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An Exciting and Productive Seed Collecting Expedition in Central Texas

Bill, Boyce and Tess collecting seed, herbarium specimens, and associated collecting data.

Less than a week after our oak collecting trip through the Trans-Pecos region (see last newsletter), I barely settled in before I was off with a new group of collaborators for a two week journey from the southern “Hill Country” northward to the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Organized by Boyce Tankersley from Chicago Botanic Garden through the “Plant Collecting Collaborative” (PCC), other participants were Bill McLaughlin from the United States Botanic Garden in Washington D.C. and Tess Kuracina from Chanticleer.

Peckerwood and Chanticleer have a great history working together, and this was a wonderful resumption of our collaborations. Through segments of the trip, two of the state’s great botanists would join us – George Yatskievych, director of the herbarium at University of Texas at Austin, and Bob O’Kennon from Botanical Research Institute of Texas in Fort Worth. Our mission was to collect seeds of plants of horticultural and conservation significance for distribution to other participating gardens of the PCC. After the team arrived in Houston, the requisite visit to Peckerwood was in order, and that afternoon we set off for our first site in the southern Edward’s Plateau west of San Antonio. We didn’t get far because Boyce wanted seeds from Texas bluebells ( Eustoma grandiflora), and so off we went to a location near Brenham where I recently saw plants. Fruits were questionably too early for harvest, but our first collection of the trip would hopefully continue maturation in the cooler and be dried later.

George joined us in San Antonio for a quick dinner before continuing on our track for the Gesundheit Ranch, a 1,000-acre piece of botanic and geologic heaven between Sabinal and Concan along the southern edge of the Hill Country. Owned by Peckerwood supporter Caroline Schreiber and family, this remote, well-maintained ranch never fails to surprise me as to its tremendous diversity of plant life. I had never been this time of year and was looking forward to collecting seeds of some things I had seen in flower during earlier visits.

Matalea reticulata in the southern Hill Country near Leakey, TX.

We were treated to a wonderful sunset between the rugged limestone hills as we drove through several ranches to get to the Schreibers’ ranch. Everyone was up early after a night’s sleep in the bunkhouse, and with our coffee in hand the collections began in the immediate vicinity of the dwellings. Though common to many Texans, the group from points beyond was excited to find its first Texas mountain laurel, and seeds were collected. Though common in cultivation, these were of value to botanic gardens that prefer seeds from known wild source, accompanied by GPS coordinates, site conditions, associated plants and additional details making these collections scientifically valuable. We also pressed specimens for drying to deposit in two or more herbaria. I had to laugh when they collected seeds of ball moss ( Tillandsia recurvata), but again, these are of interest to those who come from places where they are not weeds.

 

Styrax platanifolius at Fort Hood.

Breakfast was supplemented with sampling of Texas persimmon ( Diospyros texana), which seemed to be a hit among the group despite staining their mouths black. We left the ranch headquarters to see a site I remembered from previous visits along a crystal clear stream lined with a variety of moisture-loving plants. Unfortunately the lack of summer rain had reduced the stream to a few stagnant puddles in the lowest areas. The lush ferns I had remembered were mostly shriveled and dormant, but several fronds were collected for their spores. A diminutive yet striking plant drew attention along the stream’s shores. Galphimia angustifolia is composed of a dense cluster of wiry upright stems topped with flowers in various shades of yellow, orange and red depending on their age, particularly captivating when back lit by the sun. Tess already was considering where she wanted to plant this at Chanticleer, and I agreed it should be investigated further for use in smaller gardens.

Festive lighting for nocturnal herbarium specimen pressing at High Hope Ranch near Glen Rose.

My 5-month old truck earned plenty of new battle scars barging through jagged rocky paths overgrown with thorny shrubbery. Eventually we couldn’t go any farther and hiked the rest of the way to a more wooded spot I remember having a nice mix of the powder blue colored Lacey oak ( Quercus laceyi) and the coveted yellow-flowered variant of the red buckeye ( Aesculus pavia var. flavescens). Q. laceyi had plenty of acorns as did Texas red oak ( Q. buckleyi). The buckeyes already had defoliated but still were bearing the large pendulous fruits on nearly every branch tip. We found some Eve’s Necklace ( Styphnolobium affine – formerly Sophora affinis) which appears to be a new record for Uvalde County and perhaps the southernmost record. We drove north to Leakey to have dinner and then visited a stretch of road to the west where we happily collected seed from the abundant cones of Pinus remota. Here they seemed to have had some recent rain, and the roadside was alive with wildflowers, including the beautiful, rather localized Asclepias texana. Another stretch was red with Salvia roemeriana, and one small roadside meadow contained a wonderful mix of S. farinacea, two Solanum species, and Mexican Hats ( Ratibida columnifera) in a variety of colors and forms.

 

Collecting seeds of a Polanisia sp . in the dry riverbed of the Frio River, Kneuper Ranch.

Along the treeline, Bill found the reticulated climbing milkweed ( Matalea reticulata) bearing its delicately pattered flowers. With dusk approaching, we made a beeline back south as Caroline had put us in touch with Bill Cofer at the nearby Annandale Ranch, home of the famous Frio Bat Cave. Bill had generously granted us access to view the bats emerging from the cave entrance. This is the second largest colony of Mexican free-tailed bats in the world, with an estimated population in the tens of millions.

The very localized Yucca necopina at High Hope Ranch near Glen Rose, TX.

An undulating ribbon of bats flowed from the entrance for what seemed like an eternity, with hawks periodically diving into the mass for dinner. I’ve seen thousands of bats emerge from other caves, but witnessing millions was quite an amazing experience for everyone. The next day was devoted to exploring the rest of Annandale Ranch, but first we stopped at the neighboring Kneuper Ranch, also owned by Caroline’s family members. A dry stretch of the Frio River passed through here, and highlights collected were Anisacanthus wrightii – abundantly grown in Texas yet surprisingly uncommon in the wild. We found a species of Lycium growing in the shade, a new county record for the genus.

 

Eryngium leavenworthii at Fort Hood.

In contrast to the Kneuper Ranch, the stretch of the Frio River that passed through the Annandale Ranch had beautifully clear flowing water and was lined with some impressive bald cypress. Though books and some DNA studies claim these are simply a westernmost population of Taxodium distichum, the lack of “knees” (distinctive growth habit) and other characteristics more closely resemble those of the Montezuma cypress, Taxodium mucronatum. Along the shores also grew the beautiful Juglans microcarpa, a native walnut that makes an attractive small tree, and a mysterious willow that doesn’t seem to readily match any of the known species of Salix in this region.

John Roberson’s amazing ranch offered terrific plants adapted to the local sandstone and granite in addition to the panoramic views.

We parted ways with George and spent one last night at the Gesundheit Ranch before some more roadside collecting en route to the Fredricksburg region. There we visited two properties, both owned by acquaintances of Boyce. Being rather dry, we saw lots of interesting things but they lacked seed, so little was collected, but we got a diversity of S. farinacea seeds and plenty of acorns from Bigelow oak ( Q. sinuata var. breviloba). We were all looking forward to our next site, a ranch owned by former Peckerwood board member John Roberson in the Llano Uplift region of central Texas. This geologic feature is an “island” of granite and sandstone among the surrounding sea of limestone that makes up the Hill Country. With a more acidic soil, this is an oasis of plants that tend to prefer less alkaline conditions, and several interesting endemics occur isolated here. On the drive to his ranch, we spotted one of our trip’s targets, Lindheimer’s ironweed ( Vernonia lindheimeri) with its silvery foliage topped with plenty of seed heads that were formerly electric purple flowers.

 

A sea of Salvia azurea in Cedar Hill State Park.

John and his dog led us around the various habitats on his spectacular ranch. Though mostly shriveled and dormant, the fern and Selaginella diversity was high. Bill was happy to finally find Parthenocissus heptaphylla in fruit, which unlike its abundant relative, Virginia creeper, which bears five leaflets, this species is larger statured and holds seven leaflets which are abruptly jagged toward the tip. Another vine we were pleased to see was Passiflora affinis, but unfortunately without fruits.

 

John led us into a riparian area with unexpected westernmost populations of more easterly trees like Q. shumardii. The non-Texans in the group preferred the mustang grapes ( Vitis mustangensis) over the semi-ripe fruits of Prunus mexicana and were collecting everyone’s spit-out grape seeds.

A nice Pinus remota with pendulous tips.

Our sights were set on collecting some interesting things known to occur in the natural areas on the Fort Hood property near Killeen. We slammed on brakes when we found our first Eryngium leavenworthii in flower along a back road. It appeared as if someone spray painted the foliage of a thistle royal purple, the intense colors captivated us until we finally collected some seed. Further down the road we found a nice colony of the baby blue Yucca pallida loaded with seeds.

 

The following morning we went through background checks for security clearance to enter Fort Hood.

A cypress-lined stretch of the Frio River on the Annandale Ranch that held water.

George reconvened with us, and soon we were met by Carla Picinich, a biologist for the military property, who we had learned had been working nights doing deer counts in preparation for the fall hunt quotas. We felt bad that she was going to spend the next two days with us, meaning 48 hours with little to no sleep just to help us access our target species. On the eastern edge of the Hill Country near Waco, the Fort Hood property has several unusual plants we were seeking. One was the easternmost and highly disjunct population of of bigtooth maples ( Acer grandidentatum), second was the sycamor-leaved silverbell, Styrax platanifolius, and another was Croton alabamensis var. texensis. The latter species has leaf undersides colored a metallic silver and has a very strange distribution in a few restricted spots in Alabama and a few sites in Texas.

The maples and Styrax were abundant in the right micro-climates in the Owl Creek Mountains (really hills), but seed was eluding us. Finally we found one specimen of each species with an acceptable amount of seed. A bonus was finding the red-flowered Clematis texensis loaded with seed. The site with the croton was very parched, the wilted plants showing no signs of fruiting this year, but it was exciting to finally see the Texas form in the wild.

Tess, George and Boyce walking among giant bald cypresses near the Frio River, Annandale Ranch.

We bid farewell to George, and aimed toward our next base of operations at High Hope Ranch near Glen Rose, which offers some wonderful guest houses and caters to visiting nature lovers. When owner Sandy Skrei learned of our plans, she invited the local master naturalists and other key folks out to botanize with us and even organized a wonderful dinner with additional enthusiasts from the region. Highlights collected here included the Glen Rose yucca ( Yucca necopina) which is only found in a handful of counties in this region. Near the ranch, we were taken to a significant, and likely northernmost population of Styrax platanifolius that was loaded with seed. It was fascinating to comb through the dozens of individuals displaying a wide diversity of leaf shapes.

 

The largest Quercus sinuata var. breviloba I have ever seen, with Bill McLaughlin for scale, at Dogwood Canyon Preserve.

Reaching the northerly limits of our expedition, we arrived in the southern outskirts of the Dallas region at Dogwood Canyon Preserve operated by the Audubon Society. Here we met up with Bob O’Kennon from Botanical Research Institute of Texas who had been doing a floristic inventory of this diverse spot. Located in the “cross timbers” region where eastern and western trees mix, the preserve is named after the presence of one of the westernmost populations of flowering dogwood, Cornus florida. We collected abundant seeds of the northerly populations of Mexican buckeye, ( Ungnadia speciosa) in hopes they might be adaptable to other colder locations.

 

Later in the day we headed to Cedar Hill State Park, where we joined by Sam Kieschnick, urban wildlife biologist with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. He took us to a prairie restoration project that was full of fascinating plants, most noticeably a sea of 6-foot tall Salvia azurea in full bloom. Rosa foliolosa was flaunting its red hips, and a large species of penstemon was begging us to take its seeds. Another site that included a wetland restoration project was carpeted by halberd-leaf rosemallow ( Hibiscus laevis). Generally white with red centers, there was considerable variability with some light red to dark purple centers, snowy white to pink blushed petals, and even one with unusual pink “brush strokes.” Seeds were collected to capture the diversity, and I collected cuttings to preserve the more distinctive forms.

Bob O’Kennon gave the group a tour of BRIT, and afterwards we strolled through Fort Worth Botanical Garden with director Bob Byers and explored its significant collection of begonia species and hybrids with Don Miller who oversees the collection. On the way back to Houston, we stopped for some roadside collecting. Boyce, who enjoys bulbs, was happy when I found a stretch of roadside loaded with Habranthus tubispathus, and later Zephyranthes peduncularis. Near Navasota we collected Echinacea atrorubens from a prairie remnant and some Baptisia nuttalliana and B. bracteata seeds to embellish Chicago Botanic Garden’s large collection of this genus. Rounding out the final collections of the trip were some easy access Q. falcata and Q. incana.

Back in Houston, the seeds and herbarium presses were shipped to Chicago for processing and distribution to PCC participants. We stayed up past midnight organizing our field notes for a detailed narrative of the trip before Boyce, Tess and Bill each flew home. A lot of ground was covered interacting with a lot of wonderful people, all resulting in a lot of important collections that will be prominently featured in the collections of a number of U.S. botanic gardens.

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Garden Documentation Project Underway

A page from John Fairey's plant journal
A page from John Fairey’s plant journal.

Peckerwood Garden founder John Fairey kept meticulous records of his numerous collecting expeditions to Mexico. He recorded the date, time, and weather at each stop along winding mountain roads where he found specimens of the hundreds of plants he brought back to grow at Peckerwood Garden.

Each plant in the garden sports a metal tag referencing these coordinates; and the date of its planting in the garden. For many years, these tags have been the only reference point for identifying plants in the garden and their place of origin.

That is changing now, thanks to a generous gift from Laura Fain in honor of plantsman Will Fleming. The gift is providing seed money for an ambitious initiative to capture our plant records in a new and dynamic database tied to a GIS (Global Information System). This sophisticated mapping program will allow staff and researchers to not only learn the history of any plant, but also locate it growing in the garden today.

With more than 3000 species of plants, Peckerwood Garden is a cornucopia of botanical riches, with origins in diverse climatic zones and conditions, most grown from seed. The array of trees, shrubs, perennials, and bulbs is representative of growing areas from Louisiana to the mountains of northern Mexico. The range of cacti and succulents, for which Peckerwood is perhaps best known, come from desert areas stretching from Texas into southern Mexico.

These plants have been tested for garden-worthiness for nearly 30 years and the information gathered about their horticultural values is as important as the botanical data represented in John’s records.

Leading our plant collections initiative is Sue Howard, a horticulturist based in Vermont who has taken up residence in the nursery house at Peckerwood Garden for the winter months. She is working closely with garden consultant Bill Noble, former preservation director at the Garden Conservancy, who has tapped into the Alliance for Public Gardens to enroll Peckerwood Garden in a pilot project using the ESRI GIS software. This program is making it possible for a select group of public gardens to use this sophisticated software at virtually no cost.

peckerwood-garden-documentation-project-oak-leaf
Documenting the Mexican Oaks at Peckerwood Garden

Sue is spending her days walking the garden with John, transcribing stories of the individual plants and their history, then poring over the collection journals and stacks of note cards to pull together the data behind each plant in the garden. Her first efforts have been focused on the Mexican oaks, which were documented and mapped in 2007. It was no surprise to learn that a dozen additional species had found their way into the garden since then!

Each tree is measured to determine the current caliper size, and its specific location identified for the new site map. Botanical photos of leaf, bark, flower, and seed will also be part of the database record, all shareable with botanical institutions and, one day, with the general public.

We will be updating you on this complex effort as it goes along, and hope you will join us for a presentation about the project by Sue Howard at the garden on Saturday, March 28th, in conjunction with our Open Day.

Documenting Peckerwood Garden’s plant collections through participation in ArcGIS for public gardens is an essential first step towards participating in national plant conservation programs. This step will also lead us towards making Peckerwood’s plants available for research and horticultural purposes. Documenting and sharing Peckerwood’s outstanding resources with researchers and other public gardens is an essential part of our vision for the future of the Garden.

— Bill Noble

I have been here at Peckerwood since early January and am thrilled to be part of such an interesting project in such a splendid and notable garden. Working alongside John is a pleasure, he is a wealth of information, interjected with stories of travels and beams with the pure joy of doing what he loves.

We have been updating the previously catalogued oaks, adding additions, taking leaf samples, measuring caliper, photographing each individual tree and cross referencing each with the coinciding collection trips to Mexico. The oaks are interspersed throughout the garden so every venture brings with it glimpses of spring unfolding – the Prunus mume in full bloom, Magnolias just starting and the sweet scent of Mahonia chochoca wafting through the air.

Our ArcGIS software has arrived and once up and running we begin mapping. There is a great team of people here both staff and dedicated volunteers who love this garden, I am honored to be a part of that mix.

— Sue Howard

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Expedition to the Edges

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 Carapán, 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