Article about John Fairey and Peckerwood Garden by Susan Heeger. Photos by Marion Brenner. Read the full article online. Read the pdf of the magazine article.
New York Times article about John Fairey and Peckerwood Garden by Anne Raver. Read the pdf of the magazine article.
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