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Boerne Chapter

Hiking through Eden with Bill Carr

Author: Bill Ward

The nicest native-plant gardens I’ve seen around this area are not manmade; they are natural. They have a wide variety of trees and bushes, seasonally blooming forbs, ferns, decorative rocks, and water features – everything one could want in a native-plant garden.

A person standing outdoors, holding a notebook, writing notes.
Botanist Bill Carr of the Nature Conservancy. (photo by Bill Ward)

These are the little Gardens of Eden hidden away in the moist limestone canyons that are scattered around the Hill Country. In these canyon gardens are plants you don’t see in other places. The microclimate in canyons make them refuges for the remnants of both Eastern and Western plants that supposedly were widespread over this area during the last Ice Age.

Probably just as important as the extra moisture are the steep canyon walls. Over-abundant deer, goats, and sheep have eradicated many native plants from much of the Hill Country, but certain favorites of the browsing animals still are surviving on the steep canyon walls.

Plant with bright, red, trumpet shaped flowers
Cedar sage. (photo by Bill Ward)

Today I was lucky enough to be part of a group that hiked through a little canyon in the Medina River drainage basin northwest of Pipe Creek. This was one of the spring native-plant field trips sponsored by the Cibolo Nature Center and led by Bill Carr of the Texas Nature Conservancy.

We were doubly lucky! Not only were we getting to walk through one of those beautiful lush canyon gardens, we were led through it by Bill Carr, an eminent expert on Hill Country flora. Bill is a botanist’s botanist. Many times I’ve heard other experts on Central Texas plants say, “I’m not certain. Let’s see what Bill Carr thinks this is.”

Bill Carr is coauthor with Jackie Poole, Dana Price, and Jason Singhurst of the new book “Rare Plants of Texas.” Today we saw one of the plants featured in this book – canyon mockorange, which is unusually abundant in parts of the canyon we visited.

For us amateur native-plantphiles, a patient knowledgeable teacher such as Bill Carr makes a big difference in how much we see in the canyon gardens. And many of the plants we saw today, with Bill’s help, are found only in the Hill Country, nowhere else in the world.

Plant wiht small pink, trumpet shaped flowers
Scarlet penstemon. (photo by Bill Ward)

This canyon we walked today is not so large, only about 30 to 40 feet deep, 50 to 100 feet wide, and less than half a mile long. However, the number of kinds of plants is amazing. What makes this rugged little canyon particularly interesting is that it trends more or less east-west. This gives it a sunny south-facing wall and a shady north-facing wall, each with different vegetation.

The shady slope was in bloom today. Red-flowered cedar sage and scarlet penstemon and rose-pink false pennyroyal decorated the limestone walls in several spots. Eye-catching white blossoms in the understory were rusty blackhaw and redroot. Higher in the canopy, slender stalks of tiny white flowers hung from the escarpment black cherry. In a few weeks, the north-facing slope will be even prettier when all the canyon mockorange is covered with white blossoms. This shady side also is home to at least six kinds of fern.

Image of flowers with white flowers
Rusty Blackhaw. (photo by Bill Ward)

The south-facing wall has noticeably fewer trees and bushes than the shady wall. Though little is blooming now, the abundant cut-leaf penstemon and rock daisy ensure that the sunny slopes will be much more colorful during the summer and fall.

The Cibolo Nature Center is offering two more trips to see native plants in two other limestone canyons, April 21 and May 5. Bill Carr will lead both!

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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