5 Facts About the Chihuahuan Desert

The Chihuahuan Desert is one of my favorite places in Texas. The expansive spaces, distant silhouetted hills, distinctive desert flora, deep in the heart of Texas kind of skies, and mesmerizing chiaroscuro splashed across the faces of desert mesas all work together to create an iconic Texas region. Here are five interesting facts about this distinctively beautiful part of the Lone Star State.
chihuahuan-desert-map1. The Chihuahuan Desert is the largest desert in North America.

The Chihuahuan Desert extends far beyond our own borders. The desert spans the northern states of Chihuahua and Coahuila in Mexico and extends north into Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona — a region bigger than the state of California.
chihuahuan-view2. The Chihuahuan Desert is a rain shadow desert.

A rain shadow is a dry region of land on the side of a mountain range that is protected from the prevailing winds and rainy weather. The Chihuahuan Desert is bordered by the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range on the west and the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range on the east. These mountain ranges form parentheses around the Chihuahuan Desert, blocking most of the moisture from the Pacific and from the Gulf of Mexico.
Chihuahuan Shrubs3. The Chihuahuan Desert is a shrub desert.

According to conservation groups like the World Wide Fund for Nature (aka World Wildlife Fund), the Chihuahuan Desert is the most biologically diverse desert in the world. In the mid-19th century, the grass in the northern Chihuahuan Desert grew as high as the belly of a horse. However, overgrazing led to the decline of native grasses thus allowing the invasion of shrubs like yuccas and agaves, ocotillo, creosote bushes, mormon tea, and many others.
Chihuahuan Panoramic4. The Chihuahuan Desert is home to several mountain ranges.

The Chihuahuan Desert in Texas is home to the Franklin Mountains, Chisos Mountains, Davis Mountains, and Guadalupe Mountains. The seven highest peaks in Texas that rise to more than 8,000-feet are found in the Guadalupe Mountains and the Davis Mountains. These higher altitudes boast both beautiful coniferous trees as well as magnificent vistas of the Lone Star landscape.
waterhole-trail5. There is water in the Chihuahuan Desert.

While there is little rainfall in the Chihuahuan Desert, the region is not entirely without sources of water. The Rio Grande River bisects the Chihuahuan Desert and forms the natural border between Texas and Mexico. There are also streams, arroyos, puddles formed during summer rains, and some aquifers. These help sustain both plant and animal life in this harsh desert environment.

5 Facts About Walking Stick Cholla

I love the mesmerizing beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert in the Lone Star State. This is iconic cowboy country that easily conjures up images of the old west. The more I wander through this region, the more I want to learn about the distinctive plants that give the vistas a beauty all their own. On a recent visit to the Guadalupe Mountains, I became acquainted with the walking stick cholla — an easy to identify member of the cactus family. Here are five interesting facts about this really cool-looking plant.

1. Walking Stick Cholla has some really cool aliases.


Most plants that grow in the Chihuahua Desert are known by more than one name. The walking stick cholla (pronounced cho-ya) certainly has its fair share of Native American and Spanish names, many inspired by the features of the plant. The cholla is also known as cane cholla, tree cholla (because it resembles a small tree), tree cactus, candelabrum cactus, devil’s rope, coyote prickly pear, tuna quell, and velas (candles) de coyote.
Cholla Cactus A2. People either love or hate the walking stick cholla.

In its native desert environment, the cholla is regarded by some as a weedy and troublesome pest. This hardy cacti can quickly reproduce. Fallen joints can easily form roots and produce new plants that spread and take over rangelands. However, to those who love xeric landscapes, cholla is regarded as a beautiful sculptural addition to a low-maintenance garden.

Cholla Fruit
3. The walking stick cholla is a source of food.

The walking stick cholla produces a distinctive yellow fruit that is often mistaken for flowers. This fruit lasts throughout the winter months and is a source of nutrition for wild birds, pronghorn antelope, desert bighorn sheep, and deer. The calcium-rich fruit of some species is edible either raw or boiled and is a good source of fiber. The cholla fruit is also used in dye production.
Cholla Cactus B4. The walking stick cholla has spines and blossoms.

As with all cacti, beware of the thorny spines that grow around the perimeter of the candelabra-like branches of the walking stick cholla. The vicious barbed spines have earned it the nickname devil’s rope and are tough enough to penetrate leather gloves. So, handle with care. In contrast to its spines, the cholla produces purple or magenta flowers that add to the beauty of the desert landscape.
dried-cholla5. Dead walking stick cholla stems have a beauty all their own.

Dried cholla wood is a good source of firewood. When dead stems decay, they reveal a hollow wooden tube with a beautiful pattern of slits. These dried cylindrical branches are sometimes used as walking sticks or canes or to make picture frames, tool handles, and other curio-like items.

5 Facts About Alligator Juniper

The alligator juniper is one of my favorite trees. I first encountered this member of the juniper family while hiking in the Guadalupe Mountains. It’s one of those trees that is hard to miss once you identify and get to know its distinctive characteristics. Here are five facts about the alligator juniper tree.
james-at-mckittrick-alligator-juniper1. The alligator juniper is named for its most distinctive characteristic — its bark.

The easiest way to identify the alligator juniper is by its distinctive bark. Look for rough square-plated bark that resembles the skin of an alligator. The thick bark grows in a cracked or checkered and furrowed pattern that sets it apart from other trees. The leaves of the alligator juniper are a deep green to blue-green in appearance.
Aliigator Juniper GMNP2. The alligator juniper is a tree as tough as its name.

The Guadalupe Mountains is a perfect place for alligator juniper. The tree prefers dry hillsides at moderate elevations like those found in the Trans-Pecos region of the state. The tree grows in the company of piñons, ponderosas, oaks, and other junipers. Alligator juniper has a high tolerance for heat and a low requirement for water. This evergreen tree thrives in either alkaline limestone or slightly acidic igneous soil.
alligator-juniper-mature-trunk3. The alligator juniper is in no hurry.

According to the science of  dendrochronology or the study of growth rings in trees, alligator juniper trees grow at a slow rate. Research has shown that young trees grow in diameter at a rate of 0.6 inches per decade — that’s pretty slow! The growth rate slows to 0.4 inches after the tree reaches 170 years of age. Alligator juniper trees have been known to live as long as 500 years. That’s pretty amazing!
alligator-juniper-trunks4. The alligator juniper is a berry producer.

The female tree produces edible berries that can be consumed raw or steamed. Native Americans used the strongly scented berries to flavor teas and incense and even added the berries to cornbread and sausages. Some Indians dried the berries for winter use or ground them into a mush and then formed them into cakes. In addition, they used the resin of the tree as chewing gum.
Alligator Juniper Omar Hike5. The alligator juniper is a favorite of wildlife.

The alligator juniper attracts a variety of wildlife. Wild turkeys and deer especially enjoy juniper berries. Various bird species such as sparrows, Mexican jays, flycatchers, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds breed among junipers. So, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife when you are out hiking among alligator juniper.

5 Facts About Sotol

Like ocotillo, sotol is one of the most easily identifiable plants in the Trans-Pecos region of the Lone Star State. The plant’s tall and singular flower stalks are the most distinguishing feature of this hearty native. Growing upwards of ten to fifteen feet, these towering stalks look like periscopes rising above the surrounding sea of scrub and rock.
Omar Looking at Sotol1. The sotol flower stalk has a variety of uses.

Ancient peoples like the Lipan, Chiricahua, and Mescalero Apache depended on the sotol to meet a variety of needs. The tall and straight flower stalks were used to make spear shafts, knife handles, digging sticks, and tepee poles. However, perhaps the most important use of the stalk was to make fire drills and fireboards, also called hearth boards, for starting friction fires. Sotol stalks also make excellent walking sticks and are used in the construction of corrals, house roofs, and other structures.
Sotol at GMNP2. Sotol is a plant with a heart.

The heart of the sotol plant has been used for generations as a food source for humans and animals alike. In times of need, ranchers know that they can rely on the heart of sotol for cow fodder. However, this requires trimming back the armada of saw-edged leaves so that the animals can access the sugary and starchy pith of the plant.

Sotol heart was also a major staple food for ancient peoples. They discovered that the spongy sotol hearts are edible raw but tasted better if roasted slowly. The leaf bases can be eaten in a fashion similar to artichoke bracts. Ancient people also pounded sotol hearts into a paste that, when dried, could be mixed with nuts and fruits or ground into a flour.
Sotol with Fall Colors3. Fashion by sotol.

Native Americans used sotol leaves  to weave mats and baskets and even durable sandals. These resourceful desert dwellers also used the fibers of the sotol leaves to make many varieties of twisted cordage. More recent uses of the leaves include making ropes, roof thatching, and hats.
GMNP Sotol4. Drunk on sotol.

Hispanic peoples of the region learned to make sotol mescal — a potent alcohol drink made from the heart of the plant. One modern naturalist compared the drink to a “mixture of hair oil and gasoline.” Sotol mescal became a common alcoholic beverage among the frontier population of west Texas. During the Prohibition, sotol mescal became a leading article of contraband.
Sotol Leaves5. A source of fuel.

The dead leaves of the sotol plant make an excellent fuel for fires in places where both trees and fire wood is scarce. The leaves burn rapidly and brightly, making them an excellent source of fuel for an emergency fire. The green leaves of the plant can be used for providing smoke for emergency signaling.

Beautiful Bur Marigold

I am not a naturalist but I do have a natural curiosity about flora and fauna in the Lone Star State. I have more photos of yet-to-be-identified plants and flowers on my phone than I care to count. But, that’s ok! I find it relaxing to leaf through the pages of my Texas wildflowers handbook in search of answers.
BBSP BikeOn a recent bike ride at Brazos Bend State Park, I was captivated by acres of beautiful yellow flowers growing along the edges of Elm Lake and along the trail to the spillway. These sunflowery-looking  beauties were a feast for my eyes and had me reaching for my camera.
Bur MarigoldCurious to learn more, I posted my pics on my iNaturalist app and asked for help. Thanks to the kindness of someone much smarter than me, I discovered that the beauties growing in biblical proportions at Brazos Bend are called bur marigold.

Bur marigold are also known by a few other names, including tickseed and beggar-ticks because their bristles tend to latch on to the britches or socks of hikers. These flowers prefer low, moist areas such as ditches, marshes, and wet meadows. That explains why they were flourishing along the lake at the park.

Bur marigold are also butterfly magnets. They attract a variety of butterflies, bees, and even birds. And, at least at Brazos Bend, they attract people. The photographers were out in force snapping away with their telephoto lenses. As for me, my iPhone camera served the purpose. As they say, the best camera is the one in your hand.
bur-marigold-closeRiding past acres of these beautiful flowers that Thoreau himself described as being full of the sun reminded me of why I love to get outdoors. Scenes of wildflowers, sounds of birds, sights of wildlife, and big oak trees with outstretched branches — it just doesn’t get much better than that.
BBSP Bike TrailThe weather in Texas is starting to get a little cooler, making it a perfect time to explore our treasure chest of state parks. Plan to get outdoors soon. Breathe in some fresh air. Feast your eyes on nature at its best. And thank God for the Lone Star State.

5 Facts About Turk’s Cap

I first became acquainted with Turk’s Cap on my visits to Texas State Parks. The plant seemed to be everywhere I hiked or biked. Curious about this pretty plant with its distinctive red flowers, I sought out a park ranger to ask about it. Having visited Turkey, when I heard the name of the plant, it made sense. Here are five quick facts about this plant that earned a Texas Superstar plant designation in 2011 by Texas AgriLife Research.
Bike and Turk's Cap1. Turk’s Cap is the perfect name for this hardy plant.

Turk’s Cap produces a profusion of bright red flowers that look like miniature Turkish turbans, hence the name. The plant was named by Scottish-born botanist and plant taxonomist Thomas Drummond in the early nineteenth century. Although Turk’s Cap is the more commonly known name, this plant is also known as Texas Mallow, Drummond’s Wax Mallow, Mexican Apple, Red Mallow, May Apple, Scotchman’s Purse, and Bleeding Heart.
Turk's Cap and Log2. Turk’s Cap is a South Texas native.

Turk’s Cap is a South Texas native but is also found in other parts of the great state of Texas. When planted in South Texas it becomes an established perennial. In the northern regions of the state it is the perfect annual for any garden. The perennial will die to the ground in winter but make its appearance again in early spring, presenting its flowers from late spring to as late as the first frost.
Tree and Turk's Cap3. Turk’s Cap thrives in a variety of settings.

When it comes to climate and soils, Turk’s Cap is one versatile plant. This drought-tolerant beauty will grow in full sun or full shade. No problem! It can handle wet or dry soil, sandy soil or loam or clay, alkaline soil, and acid soil. Doesn’t matter! This plant has a Texas-tough disposition.
Turk's Cap Flower4. Turk’s Cap is attractive in more ways than one.

Turk’s Cap produces really attractive and distinctive flowers that are pleasing to the eye. These beautiful nectar-rich flowers, however, are also attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds, making it the perfect addition to any home garden.
Log and Turk's Cap5. Turk’s Cap has medicinal qualities.

The leaves of the plant have been used as an emollient to treat inflammation, soothe itching, and soften skin. Mexicans used the flowers of the plant to treat digestive inflammation and as a menstrual aid. The flowers, either fresh or dried, can be used to make tea. Turk’s Cap also produces a small red fruit that is edible and resembles an apple, thus earning the plant the alias Mexican Apple.

5 Facts About Firecracker Penstemon

I had my first encounter with firecracker penstemon while hiking in Seminole Canyon. This amazing little plant stopped me dead in my tracks. I was immediately impressed because it was thriving in a pretty harsh environment. All rock, little dirt, scant shade — no problem. These challenges might cause other plants to wither in fear, but not the firecracker penstemon. It proudly displayed an inspiring rugged defiance.
In Seminole CanyonHere are five interesting facts about firecracker penstemon.

1. Firecracker penstemon is a desert beauty.

Firecracker penstemon is easy to spot against the palette of drab desert colors. This perennial’s red tubular blossoms make it one of the most strikingly beautiful plants in the desert. The telltale red flowers grow in profusion, with some plants bearing as many as thirty flowering stalks.
Firecracker Penstemon A2. Firecracker penstemon is not easily intimidated.

What I find amazing about this rugged little plant is its ability to grow in nothing more than a few teaspoonfuls of dirt or in thin fractures in boulders. These conditions would intimidate other plants but no so with the firecracker penstemon. In fact, too much soil, too much water, and too much shade spell too much trouble to firecracker penstemon.
Firecracker Penstemon F3. Firecracker penstemon is a favorite of hummingbirds.

Hummingbirds absolutely love the tubular and nectar-rich red flowers of the firecracker penstemon. These cute little hovering birds will, in fact, stake territories over patches of penstemon. Who would have thought that hummingbirds were territorial. Firecracker penstemon is so important to hummingbirds that they will risk everything to defend their respective patches of penstemon.
Firecracker Penstemon G4. Firecracker penstemon laugh in the face of heat and drought.

Firecracker penstemon thrives in the desert because it is drought tolerant. The best way to shorten the life of firecracker penstemon is by over-watering, over-fertilizing, and over-thinking what this little beauty needs. Penstemon is right at home in the sun, in the heat, and in the cold. It can grow in 100+ temperatures and is hardy to -20 degrees F. This plant does just fine on its own.
Firecracker Penstemon C5. Firecracker penstemon has a few aliases.

Like other plants and flowers, firecracker penstemon has more than one other alias. This flowering desert beauty is also known as firecracker beardtongue, Eaton’s penstemon, and Eaton’s beardtongue. But regardless of which title you prefer, this plant remains pleasing to the eyes and is an inspiration to all who find themselves dealing with life’s challenges. The firecracker penstemon by any name reminds us that we too can survive and even thrive in tough places and through tough times.

5 Facts About Gayfeather

Texas has no shortage of beautiful native wildflowers. Gayfeather is among the most finely attired in the Lone Star State’s pageant of wildflowers. Standing taller than most, it draws your attention with its distinctive purple-pink spikes and tassels. This showy flower that resembles a bottle-brush makes its debut in pastures, prairies, and roadways in July and hangs around until October. Here are a few interesting facts about Gayfeather.
Gayfeather 11. Gayfeather is a plant with aliases.

Gayfeather is also known by other show-bizesque names like Blazing Star and Button-Snakeroot. There are 43 species of plants in this handsome family. Identifying particular species can be hard because the species have a tendency to cross.

2. Gayfeather is a great garden plant.

This perennial plant can take the heat, is deer resistant, and requires no pampering — making it a popular choice for low-water xeriscapes. You can, essentially, plant Gayfeathers and then leave them alone. They won’t hold it against you and will not disappoint you.
Gayfeather 53. Gayfeather is an attractive plant.

Gayfeather plants are a favorite dining spot for bees, butterflies, and other pollinating insects. Hummingbirds are also quite fond of Gayfeather. This plant is the perfect addition to any butterfly garden.

4. Gayfeather plants bloom from the top down.

Gayfeather plants bloom from the top down. Each flower spike starts to bloom at the top and slowly descends toward the base. The flower spike will have blooms on it for a long time. Gayfeather is a favorite in the cut flower industry because, when dried, it hold its color for a long time.
Gayfeather 75. The Gayfeather pharmacy.

Native Americans discovered many medicinal qualities in the Gayfeather plant. The Cheyenne ground and used the roots to make a medicine to relieve headaches, arthritis, fever — and to treat measles, smallpox, and earaches. The Paiute shelled, cooked, and ate the small feathered nuts of the plant. Other Indians used the leaves to relieve upset stomachs and as an antiseptic wash.

5 Facts About Mexican Hat Flowers

Just about the time that bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush make their exit, the Mexican hat flower makes it seasonal debut. Colonies of these wildflowers grace Texas fields and roadsides from East Texas through the Trans-Pecos (the region west of the Pecos River) and to the Panhandle from May through July. Here are a few interesting facts about Mexican hat flowers.
Mexican hat red1. A flower with the perfect name.

The Mexican hat is a flower with the perfect name. This hearty flower resembles a Mexican sombrero, the über-broad-brimmed hat typically worn in Mexico and the Southwest. The flower is also known as the long-headed coneflower and thimbleflower — both very descriptive names of this colorful flower that grows as tall as three-plus feet.
Mexican hat yellow2. A flower with the same sombrero shape in different color combinations.

The Mexican hat flower is believed to have originated in Madagascar. This prolific droopy-petaled flower is part of the sunflower family and can be found in solid yellow to yellow-orange to reddish orange combinations. However, regardless of the color combination, the distinctive sombrero shape makes it an easy flower to identify.
Mexican hat red closeup3. A flower that can stand the heat.

Make no mistake about it, the Mexican hat is not some sissy high-maintenance flower. Mexican hat graces our Texas highways and byways from May through July and can take the heat. This drought resistant flower makes it perfect for inexperienced gardeners or those who prefer low maintenance gardening.
Mexican hat 14. A flower that is on the menu.

The nectar rich Mexican hat attracts beneficial insects, bees, and butterflies. The flower is deer resistant but on the menu for big game animals. Birds and small mammals prefer the seed of the flower. Domestic livestock enjoy this nutritious flower when it is in the early stages of growth.
Mexican hat fence5. A flower with medicinal qualities.

Native Americans discovered that the Mexican hat flower has some medicinal qualities. Indians boiled the leaves to make a type of tea that they applied externally to treat snakebites and to reduce the symptoms of poison ivy. They reportedly also made a medicinal tea from the ripened flower heads and leaves to treat non-specified medical issues. However, lacking more specific information, it would be best to not try this at home. Stick to drinking good old Lipton Tea instead.

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge is one of fifty-nine wildlife refuges managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These wildlife refuges have been set aside to conserve our nation’s fish, wildlife, and plants — including threatened or endangered species. Our nation’s wildlife refuges are home to more than 700 species of birds, 250 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, and more than 200 species of fish.
Anahuac SignThe Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1963 and is one of nineteen wildlife refuges located in the Lone Star State. The name Anahuac is a Nahuatl (an Aztec language) word that means “close to water.” The earliest inhabitants of the region, however, were not Aztecs but Atakapan Indians. The name perfectly fits because Anahuac is indeed near the water.
Anahuac WetlandsThis 34,000-acre refuge is largely coastal marsh land and prairie bordering Galveston Bay in southeast Texas. The marshes, meandering bayous, and prairies of Anahuac are home to an abundance of wildlife, including alligators and bobcats. The Anahuac refuge also serves as a hotel for migrating birds — a place where they can rest, nest, breed, and eat as they continue on their respective journeys.
Anahuac SignIf you want to catch a glimpse of alligators, then Anahuac is the place to be. Southeast Texas is regarded as one of the best places in the nation to see alligators. Spring and fall are the best times to catch sight of these reptiles as they sun themselves on the banks of the bayous. Anahuac is also a paradise for birders. Helpful signs on the driving and walking trails identify the birds you might see in the park — everything from shorebirds, wading birds, migratory songbirds, and more.
Anahuac BoardwalkThe refuge offers a driving loop with places to pull over to watch for certain birds and animals. The walking trails are well maintained and feature boardwalks and benches where you can sit and enjoy the outdoors, including the music of migratory songbirds. If you visit, bring a pair of binoculars with you. You can purchase an inexpensive folding field guide at the park store to help you identify the birds in the refuge.
Anahuac DriveWe are fortunate to have a third of the nation’s wildlife refuges in the Lone Star State. Don’t overlook these outdoor treasures as you plan your Texas adventures. These are great places to connect with the outdoors — beautiful locations where you can walk slowly, breathe deeply, and appreciate the great diversity of wildlife in Texas.
Anahuac Field Guide