The Riparian Forest: Ecology, Biodiversity & the Trees

by Kiva Rose on February 12th, 2009
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mossyrocks.jpgMany people automatically think of the entire Southwest as one big desert — doubtless covered in cacti, redrock and rattlesnakes. But in fact, there are four very different deserts in the Southwest United States (the Chihuahuan, Great Basin, Mojave and Sonoran), and the canyon isn’t in any of them. Our eighty acre sanctuary is actually nestled within the rugged Mogollon Mountains, which in turn are set deep within the Gila National Forest of southwestern New Mexico. While prickly pears and cane cholla abound, at about 6,000 feet in elevation there’s no doubt these are the mountains. Our particular canyon is narrow and cool, and our lush flora is supported by freshwater seeps, springs and the curving vein of the San Francisco River that flows directly between the volcanically formed rock walls. Annual floods bring us an abundance of moisture, seeds and soil and replenish the land. The native beaver build strong dams during non-flooding periods and their ponds both raise the water table and increase flora and fauna diversity by adding meadow and wetland type habitats. The wide arroyos that cut through the mountain ridges spill even more moisture into the river and feed the springs. All told, the Gila bioregion is one of the richest and most diverse ecologies in all of the Southwest.

Unbelievably, at one time our canyon was nearly bare. Stripped of its precious trees and wildflowers by grazing cattle and then erosion — the songbirds, butterflies, hummingbirds and other signature creatures were achingly absent. Only through Wolf’s love and determined efforts did the land again begin to thrive. For decades, he has transplanted and seeded the land with wild grapes, poppies, grama grass, willows, datura, spiderwort, dock, nettles and myriad other native flora every single year without fail. It is also through his hard work that the cattle are now fenced out of the land and off the river so that the ecology can once again knit itself into a cohesive, thriving whole. Every time I immerse myself in the wonder and sweetness of my surroundings I am aware of the passion and care of that has nourished this place and in turn, my self.

blueheron.jpgWhen I first came home to the Gila and this canyon nearly five years ago I was awed by the diversity of flowers and leaves, bugs and birds, and even by the wide array of sparkling stones that line the river and arroyos. Before arriving, I’d read the term semi-arid woodland and had imagined the landscape beautiful yet harsh, bereft of the soft mossy luxury of more northerly ecosystems. I was struck then, but the softness of the grass under the alder trees, by the ferns uncurling under cool rocks, by the abundance of edible wild greens, by the plethora of plant medicines and by the lush carpets of moss and lichen that form the forest floor in many places. In turn, the barbed heads of the cactus spines, the summer’s searing heat and the sharp edges of volcanic rock serve to balance all that lushness with a primal intensity. There is a delicate and dynamic balance of elements that profoundly effects the people who journey here. My own transformation and healing is tied inextricably to the magic and power of the land, and I can’t imagine myself apart from it.

beaverpond.jpgWhile I love every part and piece of this place, I most often find myself heading for the quiet and cover of the riverside. It’s there in the tangle of willow branches and under the canopy of cottonwood that I feel most like myself. Wild roses and monkeyflowers bloom along the banks and watercress trails across the water’s surface. Red osier dogwood and alders line the rock walls and blackberries trail beside wild olive trees. I have spent countless hours sitting and just listening or down on my knees crawling through the underbrush in search of some certain tiny herb. Curled up in a rock hollow, I sometimes play my flute just to hear the river answer back and then to allow the melodies blend and flow — my own song becoming part of the land’s vital music.

Over the years I have learned an immense amount from the canyon, not least from the trees that protect and feed soil, water, plants, animals and people alike. Their long lives and generous gifts provide me with instruction and example, and also serve as some of my most potent and valued medicines. Below you’ll find a small introduction to three of our primary riparian forest species, each one special and remarkable in its own right. These three are fairly common moisture loving trees and you may find that you have very similar species right in your own backyard!

The Trees

Cottonwood/Poplar/Aspen – Populus spp.

cottonwoodgiant.jpgAlthough the last week brought us several inches of snow and even more rain, the feeling of Spring is clearly in the air. Down by the river, the Cottonwood buds are sticky and resinous between my fingers and each fat bud is tipped by a golden drop of aromatic resin that glows in the late afternoon sunlight. They tastes bitter, spicy and rich on the tongue, with a bite that burns and tingles through the mouth. Even the freshly peeled bark is strongly scented and full of the pain relieving medicine these plants are known for. The bark and resin forms a primary part of my pain liniment and favorite salves. It is also a wonderful digestive bitter for all kinds of gut inflammation and a treatment for irritation and weakness of the bladder, prostate, uterus, ovaries and bowels. It has much in common with its cousin the willow, although cottonwood tends to be stronger in many cases. They vary in size from tiny saplings to huge grandmother trees. These older individuals often provide a unique habitat for many small plants like stinging nettle, golden smoke, wild rose, wax currant, rabbit tobacco and spanish needles that shelter beneath their shade.


Willow – Salix spp.
willowplanting.jpgThe prolific willows are also bearing nearly popping buds. Unlike the stickiness of the cottonwoods, the willows are soft and silky to touch, a fine white powder dusting their brilliantly colored branches. From gold to purple to vermillion to vivid blue, the willow bark is a rainbow among the white, brown and silver bark of the other riverside trees. Their scent is distinctive and sharp, something like a cross between crushed aspirin and green grass. And though their taste is bitter there is something refreshing about nibbling on the buds and tender bark of Spring willows. Rhiannon is especially fond of them, and will spend a fair amount of time in the next month busily chewing on tiny pieces of the trees. The willows can grow just about anywhere wet, and I’ve seen seemingly dead twigs sprout roots from their sides and grow into large trees. Their abundant roots help to stabilize sand and loose soil and provide habitat for a large number of songbirds (including the rare and endangered willow flycatcher), small animals and other plant life. Willow is well known as a pain reliever but really excels as a treatment for bladder infections, prostatitis, ovarian congestion or irritation (including pain from cysts) and as a first aid treatment for all kinds of wounds, scrapes and sores (especially in the mouth). The picture to the right shows Wolf planting one of the literally thousands of saplings he has planted in his time here.


Alder – Alnus spp.
alderbear.jpgSet along cliff walls and rock ledges, the silver skinned alders are an integral element of the riparian forest. Their tangled roots dip right into the river, forming an abstract web reminiscent of Celtic knotwork. Just under their light colored outer bark is an inner layer of crimson red that’s both shocking and beautiful when revealed by the deep cuts of bear claws and elk antlers. Besides their striking appearance, alders are also healers of the land, animals and humans. Serving as nitrogen fixers, they improve the quality of the soil and diversity to flourish in riparian areas that have been depleted by grazing or erosion. Here in the SW, the health of a river can be in part judged by whether or not alders are present, they have also long been considered an indication of clean, sweet water. Besides being healing to the land, they are also one of the most important medicine in my herbal practice. They are potent lymphatics and are also essential in the treatment of nearly any kind of infection (even antibiotic resistant staph and other bacteria), from UTIs to cellulitis to wounds that just won’t heal. Along with cottonwood, they form an important part of my favorite pain relieving liniment and are in nearly every salve I make. Alder is remarkable for most venomous stings and bites, and I often combine it with peach bark tincture for reactions or infections due to insect bites or stings.

You can read more about these amazing medicine trees on either The Medicine Woman’s Roots herbal blog or The Medicine Woman Tradition site.



All photography (c) 2009 Kiva Rose & Jesse Wolf Hardin

Categories: Sense of Place, Wild Plants & Traditional Healingways

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