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Yucca desmetiana

By Adam Black
Another highlight in our nursery inventory and our plant of the month, is a regularly asked- about specimen on our Peckerwood Garden tours. This distinctive and mysterious yucca is unlike any other, with a lot of conflicting information surrounding its true identity.
Originally described in 1870 from a cultivated plant, more recently folks have suggested it could be a hybrid of natural or garden origin, but it may be a naturally occurring species – I don’t know if anyone really knows for sure.
They can be seen growing staked for vertical growth near the Pool Plaza.
Yucca desmetiana may want to creep along the ground when the stems get too long_ or they can be staked up.
Yucca desmetiana  may want to creep along the ground when the stems get too long, or they can be staked up.
Adding to the confusion are a variety of names it has been offered under in cultivation, including Yucca x desmetiana (reflecting the hybrid theory), Yucca aloifolia ‘Purpurea,’ Y ucca samuelii, and cultivar names including ‘Blue Boy’ and ‘Spellbound,’ all appearing to be the same plant. Though there are reports of it flowering in cultivation, I can’t find any photos, and to my knowledge it has never flowered here. Its chalky blue-green foliage displays purple blush on the new foliage, which intensifies after some winter chilling. Unlike many other species, this yucca has soft rubbery leaves that won’t result in loss of blood. A smaller-statured species, it starts with an erect stem that will produce a cluster of additional stems from the base, but with poor structural integrity it will eventually start leaning under its own weight and soon be scrambling in a twisting manner along the ground, which can create an interesting effect spilling over rocks, especially when it produces multiple stems. John made an interesting grouping of them near the pool plaza where they are staked up, but when they get too tall and lanky for his liking they get cut back to allow new stems to take their place. It is also great for containers, and maybe even a large hanging basket when it starts creeping around.
Its main requirements is sun to partial shade in well-draining soil. It easily tolerates our region’s extremes of heat and cold without any issues. Come purchase one from our nursery while they last.
The chill-intensified purple blush that fades somewhat when the temperatures warm.
The chill-intensified purple blush that fades somewhat when the temperatures warm.
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Quercus glauca

This beautiful evergreen Asian oak tends to form multiple trunks bearing a dense crown of glossy green leaves with chalky blue undersides.

Peckerwood is known for its extensive oak collection, especially those from John’s Mexican collections, but we do have a variety of Asian oaks as well. A few decades ago, John imported seeds of Quercus glauca, also known as the Japanese Blue Oak or Ring-Cupped Oak. They germinated well and were offered through Yucca-do Nursery locally and via mail order, but according to John none sold, presumably due to being just too unfamiliar to collectors at that time. After sitting around for a while, they were eventually planted around the Peckerwood and Yucca-do properties. As they attained significant size, people finally began to notice what attractive evergreen trees they had become, with spreading branching structure, multiple trunks and smooth polychrome bark in shades of silver, white, light green and grey. Many did not immediately recognized these trees as oaks, being the thick, stiff glossy leaves with dark green tops and chalky blue undersides didn’t look remotely like any familiar North American oak. The spreading branching structure was especially appealing, combined with the naturally dense crown. These trees began producing seed –recognizable as a standard oak acorn, but with concentric rings encircling the cap, hence one of the common names (Ring-Cupped Oak). With mature trees to behold in the garden, and now offspring, there were now customers lined up for the opportunity to finally grow this tree that had to earn its admiration over time in the Peckerwood landscape.

Quercus Glauca

Quercus Glauca

20160421_151443I have been fortunate to see Q. glauca in Taiwan where it is native. It occurs in low elevation tropical forests that are rather dry, yet when grown in colder areas it is quite tolerant of hard freezes it would not otherwise see naturally. It does get some damage in zone 7 but excels in zone 8 to 10. It seems adaptable to any location with well-drained soil and full sun to light shade. I think the best specimens are attained in full exposure, starting out as a compact tree with a fairly upright habit, and eventually producing additional trunks that spread gracefully outward. If grown in shadier conditions, it will grow more vertical, less spreading, as it reaches for the light. Examples of both forms growing in these different conditions can be observed at Peckerwood, and both have their merits.

In March, the new growth emerges a purple-bronze color that is quite attractive, and when the tree is a little older this growth will be accompanied by hanging catkins of flowers.  Of particular note are the trees on the west side of the nursery property, as they did not receive any supplemental water in the most recent prolonged drought, yet they really never missed a beat. Taiwan was in a severe drought when I visited in early 2015, and many adjacent natives were clearly wilted and suffering while Q. glauca looked flawless.

We are sometimes offer small seedlings of this species propagated off Peckerwood’s magnificent trees– the perfect size for planting.

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Dyschoriste linearis – Snake Herb

Dyschoriste linearis

Dyschoriste-thin-leaf-form-available-in-nursery

Dyschoriste linearis

Some might expect a “plant of the month” to be some exceptionally rare and boldly attractive plant. This month I wanted to focus on a groundcover that at first glance may seem quite humble in many ways, but is in fact incredibly versatile and has a unique charm of its own. I always liked Dyschoriste after growing a Florida native species prior to my move, but assumed others would never see its attractive qualities over the more flashy options. Shortly after starting at Peckerwood, I was surprised to find that one of our most reliable volunteers, Craig Jackson, shared my appreciation of the patch of Dyschoriste linearis that John has growing along the perennial border near the south entrance to the woodland garden. I then began to see that nurseries here in Texas actually carry this plant, and soon found that, when offered in our nursery, others were attracted to it and bought it, shattering my assumptions!

Snake Herb is an evergreen Texas native that is drought tolerant, cold hardy and low maintenance, with dense, weed-suppressing foliage that looks attractive year around. Dyschoriste linearis is a highly variable plant, with leaves that can be either thin and needle-like, or slightly more

20160602_190805

Dyschoriste linearis

broad and elliptical. John’s plant is the broad-leaf form, but the linear-leaved form seems to be more common in the nursery trade. Both are equally attractive and create a low, dense mat of 8” to 12” tall evergreen stems that gradually form a tight, tidy clump. Throughout the warmer months, purple flowers resembling smaller versions of the related Ruellia are readily visible.

Naturally growing in dry, sunny spots in sandy or gravelly open areas, this plant is amazingly tolerant of neglect following establishment, after which water should only be necessary following long dry spells. The dense mat it forms tends to be compact and tight, but occasionally an errant runner will result in a random patch or two forming a short distance away from the main plant. Some may prefer to remove any satellite clumps if you are keeping a more formal, organized landscape, but for naturalizing it is simply a matter of preference. It is in no way an aggressive spreader, so it will not become something you regret planting and removal of undesired shoots easy.

South entrance to the Woodland Garden

In addition to its xeric qualities, snake herb will also grow in fertile garden soil with regular irrigation,

Quercus-oblongifolia

Quercus oblongifolia

provided there is excellent drainage and at least a fair portion of the day in full sun. Design ideas utilizing this plant include planting around bold foliage, like around the base of thick, succulent Agave leaves, or as a foreground layer in front of or in-between taller specimen perennials or low shrubs. I think its color and texture goes well with silver colored foliage. Gravel mulch around the plant really helps make the clump stand out compared with wood mulch or bare earth.

Don’t be put off by the common name “Snake Herb”, it does not attract snakes any better than other ground covers. In fact, I can’t readily find out why it has that common name. Other species elsewhere in the world, some of which form taller shrubs, have many cultural medicinal uses, and perhaps somewhere it has been used to treat snakebite. Quite possibly it is instead named for its long snakelike rhizomes which results in its ability to form a colony. Either way it is a valuable addition to any well-drained sunny landscape.

We currently have the needle-leaf form available in our nursery, but we are also rooting divisions of John’s elliptical-leaved form. Adam will be bringing a Florida collection of Dyschoriste oblongifolia to trial in Texas, and there are several other species native to the southern US to seek out in an attempt to broaden the palette of snake herb varieties that can be utilized for all their desirable qualities.

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Nannorrhops ritchiana – The Mazari Palm

A true oddity, Nannorrhops adds color, texture and interest to any garden.

With a native range extending from Yemen to Pakistan, Nannorrhops ritchiana inhabits among the most hostile environments of any palm. Summer brings temperatures above 100F while winters can dip well below freezing. Rainfall is seasonal leaving the palm well adapted to extended drought.

Despite these harsh origins, the Mazari palm is a hardy, adaptable species growing successfully in South Texas, California and Florida. Its deeply split palmate leaves range in color from gray-green to pale blue with a virtually unarmed petiole making it safe for planting along paths and walkways. It will sucker from the base and each stem is covered with a thick rust colored tomentum.
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Rare for palms, Nannorrhops exhibits above ground (dichotomous) branching, growing multiple heads from the main stem. Once a stem flowers, it will die back to the main stem, which continues to grow and branch further.

In Peckerwood Garden you can see the Nannorrhops in the South Dry Garden above the “Tall Drifter” sculpture by Peter Reginato.

Zone: 8 and higher
Soil: Adaptable to most soils given good drainage and is salt and limestone tolerant
Exposure: Part to full sun
Tolerates extreme drought but grows faster with regular irrigation and fertilizer
10ft or higher but trunks often recline with age

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Cephalotaxus harringtoniana ‘Korean Gold’

On the subject of winter interest, one unusual conifer demands attention this time of year. During warmer months, the upright Japanese plum yew selection Cephalotaxus harringtoniana ‘Korean Gold’ leaves observers wondering why a dark green plant has such a name. Only after a few late fall cold snaps will the show really start, when the outer foliage is gilded with bright yellow highlights and contrasts sharply with the dark green inner needles. This winter coloration is produced through an interesting process called “photoinhibition”. During winter when the plants are dormant and physiological functions are slowed down, they undergo a temporary change that allows them to deal with excessive sunlight that would normally be utilized for photosynthesis during the warmer months of the year. This change of color is not to be confused with fall color on deciduous trees, as these colored needles will not fall off.  On the subject of winter interest, one unusual conifer demands attention this time of year. During warmer months, the upright Japanese plum yew selection Cephalotaxus harringtoniana ‘Korean Gold’ leaves observers wondering why a dark green plant has such a name. Korean-GoldOnly after a few late fall cold snaps will the show really start, when the outer foliage is gilded with bright yellow highlights and contrasts sharply with the dark green inner needles. This winter coloration is produced through an interesting process called “photoinhibition”. During winter when the plants are dormant and physiological functions are slowed down, they undergo a temporary change that allows them to deal with excessive sunlight that would normally be utilized for photosynthesis during the warmer months of the year. This change of color is not to be confused with fall color on deciduous trees, as these colored needles will not fall off.

Many conifers will show photoinhibition to a slight degree if conditions are consistently cold, appearing in winter as light green to slightly golden, or in some specie bronze, brown or reddish purple. Even loblolly pines will have a slight, barely noticeable light green to gold hue after some cold weather. However, certain rare individuals will display photoinhibition to an excessive degree, visually appearing a bright shocking gold, and these notable examples become popular winter garden subjects. Korean-Gold-(2)There are several cultivars of pines, hemlocks, firs and spruces that are as yellow as a school bus in winter, then revert back to normal green in summer.

Unfortunately there are few of these selections that are adaptable to southeast Texas, or they will thrive but simply don’t receive enough chilling to attain the coloration in USDA zones 8-9. Cephalotaxus harringtoniana ‘Korean Gold’ is one of the few that will develop color in winter in this area, most prominently in the inland sections away from the warming influence of the gulf. Though plum yews are most often utilized in shady garden settings, most will also happily take nearly full sun but might require a little more irrigation. In order for ‘Korean Gold’ to attain the best winter color it will require this sort of open exposed conditions. In sheltered areas it will remain plain green, no different than the regular form of upright (fastigiate) C. harringtoniana.

 

-Adam Black

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Senecio aschenbornianus

Senecio aschenborneanus

Senecio aschenbornianus was a new one for me upon starting here last month. I had grown many other members of this genus from North American natives, South African succulent species, as well as Asian representatives too. I was quite drawn to the color and shape of the blue/gray foliage which somewhat resembled a shrunken oak leaf hydrangea. The multi-stemmed shrub held this beautiful evergreen foliage in a naturally dense manner. Though it looks very tender, the plant is remarkably hardy in our area, without any blemished leaves through the several freezes we’ve had. Normally walking around with my head to the ground looking at every plant I am passing, I was stopped in my tracks yesterday by a sudden sweet fragrance that I couldn’t immediately place. Prying my eyes up to survey the surroundings for the source resulted in an instant visual impact of school-bus yellow mounds of Johns grouping of three plants. The buds that had been on the plant since January had all suddenly opened seemingly overnight. During one of my always-enlightening walks in the garden with John, I had remarked on my great appreciation for this plant based on foliage alone, figuring the flowers would be simply an added bonus. He mentioned not collecting it for years as it was “everywhere” in Mexico, and being so abundant it was just seemingly less of a priority while out searching for the few-and-far-between treasures. Fortunately he did finally collect it and now I can’t wait to propagate it for others to enjoy as much as I have. John has grown it in the dappled sunlight of a high overhead tree canopy and has endured zone 8b winters like a champ. It is being grown in a well-drained setting with supplemental irrigation only when necessary and seems pretty ironclad once established. Check in later this year for this plant’s availability in our nursery.

— Adam Black

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Beschorneria septentrionalis

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

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The Mystery Magnolia

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. The patchwork of people, places, plants and events form an integral composition that has become a way of life.

The mountains of northeast Mexico are rich in natural beauty — spaces that are awesome and breathtaking — and the dramatic environmental changes which occur on the eastern side of this range have produced a variety of amazingly diverse habitats that are rich in numbers of plant species. It is not unusual to find dogwoods growing in a moist canyon on the northeast side of the mountain and walk only a few feet to see agaves and yuccas thriving on a hot and dry western slope. These phenomenal changes also occur when climbing in altitude. The myriad forms, colors, and textures of this exotic array of plants unfold into an unbelievably beautiful landscape that is indeed an intense experience.

Being at the right place at the right time is an important factor in searching for plants. We have rarely returned from one of our numerous expeditions without being able to report the discovery of a new plant with potential use. Frequently it was found in an area that we had explored time and time again, but it was another season and a different time of day. Natural light effects our lives in a multitude of wonderful ways.

Learning how to listen is also of utmost importance on a botanizing expedition. Just a few words about a place or a plant family from someone you meet along the way or a traveling companion can open a whole new field of interest. During the past six years, we have made the opportunity to travel with many wonderful persons from various areas of this country and abroad — some very young; others old, wise and experienced; and some even more eccentric than we. All have been very knowledgeable and anxious to share. Through this complex layering process, we have gleaned much botanical, horticultural, geological, and cultural information, but above all else, each of these personalities has had an important impact on our lives. What a great way to learn.

In January of 1990, on the recommendation of Mark Kane (at that time associate editor of Fine Gardening), a research team sponsored by the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University contacted us regarding a proposed expedition to the Sierra Madre Oriental. The purpose of this expedition was to collect samples of Taxus globosa to be used in a cancer research project sponsored by the National Cancer Institute. Their previous venture into the area to locate taxus had ended in failure; therefore, to insure that this expedition would be a success, during the summer of 1990, we purchased maps that had been compiled and printed by the Mexican government during the 1970’s. Several of these maps proved most informative because they recorded vegetation with reference to specific areas. By plant family name association, we were able to locate several new colonies of Taxus globosa. To our surprise we noted that Magnolia grandiflora is listed in this plant inventory. Could this information possibly be correct, or is it just another botanical error? This mystery magnolia stimulated much excitement and haunted our thoughts, but many months and events passed before there was time to look further into this intriguing information.

The College of Forestry Science at the State University of Nuevo Leon, in Linares, arranged for Eduardo Estrada-C., a biology student, to accompany us on this expedition to collect Taxus globosa. In mid-October of 1990 we were joined by Lalo, as Eduardo is called by his friends, and headed off on this memorable quest. We had spent long hours studying maps and untold days in late summer locating and maneuvering through uncharted networks of narrow, rocky roads and paths that lead to higher elevations where taxus grow. As a result we were able to quickly lead the research team to large stands of healthy trees. We located five colonies of this potentially important small tree and the researchers collected foliage and branch samples from over fifty trees for testing. We have never been privy to the information concerning exact figures on the taxol content of these samples, whatever happened to the rooted cuttings made from some of these collections, or just who is to benefit from this project. It is hoped that in the future it will be Mexico.

At 8:45 a.m. on a balmy day in mid-December 1990, accompanied again by Lalo, we leave the town of Linares and head south to search for a road that will lead us into a rugged mountain range where Magnolia grandiflora is reported to grow.

These high altitude mountains that we are so eager to investigate are approximately 75 miles northwest of Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas. If indeed there are magnolias here, this location would be approximately 125 miles north of the evergreen magnolias found at Rancho del Cielo Biosphere Reserve at Gomez Farfas, Tamaulipas. This mountain range is positioned so that the peaks and valleys form windows and doors with direct access to the Gulf of Mexico. The coastal breezes sweep into these areas and produce heavy fog during the dry months and an abundance of rain in late summer and early fall. On numerous occasions we have observed these distant mountains shrouded in clouds. The question is, how does one get into these remote areas that are possibly supporting cloud forest with great potential for new species? Our antiquated maps show what could be a small road or a trail in the lowlands, but at higher elevations it is impossible to separate road and trail from contours. One way or another, we are determined to explore the mystery of this magnolia.

Around 10:00 a.m. we turn off one of the major highways leading south and slowly make our way over a one lane dirt road that leads to a small village at the edge of a river. Here our map indicates that this road will cross the river and begin climbing into the mountains.

The previous summer had been unusually dry; therefore, the endless scrub and thorny brush that surround and arch over both sides of the road are heavy with gray-brown dust. The surface of the road is very bumpy, and often we are forced to drive so slowly that the wind carries the dust made by our tires ahead of the vehicle. Like the trees and shrubs, every inch of the truck, its contents, and all occupants are quickly covered in talcum-like dust. There are few incentives to linger in the parched lowlands because we are excited by the prospect of making our way into the cool and green mountains.

The road enters the village where we slow to a crawl to get our bearings and to admire the beautifully crafted dwellings. There are ten or so families living in this communal ejido which is perched high on a mesa overlooking a clear, swift-flowing river and the distant mountains. When we reach the far end of the village, it quickly becomes apparent that there is no river crossing here. The remains of what had been a road are visible on both sides of the river, but floods have eroded the banks and cut deep holes in the river bed. There is an abrupt ten foot drop between the old road and the river’s edge. Not even our four wheel drive vehicle with its heavy duty tires could maneuver this. Everyone in the village comes out to greet us, question our needs, and assist with information on where and how to get to the other side of the river. Needless to say, Lalo receives numerous conflicting directions.

Lalo does a great job of interpreting the bits and pieces of information and, after several wrong turns, we reach another nearby village. Here we ask directions from only one person, and within minutes we drive down to the edge of the cold, crystal clear river. Ancient Mexican cypresses (Taxodium mucronatum) with massive trunks and far spreading branches line the river bank. We safely ford the river with water lapping at our car doors, foolishly thinking that the worst is behind us and that it will soon be possible to begin our ascent to higher elevations. As soon as we leave the river bed and its far bank, we encounter three forks in the road, each well worn to the same degree. We choose the one to the right, because it seems to head toward the mountains. It is the wrong choice, and as the day progresses, we make many other wrong decisions. We give a man who has been milking his herd of goats a short ride. Oh, how good that still warm milk smelled to us all, and for a short time he had us headed in the right direction. For miles the narrow road leads through a dense and impenetrable jungle of small trees, shrubs, and vines that obscure the mountains and make it visually impossible to determine our orientation.

Occasionally we see small trees that have pushed their branches above the thicket, and these umbrella-like canopies are laden with winged seed pods that are brilliant wine-red. Contrasted with the glossy dark green foliage they make a dazzling show in the morning light. We recognize these trees as Wimmeria concolor and note the approximate location in our journal.

“We had no idea that this outstanding ornamental is found this far north, and this information alone would have made the expedition worthwhile.”

All are about ready to give up, when suddenly the road surface changes from powdery dry dust to bouncy pebbles. Abruptly we begin our climb and there is a dramatic change in vegetation. The trees are taller and there are spaces between them. Mighty stone formations rise into view. Someone notes a Quercus polymorpha, the handsome and tenacious oak which has blue green foliage and grows from Guatemala to Texas. It is well past noon, we have traveled approximately 11 miles beyond the river and have reached 1,400 feet altitude. At long last, the air is fresher and cooler, and there are views into distant canyons and mountains. On the high ridges above, growing from within crevices in the stone, there are hundreds of palms (Brahea edulis) piercing the skyline.

We stop briefly to examine the glossy, dark green leaves of an orchid tree (Bauhinia sp.). Legumes are one of Lalo’s major interests and this small tree is of special concern because he thinks that it could be a new species. He took a herbarium pressing of the leaves, but, at last report, this plant is still unnamed. At this location we see Clethra pringlei, a small evergreen tree that in mid-summer flowers spectacular racemes of white, urn-shaped flowers with fragrance reminiscent of cinnamon and honey followed by deep pink fruit that slowly turns brown with maturity. The tree is familiar because we have seen it at Rancho del Cielo Biosphere Reserve. We had no idea that this outstanding ornamental is found this far north, and this information alone would have made the expedition worthwhile.

We climb to 2,000 feet and enter a dense forest of Loquat Leaf Oaks (Quercus rysophylla). Growing in the deep shade of these giant, old evergreens are thousands of palms (Sabal Mexican) which vary in size from grass-like seedlings to stately specimens up to 30 feet tall. Every once in a while, this lower canopy of dark, blue-green foliage is punctuated by the bright, acid-green leaves of a lone Brahea edulis palm that has made its way down from its usual habitat on the high ridges above.

We slowly creep higher and higher —  sometimes the tires barely make it from boulder to boulder. Often the door panels of the vehicle are only inches from solid stone on both sides. At 2:00 p.m. we have traveled 15.7 miles since crossing the river in the lowlands and have reached an altitude of 3,600 feet. We are traveling on a secondary ridge overlooking a breathtaking view that faces southeast. Through tall oaks, pines, and trunkless palms (yet another species) there are vistas of miles and miles of mountains fading into the distance. On all sides, tall rock formations thrust out of the grassy meadows. These monolithic stones, etched with intricate patterns of yellow, red, and orange lichens, are surrounded by pines with outstretched branches that sweep toward the earth. This combination of forms in a setting of gauze-like layers of mountains and valleys bring to mind recollections of early Chinese watercolors.

Since we had no idea of the time involved in finding our way into these mountains, we failed to bring a tent or sleeping bags. There are only a few hours of daylight remaining to look for the magnolia, but despite this urgency, we know that it is necessary to eat and rest for a few moments. We are famished and exhausted from anxiety and the constant jostling of the vehicle bouncing from rock to rock. So why not stop here in the midst of a beautiful space? And just as important as food for the body, we would afford ourselves a moment to examine and admire the pines (Pinus nubicola) and palms (Brahea moorei).

Shortly after lunch we reach a stretch of road that has been crudely blasted out of the side of the mountain — barely wide and tall enough for the truck to squeeze through. Just inches from the wheels on the driver’s side there is an abrupt drop of a thousand or more feet. The view is dramatic, but there is a sigh of relief from all as the road slowly turns west and widens. Although the sheer stone walls are unnerving, they make an ideal habitat for a showy display of maroon, green, and silver hechtias — some are even combinations of these colors. The older plants have reached three to four feet across and their spiky, heavily serrated leaves swirl outward to form spectacular pinwheels flattened against gray stone.

Around 4:00 p.m., we reach the west side of another saddle between two mountains. The altimeter reads 4,000 feet. Growing between massive plates of smooth, gray limestone, mature oaks (Quercus canbyii) dot the landscape. This tough and uniquely beautiful tree is almost always found on dry and exposed sites. Strong winds sweep these rock surfaces clean, and only the toughest and most adaptable plants survive in areas like this. Agaves and dasylirions compete for soil on the rocky ledge above the road. In the deep crevices we see cactus (Mammillaria rubrograndis), two species of zephyranthes and numerous echeveria, their fleshy, blue-green, pink and mauve leaves pulled tight for protection against winter cold and drought. Huge boulders line the lower side. These are entwined with thick mounds of butterfly vine (Mascagnia macroptera). The lacy, bright yellow flowers have long fallen, but they have been followed by clusters of rusty brown seed pods that resemble butterflies in flight.

The xerophytic make-up of this stark limestone uplift gives no indication that magnolias could be growing anywhere in the vicinity, but suddenly the road makes a sharp turn and we veer east. There is a simultaneous question from all, “liquidambar?” In a distant valley, beneath a high northeast facing ridge, we see scores of trees with vibrant orange, yellow, and scarlet foliage (in Mexico, sweetgums [Liquidambar styracitlua] color up in late autumn and do not defoliate until January and February). The old plant inventory maps group Liquidambar styraciflua and Magnolia grandiflora growing together at the same location. If these distant, colorful trees are indeed liquidambar, there is a glimmer of hope. All are in agreement and confident that these are Mexican sweetgums and there is a feeling of excitement and anticipation.

Within moments we enter a whole new world of flora and fauna. The stone lined road gives way to gentle, rolling earth. Giant pines, oaks, and hickories are the dominant trees. We are flanked by mountains that are 8,000 to 9,000 feet, and the slopes are thick with sweetgums, their fall color intensified by the late afternoon sun and the contrasting evergreens. The towering peaks act as rain magnets during the summer and provide shade and fog during the dry season. This, combined with deep and fertile red clay soil, has produced a forest of incredibly large trees. The dominant oak is Quercus satorii, many reaching a height of over 100 feet. We had seen this exceptionally handsome oak at Rancho del Cielo Biosphere Reserve, and it was growing with magnolias. Everything is beginning to fall into place. But where are the magnolias?

Driving out of the tall trees, we move onto a cleared meadow with grass sod that is kept mowed by grazing animals, and in front of us there is a magnificent view into a deep and heavily forested valley. The other sides of this pasture are lined with dense mounds of Senecio aschenborianus which are covered with large cymes of deep yellow flowers. It is 5:00 p.m. and the open space gives a false sense of remaining light, and the low winter sun on the senecio flowers creates a strange and dramatic setting. The road leads us into another pine-oak forest, and only a few hundred feet ahead we are in the midst of a thicket of young liquidambar trees. The road forks, and the right turn appears to lead to higher elevations and the left turns sharply northeast. Our better judgment tells us that northeast will be cool and damp; fortunately, this time we are correct.

At 4,000 feet, the woods become dense, and under the canopy of foliage the remaining light is dim. We are in the midst of an extraordinary array of life. This gentle north slope creates a perfect setting for deciduous and evergreen quercus, pinus, carpinus, nyssa, carya, and persea. The understory is thick with Taxus globose, vacciniums, and Cornus florida subsp. urbiniana. Gelsemium, mitchella, salvias, aquilegia, zephyranthes, beschorneria, and all sizes of ferns and mosses crowd the forest floor. Only a few feet into this magical space and we turn into a deep arroyo that is moist from seeping water. We know that at long last we are in the right place. “Here they are!” There are magnolia branches everywhere” above us and below. Some trees are thin and stately, reaching toward the sky. Several have been pushed over by rock slides and are growing prostrate along the incline, and others have air layered under the damp and thick mat of decaying leaves that gather between boulders. Trees whose trunks have been buried in broken stones are surviving and sending up new leaders from exposed branches.

There are no flowers, and we are much too late for seed, but we carefully examine the rich green foliage and feel confident that this is not Magnolia grandiflora. But what is it? It must be the same magnolia as those found at Rancho del Cielo Biosphere Reserve, but the leaf structure and color appear to be noticeably different. Even among the ten to twelve trees at this location there are many variations.

We collect five air layered cuttings from fallen trees, making sure that there are two from a tree that has very dark, exceptionally long and narrow green leaves. The one or two delicate white roots are carefully wrapped in damp paper, placed in a plastic bag, and then stored in an empty cooler. We quickly record our mileage (21.45 miles), elevation (4,100 feet), and give the cuttings a collection number (T28M-8p-121790).

It is now dark and only glimpses of light pierce through the dense foliage. At this location there is no space to turn the vehicle around, so it is necessary to continue for another mile before finding a safe place to make this maneuver. In deep darkness and silence, we slowly retrace the day’s journey back to Linares for a few hours of rest before heading out on another adventure. We are exhausted from tension and every bone is reacting to the constant joggling. But all are happy and excited within — we have found our way into a paradise-like setting with overwhelming diversity of flora and fauna and have located the mystery magnolia.

— John G. Fairey