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Boerne Chapter

More big red sage found in the Texas Hill Country!

Author: Bill Ward

A couple of years ago, Ysmael Espinosa of Medina Garden Nursery and I were discussing the sparse occurrence of big red sage (Salvia pentstemonoides) in the wild. He said he thought he had seen a couple of big red sages several years ago when he was canoeing on the Guadalupe River upstream from Ingram. Wow! As far as I know, that species of Salvia never has been reported on the Guadalupe River!

Two people climb out of a small boat onto a rocky river bank
Ysmael Espinosa and Jessica Leslie climbing up to ledge where large population of big red sage grows along the Guadalupe River. (Photo by Patty L. Pasztor)

Ysmael probably rues the day he told me about his sighting, because for the next two years I kept bugging him about revisiting that locality. One night last August, he called to say he had checked out the site that day, and yes, there were indeed two or three plants of Salvia pentstemonoides blooming along the river.

A few days later, Ysmael led a small group of us to see his discovery. A few large plants of big red sage were growing out of the eight-foot-high limestone bluff along the river. Wow again!

The last time this species had been recorded in Kerr County was in 1943 in Turtle Creek south of Kerrville. That was the last known occurrence in Texas before big red sage was thought to have gone extinct in the wild. It wasn’t seen again until the early 1980s when Marshall Enquist identified Salvia pentstemonoides in Bandera County.

Close of up red flowers
Last big red sage to bloom in the former Frederick Creek population, 2004. (Photo by Bill Ward)

Above the bluff along the Guadalupe River was a wide ledge that extended tens of feet back to a very high cliff. Our curiosity got the better of us, and we climbed up to see what was growing on the ledge.

What we found was one of the largest known wild populations of big red sage! The total number of stalked plants and rosettes at the Guadalupe River site is about the same as that of the big red population Patty Leslie Pasztor spotted six years ago when she and I were kayaking through limestone canyons on Cibolo Creek.

The plants we counted on the Guadalupe River increased the number of known big red sage in the wild by nearly 65%. Today big red sage is known in only four Texas counties: Kendall, Kerr, Bandera, and Real. Kendall County has about 60% of the total.

The total number of known wild big red sage plants in Texas is less than 450, making this salvia one of the rarest of our native plants. Even so, there are no legal protections whatsoever for Salvia pentstemonoides. Landowners need have no fear of reporting newly discovered populations of big red sage. The presence of big red sage on a property brings no restrictions of any kind.

Image of a green vine-line plant
During winter big red sage can be recognized by green rosettes and dried remnants of last year’s bloom stalks. (Photo by Bill Ward)

Salvia pentstemonoides is not in danger of going extinct, because so many gardeners raise the plant. However, the few wild populations and low total numbers of individual plants mean that this species in the wild probably cannot easily survive the increasing loss of habitat and decline of springs in the Hill Country. Could big red sage soon become extinct in the wild?

Less than 15 years ago, the largest population of big red sage in Texas was under the I-10 bridge over Frederick Creek at Boerne. Because of the 1997 high stand of flood waters, encroachment of exotic plants, and heavy browsing by domestic and exotic deer, there are no survivors at that site today.

I’m optimistic that the number of big red sage in the wild is larger than we think. After all, about 98% of today’s known population of big red sage was discovered since 2004. This gives me hope that there are lots more stands of big red sage to find.

Most of the extant big red sages are growing in intermittently moist, steep-walled limestone canyons in spots where the plants are not accessible to browsing animals. Many of these sites also are not accessible to a lot of human traffic. Who knows how many big red sages are hidden away in Hill Country canyons?

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About the Region

New Braunfels, the location of our Fall 2024 Symposium, straddles both the Edwards Plateau Ecoregion and the Blackland Prairie ecoregion. Interstate 35 divides the city of New Braunfels; its path through the city closely parallels the boundary of these two ecoregions, with the Edwards Plateau on the west side and the Blackland Prairies region to the east. The Edwards Plateau area is also called the Hill Country; however, this general term covers a much larger area extending farther north. Spring-fed creeks are found throughout the region; deep limestone canyons, rivers, and lakes (reservoirs) are common. Ashe juniper is perhaps the most common woody species found throughout the region. Additional woody species include various species of oak, with live oak (Quercus fusiformis) being the most common. Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) border waterways. This area is well known for its spring wildflower displays, though they may be viewed in spring, late summer, and fall, as well. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, average annual rainfall in the Edwards Plateau ranges from 15 to 34 inches.

The Blackland Prairie extends from the Red River south to San Antonio, bordered on the west by the Edwards Plateau and the Cross Timbers, and on the east by the Post Oak Savannah. Annual rainfall averages 30 to 40 inches, with higher averages to the east. This region is dominated by prairie species. The most common grass species include little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the uplands and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) in the riparian areas and drainages. Common herbaceous flowering plants include salvias, penstemons, and silphiums. This area has suffered greatly from overgrazing and agricultural use. Few intact areas remain, though many of the plants can be found along county roadsides throughout the region.

Our four host chapters (New Braunfels, Lindheimer, Guadalupe, and the Hill Country chapters) are located in one or both of the ecoregions above. However, the eastern portion of Guadalupe County also falls within the Post Oak Savanna ecoregion. Annual rainfall averages 35 to 45 inches, with higher averages to the east. A wide variety of hardwood trees are found, including several species of oaks, elms, and in the Bastrop area, loblolly pine (Pinus taeda). Grasses and forbs dominate in the open savannas, with most common grass being little bluestem. Ranching, agriculture, and fire suppression have allowed woody species to encroach on the once-open savannas.

Source: Wildflowers of Texas by Michael Eason