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The Xeric Zone > Essentials :: Plant Life Forms: New Mexico Highlands


Plant Life Forms

New Mexico Highlands: Including metro Albuquerque's East Mountain Area and Estancia Basin, plus Santa Fe and Ruidoso

David Cristiani


Why are so many “xeriscapes” objected to? It could be because 1) one or more plant forms are left out, due to people’s reluctance to use “stickery” or thorny plants, or 2) perfectly good plants are not used effectively. The result? A sea of bark mulch or gravel, with a random scattering of isolated plants with “sage” in their names, along with some grasses and wildflowers…a sparse, shrubby, or even weedy look, lacking all excitement.


Carrie Nimmer, a Phoenix landscape designer, has cleverly described a different approach. She considers 5 basic plant life forms that need to be used together, each essential to a great landscape. Her plant life forms each contain a consistent set of patterns: 1) strategies to use and conserve water, 2) natural habitat and rooting habit, and 3) overall appearance. Leaving one form out (including the first form listed) is like expecting a car to run perfectly with one of its engine’s cylinders not firing, she said.


Here is a local interpretation of Carrie’s 5 life forms, with a sampling of appropriate native or adapted plants grouped into each. They are listed based on how they respond after they have been established in the landscape. Identifying life forms really begins to promote appearances and sustainable landscapes. Most need little supplemental irrigation once they are established, an emerging trend in many southwestern gardens.


1. CAM / Sculpture Plants


+ Succulent foliage that conserves water by storing it for future use

+ Shallow, fine, yet extensive root system that takes advantage of light rains

+ Bold, signature plants that accent a space year-round



Havard Agave

Agave havardiana

Mescal / Parry’s Agave

A. neomexicana / parryi

Tree Cholla

Cylindropuntia imbricata


Echinocereus spp.

Beargrass / Sacahuista

Nolina texana

Plains Prickly Pear

Opuntia cymochila

Porcupine Prickly Pear

O. hystricina

Brownspine Prickly Pear

O. phaecantha

Datil / Banana Yucca

Yucca baccata

Soaptree Yucca

Y. elata

Adam’s Needle

Y. filamentosa

Plains Yucca

Y. glauca

Intermediate Yucca

Y. intermedia



2. Seasonally Deciduous Plants

+ Leaves that conserve water by defoliating during weather extremes

+ A deep root system that takes advantage of soaking rains

+ Plants that show seasonal weather changes through their long life spans




Amorpha canescens

*Netleaf Hackberry

Celtis reticulata


Ceratoides lanata

True Mountain Mahogany

Cercocarpus montanus


Chrysothamnus nauseosus

Apache Plume

Fallugia paradoxa


Lycium pallidum

Russian Sage

Perovskia atriplicifolia

Western Sand Cherry

Prunus besseyi

Gambel Oak

Quercus gambelii

Wavyleaf Oak

Quercus pauciloba / Q. x undulata

*Golden Currant

Ribes aureum

*Austrian Copper Rose

Rosa foetida

*Woods Rose

Rosa woodsii


Spirea spp.



3. Drought Tolerant Evergreen Plants

+ Reduced leaf surfaces conserve water; if leaves drop, the plant dies

+ Deep, spreading roots that take advantage of light and soaking rains

+ Softer plants with a year-round presence of green foliage



Sand Sage

Artemesia filifolia

Big Sagebrush

A. tridentata

Fourwing Saltbush

Atriplex canescens

Curlleaf Mtn. Mahogany

Cercocarpus ledifolius

Mormon Tea

Ephedra spp.


Juniperus spp.


Pinus edulis

Austrian Pine

P. nigra

Ponderosa Pine

P. ponderosa



4. Herbaceous / Seasonal Plants



+ Plants that die and reseed or return more than once to conserve water

+ A root system sized to take advantage of the rains it receives in it’s lifetime

+ Plants that show life for the season that favors them, then they go away



Western Wheatgrass

Agropyron smithii

Chocolate Flower

Berlandiera lyrata

Grama Grass

Bouteloua spp.


Buchloe dactyloides


Callirhoe involucrata


Calylophus hartwegii


Hilaria jamesii

Spotted Gayfeather

Liatris punctata

Mountain Muhley

Muhlenbergia montana

Indian Ricegrass

Oryzopsis hymenoides


Penstemon spp.

Little Bluestem

Schizachyrium scoparium


Stipa spp.

Prairie Verbena

Glandularia (Verbena) bipinnitifida

California Fuchsia

Zauschneria latifolia



5. Phreatophyte / Water Seeking Plants


+ Plants that love water, growing in moist arroyo and floodplain habitats

+ An root system extending into moist soil, tolerating occasional flooding

+ Plants whose forms often mimic the life-giving water they are near



Thinleaf Alder

Alnus tenuifolia

False Indigo

Amorpha fruticosa

Purple Coneflower

Echinacea purpurea

Tulip Gentian

Eustoma grandiflora

*Desert Olive

Forestiera neomexicana


Fraxinus spp.

Maxmillian Sunflower

Helianthus maxmillianii

Cardinal Flower

Lobelia cardinalis

Mountain Muhley

Muhlenbergia montana


Populus spp.

*New Mexico Locust

Robinia neomexicana

Silver Buffaloberry

Sheperdia argentea

Blue-Eyed Grass

Sisyrinchium demissum


Sporobulus spp.


*Denotes plants that can occupy other places in the landscape, but are shown in their most common form.



 Other plant life form links:

Bernalillo to Socorro, Carrizozo | East Mountain Area and Estancia Basin

Truth or Consequences to El Paso, Alamogordo




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