The Chisos Mountains of the Big Bend of Texas are some of the most botanically and ecologically diverse areas in America. Where arid desert meets juniper forests, you can imagine the abundance of species diversity and unique biological situations. Succulents, coniferous trees, grasses, and herbs thrive in harmony.
Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park is a 5 mile round-trip hike that tops out at nearly 7,000 feet in elevation and offers some of the most spectacular views in the park. In the photo below, you can see the paved road through Panther Pass, near the location of the trailhead.
As you cross over a saddle about halfway up the trail, you get a beautiful view of Juniper Canyon on the eastern slopes of the Chisos.
Looking back to the north and east, you will see Lost Mine Peak. I was fascinated with the different colors of the rocks and organic material here. Legend says that there was once a mine in the area. All miners were blindfolded when taken to and from the opening of the mine as to protect its location, and eventually all of the workers were killed by Comanche Indians. Legend, indeed.
Arguably, the most recognizable mountain in the Chisos Mountains is Casa Grande, a large rhyolite formation that appears to have a shelf-like top that reaches 7,300 feet high. Unlike it's more recognizable face, that backside of the peak is not as famous. No other hike in the park will offer this view of the jagged edges of the eastern Casa Grande slopes. I think I prefer this look; it has greater drama.
There are several Muhlenbergia grass species occurring in the park and I did not get a close enough look at these to properly identify them. It could be M. emersleyi, polycaulis, or rigens. The late afternoon sun did play fun games with inflorescence, though.
Mexican Feathergrass has really caught fire in the commercial landscape industry, and for good reason. While a brilliant green in the spring and early summer, the color gives way to a golden hue that is quite attractive. When planted en masse, they do create an almost moving sculpture, a carpet drawn in the direction opposite the wind.
Desert ferns are among the most fascinating to me. This small Cliffbrake was situated under the canopy of a Juniper, surely surviving off of the rainfall caught, collected, and directed to this spot by the structure of the tree.
While appearing like a large, clump grass, Nolina species are not related to grass at all, and instead are more closely related to Agaves, occurring in the family Asparagaceae. Drought tolerant, evergreen, and able to withstand partial shade, Nolina is a plant that deserves a seat at the landscape table.
Pinyon Pines are essential to the lives of many critters in the Chisos Mountains, including the Mexican Black Bear. The small pine nuts found in its cones are a food staple.
The more common of two species of Stevia occurring within the park, I found this specimen situated under the shelter of a Juniper. Even with a dusting of snow just a week before, the blooms were putting on a show. All Stevia species occurring in the US are to be found in the southwest, while the species responsible for the sugar substitute is found in South America.
Another desert fern, this cochisensis species of Astrolepis was particularly weather beaten, finding home on a south-facing slope with little protection. I have also documented this species in Mason County, to the north and east.
It's fairly obvious why this Juniper dons the name Alligator as the bark is this species' true indicator. This tree grows in most of Arizona and New Mexico, but only occurs in Texas' most western few counties.
I believe this cacti belongs to the Echinocereus genus, identifiable by the ashy gray central spines and purple coloring of its skin from a hard winter. Although E. coccineus is one of the only species that would ideally grow at this elevation of nearly 7,000 feet, it does not usually have the brown and gold spines on newer growth like this specimen, which draws me closer to E. stramineus, another species that grows at lower elevations.
This Mammillaria species is readily found in the Chisos if you have a sharp enough eye. The flowers do not serve as much of a flag as other Echinocereus or Mammillaria species, but the largeness of these specimen's size won my attention. I also documented this species back in 2016 at a lower elevation in the Basin of the Chisos.
I also saw this species in 2016 (while blooming, no less) but it was growing in a more forgiving environment. These two specimens were along a south-facing ridge, taking on the brutal sun of the desert's summer. I would love to catch these guys with their signature scarlet blooms in a couple of months.
It's difficult for me to say for sure what species or genus this is. My best guess would be Sclerocactus mariposensis. Like the other hard-grown species of cacti on this slope, it is a physically a bit out of character. This species also isn't usually found in elevations greater than 4,500 feet, but the south-facing rhyolite slope could offset this a bit, radiating the sun's warmth as it's at about 6,200 feet.
Another possibility could be Escobaria dasyacantha. This species prefers the higher elevations where this specimen was found, especially the variety chaffeyi. The central spines on this specimen appear darker than typical specimens of the variety, though. I would love to see its creamy pink blooms later in the spring. Cacti identification is HARD for novice saps like me.
I can never get enough of Agaves. They have definitely found their stride in the nursery and landscape business, but there's something special about finding them in their natural environment. The cool blue of Agave havardiana makes it pop like a diamond in the rough of a desert mountainside.
The Texas Madrone is, by far, my favorite native Texas tree. These are found in two environs: higher elevations of the Chihuahuan Desert and the lower elevations of the Texas Hill Country. Its signature is the peeling red bark that gives way to a virgin, golden trunk, like a snake shedding its skin. It was a beautiful contrast in the mostly still-dormant flora of the high Chisos mountains.
Coming down from the high ridge of the Lost Mine, the light was playing with the open pockets of Juniper woodland, creating welcoming blankets of gold, accentuating the features of plant species that would probably be overlooked otherwise. It was a nice way to end a sometimes strenuous, but beautiful hike in the Chisos.