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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.

— 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

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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