Trees R Us

Trees, both on-site and off-site, are a big part of any experience at Sunrise Springs. My previous blog, Tree Human Connection, looked at on-site trees, particularly the Rio Grande cottonwoods that grace the pond area.

Through the excellent off-site hiking program offered by Sunrise, our guests can also receive an introduction to many of the iconic regional tree types. The low-growing and extremely hardy tree named one-seed juniper dominates the hike at the nearby La Cieneguilla Petroglyphs. Often multi-trunked, it prefers elevations of 5,000-7,500 feet and 10-15 inches of precipitation a year.

It usually grows in association with the state tree, the aromatic—and misnamed!—Colorado piñon, but not in this particular locale. The juniper rules the field here.

The wood of juniper is rot-resistant, so it was often used historically for making fence posts, and as building posts that rested on the ground. Its bark was woven into sandals, floor mats and other useful products. Its purple berries, produced in the spring in great abundance following a wet winter, are a common food for many birds and animals, such as coyotes—as we see in the droppings they leave behind along the trail. And, you know the distinctive flavor and smell of gin? That comes from crushed juniper berries.

Hikes in the nearby Sangre de Cristo mountains introduce visitors to a completely different range of trees, as each is dependent on a particular ecological niche determined largely by elevation and associated levels of moisture and temperature.

We typically hike in the summer at elevations running from 8,500 feet to 10,000 feet in elevation. The standard trees found here include the ponderosa pine, white fir, Douglas fir, and aspen. We point these out on our hikes and provide easy clues for you to identify what you are seeing. The mature ponderosa, with their characteristic orange bark and branchless lower trunks are simple to get to know. On a hot day, approach a tree and press your nose into one of its deep cracks. Don’t be embarrassed—take a deep whiff! What’s that you smell? Butterscotch, or perhaps vanilla?

The leaves of the white-barked aspen, so quick to shake and tremble in even the slightest breeze, have provided their nickname of “quaking aspen.” In the fall they too turn a lovely yellow, with rare traces of orange or red. Aspens in a grove are actually all clones of one another that sprout from an extended root system that links them together. They are a single living organism, and scientists suggest some groves might be among the largest living organisms on Earth.

Scientists have discovered aspens, and many other species of trees, also have sophisticated communication systems based largely on chemicals they release into the air and soil. When they come under attack, by say caterpillars or moths, they can quickly deploy defensive mechanisms that ward off attacks. In Africa, acacia trees being eaten by giraffes can issue a gas that warns their neighbors they are being munched on, which stimulates the other trees to quickly release a chemical that turns their leaves bitter, discouraging consumption. Some pines can issue pheromones that attract wasps that destroy infestations of caterpillars. People walking through a forest or under trees are secretly wafted with aromatic volatile compounds, which are believed to reduce high stress hormone cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rates. So, a walk in the woods can be, literally, healthy for you.

Trees also communicate and even exchange nutrients with one another through their tiny root hairs, and are careful observers of weather, the seasons of the year and other complex phenomena. They are also carbon storage systems, removing carbon from its overabundance today in the atmosphere, working on humanity’s behalf.

So, next time you are in an aspen grove, strolling through a miniature forest of junipers, or resting under the canopy of a Rio Grande cottonwood at Sunrise Springs, take a minute to appreciate our foliage friends. They might just “get” your respect.

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.