Sunday, June 28, 2009

More Adventures with the Texas Snowbell

(Stryx Platanifolious var. Texanus)

I’ve talked about our response to the drought here on Selah in my blog of June 7, 2009, but the drought is not just here in Blanco County. It covers many other areas of Texas and the Southwest. Particularly hard hit are the counties of Real, Edwards, Uvalde and Kinney in the Nueces River watershed and Val Verde County in the Devils River watershed. These counties are where we have been planting the snowbells in our attempts to save the plant from extinction. We hope our efforts will get it removed from the Federal Endangered Species List. Due to the drought all of our snowbells planted in October 2008 had to be watered.

Watering invention. Photograph taken by Mary Candee.

We solved the problem of how to get water to the plant more efficiently than pouring it over the corral. The bucket was “plumbed” so that water came through the hose and could be directed to each individual plant. Duct tape held the hose in place on a 4 foot cedar limb. This is me directing the water to the individual plant while volunteer Ernie Sessums holds the water bucket and volunteer David Matthews looks on.

Lessons we learned. Photograph taken by Mary Candee.

We suffered a high percent of losses in our October 2008 plants because of the drought. We had gotten away from using weed barrier – a cost cutting action – and used “pasta” (that’s grass) – to suppress weeds. We had some weed barrier left over and noticed that the survival rate was so much better than the “pasta.” The weed barrier seemed to have prevented evaporation of the water we used in planting. We’re now back to using the weed barrier and layering our “pasta” over it.

Yellow Bluff Ranch. Photograph taken by Mary Candee.

They named this ranch Yellow Bluff. This beautiful spring fed water is Dolan Creek. In a quarter mile it joins the Devils River. This creek was my waterloo, the place where I slipped and fell while carrying steel post across it and ended up in the hospital with surgery on my right shoulder. This occurred in December 2008. I’ve not regained full use of that shoulder yet. The previous picture was taken on Yellow Bluff. I believe places like this are such a treasure. They hold us together, in spite of the very hard work.

Carrying Water. Photograph taken by Mary Candee.

This is another picture at Yellow Bluff. The water is from a major spring up the canyon. It must be producing 30 to 40 gallons per minute and delivers it to Dolan Creek. We’re all volunteers, left to right Dave Matthews, me and Ernie Sessums. It is rare that we have water this close to our planting site.

Predators. Photograph taken by Mary Candee.

These are Blister Beetles (Epicauta sp.). They are inside our corrals eating on mountain laurel. They like to feed on egg capsules of grasshoppers. They are crop pests that have been known to kill horses that ate hay in which the beetles had been baled. Their body fluid contains a substance that causes blisters when in contact with the skin. I guess they preferred the mountain laurel as our snowbells were not touched by them. I hope that holds true. We’ll know in mid July on our return to Yellow Bluff.

Blister Bug. Photograph taken by Mary Candee.

Here’s a close up of the blister bug. I don’t recall whose hand it is. One thing for sure, it wasn’t mine! I want to point out that the world is full of many critters that can frustrate any gardener.

Vantage Point. Photograph taken by J. David.

The kids who come to the ranch in great numbers call Steven Fulton, our biologist, “Big Steve.” He’s 6’8”. Aiden, his son, has a good vantage point. We are on Pinyon Ranch where we have planted 15 snowbells under harsh conditions. We found them all healthy and growing. Notice how dry things are. It was 103 degrees that day. The drought spares no one. The West Nueces runs through this ranch and it too is dry.

Good Parents. Photograph taken by J. David.

I admire Steven and Amanda for taking their son Aiden along on these trips. What a wonderful start in life for a little boy less than 3 years old! . . . As part of Steven’s research project for his Master’s Degree, the growth and health of every snowbell is recorded. Here, Steven measures and Amanda records.

Research. Photograph taken by J. David.

Another part of Steven’s research is to determine who the snowbells’ predators may be. To assist him in this, Steven has two digital motion cameras mounted near colonies of naturally occurring snowbells. Once a month he downloads any images into his laptop and replaces the batteries in the cameras. Here, pictured with Paula Smith of Dobbs Run Ranch, they discover who browsed on the plants. So far in the study he has pictures of an exotic animal, the Aoudad sheep.

Ready to Leave. Photograph taken by JDavid.

Ernest and Paula Smith, owners of Dobbs Run, along with Steven and Aiden examine our equipment. The Smiths have been very good cooperators on this project. Dobbs Run is where we planted the very first snowbell in October 2003. They have 46 there now. They have provided us many meals and excellent accommodations. We laugh together, even though it was somewhat a slight when in the book Water From Stone Jeffrey Greene described their guest accommodations as “reasonably comfortable sleeping quarters.”

Ernie Lounging. Photograph taken by JDavid.

This was Ernie Sessums first working trip as a volunteer. He lives in San Antonio. After 3 days of 100+ temperatures, carrying water over rocks through thick brush and down into steep canyons, he relaxes with a cold beer after a shower at Dobbs Run. Look at that smile, you wouldn’t know that he’s exhausted. All who have worked with us on this project have enjoyed the hospitality of the many landowners who have cooperated with us.

Via Con Dios. Photograph taken by J. David.

Prior to leaving Dobbs Run I took this photograph. It’s always somewhat sad to leave this ranch. There’s just something about it that feels so good. Left to right: Paula and Ernest Smith, Amanda, Aiden and Steven Fulton and Ernie Sessums.

Seeing Old Friends. Photograph taken by Ernie Sessums.

What a greeting I got upon arriving at Dolan Falls! Mary Weigel, whom I had not seen in 10 years, was at Dolan Falls with her family. Mary is a biologist and her husband, Jeff Weigel, is a longtime executive with The Nature Conservancy. Mary took many of the photos on this blog. She is also a professional photographer.

Three Musketeers. Photograph taken by Mary Candee. (David Matthews, J. David, Ernie)

All of the long hours and hard work with the Texas snowbells becomes so very satisfying when the work is done. It’s what memories are made of. Perhaps very few will know what we did or what we’ve experienced in our effort to save just this one plant from extinction. We, who gave time and effort, made many new friends and had what I call luxury experiences in places hidden from most people’s view. In the picture from left to right: David Matthews, volunteer and 5th grade science teacher at Small Middle School in Austin, myself, and my son-in-law, Ernie Sessums a volunteer from San Antonio. We are on a high deck overlooking Dolan Falls on the Devils River in Val Verde County.

Day’s End. Photograph taken by J. David.

Pictured left to right: Steven and Amanda Fulton, Mary Weigel with little Aiden Fulton and David Matthews on the deck at Dolan Falls.

Dolan Falls is owned by The Nature Conservancy. At one time the ranch was over 25,000 acres, but large tracts have been sold off to conservation buyers. I believe they still hold 10,000 or more acres. It’s this property that has the largest colony of mature Texas snowbells. Thus far, all of our Devils River plantings have come from seeds collected here. We have discovered two mature plants across the river on an 8,000 acre private ranch, but we have not as yet collected seed there.

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