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Plants of Valle de Oro NWR: Rio Grande Cottonwood

Written by Ariel Elliott, 

Wildlife Biologist for Valle de Oror NWRAugust 2015

© 2013 Abby Boling

As part of our ongoing process of getting to know our Refuge, we would like to highlight a special native New Mexican plant: the Rio Grande Cottonwood (Populus wislizeni), a deciduous tree of the Willow family, Salicaceae. All along the Rio Grande, including at the Refuge, a vast expanse of cottonwoods grow in the bosque, the riparian forest of the Middle Rio Grande Valley. This species can be found all the way from central New Mexico to northeastern Arizona to western Colorado. These cottonwoods typically reach heights of anywhere from 40 to 90 feet and diameters of 3 feet, depending heavily on the availability of a water source and/or moist soils.

Cottonwoods are easily identified by their rough, coarsely toothed, triangule-shaped leaves, which turn bright yellow in autumn. As was the fate of many plant species within New 

Mexico, many cottonwoods were cut down and cleared for agricultural practices, floodplain and river control projects, and urban and commercial development. Cottonwoods also face threats from invasive species, like the Russian Olive, and from further impacts by humans within the few unique and valuable areas in which the cottonwoods currently reside.

Cottonwoods play an important role in restoring the Refuge’s natural habitat. The Refuge focuses on returning the landscape back to what it would have look like before agricultural practices changed the land, plant, and wildlife species found on the property. To accomplish that goal, we will promote the growth and importance of native plants. These plants are a vital party of the ecosystem, and yet they are being lost at an alarming rate. Native plants are so important that removing them can have devastating chain reaction effects, such as we see with the decline of monarch butterflies after removal of native milkweed species. Native plants are vital for pollinators just as much as pollinators are vital for native plants.

When you visit the Refuge, you may notice crops growing in the fields and you may wonder why they have not been removed. The Refuge still allows farming on the fields, because farming will ensure the fields do not go fallow and that invasive or undesired species do not take over the habitat, which would further reduce the presence of native plant species.

Eventually, the advancement of restoration projects at the Refuge will mean the crops will give way to a vibrant, health, and growing community of cottonwoods and other native plants: a unique habitat which benefits numerous species     of wildlife.

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