Tucked away in a place not typically advertised to the public is the A.E. Leonard Native Plant Garden, a one-of-a-kind South Texas gem. It’s unique in that it is the only place where one can find so many plant species native to South Texas in one spot – and by a lot. Some of the plants found here would even be very difficult to see in the wild in South Texas, and perhaps impossible to see in a garden.
“There’s no place like it,” insists Dr. Fred Bryant, Director of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute (CKWRI). “We have some fairly rare plants in our garden, some that might not persist outside of cultivation 20 years from now.”
Photo by David Mahler
Currently the garden features over 350 species of plants native to the area from Del Rio across to San Antonio and Victoria and extending down to the Rio Grande Valley. They are representative of the mesquite savannah, South Texas brush, sand sheet, live oak motte, bordas escarpment, South Texas prairies and riparian zones. Many of the plants were acquired from South Texas ranches and in several cases landowners donated truckloads of dirt and rock used to create the habitats for these niche dependent species.
A garden for plant geeks, it has three quarters of the cactus and succulent species found in South Texas, including the four Manfredas, or False Aloes, found nowhere else in the United States except South Texas.
The native plant garden was Bryant’s idea. It wasn’t in the original plans; rather, it more or less just happened. In 2004 Bryant and his advisory board raised the money to build a multi-use events building for Texas A&M University-Kingsville and the Institute. Once completed, he decided some landscaping was needed and the idea of a garden behind the patio came to mind and the Leonard family of San Antonio stepped up to help with much of the cost.
The garden was designed and established by David Mahler and his design partner Judy Walther. Their company, Environmental Survey Consulting, based in Austin, specializes in native plant communities with a focus on habitat restoration and native landscaping. Mahler and Walther started landscaping with native plants 20 years ago, long before it was “vogue” to do so.
Mahler, who is the lead designer on the project, describes himself as a “frog and turtle kid” and a kid of nature. He developed a love of plants early in his adult career while working as the nature director for various summer camps on the East Coast and later at the Wild Basin Wilderness Preserve in western Travis County just outside of Austin.
Being less familiar with South Texas plants than plants of the Hill Country, for Mahler this particular journey has been interesting and challenging.
“I’m not a great botanist; I’m a decent botanist. I’m an old school naturalist, which is a fancy way of saying a jack of all trades for many outdoor things,” he comments. “And yes, I’m a plant geek.”
The learning process began from the get go because the decision to plant only species native to South Texas required the planners to create a list. Creating an accurate list was an intensive process. Mahler and Walther used the just published Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Texas by Billy Turner, a retired botany professor at the University of Texas. The two-volume edition contains about 6,000 Texas maps, one for each Texas plant, showing the counties where each has been found.
Using this book, Walther created a list of about 2500 South Texas plants. On this list each plant is assigned a number from one through seven. For example a plant with a “1” is found exclusively in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, a “5” is found both in South Texas and equally in other parts of the state, and a “7” is mostly in other parts of the state with a few occurrences in South Texas. To date, approximately 350 plants on that list are now growing in the garden.
Mahler and his team have spent the last eight years building up the collection of plants, species by species. Typically when he is adding to the collection, Mahler digs up four or five plants from a ranch. Two or three are planted immediately in the garden. Then to hedge his bets, he typically takes one or two home to his nursery to try later in the garden.
“We’ve had pretty good luck keeping them alive; we’ve gotten more to grow than we lost, but some take two or three turns,” he admits.
Their most recent project is focused on building a collection of South Texas woody and succulent species of which there are 342 possibilities on their master list. They now have 150 of those species growing well in the garden, labeled with unique ceramic tiles, and mapped in a newly published guide for this garden. There are another 50 woody and succulent species in the ground and as soon as the success of those plants seems likely, each will be given a sign and added to the map.
The plant diversity has made this unique garden a terrific place to bird watch. It’s also a wonderful place for butterflies and dragonflies. In fact, Tom Langschied, CKWRI South Texas Wintering Birds Program Coordinator, has identified some dragonfly species in the garden that have never been seen north of the Rio Grande Valley.
While the garden is largely about the plants, a replica of an old fashioned windmill and water trough is the garden’s centerpiece. The idea for a water feature came after Bryant saw a replica of a hill country stream at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. After finding out that it was the well-known naturalist David Mahler who had developed it, he sought him out to build a similar kind of water feature for the South Texas garden.
“He’s a botanist and a landscape designer, but he’s more an artist than anything,” Bryant says of Mahler.
The idea of having some kind of stream appealed to Bryant as did the sound of running water.
“Hmmm. Is there really such a thing as a running stream in South Texas,” Mahler queried?
Moreover to have even a small waterfall one needed some elevation and rock, and as Mahler discovered there’s not a lot of rock in South Texas nor was there much elevation change in the garden. Nonetheless, like the planner and the designer that he is, Mahler and Bryant went on an exploration trip, of sorts, to the famed King Ranch. What they discovered were these dry streambeds that had sacahuista grass growing down to the edge. When they passed a windmill, a light bulb went off.
“We determined that the biggest waterfall in South Texas was, in fact, a windmill when the water comes out of the pipe into the tank,” Mahler said. “Then when it overflows out of the tank onto the ground there is usually a depression from the cattle. These depressions and the local ephemeral ponds fill up with wetland plants such as Arrowhead and blue water lilies in wet weather. That’s what we saw and this became our model,” he explained.
Once the water feature and riparian habitat were completed the plants were added in phases. The second phase was the cactus and succulent garden and the following year the bordas escarpment. The bordas escarpment of South Texas is a low caliche ridge that extends from Starr County north and eastward to the Nueces River. Mountain laurel, cenizo and many other species grow on these dry chalky hills.
“It’s very different habitat. We knew we couldn’t grow the plants that occur on the bordas escarpment in the heavy black clay soils associated with the Kingsville area,” Mahler points out. “So we developed the habitat. We brought in about 200 yards of caliche from a quarry in Live Oak County and we built the tallest mountain in Kingsville – it’s a little four foot hill.
The most recent habitat is the sand sheet, established about two years ago. Here again about 200 yards of sand had to be hauled in.
In creating a habitat there’s no real endpoint. Also without the much-needed tender loving care provided by gardener Mark Madrazo, the garden would be overgrown and invaded by exotic grasses like guinea grass and other noxious weeds.
“It’s a subtle maintenance,” Mahler points out. “We want it to look natural, even wild.”
This is Mahler’s first botanical garden that he’s designed and followed through to development and beyond. For him it’s been a labor of love, a learning experience.
“I knew my Hill Country plants, but I had to learn my South Texas plants, and while I’m no longer a beginner, I’m still learning, and I won’t live long enough to become a South Texas plant expert,” he insists.
A field trip to the A.E. Leonard Native Plant Garden is planned during our Fall Symposium.