Durango’s strange nature

by Jessie O’Brien

Living in the mountains sparks an inevitable interest and intrigue int the world around you. Electric light shows during a monsoon season storm, whiteout blizzards, torrid summer suns, and wildfires are a constant reminder of Mother Nature’s power, which we have little control over. Maybe that’s why living in Durango gives us lowly humans a deeper respect for our ecosystem.

As the 416 Fire continues to blaze, leaving behind a scar on the mountainside and a burn in our lungs, we can’t think of a better time to acknowledge and appreciate the weird and wonderful things the Earth offers here, from geological structures formed by an unfathomable amount of time to misunderstood weeds that deserve more credit than we give them.

This is in no way an exhaustive list of Durango’s strange nature (we have to save animals for a different day), but it touches on a few aspects that we often overlook or have never even heard of.

Under Your (Green) ThumbThe idea that “your greatest challenge can become your greatest gift” isn’t normally used in regard to nature, but it’s a sentiment that applies to yard work, too. The weeds found in and around Durango can be used in a variety of ways – even for catching a buzz.

Katrina Blair is the founder of the 20-year-old nonprofit Turtle Lake Refuge, which connects people to their surroundings. She is a modern day medicine woman and a walking botanical encyclopedia. Sitting outdoors in her cafe, Blair will rattle off the name of anything in her sight that can photosynthesize, along with its multitude of uses.

“There are all these edible plants right around where we step, growing in the cracks,” Blair said.

We realize that only focusing on weeds neglects the diversity of Durango’s vegetation, but we think they can share the spotlight with these pariahs.


Mulling over mulleinThis fuzzy weed is all around us, and is good for weaning off tobacco, according to Blair. It’s a traditional native smoke she’ll pre-roll and sell at the farmers market. Ironically, the fast-burning leaves are good for cleaning the lungs.

Mullein is effective when used in a number of other ways, too, such as making tea or inhaling steam from the brew. As an added bonus, whether smoked or sipped, mullein creates a calming effect, making for a mild, legal high.


Thistle me thisThistles, which can be found all over our area, are known for regenerating liver cells, supporting potassium in the body, binding to toxins, and removing buildup. Blair makes a Chai mix with thistle. They can also be used as a tincture.


Sweet relief Another locally-sourced plant is hound’s-tongue, named after what the floppy leaves look like. It has a bad reputation because it can be poisonous to animals and propagates easily, but it still has its uses. It’s a relative of comfrey, a powerful plant with medicinal uses, like healing broken bones and mending sore tendons and muscles. Hound’s-tongue can be used as a topical ointment, too, which means you don’t have to buy Icy Hot ever again.

Another local plant used as a topical is mallow. It’s a relative of okra and shares its slimy quality. It is also used for beauty purposes (and to brighten up a salad). Blair said she likes to blend it with water. She’ll drink the juice and then use the mucus-y mallow as a face mask.

The Siberian Elm tree is also found locally, and is despised by many because it spreads a lot of little seeds, but it creates a shady grove for more lush understory plants to grow. If you eat too much Mexican food or an acidic meal, eating the elm leaves will make belly aches go away.


Foraged foodOx-eye daisy is a designated noxious weed in Colorado, because they grow, well, like a weed. But they look adorable – like the cute-but-psycho type. The strong-flavored leaves of the daisy can be eaten raw in salads or cooked with other dishes.

Young wild lettuce can also be used in salads, but it gets bitter as it gets older – like our personalities.

Like thistles, dandelion, which you can find just about anywhere, is also good for your liver. Blair said they make a delicious dandelion pesto.

In the past, Turtle Lake Refuge harvested the dandelions and Carver Brewing Company brewed them into a beer for a detox-retox effect. Give us all the mullein and dandelion beer so we can live our truth guilt-free.


Fen-tasticWe are lucky enough to have nearby sand dunes, grass, shrub, and forest lands, and a river in our backyard, but fens are a lesser-known ecosystem of the San Juans. The spongy, squishy surfaces of the wetland are fed by groundwater, rather than rain or runoff. The squishiness is due to partial decomposition of organic matter which forms peat. Wetlands (all types) are thought to contain over 20% of the earth’s carbon, more than forests. Fens make up only 2 percent of the Earth’s surface, and threats such as development and draining from farming or mining in the past has damaged or destroyed these areas.

Amanda Kuenzi is the community science director at the Mountain Studies Institute, an environmental nonprofit. MSI is currently working on the preservation of two fens, Ophir and Chattanooga. Both are out of harm’s way from the fire, but Kuenzi said there are a bunch of fens in the Hermosa Wilderness area that she isn’t sure are out of the line of fire.


Specially adapted plants The San Juan fens are even more rare than typical fens because they are rich with iron, which creates an acidic environment only Mad Max adaptive plants can survive in. Fen plant life is hydrophytic, too, meaning they can live in water for an extended period of time. You will find cotton grass and some orchids, such as the spiraling ladies tresses and a bog orchid. Kuenzi has not spotted one herself, but the carnivorous Sundew, which looks like an ocean creature, is a rare plant that is in the San Juan National Forest. This alien-like plant traps insects with a viscous fluid on its long leaves and then digests them.

At a glance, the majority of fen plant life looks like grass, but these “grasses” are really multiple plant families. There are also sedges and rushes. Kuenzi has a poem she shares to help people learn the difference: “Sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses have joints all the way to the ground.” (You will be tested by the end of this article.)


The earth’s Brita Because of the softness of fen surfaces, sediments from water runoff are captured by the spongy ground, filtering the water that leads to rivers. That results in a clean water supply. Multitasking fens also act as a flood protector because they slow down surface flows during rain or snow melt.


Rocks Rock: Durango’s geologyProfessional geologist and GIS mapping specialist at SME Environmental Consultants Anna Riling can talk about geology all day. Living in Durango, we use the topography as our personal playground for skiing, boarding, biking, and hiking, but do you know why those shapes are there? We figured not. Riling filled us in.

Sweater weatherThousands and thousands of years ago, this area was covered in ice, and the San Juan mountain peaks looked like islands in a frozen sea. There were several Ice Age events over hundreds of thousands of years, but around 18,000 years ago, the Animas Glacier acted as a sculpture’s chisel that carved many of Durango’s features.

The massive, powerful glacier moved carelessly through the area and formed discombobulated wrinkles – known as moraines – on the Earth. Think of your hand moving through sand as it displaces sediment along the sides and in front.

Glacier artThere are a few places to go to experience Animas Glacier-formed moraines. If you drive down 32nd Street, it follows the same path as the glacier, with two moraines parallel to each side of the road. Please mind the mastodons crossing the road.

“If I was new to this place and I was interested in the geology, the first thing I would want to do is a hike,” Riling said.

For an optimal view of Durango’s geology, she suggests trekking to Lions Den near Fort Lewis College. It’s a moraine with a vantage point where you can see other moraines in the area. Look north and see the strange strata dipping to the south, which was formed approximately 65 million years ago.


Ancient viewsThe Animas Mountain loop trail is a prime hike to find diverse geological views, Riling said. Looking east from the mountain, you can see the U-shaped trough of the Animas Valley. It’s filled with lake and glacial sediment, which was carried away by a melted glacier stream. It’s like an ancient trail of dust still lingering today.

From the north end of the Animas Mountain, you can see three epochs of rock (which is also the name of our reunion tour) – the Permian Cutler Formation, Triassic Dolores Formation, and several layers from the Jurassic age, such as the white sandstone cliffs, which were formed from a Sahara-like desert sand dune. A female Anasazi mummy was found Han Solo-style in that formation in the late 1930s.

You may also spot some out-of-place rounded river cobbles on the top of the mountain. These are from when the valley was glaciated, and they have remained there since.

There is also a view of Hidden Vally from the northernmost point. Here you can see the east side of the ridge, which is covered by an 18,000-year-old moraine.

Time travel A crow flying over Durango can see millions of years of time on the surface of the Earth. Just south of Durango, there are exposed rocks that are 60 million years old. As you head north, the rock at Haviland Lake is around 1.8 million years old.


Fossils finds Walking the Brown Ridge trail up to Hogsback, the untrained eye may think the large bivalve fossils are simply cracks in the Mancos Shale. But, if you look closer, you can see the classic shell-like ridges of the giant open clam.

“It looks like someone sat down into oozy mud,” Riling said.

Near Bakers Bridge, the Elbert Formation is visible from the west side of the west bridge, where fossils of primitive fish and their scales can be found. Near Elbert Creek, brachiopod fossils, which also look like a shell, can be found.


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