Places We Protect

Blue Hole Cienega

Life looks a little brighter for the Pecos sunflower.

The Nature Conservancy assisted the New Mexico State Forestry Division’s Rare and Endangered Plant Program in the purchase of 116 acres of the Blue Hole Cienega, a wetland near Santa Rosa, to protect habitat for the rare Pecos sunflower.

Blue Hole Cienega is one of New Mexico’s last intact cienega wetlands. Located south of Blue Hole Park in Santa Rosa, the area is host to one of the last remaining large stands of the Pecos sunflower, which is listed as an endangered plant species in New Mexico and threatened federally. The sunflower, which blooms in September and October, is confined to spring and desert wetland areas in New Mexico and West Texas. Blue Hole Cienega is also important habitat for other rare wetland plants such as Wright's marsh thistle and a host of migrating birds.

The purchase—paid for with $75,000 each from a federal grant and state Department of Transportation money used to mitigate highway impacts—marks the first time the state has bought land to protect an endangered plant. The Nature Conservancy's staff provided legal assistance as well as valuable support in obtaining an appraisal of the property. 

“A cienega is like an oasis in a desert that provides habitat for many unique native plants and animals,” said Bob Sivinski, the Forestry Division’s Rare and Endangered Plant Program Manager. By preserving Blue Hole Cienega, we’re protecting a rare habitat and providing a way to help the Pecos Sunflower recover its population.”

While the Pecos sunflower is both beautiful and rare, it may also have genes that could benefit and improve the agricultural sunflower, an important world-wide crop. The Pecos sunflower is incredibly tolerant of highly alkaline soils. Since irrigated farm fields become increasingly alkaline over time, researchers are hoping that the tolerance of the Pecos sunflower can be transferred to agricultural sunflowers.

As Bob Sivinski points out, “this sunflower has the potential to, one day, serve as an example of why we should preserve all rare species and their natural habitats.”