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April 2016 Newsletter

Exciting News and Awards!

John Fairey
John Fairey

As further proof of the national significance of Peckerwood Garden, founder John G. Fairey has received two prominent, national gardening honors this Spring.

He is the 2016 recipient of The American Horticultural Society’s most prestigious award, the Liberty Hyde Bailey Award, one of the Great American Gardeners Awards that the AHS presents annually to individuals, organizations, and businesses that represent the best in American horticulture. The Society recognized John’s lifetime contributions to American horticulture across numerous fields, from teaching and research to the nursery industry. John will be honored in June at the Great American Gardeners Awards Ceremony and Banquet at the Society’s headquarters at River Farm in Alexandria, Virginia.

John was also awarded the 2016 Place Maker Award from the New York City-based Foundation for Landscape Studies. This annual award is given to “a person who has used design imagination and horticultural skill to create a garden or park of exceptional beauty.” The foundation noted, “John Fairey’s contributions to the science and art of horticulture are everywhere evident at Peckerwood, the garden he has been continually creating since the early 1970s in Hempstead, Texas, on the outskirts of Houston. A plant explorer, botanical researcher, teacher, and distributer of rare specimens though Yucca Do Nursery, he is also an artist whose landscape design skills take gardening beyond the realm of simple plant display. In addition, Fairey directs Peckerwood’s collaboration with several research institutions on plant conservation and the effects of climate change on gardens in Texas and elsewhere.” The Foundation for Landscape Studies will honor John at their awards luncheon at the Boat House in Central Park in May.

Over the course of his career, John has received many awards, including the prestigious Scott Medal from the Scott Arboretum of Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 2013, and the Commercial Award from the American Horticultural Society in 1996 for his work with Yucca Do.


Adam’s notes from the garden…FLOOD UPDATE

IMG_1737As work began on this newsletter, the waters were receding after the severe flooding that affected southeastern Texas the previous night (April 17-18). I had heard of the periodic floods Peckerwood experiences when Dry Creek, which runs east-west through the garden, submerges a significant portion of the garden under many feet of water. Upon arrival at the gardens I proceeded toward the creek, first passing through the South “Dry” Garden which was more like an archipelago of gravel islands emerged from a muddy sea, though unlike the standard single palm tree in the cliché “desert” islands, these instead bore a single agave, cactus, or other xeric plant marooned at the highest point – John’s attempt to keep their roots as dry as possible based on past experience. The adjacent rain lily berm, high above the surrounding puddles, was blanketed with white flowering species of Zephyranthes perfectly happy with the weather,  though the accompanying blue inflorescences of larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) were not as enthused, being beaten to the ground by the night’s rain.

 

20160418_115657Proceeding into the woodland garden I could clearly see in the distance the swollen creek had flooded into the “hallway” area – the long strip of lawn paralleling the creek that John created to provide wonderful vistas of the garden along its length. As I got closer, I realized the water had already receded quite a bit. A planting of young Brahea moorei and dwarf Cryptomeria japonica ‘Gyo Kuryu’ next to me were cocked in a 45 degree angle westward, with accumulations of leaves, twigs, and other debris carried by the flowing waters until it became trapped on the foliage. Then I noticed all the mulch is completely washed away. Further analysis revealed the water had been six feet higher than what I was currently observing at some point in the night, coming quite close to the corner of John’s art gallery and well into the north dry garden and into the neighbor’s property to the north, resulting in the fence being bent over from all the organic material it collected. Seeing a metal plant stake lying on the bare ground, I pick it up to see which plant it goes with, only to find it belongs to a plant about 50 feet further east! I then see a 5’ boxwood uprooted and laying on its side, and then muddy craters where a few recently planted Camellias once existed, hopefully to be found somewhere further downstream.

IMG_9352Despite being one of the worst flooding events in Peckerwood’s history, it soon became apparent that this is a very resilient garden, and things would be back to normal very soon. Peckerwood is a garden of extremes – weathering the toughest bouts of heat, cold, humidity, drought and even deluges – and we learn from a lot about various plants’ tolerances (or intolerances) of these events  in order to find those iron-clad options for the harshest landscapes. Within two days it was amazing to see how much things have improved, thanks to head gardener Adolfo Silva, and gardener, Ricardo Bautista who also brought his son to help in the recovery effort. Mulch which accumulated in shrubbery downstream was collected and replaced in the beds, some of the plants that had washed away were recovered a few hundred feet downstream, and surprisingly things were nearly back to normal by our scheduled open day that following Saturday, with our thoughts now focused more on our few volunteers and friends who did suffer significant loss when their homes got flooded. Unfortunately we also learned of the significant damage that our friends at Mercer Arboretum and Botanical Gardens sustained, resulting in their closing for quite some time while they clean up and assess the damage.

 On a more positive note, spring has remained in the air beyond this deviation in the otherwise beautiful weather we’ve been having. We continue to have a procession of new foliage on various trees and shrubs, often emerging beautiful shades of red, pink, amber, silver, purple or bronze before fading to a fresh green. Though last IMG_9584month oaks were the stars for colorful flushes, this month it is the members of the laurel family (Lauraceae). Several hardy cinnamon trees, including Cinnamomum wilsonii and C. chekiangense, have beautiful bright red new foliage that initially hangs straight downward from the branches, often looking like it is wilted, but this is completely normal. When backlit by the low evening sun, the color is intensified to a molten extreme. Neolitsea sericea has new leaves that emerge with a metallic golden fuzz, transitioning to a less fuzzy silver to pink to finally green. Machilus thunbergii and Phoebe chekiangensis both have amber to bronze colored glossy leaves that almost look like they are made of plastic, which emerge from a thick bud accentuated with neatly organized scales that create an ornate scrimshaw-like pattern. Lindera aggregata emerges with a fuzzy golden indumentum that contrasts sharply with the dark green leaves from the previous season, further accentuated with golden flowers.

Machilus thunbergii

Various flowering trees are also demanding attention. There has been a succession of blooms among our many members of the silverbell family (Styracaceae). The first to flower were the eastern US native Halesia diptera and two species in the Asian genus Sinojackia, S. rehderiana and S. xylocarpa.  Following them was an interesting unknown Asian Styrax species originally received as S. tonkinensis. Next in line is one obtained as S. serrulatum, but this identification needs to be confirmed as the leaf margins are not at all serrulate as the name implies. Different selections of Styrax japonicus, including ‘Emerald Pagoda’ became the highlights on our most recent tours. Not seen by many due to its location north of the creek is the very distinctive Texas native Styrax platanifolius ssp. platanifolius, with its unusually broad, rounded to slightly sycamore-shaped leaves with contrastingly light undersides, complemented with the typical white flowers of the family. Nearby, but still small and not yet flowering, is another rare native subspecies S. platanifolius ssp. youngae.

IMG_9584Above, below and in between all the native and exotic silverbells are various other odds and ends showing off. Several of John’s Mexican collections of Bauhinia are in full flower, including the royal purple B. bartlettii and smaller-statured B. ramosissima. I was quite struck with another one of John’s Mexican collectons, Mimosa martindelcampoi, which has interesting clusters of pink pom-poms along with highly distinctive pinnate leaves, the terminal leaflet closely resembling the bilobed leaf typical of Bauhinia.  In the understory, several Asian jack-in-the-pulpits (Arisaema spp.) are displaying their alien inflorescences. A. kiushianum inflorescences give the impression of a 3” high black and white swirly-striped owl with a 12” long whip like structure protruding from its “mouth”. The nearby A. heterophylla has much taller cobra-like inflorescence held above the strange foliage. Many cacti continue to flower, along with a few Yucca species. A few Agave spp., including one of the large Agave ovatifolia, are sending up flower spikes. The arboretum meadow is a sea of light purple flowers of the native Prairie Nymph Herbertia lahue, punctuated here and there with the purple poppy mallow flowers.


Calendar

  • Saturday April 23 Peckerwood Garden Open day
  • Saturday April 30 Houston Garden Conservancy Garden Tours & Peckerwood Garden Plant Sale (located in Houston)
  • Sunday May 8 (Mother’s day) Peckerwood Garden Open day
  • Saturday May 14 Monthly focused training: Perennials and Groundcover
  • Saturday May 21 Friends of Peckerwood Day
  • Friday June 17 Monthly focused training
  • Saturday July 16 Monthly focused training
  • Friday August 19 Monthly focused training

What’s new in the nursery?

Pyrrosia-lingua-Ogon-NishikiDiplazium-proliferum-e1388722754363Plant sales have been quite swift but we are working to have more things in the pipeline. There are a few leftovers I originally saved for the Gulf Coast Fern Society to have first crack at during their visit, including some tropical species that should do okay in the warmer microclimates of Houston, or as houseplants. Diplazium proliferum is a rarely seen large growing fern with fronds to about 5’ long held on a short 12” high trunk – almost like a squat tree fern. The interesting thing about this species is it is one of the “mother fern” types, producing plantlets along the oldest fronds, which themselves grow to about 2” long before they can be detached and planted.  Other ferns include the interesting hybrid Asplenium x kenzoi which produces plantlets on the tips of the fronds, and rooted cuttings of the epiphytic clubmoss Huperzia squarrosa. We still have a few of the zone 8 hardy variegated tongue fern, Pyrrosia lingua ‘Ogon Nishiki’ as well as the xeric native fern Astrolepis sinuatus.

Hardy orchid trees are always a favorite, and we have some nice gallon sized Bauhinia forficata about 3’ high begging to be planted in the ground. If you live in colder areas (zone 8 or even zone 7b) now is the time to plant this adaptable species so it has a well-established root system to sustain it should an exceptionally cold winter hit seven months from now. Though slightly thorny compared with other orchid trees (but less vicious than the average rose), the large slender-petaled white flowers will make up for any slight scratches you may sustain.

20160419_133217

Sabal Uresana

For the tropical look, we have plenty of the hardy Heliconia schiedeana. Yes, you read that correctly – a hardy “lobster claw” in an otherwise highly tropical genus. In zone 9 of Houston and similar areas where it doesn’t get too exceptionally frosty, this will remain evergreen provided it has overhead protection of evergreen trees. It will freeze back if temperatures reach the mid 20’s, but will vigorously return if the root system is established (plant now!). It will only flower if it has at least two consecutive years where it doesn’t die back, but even if it does, it makes a wonderfully bold foliage plant while you patiently wait for a few mild winters.

We continue to have a good selection of hardy palms, including the beautiful Sonoran Blue Palmetto – Sabal uresana, which really needs to be grown more. A few choice conifers remain including Taxus chinensis, Cephalotaxus harringtoniana (upright and spreading forms), the very rare Cephalotaxus oliveri, Keteleeria davidii, and Pseudolarix amabilis (wow!)

Of course we always maintain a great selection of Agaves, Yuccas, Dyckias, Sotol, Aloes, Cacti, and other plants for xeriscaping. Natives, especially the perennials, have really been popular but we still have a variety of things left. Attention Collectors: You never know what obscure things I might decide to part with from my personal collection I’ve been relocating from Florida, new things appear all the time. In upcoming weeks expect the addition of some tropicals, including some rare Ficus, uncommon Begonia spp., obscure types of Peperomia, Piper, Gesneriads, and who knows what else I’ll dig up!

The nursery continues to be open by appointment on weekdays, so feel free to call and schedule your next plant shopping excursion. Availability changes rapidly so please check in advance if you are interested in anything in particular.


Volunteers hard at work!

Recent visitors to Peckerwood have noticed the big changes to the area around the office buildings. Craig Jackson, Brenda Wilson and Ruth McDonald have been chipping away at turning this former weed patch into the interesting display garden it used to be back when Yucca-do Nursery owned the property. We’ve been focusing on xeric/rock garden type plants utilizing the existing rockwork in place. There is much more to do but it is nice to see so much progress being made. We plan to continue to recover the area behind the office wrapping around to the north, where many plantings like buried under tall grass and weeds waiting to be exposed. This is an area people can enjoy during open days while waiting for the next tour and see examples of plants we offer for sale utilized in the landscape. Thanks Craig, Brenda and Ruth!Pam Romig and Nancy Royal have been regularly assisting with a variety of things including nursery inventory management, garden signage, and countless other administrative duties that help Bethany out tremendously. During the recent open days, Bob and Cherie Lee have been invaluable in the nursery helping with plant sale. John Lomax, Pam Romig and Craig Jackson are always knowledgeable docents leading tours with their own personalized enthusiasm. Many others contributed in so many ways, and we could not move forward without everyone’s help, so thank you all!


Please join us as a member of the Friends of Peckerwood. Members receive free admission on Open Days, notices of special events, discounts on plant purchases at the garden and at participating nurseries.
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Plant of the month: Quercus glauca

With this regular feature, I aim to highlight a signature Peckerwood plant with great ornamental features and adaptability to the tough climate of southeastern Texas. The plants I’ve promoted in the recent newsletters generated great interest but unfortunately were not available in the nursery just yet, resulting in frustration. Therefore I decided to make sure to put a plant in the spotlight that IS available in the nursery, at least while supplies last.

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 currently offering small seedlings of this species propagated off Peckerwood’s magnificent trees– the perfect size for planting.


From the Propagation bench:

Podocarpus nakaii

I finally brought with me from my old nursery in FL the remaining cuttings that were in the process of rooting on my mist bench. I have many things establishing in pots that will be available in a few months. Especially well-represented are warm-climate conifers, including the amazing Podocarpus nakaii from Taiwan, with long leaves and scarlet red new growth. One of the most spectacular Podocarpus – P. smithiana, has rippled leaves and hot pink new growth. How about a Podocarpus with 15” long leaves?  Podocarpus rumphii is one of the most distinctive species in that regard. Our first batch of Thujopsis dolobrata sold out quickly– one of those conifers everyone seems drawn to – and I have another nice batch of both the variegated and normal green form that will be ready to offer soon. Another highly underutilized but truly beautiful and adaptable conifer is Calocedrus formosana – one that I have a limited amount coming along but should get more propagated.

Acer fabri

A new rarely grown simple-leaved evergreen maple from my own Taiwanese collection – Acer

albopurpurascens – are nicely rooted but I’d like them to put on some new growth first before offering. Ditto on another great warm climate maple – Acer oblongum. Until then we still have some of its close relatives available – Acer fabri and A. coriaceifolium. On the subject of maples, John’s nice Acer discolor is producing hopefully fertile seeds for the first time, but I should be able to root cuttings of that species in case the seeds prove to be duds. Our visitor from Lyon Botanical Garden in France brought us many seeds including two subspecies of Acer obtusifolium. From a friend in China I received seeds of Acer cordatum. I still need to separate my group pot of Acer kawakamii seedlings from my October Taiwan collection, of which we will definitely have plenty to share later this year. Our maple collection is growing fast, and we’ll make sure yours does too!

It’s Mahonia fruiting season and I’m trying to stay one step ahead of the Cedar Waxwings before they beat me to the ripe fruits on John’s various Mexican species that need to be grown more. I could go on and on about the many additional exciting things in the works – this is just the beginning so be expecting wonderful things to be showing up in the nursery in upcoming months!


 

Monthly training classes are open with Perennials and Ground-cover. The next session is May 14th at 9 am. All active volunteers are invited to participate for free. Members may join us for $15. Pre-registration required.

Sign up Now

 

From welcoming visitors, to leading tours, to working in the garden or in our office, there are many ways to lend your talents! Let us know how you would like to get involved. Sign up to assist at an event here.

Garden society visits:

20160416_113453We had several visits from garden clubs and plant societies this month. Another group – the Lakeway Garden Club situated in the hills just west of Austin- was hoping to visit but there were some issues with travel arrangements. Therefore they did the next best thing and invited me to present on Peckerwood. This great group of enthusiastic folks were a pleasure to visit with in such a beautiful community integrated into the Hill Country. I should have taken more plants to sell as most went fast! A variety of other regional garden clubs toured the gardens over the past month, and unfortunately a few had to reschedule due to the inclement weather and flooding. Fortunately the weather was beautiful when the Texas Gulf Coast Fern Society visited Peckerwood. I gave them a special tour of the ferns here, going places we don’t normally see on the more general tours to highlight some of John’s special collections. This was another really fun group of very knowledgeable fern collectors, many of whom were very helpful in clearing up some identification issues. I brought out some special ferns from my own collection to offer, many of which were snatched up by those who arrived early. We go out of our way to cater to the focuses of specialty plant societies, so please consider a visit if you are involved with one of the many varied botanical organizations in the region.

 


Hill Country Botanizing Expedition

 

20160412_180046[1]A few weeks ago we had a visitor from Jardin Botanique de Lyon (Lyon Botanical Garden) in Lyon, France. Botanist Hervé Mureau wears many hats at this garden though his primary responsibilities are as collection manager. He has a great interest in woody plants, particularly oaks, so a visit to Peckerwood was his first stop on a long botanical odyssey thorough the southwestern US on his way to Los Angeles. We had a great day and a half exploring on and off the beaten paths at Peckerwood plus the adjacent plantings Carl and Wade had planted south of the nursery, and he brought with him some gifts, including Quercus alnifolia with interesting round concave leaves with shocking yellow undersides and Cornus oblonga, his own collection of a rarely grown dogwood from northern Thailand, along with a variety of seeds. We of course reciprocated with seeds of various things in the garden, including some of John’s Mexican Mahonia collections, which are still quite unknown in European collections. Hervé had wanted to explore the interesting flora of the Hill Country west of here, and asked for locations to go. Coincidentally new Peckerwood volunteer Caroline Schreiber had recently invited me to see her 1000 acre ranch of pristine Edward’s Plateau flora in Uvalde County. On short noticed I contacted Caroline about a French-American botanical expedition to her property, and she eagerly agreed to take us.

The Hill Country endemic variety of red buckeye with yellow flowers (Aesculus pavia var. flavescens)

We met Hervé in San Antonio and he followed us to Caroline’s ranch. Very unfamiliar with this terrain beyond what I had seen along I-10 in the past, I was excited to finally see this unique area firsthand. As the geology changed on our westward drive, the roadside flora became more and more interesting, and things only got better the further we progressed down the private ranch road toward her property. I kept wanting to stop but Caroline assured me we would see plenty more on her property, and she was right. Once we arrived the view was stunning, and the wildflowers were spectacular. We wasted no time and hopped on her Ranger off-road vehicle with her two dogs and headed off to see her recommended highlights. First we stopped at a crystal clear flowing creek incised down into the white limestone, reminding me of the spring runs back in Florida. Maidenhair ferns, likely Adiantum capillus-veneris and the Edward’s Plateau endemic Lindheimer’s Marsh Fern, (Thelypteris ovata var. lindheimeri)   cropped up around a spot where a natural spring gushed out of the vertical bank. The stream was lined with some of the westernmost populations of sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) that appeared quite dwarf and small leaved compared with the eastern versions. All around us in the open areas were Mealy Sage, Salvia farinacea – a plant that has become ubiquitous as a bedding plant in nurseries but nice to actually see in its native habitat.

The-Mexican-Flowering-Fern-(Anemia-mexicana)-is-adapted-to-dry-rocky-slopes
The-Mexican-Flowering-Fern-(Anemia-mexicana)-is-adapted-to-dry-rocky-slopes

Caroline took us a short distance upstream to a spot above the creek that was more heavily wooded. It was here I got my first view of wild Lacey Oak (Quercus laceyi) with its nice freshly-emerged blue-green foliage, along with escarpment live oak (Quercus fusiformis). A target species both Hervé and I wanted to see was the yellow-flowering variant of red buckeye, Aesculus pavia var. flavescens, and fortunately they were everywhere here, and in full flower. I’m not sure who was more excited, us or the hummingbirds that frequented them. The typical form of this species is found throughout the southeastern US but is normally red, but the westernmost population that grows in the hill country is yellow flowered, but also has quite distinct foliage. At a spot of sentimental value in Caroline’s family history, I found a nicely variegated seedling of this species, which was collected and will be appropriately named after Caroline’s grandfather.

A nearby tree briefly perplexed Hervé and I as we tried to identify it. After eliminating a few possibilities we then found some flowers and it dawned on us that this was a small leaved mulberry – Morus microphylla, a tree I had read about and hoped to see.

One-of-the-many-spring-fed-streams-on-Caroline's-property
One of the many spring fed streams on Caroline’s property

Off to another location deep in a lush wooded valley, we followed a dry streambed to a back corner of Caroline’s property, where another spring was slowly percolating water out of the ground, again with maidenhair ferns and Lindheimer’s marsh ferns restricted to the moist rocky margins. Lining the streambed were so many buckeyes that we almost got tired of them, and mixed in with these were the somewhat related “Mexican Buckeyes” Ugnadia speciosa flowering with their pink blooms. Overhead among the oaks were beautiful old walnuts – but which species I don’t quite know yet, as Juglans microcarpa, J. major, and J. nigra are all recorded from the general vicinity. In the understory I found a Verbesina species that had nice variegation – what is presumably the Hill Country endemic Verbesina lindheimeri, but need to verify with no flowers currently present. Hopefully the bold variegation will be stable. We then stumbled upon the sky-blue flowers of the shrubby bush sage – Salvia ballotiflora which was quite nice to see.

Yucca rupicola with its beautiful red inflorescences emerging
Yucca rupicola with its beautiful red inflorescences emerging

Off again to another location, we stopped on an exposed slope to study the wildflowers and other plants. Clonal colonies of Twisted Leaf Yucca, Yucca rupicola, were scattered among the flowers, some with quite twisted leaves, and others without any twist to them. All were putting up nice red inflorescences, which deer clearly like to eat, as many had been snipped off. Also on the slope were the leatherstem Jatropha (Jatropha dioica), something I was familiar with from Big Bend region but didn’t expect to see here.

Hervé had mentioned wanting to see Texas Madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) on this trip, so Caroline sprang into action and took us to her neighbor’s ranch to see the only known individual in the area. Upon arriving we were quite impressed at the size of this plant. I have seen many in the Chisos Mountains but few approaching the size of this one. Sadly this old tree, with a hollowed out trunk, was clearly declining fast, with much of the canopy dead and other portions dropping green leaves as we watched. The remaining healthy portion was flowering, but with no known additional trees of similar age in the extensive area other than this one old specimen, it makes you wonder what that means as far as the local conditions in this southeastern-most range of the species.

Penstemon-triflorus-growing-among-agarita
Penstemon-triflorus-growing-among-agarita

With light waning, we moved on to the opposite end of Caroline’s property, where she stopped at a cliff covered with shocking reddish purple flower spikes of the Hill Country endemic Penstemon triflorus emerging from a dense groundcover of blue-grey Agarita (Mahonia trifoliolata) shrubs – a very beautiful combination. As darkness settled, we clambered in the Ranger up a very steep rocky incline through

dense Ashe’s Junipers to the top of one of the highest hills. Among the cobble were numerous Echinocereus reichenbachii, the lace hedgehog cactus, with white spines so dense they appeared nicely camouflaged against the surrounding chalky rocks. Unable to see anymore, we descended down the steep hill and back to the building to grill steaks and get some sleep.

The-only-known-madrone-(Arbutus-xalapensis)-in-the-region
The-only-known-madrone-(Arbutus-xalapensis)-in-the-region

The following morning were off to Caroline’s mom’s ranch nearby, which had a very different landscape – more flat and with very different plants. Wildflowers, many different from yesterday’s site, carpeted the open areas among desert shrubs, cacti and yucca. Caroline told us of a cave we needed to see. In an otherwise flat, low shrubby area, she stopped the car and we walked a short distance into the brush until the ground gave way to a gaping pit lined with interesting plants. At the bottom was the yawning mouth of the cave, curving downward into the depths of the earth. All along the walls of this cool moist oasis were xeric ferns adapted to regular drying – Cheilanthes, Pellaea, Anemia mexicana plus a single individual of Asplenium resilians was found. A few gigantic Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana) trees were rooted in the lower portion of the pit before the cave entrance, their crowns just emerging above the rim. Climbing down into the pit, their beautifully exfoliating bark could be better appreciated – a linear patchwork of silver, grey, lavender and white.

Trunk-of-the-lone-madrone
Trunk-of-the-lone-madrone

Continuing on, we reach a stretch of the Frio River that runs through the property. Portions of the river go underground and only fill above-ground stretches during times of high water. This section was one of those dry runs composed of rounded white limestone river rock, the monotony broken here and there with a few perennials that had gained a foothold since the last time it flowed with water. Salvia coccinea, Salvia farinacea, Datura, and various composites appeared very out of place in the barren landscape. On the vegetated shores grew masses of Anisacanthus quadrifidus, though too early for their orange tubular flowers. With them grew Chilopsis linearis – the desert willow that is of no relation to true willows.

Arriving at Caroline’s mom’s residence, we walked behind the house to an overlook of a different section of the Frio River, this one with crystal clear running water and an amazing panoramic view of the surrounding hills – one of those sweeping views you could sit and enjoy for hours with the sound of the rushing water in the background. On the ground around the boardwalk were masses of Blackfoot Daisy Melampodium leucanthum.  One last look before leaving the view, and something caught my eye on the opposite bank of the river that looked completely out of place. It looked like a small bald cypress Taxodium disticum.   I asked Caroline if that was what I was seeing, and if it was planted. She said bigger once were all over the place further upstream where we were going to try and get a late lunch. Wow- I never knew bald cypress got this far west, and they looked so out of place compared with the typical habitat I’m used to further east.

Scutellaria-wrightii-in-the-Hill-Country
Scutellaria wrightii in the Hill Country

Hungry but still reluctant to leave this fascinating area, we headed up to get something to eat in the town of Concan to the north. On another beautiful stretch of the Frio River, this vacation town attracts summer visitors who go tubing on the river, but was a ghost town this time of year, with no restaurants open. All hunger was lost though when we spotted the gigantic cypresses lining the pristine river. What a complete surprise to see these so far west in such an alien environment! What instantly struck me is how they were dead ringers for the Mexican Cypress, Taxodium mucronatum, with wide-spreading crowns with different branching architecture, lack of “knees”, lighter bark, and different appearance of the developing female cones. All the range maps for T. distichum show this area to be the westernmost extent, but there is no reason to think that this can’t also be a northern population of T. mucronatum, or at least a population sharing genetics between the two species. It is known that the pre-Columbian Aztecs and later the Spanish had cultivated T. mucronatum in various areas for ceremonial or ornamental reasons. Caroline-and-Herve-examining-the-fascinating-floraThere is even a mysterious population in New Mexico that is thought to be either descendants of ancient cultivated trees, or simply relict populations that became stranded when climates shifted during the ice ages. Perhaps the unusual appearance is simply the result of the atypical habitat. I hope one day molecular studies can elucidate the genetics of this intriguing population of cypresses. Doing further research, I now see that others have questioned the identification of these Frio River cypresses, and they have been offered by a few nurseries promoting them for their tolerance to alkaline conditions unlike the acid-loving bald cypresses further east.

It was time to part ways with Hervé and Caroline generously got him a room in Concan for the night. He was off to explore Big Bend National Park the following day, but unfortunately I needed to get back to work and set up the many interesting collections we will trial at Peckerwood. It was a wonderful two day introduction to the flora of the hill country with perfect spring weather, an exceptional year for wildflowers, and simply a great opportunity for solidifying new friendships and botanical collaboration. Caroline has fortunately has the land protected under a conservation easement and is managing it well. A preliminary inventory of dominant flora and fauna had been prepared during the conservation process, but I plan to make a more thorough floral listing after this and future trips. I have a feeling her property has many more surprises to offer with more detailed exploration.