Even in a region of striking scenery, the landscape of the Dalquest Desert Research Station, 60 miles southeast of Marfa, stands apart. It’s home to what’s been called “the Grand Canyon of the Big Bend.” Out of welded volcanic ash, wind and water have carved a richly colored labyrinth – the Devil’s Graveyard.
The 3,000-acre property is owned by Midwestern State University, in Wichita Falls, Texas. It’s a site for scientific research. Recently, an Alpine botanist made a surprising find here.
The Dalquest site is reminder of how initial impressions can mislead. Like much of the Big Bend, it appears harsh, even deadly. But in the yellow- and red-rock canyons, there are spring-fed pools, deep and emerald green. Seeps sustain small thickets of hardy oaks. Spending time in this landscape, one’s eyes adjust. Far from lifeless, these desert highlands and canyons are in fact a kind of sanctuary.
In a rocky arroyo here, Patty Manning found a plant never before documented in Texas.
“Here it is,” Manning said on a recent visit to the site, “Purshia stansburyana – Stansbury’s cliffrose.”
This plant is common in far western states, in the Great Basin and the Colorado Plateau. But outside of a rest stop near Sierra Blanca, where it may have been planted by the highway department, she said it’s not been found in Texas.
Manning is a veteran West Texas botanist. She managed the greenhouse at Sul Ross State University for 18 years. And she continues to collect native seeds and to contribute to the Sul Ross herbarium in Alpine.
She volunteered to survey plants at the Dalquest land.
“New properties, new places to go, are always exciting,” she said, “no matter whether you’re seeing the same plants you always see or you see stuff that’s new. It’s totally volunteer, and they’re kind enough to let me help out.”
Surveying plants is a slow, painstaking process, Manning said. She stayed close to the station’s headquarters.
“If you’re really looking at plants and photographing and collecting to see and determine the identity, it takes time,” Manning said. “You can’t just go racing across the desert. You’re not out for a hardy hike – you’re just out to look at stuff. So staying close to the station was fine with me.”
In April 2015, Manning took note of a shrub with small, white flowers and ripening fruit. Superficially, it was similar to an Apache plume, a common Trans-Pecos plant. But Manning knew it was a member of the purshia genus – a cliffrose.
There is a common West Texas cliffrose – purshia ericifolia, or Heath cliffrose. But unlike that plant, the leaves of Manning’s plant had tiny lobes.
Manning turned to the botanical literature – and concluded she had something special.
“I’d go through the key, the Correl and Johnston, which is Flora of Texas, and it just didn’t fit what was in Texas,” she said. “I thought – it’s got to be a purshia. I just started at different keys online, for other purshias in the western states, and then it started it making sense: Okay, this has got to be purshia stansburyana. So then I went to the Flora of North America, and, sure enough, it really fits there.”
Manning ultimately found more than 20 plants in the arroyo. Manning said the size of the plants suggests they’re not a new population. They could be a holdout, from a cooler, wetter time when the Stansbury’s cliffrose was prevalent in the region.
Manning said it’s also possible the plants are relatively widespread here, but have simply escaped notice. Had the plant not been in bloom, she likely would have overlooked it herself, she said.
“So many other people have been collecting plants in so many different habitats, you would think it would have been documented before,” Manning said. “But not everybody can be everywhere at every time, especially at the right time when something might catch your eye – otherwise you might walk right by. Who knows what I’ve walked by and haven’t seen? I think it’s important to just keep looking.”
The Stansbury’s cliffrose, and the Dalquest site itself, are instructive. It shows us that – even for a seasoned explorer of West Texas – there’s much more to be discovered.
Nature Notes is underwritten by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. The program airs on 93.5 FM, KRTS Marfa, Tuesdays and Thursday at 7:45a.m. and 4:45 p.m., Central time. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.