Vegetation and Aquatic Ecology in the Watershed
What is vegetation?
Vegetation is a fancy way of saying plants and algae, including trees, shrubs, bushes, forbs (flowering plants), grasses and mosses. It’s important to have vegetation near a stream or water source for these reasons:
- Vegetation provides shade which keeps banks cool allowing fish to hide during the hot times of the day.
- Provides oxygen and habitat in the water for fish and macro-invertabrates.
- Holds in moisture through root systems and prevents flooding and movement of silt.
- Provides habitat for small animals and food for creatures like deer and elk.
- Provides stability for banks and slopes.
When there is a lack of vegetation, there is a lack of creatures in and around the water, and soil becomes weak, washing away anytime there’s a rain storm. However, not all vegetation is good!
Invasive vs Native:
Not all plants are from this region of the world but they end up here usually through people bringing them. These are considered non-native species. When a plant has evolved in harsher conditions for thousands of years and comes to a region where the conditions are much nicer, it can become too strong and out-compete the other plants and therefore become “invasive”. There are plenty of plants that are not native but co-exist pretty well and can be known as “adapted” or “naturalized”, but these plants don’t tend to compete with our native plants. Native plants are special because they have been part of the ecosystem for thousands of years, this means that native wildlife including fish rely on them for survival and without it, the whole ecological community can collapse.
Let’s look at some native and invasive plants:
Russian Thistle or Tumbleweed: You’ve probably seen this plant. Tumbleweeds are considered “noxious” meaning that they take an entire area up quickly because they are so competitive. This picture shows how big they can get in just one year of growth!
Russian olive: This tree prefers aquatic areas and can be seen crowding up a river bank near you. It was brought over for the ornamental turquois color of its leaves. A Russian olive tree can grow a lot faster with less water causing the native cottonwoods and willow populations to fall behind.
Tamarisk or Salt Cedar: This tree is another ornamental tree brought over for its beauty but also invades the Rio Grande ecosystem. The tree is called salt cedar because it holds salt in its leaves and trunk and secretes salt into the soil which isn’t good for the microbes or surrounding plants. It also grows so many branches and leaves that it becomes a fire hazard near the stream.
Now let’s take a look at some native plants
Ponderosa Pine: This tree is usually found in meadows or rocky mountain slopes. One way to determine if you have found a ponderosa in the woods is to count the number of needles on each bundle. There should be 3 long needles per bunch. Another way is to see if the giant trunk smells like vanilla.
Red Willow: This tree is found more often than not near water. It’s the tree with the red bark that you notice on rivers in the winter time. It’s a very important tree for animal habitat and diet, in fact the deer need it to survive through the winter. Pueblo people have also used this plant for many things because of it flexibility, like basket and bow making.
Coyote Gourd or Buffalo Gourd: This vine-y squash cousin is also known as stink weed because it has a strong smell to it and nothing seems to eat its squash, but it’s a native plant that the pollinators enjoy. Apparently you can eat the young squash but it doesn’t taste very good because of bitter tannins in the skin. You have probably spotted this one growing in dry spots or near an arroyo.