I think most everyone enjoys seeing wildlife and plants in their native habitats. Still, zoos and botanical gardens have their place. At any given botanical garden, visitors may expect to see a variety of carefully selected specimens of beautiful exotic plants from around the world. That’s especially true at San Antonio Botanical Garden where I volunteer in our “almost-Mexico” location. For the record, the Alamo City is farther south than two of Mexico’s eight largest metropolises (Tijuana and Juarez). Even in winter, lots of colorful blooms, fruits and leaves are present.
Although docents gladly showcase exotic flora from every continent (except Antarctica), I especially enjoy caring for (I call it “playing in the dirt”) and showing the over 300 species of Texas natives in residence at the garden. They range from the state’s far north on the Great Plains to deep in the semitropical south. Of course, the habitats of most Texas natives extend beyond the border, some throughout Mexico and even into Central America and some all the way into Canada. Have you ever noticed how many of our Lone Star natives carry terms “mexican” or “dakota”, or even “canadian” attached to their common and/or scientific names?
The approximate number of species residing at the garden changes all the time with new plantings and—alas!!—a few deaths, plus sprouts popping up all on their own from random seeds. For instance, bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) sprang up joyfully and unexpectantly under the loving care of a new management; I suspect from seeds dormant for decades on the garden’s originally abandoned and neglected site. Once I found a lone Standing Cypress (Ipomopsis rubra) in the cactus garden among some California and Texas native forbs sown from an earlier time. Luckily no one had weeded it out. After it bloomed, I collected and scattered its seeds so their progeny could make a crimson spectacle the following spring.
A few trees such as Escarpment Live Oak (Quercus fusiformis) and Cedar Elm (Ulmus crassifolia) survived from pre- construction of the garden and used as larger accents in the landscape. I estimate that most of the present collection was planted from scratch. With so many individual garden specimens, some lose their provenance over time (missing and damaged identification signs are especially frustrating) and sometimes have to undergo a painstaking process of re-identification.
While Texas natives are scattered in almost every corner of the garden, they are concentrated in three sections of the Texas Native Trails (Hill Country, South Texas and East Texas.) Some folks in garden management have dreamed of adding a Trans-Pecos unit; because of space limitations, two of San Antonio’s four adjacent biomes, the Post Oak Savanna and Blackland Prairie, are not specifically represented. Creating the East Texas Trail took the most effort: trucking in hundreds of tons of soil and pine mulch from the Piney Woods, digging a large pond and using recycled water to keep plants alive in times of drought. The original planners were unsure of success, but a lush and accurate replica of a rainy and lush East Texas has emerged from that venture.
In spite of my acquaintance with Hill Country plants, my favorite of the three ecoregions is South Texas. That’s mainly because I grew up in the Tamaulipan Brush Country part of the city but also because it contains a larger percentage of the region representative plants. Sorry to say, I’ve seen none of our formerly common horned lizards (“horny toads”) scurrying around the property.
Once a volunteer gains the trust of the garden leadership, there is some flexibility as to her or his specific duties. My most rewarding times have been leading tours, including such special groups as medical professionals interested in poisonous plants, both exotic and native.
Besides that, I play the role of “Botanical Terminator.” As such, I have cleared tons of excess branches and invasive foliage, still leaving lots of tangled cover for birds and small mammals, plus forage for butterflies at all stages of their life cycle. For over half the year, I’m the self-appointed “Hummingbird Man,” cleaning and refilling feeders for those little flying gems. Note that hummers still prefer our native flowers like Flame Acanthus (Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii.)
In concert with my own view of all non-native, freeze-hardy cacti, agaves, yuccas and sotols and as “honorary” Texas natives, the garden management combines them without regard to international boundaries in a separate area near the Native Trails. With my lack of depth perception, I too often “give blood” by coming in contact with fiercely armed flora in residence along these trails. Just part of the job, though. The large glassed-in, multiple-unit conservatory also features a desert biome where freeze-sensitive specimens from both the Western Hemisphere and Africa are displayed.
One of the best characteristics of native plants is that, once firmly established, they tend to take care of themselves. This expressed hardiness eases my job compared to that of volunteers who carefully tend the rose garden. Also, garden management supplies enough redundancy so that the demise of one or two individuals doesn’t significantly diminish the larger collection. In fact, many natives are so prolific in reproduction that I actually get rid of lots of lantanas, hackberries, cedar elms and vines (especially Snailseed and Snapdragon Vine) which pop up in inconvenient spots.
Like other volunteers, I have some “pet plants” and give special attention to rare and/or one-of-a-kind specimens. In this respect a botanical garden is different from an undisturbed wilderness: we want to show off our superstars! That involves protecting and rehabilitating accidentally damaged plants, battling insect attackers, excising rotting portions of plants and liberating individuals from the smothering effects of surrounding greenery. We also have high hopes for a newly arrived sapling of a finicky Texas Madrone (Arbutus xalapensis). It’s my favorite tree but one that rarely survives after being transplanted.
One of the privileges of my work is that I have added lots of photos from garden specimens to my collection of over 700 species. Sometimes it feels like cheating (something like shooting fish in a barrel), but those “domesticated” examples have helped me to more readily identify their wild relatives in my outdoor ventures. Still and after years of once-a-week service, something new appears through my lens almost every time. There are still certain plants that I have never seen bloom, especially a few cacti whose flowers can come on and fade in the seven days between my visits. Oddly, our not-quite-native Mexican Ocotillo (Fouquieria macdougalii) blooms often, but it took those stubborn Texas Ocotillo (F. splendens) a whole three years before they dressed up in red flowers.
Although outdoor adventure can be found in far-flung, remote corners of the planet, I’m glad that adventures can also be found in a treasure embedded in the heart of an urban landscape. That’s my “psychic income” for hours of unpaid labor spent among our exotics and natives.