Stubborn Goldenweed Grows From Granite

Share via

The view from atop the three outcroppings of granite for which this village is named stretches 100 miles across a wind-swept plain, past the Rio Grande Gorge and along the Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountain ranges.

Climbers admiring the panorama might not realize they could be stepping on some of the rarest plants in the world.

The small-headed goldenweed, or Haplopappus microcephalus, was discovered here 40 years ago, stubbornly rooted in the granite, where it is apparently fed by dampness in the cracks and little else.


“This poor plant really has to go without almost everything, and yet whatever it gets is just exactly what it needs,” said Larry Frank, who co-owns one of the Tres Piedras crags and 480 acres surrounding it.

Until last summer, the flower had been identified only on the Tres Piedras outcroppings, which rise 200 feet above this village in northern New Mexico. But the New Mexico Division of Forestry, aided by the Santa Fe chapter of the Native Plant Society, conducted a field survey last summer to help the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decide whether to grant protected status to the bright yellow flower.

Bob Sivinski, botanist with the Division of Forestry, said his team found additional flowers in a mile-wide granite swath through the Carson National Forest extending from Las Tablas, about 10 miles southwest of here, to Petaca, another five miles south.

Sivinski said he believes no additional populations of the plant will be found.

“It seems to require granite that’s not metamorphosed (compressed). It’s very crumbly granite. And everything west of there is metamorphic or else volcanic,” he said. “Everything to the north is also volcanic. So I think we’ve located just about all the suitable habitat, and that seems to be just about the only place in the world that it occurs.”

The plant is listed as a Category 2 species, “which means we only know it from that one location,” said Anne Cully, endangered species botanist for the Fish and Wildlife Service in Albuquerque.

“It is one of the rarest plants in the world,” said William Dunmire, public lands coordinator for the Nature Conservancy in New Mexico.


Sivinski said the estimated 50,000 to 100,000 flowers are rarer than 98% of New Mexico plants. But because they are so inaccessible and seem to be thriving, he said they probably cannot be listed as endangered.

Dunmire said botanists can only guess at the flower’s origins.

“Where did it come from? We don’t know. The wind could have carried the seeds. That’s probably what happens. They’re a member of the sunflower family, and most of those plants are wind-disseminated,” Dunmire said. “A case could be made for one of two things: Either this plant was more widespread at one time and is now what we’d call a relic . . . or the plant actually evolved on those rocks from a similar plant.”

It’s a perennial flower with a face about a quarter-inch wide and a ray of quarter-inch petals around it, like a tiny sunflower. It has a stem no more than 6 inches long and slender leaves about 1 1/2 inches long. It was discovered in 1951 by botanist Arthur Cronquist.

How does it survive growing out of solid rock?

“It’s probably both a soil chemistry thing and what we would call soil mechanics--that is, something to do with moisture,” Dunmire said. “I don’t think you find them anywhere where there is a genuine organic soil.”

They are not found on the ground around the rocks, for example.

About three years ago, Frank said, the Nature Conservancy informed him of the rare plant’s presence on his land and requested a right of way to help protect it.

The private, nonprofit Conservancy also persuaded the U.S. Forest Service to declare a 60-acre botanical area in 1986 on the Tres Piedras outcropping the Forest Service owns. The third spur is privately owned.


The three outcroppings, grouped in a triangle less than a mile apart, form the town landmark for anyone approaching on north-south U.S. 285 or east-west U.S. 64, which intersect here, 25 miles northwest of Taos.

Lightning-scarred ponderosa pine and Douglas fir trees twist out of cracks in the granite spurs above the village.

Frank and his artist wife Alyce, who live in nearby Arroyo Hondo, said they fell in love with their tooth-shaped crag the first time they saw it six years ago.

“I climbed the rock, and I knew that was it,” Frank said during a hike to the top. “I had my little Valhalla, my little paradise.”