On this trip, it was unseasonably wet, as it has been in much of Texas this fall. Foliage and flower colors are especially vibrant when damp, and the muted light of cloud-covered skies only added to the effect. Many plants are even blooming out of season or have abnormally fleshy growth due to the moisture. It is a special time in the Chihuahuan Desert.
This post will cover the more herbaceous plant materials found in Big Bend National Park during my visit in November 2015. (Disclaimer: I realize not all of the plants described here are particularly herbaceous, but they better fit this post than my earlier post about cacti.)
I was especially attracted to this grouping of endemic species. Leucophyllum, Dasylirion, and Ephedra create a contrasting palette of color and texture, and are surrounded by red bedrock. Few could create a similar effect manually.
Resurrection Plant can survive extended periods of extremely dry conditions by "coiling" up into a ball to conserve moisture and energy. It is native to the Chihuahuan Desert and is considered rare. It is often sold as a novelty in museum gift shops. This photo was taken on a wet afternoon and the specimen is in the process of "uncoiling" which can take a matter of minutes.
I am fairly confident that this is Machaeranthera tanacetifolia, or Tahoka Daisy. This specimen has a smaller central disk and fewer petals than the typical Tahoka Daisy, but the more meager appearance could be expected with a plant found in harsher conditions like this one. Physically, it better represents M. bigelovii, but it has not been recorded in Texas, so I am less apt to label it as such.
Ephedra has an almost grass-like quality, but it's tough as nails. Known commonly as Mormon Tea, this species does not contain as much ephedrine in the stems as other species of the same genus. Native Mexicans have used this plant as a decongestant, appetite suppressant, and stimulant.
Copper Globemallow is found throughout southwestern Texas and up into the western Panhandle. It is typically 2-3' in height but this specimen was every bit of 4'. During wet periods, it can be a repeat bloomer. Flower color differs among specimens from purple to red to orange.
I've stated before my love for Daleas here, here, and probably elsewhere. When happy, the different species are typically very showy and petite, an attractive quality. Bloom colors in the Dalea genus range from purple to yellow. D. neomexicana is shown here with a yellow bloom that is just ending its show. The hirsute leaves give it an almost variegated quality.
Jimmyweed often occurs in mismanaged sites. At one time, Big Bend National Park was privately held by numerous landowners who abused the desert grasslands of the region. Part of the reason the National Park Service established and acquired this park was to return area to its pre-agricultural state and return a semblance of ecological balance. This Aster is a reminder of the past land use.
Jatropha is an example of a plant that doesn't quite fit the "herbaceous" label I placed on this article, but I associate the plant more with shrubs than succulents. Rubber Plant belongs to the family Euphorbiaceae, one of the largest genera labels created and getting its name from its flexibility. Like most Euphorbias, the plant does bleep a milky sap. Unlike others, this sap turns a red color when exposed to the air. This also gives the plant the common name of Sangre de Drago, or Blood of the Dragon.
Desert Marigold is a short-lived perennial that creates one of the best shows in some of the harshest conditions in the park. This specimen was found along Old Ore Road, a maintained road that is semi-regularly graded. The plant obviously benefits from whatever moisture is directed to it from the grade. The name Marigold comes from the gold of Mary, the Virgin.
I have a slight fascination with desert ferns, for both their tenacity and adaptability. I have detailed Astrolepis along the James River in the Texas Hill Country before here. This fern fold the individual leaves along its fronds to help conserve moisture and energy during dry periods. It was a particularly wet day when this photo was taken as this specimen is fully open and satiated.
Ratany consists of several species in Texas and the southwest US. White Ratany has distinctively gray foliage and a low, shrubby habit. While it mostly blooms once in spring, it may repeat blooms in early fall if moisture is abundant.
Cheilanthes is another desert fern preferring the eastern and northern sides of rock and cliff faces. Because I don't have a photo of the underside of the leaf, I can't tell exactly whether this species is tomentosa or villosa. I have documented another species of Cheilanthes here and here, both in the Texas Hill Country.
Blackfoot Daisy is a commonly-used, low-growing perennial in Texas landscapes. It is known for its propensity to bloom in full sun with little water. The nearly trailing growth habit is also a benefit. This particular specimen had some pink spotting to the bloom petals, and I am unsure what has led to this development. It makes for an interesting plant!
Most people are acquainted with "Texas Sage" in landscapes as a hardy shrub with interesting foliage color and lavender-colored blooms. The species used in the landscape is typically Leucophyllum frutiscens. One complaint from homeowners is that the plant grows too large most of the time, topping 6' in height. The species photographed here rarely reaches over 3'. There would be an incredible commercial market for this plant but unfortunately it is very difficult to propagate in a controlled environment. As of now, it remains elusive.
This Stinging Cevallia was found blooming a bit outside of its normal window, which wasn't surprising given the wet and relatively mild summer that occurred in 2015. The common name comes from the ability of some leaves to cause an irritation and stinging sensation when touched. It may not be the most suitable for a landscape, but fits perfectly with the surrounding wild desert.
Old Man's Beard follows the US/Mexico border from Arizona to Texas, and creeps a bit further north into the Texas Hill Country and even portions of east Texas. I would consider this species relatively common in Texas, and have even spotted it growing on bus stop signs in suburban Austin. This specimen was contrasting beautifully with the layers of rock in Ernst Canyon.
Apache Plume is better known for the feathery plume following the white flower, but I say the preceding flower deserves its moment in the spotlight. This bloom resembles a plum to me and is a nice catch in the Chihuahuan Desert.
Butterfly Bush has infiltrated the commercial nursery industry in a very profound way, but this lesser-known cousin is actually native to the continental US unlike the popular species, even though it is less cold hardy. This species is slowly becoming commercially available, but it will take a while. The gray, hirsute leaves are especially attractive.
Snapdragon Vine is a loosely-twining plant with blooms that resemble snapdragon blooms, but is especially more tolerant of heat and sun. This particular plant is shown cascading from a rock crevice in a canyon wall.
Esperanza, also known as Yellow Bells, is commonly found in landscapes throughout the southern and southwestern US. Commercial varieties are typically larger leafed with larger blooms, but I think the native version is just fine. From growing experience I have concluded this is also slightly less cold hardy than commercially-available varieties.
Another species of Texas Sage, this one is found in a smaller geographical area in the southeastern corner of the park and across the river into Mexico near the village of Boquillas. It is also a lower growing species with wonderfully deep purple blooms. Unlike L. minima, this species has entered the commercial industry under the label of 'Thundercloud' and is gaining popularity.
Due to the wet summer, this Fanmustard was also blooming out of season. I found this specimen in the wash of Tornillo Creek in the northern area of the park. I think it would make a great addition to any semi-arid garden.
Tiquilia resembles a Dalea species with its plumed blooms and gray foliage. This species is found in southern New Mexico, far western Texas, and northern Mexico, restricted to the Chihuahuan Desert.
Mistflower is a common addition to any perennial garden and this species is no exception. This one stays a bit more compact and dense, which is also a bi-product of its growing conditions. This specimen was photographed in the Chisos Mountain Basin, where temperatures are a bit more mild than the surrounding desert floor.
Mexican Lantana grows from the rocky cliffside with showers of cream-colored flowers that will eventually turn to orange and violet.
Another species of Tiquilia that doesn't resemble the first described species in the least. This small perennial has found shelter under a Creosote shrub, helping to break the sun's rays during the hottest part of the day. The plant also resembles a Purslane, but leaves are not succulent upon closer inspection.
There are many Buckwheat species throughout the continental US. This species occurs in a few counties in Arizona and New Mexico, and it quite common in far west Texas. Native people once used parts of this plant as a emetic. Thank you to Dauna Hodnett for helping me identify this species.
Primrose perennials most commonly come with golden yellow blooms, and this species is no exception. This specimen was found under a rock outcropping in the northern part of the park. As the blooms fade, they turn to a shade of orange and red. an abnormally wet season has allowed these leaves to be wider than they species typically allows. Thanks to botanist Michael Eason for helping me nail down this species of Oenothera.
Everyone is familiar with the Texas state flower, the Bluebonnet. Of the same genus, Big Bend Bluebonnet grows much taller, sometimes larger than 2', and has a bloom with a purple hue. It is quite stunning in the spring time. This small seedling was also spotted in Tornillo Creek and is preparing for a great show in a few months.