Boerne Chapter

Trip to the “Cielo” of Native-Plant Diversity

Author: Bill Ward

“Cielo” usually means sky or heaven or paradise, sometimes roof or canopy. Every one of these translations probably could apply to some aspect of El Cielo Biosphere Reserve in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico. I think probably “paradise” is the best meaning to use for this region, at least as far as native-plant diversity is concerned.

Image of a caravan of three vehicles along a dirt road in a forest
Driving up into the high forest.

This part of the Sierra Madre Oriental includes the northernmost cloud forest in this hemisphere, and it is not very far from the Texas border. El Cielo is only about 250 miles due south of McAllen. This unique area was saved from being devastated by lumbering when over 356,000 acres was set aside as a nature preserve in 1987.

El Cielo area has long been a destination for birding and butterflying. In past years, Kathy and I have been on a couple of the birding tours run by a Mexican group that is working to promote ecotourism in the Reserve. One of the leaders of this ecotour group is Sergio Medellín, an ethnobotanist who has worked in the El Cielo area for many years. With a little urging from us, Medellín and his partners agreed to try adding a native-plant tour to their ecotours. The first attempt proved to be a great success.

Image of unique flowers. Dark purple blossoms face upward, surrounded by downward-facing pale green, elongated petals
An orchid of the cloud forest.

During mid September, several members of the Boerne Chapter of the Native Plant Society joined other NPSOT members from around Texas on a five-day trip to look at native plants of El Cielo Biosphere Reserve. It was an easy-in, easy-out trip to Mexico. We were loaded onto a comfortable bus in McAllen, were driven into Mexico, and five days later were returned to McAllen. During our time in Mexico, all food, lodging, and tour guiding were provided.

The trip was designed to visit various ecozones from lower elevations to mountain heights. The first days were spent on the lush eastern flank of the Sierra Madre Oriental, which receives moisture off the Gulf of Mexico. The final two days were on the dry side of the sierra. Just imagine the plant diversity we saw! And all that plant diversity is the basis for the bird and butterfly diversity. We were constantly pulled between looking at a unique plant, a beautiful tropical bird, or a colorful butterfly. Almost too much to take in.

Our first stop was to look at plants in a riparian zone. I could hardly believe there was a whole river bank of hairy maidenhair fern (Adiantum tricholepis). I thought I had been very lucky last year to have seen this “rare” species near Medina Lake, the only place it occurs in the entire USA. Apparently, it’s not so rare in Tamaulipas.

A person stands on a large rock on a hillside, taking a photograph
Drier side of the mountains.

In the riparian zone, we also saw large Montezuma cypress and Mexican sycamore mixed with all sorts of unfamiliar trees and bushes and vines. Many of them look like the ficus and philodendron which are kept in pots to decorate offices and stores in the US. One plant that caught my eye was the wild orchid tree, related to our Anacacho orchid tree, but with bigger leaves and blooms.

The highlight of the trip was going into the cloud forest high in the sierra. The forest trees are a strange mixture of Mexican fir, pine, sweetgum, magnolia, Mexican sugar maple, and, of all things, a type of yew. Darker areas of the forest floor are occupied by a spectacular variety of ferns. Many different kinds of flowering plants bloom along the roadside, including shrimp plant and begonia. Epiphytic orchids and bromeliads decorate the trunks and limbs of numerous trees. It’s another world!

On the last day we visited a different “another world” on the dry side of the sierra. But there was something a little familiar here. This seemed like Hill Country and South Texas vegetation mixed with a variety of tropical oaks and cycads and stuck into a mountainside setting.

Five days in paradise is too few.

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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