I was in the botany class at UNM did I learn the proper names,” she says.

Burns didn’t finish her biology degree. She did, however, become a nurse during World War II. She married Burley Burns as a young woman and after he died in 1981, and she retired as director of nursing services at Anna Kaseman, she began her quest to photograph all the wildflowers in the state.

“That was my goal,” Burns says. “I have not attained the goal yet.”

Is she close?

“Not anywhere near close,” she says.

Though the book includes 365 varieties of wildflowers, Burns says, “it doesn’t include the flowers above the tree line.”

Burns doesn’t go on high-altitude hikes anymore but she can take a stroll in the lowlands.

And, no, she doesn’t have a favorite flower. She is fascinated by a couple: the calypso orchid (on page 278 where it mentions that it’s also known as the fairy slipper orchid) and the coralbells (page 251 lists that it’s officially named Sandia Alumroot).

“I like that it (the calypso orchid) … fools the bumblebee. The bumblebee smells the scent and wants to get the nectar but it has no nectar and in the process of trying to get nectar, the bumblebee pollinates the flower,” Burns says.

The coralbells, she adds, “grow in the rocks, and they’re a survivor. I like survivors.”

Look for them on your next hike in the Sandias. And bring Burns along with you.

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