Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Quest for the Murray Plum

David Bamberger writes:

In 1992 I read an article in the Native Plant Society of Texas Newsletter written by Benny Simpson of the Texas A&M University Experiment Station in Dallas about an endangered plant named the Murray Plum. He stated that it would do no good to find and protect the few known plants, but rather what was needed was for someone to gather together as many plants as possible from the different mountain ranges and plant them together in a great thicket. This was because no one had ever seen this plant produce fertile fruit and no one knew what pollinated them. This plant, Prunus Murrayana, was thought to be native on steep rocky slopes of canyons in the Davis, Glass and Del Norte Mountains of the Trans Pecos.

I wanted to be helpful and at that time in my life was in need of a challenge and what later became the quest for the Murray Plum began; an adventure that went on for ten years. I contacted Dr. Barton Warnock, he was the most well known botanist of the Trans Pecos in Alpine, Texas, and Dr. Mike Powell, then head of the biology department at Sul Ross State University, who was in charge of the college herbarium. Their guidance led me to areas in all three mountain ranges.

In 1994 when Margaret came into my life she was eager to help and the quest widened. We were joined by Jim Rhoades, my tree aggie, and my son, David K. Bamberger. We camped out, we slept in the bed of my truck, in motels and in B&B’s. We met and worked our way onto ranches that were off limits to anyone interested in endangered species, particularly federal and state employees, but also other conservation organizations as well. This was because of the very conservative landowner’s fear of government taking land due to the Endangered Species Act. We spent years and many trips in our search for the Murray Plum. It was a great time in our lives and we recorded much of it in a song that eventually had 25 verses! Margaret played the piano while I led the singing. I think every guest here at Selah had to sing or at least listen to “The Quest for the Murray Plum” in its entirety!

Eventually we brought to Selah over 100 Murray Plums and planted three great thickets. Before Dr. Simpson died, I asked him how many plants did he mean when he said plant them together in a great thicket. He answered 25! We could have cut our quest off 4 years earlier had I been perceptive enough to ask that question at the start.

As very little was known about this “species” and in the interest of science, we sent 4 samples of the plum to the Smithsonian. We inquired at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas and at the University of Texas. As the years went by, our biggest colony of 79 plum grew, but only a few ever bloomed and not profusely. In 1997 we suffered a major setback when a disgruntled hunter cut all 79 plants off at ground level! Through careful nurturing, most survived and this brings me closer to this week’s posting. All of this adventure is recorded with journals and photographs which I would be glad to share with anyone who would be interested in reading about it.

By 2009, most plants in our largest thicket had grown to 10 plus feet. On April 1st, we witnessed a spectacular sight. Thousands of beautiful white blooms with light pink centers had exploded creating beauty and scents which were attracting many species of butterflies, bees and moths. These photographs were taken by Colleen Gardner and Amanda Fulton. I hope you enjoy them.

But there is more to the story. If not for a major turn of events, this year’s explosion of blooms could have answered the original question of what the pollinator was, and would sexual reproduction take place.

The event that brought our project to a close was a paper written by Marshall Enquist, the author of the best field guide on native flowers, Wildflowers of the Texas Hill Country. In the mid 1990’s, Marshall invited us to go with him out Interstate 10 near Sonora and onto some back state highways toward Menard, Texas where he had discovered some shrubby plums – Murray Plums? Marshall produced a paper which was accepted by the scientific community which proved the Murray Plum to be a hybrid and thus sterile!

All of the following photographs were taken while the butterflies, and honey bee spent time on the blooms of the Murray Plum. So who’s to say which is the pollinator?

The monarch (Danaus Plexippus) seems to me to be the most popular of the butterflies. Perhaps this is because of their migration through the hill country and a desired plant, antelope horn, which we have in abundance.
Photo by Colleen Gardner.

Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus Philenor) is slightly rare on the ranch, but maybe the Murray Plum bloom will help increase the population here!
Photo by Amanda Fulton.

All the males of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail (Papillio Glaucus) are this color while females can be like this or of a darker color.
Photo by Amanda Fulton.

Unknown "skipper" butterfly (family Hesperiidae).
Photo by Amanda Fulton.

Unknown honey bee species. Our bees are suffering from the drought and corresponding lack of flowers and blooms. I’m sure the bees appreciate the Murray Plum which began these many blooms when needed the most.
Photo by Amanda Fulton.


Charles said...

Fantastic. Very interesting article and the pictures by Colleen and Amanda were great. You all make a great team in extending Margaret's legacy.


Lorilee said...

The blooming thicket must be a sight to behold. Thank you to the photographers for the beautiful photos.