The Native Tree Project

Mature piñon pine tree, Pinus edulis, on the banks of a small arroyo in the high desert of New Mexico.

This piñon pine near my home will be the model for a 2-year portfolio project.

As part of the RBGE Distance Diploma in Botanical Illustration, I need to document the life of a native or historic tree for 2 years.

Choosing a tree was surprisingly difficult. I was very enamored of the heirloom varieties of apple, pear and apricot trees that were planted throughout the Four Corners states in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, the Randall Davey Audubon Center here in Santa Fe has such an old orchard dating back to the 1890s, and I talked with them about using one of their trees in exchange for a lecture or exhibit to help with their programming. Unfortunately, their orchard doesn’t always bear fruit every year due to the extreme climate at the top of Canyon Road. I couldn’t find another tree of the same variety to serve as an understudy if the star couldn’t perform, so the search continued.

A horse chestnut on Canyon Road at the Santa Fe Historical Foundation’s HQ, El Zaguan, caught my eye. The last survivor of an historical garden and chestnut grove dating to the 1850s, this imposing specimen is a beautiful anomaly in this desert city. The foundation’s office staff gave me the impression that the foundation was not going to work hard to save the tree if its health began to fail as, “it had already lived past its normal lifespan.” So the hunt continued.

The aspen grove located in the Santa Fe National Forest in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains also intrigued me. Aspens are like grass: essentially a large, single, clone organism. This particular grove is perhaps one of the largest in North America. Even though this grove is just across town, getting there entails a 45-minute drive–in good weather. I’ll need to be able to check on the tree’s status at least weekly, and more frequently at key lifecycle points, so this was rather inconvenient.

Finally, I realized the answer was in front of my eyes. The piñon pine, or Pinus edulis, is the state tree of New Mexico. It also grows all over the high desert around my exurban house in an environment described as piñon-juniper woodlands. It’s an important food source for animals and humans. Individual trees have beautiful forms, sculpted by wind and weather. Existential drama comes from an epidemic onslaught of an insect pest.

I hope you’ll enjoy learning along with me more about this icon of the Southwest!

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