Acer saccharum grandidentatum, also known as bigtooth maple or Rocky Mountain sugar maple, is responsible for the brilliant reds and yellows in McKittrick Canyon in the fall. The tree is native to the mountains of Arizona, New Mexico, and west Texas. It is hardy in USDA zones 3-8 outside of the true desert. In nature, this tree grows in canyons and moist soils. In the garden, it requires well-drained soil on the dry side. The tree needs full sun to partial shade and grows 20 to 30 feet tall.

At least four cultivars exist.

  • 'Green Mountain' is heat and drought tolerant. Fall color is yellow to orangish red.
  • 'Legacy' is fast growing and drought resistant. Fall color is red or yellowish orange.
  • 'Monumentale' ('Temple's Upright') is narrow with an erect form. Fall color is yellow-orange.
  • 'Sweet Shadow' has leaves deeply cut, with each lobe deeply cut. Fall color is orange.
Arbutus texana tree

Arbutus texana, or Texas madrone is native to rocky slopes and canyon walls in south eastern New Mexico and west Texas. It is found between 4500 and 6500 feet elevation in the park. It is a relic of wetter times. The urn-shaped flowers are white or pink. The fruit is bright red. The attractive gnarled trunk had reddish bark that peels with age revealing younger white or pink bark. The plant is evergreen. It is hardy in USDA zones 7 and 8. The plant grows to 30 feet tall and should have full sun to partial shade. According to a PlantFiles contributor, the plant does not need much water and established plants do not like to be moved.
Ceanothus greggii, or desert ceanothus is found on rocky and brushy slopes above 2000 feet elevation. It is a shrub, often with treelike form, from three to ten feet tall. The small leaves are semi-evergreen. The tiny, white flowers are fragrant and the fruit is reddish brown. This plant is not often grown though it is heat and drought tolerant. The plant is hardy in USDA zone 5-10a.
Rhus Virens
Rhus virens, or evergreen sumac is a shrub of rocky hillsides and cliffs above 2000 feet elevation. The leaves are leathery. The tiny, white flowers appear after rains in spring and summer. The berries are reddish. The plant reaches 12 feet in height and though it can be grown in full sun, it is tolerant of open shade. It is hardy in the desert regions of USDA zones 8b-11.
Opuntia engelmannii, or Engelmann's prickly pear is a cactus that is widespread in the Southwest. The yellow flowers are showy. The fruit is red to purple. Both the fruit and the young pads are edible. The plant is very spiny, so use caution when handling and plant where people and pets will not brush up against it. Like most desert cactuses, this one should be grown in full sun and is drought tolerant. It is hardy in USDA zones 8-10. I am growing one as a potted plant and I find the red fruits as well as the flowers to be showy.
Much of the park is desert, and Dasylirion wheeleri, or sotol is a signature plant of the Chihuahuan Desert. The plant is up to about 5 feet tall and wide but when ready to bloom sends up a narrow flower stalk 9 to 15 feet tall. The leaves are armed like razor wire so this is another plant that should be thoughtfully placed in the garden, though it is an attractive plant for the xeriscape garden. The plant is very drought tolerant but additional water will make it grow faster. Irrigation is necessary in summer in the low desert. It is hardy in USDA zones 8-11.
Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a scenic place to visit. One way to remember your vacation is to grow plants that are found in the park.