Tree-Human Connection

In the past few years a science of sorts has been emerging that tracks the subtle yet profound associations and connections that exist between trees and humans. With National Arbor Day’s celebration of trees (the last Friday every April), it seems like a good time to look at the role trees play at Sunrise Springs, both in its setting and its activities.

One of the first things all visitors to Sunrise note is the presence of the immense, old and majestic cottonwood trees that surround the pond. Cottonwoods are a water-loving tree that prefers to have their “feet” wet, that is, its roots in damp soils. Of course most trees like this, but too much ground water can actually rot the roots of some trees and kill them.

Our specific specie is the Rio Grande cottonwood, which inhabits river valleys of northern New Mexico southward into west Texas and northward a bit into Colorado and southeastern Utah. A relative, the Fremont cottonwood, favors southwestern New Mexico, Arizona, southern Nevada and southern California. Another cousin, the Narrow Leaf or Mountain cottonwood, lives at higher elevations throughout the Southwest. On the Great Plains resides the Sargent’s (or Plains) cottonwood, which it closely resembles. Its Spanish name is Alamo, a name found throughout the region in many forms: El Alamo, Los Alamos, Alamogordo, Alameda and so on.

The broad, abundant waxy leaves of the Rio Grande cottonwood provide a terrific shade canopy, helping to cool and protect rivers, streams, springs and ponds from evaporation. Stepping under the dark shade of a Rio Grande cottonwood on a hot summer day is a welcome respite, with the temperature as much as 10-20 degrees cooler. Mature Rio Grande cottonwoods can top 90 feet and live a century or longer.

In the spring, one finds out why the family of trees is called cottonwood. The female trees produce a small bud that dies out and splits open, releasing fine, hair-like fibers—but not true cotton— that carry a minute seed at their tips. The fibers float off and drift about, disseminating the seeds far and wide, creating a snowstorm-like visual effect!

In the fall, with the right combination of cooling nights, the trees will turn a brilliant, rich cadmium yellow. But, a sudden cold snap can simply brown the leaves, so there is no guarantee of a fabulous fall display. You just have to be lucky.

Owls and other birds nest in the hollows left by falling limbs, which are prone to break off in windstorms. Orioles sing in their tops and roadrunners pause at their feet while catching lizards. Its soft root is the favored wood for Hopi kachina carvers, and its trunk for Pueblo drums. Leaves of the Rio Grande cottonwood used to be chewed to relieve toothache and its bark boiled into a tea to treat arthritis, fevers and diarrhea.

While the cottonwoods are king at Sunrise, they are hardly the only trees on the lovely grounds, explains landscaping supervisor Jacob Nielson. There are at least 20 fruit trees on the property, including many apple trees, a handful of peach and pear trees, a cherry tree and a few other species. The pear trees trace their heritage back to France, as the nephew of Archbishop Lamy, John B. Lamy, who owned the property at the turn of the 20th century, is known to have imported fruit trees from his homeland. Four large mulberry trees produce prodigious volumes of delicious, organic berries, which are put to use in our Blue Heron Restaurant under the direction of Chef Rocky Durham.

Again, attesting to the wet nature of the grounds, there are at least three types of water-loving willows: the globe, weeping and native coyote. The eastern redbuds produce a lovely purple bloom in spring, while the Canadian chokecherries, a low-growing tree, also produce abundant and very fragrant spring blossoms to accompany their striking red leaves. Among other deciduous trees—that is, those that shed their leaves in the fall—are a few Japanese pagodas, two ash, a silver maple, and some catalpa with their distinctive heart-shaped leaves and long seedpods.

A few types of evergreens also grace the grounds, including some ponderosas with their long needles and one sequoia, native to California. Numerous other non-native trees also are found here, including the Siberian elm, Russian olive and tamarisk. These trees were brought to the region and planted for quick-growing wind breaks and shade, but have proven to be a scourge, pushing out native trees that supported native wildlife, and sucking up precious groundwater.

Daniel Gibson, Hiking Guide

Daniel Gibson was born and raised in the North Valley of Albuquerque, where he played in the fields, irrigation ditches, orchards and backyards of his rural neighborhood. His love of the outdoors led him to attend the National Outdoor Leadership School in the Wind River Range of Wyoming when he was 15, which included spending 32 uninterrupted days in the wilderness. Here he learned about route finding, decision-making in the field, group dynamics, basic camping and survival skills, and some basic botany and geology. He went on to study journalism and photography at the University of New Mexico, graduating with a BA in 1979, and has worked ever since as a reporter, magazine writer, editor, columnist and book author. He has been guiding professionally for three years, focusing on hiking in northern New Mexico, plus regional cultural, historic and scenic tours.