In March of 1991, Martin Grantham, horticulturist in charge of the Mezo-American Garden at the University of California Botanical Garden at Berkeley; Eduardo Estrata Castillon, student at the College of Forestry Science at the State University of Nuevo Leon, Linares, Mexico; and Carl Schoenfeld of Yucca Do Nursery, accompanied me on a botanizing expedition to northeastern Mexico to observe Magnolia tamaulipana at its northern location in the Sierra Madre Oriental, approximately seventy miles north of Ciudad Victoria. It was much to our surprise and delight that while driving through a pine oak forest, we first saw the Beschorneria in flower. It had bright red and green cylindrical bell-shaped blooms held on glossy scarlet four-foot-tall stalks that were exceptionally exotic. The stalks emanated from a base of dark green, strap-like, evergreen foliage. Although this agave-relative had been identified and named in literature in 1987, it represented a rare find to be shared with the world of horticulture.
Two plants were collected: one was planted at Peckerwood Garden and has thrived under shaded conditions with some moisture; the other was sent to the Botanical Garden at Berkley for testing and hybridization. In August of the same year, I returned to the same site to collect seeds that were shared with the late Dr. J. C. Raulston (North Carolina State University Arboretum) and Yucca Do Nursery. These plants have proven cold hardy to -4°F, flowered healthy blooms, and produced viable seeds. In the mid 1990’s Martin Grantham made crosses between B. septentrionalis and B. yuccoides, and many of these sturdy hybrids are being tested at Peckerwood Garden. Their foliage is rich green, washed with silver frosting. We have not experienced a typical winter “blue norther” for several years; therefore we can not report on cold hardiness. In early May, 2000, three of these plants that are being tested in a sunny location flowered. The blossoms were showy and very similar to the B. yuccoides parent.
— John G. Fairey
Searching for plants in the mysterious and magical mountains of the Sierra Madre Oriental of Mexico is an arduous and challenging experience, but it is also exhilarating and exciting. It is a layering of time — past, present, and future.
Cycads are woody plants that superficially resemble palms and tree ferns. They are found around the world in both hemispheres in tropical and subtropical zones. There are 11 genera of Cycads, some of which are Zamia and Dioon. In the mainland United States we have one species of Cycad – Zamia floridana.
It is a native of Florida and extends into southern Georgia and is referred to as Cootie. It is used widely in Florida as a drought tolerant landscape accent. Here at Peckerwood the Florida Coontie was the first Cycad tried; it has proliferated, setting enormous fruit bearing cones with bounties of fertile seed. That led the way for others.
In 1988 John Fairey and I collected seed of Chamal (Dioon edule var. angustifolia) in northeastern Mexico. These germinated and after twelve years are about 16 inches tall and have about eight leaves atop a small swollen stem (caudex). Cycads are extremely slow growing to our eyes but we must understand that they have been around for over 200 million years. Notice their distinctive character which reflects their antiquity.
Photos show them in habitat with close-ups of the flowering or reproductive structures in both sexes. A detail of the fertile cone with maturing seed reiterates their simplicity. The last image is a detail of the rigid leaf, which is retained for some number of years.
Dioons are ancient woody plants and some very large specimens could possibly be several hundred years old. They inhabit steep hillsides where the soils are skeletal and poor. In areas were the decomposed shale is deep they proliferate and create an unreal prehistoric setting, dominating the environment. Chamal can also be found in more hospitable soils and shelter, but there they are small and scattered. Interestingly, Dioon edule specifically has the ability to contract its stem underground as it grows — thus maintaining relativity in the amount of trunk exposed. One suggested explanation for this strange (unplant-like) activity is to reduce its exposure to environmental stress and predation — remember these plants were around during the time of dinosaurs. Also, they may go through prolonged periods of rest, revealed as narrowing in the diameter of the trunk. Some feel that these plants are not regenerating at this time. Are they possibly endangered or just taking a rest that will wait out our short impatient lifetimes? The greatest danger to their existence is ignorance and apathy. They truly are unequalled and intriguing living organisms that count the eons of time while we count the seconds.
— Carl Schoenfeld
We have made a very long day’s drive from Peckerwood Garden and are in the state of Tamaulipas. It is very early, barely light, when we finish a substantial breakfast, energized by the comforts and hospitality of our country inn, Hacienda Santa Engracia.
We pass through and sometimes stop to visit small villages very different from towns of equivalent size back across the northern border. Without city planners or neighborhood building codes, these communities are much more visually integrated into their surrounding landscape. Building materials are for the most part made of the landscape: adobe, wood, weathered stucco and plaster, thatch of nolina, palm, and dasylirion, with a minimum of glass, smooth metal, or factory-produced bricks.
A few houses have metal roofs, and we realize that as modern materials make an appearance here, building supplies like the nolina thatch will be less desirable, and those plants will become less appreciated and open to abuse. Fence posts, instead of being made from machine finished lumber, are tree branches. A fence builder may use a machete to sharpen these poles to very sharp points for deflecting the rain, and often the points are topped with red paint (Sangre de Christo, “Blood of Christ”).
Building colors in earth hues contrast with deeply pigmented shades that we recognize from wild morning glories or on a flowering shrub we had seen on a mountain. Living in such visual harmony with the natural world is of course often explained by economic constraints; if it is true that wealth and industry and high populations bring careless growth and a commercially determined aesthetic, then sad lessons are to be learned. Spanish moss clinging to the power lines will not be tolerated in most cities, and a hand-painted sign, number, or name on a door may take too much valuable time, when a lit billboard could bring so many more customers. For now, we can only be entranced by the elegant juxtaposition of colors on two adjacent walls, and be moved by the visual surprise of finding hand-carved crosses in the village cemetery.
We drive for many miles seeing little other road traffic, telephone lines, or city limits. Farmers here may be organized into ejidos (farming co-ops) which give a sense of community as well as economic solidarity to widely distanced neighbors. The intense physicality of this space is felt even at 100 kilometers per hour.
The dioon hill, all shale and thorny scrub acacia, rises above cultivated corn fields and a winding path of a country road. We see the fluttering fronds of these great and ancient plants, Dioon edulae var. angustifolia, as we approach, smoothly dark on top, light grey-green on the underside, alive in the breeze. As we drag our heavy cameras up the hills, we see that cattle have also climbed here, grazing on the hill. The dioon are fewer than when we last visited. We fear for the future of this plant, seeing only a few regenerating plants.
We find it impossible to care where this unpaved road might lead, as it crosses back and forth a green and rushing creek, because every few feet we see new color of morning glory or some rare plant demanding a photograph and John’s explanation of its growing habit. We stop to photograph a pale sycamore, Plantanus mexicana, and are hypnotized by eddying green water, the occasional bird call, all else silent.
We have hot showers and city excitement in Monterrey and a visit with the charming and knowledgable Porfirio Sosa Jimenez at his gallery and shop CarapÃ¡n, where we explore a carefully selected collection of folk art from all of Mexico.
Agave montanaAgave lophanthaWe cross a pass south of Ciudad Victoria and drive through desert areas in the rain shadow, up to a high plateau (5000 feet). Driving demands focus, as there are sheer drops just inches from our vehicle. We must back up when the road is too narrow, as trucks have the right-of-way. Up now to 7000 feet and into fog, we see our first Pinus rutis, Agave montana, Arbutus xalapensis, and a tree Nolina. Our view over the valley is vast, little villages dotting the landscape far below. We have noticed white caleche, sandstone rubble, by the roadside, but higher up we find solid limestone, host to the tenacious Agave lophantha.
Violet mountains seem far away as we make our way across vast landscapes with marching armies of gesturing Yucca filifera. By the time we reach the foothills, the mountain tops come and go in the clouds that nourish and sustain much of the vegetation in the highest places. When we have driven as high as possible, even with four wheel drive, we leave our vehicle and continue on foot.
We climb rocky cliffs, careful not to disturb colonies of ferns, Sedum palmeri, and pinguicula which cling tenuously to the granite walls. An intensely green carpet of high country grasses is dotted with minute violet, red, and yellow wildflowers, and then even higher, where mammoth granite boulders create a home for giant mountain spirits. Hearing bells, we meet horses and cattle in groups of three or four, gentle reminders that we are not the only ones interested in what grows up here, and we fear that this diverse vegetation is on their menu. The palette of the land at this altitude is the darkest green of the pines, the deep blues and violets of cloud-filled skies, and rose and pale gray stone. Raindrops send us down to avoid an approaching storm, and our last color memory of the mountain is the soft white of enveloping clouds and the wet blackness of rain on stone.
— Julia Lanthrop
Complete Annotated Bibliography of Articles Written about (and Photographs Taken of) Peckerwood Garden
Druse, Ken. “South of the Border” in The Collector’s Garden: Designing With Extraordinary Plants. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1996, pp. 32-37.
Druse introduces the reader to John Fairey and Carl Schoenfeld, modern-day plant hunters whose Mexican discoveries are grown and observed in Fairey’s garden, Peckerwood, and have led to the offering of these plants to the public through Yucca Do Nursery. Druse also explains that the desire of the two plantsmen to preserve these species from possible extinction in their home environment has led them to donate seeds and cuttings to numerous botanical gardens in the U.S. and abroad.
Ogden, Lauren Springer and Scott. “Out in the Sun” in Plant-Driven Design: Creating Gardens That Honor Plants, Place, and Spirit. Portland: Timber Timber Press, Inc., 2008, pp.134, 236-237.
The very nature of Peckerwood Garden makes it a must-have for this book on plants, place and spirit. Several pictures of the garden exemplify “out in the sun”.
Ryan, Julie. “An Artist’s Garden” in Perennial Gardens for Texas. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998, pp. 42-47.
As its name implies, the primary interest of Ryan’s book is perennials, but her discussion of John Fairey’s garden is wide-ranging. She notes the extensive collections in the garden, but also its artistry (“His artist’s eye holds Fairey’s collector’s urge in check” (p. 47) and attempts to explain how various features of that artistry are achieved (shrub planting that provides a unifying “backbone” through the garden, for example [p. 45]). Ryan also contributes information on the garden’s natural soil and growing conditions and Fairey’s horticultural practices. A very useful and informative article with photographs that witness to the evolution of the garden since these pictures were taken.
Verey, Rosemary, ed. “The Garden of John Gaston Fairey” by John G. Fairey in The American Man’s Garden. Boston, Toronto, and London: Bullfinch Press, an imprint and trademark of Little, Brown and Co., Inc., 1990, pp. 89-93.
In this thoughtful and carefully written contribution to Verey’s book, John Fairy recounts some of the influences on his garden making: his youth in South Carolina; the kinship he felt with the site he first viewed in 1971; the 1983 tornado that took down the big trees that had directed his first planting (“For the first time I felt free to be in control of the design” [p. 90]; friends and collaborators such as Carl Schoenfeld and Lynn Lowrey. Fairy strives to explain what he seeks to achieve in his garden-making and how his search for suitable plant form, texture, color, and scent has led him to experiment with Texas and southwestern natives, Asian counterparts, and, most notably, Mexican varieties.
Ward, Bobby J. The Plant Hunters Garden: The New Explorers and Their Discoveries. Portland: Timber Press, 2004.
Profiles 32 of today’s more prolific plant hunters, from the Czech Republic to the Rocky Mountains, including John G. Fairey, founder of Peckerwood Garden. Offers insight into John’s chosen highlights from collecting.
Atherton, Lorraine. Photographs by Keith Carter. “A Gardener’s World,” Domain: The Lifestyle Magazine of Texas Monthly, fall 1988, pp. 30-35.
An article on the early garden (and very early nursery, begun in 1987). Stresses John Fairey’s determination to seek out plants for his part of Texas. Valuable photos, especially of the early nursery operation and of the undeveloped area on the north side of the creek.
Avent, Tony. “On the Trail for Mexican Flora,” The Trillium: Newsletter of the Piedmont Chapter of the North American Rock Garden Society 5, no. 3 (March 1995): 1, 3-6.
Spirited account of plant hunting in Mexico with John Fairey and Carl Schoenfeld, Thanksgiving, 1994.
Bender, Steve. “Yahoo! It’s Yucca Do,” Southern Living 29, no.1 (January 1994): 58-59.
Principally about the efforts of John Fairey and Carl Schoenfeld to trial and propagate species collected in Mexico, with an emphasis on preservation of Mexican species.
Bonnin, Julie. “Worldly Roots: At Peckerwood Garden, an artist cultivates a canvas of rare species.” The Austin American Statesman, March 20th, 2004. Section E6, front page (continued).
A comprehensive summary of the garden and its creator, John G. Fairey, his views and methods. Recounts stories from expeditions to Mexico as well as some highlights of commissions and exchanges with major world horticultural institutions. Photography by Amber Novak.
Clarke, Ethne. Photographs by author. “A Visit to Houston: Peckerwood Garden,” The American Gardener: The Magazine of the American Horticultural Society 79, no. 1 (January-February 2000): 43-46.
Informative article which mentions the author’s visit to Mexico with John Fairey. Also speaks of the twofold influence on Fairey of Ruth Bancroft’s garden in Walnut Creek, CA: 1) plant form in garden design and 2) preservation through the Garden Conservancy. Mentions, too, art in the garden and Fairey’s collection of Mexican folk art as well as plant collections: Zephyranthes, Polianthes, and others.
Photographs by author and Elsie Kirsten. “Open for Viewing: Peckerwood Garden,” Pacific Horticulture 60, no. 4 (winter 1999): 24- 29.
Gives short history of Peckerwood Garden and Yucca Do Nursery. Discusses Mexican trips and interest in conservation, plus desire to expand plant palette for TX and elsewhere. A discussion of garden design: “bold plants, bold design.” Also mentions Peckerwood collections of oaks, magnolias, Styrax.
Compton, James. “Salvias From the High Sierras,” The Garden: Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society 118, part 11 (November 1993): 499-501.
Highly informative account of British Salvia collectors in Mexico with John Fairey and Carl Schoenfeld, Oct. 1991. Especially valuable for insight into ecosystems of the high sierras of northeastern Mexico and for explanation of certain Spanish terms such as arroyo (stream cutting) and barranca (gorge).
Cummings, Mary. “Passion for Plants Informs Latest Landscape Pleasures,” The Southampton (NY) Press, 13 June 2002, sec. B, pp. 1,9.
Alerting Southampton residents to an upcoming talk by John Fairey and Carl Schoenfeld on plant collecting and its influence on garden design. Interesting interviews with both men.
Curtis, Jane Alexander. Photographs by Paul Hester. “Fairey’s Garden: A Botanical Wonder Takes Root Between Houston and College Station,” Cite: The Architecture and Design Review of Houston 47 (spring 2000): 29-33.
Insightful writing with very fine, architectural, black and white photographs. A sample quote: “From the moment you turn into a narrow gravel lane that leads to the garden, you are taken away from the world you expect to see and understand and set free to wander among surprising shapes, textures, color, fragrances, and sounds” (p. 32, annotator’s emphasis).
Davis, Todd. “Mexican Harvest: Yucca Do Nursery Looks South to Find Hardy, Drought-Resistant Plants,” Nursery Management & Production 11, no. 1 (January 1995): 45-48.
Article includes list and photos of Mexican plants that looked especially promising in 1995. There are also great photos provided by Fairey and Schoenfeld of Mexican mountain landscapes taken during plant hunting expeditions.
Fairey, John. “Telling Details,” Fine Gardening, no. 5 (January-February 1989): 66-67.
This short article is embedded within Mark Kane’s larger article, “A Special Place” (see below). In this, Fairey explains in simple, concrete terms the design and purpose of several structural features of his garden. Lends insight into the why’s and how’s of Fairey’s garden-making.
“Peckerwood Garden: A Collector’s Texas Treasure,” The Newsletter of The Garden Conservancy, winter 1998, pp. 1, 4-5.
This article was written at the time of Peckerwood’s joining the Garden Conservancy. It describes the garden and its aims as well as the new relationship between the garden and the Conservancy.
Fairey, John G. and Carl M. Schoenfeld. Photographs by authors. “Mexican Dogwoods,” Pacific Horticulture 55, no. 3 (fall 1994): 42-46.
Remarkable adventure story about finding Mexican dogwoods (Cornus florida subsp urbiniana) in the Sierra Madre Oriental, including information about their growing environment. Relates also the find of two exceptional dogwoods subsequently named ‘Pringle’s White’ and ‘Pringle’s Blush’. Nice photos of the dogwoods.
“An Account of Three Dogwoods Found in Northeast Mexico,” original ms. that was adapted as “Mexican Dogwoods” and published in Pacific Horticulture (fall 1994). Archives of Peckerwood Garden.
The first paragraph of this article was not used in the Pacific Horticulture publication and relates interesting material about Lynn Lowrey. (The first paragraph of this article is currently [fall 2002] posted at www.peckerwoodgarden.com under “Expeditions.”)
Photographs by authors. “Mexican Magic,” American Nurseryman 178, no. 12 (15 December 1993): 55-79.
Showcases Mexican plants. Describes complex ecosystems in northeastern Mexico. Lists promising introductions of 1993, including Clethra pringlei ‘White Water’.
“Excerpts from ‘Mexican Magic’ [used by permission from American Nurseryman],” Journal of the International Oak Society, no. 4 (spring 1994): 11-16.
The excerpts taken from “Mexican Magic” are those that describe various Mexican oaks. The Fairey-Schoenfeld article is followed by nine marvelous black and white photos of Mexican oaks shot by Guy and Edith Sternberg.
Photographs by authors. “The Mystery Magnolia: On the Trail of Magnolia tamaulipana in Mexico,” Magnolia: Journal of the Magnolia Society 30, no. 1, issue 57 (winter 1995): 6-21.
Exciting account of finding Magnolia tamaulipana growing at 4,100 ft. in the Sierra Madre Oriental and the mystery surrounding its name.
Fischer, Thomas. Photographs by Charles Mann. “Border Crossing: In South Texas, Two Collectors Are Pioneering the Use of Mexican Plants,” Horticulture 74, no. 10 (December 1996): 38-43.
Author points up real rarities in the garden and includes “John Fairey’s top ten plants.” Good photos of two dry gardens.
Huber, Kathy. Photographs by John Everett. “Garden Design: A Stroll in a Fairey Garden,” Texas: Houston Chronicle Magazine, 16 June 1991, pp. 12-14.
Valuable photographs of the garden in 1991. Good examples of “functional aesthetics,” e.g., cedar water fence, windbreak of beeches. Discussion of some of John Fairey’s favorite plants, such as Cephalotaxus and Halesia.
Photographs by John Everett. “Texas Treasure: From Azaleas to Agave, It’s a Horticultural Wonder,” Houston Chronicle, 14 March 1998, sec.D, pp. 1,4.
A short history of the garden including its new relationship with the Garden Conservancy. Discussion of Mexican plants including salvia, agave, clethra, and styrax. Mention also of art in the garden.
Hynes, Erin. “Treasures of the Sierra Madre,” American Horticulturist 72, no. 12 (December 1993): 33-37.
This article is more about Yucca Do Nursery than about Peckerwood Garden, although there are remarks about the garden. Interesting to read of schemes developed to fund plant-hunting expeditions. Fantastic picture of Fairey collecting in the mists of Mexican mountains (taken by Guy and Edith Sternberg). Some 1993 offerings from Yucca Do catalog.
Johnson, Patricia C. “His Garden Grows Flora and Folk Art.” The Houston Chronicle, June 13, 2007: Section E, 1,6.
This front-page of the Arts section article includes large showy photographs and an enticing description of the Folk Art Gallery. Also includes biographical data about John Fairey and brings the reader up to date on the garden.
Kane, Mark. “A Special Place: A Gardener’s Vision and Hard Work Create an Inspiring Landscape,” Fine Gardening, no. 5 (January-February 1989): 64-69.
Excellent article about Peckerwood Garden in its early years. Includes a watercolor diagram of the early garden. Esp. valuable because it contains discussion by John Fairey of the design and purpose of flood fence, concrete treads, iron-ore paths, stepping stones (see above, Fairey, “Telling Details”) as well as Fairey’s design philosophy in general.
McDonald, Elvin. Photographs by author and Jay Rusovich. “Out of the Shadows: Shrubs Are Strong, Self-Reliant, and Good for the Environment,” Houston Life, October 16 -November 19, 1994, pp. 72- 77.
Good, concise article about shrubs. The photos were taken at Peckerwood and article includes a discussion of how at Peckerwood, in addition to true shrubs, grasses, woody lilies, and salvias are used as shrubs. On page 103 in the same magazine issue, there are instructions for how to build a planting mound for shrubs.
Mitschang, Trudie. “Texas Transplant, Cultivation of a Rare Vision,” Luxe, Summer Edition 2007: 126-127.
The “Luxe Life” section features the “movers-and-shakers” of Texas. It includes a brief but succinct telling of John Fairey’s vision for Peckerwood Garden.
Nevins, Deborah. “Peckerwood: His Secret Garden,” Departures, no. 90 (March/April 2004): 111-114.
A useful overall view of the site, collection, and art contained within. Discusses past collecting trips to Mexico as well as highlights from the garden, design considerations, and quotes from John G. Fairey. Photography by Julia Hoerner.
Nicholson, Rob. “Death and Taxus,” Natural History 101, no. 9 (September 1992): 20-23.
Recounts an expedition of scientists guided by Fairey and Schoenfeld to stands of Taxus globosa, the Mexican yew, promising as a cancer treatment.
Nonemaker, Zoe. “‘Dry Creek’ Nourishes Horticultural Delight Near Hempstead,” The Waller County (Texas) News Citizen, 8 April 1999, pp. 1-2.
Interesting and informative article by a local observer.
Roach, Margaret. Photographs by Evan Sklar. “Forbidden Texas,” Martha Stewart Living, no. 54 (November 1997): 136-144.
Excellent article with good photos. Compares forms in Peckerwood Garden to curves and angles in a Georges Braque painting. Points to movement in the garden’s history: first what was familiar to a SC native, then southwestern plants, then Asian counterparts (J.C. Raulston), then Mexican plants (Lynn Lowrey).
Robinson, Barbara Paul, Photographs by Rocky Kneten. “Plant Explorer: John Fairey,” Horticulture, February 2006: 48-49.
The storey of John Fairey including his history and that of the garden. Includes an excellent full-page photograph of John.
Ryker, Lori, Photographs by Hester Hardaway. “Texas Treasure,” Western Interiors, September-October 2006: 47-53.
Folk art, furniture, house and garden are all represented with very good color photographs. Botanical collection, art and architecture are all addressed.
Schoenfeld, Carl. Photographs by author. “Finding Sabal sp. ‘Tamaulipas’ in Northeastern Mexico,” Rhapidophylum: Journal of the Southeastern Palm and Exotic Plant Society (Fall 2001): 8-11.
Relates the discovery of Sabal sp. ‘Tamaulipas’ at two different sites in the Sierra Madre Oriental and also discusses the native environment of these palms and their growth habit.
Shemluck, Estrada, Nicholson and Brobst. “A Preliminary Study of the Taxae Chemistry and Natural History of the Mexican Yew, Taxus globosa Schltdl.,” Botánica Económica y Ethnobotánica 72: (2003): 119-127.
Smith, Brenda Beust. “John Fairey’s Garden: Hardy, Unusual, Exciting,” Texas Gardener 10, no. 5 (July-August 1991): 32-35.
Description of various unusual plants at Peckerwood, including the Satsuki azaleas. There is also a list of plants that Fairey and Schoenfeld were particularly excited about in 1991.
Uhrbrock, Mary. “Natural Beauties: A Stroll Through John Fairey’s Flowering Laboratory,” Houston Home & Garden, 12, no. 7 (April 1986): pp. 82-91.
Focuses on Fairey’s growing enthusiasm for and trial of native plants. Valuable photos of the garden and house in 1986.
Weathers, Linda Askey. “In Search of Botanical Treasure,” Southern Accents 16, no. 2 (March-April 1993): 164B-164F.
Focuses on new introductions from Mexico. Good photos of Mexican mockorange, Mexican dogwood, Oenothera coryi, and others. Enlightening discussion of John Fairey’s efforts to insure survival of Mexican species by putting them into gardens and botanical institutions worldwide.
— Peckerwood Staff