2019 | Volume 36, No. 2
CACTUS WITH A BIG
E N I BA C I D L E IN
CRICKETS AND TEXAS CAVES
WHEN NATURE GETS NOVEL
TRAVELING FOR BIG TREES
FAR Afield Even in the dead of winter, the sun shines bright (and often warmly) over Texas, creating vibrant blue skies — a perfect backdrop for the scarlet berries of generously fruiting possumhaw (Ilex decidua). Aptly named “decidua,” this member of the holly family drops its leaves late in fall, creating a rather conspicuous buffet for wildlife through the more barren months. This December shot from the Wildflower Center shows just how striking those berries and branches can be against the monochrome azure of a cloudless day. – A.M. PHOTO Joanna Wojtkowiak
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Cedar waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum) are often found where the fruit is, as is the case with the pair in this possumhaw (Ilex decidua). These recognizable birds winter in the southeast and arrive like mobs in fruiting trees. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, they are known to swallow berries whole; think about the size ratio here, and you’re looking at something on a par with a human swallowing an apple. Opossums, raccoons and other mammals — as well as many more avian species — get in on the grub as well. – A.M. PHOTO Julie Shaw |3
FROM THE Executive Director
Growth and Adaptation PLANTS ADAPT TO CHANGES AND SO MUST WE. Just as the Mexican tulip poppy is now part of Big Bend’s flora (it used to exist only further south in the Chihuahuan Desert), the Wildflower Center has moved, changed, grown and flourished since its founding in 1982. And it isn’t likely to stop any time soon. Like all living things, we are constantly in flux. As the feature “Sunflower Squad Goals” (page 32) illuminates, change can be caused by all sorts of environmental factors: extreme weather, disease, fire and grazing to name a few. Thankfully, we can count on the ecological benefits of various sunflower species to transcend these challenges across a variety of landscapes in Texas and beyond. And because sunflower species tend to overlap and offer varying strengths, we can expect to continue to reap their benefits well into the future — even in the face of climate change. Similarly, our members can count on us to continue to support the native plants that offer so much: clean air and water, flood mitigation, wildlife habitat, enriched soils, reduced temperatures in urban areas, support of pollinators, enhanced beauty, and human wellness. Like members of the genus Helianthus, the Wildflower Center must be adaptable in order to be successful, which is why the Center is welcoming big changes in the coming years.
We are working toward a new gateway that will provide increased capacity, an improved entry experience, greater accessibility, and the opportunity for more programming and events — with discounted or free admission and special perks for members of course. Another piece in this issue, “By Land and Leaf” (page 48), talks about finding one’s way with plants and other natural markers as a guide. The Center is continuing to navigate its way into the future, working hard to inspire the conservation of native plants through display, education and consulting as we continue to grow and adapt. We take cues from nature, as well as from our valued community of guests, members and donors. Our new gateway will help guests find their way into this special place of beauty and solace. We intend for it to enhance everyone’s experience here — to leave them with a positive impression and a lasting emotional souvenir. Thank you for your support and for growing and changing with us over the years.
Patrick Newman Executive Director 4 | W I L DF LOW E R
TABLE of Contents
20 FE ATU R E S
The tribulations of a sacred native plant by Amy McCullough
Sunflower Squad Goals More reasons than you knew to love these plants by Chris Helzer
7 PERSONAL FAVES A lauded author and her favorite tree 8 BOTANY 101 Variety is the spice of plant life too 10 PLANTS IN PRACTICE A riverside park in Tulsa goes wild 12 IN THEIR ELEMENT What native plants have to do with cave crickets 15 PULL IT OR PLANT IT A friendly (but opinionated!) debate
16 URBAN GROWTH A look at landscapes amid urban development 40 PLANT PEOPLE An ambitious botanist teams up with Texas gardens 42 CAN DO What’s a gardener to do with invasive species? 44 THINGS WE LOVE A few of our favorite things 46 WHEN IN ROAM Traveling for big trees 48 WILD LIFE Nature can be the best road map
ON THE COVER Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) in bloom, from “Blühende Kakteen” by Drs. Karl Schumann, Max Gürke and Friedrich Vaupel/Alamy ABOVE Federally licensed peyote distributor Mauro Morales and a peyote-themed mural at his ranch near Rio Grande City, Texas. PHOTO Eugenio del Bosque/ @mirandopictures
2019 | Volume 36, No. 2
to create content other than quizzes. When she is not busy procrastinating, she enjoys watching documentaries, café-hopping and exploring used bookshops in Austin.
writes about science, nature and the environment for a variety of publications including Mental Floss, Newsweek, Men’s Journal and Alert Diver; her books include “A Worldwide Travel Guide to Sea Turtles” and “Best Hikes with Dogs: Texas Hill Country and Gulf Coast.” She holds a zoology degree from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from The University of Texas at Austin.
Ashley Hackett is
currently a senior at The University of Texas at Austin, where she is majoring in journalism. Her interest in journalism began with a love of writing and an obsession with Edward R. Murrow, one of journalism’s greatest figures. Ashley worked as a communications intern at the Wildflower Center and plans to pursue a job at BuzzFeed, where she hopes
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Dr. Nico Hauwert
has been unraveling the mysteries of the underground frontier since 1979, when he began exploring caves in Texas, Ohio, Peru and Mexico. Since the ’90s, he has been active in managing, studying and restoring caves in South Austin, including caves at the Wildflower Center. A professional geoscientist and former president of the Austin Geological Society, he currently works as program manager for the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve as part of Austin Water’s Wildlands Conservation Division. He earned his Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin.
Chris Helzer is director of science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, where he evaluates land management and restoration work. He is dedicated to raising awareness about the value of prairies
Joanna Wojtkowiak PLANT INFORMATION EDITOR
Lee Clippard, K. Angel Horne through his photography, writing and presentations. Chris is founder of The Prairie Ecologist blog and author of “The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States.” He is grateful to live in Aurora, Nebraska, a small town on the edge of tallgrass and mixedgrass prairie.
Lady Bird Johnson and Helen Hayes EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS
DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
Shannon C. Harris
DIRECTOR OF ECOLOGICAL RESEARCH AND DESIGN
DIRECTOR OF FINANCE AND OPERATIONS
DIRECTOR OF GUEST EXPERIENCE
DIRECTOR OF HORTICULTURE
DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS
Mark Sanders is a biologist with the City of Austin’s Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. He’s been with the city for over 26 years, managing and monitoring rare and endangered species of the Austin area. His primary focus is cave-related species, including six endangered karst invertebrates and an additional 25 species of concern, as well as newly discovered species. His work also involves cave restoration projects such as the Center’s Wildflower Cave.
CHAIR Brian Shivers
VICE CHAIR Jeanie Carter
SECRETARY Celina Romero Wildflower (ISSN 1936-9646) is published biannually by The University of Texas at Austin Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 4801 La Crosse Ave., Austin, TX 78739-1702. Copyright © 2019 by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Members of the Wildflower Center receive a subscription as a benefit of membership. No part of this periodical may be reproduced without the written consent of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The opinions expressed herein may not necessarily reflect those held by the Wildflower Center. Please direct any inquiries or letters to 512.232.0100 or email@example.com. Materials are chosen for the printing and distribution of Wildflower magazine with respect for the environment. Wildflower is printed in the United States by Times Printing, Random Lake, WI.
WILDFLOWER.ORG facebook.com/wildflowercenter instagram.com/wildflowercenter @WildflowerCtr
PHOTOS (Melissa Gaskill) author-provided, (Ashley Hackett) John Byrd, (Dr. Nico Hauwert) Tara Hauwert, (Chris Helzer) self-portrait, (Mark Sanders) Martin Archambault
Austin-based independent journalist
PHOTOS (main) Wildflower Center, (inset) Keith Dannemiller
Award-winning author of “The House on Mango Street” and many other books Poet, performer, artist, essayist, nonprofit founder Recipient of the Texas Medal of the Arts, former MacArthur Fellow FAVORITE NATIVE PLANT:
Bald Cypress (Taxodium distichum)
“I love trees. Especially the bald cypress. There is one grandmother tree I wrote about in my book ‘Have You Seen Marie?’ with several ears and navels and mouths in its trunk. You could whisper your sorrows there or leave behind a love note if you wanted. If you visit San Antonio, it’s still standing on the corner of Constance and Crofton in the King William neighborhood, a gathering place for people to read, nap, rendezvous or simply daydream. Sometimes people would leave beer cans or condoms tucked in the tree’s cavity, and that was all right by me. Love or libations, the tree accepted all and never passed judgement, a mighty lesson in tolerance, then and now.”
Blooms of a Different Hue When nature gets novel, we pay attention by K. Angel Horne W E ’R E I N TO NOV ELT Y. Novelty is fun. It is powerful. It stimulates the brain to wake up and take notice. A rocking chair? Nice. A giant rocking chair? “Boost me up and get the camera!” A teacup? Lovely. A tiny teacup? “Need! I’m going to plant the tiniest succulent in it!” LEFT TO RIGHT A pink bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis), yellow paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) and white Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora). A blooming Aesculus pavia var. flavescens at Hamilton Pool Preserve. PHOTOS (left three) K.Angel Horne, (right) Minnette Marr
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The delight we take in coming across the unexpected is something deeply rooted in our human brains. In our vital relationship to plants, keen attention paid by our ancestors to a novel individual or population has tremendously impacted modern human existence. Sweet, juicy corn? Much better suited for human consumption (and likely tastier) than the wild grasses it was cultivated from thousands of years ago. Paying attention to outliers can alert us to both danger and opportunity. Let’s say you’re hiking along, casually scan-
ning your surroundings, registering flora and fauna, keeping a mental tally of species you recognize. Something catches your attention: “Hey! I know that flower — but I’ve never seen it that color! A white spiderwort?! How cool! I wish the ones in my garden bloomed in that hue.” A study by Dr. Emrah Düzel of University College London supports the claim that this excited reaction to a novel observation is at least in part due to the production of dopamine in the reward and motivation part of the brain. So does that mean flowers are popping up
A Tale of Two Buckeyes
in atypical colors just to get our attention? Not likely. There are many genes and enzymes that determine pigment in a petal (or sepal or bract), and a mutation in any one of them could produce an odd-colored individual. Whenever I rush to Joe Marcus, one of our native plant experts (and this magazine’s plant information editor), with photographic evidence of a “new” discovery — a golden paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) or cream-colored mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora) — he offers the same response: “That’s due to a genetic mutation in an individual plant. It’s not at all uncommon.” Marcus also notes that soil pH can affect flower color for some plants, Hydrangea macrophylla (a non-native species) being the most wellknown. That may seem anticlimactic. “So I didn’t discover a unicorn bloom, just some rebellious genetic material?” But the truth is that even the most brilliant botanists don’t know why many genetic alterations or mutations occur in plants. There’s still much to be discovered about the mysterious world of plant DNA. Even if you’re not a botanic geneticist, keep exploring. While happening upon a pink bluebonnet probably won’t have major implications for the future of food or medicine, if it leads you to pause and observe — if it activates your curiosity and makes you smile — that’s plenty special too.
In some cases, differently colored blossoms may be markers of botanical variety. Take, for example, two varieties of red buckeye (Aesculus pavia). While the flowers of A. pavia var. pavia are blush to scarlet hued, A. pavia var. flavescens produces pale or bright yellow blossoms. Wildflower Center Conservation Program Manager Minnette Marr recalls that, in 2014, the Dawes Arboretum (in Newark, Ohio) requested our assistance in collecting capsules of the yellowflowering variety, which occurs in the Texas Hill Country. Marr notes that it’s common for arboreta to focus on conserving a species through propagation when it has seeds that cannot be banked — and having representation from any existing varieties is ideal for diversity. Always ready to go the extra mile(s) in the name of conservation, Marr and Dr. Karen Clary collected fruit of A. pavia var. flavescens and overnighted it with ice packs to Dawes. Next time you head out to Hamilton Pool in spring (where and when they collected), why not go on an Aesculus scavenger hunt? The plants flower from March through May.
PLANTS IN Practice
THIS LUSH GREEN SCENE AT GATHERING PLACE in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is proof that coloring outside the lines is an advisable gardening approach. Designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates with plant selection, installation, maintenance and care guidelines from the Wildflower Center’s ecological consulting team, the park’s Wetland Gardens feature more than 50 species — including a thick pelage of black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) and firewheel (Gallardia puchella) — set off by lavender horsemint (Monarda citriodora) and the clean lines of Williams Lodge. Pickerelweed (Pontederia cordata) adds lime-colored foliage and purple pipe-cleaner blooms to the water’s edge. Planted with a rural aesthetic in mind, this assemblage creates a long, showy season and attracts a plethora of fauna — including people. According to Gathering Place Director of Horticulture Stacie Martin, plants are meant to “swallow up hard edges and rails” with an “active resistance to looking overly tidy in most areas.” Viva liberty! – A.M. 10 | W I L DF LOW E R
PHOTO Shane Bevel
T E R C E S R S T I YO U A W A T U O E D HI Explore a collection of unique forts by local designers in our Texas Arboretum. Free with admission — always free for members!
Through Jan. 26, 2020 WILDFLOWER.ORG/FORTL ANDIA LEAD AND SUPPORTING SPONSORS
Carolyn and Jack Long • MFI Foundation Luci Baines Johnson and Ian Turpin
IN THEIR Element
The Cricket Connection Native plants and crickets are essential to healthy cave ecosytems by Dr. Nico Hauwert and Mark Sanders YOU MIGHT BE SURPRISED TO LEARN THAT, AS RECENTLY AS 1994, Wildflower Cave — which sits in the middle of the Center’s Savanna Meadow — was filled to its ceiling with trash. And nearby La Crosse Cave was filled with soil, rock and fencing wire. In fact, before the public began recognizing the value of caves and their part in recharging groundwater, widespread filling — coupled with limited restoration efforts — covered up many caves in the Austin area.
A gathering of Ceuthophilus secretus in a Central Texas cave. PHOTO Mark Sanders
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Caves are naturally widespread across the Edwards Plateau but are most concentrated in the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone (which includes Wildflower Center land). Local cave explorers mapped over 160 Austin-area caves from the 1950s to the ’80s, the vast majority of which required excavation and, in some cases, trash removal. Some caves were filled naturally with clay-rich
sediment during a very wet period following glaciation across North America. These are often rich in paleontological and archeological treasures dating to 20,000 years old — including remains of large mammals such as saber-toothed cats, mammoths, camels, giant sloths and glyptodonts (large, extinct relatives of armadillos). However, the vast majority of caves were filled within the last 200 years. Early pioneers and
ranchers heavily modified the landscape to keep water at the surface for stock ponds, pre-airconditioning cooling, water supply and mill operations. Caves were commonly utilized for trash disposal. They were also filled to prevent livestock from falling in and to keep people out. Furthermore, logging and overgrazing contributed to serious soil erosion which washed directly into caves. On lands intended for future development, caves were filled in to increase marketability. This widespread filling increased local flooding risk and reduced recharging of groundwater that supports endangered aquatic life, watersupply wells and treasured springs. Wildlife such as bats were excluded from their natural habitat and sought refuge in attics, bridges, stadiums — even Austin’s original city hall. Originally viewed as a blood-sucking, rabiesspreading pariah, bats benefitted from the hard work of biologists such as Merlin Tuttle and Bat Conservation International and are now an Austin mascot and major tourist attraction. Like bats, animals such as bobcats, ringtails, raccoons, Virginia opossums, porcupines, vultures, snakes, frogs, toads and cave crickets still seek refuge in caves and can play a vital role in bringing nutrients to deeper troglobitic (cave-bound) life, including rare and endemic invertebrates. Restoring cave habitats involves more than removing sediment and trash however. It requires revegetation. Tree and shrub canopies are vital in cave restoration for stabilizing steep entrance slopes, retaining moisture by minimizing evaporation, creating favorable conditions for cave crickets (Ceuthophilus spp.), and reducing red imported fire ant habitat — all of which greatly improve habitat for cave-dwelling species. Two keystone species of cave crickets, Ceuthophilus secretus and Ceuthophilus sp. B, forage outside of caves and, because a healthy population for one cave can number in the thousands, have the potential to bring large amounts of vital nutrients into otherwise nutrientpoor cave systems. Cave crickets’ primary diet is plants, so improving native plant diversity — with a particular emphasis on shrubs and trees that produce pulpy fruit — is key. Supportive native species include Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana), Ashe juniper (Juniperus ashei), Mexican plum (Prunus
A caver rappels into trash-filled Midnight Cave, located on the original Circle C Ranch property. This cave was used as a trash dump once Wildflower Cave was full. PHOTO Nico Hauwert
TOP Winter Woods Cave in William H. Russell Karst Preserve in Southwest Austin. The ground surface was once nearly flush with the top of the wooden structure. Note the role of tree roots in stabilizing the soil. PHOTO Nico Hauwert BOTTOM Winter Woods Cave five years after restoration began. Trees and shrubs were planted to replace those removed during excavation. PHOTO Drew Thompson
mexicana), agarita (Mahonia trifoliolata), rusty blackhaw (Viburnum rufidulum), Texas mulberry (Morus microphylla) and Carolina buckthorn (Frangula caroliniana). Native grasses, sedges and forbs can also be planted to stabilize the soil, but these should be limited to shade-tolerant species such as inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium), Buckley’s fluffgrass (Tridens buckleyanus), cedar sedge (Carex planostachys) and cedar sage (Salvia roemeriana). All of these reduce habitat for biodiversity-decreasing fire ants, which prefer open, disturbed sites. Native plants were critical to the successful restoration of Wildflower Cave, the aforementioned mid-’90s trash heap. Thanks to the collaborative cleanup efforts of the Underground Texas Grotto, the City of Austin and the Wildflower Center, combined with native plant revegetation and maintenance, Wildflower Cave has been a significant destination for youth education since 2002, sometimes hosting as many as 2,000 students per year. The restoration of nearby La Crosse Cave tells a similarly positive story: Prior to excavation, no troglobitic species were observed; the ecosystem consisted of surface species such as assassin bugs, earwigs, booklice, surface spiders and only a small population of cave crickets. Post-excavation and revegetation, the cave has a very healthy cave cricket population — which has made conditions more favorable for troglobitic cave fauna. On the most recent survey, cave biologists observed rare species such as cave-adapted millipedes (Cambala speobia), eyeless meshweaver spiders (Cicurina bandida), ground beetles (Rhadine austinica) and harvestmen (Texella mulaiki). Staff also observed healthy populations of cliff chirping frogs (Eleutherodactylus marnockii) and western slimy salamanders (Plethodon albagula). Just this year, five tricolor bats (Perimyotis subflavus) sought refuge in Wildflower Cave for hibernation — a great manifestation of the power of habitat recovery. Wildflower and La Crosse Caves are open for exploration during Austin Cave Festival, an event organized by the Barton Springs Edwards Aquifer Conservation District and the City of Austin and held at the Wildflower Center every February. Find opportunities to go underground at wildflower.org/featured-events, bseacd.org/education/ austin-cave-festival or utgrotto.org. Sign up to help with revegetation restoration efforts at austintexas.gov/wildlandevents.
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PULL IT or Plant It
ECOLOGIST & LAND STEWARD
PHOTOS (frostweed, top) Melody Lytle, (Michelle Bertelsen) Joanna Wojtkowiak, (Adam Barbe) Anne Elizabeth Barbe, (frostweed, bottom) Stephanie Brundage
I V AT E T ! L
Adam Barbe LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT
Recall the last two animals you saw. Now bring to mind the last two plants. Many people struggle with the second. It’s called plant blindness — and it’s spreading as we spend less time outside.
Where along the evolutionary train does it make sense to self-explode? Frostweed really outdid itself with the whole extruding-stem-water-asice thing.
Enter frostweed, a nondescript plant that hides in plain sight until the first frost makes it explode into beautiful and bizarre ice ribbons. Then it grabs plenty of attention. People see it and say, “What is that?” “Was it there yesterday?” “Did someone throw plastic bags everywhere?!”
Consider this native weed the plant world’s most outlandish one-trick pony, a party clown with an attention-grabbing gimmick. But like fainting goats bouncing back from their ridiculousness, these strange perennial plants more often than not keep on living after their Ice Capades.
Yes, it’s kind of weedy. It’s right there in the name. But once a year it does something truly delightful, giving adults childlike excitement and kids an invitation to explore. Plus, this shade-tolerant plant is a major source of fall nectar for monarch butterflies, helping to fuel their southern migration.
Lucky for them, propagation by rhizomes gives most frostweed (in Texas, at least) a fighting chance against its own devices — even when ice-busted stems die, roots usually survive and sprout again in spring. That also means they spread like the dickens.
We all stop noticing the world around us sometimes. Frostweed snaps us back into the here and now, inviting us to look closer and experience wonder.
That’s a lot of drama without much return. Let’s just say there are more attractive, less weedy alternatives to this novelty plant.
O N TH E OTH E R H A N D . . . Sure it has unremarkable looks. Grow it in shaded, less manicured areas and thin it if it gets too rambunctious.
Truth be told, frostweed is kind of interesting. And temperatures may cease freezing in the future anyway, so even this plant’s stems will thrive.
Learn more about frostweed at wildflower.org/ magazine/native-plants/the-frost-below.
Developmental Danger Dissecting the “urban” in disturbance
by Melissa Gaskill | photos by John W. Clark
Common sunflowers (Helianthus annuus) bloom at a development site in Central Austin.
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ON THE EDGE OF A BUSTLING DEVELOPMENT IN CENTRAL AUSTIN, a large, empty field awaits the next round of construction. An enormous mound of dirt dominates its center, surrounded by a patchwork of packed, bare soil and riotous plant growth. The plants represent a mix of natives such as prairie verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida), coreopsis (Coreopsis sp.), common sunflower (Helianthus annuus), yellow sneezeweed (Helenium amarum) and horsemint (Monarda citriodora) — along with non-native false ragweed (Parthenium hysterophorus) and invasives including Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense), King Ranch bluestem (Bothriochloa ischaemum var. songarica) and Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon).
The field provides a good sampling of pioneer species: plants that appear after a disturbance, or an intense, short-lived environmental stress that changes the affected ecosystem. In this case — and many others like it in urban areas — humans caused the disturbance by moving and altering soil. You have likely seen similar landscapes in your own city. This kind of disturbance often reduces biodiversity and, unfortunately, is a hallmark of urbanization. In contrast, natural disturbances increase biological diversity in ecosystems. Many plant species evolved with wildfire and flooding, as well as high-intensity, low-frequency grazing
by nomadic animals. Shade-intolerant plants, for example, need disturbances to open up space; that space allows sun in and helps them get established. Natural disturbance events played a major role in grasslands that once covered this part of Texas, says John Hart Asher, senior environmental designer at the Wildflower Center. Once a disturbance event ends, a process known as succession begins. Succession refers to shifts in the presence and relative abundance of different species over time, whether months or centuries. The first plants to arrive are the pioneers. In urban areas — such as our in-flux development site — not all of these will be native. “A disturbed site responds to what is going on around it,” says Asher. “The resulting ecosystem depends on soil conditions, climate, how surrounding vegetation disperses its seeds, and competition.” Soil consists of far more than dirt; healthy soil has a mix of bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes. These microorganisms play critical roles in soil function and affect re-establishment following disturbance of any variety, be it fire (wild or prescribed), road construction, or clearing space for a mixed-use development. Some plants can grow in soil with limited microbial life; in the case of our example field, this includes natives such as firewheels (Gaillardia pulchella) and bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis), as well as invasive bastard cabbage (Rapistrum rugosum). These pioneers alter the soil and ultimately determine which later arrivals succeed and which don’t. >>
Drought-tolerant native yellow sneezeweed (Helenium amarum) does well in disturbed, calcareous soil.
Aggressive native pioneer species annual horseweed (Conyza canadensis) thrives on bare soil and is one of few native species that can coexist with invasive Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense), to the exclusion of hundreds of other native annuals and perennials that could thrive here.
Wind and birds or other animals serve as primary vehicles for seed dispersal. How particular plants disperse their seeds plays an outsized role in a disturbed urban area because of the likely presence of introduced and non-native plants nearby. This is one aspect of a development-caused disturbance that’s different from a natural disturbance such as
Invasive species hijack the soil, preventing microbial development and reducing the diversity of insects, birds and rodents. fire — and why they often are damaging rather than beneficial. Seeds may even come in with dirt when earth is moved around for construction. Some seeds can lie dormant for a surprisingly long time. Competition becomes a particular issue in urban areas due to the abundance of non-native plant species. Because these species didn’t evolve over time in their current environment, they may be less susceptible to factors that naturally limit natives, such as pests and herbivores. According to Asher, “Another big factor of their success is shorter flowering and seed-production times — and more rapid growth.” One invasive that easily outcompetes local natives is Johnsongrass, native to the Mediterranean. Its seeds can remain viable for 20 years and disperse great distances via wind, water and animals, and they can survive ingestion by 1 8 | W I L DF LOW E R
birds and mammals. Johnsongrass also reproduces by rhizomes, or horizontal underground stems; one plant can spread 200 feet, and new stands are readily established. Asher says Johnsongrass also “hijacks the soil, preventing microbial development and creating a system that favors pioneer species.” It and another common invasive, King Ranch bluestem, create monocultures that degrade natural ecosystems and reduce the diversity of insects, birds and rodents as a result. To the untrained eye, our Austin field looks healthy, even beautiful, with its sunflower blooms, waving grasses, and presence of birds and insects — certainly preferable to bare ground from an aesthetic standpoint. But the non-native species growing here can crank out seeds, increasing the range of their invasion. The birds and insects present show little diversity. If the site is left alone, natives could lose out as the plant community transitions to mostly non-native and invasive species. When it is time to build here, the developers may scrape away the plants and invest significant labor and money in landscaping the site. But preparatory work early on — amending the soils, treating invasive plants, seeding the disturbed ground with native species, and conducting prescribed burns, for example — would be “less labor intensive and less expensive,” says Asher. Ultimately, such development sites beg a closer look, because “empty” fields are actually far from empty. They could be the loss of native habitat in action.
MEET OUR MEMBERS
Chris Sanders and Family • Members since 2004
• Designer of the Center’s Admissions Kiosk
• Former Advisory Council member
• Fort designer for Fortlandia 2018
“I was introduced to the Wildflower Center by my mother-in-law, Ellen Temple, shortly after moving to Austin in early 2001. Ellen was, and remains, a big supporter of the Wildflower Center. I immediately fell in love with the property — from the siteappropriate architecture to the expanse of its gardens and green space. “A lot has changed at the Wildflower Center over the past 19 years, and, as an advisory council member and volunteer, I’ve been lucky to witness and participate in much of the change: the design and construction of the Family Garden and the Texas Arboretum and the Center’s induction into The University of Texas at Austin, to name a few. “Over the years, as I’ve learned more about the excellent research going on behind the scenes at the Wildflower Center, I’ve gained a whole new respect for the organization and the impact it’s making on native landscapes in Central Texas and beyond. A desire to showcase this research and the fundamental values of the Wildflower Center was the inspiration for my design of the Admissions Kiosk built in 2014.
PHOTO John W. Clark
“My relationship to the Center continues to evolve as I have the opportunity to enjoy the property through my children’s eyes as they participate in activities like summer camps and Nature Nights or experience the Family Garden and the Fortlandia installations.”
WILDFLOWER.ORG/JOIN | 19
Texas is home to a treasured, psychotropic native plant by Amy McCullough
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Peyote (Lophophora williamsii) growing at the Cactus Conservation Instituteâ€™s study site in Jim Hogg County, Texas. PHOTO Cactus Conservation Institute
n a world of prayer-hands emoji and lite spirituality, it is easy to feel distant from the sacred. It may even be hard to recognize what is sacred. For members of the Native American Church, however, this is not an issue. To its estimated 500,000 followers, peyote (Lophophora williamsii) — a diminutive, spineless cactus that grows exclusively in southern Texas and northern Mexico — is not only sacred, it is essential to their religious experience. In fact, “Peyotism” is another name for the religion itself, the most widespread movement among North American indigenous tribes. 2 2 | W I L DF LOW E R
Religious ceremonies and worship by members of the Native American Church are literally impossible without peyote. And as native Texas plants are concerned, it is certainly among the most famous. This is largely due to its chemical composition. In “Remarkable Plants of Texas,” author Matt Warnock Turner writes, “Peyote has the distinction of being the source for the first naturally occurring, chemically pure, psychoactive compound ever isolated” (a feat credited to German pharmacologist Arthur Heffter). That compound is mescaline, an alkaloid responsible for the psychedelic visual imagery that users of peyote experience. A term like “psychedelic” may conjure images of swirling rainbow tie-dye and long-haired hippies, but, linguistically, it is simply an adjective describing a mental state of profound awareness and intense sensory perception. It is this quality that makes peyote special. Many attributes can make a plant useful and valued: medicinal, edible, structurally sound, fragrant. But,
as Turner says, the sacred ones “were the ones that created hallucinogenic, out-of-mind experiences. That’s why they’re considered sacred.”
FOR GOODNESS’ SAKE
In the case of peyote, users report altered states that bring peace, self-actualization and clarity. Austin-based filmmaker Eugenio del Bosque, who is currently working on a documentary called “Peyoteros” about peyote harvesting and trade in the Rio Grande Valley, says peyote “gives people a chance to look inside themselves and to understand their relationship to the world, to themselves and to the people who are around them, their loved ones. It changes the way you see these things. It gives you the chance to look at yourself from a different perspective.” For this reason, peyote — colloquially called “medicine” by Native Americans — is usually spoken of in positive terms, as healthy and beneficial. Turner agrees: “As the Native American Church uses it,” he says, “it’s communal; it’s about coming together, giving thanks,
The gateway to Amada Cárdenas’ former residence in Mirando City, Texas. Cárdenas was the first federally licensed peyote dealer, or peyotera. PHOTO Eugenio del Bosque/ @mirandopictures
Sandor Iron Rope, a Lakota spiritual leader, president of the Native American Church of South Dakota, and Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative board member, with his son, Nicholas Iron Rope, at a healing ceremony. PHOTO Kumiko Hayashi
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being respectful, living righteously — it’s a very good thing, good mojo.” Unlike other drugs associated with “tripping,” peyote is not typically said to cause visions of things that are not actually there. Nor is it associated with overdosing or getting “high.” Rather, the point is personal reflection, closeness with nature and community. Says del Bosque, “[Peyote] is a very valid way for people to get in touch with the transcendental. And it’s really amazing to me that that type of knowledge or experience can be unlocked by a cactus that is just found in the wild.” Turner and del Bosque both mention peyote as a potential treatment for substance abuse as well. Many tribes believe its use reduces alcoholism, and peyote is said to diminish withdrawal symptoms, thus aiding in recovery from addiction. (Incidentally, the Heffter Research Institute, named after the aforementioned pharmacologist, is dedicated to advancing scientific research on hallucinogens for treatment of addictions and other mental disorders.) Case in point: Staff at a substance-abuse clinic in Gallup, New Mexico — whose clientele is almost entirely Native American (the city’s most populous race) — encourage some patients to participate in regular peyote ceremonies
once they leave the clinic. Their records indicate that those who do fare better than those who participate in Alcoholics Anonymous. Sandor Iron Rope, former president of the Native American Church of North America and current president of the NAC of South Dakota, agrees peyote could be beneficial to those suffering from alcoholism — those with a desire to get well: “The medicine [peyote] could help a person who wants healing,” he says. A member of the Oglala Lakota Tribe, Iron Rope has long been involved in Native American health, wellness and cultural preservation. “Everything is about life,” he says, “You realize that in the [peyote] ceremony … you learn about yourself.” Like MDMA (commonly known as ecstasy), peyote has also been studied as a possible treatment for PTSD. Sadly, trauma is something Iron Rope has recent personal experience with: He and his family were victims of a random shooting while driving through Rapid City, South Dakota, in early 2018. Sandor was hit five times (twice in the back of his head); his wife was shot in the arm; their two children ducked and were uninjured. Iron Rope says he was “administered medicine [peyote] … and prayed over” once he became conscious. He is understandably
emotional when describing the response to his family’s ordeal: “There were various fireplaces and tepees that went up to pray for us as a family,” he says. “Relatives were pausing in their life to offer prayer in the Native American Church format [peyote ceremonies] … even as far away as Arizona.” When asked if participating in peyote rituals was important to their own recovery, he says, “It was relevant in helping us to deal with PTSD in our family … and it still is relevant. We depend on that medicine for ourselves and our healing with that type of issue.” Peyote isn’t unique when it comes to plants and psychological healing. A study reported in Psychological Medicine (a peer-reviewed medical journal) found that ayahuasca — a traditional Amazonian drink made from South American native plants Psychotria viridis and Banisteriopsis caapi — has similar potential as an antidepressant. Hot topics such as microdosing — taking very small, “subperceptual” amounts of psychedelic drugs such as LSD or psilocybin (from mushrooms) to treat mental illnesses and depression — are based on a similar concept of hallucinogens for health. There is still much research to be done to support such claims, but interest in the topic is certainly growing (in part due to Michael Pollan’s new book on the topic, “How to Change Your Mind”). In the case of peyote, del Bosque says, “Anything that can legitimize the use of the plant and lead to conservation is very good.”
PHOTOS (cedar) Alan Cressler, (mesquite) Thomas L. Muller
As part of Native American Church ceremonies, peyote “buttons” may be eaten fresh, or they can be dried and steeped into peyote tea. A peyote button is simply the sheared-off top of the plant. The subterranean stem (often mistakenly called the root) of the cacti are left to grow back, which typically takes five to 10 years. Del Bosque says much of what is harvested and sold in Texas is actually shipped as dried buttons to NAC members (who have to provide paperwork and proof that they have a certain quantum of Native American blood). As described in “The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture,” peyote ceremonies or “meetings” typically occur in the evening, in a specially constructed tepee around a half moon- or crescent-shaped altar. (The altar design is credited to famed Comanche leader Quanah Parker, widely recognized as the founder of Peyotism.) The ritual includes a fire, drumming and singing, prayer, and the consumption of peyote as a sacrament; for members of the NAC, it is as essential as bread and wine are to a Catholic Eucharist. But peyote is much harder to obtain. According to Gary Perez, a subject in early footage from del Bosque’s film, the NAC and peyote go hand in hand. Perez is a descendant of the Coahuiltecan peoples and former caretaker of the Peyote Gardens of South Texas, a holy place among the Tamaulipan thornscrub where Amada Cárdenas — the first federally licensed peyote dealer and a revered figure within the NAC — once lived. Says Perez, “We’ve
SACRED HARVEST OTHER CEREMONIAL AND/OR STATE-ALTERING NATIVE PLANTS
EASTERN RED CEDAR Juniperus virginiana
The leaves of this aromatic native conifer contain camphor and were used in purification and cleansing rituals by many indigenous tribes. The Kiowa and Comanche use it specifically in peyote rituals, where a “cedar man” is responsible for keeping incense burning throughout ceremonies. The Caddo of East Texas also used it to “smoke” their sick and held religious beliefs tied to its architectural placement in homes.
MESQUITE Prosopis glandulosa
Mesquite meal (which is experiencing a revival among Central Texas breadmakers) can be mixed with water to create a beverage that was drunk at special occasions among the Apache. Because of mesquite’s natural sugar content, the mixture can also be fermented into a beerlike drink.
“We depend on that medicine for ourselves and our healing.”
FROM LEFT Peyote buttons being harvested in the wild, sorted and sliced by Heron Gómez and family member Dalinda Garcia, and dried for shipment. PHOTOS Eugenio del Bosque/ @mirandopictures
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got parishioners that … drive 35 hours straight to be here in the peyote gardens, to collect their peyote, to pray with it where it grows naturally, and turn around and go right back home.” He goes on: “Among tribes, there are more and more folks gravitating toward the Native American Church, to become a part of this Pan-American religion, to simplify their lives and enjoy the benefits of communion with nature.” Iron Rope explains that direct harvesting “encourages spiritual sobriety” and engages users in a dialogue with nature: “It’s about preserving our way of life in its natural habitat, getting back to nature and the core essence of who we are as indigenous people,” he says. Despite all this support, peyote is a Schedule I drug in the United States, on the same list as heroin, LSD, MDMA, psilocybin, marijuana and others. Attributes that qualify a substance for this list include, per the DEA, “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” The loophole for peyote is that its consumption is included as part of religious
freedom for NAC members (per a 1994 amendment to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act that protects the rights of indigenous people to use peyote for religious purposes). There are currently three or four (depending who you ask) government-licensed peyote distributors in the United States. They are typically Mexican-American, and the job is often passed down through family (with a growing trend toward female relatives inheriting the trade). “They are the ones with the contacts with Native American tribes and the Native American Church, and they are the ones that know the landowners,” del Bosque explains. His film looks at the complex relationship between “healers and dealers,” as he puts it: “that combination of people who are licensed to trade in a substance that is comparable to hard drugs … and who are fulfilling the needs of a religious group.” With hundreds of thousands of NAC members, that’s a lot riding on just a few people.
JIMSONWEED Datura wrightii
Truly a fleur fatale, this native plant is gorgeous and essential to hawkmoths, but all parts of it are poisonous and potentially lethal to humans (and animals). In fact, intoxication from another species of jimsonweed, D. stramonium, was cited as the cause of the death of two El Paso teenagers as recently as 1994. Author Matt Warnock Turner says there are many cases of Datura poisoning “because people try to get high with it.” Its common name is related to an incident in which British soldiers accidentally consumed it in colonial Jamestown and suffered extreme effects. Its narcotic properties also gained (perhaps unwanted) attention from New Age author Carlos Castaneda’s 1968 book “The Teachings of Don Juan.” Jimsonweed was used ritualistically by Native Americans and is also known by the name “sacred datura” and “sacred thorn apple.”
PHOTOS (jimsonweed) Ray Mathews, (silverleaf nightshade) Marian Reid
A DISAPPEARING LAND
The freedom to harvest doesn’t guarantee supply, however, and the peyote that grows in the United States grows on private land in Texas — a major component of why peyote is now at risk. Peyote is not a federally listed endangered species (though it is listed as “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature), but its threats in South Texas are many. Habitat loss sums them up, with causes such as root plowing, land development, climate change and implementation of wind farms to name a few. Root plowing is a common method for clearing thorny brush such as mesquite (Prosopis spp.) and huisache (Vachellia farnesiana). It involves cutting shrubs off below ground, which eliminates the undergrowth, including globular cacti such as peyote. “I’m not trying to have a play between good and evil,” says del Bosque of the situation his movie explores. “This is just a reality. The land is private. It’s beautiful, it’s arid, and it’s harsh, but it holds a lot of value.” Landowners have many more lucrative options for their properties than peyote harvesting. Leasing land to hunters, petroleum companies or renewable energy facilities is another threat. “Once a wind farm goes up,” explains del Bosque, “that land is spoken for. The liability increases; the owners
SILVERLEAF NIGHTSHADE Solanum elaeagnifolium
The Latin name of this genus is related to “solatium,” which translates as “solace,” “comfort” or “relief,” presumably due to Solanum’s sedative properties. A decoction made from boiled roots was used as such by Comanches. But it is generally considered poisonous and, in the absence of indigenous knowledge, should be avoided. Interestingly, its berries have been used by Native Americans in the U.S. and Mexico to curdle milk and make cheese, usually asadero (aka Oaxaca) cheese. | 27
Wind turbines in South Texas, which are often placed near the same escarpments where peyote grows. PHOTO Eugenio del Bosque/ @mirandopictures
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are already making their money. It doesn’t make any sense for them to allow pickers to come in.” It’s worth noting that wind tends to blow the hardest (i.e., is ideal for generating wind energy) near escarpments, which is where peyote usually grows; it prefers caliche-rich bluffs along the Bordas Escarpment. You’re probably thinking, But isn’t renewable energy good? This is why conservation topics are rarely simple. Wind power could help assuage the effects of climate change, which would help plants. But, in this case, land taken up by wind turbines and their facilities is habitat taken away … at least temporarily. “You can never do anything over again,” says Iron Rope. He sees all that nature provides as
proof of “the unconditional love the creator has for us.” But, he adds, “Some of us didn’t take care of it. Some of us abused it. That’s where we are with Mother Earth today.” Even if the hillsides recover and peyote returns, which would be a silver lining for the plant itself, it will no longer be harvestable where wind turbines exist. Reduced access to the land where peyote grows is a threat to tradition — the tradition of peyote harvesting, the livelihoods of peyoteros, and the ceremonies and spirituality of the Native American Church. “Nobody’s going to stop this,” says del Bosque matter-of-factly, but he sees the challenge as being “a matter of learning to deal with all aspects involved so we can sustain what’s important.”
TEXAS MOUNTAIN LAUREL Sophora secundiflora
The bright red seeds of this shrub were valued by indigenous people for ornamental and ceremonial use. Commonly called “mescal beans,” the seeds have been linked to peyote ceremonies of Plains tribes, in particular, including decorative use in bandoliers worn by “roadmen,” or ceremony leaders. Caddo Indians consumed the seeds in clairvoyance or divination rituals, and Caddo and Comanche are said to have drunk Sophora bean liquor (essentially seeds steeped in water), also referred to as “Jesus talk” for its reported effects. Relatedly, botanist Jean Louis Berlandier reported use in purging rituals among the Wichita group of tribes. The seeds contain the highly poisonous alkaloid cytisine, a delirium-inducing substance widely cited as a narcotic.
WHITE PRICKLY POPPY Argemone albiflora
PHOTOS (Texas mountain laurel) Carolyn Fannon, (white prickly poppy) Norman G. Flaigg
Enter Dr. Martin Terry, a professor emeritus of biology at Sul Ross State University and well-known peyote advocate. (Mention peyote in Texas and his name invariably comes up.) Terry and a few concerned friends founded the Cactus Conservation Institute in 2004 with the mission of “preserving and restoring a selected portion of Tamaulipan thornscrub habitat of threatened and endangered cacti,” namely peyote and star cactus (Astrophytum asterias). Peyote grows wild primarily in Webb, Zapata, Jim Hogg and Starr Counties. It also once grew in Big Bend (where Quanah Parker is said to have sought this “gift of god” himself). But, according to the CCI, the last peyote known to have been deliberately planted in Big Bend National Park by Native Americans was recently poached into local extinction. >>
In bloom, this plant is quite showy, with delicate white petals around prominent yellow stamens. Its seeds and other parts can be toxic or fatal if ingested, but its sedative properties align with a long history of medicinal use by indigenous people. The Comanche, famed for their keen eyesight, are said to have used the related yellow-flowering species, Argemone mexicana, to treat visual ailments (as are the Shoshone and Kickapoo). It is in the same family (Papaveraceae) as the opium poppy. | 29
Peyote harvester Heron Gómez (grandson of licensed dealer Mauro Morales) sings while walking through peyote habitat in search of the sacred plant. PHOTO Eugenio del Bosque/ @mirandopictures
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In South Texas, poaching also does deep damage. Terry says poachers take the most valuable plants, known as “grandfather peyotes.” The number of ribs on a peyote plant follows the Fibonacci series; the prized and highly valued grandfathers may have up to 13 ribs, which is the max for the species. When asked if harvesting for religious use also takes a toll, Terry replies, “That’s a very delicate question. The NAC harvests for legitimate ceremonial purposes ... it is a quantity, but it makes a significantly smaller dent than the poachers do.” Terry is also on the board of directors for the Indigenous Peyote Conservation Initiative, a collaborative effort between NAC members (including Iron Rope, who is also on the board), private investors, lawyers, nonprofits such as the Native American Rights Fund, and other concerned parties. Terry recently helped a member with “deep pockets” do a bit of “realestate window shopping”; as such, a 605-acre piece of property rich with “absolutely fabulous” peyote plants was purchased by IPCI for conservation, tending and legal harvesting. IPCI and the CCI would ultimately like to see more habitat purchased by a conservation
organization (as has been the case for the endangered star cactus). But, as Terry says, “You can’t buy up all of South Texas.” The idea is to get nonprofits, the scientific community, conservation-minded landowners and power players (read: people with money) together. Unfortunately, as Terry puts it, “We’re much better at botany than we are at fundraising.” Del Bosque agrees it has to be a cooperative effort. “[Peyote] has been traded for centuries. It has survived all kinds of things, but the forces affecting it now are unprecedented.” Though he doesn’t identify as an activist, he says this of “Peyoteros”: “If the film causes anyone to participate in preserving [peyote] or understanding what the plant means for people who use it seriously, all the better.”
Encouragingly, peyote has been successfully propagated in greenhouses, but this is not necessarily a solution for the religious community. For peyote to be sacred, it has to be tied to the land — its own land. Consider it something like a deeply meaningful, spiritual terroir. Iron Rope elaborates on this, explaining that direct harvesting is especially ideal because
PHOTOS (white sagebrush) Sally and Andy Wasowski, (yaupon) Lee Page
it cuts out the middleman: “These plants can talk, can hear … [can] receive whatever we’re saying in molecular form,” he says. In other words, his people believe peyote is perceptive to those who interact with it. Of anyone between plant and worshipper, Iron Rope says, “We don’t know what their thoughts were.” A harvested-and-sold plant or greenhouse-grown plant is simply less pure than a wild plant. That said, the grafted greenhouse specimens have been specifically cultivated to produce “unusually large numbers of flowers and seeds,” according to Terry — “the latter being perfectly viable for planting.” A problem arises from the fact that these peyote plants contain very little mescaline, as all their energy is devoted to growth and seed production. Terry says the result is “an object that does not look like peyote, does not taste like peyote, and does not ‘feel’ like peyote when ingested by experienced practitioners of peyote medicine.” It’s no wonder then that greenhouse-grown peyote is not considered for ceremonial use. But they are a reliable source of seeds, and, if planted in situ, Terry says, “Those seeds will grow up into perfect peyote plants, identical in every way to their cousins in habitat.” He is encouraged that this peyote could meet NAC needs: “Let the plants speak for themselves by the way they develop, once they are back … with the right soil (including the nitrogen contributed by the Tamaulipan thornscrub), the right shade and sunlight, the right amount of rain and drought, and perhaps the right words spoken by the right people at the right time.” Iron Rope feels similarly “positive and optimistic for the future,” despite the risks facing peyote. “You have to change in order to survive,” he says, citing IPCI’s collaborative efforts as a move in the right direction. “We have to continue to respect Mother Earth and what she’s given us. To respectfully harvest this medicine is part of the healing process.” While preservation may be possible, whether peyote will be accessible in numbers that meet the demand of the Native American Church is questionable. Del Bosque says members of the church, not surprisingly, have faith. “They believe in this plant,” he explains. “They’ll say, ‘The plant has the power to survive.’” He has footage of a peyote harvester singing to the plants, which comes from a related belief that peyote can deliberately show itself, that you can get its attention so it will appear. “There is a little bit of this same perception when you talk to them about the risks that the plant faces,” says del Bosque. “They believe it can just hide [from poachers] and then come back.” “I find that very beautiful,” he says with humility, adding, “Unfortunately it takes more than poetry for things to survive.” Learn more about the film “Peyoteros” at mirando.pictures. Read updates from the Cactus Conservation Institute at cactusconservation.org/blog.
WHITE SAGEBRUSH Artemisia ludoviciana
This great-smelling perennial has been used in purification rituals and sweathouses of the Comanche and Kiowa; it was also burned as incense by the Comanche and Kiowa-Apache and is one of the only plants allowed in Kiowa peyote ceremonies. Contemporary Mexican curanderos (healers) include it in cleansing bundles (you may be familiar with other modern uses of sage “smudge” sticks, as well). Similarly, tea made from white sagebrush leaves has been used for ceremonial bathing.
YAUPON Ilex vomitoria
Yaupon is the only North American native plant containing useable amounts of caffeine. Native Americans throughout the Southeast consumed tea made from its leaves and twigs, commonly called “black drink.” This was sometimes drunk in large quantities and then vomited as part of ritual purification ceremonies, lending the plant its specific epithet, vomitoria. The tea was also consumed from decorated shells during burial ceremonials and enjoyed simply as an everyday beverage (sometimes only by important adult males). It is related to South American yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis). The section greatly informed by “Remarkable Plants of Texas” by Matt Warnock Turner and the Wildflower Center’s Native Plants of North America database. | 31
Butterflies, like this painted lady (Vanessa cardui), are just one of many types of fauna that benefit from sunflowers â€” in this case, Maximilian sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani).
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Goals Teamwork among Helianthus species gives hope for the future story and photos by Chris Helzer
ABOVE The stout stems and hefty heads of sunflowers, such as this stiff sunflower (H. pauciflorus), provide both habitat and food. OPPOSITE PAGE (top) A troop of winged ants visits a prairie sunflower (H. petiolaris) to drink its extrafloral nectar. (bottom) The larvae of some stem-boring insects eat plant tissue and then winter in sunflower stems while maturing into adults.
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The sunflower is among the most iconic of wildflowers.
The distinctive shape of its inflorescence both resembles the sun and has become the default flower shape for most kindergarten artists around the country. We cultivate sunflowers (usually varieties of common sunflower, Helianthus annuus) for human food, bird food, industrial and cooking oil, and aesthetic beauty, further increasing their familiarity and popularity. There are around 70 different species of sunflowers, ranging across North and Central America, with a few extending into South America. Texas alone has about 20 native sunflower species. The distributions of those Texas native sunflowers often overlap, which is a very good thing. The variety provided by the presence of several sunflower species in close proximity adds to the ecological resilience of a landscape. A healthy, versatile ecosystem can provide essential functions â€” such as food, habitat and erosion control â€” no matter what kinds of stresses occur,
including extreme weather, disease outbreaks, fire or grazing events, and more. The presence of species with overlapping roles in an ecosystem can help build vitality because if one of those species is suppressed for a while, the others can fill in and maintain ecological function. All of this is important because sunflowers are a genus that just keeps giving.
Room and Board
There’s a reason we cultivate sunflowers for bird food; the seeds are large and nutritious and sought out by a multitude of avian species, along with many small mammals and invertebrates. Squirrels, in particular, often take advantage of sunflower seeds put out for birds. In addition to those nourishing kernels, sunflowers produce nectar and pollen, both of which draw a crowd. The nectar found within each small floret in a sunflower head attracts bees, butterflies, moths, flies and other insects hungry for that sweet, nutritious liquid. The copious pollen production of sunflowers brings in some of those same species (bees, for instance, feed larvae with it), but pollen also entices grasshoppers, katydids, crickets, beetles and many others. Sunflowers seem to encourage those abundant visitors by making both their nectar and pollen easily accessible — serving it up on a literal platter. Seeds, pollen and nectar are far from the sum total of sunflowers’ contributions to ecological communities however. The tall, robust architecture of sunflower plants provides habitat for wildlife species seeking protective cover during all seasons. That includes broods of birds such as grouse and quail looking for overhead cover for their chicks while they roam around in search of food. Insects, too, utilize the stems and leaves of sunflower plants as habitat. Sunflower stems are commonly used by stem-boring insects, whose larvae burrow inside stalks to feed on the pith and often overwinter before emerging as adults. Beetles known as silphium or head-clipping weevils (Haplorhynchites spp.) girdle the stem below a flower head, causing it to tip over and hang precariously; they then lay eggs in it. When the flower head eventually falls to the ground, larvae feed on the decaying material before eventually burrowing into the soil beneath. Ants also find sunflowers attractive and are particularly enticed by extrafloral nectar (a saccharine substance produced by the vegetative parts of a plant). Squadrons of ants can often be seen patrolling up and down sunflowers, consuming tiny droplets of sugary liquid. As predators, those patrolling ants can provide a degree of protection from herbivorous insects in return for the sweet treats. Despite that predatory presence, however, sunflowers remain attractive to countless insect species, far beyond the few examples provided here. >> | 35
Sunflowers can be found across a broad geographic range but also occur within a wide variety of habitat types. As a result, nearly any place you go in Texas will host at least one native sunflower. In fact, most sites will have several sunflower species, each with its own preference for topographic position, sun exposure and soil moisture. For example, in East Texas, you can find the annual beach sunflower (H. debilis) on dunes and other open, disturbed areas with deep sand. The perennial hairy sunflower (H. hirsutus) can also be found on dry sites but is usually associated with open woodlands or savannas. Ashy sunflower (H. mollis) lives in mesic prairies and woodland edges, while swamp sunflower (H. angustifolius) is found in somewhat 3 6 | W I L DF LOW E R
wetter soils near seeps, seasonal wetlands and openings along forested wetlands. Having multiple sunflower species living within the same general area is important for a few reasons. The presence of more than one species means the resources sunflowers provide can be spread across a greater percentage of a landscape. A site featuring ashy sunflower and swamp sunflower, for instance, increases the total area covered by sunflowers because each uses different habitats. Differences in bloom times between multiple species of sunflowers can also stretch out the amount of time sunflower pollen, nectar and seeds are available to animals who depend upon them. During a drought, a normally abundant species of perennial sunflower might not be well
Teams of sunflowers, including these prairie sunflowers (H. petiolaris), have the flexibility to withstand many environmental challenges, offering hope amid our changing climate.
adapted to dry conditions and thus fail to bloom. If other sunflower species are present that are better adapted to dry conditions, they might still manage to bloom and provide needed resources to the ecological community. In extreme circumstances, when a flood, fire or intensive grazing event creates large areas of exposed soil, annual sunflowers will often fill those spaces, germinating and growing quickly while there is limited competition from nearby plants. The result is a temporary but critically important flush of sunflowers that helps hold soil and provide wildlife cover â€” while also creating a bounty of food for many animals. Within a year or two, as the rest of the plant community recovers, annual sunflowers will disappear, waiting for their next opportunity to spring up from the seed bank when theyâ€™re needed.
A diversity of sunflower species can hedge against other threats as well. For example, leaf beetles (and many other insect species) can periodically become superabundant and quickly consume all the pollen from a sunflower population, keeping pollinators from accessing that food and preventing those sunflowers from producing seed. However, the life cycle of leaf beetles is short. If there are multiple sunflower species present, with staggered bloom times, the insects are likely to be gone before the next sunflower species hits peak efflorescence, ensuring that at least some sunflower seeds will still be available in the fall. There are countless other examples of herbivores, diseases and threats that could affect one sunflower species much more than others in a particular year. Therein lies the power of teamwork. >> | 37
Sunflowers like these H. petiolaris bring joy to humans with their cheery, recognizable blooms. How often has a flower you’ve drawn looked like this?
A Hopeful Future
As our changing climate continues to alter the local growing conditions for plants, sunflowers will likely shift their locations within many landscapes. However, because most sites have more than one sunflower species, there’s a good chance that sunflowers, as a group, will still be represented at a particular site — even if they are different species in different places than we find them now. If the climate becomes warmer and drier, sunflowers currently living on the tops of hills might find those sites too dry but manage to shift downslope into new habitats that fit their soil moisture requirements. Annual sunflowers may become more abundant in many locations as more frequent and extreme floods and droughts create increased bare ground and opportunities for those annuals to thrive. Sunflowers in the wettest portions of prairie and forest habitats, however, may find themselves without appropriate habitat, at least locally, if the overall trend is toward warmer and drier weather. Some sunflowers may find it difficult to thrive in their current sites as the climate changes and, as a result, begin to expand their overall home ranges — especially to the north, where sites once incompatible with their growing requirements become a much better match. Relatedly, the big, nutritious seeds of sunflowers get carried around by birds and other animals (who may shell or cache them away from where they were harvested), as well as by humans, including unintentional rides in hay bales or the undercarriages of vehicles. Certain regions might experience the loss of one sunflower species because of a changing climate only to gain a new one from somewhere else. The phenomenon of redundancy and resilience due to similar, overlapping species is not limited to sunflowers 3 8 | W I L DF LOW E R
of course. Texas has more than 30 species of both milkweeds (Asclepias spp.) and prairie clovers (Dalea spp.), for example, and numerous other examples of wildflowers of extraordinary diversity within closely related species. Animal communities display that same kind of diversity, which can help ensure the persistence of important processes and functions during stressful times. Pollinators provide a great example, with hundreds of bee, moth, butterfly, fly, and other insect species often available at any particular location to help ensure every flower is pollinated. The result of all that redundancy across plant and animal species is a series of networks that sustain the productivity and viability of natural areas and the species — including us — that rely on them. While sunflowers are far from unique in terms of their species diversity and overlapping contributions, they are still deserving of special attention. Just the abundance of food they provide, including leaves, stems, flowers, pollen, floral nectar, extrafloral nectar and seeds, earns them prominence among wildflowers. In addition, their height and hearty architecture provides shelter for numerous animals, from tiny burrowing insects to larger vertebrates. Finally, all of us, from artistic kindergarteners to the most cynical adult, can draw pleasure from the cheerful yellow faces of sunflowers wherever we encounter them. Fortunately, because there are so many sunflowers in so many places, it’s not hard to find opportunities for those pleasant encounters. Thanks to the Wildflower Center’s Minnette Marr and Andrea DeLong-Amaya, as well as Charlotte Reemts, Wendy Ledbetter and Matt Buckingham for help with and review of this article.
DECEMBER 5 - 8 & 12 - 15 6 - 10 P.M. NIGHTLY
Art Seen Alliance Balcones Resources The North Door Royal Fig Catering Tito’s Handmade Vodka
Join us for Austin’s most magical winter tradition, featuring aerial dance by Blue Lapis Light. W I L D F L O W E R .O R G/ LUM INATIONS | 39
Crowdsourcing Conservation How one determined botanist is teaming up and heading out by Ashley Hackett DR. MORGAN GOSTEL HAS BEEN PASSIONATE ABOUT CONSERVING PLANTS his entire life. Now, as a research botanist for the Botanical Research Institute of Texas, he focuses on plant genetics and evolutionary history. He also conducts international outreach efforts as director of the Global Genome Initiative for Gardens. GGI-Gardens was formed in 2015 as part of the Global Genome Initiative, whose mission is to preserve and understand the genomic diversity of life on Earth.
ABOVE Dr. Morgan Gostel and author Ashley Hackett identify plants for collecting at the Wildflower Center. PHOTO Farahnoz Khojayori
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With both a bachelor’s and master’s in biology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Ph.D. in environmental science and policy from George Mason University, Gostel has spent countless hours growing a strong interest in evolution and plant systematics: the study of biological diversity and the relationships between organisms. Over the course of his academic career, he became especially interested in the evolution of species diversity in dry tropical forests and the plants that inhabit them, which led to fieldwork in the United States,
Brazil and Madagascar. As director of GGI-Gardens, Gostel is establishing an international network of botanic gardens in order to preserve plant diversity. He works with garden partners and teams of interns to collect species of plants that are not represented in biorepositories, or facilities that store plant tissues for future scientific research. The objective is to conserve genetic resources of plant species — a job that, he urges, has to be begin outside, with boots on the ground.
TAKING IT OUTSIDE Throughout the summer, Gostel — along with Farahnoz Khojayori and Seth Hamby, GGI-Gardens summer research fellows — collected plant species that will go to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The team traveled to botanic gardens throughout Texas, and their second stop (after Fort Worth Botanic Gardens) was the Wildflower Center. From there, they headed southeast to Peckerwood Garden and Mercer Botanic Gardens and west to Big Bend Ranch State Park and the Davis Mountains Preserve. “Some of the best places to collect are botanical gardens,” says Gostel. “I don’t think many people realize [these] gardens contain over half of the genera of the plants on Earth.” Some of the species Gostel and his team collected at the Wildflower Center are standing cypress (Ipomopsis rubra), purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora). Botanic gardens are important places that showcase plant diversity and allow researchers new opportunities to increase and conserve that biodiversity. Not only do they contain a massive amount of already-named plant species from all over the world, these gardens are usually close to urban centers. That means materials such as liquid nitrogen may be available, as well as a biorepository where genome tissue can be stored. “The materials can be pretty simple or can be complex,” says Gostel. DEEP FREEZE Gostel and his team have been using liquid nitrogen to freeze and store plant DNA. However, the substance is not easy for every garden to obtain. In these cases, a plant press and a bag of silica to preserve DNA tissue works. “If you want high-quality DNA, you want to use a liquid nitrogen tank,” Gostel asserts. “[It] is just the gold standard for plant preservation.” After freezing the DNA in the liquid nitrogen tank, the team takes another sample of the plant species and records it on a voucher, a pressed plant sample used for future reference. Gostel mentions that collecting a voucher is one of the most important parts of any field work. Without a voucher specimen, it is hard to refer back to and communicate the plant species with other researchers and colleagues. “We’ve been doing that for 400 years pretty aggressively, as botanists all over the world,” Gostel says. “So explorers who went out and made collections, they did exactly what we’re doing with technology that was perfected years ago.” After the team completes their plant collection, it will go into the United States National Herbarium (at the Smithsonian). This is where dried plants are stored for biological study, including everything from evolutionary biology to ecology to general floristics, which is the study of plants and where they come from. “People who want to know where they can find something a 100 years later can come here,” says Gostel. BACK TO OUR ROOTS Gostel and GGI-Gardens hope to increase the visibility and impact of botanic gardens for research and conservation of valuable species. To carry out this ambitious goal, they are partnering with botanic gardens, arboreta and greenhouses all over the world to collect and preserve plant diversity. To Gostel, this partnering is akin to crowdsourcing conservation: It takes advantage of plant collections and knowledgeable staff members at places like the Wildflower Center to make a global impact for plant conservation and plant biodiversity research. “It’s about getting back to our roots as botanists,” says Gostel, “and going out into the field, exploring and making collections, because we’re losing plants all over the world before we can collect and document them.”
FROM TOP Documenting the collection of standing cypress (Ipomopsis rubra). Preparing a voucher specimen of Arkansas leastdaisy (Chaetopappa asteroides). Members of the collection team (from left to right): Seth Hamby, Wildflower Center Conservation Program Manager Minnette Marr, Dr. Morgan Gostel, Farahnoz Khojayori. PHOTOS Ashley Hackett
E C I T O N N O I T EVIC spe e plant iv s a v in of dispose o t w o H t y Hacke by Ashle
Bastard cabbage (Rapistrum rugosum) is a common invasive plant in Central Texas. PHOTO Wildflower Center
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INVASIVE PLANTS ARE AMONG THE MAJOR THREATS TO NATIVE PLANT SPECIES all over the world. These intruders are typically non-native species that outcompete plants native to local ecosystems — altering habitats, reducing biodiversity, and even causing the extinction of native plants and animals. “Most invasive species get moved around by humans,” says Wildflower Center Conservation Ecologist Dr. Hans Landel, who oversees the Center’s work combating invasive species in Texas. “In the United States, many were originally in people’s gardens and then spread into natural areas,” he explains. Texans face invasive plants in their own backyards, at local parks, and even for sale at nurseries. While it may be a challenge, management is necessary to maintain healthy landscapes and certainly worth the effort. Learning to identify invasive plants is the first step; recognition also helps prevent new introduction of invasives. Become a citizen scientist and hone your identification skills by attending an Invaders of Texas workshop (texasinvasives.org/invaders).
Invasive plant species can be treated in various ways: Mechanical methods involve physically removing plants from the environment; chemical methods use herbicides to kill plants and prevent regrowth; more complex cultural methods include grazing, over-seeding with native plants, prescribed burning and solarization. A common, straightforward removal method
is to pull plants out by the roots; this can be done by hand (we recommend a pair of sturdy gloves) or with a hoe, shovel or “weed wrench.” Leftover roots can restart the infestation, so pull as much of them as possible. Also keep in mind that seeds of invasive plants can stay viable in the soil for many years. For maximum effectiveness, remove plants before they seed or their fruit ripens.
Once you’ve plucked invasive species, it’s important to properly dispose of seeds and debris. Try these no-nonsense disposal methods: Bag and Dry When invasive plants are relatively small, put them in contractor-grade garbage bags after removal and leave them out in the sun to bake. Once they are dried out, the plants should be dead and can be tossed in the trash. Chipping This method is used for large woody plants that do not reproduce vegetatively (meaning asexu-
ally from a single plant — via rhizomes or stolons, for example). The easiest way to do this is to use a chipper and turn the plants into mulch. But do so only when fruits are not present. Composting You may be surprised to learn that composting invasive plant species is not typically recommended, as many invasives can easily take root in compost. Compost can also put invasive seeds back in the ground if used later in your garden. However, composting vegetative parts of plants without seeds or fruit is usually acceptable.
Before removing any invasive plant species, it is important to check with the Texas Department of Agriculture and Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to see which species can be transported and disposed of without a permit. Sightings of certain invasive species of particular concern should be reported at texasinvasives. org/action/report.php. For more information on invasive species in general, visit texasinvasvies.org. | 43
Things We Love The books, films and clothes we’re currently into by Wildflower Center Staff BOOK
Dovetail Workwear Maven Jeans I love these! Dovetail jeans are super sturdy and have more pockets than I even know what to do with — which is awesome when I need to stash some seeds and don’t have a bag with me in the garden. And they fit just right. Melissa Krenek Horticulturist
Stretchy for crouching in the bushes and trimming trees and hard-wearing for all the action we throw their way. We don’t usually wear them in summer because of the heat, but they’re amazing. Volunteers and other gardeners ask me about them all the time. Karen Beaty Horticulturist
These are the ideal work jean but stylish enough for casual wear as well. They are a female-owned and -run company, which is another reason I support them. It’s difficult to find quality workwear that fits women properly! Bonny Edwards Seasonal Gardener
When is the last time you thought of a plant as an ancestor, teacher, storyteller? I’ve spent years writing about plants but not listening to them. Botanist and author Robin Wall Kimmerer rights that wrong and upends our preconceptions about flora in “Braiding Sweetgrass.” She bravely challenges scientific language and meditates on the consequences of perceiving the plants and nonhuman animals in our world as “others” rather than equals or relations. Weaving together sincere and poetic (but never cliché) personal narrative with botanic knowledge and indigenous stories and perspective, Kimmerer gives juicy scientific insight into sap’s migration through a tree, the universe that is pond algae, the struggle of spotted salamanders, and wisdom about wildfires (to name a few). Her text asks us to confront how our words affect our relationship with the natural world. Written to give voice to species and peoples who have too often been unrepresented or silenced, the stories and ideas in this book are truly a gift; give it to yourself and you will very likely be inspired to share it with everyone you know. K. Angel Horne PR, Media & Marketing Coordinator milkweed.org/book/braiding-sweetgrass
The River and the Wall Ben Masters’ documentary film “The River and the Wall” is both a moving tale of humanity and a love letter to the breathtaking landscape of the Rio Grande Valley. The 97-minute film follows an immensely likeable group on a 1,200-mile trek from El Paso to the Gulf of Mexico via mountain bike, horse, foot and canoe. Stunning shots of ocelots, baby black bears and birds galore highlight the importance of native habitat rich with ocotillos, desert willows and riparian grasses. The film tells the personal stories of each cast member and includes commentary from Americans and Mexicans; farmers, ranchers and fisherman — and voices from both sides of the aisle (Beto O’Rourke and Will Hurd). Regardless of your feelings on the border, see this movie for its depiction of the river, which — as the movie’s tagline states — came first. Amy McCullough, Editor & Communications Manager theriverandthewall.com
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IMAGES (apparel) Joanna Wojtkowiak, (book) Milkweed Editions, (film) Fin & Fur Films
MEET OUR DONORS
Bartlett Tree Experts • Donor since January 2018
• Winter Tree Fest participant
• Fortlandia sponsor
• Native Plant Sale participant
“We donate to the Center because, in short, we believe in the work that the Center is doing. “We enjoy being a part of something larger, which the Center offers through its broad reach toward preservation and renewal of our native flora. In addition, we get the benefits of interacting with the Center’s diverse, world-class group of botanists, practical horticulturists, and our favorite, the Center’s arborists and their work in the Texas Arboretum. We also value the substantial work the Wildflower Center does on plants for hot climates. At every level, this is a quality group. “As tree lovers, we have particularly enjoyed being a part of Winter Tree Fest. This annual outreach and education festival about our native trees is always fun and super satisfying.” — Patrick B. Brewer, Vice President/Division Manager PHOTO E. Thomas Smiley, Ph.D.
(fourth from left)
WILDFLOWER.ORG/DONATE | 45
When in Roam
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Giants Among Us
The magnitude and peace of a big, big tree by Lee Clippard W H E N DE S CE N DI NG D OW N T H E PAV E D PAT H TOWA R D T H E L A RGE ST T R E E on the planet, a giant sequoia named General Sherman, most visitors begin in a parking lot, on a hill above the height of its tallest branches. Their first glimpses of the enormous tree, then, are of its top. It’s an interesting perspective, but it isn’t until arriving at the bottom that the sequoia’s true immensity takes shape — its 36-foot-wide trunk revealed through the neighboring trees like a cruise ship peeking around a seaside cliff. General Sherman makes trees that would otherwise seem huge look like twigs. Necks crane. Jaws drop. Selfie sticks come out. Sequoia National Park in California is the second oldest national park in the U.S., and over a million people travel there every year to see what are, quite simply, famous plants. That is unusual. The General Sherman Tree and its sequoia companions in the surrounding woods are not humpback whales leaping from the ocean, giant geysers exploding from the earth, or bears catching salmon in their jaws. Giant sequoias (Sequoiadendron giganteum) are less action and more quiet awe. Yet the tour buses pour in and thankfully so. Plants deserve their time in the spotlight too. At around 2,200 years old, General Sherman is not the oldest tree in the world (it is actually middle-aged for a sequoia). Nor is it the tallest at a height of 275 feet (about 25 stories). It is, however, the most massive tree in the world by volume (it could hold about 10,000 bathtubs worth of water). It is truly humbling to stand before such a being. “These trees destroy the passive image we have of plants; the simple word ‘tree’ cannot convey their authority, cannot communicate their dignified bulk,” wrote author Stephen Trimble in 1979. Sequoias are found naturally only on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada in a relatively tight band between 5,000- and 8,000-feet elevation. Around them grow other impressively large trees, such as sugar pines (Pinus lambertiana) and incense cedar (Calocedrus decurrens). At full heights of around 220 feet, these scrape the heavens too, but the giants still command the space. If visiting, don’t just stop at General Sherman with the rest of the hordes. Pay your respects
(and maybe stand in line for the perfect selfie), but then go gently deeper into the Giant Forest along the park’s soft, quiet paths made buoyant by built-up layers of tree duff. There you can encounter four more of the 10 largest sequoias in the world among extensive sequoia groves. And while the General Sherman Tree is protected from trampling and pawing by a low split-rail fence, the sequoias in the rest of the Giant Forest stand naked before you. You can pet the spongy bark that insulates them from fire and wander among their enormous trunks like a child playing among the furry legs of Mr. Snuffleupagus. Marvel at the realization that they are growing in soil only 3 to 5 feet deep — their roots sprawling across the forest in an interconnected tangle, a community of trees lending each other support and stability. Those titanic sequoias have experienced countless fires, droughts, freezing summers and warmer-than-usual winters. They have gulped millions of gallons of water, only to be exhaled as the oxygen that we inhale to survive. They have racked up thousands of years on the western slope of the Sierras, growing from seed to behemoth as human cultures have risen and fallen across the earth. Here’s hoping that they can survive the challenges we throw at them today. To sit in a grove of giant sequoias is to connect to the deep well of time — to sense the brevity of one’s own life against the long unfurling of millennia. Sighs of relief and a gentle release from daily worries seem to come easy. Among the giants, it feels like contentment.
Did You Know? Many people confuse giant sequoias and coast redwoods — both are huge trees, but they are different species with different ranges.
Giant sequoia Sequoiadendron giganteum Coast redwood Sequoia sempervirens Learn more at savetheredwoods.org. OPPOSITE PAGE Looking up at the General Sherman Tree. PHOTO Jim Bahn/Wikimedia Commons (CC by 2.0)
By Land and Leaf Wayfinding the old-fashioned way by Amy McCullough illustration by Dan Page
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PLANTS TELL US WHERE WE ARE. They have the inherent ability to identify a region, to give it character. But plants can root us in place, and help us find our way, in a much more literal sense as well. I bring this up because I don’t own a cellphone — “smart” or otherwise. I have a landline and an answering machine (digital because the tape machines are fairly expensive “vintage” items these days). People tend to find this pretty fascinating. I get reactions from jealousy to awe to complete confusion as to how I survive on a day-to-day basis. Contrary to a common, understandable assumption, I am not a Luddite. I spend most of my working life at a computer, with an absurd number of browser tabs open, simultaneously communicating via Skype, various emails, a project management app, Facebook and more. I am, like most office-based professionals, online constantly. But, unlike most, this is true only while I am working. I realize I am lucky to be in a position where this is acceptable (or at least tolerated). There is one thing in particular that, I gather, people find very valuable about smartphones: navigation. Let me acknowledge that I lived for a year on a 27-foot sailboat and relied on GPS navigation over an entire trip from Oregon to Mexico, though I did have old-school paper nautical charts as backup. I understand the value of this tool. But in my everyday life, I don’t want it. I enjoy finding my own way. I don’t want to be told by a robot voice to turn right in .5 miles; I want to look for a street sign or — better yet —
a landmark. I’d rather study a Google map before leaving or sloppily jot down the appropriate steps on scratch paper than have a portable minicomputer tell me what to do. In case of emergency, I keep an honest-to-goodness roadmap in my glove compartment. I studied geography in graduate school, so I am admittedly more map nerdy and spatially curious than the average person. I do also occasionally print directions, earning playfully snide comments from friends about “Amy and her MapQuest printouts.” Another of my reasons has to do with memory — and learning. The natural world is full of great, useful orienteering tools; we just have to be open to observing and employing them. I feel that if I navigate to someplace new my way, informed by environmental markers I’m experiencing with my own senses, I’ll remember how to do it again. I’ll know that left turn I need to take is on the corner with the giant live oak tree, the one where red-tailed hawks often perch among
the branches. I’ll know that my street is the one flagged by a patch of marsh obedient plants: a hovering sheet of purple petals in spring, right next to where a sumac turns to fire every fall. I like knowing, when I go to my dad’s in small-town Illinois, that I’ll see four large sugar maples well before I see the house itself, let alone the address. When I was new to Austin, the epic mustang grapevines taking over the nearby elementary school’s chain-link fence signaled my neighborhood as much (or more) than the words “Hyde Park.” A towering pecan tree became a symbol of home, a shadebearing sentinel I spent countless hours under with loved ones canine and human. Everywhere we are — and everywhere we go — we have the opportunity to take cues from land and leaf. If we remain open to it, we’re likely to be guided by familiar trees, seasonal blooms, living landmarks of routes old and new. I’d like to keep doing that as long as I can.
The Gift That Keeps on Growing Our gardens and offerings just keep growing, making the gift of membership greater each year. Order by Dec. 13 to ensure delivery to your recipient by Dec. 25.
Valerie Lueth/ Tugboat Printshop
The world of a sacred native cactus, much to love about sunflowers, traveling for big trees and more.
Published on Nov 11, 2019
The world of a sacred native cactus, much to love about sunflowers, traveling for big trees and more.