Santa Fe Phlox — October 2008

     This month we feature a plant that has been blooming continuously all summer and is still producing occasional flowers well into October (the photo of a single flower below was taken in Goat Canyon on October 9, 2008).  Santa Fe phlox is a small perennial rarely reaching 1 foot in height that produces bright rose-pink flowers measuring about 1 inch across.  Other common names are canyon phlox, because it is commonly found on rocky dry slopes, and white-eyed phlox, based on a variable flower color characteristic more evident in the photos below.  Phlox nana is its scientific name; the genus name Phlox is a Latin word meaning flame flower from a Greek word for flame.  The specific epithet, nana, means dwarf.

     Santa Fe phlox is found a variety of habitats: scattered in open flat areas, along disturbed roadsides, as well as on rocky slopes.  Like many successful desert plants, it grows a relatively deep taproot that allows the plant to survive extended periods of drought.  Rhizomes (underground horizontal stems) may branch out from the taproot, but the plants spread slowly and never seem to form extensive clumps.  Rather, Santa Fe phlox spreads primarily by its small seeds produced in capsules that break away from the plant soon after the seeds mature.  The plant's foliage consists of small, narrow, needle-like gray-green leaves with glandular hairs that make the leaves somewhat sticky to the touch.  Flowers are produced singly at the end of stems throughout the growing season.  The color may vary from white (rare) to purple and the flowers often have a conspicuous central white eye.  Because Santa Fe phlox exhibits a rather sparse, open branching pattern, the plants never produce dense floral displays; but the resulting scattered specks of color add a subtle cheery dimension to the landscape.

     Phlox nana plant

Phlox flower

     Botanically, Phlox nana is a member of the Polemoniaceae (phlox family), a group that is characterized by flowers with five petals partially fused into a trumpet-like tube with the unfused ends of the petals opening into a flat face, five stamens (pollen-bearing male reproductive structures) positioned between and often fused to the inside of the petals, and a central pistil (female reproductive structure) with its tip split into three parts.  This family has its greatest diversity in western North America.  There are 11 genera and 59 species of the phlox family found in New Mexico (I have identified five species so far in Deer Canyon).

     I was unable to find any specific uses of Santa Fe phlox, but the well-known garden phloxes are cultivated varieties of Phlox drummondii, and several other phlox species have been used by Navajo Indians in a variety of medicinal ways such as: treatment of toothaches, burns, and dermatitis, as a diuretic, and in ceremonial medicine.  Because of its long flowering period, Santa Fe phlox is a great carefree addition to any native plant garden, especially a rock garden.  Phloxes in general are known to be good plants for attracting butterflies, a plus in any garden.  Despite its small stature, we cannot help but appreciate Santa Fe phlox for its hardiness, reliability, versatility, and especially its bright, pleasant flowers.

A Botanical View – Why use native plants in your garden?

     There has been increasing emphasis on gardening with native plants in recent years, a trend that is particularly appropriate here in the Southwest.  Indeed the Deer Canyon Preserve covenants specify in part 4.  Restrictions; Section R. Landscaping and Planting – "Any landscaping or planting must be of plants native to the general area and must be watered and maintained until fully established on their own."  It's important that we are clear about what a native plant is in the first place.  Natives are plants that evolved in the particular area in question and therefore have the necessary adaptations to survive in that particular climate and habitat.  They are a functional part of their local ecological system, having vital relationships with many of the other organisms in their community such as providing food, nesting sites, or other valuable cover.  Native plants have unseen and frequently unappreciated relationships with a host of soil microorganisms forming various associations that that promote healthy soil.  In contrast, non-native plants, also called introduced, exotic, or alien species, have evolved in some other part of the world and arrived here by accidental or sometimes intentional means (purposely planted as a garden, forage, or an erosion control plant) sometime after the European settlement of the New World.  Lists of New Mexico native and non-native plants may be found on the Native Plant Society of New Mexico website.

     The phrase “native to the general area" in the DCP covenants is a little too vague for my taste.  A more helpful phrase in planning your landscaping would be "native to areas in and around pinyon-juniper woodlands at 6000'-8000' elevation in central New Mexico."  There are many New Mexico natives that will not survive at Deer Canyon Preserve so when purchasing native plants for your yard, be sure to let the vendor know your local conditions.  One goal of this series is to help you get to know our native plants so that you can select ones appropriate for use in your garden.

     Why grow natives in your garden?  Primarily because they are so easy and reliable.  Once established, they will require little care and will be unlikely to cause any problems for other nearby plants and animals (always a potential risk with non-natives).  In fact, native plants are likely to draw additional wildlife to your yard.  The best way to appreciate many of the plants with which we share Deer Canyon Preserve is to invite them into our yards where we can get to know them better.

© 2008 Jerry Melaragno

And, at last, the downloadable pdf of this essay is here!

© 2007-2022 Alan & Kathleen Clute