“Greening the Big Bend”: Fall Native Plant Sale Extends Tradition of West Texas Gardening

Texas kidneywood, Eysenhardtia texana, is one of dozens of species of native shrubs and trees that will be on sale Saturday, Oct. 15, at Brown Dog Gardens in Alpine, at an event hosted by the Big Bend chapter of the Native Plant Society.

Photograph by Dallas Baxter

Shade from the summer sun, shelter from the spring wind, radiant colors in fall, a welcome canopy of green in a landscape of ruddy browns and yellows.

The Chihuahuan Desert may be known for thorns and barbs. But the Trans-Pecos is also home to a magnificent diversity of native trees. They endure the shifts in West Texas weather. Planted at home, they add beauty – and connect the garden to the desert-mountain ecosystem.

The Big Bend’s Native Plant Society hosts its fall sale Saturday, Oct. 15, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Brown Dog Gardens in Alpine. It’s a special opportunity to purchase native trees and shrubs.

Whether it was adobe construction or barn dances and fiddle tunes, Big Bend pioneers brought their traditions with them when they built communities here. Gardening was one of those traditions. Look at early 20th century photos of Alpine or Marfa – the rich greenery of trees distinguishes the towns today from those early days.

Beth Francell is a landscape designer in Fort Davis. She ran Rebloom Design for 20 years. And she has a personal connection to that gardening history.

“My grandmother came here in the 20s,” Francell said. “She was a librarian – she had a degree in library science from University of Texas. She came from East Texas, and was quite the Southern lady. And Southern ladies were gardeners.”

Francell lives in her grandparents’ former home – shaded by the trees and surrounded by the garden that her grandmother, Lucy Miller, planted.

The Roman philosopher Cicero said, “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” Miller shared that definition of civilization.

“I think she loved flowers,” Francell said. “Almost every afternoon she would take either food or flowers to shut-ins and sick people. She always had flowers in the Presbyterian Church on Sunday. I don’t think she necessarily thought about it adding to the beauty of the community. It was more something for her own pleasure and for other people’s pleasure.”

Native plants weren’t popular with West Texas newcomers. Well into the 20th century, exotics like mulberries and non-native elms were common choices for homeowners. But Miller showed an early appreciation for local trees. She and a neighbor, Dude Sproul, collected natives from their ranches, and created an arboretum on the grounds of the Jeff Davis County courthouse. Some of those trees remain.

In her years as a landscape designer, Francell developed a list of native trees that do well, separated into three categories. There are evergreens – Arizona cypress, junipers – for windbreaks, or for screening unwanted views. There are big shade trees, to shade south and west windows and cool the home. And there are ornamental or “courtyard” trees, which add beauty, as well as providing shade.

Tracy hawthorn, Texas persimmon, Golden Ball lead tree, chinkapin oak, Mexican plum – the Oct. 15 sale will feature dozens of species of native trees. Some are found only in the Trans-Pecos. Plant society experts will be on-hand, to help buyers choose the right trees for their location.

Volunteers at the sale can also advise buyers on proper watering and pruning. Francell says it’s critical trees are sited and planted correctly. People often water trees at the trunk. But it’s at the outer extent of a tree’s branches and leaves that roots take in nutrients.

“These things are sort of counterintuitive,” Francell said. “Most people have mistaken ideas, and their trees don’t thrive. Most people plant trees too deeply, or they plant them under power lines where, eventually, they’re going to be badly pruned by the power companies. Or they plant them too close to their house.”

In the decades since Lucy Miller arrived, local gardeners have learned to appreciate native plants. They resist illness. They draw birds and other pollinators. And when the conditions turn harsh, they endure.

“I think native plants are the most interesting of all – and they also do the best,” Francell said. “I think the droughts that we’ve gone through in the last 20 years have made people more aware. When you lose a huge velvet ash in your yard, you think, ‘Well, maybe I should replace it with something a little better adapted to the desert.’”

West Texas has a rich gardening heritage. And the Oct. 15 sale is a chance to connect to that evolving tradition.

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. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.

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