An autumnal transformation: Fall brings plenty of sights, wildlife to the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden

Nov. 21—Within 32-acres, the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden is an oasis.

While visitors flock there in the spring and summer, fall and winter can be as magnificent, says Maria Thomas.

Thomas is the ABQ BioPark's curator of plants and says during the colder months, as attendance drops off, there is still plenty to see at the Botanic Garden.

"It never really slows down here," Thomas says with a laugh. "We have a lot of evergreens around the garden. The trees we do have are just as beautiful and visitors get to see the actual architecture of the tree with its leaves gone for the year."

Opened in 1996, the Botanic Garden has grown to 32 acres of exhibits, and showcases plants from the American Southwest and around the world.

Its BUGarium is one of the most elaborate exhibits dedicated to bugs and arthropods in the country.

Thomas says the Botanic Garden is home to thousands of species of plants and are either indoor or outdoor.

Visitors usually come for the plants, yet in the fall and winter, there are ample opportunities to see migratory birds in the area.

"The birds come to eat the berries and fruits," Thomas says. "During this time of year, the landscape of the garden really transforms."

At the Rio Grande Heritage Farm, Thomas says during the early mornings and late afternoons, there will be cranes all around.

"It's similar to the Albuquerque Open Space Center or the Bosque del Apache," she says. "We've been able to create a habitat that's in season all year."

Thomas says visitation does decrease a little in the winter, but with Albuquerque's winter being mild and having sun-filled days, it's a perfect place to decompress.

"You can have a refreshing day at the Botanic Garden," Thomas says. "The best part about winter is that it's so peaceful. The days warm up so nicely."

The staff at the Botanic Garden is setting up its winter show — which means plenty of blooming tropical color in the conservatory.

The space is also almost ready for the 26th annual River of Lights, which will run from Nov. 25-Dec.30.

During the event, the entire garden is adorned with handcrafted lighted fixtures. It draws thousands of visitors each year.

Though the Botanic Garden is home to the event, Thomas says the Botanic Garden should be experienced during the day.

"The wildlife is worth the trip alone," Thomas says. "We get so much wildlife coming through this time of year. In winter, you really see it because during spring and summer, there is a lot of vegetation that hides everything. Seeing the garden in the winter is something completely different. You see so many critters front and center."

The staff unveiled its pollinator garden, where visitors can see winter perennials.

Thomas says the garden is a hidden gem in New Mexico.

It's also getting national attention.

In January, Fodor named the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden as one of the 12 Best Botanical Gardens Across the United States.

According to the guide, the Botanic Garden showcases plants from arid climates like the American Southwest and local and medicinal plants.

"Olive trees, snapdragons, mints and sages can be viewed in the Mediterranean Conservatory, while saguaro cactus, yucca, and elephant trees are found in the Desert Conservatory. In addition to these conservatories, there's a Rio Grande Heritage Farm and a dragonfly sanctuary pond at the garden," the guide reports. "When planning to visit, explore tickets and the schedule of events, as many activities happen throughout the year, from woodcarving to bird watching."

Travel Channel also named it one of the Best Botanical Gardens in the United States.

"Two popular exhibits are the Japanese garden, which was designed by noted landscape architect Toru Tanaka, and the children's garden, which is guarded by a 14-foot topiary dragon," Travel Channel's guide says.

Thomas says the staff cultivates the garden year-round — especially in the winter.

"How we manage our plants in the winter makes a difference," Thomas says. "We're planting and helping create habitats for different species. You can really learn about landscape management with our staff. It's a good way to get educated because we're always around."