2017 | Volume 34, No. 1
Under New Management These cattle are restoring Texas grasslands (and saving our water)
ECOREGIONS OF TEXAS
MONARCHS IN MEXICO
WILDFLOWER MEADOWS SOMETIMES POP UP
in unexpected places — like your own backyard. Those dusky peach and mauve shapes along the horizon aren’t foothills; they’re the roofs of homes just east of Fulshear, Texas, captured on a bright blue day in April 2015. Mexican hat (Ratibida columnifera) is most ubiquitous in the scene, though some sunny yellow spots are Engelmann’s daisy (Engelmannia peristenia), a perennial so preferred by cattle some call it the “ice cream plant.” A native oak (Quercus sp.) adds another cool treat to the menu with its Popsicle figure, while purple-topped wisps of invasive vervain (Verbena sp.) slice upwards through the sky. PHOTO Richard A. McMillin/Shutterstock
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THE BROWN CENTRAL DISK OF MEXICAN hat (Ratibida columnifera) takes on the appearance of an alien landscape when viewed up close. This shot calls special attention to golden pollen grains covering stigmas, which look a bit like sea anemones. Like most members of the aster family, Mexican hats have two types of flowers, ray flowers and disk flowers; ray flowers form the brim of the “sombrero” (see previous page), while much smaller brown disk flowers cover the center. This image is X-rated, botanically speaking; pollen from loaded stamens (a plant’s male parts) has been captured by sticky stigmas at the ends of female pistils. PHOTO Wildflower Center
FROM THE Executive Director
A Place and a Promise WE ARE EXTREMELY PLEASED TO PRESENT TO YOU, OUR MEMBERS, THE NEWLY revamped Wildflower magazine. As we began to envision the future of the magazine, we borrowed heavily from the inspiration of renowned author and naturalist, John Muir, who once wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
Spring/Summer L A DY BIR D JOHNSON WILDFLOWER CENTER
founders’ vision of the Wildflower Center as both a place and a promise. The seasonal guide (which members receive twice a year in alternation with the magazine) draws increased attention to the Center itself. Wildflower magazine, on the other hand, serves as a critical conduit through which to tell compelling stories that deliver on the Wildflower Center’s promise. That promise was perhaps best explained by Mrs. Johnson when she described her special cause as “the whole effort to bring the natural world and the man-made world to harmony; to bring order, usefulness, delight to our whole environment.” It’s no small promise, to be sure, but one that we hope to continue to deliver on in all that we do, and certainly within the pages of this magazine. Thank you for your continued support of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. May its continued success bring you all the joy, harmony and beauty you deserve.
Patrick Newman Executive Director 4 | W I L DF LOW E R
PHOTO John W. Clark
DAMIANITA Chrysactinia mexicana
While following that path of inspiration, it became clear that an opportunity existed for us to broaden the scope of our member magazine. You will find within these pages inspiring, educational stories about the various connections between native plants, people and places — and how each of these are inherently linked over so many aspects of our lives. We’ve incorporated a thoughtful approach to storytelling with beautiful photography and design, and we are very excited by the result. We sincerely hope that you will be as well. We also hope that you will find great value in the new seasonal guide that was launched this past February (left). Within its pages are shorter-form educational articles about our gardens and our work, as well as information regarding classes, courses and events at the Center. These publications are intended to complement one another and work in tandem as we fulfill our
TABLE of Contents
38 FE ATU R E S
Ecoregions speak to the complexity of Texas landscapes by Susan J. Tweit
America’s Next Top Model Ranching takes a tip from nature by Amy McCullough
4 LETTER FROM THE EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR Looking at the big picture 7 PERSONAL FAVES A former first lady’s favorite native plant 8 IN THEIR ELEMENT Ocelots hung out to dry in South Texas 10 URBAN GROWTH Parklets replace pavement with people and plants 13 BOTANY 101 Two-headed flower monsters
30 THANK YOU, DONORS 32 PLANT PEOPLE A legacy in flowers, fungi and fluffles
34 CAN DO Grab that prickly pear by the…tongs 37 STAFF PICKS A few of our favorite things 38 WHEN IN ROAM Butterflies without borders 41 WILD LIFE A roundabout path back to nature
ON THE COVER Cows at the Dixon Water Foundation take a break from landscape restoration to mug for the camera. PHOTO Sarah Wilson ABOVE Hanna Buschke, a visitor to the Cerro Pelón sanctuary, basks in the glory of monarch butterflies. PHOTO Lee Clippard
Maggie Chiang is a
Taiwanese-American full-time artist and part-time dreamer. Inspired by places both real and fictitious, Maggie’s illustrations evoke a longing for adventure and the pursuit of the unknown, exploring places unseen, impossible landscapes, and the relationship between humanity and nature.
Casey Jarman is a
writer and (occasional) illustrator who has served as music editor for Willamette Week and managing editor for the Believer (where he is still illustrations editor). He has written for Nylon, Portland Monthly and Next American City and is currently a columnist at Bandcamp Daily; his first book, “Death: An Oral History,” was released in 2016. He has two cats and works out of a small office at Portland, Oregon’s Union Station, which flashes the words “GO BY TRAIN” to passersby all day and night.
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splits her time between a historic home in the blackland prairie of New Sweden, Texas, and a sustainable farm in the Texas Hill Country, with the delightful company of her daughter, Eleanor, and their rescue dog, Chap. She looks forward to beginning postgraduate studies this coming fall at Texas A&M’s school of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications. When she isn’t digging in the dirt, she’s likely enjoying a cup of tea or playing with textiles.
Jill Sell is a freelance
journalist and poet specializing in the environment and nature. She is a cofounder of Three Women in the Words (a nonprofit arts collaboration), a contributing editor for Ohio Magazine and a weekly contributor to The Plain Dealer. She was named Best Freelance Writer in Ohio by The Press Club of Cleveland five times. Sell enjoys tending a wayward herb garden in Sagamore Hills, Ohio, and unapologetically hugging her trees.
Susan J. Tweit is a plant biologist who began her career
2017 | Volume 34, No. 1 studying wildfires, grizzly bear habitat and sagebrush communities before turning to writing. She has written twelve books, including the memoir “Walking Nature Home” and “The Rocky Mountain Garden Survival Guide.” Tweit’s work has appeared in magazines and newspapers from Audubon and Popular Mechanics to High Country News and the Los Angeles Times. She is a columnist for Rocky Mountain Gardening magazine and Houzz.com and a cofounder of the Habitat Hero project.
Amy McCullough DESIGNER
Joanna Wojtkowiak PLANT INFORMATION EDITOR
Lady Bird Johnson and Helen Hayes EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS
DIRECTOR OF PLANT CONSERVATION
DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
DIRECTOR OF ECOLOGICAL RESEARCH AND DESIGN
DIRECTOR OF FINANCE AND OPERATIONS
DIRECTOR OF GUEST EXPERIENCE
DIRECTOR OF HORTICULTURE
DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS
Sarah Wilson is a
photographer and filmmaker specializing in portraiture and telling the stories of individuals. Her work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Time, The Atlantic, Texas Monthly, Mother Jones and others. Wilson is a codirector of photography and an executive producer on the award-winning film “Tower,” a documentary about the 1966 mass shooting at The University of Texas, as well as the codirector of photography for “A Song For You,” a documentary about Austin City Limits.
ADVISORY COUNCIL CHAIR Chris Caudill
VICE CHAIR Jeanie Wyatt
SECRETARY Alexandra Prentice Saenz
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 © 2017 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 (clockwise from top) Ivy Chang, George Brainard, Robert Muller, Aaron Caley
Sarah J. Nielsen
Former First Lady of the United States Founder of Texan by Nature FAVORITE NATIVE PLANT:
Chocolate Daisy (Berlandiera lyrata)
PHOTOS (main) Wildflower Center, (inset) Grant Miller Photography
“My mother loved native Texas plants, especially the hearty ones that bloomed in West Texas. I was charmed when she showed me the bright yellow flower that smelled like chocolate. The chocolate daisy wakes up with the sunshine and droops with the sunset … just like I did after a long day playing outside in the Texas summer heat.”
IN THEIR Element
The Dispossessed For ocelots in Texas, native
shrubland is the stuff dreams are made of by K. Angel Horne illustration by Maggie Chiang
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AS CITIES SWELL AND SPACE BECOMES NOTABLY FINITE, WE’VE stacked dwellings upon dwellings, volunteered to live with strangers, given up on concepts like privacy and yards. But imagine if, in addition to finding a safe place to sleep, you had to walk through dangerous, exposed expanses to get to the grocery store or work. Maybe you have to cross a highway at night to get where you need to go. Imagine that is the case and you don’t even know what a road or a car is. You want to find a mate and start a family, but everyone you encounter is your sibling or cousin. This is not the plot of a new dystopian novel — it is the plight of the ocelot. In South Texas, the ocelot (Leopardus pardalis) has become an unfortunate mascot for the consequences of dramatic habitat destruction. Not much larger than a Maine coon house cat, nocturnal and elusive, the subspecies albescens has lost more than 95 percent of its habitat in Texas, where the last two breeding populations in the U.S. remain. It is very rare today for human eyes to behold firsthand the distinct barred-and-spotted coat, unique rounded ears and striking lined eyes of this cat in the wild. There are only 50 to 55 known individuals in Cameron and Willacy Counties and fewer than 80 estimated remaining in all of Texas. Their preferred habitat is the dense, shady Tamaulipan thornscrub of the lower Rio Grande Valley and Plains, and they are unlikely to venture into more open spaces. Even the teams of biologists dedicated to learning about, tracking and protecting these animals have made many of their observations via wildlife cameras. When asked about recent news coverage of a rebound in ocelot populations, wildlife biologist Dr. Hilary Swarts politely interrupts — “There’s no population rebound,” she says. “We’re optimistic to see kitten births by camera, but our baseline population is about 15 individuals. I’m optimistic because they are breeding; it means we have good conditions … but ultimately, they are space limited.” Habitat loss has been the biggest blow to U.S. ocelot populations, and habitat restoration is one of the highest barriers to bolstering their numbers. “People ask why we don’t have a captive breeding program, but that’s not the problem; these cats make more cats — we just don’t have anywhere to put them!” says Swarts, who heads the Ocelot Monitoring and Recovery Program at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge. Though spoken with a light tone (in a climate where preserving one’s sense of humor is an
admirable endeavor), her words also hold the weight of truth. Thick thornscrub with a lot of canopy cover is the obligate habitat of the ocelot, and each mature cat requires enough range for hunting and finding water, meeting a mate, and (for females) preparing a den for their litter. Composed of mixed brushy species, the thornscrub habitat includes such native plants as spiny hackberry (Celtis ehrenbergiana), lotebush (Ziziphus obtusifolia), amargoso (Castela erecta ssp. texana), cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens) and elbowbush (Forestiera pubescens) interspersed with mesquite (Prosopis spp.), Texas ebony (Ebenopsis ebano) and other native trees. The thick, thorny growth is easily navigated by the small, sleek feline, and it also supports deer, javelinas, quail and other resident and migratory birds, totaling over 400 species (not including insects). Swarts notes that the plants “produce a ton of fruits and seeds for rodents, birds, reptiles and insects that are great prey species for ocelots, bobcats and coyotes. It’s an incredibly rich and productive habitat; it just doesn’t gel very well with humans.” Humans, largely occupied with access and agriculture, have a hard time finding a use for thornscrub areas, making education about the ecosystem services they provide an important aspect of the work being done by conservation groups. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) also face the challenge of restoring Tamaulipan thornscrub, a task made much more daunting by invasive species such as Guinea grass (Urochloa maxima), which move in quickly and choke out the otherwise diverse shrubs and understory, complicating the already slow and tedious process of re-establishing thornbrush species. Add to the list of ocelot woes the problem of accessing the available habitat. Though federal, state and independent conservation groups may purchase land or partner with generous private landowners to preserve viable ocelot habitat, connecting those plots with safe, covered corridors the animals will utilize is a herculean
task. “Habitat loss and fragmentation are really the longterm challenges, the immediate consequences of which are [ocelots’] other main challenges,” Swarts says, referring to a distressing vehicle mortality rate and a loss of genetic diversity for the cats. From June of 2015 to April of 2016, seven cats were known to be killed by motorists. Swarts says a conservative estimate is that 50 percent of known ocelot mortalities are caused by vehicles. With rapid urban growth, industrial transport and tourist traffic (many a spring breaker has taken state Highway 100 through ocelot territory to South Padre Island), a partnership with Texas Department of Transportation is a last hope for addressing the need for safe wildlife passage. A series of fences and underpasses are being put in expressly to address the ocelot condition (with the intention that other wildlife will benefit from utilizing them as well). Monitoring and time will tell, but Swarts is leaning into the project: “Every cat matters; every loss is not just of an individual, but their genetics.” Therein lies the nearly invisible blow to ocelots that comes with dwindling habitat, access and population: disappearing genes. With few breeding females, limited access to mates and no natural connectivity with other breeding populations at present, “genetic bottlenecking,” as Swarts puts it, could become a real problem for the remaining wild population of ocelots in Texas. There is hope that USFWS can work with partners in Mexico to translocate a female from a population of the same subspecies south of the border, making way for genetic diversity. “In a dream world,” Swarts says, “everything is connected and these ocelots can make the choice to make that exchange.” In reality, because the habitat is so slow-growing and land acquisition may not be enough to create dense, natural corridors, manual translocation may have to be implemented while the land catches up. It’s clear that ocelots won’t be living in a dream world any time soon — but hopefully we can help keep them alive in this one.
Plant Priority The rise of parklets could
provide unexpected space for native plants in cities by Amy McCullough
Large-leafed hoja santa (Piper sanctum), which is native to tropical Central America, and South American native Brazilian rock rose (Pavonia hastata) — left and right, respectively, in the farthest planter — were among the original, donated plants. PHOTO Adam Barbe, courtesy of dwg.
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EVERY YEAR, FOR ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER, PEOPLE AROUND THE world reimagine public space where they live. They roll out Astroturf or sod, arrange potted plants and trees, set out patio furniture, and invite people to stop, sit and interact with other inhabitants of their city. And they do it in what organizers call the “most modest urban territory”: the metered parking space. It all goes back to a single act of radical landscaping: In 2005, San Francisco art and design studio Rebar created the very first “parklet,” a temporary public park meant to shine a light on urban areas lacking in open, green public space. This first parklet existed for only two hours (the maximum time allowed on the meter), but — thanks to a widely circulated photo of the installation — it sparked an annual event, PARK(ing) Day, that has blossomed into a global phenomenon with one-off parks popping up in cities from Hong Kong to Brisbane. The contagious success of PARK(ing) Day, which occurs every third Friday in September, got landscape architects thinking about permanent parklet installations. Alex Brown, a landscape designer with Austin firm TBG Partners, says parklets demonstrate “how urban environments can be more welcoming — and it doesn’t take much.” That line of thinking sprouted the Parklet Program in San Francisco and has since made its
PHOTOS (Gregg’s dalea) Ray Mathews, (Mexican feathergrass) Sally and Andy Wasowski, (all others) Wildflower Center
way to Texas: Dallas has seen semi-permanent parklets appear downtown; Houston welcomed its first parklet in 2014; and Austin parklets are now popping up like rain lilies after a storm. The parklet or “pocket patio” outside Royal Blue Grocery on Congress Avenue and Sixth Street was Austin’s pilot project. Designed by landscape architecture firm dwg. and developed in partnership with the City of Austin, the Downtown Austin Alliance and BIG RED DOG Engineering, the Royal Blue project literally rewrote the rules for parklets in Austin. “When we put this in [in 2012], it was pretty controversial,” says Royal Blue’s Craig Staley, who bankrolled the project with co-owner George Scariano. “A lot of people didn’t like it.” Those people included their landlord and neighboring businesses who were worried about customer parking. Despite some opposition, a difficult permitting process and a high price tag (about $40,000), Staley and Scariano felt the risk was worth it. “We knew something better was coming,” says Staley. They were right. Sales at the Congress Avenue Royal Blue Grocery picked up 18 percent the year after the parklet was installed; that’s three times higher than increases at Royal Blue’s other five locations during the same time period. Daniel Woodroffe, founder of dwg. (which is responsible for six more completed or in-the-works Austin parklets), says, “Prior to the pocket park, two people were feeding the meter all day, relative to three or four hundred people a day using the space [now].” He’s quick to note that all those visitors to Royal Blue’s parklet are also “a captive audience” for nearby storefronts. That notion recalls urban activist and author Jane Jacobs’ concept of “eyes upon the street,” which asserts that a sidewalk must have “users on it fairly continuously” in order to be a safe space. Besides social change and a solid return on investment, the project’s other accomplishment is making parklets easier for Austin businesses to implement. What once required a license agreement (an expensive real estate contract) now requires a mere sidewalk café permit. For Royal Blue’s parklet, this meant a difference in cost from about $8,000 a year to more like $200. “The whole idea was, we really wanted more of these,” says Staley, so he and his partners went to the City of Austin and said, “Look, no one’s gonna do it unless you make it really easy.” >>
NATIVE PLANTS FOR PARKLETS We asked Wildflower Center Director of Horticulture Andrea DeLongAmaya and Environmental Designer Michelle Bright to nominate native plants they thought were up to the task of surviving in the extreme conditions parklets often demand. They found several worthy candidates, from “super heat-and-drought tolerant” Gregg’s dalea and “tough and colorful” zexmenia to pollinator-magnet pyramid bush, which Bright says “looks great” in the Center’s gardens and would be a good choice for medians. View these and more of their parklet plant picks below.
Zexmenia (Wedelia acapulcensis var. hispida)
Gregg’s dalea (Dalea greggii)
Winecup (Callirhoe involucrata)
Damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana)
Texas beargrass (Nolina texana)
Red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora)
Pyramid bush (Melochia tomentosa)
Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima)
CHANGE STARTS SMALL
Staley, who is on the board of bike-sharing program Austin B-cycle, believes that urban space should be “for people first, cars second.” Woodroffe agrees, saying parklets focus attention on the need for “pedestrian priority” in a city that has “huge issues with over-prioritization of cars.” Which begs the question: What about plant priority? Further, will a shift toward people over parking include a place for native plants? While the Royal Blue parklet and others by dwg. feature planters and trees, native plants haven’t yet been used to their fullest potential. The Royal Blue parklet began with a mix of native and adapted plants that were donated by a local nursery. “We were looking for as many handouts as we could get,” says Staley. So far, he and his staff have had to plant new things each year because, as he puts it, “[The plants] get pretty beat up down here.” But both Staley and Woodroffe mention natives as being up to the task of surviving in parklets’ oft-challenging circumstances: metal planters with
Implementation of the parklet at 804 Congress Avenue included removing concrete from around a native red oak (Quercus sp.) in the patio’s center and air spading and pruning its roots to stimulate growth. PHOTO Adam Barbe, courtesy of dwg.
BALD CYPRESS SEEDLING* Taxodium distichum
*Grown for a restoration project on the Nueces River.
Grow a Better World With Us
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no irrigation situated in places that receive harsh afternoon sunlight and constant heat and pollution from traffic. One reason native plants might not be a large part of many parklets yet is their image: People don’t often consider them for formal landscaping. But dwg. and organizations like the Wildflower Center are trying to alter that perception. Woodroffe says dwg. is “passionate about retooling the image of native plants to be very clean, very architectural, very colorful, very seasonal.” And their 804 Congress Avenue parklet features Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima) and red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora), both Texas natives that made our experts’ list of parklet plant picks (see sidebar, page 11). Even if some consider plants “the garnish” on a parklet, these redefined urban spaces are creating opportunities for more green space in cities — spaces that could take great advantage of the drought-hardiness, resource conservation and wildlife habitat native plants have to offer. And, thanks to Royal Blue’s success, those opportunities are becoming more and more ubiquitous in Austin.
Fasciation in the inflorescence of a black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). PHOTO Jon Merz
Understanding an oft-coveted genetic abnormality by Amy McCullough WE’VE ALL HEARD THE SAYING “TWO HEADS ARE BETTER THAN one.” If you’ve ever come across a fasciated flower head, which looks like the blossom equivalent of conjoined twins, you might very well agree. If not categorically “better,” these fused-looking flowers and stems are certainly eye-catching and sure to incite curiosity. So, what is fasciation? Put simply, it’s what happens when open-ended plant cells choose the road less traveled. Plants have special cells (called meristematic cells) that can develop into any type of plant part, including leaves, stems or flowers, depending on their location in a growing plant. In the case of fasciation, these cells develop as flattened rather than cylindrical growths (hence the name, which derives from “fascia,” Latin for “bandage” or “ribbon”). This can cause broadened stems or, if the fasciation begins in the central whorl of a flower, a spread out, side-by-side development of carpels, stamens, petals and sepals, giving flowers a two-headed look. Dr. Orland E. White, former director of the University of Virginia’s arboretum, likens fasciation — also known as cristation — to cancer in that it refers to “unregulated and disorganized tissue growth.” But, unlike cancer, fasciation is often considered desirable. Like the plant equivalents of X-Men, these genetic mutants are often looked at as “super-plants.” In fact, fasciated blossoms and stems are beloved and intentionally cultivated for the very virtue of their weirdness. It’s a trait that has been bred into plants by florists or horticulturists looking to maximize blooms in mallows, foxgloves and celosia, for instance, while the wide, flat fasciated stems of willows, ferns or Culver’s root (Veronicastrum virginicum) add an unusual look to flower arrangements.
Grafting or cutting is the usual means of propagating fasciated plants, according to Dr. Gerald Klingaman, professor emeritus of horticulture at the University of Arkansas. Klingaman says abnormal growth may be caused by a “permanent change in the genome … possibly triggered by a phytoplasma infection at some point in the distant past,” what he calls a “case of natural genetic engineering.” Other explanations include trauma prompted by insects, disease, physical damage, crowding, extreme temperatures, radiation or chemicals. Seattle-area master gardener Wendy Lagozzino says, “Everything from weeds to trees will produce this unusual growth given the right circumstances.” While all sorts of plants exhibit the trait, Susan Mahr, coordinator for the University of Wisconsin– Extension’s master gardener program, notes that fasciation is most noticeable in stems and inflorescence, or the flowering parts of a plant. Wildflower Center staff has seen the phenomenon in numerous native Central Texas plants, especially those in the families Asteraceae — particularly Gaillardia spp. and purple and giant coneflowers (Echinacea and Rudbeckia spp., respectively) — and Fabaceae, which includes Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora). Cacti are also likely to exhibit fasciation, a trait which Mahr says is particularly coveted because the alterations can become “so dramatic that the resulting cactus plant loses almost all resemblance to the original species.” The Center’s native plant database coordinator, Joe Marcus, says we get “lots of pictures and questions” about fasciation; Texans have spotted the phenomenon in everything from Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) and black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta) to various species of Lantana and Dasylirion. Regardless of where you live, keep an eye out for these unique plants and prepare to be both fascinated and enamored. After all, differences are what make life interesting — and beautiful. | 13
Natural Accents Texas ecoregions speak in terms of amazing diversity by Susan J. Tweit
ardeners and plant enthusiasts have long turned to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map as a tool for planning landscapes, selecting plant material and understanding local conditions. But there’s a different tool that offers richer knowledge and detail of natural diversity in Texas and beyond: ecoregions. Imagine a gardener who is moving from Houston to San Antonio; in planning their new garden, our hypothetical plant-lover checks the USDA map — which is based simply on average winter low temperatures — and discovers both places are in Zone 9a. Relieved, our gardener decides to plant some Houston favorites, including azaleas (Rhododendron spp.) and longspur columbine (Aquilegia longissima). Not so fast … The two areas are in the same Plant Hardiness Zone but very different ecoregions, or natural zones. Houston lies in the uber-humid belt where the South Central Plains ecoregion (or Piney Woods) meets the Western Gulf Coastal Plain ecoregion, an area that receives 50-plus inches of rain a year and is home to tropical roseate spoonbills, bald cypress swamps and salt marshes. San Antonio sits on the margin between two prairie ecoregions and the semi-arid Southern Texas Plains, where rainfall can easily be half of that in Houston, soils range from alkaline to deep clay and tornadoes are more likely than hurricanes. From a plant’s point of view, “It’s a whole different world,” says botanist Bill Carr, an expert on Texas ecoregions.
A lone pinyon pine (Pinus sp.) stands at the edge of an escarpment in the Sierra Diablo Wildlife Management Area, part of the Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion. PHOTO Laurence Parent
WHAT IS AN ECOREGION?
CHIHUAHUAN DESERT ARIZONA-NEW MEXICO MOUNTAINS HIGH PLAINS SOUTHWESTERN TABLELANDS CENTRAL GREAT PLAINS EDWARDS PLATEAU CROSS TIMBERS SOUTHERN TEXAS PLAINS TEXAS BLACKLAND PRAIRIES EAST CENTRAL TEXAS PLAINS WESTERN GULF COASTAL PLAIN SOUTH CENTRAL PLAINS
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An ecoregion is a geographically distinct area characterized not by political borders or average temperatures but by a much more sophisticated assemblage of traits. Those traits include similar landforms and geology, substrate and soil type, climate and precipitation, evolutionary history, and complex biological relationships between everything from soil bacteria and invasive species to iconic native flora and fauna. Think of ecoregions as the high-resolution view of landscapes: They capture the fine details, including a host of factors critical to whether or not plants will thrive in an area. Understanding those factors is especially critical in Texas because the nation’s second-largest state embraces a staggering amount of natural diversity. Take annual rainfall: From east to west, Texas spans a range from up to 56 inches per year in the Piney Woods (officially the South Central Plains) to less than 12 inches per year in the arid Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion — most of which evaporates immediately into the pore-puckeringly dry air. These extremes make for a wide range of environments: Gulf Coast barrier islands and plains, tall- and shortgrass prairies, pine forests, oak woodlands, subtropical scrublands, cool mountain “islands,” and miles of sparse desert. Ecoregions (which are defined by the Environmental Protection Agency) help to illuminate Texas’ diverse nature. Those described here, Level III, are commonly used by scientists — but they can also be of use to gardeners, naturalists and anyone interested in better understanding the landscapes where they live. Ecoregions express the particularities of nature in any area, the distinct “language” of place, as Lady Bird Johnson put it. When she said, “I like it when the land speaks … in its own regional accent,” she could have been talking about ecoregions. Because if Texas is a language, ecoregions are its local accents — the complex nuances that distinguish its parts.
TEXAS’ TWELVE LEVEL III ECOREGIONS CHIHUAHUAN DESERT
Torrey yucca (Yucca torreyi) graces the rugged terrain of the Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion with blossoms painted from the same palette as the land itself. PHOTO Laurence Parent
Covering most of Texas west of the Pecos River, the Chihuahuan Desert ecoregion (known to many as the Trans-Pecos) is a vast expanse of arid grass- and shrubland dominated by creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and tall yuccas, a landscape that, to many, appears desolate. “As far as the eye can reach stretches one unbroken waste, barren, wild, and worthless,” wrote John R. Bartlett, Commissioner of the first U.S.-Mexico Boundary Survey in 1851. Yet this high-elevation desert and its small mountain ranges support a surprising diversity of plants, particularly native shrubs and cacti. “One of the special things about the Chihuahuan Desert is that we have so many fall bloomers in response to the summer monsoon,” says Patty Manning, a botanist retired from Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, “which makes late summer and fall great times for plant-hikes.” Although this ecoregion contains two of Texas’ major rivers — the Rio Grande and the Pecos — it is a land of little water, averaging 7 to 12 inches of precipitation annually. Rare springs and perennial streams support an abundance of wildlife and endemic plants including Hinckley’s columbine (Aquilegia chrysantha var. hinckleyana). NOTABLE NATIVE PLANTS: lechuguilla (Agave lechuguilla), scarlet bouvardia (Bouvardia ternifolia) VISIT: Big Bend Ranch State Park
ARIZONANEW MEXICO MOUNTAINS
This ecoregion is Texas’ smallest, encompassing what biologist Fred Gehlbach called the “mountain islands” of Guadalupe Mountains National Park, which rise like mirages out of “desert seas” in far West Texas. Gelbach’s description evokes the isolation of the Southwest’s small mountain ranges with their cool temperatures and relatively lush vegetation surrounded by miles of desert basins. This ecoregion includes the state’s highest point, 8,751-foot-high Guadalupe Peak, a jutting remnant of an enormous reef from a long-vanished ocean. With high elevation comes cooler temperatures and increased precipitation (20 inches instead of just over 7 at the base of the mountains), which nurture forests of Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), quaking aspen (Populus tremuloides) and ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) — evoking the distant Rocky Mountains. Ribbons of riparian plants and deciduous trees including bigtooth maple (Acer grandidentatum) and velvet ash (Fraxinus velutina) find shelter in stream-made canyons, their leaves aflame in scarlet, orange and lemon yellow come fall. NOTABLE NATIVE PLANTS: ponderosa pine, stream orchid (Epipactis gigantea) VISIT: Guadalupe Mountains National Park
American basket-flower (Centaurea americana) blankets a field near Lubbock in the High Plains ecoregion. PHOTO Esther Irish
If there were a title for Texas’ flattest landscape, this ecoregion would win. Unlike the Southwestern Tablelands ecoregion to the east or the Chihuahuan Desert to the south, the High Plains ecoregion lacks rivers large enough to carve into its sedimentary rock layers, resulting in a tablelike and windswept expanse of shortgrass prairie. Spanish explorers dubbed the region, which covers the western two-thirds of the Texas Panhandle, “el Llano Estacado,” which means “the Staked Plain,” perhaps for wooden stakes driven into the ground as landmarks. Despite its soporific flatness and irrigated cropland replacing much of the original grama and buffalo grasses (Bouteloua spp. and B. dactyloides, respectively), this ecoregion is high in biodiversity, including huge numbers of migratory waterfowl, from ducks and geese to shorebirds, drawn to the region’s 20,000-some playas, seasonal lakes created by winter snowmelt and summer rains. The wonders of the High Plains require slowing down, as author, artist and Texas Tech professor Susan Tomlinson writes: “The landscape is so big that we can’t focus on it; we have to steady ourselves by looking at the small things, like wildflowers, and thorns, and coyote tracks.” NOTABLE NATIVE PLANTS: sideoats grama (B. curtipendula), plains yucca (Yucca campestris) VISIT: Lubbock Lake Landmark
Rivers cutting into the hard caprock along the east margin of the High Plains ecoregion carve canyons tinted rusty red and pink, the colors of the softer formations beneath. Artist Georgia O’Keeffe, who briefly taught school in Canyon, Texas, described the charms of the canyon country when she wrote about Palo Duro Canyon, “It was colorful — like a small Grand Canyon. There were sharp, high edges between long, soft earth banks so steep that you couldn’t see the bottom … it was a lone place.” The headwaters of three major Texas rivers— the Red, Brazos and Colorado — lie in this ecoregion, which encompasses roughly the eastern third of the Panhandle, from the western border of Oklahoma south to the northwestern edge of the Edwards Plateau. With annual precipitation of 20 to 24 inches, slightly greater than the High Plains, the canyons, mesas and rolling hills of the Southwestern Tablelands ecoregion support a mosaic of juniper-oak woodlands, prairie ranging from shortgrass on exposed mesas to pockets of tallgrass in sheltered bottoms, and unique wildlife including the endemic Palo Duro mouse and the Texas horned lizard (both threatened species). Sandbars along the braided river channels provide nesting habitat for the interior least tern and endangered snowy plover. NOTABLE NATIVE PLANTS: Havard oak (Quercus havardii), redberry juniper (Juniperus pinchotii)
VISIT: Palo Duro Canyon State Park 1 8 | W I L DF LOW E R
CENTRAL GREAT PLAINS
The lower, more rolling country of the Central Great Plains ecoregion east of the Southwestern Tablelands receives more precipitation (24 to 28 inches a year) and was once largely midgrass prairie maintained by bison (also see “America’s Next Top Model,” page 22), prairie dogs (which graze shrub and tree roots) and periodic fire. When those inf luences were removed, woody shrubs such as native mesquite (Prosopis spp.) and Ashe juniper (Juniperus ashei) prospered, turning the prairie into a wooded savanna and altering both soil formation and stream f low (woody shrubs not only intercept more rainwater, they “drink” more from the soil, resulting in less to recharge streams, river and aquifers). Much of this ecoregion is now cropland; leaching from saline shales below the surface can leave a white crust on the soil and contributes to high salinity levels in some streams. NOTABLE NATIVE PLANTS: little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), Texas poppymallow
VISIT: River Bend Nature Center
Waterways lined with stunning bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) join bats and limestone caves as hallmarks of the Edwards Plateau ecoregion. PHOTO Laurence Parent
Stretching east from the Pecos River to Austin, the Edwards Plateau ecoregion is an island of its own, a broad tableland formed of thick limestone layers, entirely unlike the surrounding landscape. Stream drainages running off the plateau have cut winding canyons and dissolved limestone to form underground caves, creating sheltered habitat for unique species including the golden-cheeked warbler, Texas blind salamander, Balcones ghostsnail and Mexican freetailed bat. The bats, perhaps the Plateau’s most well-known wildlife, roost in caves by the millions; their nightly feeding flights provide a viewing spectacle for tourists and millions of dollars in pest-control services to area farmers. This ecoregion’s canyons are also “a huge hot spot” for plants, says botanist Bill Carr, sheltering 75 plant species found nowhere else in the world. One of those, a graceful shrub with drooping white flowers called Texas snowbells (Styrax platanifolius ssp. texanus) is endangered. Although the area’s riparian habitats are threatened by overgrazing, contemporary dewatering of streams and exploding land development, many endemic plant species once thought endangered by limited distribution have, ironically, been found in new locations as a result of increased inventory work. NOTABLE NATIVE PLANTS: Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis), Texas snowbells VISIT: Lost Maples State Natural Area, especially in autumn for fall colors
The Cross Timbers ecoregion is named for the belts of post oak (Quercus stellata) and blackjack oak (Q. marilandica) woodland that impeded early travelers’ progress across the rolling landscape. The southernmost continuous lobe of North America’s waving sea of tallgrass prairie, this ecoregion is one segment of the great migration “highway” for hundreds of bird species on their commute between winter homes in South and Central America and breeding areas in North America. “Of all these passers-through,” wrote John Graves, “the species that means most to me, even more than geese and cranes, is the upland plover … mainly I know their presence through the mournful yet eager quavering whistles they cast down from the night sky in passing, and it always makes me think what the whistling must have been like when the American plains were virgin and their plover came through in millions.” NOTABLE NATIVE PLANTS: post oak, Comanche Peak prairie clover (Dalea reverchonii) VISIT: Lyndon B. Johnson National Grassland
SOUTHERN TEXAS PLAINS
Locally called the “Brush Country,” the Southern Texas Plains ecoregion’s gently rolling landscape was once grassy savanna. But after fire suppression and cattle grazing regimes, non-native grasses like invasive buffelgrass (planted to “improve” grazing) took over. Still, this ecoregion is home to a diverse array of subtropical species that reach their northern limits here, including Barbados cherry (Malpighia glabra), a shrub with evergreen leaves and pink, fringed petals. It’s also the heartland for what may be Texas’ most well-known horticultural export, the native shrub cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens), named for its silvery-gray leaves (“cenizo” means “ashen” in Spanish). When cenizo, also known as Texas barometer bush, blooms after even the lightest of rains, the brush country practically glows in a wash of lilac pink. Outcrops with saline soils sprout unique plants including Johnston’s seaheath (Frankenia johnstonii), a shrub once known in only five locations and listed as an endangered species; it has since been delisted federally thanks to thorough surveying by Texas Parks and Wildlife botanist Gena Janssen, who discovered many more populations now protected by conservation agreements. NOTABLE NATIVE PLANTS: cenizo, Johnston’s seaheath VISIT: Falcon State Park
TEXAS BLACKLAND PRAIRIES
The Texas Blackland Prairies ecoregion runs southwest from the Oklahoma state line to San Antonio, roughly paralleling Interstate 35; another narrower band cuts from the southwest corner of the Piney Woods through the East Central Texas Plains. This ecoregion was once covered with a waving growth of grasses and wildflowers as tall as 8 feet high — not to mention deciduous forest in its bottomland — but less than 1 percent of the area’s original vegetation exists today, making it one of the most endangered ecosystems in North America. Its native plant life and deep, fertile soils were long ago plowed for farm fields and then paved over by development (this ecoregion includes parts of Travis and Bexar counties, home to Austin and San Antonio, respectively). Rainfall ranges from 28 to 40 inches, west to east; the northern part of this ecoregion receives most of its precipitation in spring, making for challenging summer and fall gardening, while the southern part is more subtropical with rainfall distributed evenly throughout the year. NOTABLE NATIVE PLANTS: big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), white rosinweed (Silphium albiflorum) VISIT: Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary
EAST CENTRAL TEXAS PLAINS
The East Central Texas Plains ecoregion — which forms a broad belt to the east of the Texas Blackland Prairies ecoregion (and is interlaced with it) — is an expression of the effect of substrate on natural communities, especially plants. Unlike the rich soils of the Texas Blackland Prairies, the post oak-dominated savannas of the East Central Texas Plains occupy challenging soils, ranging from those underlain by dense clay layers that restrict available water to deep, loose sands that are porous and nutrient poor. The sandy soils are derived from formations dating back to the Eocene, the time of the oldest known fossils of modern mammals. These soils support nearly a dozen species of endemic plants, including the Texas sandmint (Rhododon ciliatus), a beautiful annual with a spike of lavender flowers, strongly square stems and a lovely fragrance — one of the area’s myriad wildflower species with garden potential. Like many of Texas’ prairie and savanna regions, the East Central Texas Plains ecoregion has suffered from plowing for agriculture, plus fire suppression and prairie-dog eradication, allowing woody shrubs and small trees to invade open prairies of waist-high grasses and wildflowers once dotted with mottes of massive old post oak trees. NOTABLE NATIVE PLANTS: post oak (Quercus stellata), Texas sandmint VISIT: Gus Engeling Wildlife Management Area
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WESTERN GULF COASTAL PLAIN
The brackish lowlands of the Texas coast are a far cry from the arid expanses to the far west, further exemplifying Texas’ natural diversity. PHOTO Laurence Parent
This ecoregion is truly the Texas lowlands, the broad plain along the Gulf Coast that rarely rises more than 150 feet above sea level. A wide band of remnant tallgrass prairie, oak woodlands, saltgrass marshes, estuaries and barrier islands, it receives 23 to 56 inches of rain a year. “This ecoregion’s totemic plants would be [non-native] cotton and sorghum,” jokes botanist Bill Carr, since much of the prairie has been plowed. But he adds, “All the major rivers in Texas go through this ecoregion, which gives it these wonderful ribbons of riparian forest.” Despite extensive alteration by agriculture, oil and gas production, and development, the region’s river bottom forests, estuaries and barrier islands remain critical to migratory birds — both water and land birds — and to the shrimping industry, since estuaries are nurseries for shrimp and also fish. NOTABLE NATIVE PLANTS: Gulf cordgrass (Spartina spartinae), Texas umbrellawort
VISIT: Brazos Bend State Park
SOUTH CENTRAL PLAINS
The local name “Piney Woods” is apt for this biologically diverse ecoregion where the great southern conifer forests reach their western extent, or as Texas poet Sandra Lynn wrote, “the South stains the edge of the Southwest.” But it’s not all loblolly, shortleaf and longleaf pine (Pinus taeda, P. echinata and P. palustris, respectively): Changes in slope, drainage and substrate create a mosaic of distinct communities. The upland communities, which rest on soils weathered iron red by constant rainfall, feature pine-oak forests on the ridges and, in sandier areas, scattered pines mixed with drought-tolerant cacti and shrubs such as prickly pear (Opuntia spp.) and yuccas. Mid- and lower-slope communities support rich mixes of broad-leafed and coniferous trees with diverse understories, including yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), flowering dogwood (Cornus florida), American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), American holly (Ilex opaca) and horse sugar (Symplocos tinctoria). Wetlands range from pine savannas in the uplands — with carnivorous plants catching insects to supply nitrogen unavailable from acid-rich, swampy soils — to dense palmetto-hardwood flats on poorly drained lowlands and bald cypress-tupelo swamps along sloughs and small lakes. Red-cockaded woodpeckers, Louisiana pine snake and paddlefish are among the endangered or threatened species dependent on this ecoregion. NOTABLE NATIVE PLANTS loblolly pine, pitcher-plant (Sarracenia alata) VISIT Big Thicket National Preserve
top model AM ERICA’ S N E X T
How the future of native grasslands — and water — depends on emulating the past by Amy McCullough | photos by Sarah Wilson
This cow is just one of many that are helping to manage land holistically — encouraging healthy grasslands and improving water quality through rotational grazing — at Texas’ Dixon Water Foundation.
There’s a fence in North Texas that tells a story. On one side, green spring growth is beginning to dot a native tallgrass prairie still primarily dressed in the dormant browns of winter. Cattle and sheep (and the occasional goat) wander and eat. They’re contained in paddocks roughly 20 acres in size, where they’ll live and eat for a day or two before moving on. Each new paddock greets their hunger like a freshly stocked salad bar, and they relocate with enthusiasm. Sheepdogs circle and protect the herd during more vulnerable hours, later snoozing nearby after a morning’s hard work. On the other side, grass and soil slip down a softly graded hill like frosting melting off a cake — a telltale sign of erosion. The land is open for livestock to wander as far and wide as they choose, yet they’re all in one place: crowded around a trough, packing in to eat hay or cottonseed range cubes and defecating where they stand as flies buzz about. A short, homogenous crop covers the land, greener than the dusty shades of native prairie on the other side; deep cuts are conspicuous in the green where the land has broken. No sheep or goats or dogs around, just cattle that don’t look quite as shiny and healthy as those on the other side of the fence. Clearly, one of these situations sounds better for both land and cattle. And one of these ranches requires harder work and more money. It’s not the one you think.
GRAZING FOR THE GRASS
When Tom Bookhout began ranching in the late ‘70s, he spent more money and worked harder: “I plowed the bottom, and I fertilized, and I sprigged it with Bermudagrass,” he says. “It was done quite well, and we were making a lot of hay, but the bottom line was we weren’t making any money.” That’s when he started looking for alternatives. It was when Bookhout saw Allan Savory and 2 4 | W I L DF LOW E R
Stan Parsons speak on the subject of holistic land management in the early ‘80s that he found his alternative. Savory and Parsons — founders of the Savory Institute and Ranch Management Consultants, respectively — were instrumental in demonstrating that sustainable land management can be both profitable and good for the environment. Bookhout gave their methods a shot; when his mentor (and father-in-law) Clint Josey saw the results, he became trained in holistic management himself. Josey is now chairman of the board of directors at the Dixon Water Foundation, which was founded in 1994 by Josey’s childhood friend Roger Dixon. The Dixon Water Foundation owns and operates four cattle ranches — the Mimms Unit in West Texas and the Leo, Pittman and Bear Creek Units in North Texas — and promotes healthy watersheds through research and educational outreach. By managing land holistically, the foundation takes advantage of what author Michael Pollan calls “one of nature’s underappreciated wonders”: “the coevolutionary relationship between cows and grass.” And they do so to the benefit of their cattle, land and water quality, human beef consumers and their own pocketbooks. “We learned that you have to use the cattle as a tool to increase the grasses,” says Bookhout. Once they started doing that, everything changed. Rather than plant non-native grass, spray it with herbicides and feed it fertilizer to keep it growing while livestock graze it to the ground, the Dixon Water Foundation implemented rotational grazing at its ranches, using easily movable electric fencing to section land into paddocks where cattle graze for short periods, then move on to literally greener pastures. Bookhout (now caretaker of the Josey Pavilion, a facility at the Leo Unit that received Texas’ first
Living Building certification) says putting up and taking down the fencing is a “one-person job.” In fact, “fence” almost seems too strong a word. It’s simply a wire strung between temporary posts and charged with electricity. Cattle get the hang of things pretty quickly, and moving fencing gives ranchers an opportunity to interact with their herds regularly. “You watch ‘em,” says Melissa Bookhout, Dixon Water Foundation’s education program director and secretary/treasurer (also Tom Bookhout’s
and medical care: “We just do not have sick animals.” They also save on hormones, fertilizer, machinery, labor — and herbicide, which cattle (and in the end, humans) are healthier for not ingesting. Now, the Dixon Water Foundation continues the trend inspired by Savory and Parsons by not only making money, but by educating anyone from elementary school and college students to other land managers about what they’re doing and how it works. “There are a lot of people that feel like the cattle are ruining the land,” says
“ You’re just duplicating the bison and the days when they would let the land rest and then come back to it.” wife and Clint Josey’s daughter). “You’re seeing who looks good, who looks happy. They keep moving along … and getting fresh grass.” They’re not only getting fresh grass, they’re tending to it: Through stomping and grazing (which encourages growth when it’s not overdone), as well as nutrients added by manure and urine, the cattle are tilling and feeding the very land they graze. “You’re just duplicating the bison and the days when they would let the land rest and then come back to it,” says Melissa. The addition of sheep and goats helps keep shrub growth down, and they don’t compete with cattle; each likes to eat different plants. In short, the animals take care of the land, and the land takes care of them right back. “It’s a great business move,” says Tom. “It cut our expenses by just about half the first year. You could see the difference [in the land]. You knew it was going to change.” One might assume a “grass-fed, organic beef” sticker is what rakes in the cash at the grocery store or meat market, but Tom says the most profitable thing they do is save money on antibiotics
Melissa, “but we want to prove that you can improve your land with animal impact.”
NO LAND NO WATER
In the words of Allan Savory: “Ultimately, the only wealth that can sustain any community, economy or nation is derived from the photosynthetic process — green plants growing on regenerating soil.” So how is all of this good for soil? And where does water come into the equation? Essentially, after cattle are moved off land that has been briefly grazed, plants regrow. As they do so, they take carbon from the air and put it back in the soil. Carbon-rich soil is better at soaking up rainfall, which helps grasslands weather periods of drought and reduces erosion by supporting healthy root systems. Healthier soil encourages biodiversity, which benefits the myriad creatures that depend on grasslands for habitat and food. There’s a big-picture benefit when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions as well. According to a study by Dr. Richard Teague of Texas A&M AgriLife Research, “Adaptive multipaddock grazing results in more carbon sequestration in | 25
A calf at one of the Dixon Water Foundation’s North Texas ranches helps native grasses grow by eating a little, walking a little and then moving on to a new paddock. As grasses regrow, they take carbon from the air and put it back in the soil.
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the soil and produces a higher quality grass that reduces methane production.” Which is not to say methane isn’t an issue when it comes to cattle; cows naturally produce it as part of their digestive process, and experts differ on how much well-managed land can mitigate that production. Dr. Rattan Lal of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center at Ohio State University says carbon sequestration “can’t completely compensate for the greenhouse gases in beef production,” though he does support well-managed, grass-fed beef. “Well-managed” refers to multipaddock, rotational grazing rather than continuously grazed land. Dixon General Manager Casey Wade, who works at the Mimms Unit near Marfa, uses a solar panel-and-battery analogy to illustrate the difference: He says a leaf of grass is just like a solar panel, collecting sunlight and turning it into energy. That energy is then stored in a battery — in this case, a plant’s roots. “When a cow bites off the solar panel,” he explains, the stored energy in the battery (roots) grows a new solar panel. With traditional grazing, that stored energy is eventually depleted. First, the new solar panels aren’t as high quality, and, eventually, the battery can’t produce new solar panels at all.
With rotational grazing, the batteries have months or even a year to regrow solar panels, so the solar panels are “lush and green and tender” when cows come back. And their batteries have been storing energy (and growing deeper and wider, creating what some call an “upside-down forest”) in the meantime. In the case of the cattle at Dixon’s Mimms Unit (where paddocks are a much-larger 250-300 acres), that energy is eventually consumed by humans buying grass-fed beef at Whole Foods, completing, as Pollan puts it, “a sustainable, solar-powered food chain that [transforms] sunlight into protein,” something he says makes “superb ecological sense.” Dixon’s four ranches plus some recently acquired land make up more than 24,000 acres, all of which operate using holistic methods. That’s a lot of land being managed specifically with water quality in mind. As Tom Bookhout puts it, healthy soil and healthy grassland means “you’ll have a healthier watershed.” Industrial beef production, on the other hand, not only uses more water by feeding cattle irrigated grain crops (for at least part of their lives), it contaminates runoff with fertilizers, herbicides and mismanaged manure. If you live in Texas, you may have noticed four giant words on Texas Agricultural Land Trust
billboards along Interstate 35: “NO LAND NO WATER.” They’re part of the trust’s campaign to promote “working land naturally” in order to improve water quality, and the truth of that statement is why “water” is in the Dixon Water Foundation’s name and mission. “All of us depend on healthy rivers and streams, groundwater resources, and that depends on how land is managed,” says Dixon President and CEO Robert Potts in the 2015 PBS documentary “Treading West Texas Waters.” Tom says that when it rains on their watershed, “if you can find a place where all the water is congregating, it’s usually clear.” He contrasts this with land that has “nothing to hold the ground,” where runoff is visibly filled with soil. Melissa chimes in: “At the Pittman [Unit], when those ponds fill up, you could go swimming; you could drink it.” You can also tell by how the ground feels. “When I walk out into a pasture,” says Tom, “I like to use my feet as a tool to see how soft the ground is. Usually when you walk out into that tallgrass, you’re walking on sponges.” And even though they “plowed it all up once,” Tom says the grass is coming back native. At the Pittman Unit, the variety of colors and textures, even in early March, are evident of “the “big four”: little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) — with a touch of Eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides) in the mix. When her father bought the property in 1996, Melissa says, “It was bare ground. There was absolutely no grass on the top.” Now, “it’s recovering,” she says. “The seeds are there.” They just needed animals to activate them.
Native grasses like these are water-conservation powerhouses. When given time between grazing periods, their roots grow deep and wide, creating what some call an “upside-down forest.” That underground forest of roots helps hold on to water, reducing runoff and resulting in healthier watersheds and cleaner water.
ART OF THE MATTER
That story of recovery is proliferating through the foundation’s research partnerships, field days for children, land manager training and higher education. They’ve established a Josey Institute for Agroecology at North Central Texas College and a partnership with Sul Ross State University, both of which now offer sustainable ranching programs that “are teaching kids to be … not just ranch managers but land managers,” says Melissa. Members of the Wildflower Center’s Ecological Research and Design team were introduced to the Dixon Water Foundation on an educational field trip of their own: They paid a visit to the Mimms Unit on a side-trip from Marfa’s Chinati Foundation, a contemporary art museum that’s working with the Wildflower Center and others on a new master plan. The ecological design team was so impressed with the land management results at the Mimms
The Dixon Water Foundation raises sheep (and goats) in addition to cattle. By eating shrubs that cows would pass up, these auxiliary animals keep vegtation in balance.
Unit that they’re including on-site cattle as part of their recommendations to the Chinati Foundation. While the Center champions — and frequently employs — controlled burns as a grassland restoration technique, Environmental Designer Michelle Bright says, “Prescribed fire can’t happen everywhere.” She calls rotational grazing “the animal side of grass restoration” and sees it
the land manager’s hands,” says Wade, “but cattle can do things that fire can’t [and vice versa].” One thing the Chinati foundation needs help with is an overabundance of native shrubs like whitethorn acacia (Vachellia constricta), creosote bush (Larrea tridentata) and various species of mimosa. Wade says that’s atypical around Marfa, but the Chinati Foundation is “a little lower where
“ You’ve just gotta get over your paradigms. You’ve got to use a new model.” as an ideal method in a situation like Chinati’s, where they’re extremely concerned about their outdoor art installations. The Mimms Unit’s Casey Wade, who previously worked for a wildlife management consulting firm, has experience with fire and calls it an “excellent tool, especially for brush management in tallgrass ecosystems on the eastern side of the state.” In drier West Texas, he says the problem is more often bare ground than woody encroachment. “Fire isn’t going to help that at all,” he says. “Large numbers of herbivores walking over it and breaking it up … stomping organic matter back into the soil … that’s going to facilitate growth and cover up that bare ground. They’re both tools in 2 8 | W I L DF LOW E R
it collects water more,” and, so far, they’ve had no fire or cattle maintaining the land, so they’re making up for lost land-management time. “On a smaller property [like Chinati], Wade says “goats might be a great choice to deal with that. If you cut it down with goats in the first place, you could follow up with cattle only” for maintenance. It’s a matter of getting things off on the right hoof, so to speak. But the Chinati Foundation isn’t in the livestock business. So can ruminants be effectively used to maintain land even if selling livestock isn’t the end goal? “That model is not really in the minds of people yet,” says Wade, “but I hope it gets there.” When asked if he could see “loaning” livestock to the Chinati Foundation, he says, “Absolutely. We
should be able to work out an agreement where we bring cattle in and improve [the land] and take the cattle off. It’s workable and it’s time for that to be part of people’s land management.”
THE GOOD OLDER DAYS
Which leads us back to that other side of the fence. If it makes money, takes less work, and is good for land, animals, water quality and human food consumption, why doesn’t everyone ranch like the Dixon Water Foundation? The answers aren’t all that surprising: efficiency and habit. Grain-fed cows reach slaughter weight quicker. Even cattle that are raised on grass up to a point (usually 600-800 pounds) are typically fattened on grain at a feedlot in the end. Pollan calls it “fast food” and credits “tremendous quantities of corn, protein and fat supplements, and an arsenal of new drugs” with getting steers to weight in a quick (but typical) 14 months. Casey Wade says the Mimms Unit’s grass-fed males go to Whole Foods after two years. Also, change is hard. As economist John Maynard Keynes wrote, “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.” Some ranchers are simply doing what they were taught by the generation before them — preserving the
good old days. The Dixon Water Foundation, on the other hand, is getting back to the good older days, when bison dominated grassland ecosystems and grazed areas sporadically by nature. They and others like them are beginning to set a trend. In the 2013 short film “Soil Carbon Cowboys,” Mississippi rancher Allen Williams says “We graze it, and then we get the heck off of it,” while Gabe Brown of North Dakota describes rotational grazing as “extremely low stress, because we’re working with nature, instead of against it.” But another rancher in the film, who now swears by the multipaddock system, admits he was slow to change. Tom Bookhout understands that. “There was some peer pressure [against it] at first,” he says. “I had neighbors that would look over and go, ‘Oh, he’s let his pastures go to H. E. double L. Just look at the weeds!’” But he began to see that the land was changing for the better. “You’ve just gotta get over your paradigms,” he says. “You’ve got to use a new model.” When it comes to managing land with livestock, you might say the Dixon Water Foundation is America’s next top model. But, as their staff will tell you, the real top model is nature itself. After all, they’re merely replicating her style. As Tom says of the animals at the Leo and Pittman Units, “We just let ‘em do their thing naturally.”
Melissa (left) and Tom Bookhout interact with Dixon cattle on a daily basis, which helps them keep tabs on their health. “It’s neat to watch an animal when he’s excited to go to a new, fresh pasture,” says Tom.
Thank You, Donors
WE ARE GRATEFUL
to those who contributed to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at The University of Texas at Austin from July 1, 2016 to March 31, 2017. *Lady Bird Society | Society members sustain the work of the Center by pledging unrestricted annual gifts for three years or more, providing a stable source of funding for key programs.
$25,000 and ABOVE
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Bluebells and Bunnies
How a beloved artist and author brought her favorite native plants to the world by Jill Sell BEATRIX POTTER ONCE DESCRIBED ENGLAND’S NATIVE BLUEBELLS AS BEING “LIKE a bit of sky come down.” She also references these sweet-smelling wildflowers — which bloomed in the woods near her country home in Near Sawrey — in several of her beloved children’s books, including “The Tale of Mr. Tod” and “Cecily Parsley’s Nursery Rhymes.”
English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) graced the countryside of Beatrix Potter’s homeland and added “a bit of sky” to many of her children’s tales as well. PHOTO Paul Pitman
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Of course, we know Potter best as author and illustrator of “The Tale of Peter Rabbit,” the story of a mischievous bunny who steals radishes from Mr. McGregor. Generations of children and adults have come to love both the bunny and the book (which, with over 45 million copies sold, is one of the best-selling books of all time). Be it in the form of bunnies or bluebells, nature was Potter’s primary muse. “The English bluebell (Hyacinthoides nonscripta) is a national treasure,” writes author Marta McDowell in her book “Beatrix Potter’s Gardening Life,” adding, “Potter would have appreciated the efforts that wildflower enthusiasts around the British Isles are undertaking to preserve them.” Two more of the many native British wildflowers to appear in Potter’s work are cowslip (Primula veris), a spring wildflower with yellow blooms that appears in “The Tale of Mrs. Tittlemouse,” and meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria), with its cream-colored flowers and spirally twisted fruits playing a part in “Wag-by-Wall.” Potter was born in 1866 in London, where she spent her earliest years. But it was her well-to-do
family’s holidays in the English and Scottish countryside — and later her own experiences “outside the city’s dust and grit,” according to Emily Zach, author of “The Art of Beatrix Potter” — that made her bloom as a botanist, gardener and mycologist (one who studies fungi). “Beatrix tied together nature and storytelling. It was good her family could spend about nine months out of the year on vacation. You could do that in the Victorian era,” says Zach. To discover Potter’s detailed appreciation of plants, one need simply look at her perfectly painted brick red tulips or the voluptuous cauliflower proudly carried to market by Little Pig Robinson. Or to pore over letters Potter wrote to family, friends and professional acquaintances about the fungi she adored. Or to know she grew snowdrops (Galanthus spp.), saxifrage (Saxifraga spp.) and columbine (Aquilegia spp.) in her own wonderful gardens. “Beatrix loved wildflowers,” says McDowell, noting that Potter grew a collection in her orchard that were most likely dug up and transplanted from the nearby woods. When a
well-meaning niece helped Potter “weed” on one occasion, the young woman tore out all those wildflowers. “The niece got something of a tongue-lashing even though it was an accident,” says McDowell (who mentions having a fluffle, or group of wild rabbits, visit her own home garden in New Jersey, calling it “bunny revenge” for being a Peter Rabbit fan). “I don’t think [the Victorians] distinguished much between what was really native versus what was just growing wild,” says McDowell. “They didn’t have that same sort of dividing line as we do today.” And though Potter and a garden helper once planted and fenced in (to keep sheep from nibbling) non-native alpine rhododendron shrubs near one of her favorite lakes (Moss Eccles Tarn, in Britain’s Lake District), McDowell says Potter “certainly used British natives in her gardens,” including foxgloves (Digitalis spp.) and ferns. Potter even led wildflower walks on her properties for family and friends, sometimes accompanied by two Pekingese dogs. But it was Potter’s fascination with fungi that brought her closest to the scientific world. She drew poisonous fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), the iconic red-capped toadstool with white spots; brown birch boletes (Leccinum scabrum); and Strobilomyces strobilaceus, or “old man of the woods,” which she painted in 1893, drawing a map on the back of the work indicating where she found this rare species. “It was the mysterious fungi that are associated with fairy tales that drew her to serious study,” says Zach. But as a woman and an “amateur mycologist,” Potter had a difficult time presenting her research in the male-dominated world of science. With encouragement from an influential, knighted uncle (who was also a well-regarded chemist), her paper, “On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae,” was read by a member of Kew’s Royal Botanic Gardens and eventually reviewed by the Linnean Society, London’s most famous botanical group — both to a lukewarm reception. Yet Zach claims, “What we know about fungi reproduction today was very much like what she wrote about then.” Opinions on Potter’s importance to mycology are still conflicting, but even those who claim her research was less than groundbreaking, such as biographer Linda Lear, compliment her gusto for trying. And all seem to agree that her hundreds of highly accurate depictions of fungi, mosses and spores have been scientifically valuable. Samantha Peters, a Texas-based science illustrator considers Potter “inspiring as both an artist and a scientist”: “Her innate curiosity about
nature fueled her artistic study, which in turn drove her to study her natural subjects more closely,” says Peters, who interned at the Wildflower Center in 2016. “It takes a lot of skill to make watercolors look so effortless.” In additional to her art, Potter left a living legacy of the plants that inspired her. She and her husband, William Heelis, donated an immense property (about 4,000 acres) to the National Trust. “She was absolutely dedicated to preserving native plants and natural methods of farming,” says Zach. “A lot of the area where she last lived looks like it did when Beatrix lived there, thanks to her. She really was a big proponent of native plants — absolutely.”
TOP This Lepiota procera is among the “hundreds of highly accurate depictions of fungi” Potter produced as a student of mycology. IMAGE Courtesy of the Armitt Trust BOTTOM Potter may be best known for depicting a cute rabbit in a blue jacket, but she took a more realistic, scientific slant when rendering this leporid subject. IMAGE Courtesy of Frederick Warne & Co.
Don’t Fear the Reaping Prickly pears’ versatile spoils are worth the effort by Sarah J. Nielsen THE PRICKLY PEAR’S USES ARE AS MULTITUDINOUS AS ITS names and varieties. The flowers, pears (tuna) and pads (nopales) are all edible. While the generous plant provides a food source for humans as well as forage for wildlife, its functions reach beyond the comestible: It serves as a traditional border to cattle ranges; yard ornament for gardeners; crucial nectar source for native bees; and coveted natural dye source, both as magenta juice from the fruit and from powdered cochineal, a scale insect that dwells on the plant and is responsible for the rich red hue known as carmine. Any attempt to narrow its boundless uses as a garden feature and a foraged food still leaves much utility unexplored, making the prickly pear a desirable addition to the locavore and landscaper’s palette alike.
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While there are a wide variety of species with different colored flowers as well as various shapes and sizes of plants, the most common to the kitchen is called the Indian fig opuntia (Opuntia ficus-indica), which is thought to be native to Mexico. Native Texas species include Texas prickly pear (O. engelmannii var. lindheimeri), the less-common cow’s tongue cactus (O. engelmannii var. linguiformis), bigroot prickly pear (O. macrorhiza), cactus apple (O. engelmannii var. engelmannii) and low prickly pear (O. humifusa), a smaller, more prostrate plant. Prickly pears are prone to cross-pollination and other means of intermingling, sometimes making the particular type difficult to discern. Prickly pears can be confined to a pot, given proper drainage and appropriate sun, or allowed to flourish en masse as a major component of xeriscape gardens. These hardy cacti thrive in Texas Blackland Prairies (see Texas ecoregions feature, page 14) and can handle tough soils like clay-heavy Houston “gumbo” (which, though high in organic matter, is hard for water to permeate) and limestone-rich caliche. Their versatility, benefits to fauna and wide range of colors — from the
brilliant purple of ripe tunas and bright green of new growth to blossoms of citrusy lemon yellow and grapefruit pink — are all excellent reasons to plant your own. If collecting pads (a type of flattened stem known as a cladophyll) from the wild, consider rooting a smaller one in your garden to propagate a new plant; take note of that plant’s particular terrestrial situation and match it as closely as you can. In culinary terms, the cleanest way to harvest prickly pear paddles, tunas and flowers (which can be eaten raw in salads) is from your own yard. That way, you can ensure the safety of the fertilizer and the soil in which it grows. If foraging, find a patch far removed from traffic to avoid pollution from roadside runoff. It’s always best to find the property owner and request access: The removal of a plant from private, public or state property can be viewed as theft and fined as such, especially if the plant is rare or protected. However, prickly pear happens to thrive on more than 30 million acres of rangelands in the western two-thirds of Texas, according to the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, and the plant is considered a pest in the Edwards Plateau (among other areas). As such, there are probably plenty of landowners who wouldn’t mind lending a few pears — its removal might even be appreciated. When harvesting, be mindful that, in addition to visible long spines, these plants (even the “spineless” species, O. ellisiana) have self-preserving hair-fine spines, known as glochids, all over them and must be treated with care
and ingenuity, else your hands and tongue will suffer. One safe method requires an empty single-serving plastic soda bottle, with its neck cut off, as well as a pair of thick leather gloves, tongs, a disposable but clean cardboard box and a pocket or paring knife. Donning the gloves, place the open end of the plastic bottle over the fruit, gently pinching it around the tuna and thus holding it still as you cut; it is okay to take a small amount of the paddle beneath. Looking into the flesh of the pear itself is the only way to ensure ripeness, but they should be ready in late summer when the flesh begins to turn dark purple. Be mindful of brown or rotten spots. The fruit should smell sweet and look something like a ripe watermelon inside. Paddles are available for use year-round, but you want them on the smaller, greener side. Tender spring growth is sweeter and preferred in the kitchen (a paddle that’s around 4 inches wide and 5 inches tall is ideal). Use tongs to grip individual paddles as you slice them from the plant with a knife. Cutting, rather than tearing or ripping pieces, allows for faster regeneration of the plant. Remember to always keep your tools clean; it’s wise to take caution and prevent spreading disease. Once home with your bounty, use tongs to hold individual paddles and pears over a flame (barbecue, gas burner or culinary torch). This burns off the offending spines, allowing for peeling or other required prep (parboiling is another option). Continue to wear gloves and use clean tongs to hold tunas as you slice down
OPPOSITE They sure do look intimidating, but Opuntia species’ many uses shouldn’t be avoided for fear of prickles. PHOTO jrmetcalf/iStock LEFT Gloves and a sharp knife are essential tools when peeling tunas; when ripe, the outer flesh slips off easily. PHOTO Amy McCullough RIGHT Burning paddles is one way to remove spines and glochids; during drought or deep winter, cowboys sometimes burn the plant to allow cattle to forage on it. PHOTO Esdelval/iStock
their sides and peel the outer skin off (much like you would an onion). On paddles, pare any bumps where prickles grew, leaving the majority of the skin intact. Now that you’ve harvested your paddles and pears, the culinary uses are endless: Paddles serve as an alternative to peppers in nopales rellenos, as a fried side dish, in sautéed salads,
Hot Prickle Fizz 1 ounce dry gin 1/2 ounce prickly pear syrup* 1 teaspoon sugar in the raw Lemon basil Prosecco Twist of lemon peel Chili powder Stir sugar and chili power together in a shallow, flat-bottomed plate. Dip the rim of a coupe glass into prickly pear syrup and then chili-sugar mixture to coat. Muddle gin, syrup, sugar and lemon basil in a shaker or pint glass. Shake to chill and finely strain into glass to remove sediment from syrup and basil. Top off with prosecco and twist of lemon peel so that the lemon oil and peel sit atop the drink.
*PRICKLY PEAR SYRUP 3 parts tuna 1/2 part jalapeño (optional) 1 part honey or agave to sweeten Zest and juice of 1 lemon per cup of puréed tuna Prepare tunas by burning off glochids, rinsing, peeling and pureeing the flesh. (At this point, you can freeze the pureed fruit in ice cube trays for later use.) Add jalapeños to blender or food processor and blend. If you desire, strain puree through fine metal strainer or cheese cloth. Measure resulting puree, then add to sauce pan along with agave or honey and lemon juice and rind in ratio to tuna puree. Bring to simmer and stir, never allowing to boil. There may be “scummy” foam that rises to top; skim and continue simmering until desired thickness. Either freeze or refrigerate; use within two weeks if the latter.
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and as an additive to eggs in breakfast tacos and scrambles. Tunas will yield about one cup syrup per pound of fruit; the syrup can be used in jams, jellies and as a tangy sweetener for exotic cocktails ranging from margaritas to a gin fizz. Below you’ll find two innovative (and complementary) recipes to get you started with this gardening and gastronomic delight.
Nopalitos Fritos This recipe is made in two parts: the batter and the fries. While the batter is whipping, clean and blanch the paddles by dropping them into boiling water for 15 seconds, then into an ice bath. The blanching reduces any potential sliminess, similar to okra. (Don’t let that keep you from trying nopales!) When you cut the paddle (nopal) into smaller pieces, it becomes “nopalitos,” which is how you’ll find them referenced in restaurants and this recipe.
3 young paddles, cleaned, blanched and sliced 1/4 -inch thick 4 large eggs, separated 2 tablespoons corn starch Seasoning mix* All-purpose flour Flavorless oil, such as soy or canola Thick-walled, deep frying pan or Dutch oven Oil thermometer
1 teaspoon sea salt 1 teaspoon black pepper 1 teaspoon cumin 1 teaspoon chili powder 1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika 1/4 teaspoon oregano 1/8 teaspoon garlic powder 1/8 teaspoon onion powder Beat separated egg whites with corn starch with a mixer until stiff white peaks are formed. Heat three inches of oil in your pan until it reaches 375 degrees Fahrenheit. While the oil heats, sprinkle nopalitos through seasoning, then all-purpose flour. Separate on racks or by layering strips between sheets of parchment paper. When the oil is hot, dip dredged nopalitos in the egg batter and fry in batches. Add pieces to the oil slowly to keep strips from sticking together and to prevent splashing. Use a wire spider to move the fries around in the oil — keep in mind that the temperature of the oil will drop as strips are added; return heat to 375 F after each batch, adding oil if necessary. Fries will take 5 to 7 minutes to cook; batter should turn golden brown and crispy. Remove fries to paper towels or cooling racks, keeping separated; repeat process until finished. Sprinkle with extra seasoning for presentation and to taste.
Things We Love The books, gardening tools and more we’re currently into by Wildflower Center Staff
Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a PostWild World
A Man Named Pearl
Cape Cod Weeder and Farrier Gloves
According to our director of programs, Tanya Zastrow, this documentary is simply “awesome.” “A Man Named Pearl” tells the story of Pearl Fryar, a man in South Carolina who began gardening specifically with topiaries and
Cape Cod weeders come in left- and right-handed varieties and are perfectly angled for what Land Steward Dick Davis calls “precision targeting” of small weeds. He says this tool is also great for “pulling up big clumps of King Ranch bluestem if you put your whole strength into it.” Farrier gloves, on the other hand, weren’t designed for gardening. The open thumb and forefinger are intended for holding nails, a handy skill if you’re shoeing horses (“farrier” is an alternate term for “blacksmith”). But Davis has found the design great for removing weeds while keeping skin protected from the elements.
Environmental Designer John Hart Asher describes his job as “restoring ecosystem services within urban environments.” Put bluntly, he says, “I love creating prairies in the shadows of skyscrapers.” But he acknowledges that there is a serious debate among ecologists and designers regarding the trajectory of conservation. He describes his favorite book of the moment, Emma Marris’ “Rambunctious Garden,” as a “thoroughly interesting read that questions traditional conservation strategies by embracing the inclusion of more radical active interventions within degraded ecosystems.” Read Asher’s full review at wildflower.org/ read/conservation/ rambunctious.
with no prior experience and ultimately turned his yard into a public garden. He started by taking plants from the local garden store’s compost pile and planting them in his yard. But Zastrow says, “There’s a lot more to the story.”
San Saba, Texas Why does Arborist Intern Cassie Cobb love San Saba? It’s “the Pecan Capital of the World,” she responds. “Need I say more?!” Cobb studies Texas’ state tree, the pecan (Carya illinoinensis), with a specialty in grafting. Besides the area’s numerous pecan trees, she enjoys San Saba River Nature Park (above), which features remains from early settlements such as the town’s first waterworks, and Risien Park, named after Edmond E. Risien, an amateur horticulturist who Cobb describes as a “pecan pioneer” (his work is credited with inspiring the town’s nickname). FOOD
Rangehoney.com “One of the real treats of traveling to collect seeds for the Millennium Seed Bank [a global conservation effort the Center participated in] was picking up homemade preserves and local honey at farmers markets in small towns across Texas,” says Plant Conservationist Minnette Marr. Now, she likes to purchase raw unfiltered honey from local Texas beekeepers via rangehoney.com.
When in Roam
A Vast Domain A sacred butterfly connects land and people across a border by Lee Clippard
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provide a near-constant soundtrack. Somewhere opposite the town from me and my husband, toward the peak of Cerro Pelón, rested millions of monarch butterflies. But for now, all we could see was green. RETURNING SOULS Monarch butterflies have been staying the winter in the Sierra Madre mountains around Macheros since long before the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés landed on the Yucatán Peninsula in 1519; long before the Aztec people he conquered built their ancient city of pyramids and canals, called Tenochtitlán, on an island in Lake Texcoco — now buried beneath Mexico City, just a two-hour drive to the east. The monarchs in those mountains were the so-called “super generation” of butterflies that emerged as adults in the northern United States and Canada in late summer and early fall. From there, they rose on thermals and floated southward on northerly winds for thousands of miles to escape the coming winter, putting their reproduction on hold. They are celebrated locally as the souls of ancestors coming home. The butterflies arrive in the Sierra Madre every year around November 1. They usually stay in the mountains until March 21, the spring equinox, after which the travel-worn butterflies fly as far north as Texas to lay their eggs and die, making way for the next generations.
PHOTO John Stott
PANDA UNO LED US AWAY FROM THE JM BUTTERFLY B&B down a dirt road into the woods, clearly unfazed by her lame hind leg. We had only been at the bed-and-breakfast for an hour, and were just two of many people staying there, but she already knew we belonged to her. The sandy brown dog urged us ahead, our spirit guide in a magical forest of towering pine trees (Pinus pseudostrobus) studded with plastic containers capturing sticky resin from vertical scars knifed into the bark. She led us past 6-foot tall Rumfordia floribunda plants with giant clusters of yellow flowers arching over the trail. Pink blossoms of Monochaetum calcaratum sparkled in the dappled light of the understory. A bright scarlet-and-black vermillion flycatcher slipped in and out of view high in the pines and oaks. White-eared hummingbirds darted into the forest from the edge of the pasture to sip nectar from red Salvia fulgens flowers. Panda Uno padded on ahead of us, barking when we weren’t keeping up. A break in the forest revealed the town of Macheros, Mexico, in its entirety — a knot of about 400 people centered around a tiny Catholic church, our white-washed bed-and-breakfast and a few other buildings. The town rests in the cupped palm of a valley at 7,800 feet elevation, surrounded by avocado groves and horse pastures. Turkeys gobbling and dogs barking
UP THE MOUNTAIN The next morning, the horse assigned to me, Colorada, huffed as we pushed up the mountain into the Cerro Pelón sanctuary, her hooves clopping against stones and stirring up dust from the puffy soil. Our group of four tourists and just as many guides passed by a dozen men, women and children clearing the path for future travelers. We gained elevation quickly on a trail lined with dozens of species of flowering plants, from red-flowered Lamourouxia xalapensis and yellow Packera sanguisorbae to the tall and airy purple blooms of Senecio callosus, which looks a bit like Joe-pye weed. We passed several huge pine trees recently fallen illegally by loggers, their fly-by-night work still a major threat to monarchs’ overwintering habitat. At about 9,800 feet elevation, we left the horses behind. Our guide, Ana Moreno Rojas — a Macheros native who said she first visited the monarchs in her mother’s womb — whispered us forward down a narrow path littered with thousands of dead monarchs. Many of these unlucky souls fell to the ground and were too cold to make it back up into the warm embrace of their friends hanging in the trees. It was difficult to not be shocked by that, but then we got to the butterfly trees. Monarchs spend their Mexican winters clinging together in clusters of millions in oyamel fir (Abies religiosa), pine and cedar trees, coating their bows like orange-brown snow. We were standing in one of 13 colonies scattered about the Sierra Madre, eight of which (including Cerro Pelón) are protected within the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve. This past winter, the World Wildlife Fund-Mexico reported that monarch colonies collectively covered about 7 acres of trees (sadly, a 27 percent drop from the previous year). Where we were standing in the Cerro Pelón sanctuary, the monarchs covered a quarter of an acre, which included as many as 60 trees and possibly as many as 2 million butterflies. But we didn’t know any of those numbers yet. All we saw before us was magic. Trees covered in dark shrouds of butterflies loomed in the woods around us, gently undulating with the small gestures of opening and closing wings. A monarch or two flitted along the trail, but most hung tight to the trees, hushed in stillness beneath the canopy. All was extremely quiet. But at about noon, the sun began warming the trees, and the butterflies started flapping down to the trail to squeeze water and minerals from the soil (called “puddling”) and sip nectar from the purple blossoms of Mexican sage (Salvia mexicana) and yellow flowers of Verbesina oncophora. More and more butterflies began to fly between the trees and the trails until we were surrounded by an orange blizzard; a waterfall of wing beats rippling across the forest, our bodies, our faces. Seeing millions of monarchs is one thing, but the sound of millions of wings gently tapping together stays with a person forever. IN THIS WE SHARE We don’t share a government with the Mexican people. We don’t share a language. We don’t share a currency. But we do share a history of conquest, subjugation and war. Our economies
OPPOSITE Monarch butterflies soak up the sun on a warm winter day in the Cerro Pelón sanctuary. THIS PAGE (clockwise from top) Chairs arranged for sunset views at the JM Butterfly B&B in Macheros. Monarchs sip nectar from yellow Verbesina oncophora flowers. Horses and guides bring visitors into the sanctuary. Pink blossoms of Monochaetum calcaratum light up the understory. TOP THREE PHOTOS Lee Clippard, BOTTOM PHOTO John Stott
and cultures are intertwined. We share a border, and we share these monarchs. From the mountains of Mexico, you can’t see the farmers in Ohio and New York. From a backyard in Milwaukee, you can’t see a mountain looming above Macheros, blanketed in butterflies. When a Mexican man fells a tree for money to feed his family, you can’t hear it fall in Texas. When a Kansan plows under a prairie for a new road, it doesn’t provide any work for the people of Macheros. But all of these things are connected by a tiny-but-strong, road-tested-but-threatened butterfly we quite hopefully call the monarch, given such a name by 19th century lepidopterist Samuel Scudder because it “ruled a vast domain.” The destiny of these miraculous butterflies lies with our capacity to embrace each other across a border like two sisters reaching through a fence. Just listen, and you might be able to hear the sound of millions of butterflies flapping their wings, urging us to pay attention. It sounds like drizzling rain. To learn how you can help support monarchs, visit wildflower.org/learn/power-the-migration. Guide Ana Moreno Rojas tiptoes past monarchs landing on the trail in Cerro Pelón. PHOTO Lee Clippard
STOP (in) AND SMELL THE FLOWERS The Center’s gardens, natural areas and arboretum display more than 800 species of native plants from across Texas. Visit, learn and grow a better world with us. WHILE YOU’RE HERE, CHECK OUT OUR: · Café · Store · Family Garden · Nature Trails · Picnic Areas · Visitors Gallery · and More! WILDFLOWE R .ORG/VISIT
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TEXAS MOUNTAIN LAUREL Sophora secundiflora
Learning to see nature for the first time, again story and illustrations by Casey Jarman WHEN I WAS LITTLE, I lived on a school bus that my dad modified into a two-story home. We were nine miles up a gravel road from the Pacific Ocean on the Oregon Coast. We were forty-five minutes away from just about anything else. There aren’t a lot of photos of our family from those days, but in most of them I’m shaggy-headed, covered in mud and at least partially naked. My parents weren’t hippies, exactly — my dad’s a socialist carpenter from England and my mom is a new-agey barber from Minnesota — but they did love the wilderness, and because wilderness was still pretty cheap in those days, they bought some. By all accounts, I loved it too. I picked berries, screamed my head off and swam in the summertime. Most summers, my dad would drive me and my brother out to the vast deserts of Eastern Oregon in his old Ford van. Often, dad would pull out a map and let my brother and I pick the destination. We’d wind up at natural tourist attractions in desperate need of new marketing teams: places with names like “Hole in the Ground” and “Crack in the Ground.” Most of my friends had a different relationship to nature than we did: They’d go to the lake to fish or go into the forest to hunt. My family went places just to be there, and we didn’t have to go far off the beaten path to be the only humans in sight. Oregon, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, still felt like a secret. But when you’re surrounded by beauty, eventually you get spoiled. Somewhere in my teens, it’s like I stopped seeing nature altogether. When I went off to college at the University of Oregon in Eugene, I was fascinated by live music and coffee shops and friends with difficult relationship problems to solve. Moving to Portland after college provided me with dive bars and rock clubs every night of the week. Nature couldn’t really compete. I’d still check in with it a few times a year — usually by sitting on the beach in the middle of the night, waiting for something spiritual to wash over me that never did. I thought I’d lost that sensitivity to nature forever. Then, four years ago, I moved to San Francisco for a job. I slept in a small room that didn’t feel like home. Outside of work, I had no engagements, no responsibilities. So I’d spend full days just wandering the city with no destination in mind. And for all its problems, San Francisco was a great place to rediscover nature: It had weird little overgrown parks that no one seemed to visit, patches of alien-looking succulents that couldn’t grow back home. The fog would roll in and the whole city would feel strange and new. There may have been other humans in sight, but I still felt alone. I read about the plovers and avocets I’d watch in the wetlands at Heron’s Head Park and the non-native eucalyptus trees that have proliferated around the city. I read about the slow geological process that built up the serpentine hills in this strange, magic place. When the job ended and I came home to Oregon, I got to see it with new eyes for a while. And even now, as its natural beauty fades gently back into the realm of the known, I work on it. Long relationships require some work. I try to explore more, read more about the places I visit and breathe a little deeper. I try every day to see this place the way a stranger would see it. And sometimes I still sit on the beach, waiting for some profound appreciation. Usually I just feel like I’m home, and I’m grateful for that.
Be Like Lady Bird: Beautify the Highway
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Published on Jun 1, 2017
How the future of native grasslands — and water — depends on emulating the past, why ocelots need Texas shrub habitat, Beatrix Potter's nati...