Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park

Plants

Big Bend Blooms

Watching Cactus and Wildflowers
Feel free to observe, describe, and photograph flowers and inform park staff if you think something is noteworthy. But remember to help preserve our flowers. Do not pick or trample plants. Take only pictures and memories, and leave only footprints. Happy botanizing!

Elevation and weather play important roles in each season's blooming period; the higher elevations of the park generally bloom later, and the first blooms usually appear along the Rio Grande, in the lowest portions of the park.


Common Plants

Agave
Agaves are a low growing evergreen plant with succulent leaves that form a bowl shape or basal rosette. Colonies are often formed from the underground sprouts. The leaves are tipped in a hard spine and the leaf margins may also have spines. Agaves bloom once in their lifetime and then die. The rapidly growing flower stalk seems to exhaust all of its resources to survive. The fruit is a brown capsule with three cells and two rows of black seeds. There are eleven species of agave in Texas. 

There are three agaves in Big Bend National Park. Agave lechuguilla, commonly called lechuguilla, is the indicator plant of the Chihuahuan Desert. This means it is only found in the Chihuahuan Desert and nowhere else in the world! Lechuguilla was a very important source of fiber for Native Americans and is still used today to make rope in Mexico. The roots of the plant are high in saponins, so they taste bitter but are a good source of soap. The lechuguilla blooms once after growing three to twenty years. 

Agave havardiana or the century plant is the largest agave in the park. It blooms once in its life after growing 20-50 years. Mexican long-nosed bats pollinate the bright yellow flowers. The leaves of the century plant have a blue-gray color. The century plant also provides an excellent source of fiber for ropes, mats, sandals, etc. The hearts of the plants were harvested by the Native Americans and then baked in a stone lined pit for two to three days. Once baked, the plant provided a source of food that could be dried and stored to help them to survive the long winter. The dried flower stalks served as building material. Century plants in Mexico provide the alcoholic beverages of pulque, mescal, and tequila. 

The third agave in Big Bend National Park is actually a hybrid. Agave gracilipes is the plant that occurs when the century plant and lechuguilla cross breed. It looks like a large lechuguilla or a small century plant. It also provided fiber for the Native Americans.

Sotol 
Sotol (Dasylirion liophyllum) is composed of a cluster of numerous linear, flattened leaves that have hooked teeth along the margins of the leaf. The leaf bases are spoon-like. A tall flower stalk is produced each spring that has light colored, nondescript flowers clustered together. The fruit is three-winged and triangular. Twenty species occur in southwestern U.S. and Northern Mexico. 

Sotol was an important source of materials for basket making. The young flower stalks were eaten, as were the seeds. The heart of the plant was cooked along with agave hearts in a stone-lined pit for several days and then eaten. The stalks were used to make temporary shelters, porches, roofs, corrals and walking sticks. When the sap is fermented it produces the alcoholic beverage also called sotol.

Nolina
Nolina species have linear leaves that are long, numerous, and clustered. Margins of the leaves are finely toothed. The flower is short stemmed, with cream-colored flowers. The leaves were an important source of material for mats, sandals, and basket making. However, the plant was not eaten since it is poisonous and could cause liver and kidney damage. There are five species in the Trans-Pecos area and 30 species in the U.S. and Mexico.

Oaks
There are 45 species of oaks (Quercus sp.) in Texas and nine in Big Bend National Park. These trees or shrubs have simple alternate leaves with margins that are smooth, lobed, or toothed. The fruit or acorn is one celled, one seeded, and sits in a cup that partially envelops the seed. Hybridization is common among oaks. The oaks of Big Bend National Park are relic species—left behind on the mountaintops from a cooler time. The acorns on most species are edible. They need to be soaked in water before eating to remove some of the bitter taste. The early settlers of this area commonly made a flour or meal from the leached acorns. Oaks produce a hard wood important for firewood, tools, and furniture making.

Wildflowers

Big Bend National Park is home to over 1300 plant taxa (about 1200 species). Hundreds of these species and varieties are showy, fragrant, or unique-looking enough to be generally categorized as "wildflowers". In the Big Bend, we usually have two major flowering periods per year - spring and late summer. The spring flower season, because it depends largely on the amount and timing of winter precipitation, is less predictable than the summer season, which is fueled by the dependable summer monsoon.

Many annual plants like bluebonnets and some mustards will only bloom in early spring. The majority of the 46 cactus species in the park bloom in mid to late spring. Many of these cactus species produce very large, showy flowers in varying shades of yellow, red, pink, and purple. The yuccas, including the impressive giant dagger, usually flower February-April. Many shrubs and small trees, such as the fragrant yellow huisache in the southeast part of the park, and the bright purple fruity-smelling Texas mountain laurel also bloom in March and April. In March and April, bright red bunches of flowers emerge at the ends of the spiny whip-like branches of ocotillo and provide nectar and pollen for hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. The spring flowering season frequently starts in late February along the Rio Grande and proceeds upslope to the foothills of the Chisos Mountains by late April.

The late summer flowering season is dominated by members of the sunflower family. These plants are sometimes called composites because the "flower" is actually a tightly clustered group of very small individual flowers. Most summer-flowering composites are yellow or white, with yellows being abundant in the Chisos Mountains. The summer season also brings red, blue, and purple true sage flowers to the Chisos. These fantastic shows can last well into the fall, before the first freezes hit the mountains. Another group of plants commonly called "desert sage" or ceniza grows in the mid- and lower elevations of the park and produces magenta and purple flowers quickly after significant summer rain storms. These are not sages (genus Salvia) at all, but are members of the figwort family.

Many plants are opportunistic flowerers and will bloom whenever it is warm and wet enough, from February through November, and even sometimes in the middle of winter. Several yellow composites, like the forbs yerba raton, dogweed, paperflower, and the shrubby skeleton-leaf goldeneye bloom almost continuously in wet years. Many thorny acacia species will produce white to yellow blooms opportunistically throughout the warm months. The most common perennial mustard in the park, the wonderfully fragrant bi-colored mustard, can bloom extensively in the spring and then again, though less spectacularly, in late summer.

Angiosperms (flowering plants) like those mentioned above are the most numerous and diverse group of plants is the park, but dozens of gymnosperms (cone-bearing plants like pine and juniper) and non-seed producing plants (ferns) also grow here, especially in the cooler, wetter Chisos Mountains. Not all "flowering" plants produce stereotypical colorful petal-bearing flowers. In fact, one of the most important and diverse families of flowering plants in the Big Bend (and the world) is the grass family. Grasses produce numerous small, reduced flowers in a wide array of flower arrangement, all well-adapted to wind pollination. Viewed up close with a hand lens or macro camera lens, these diminutive flowers can be quite beautiful when they produce flowering tillers in the rainy season.

Wherever you are in Big Bend, no matter what time of year, you are likely to find something in bloom. In the spring and late summer you may be astounded at the abundance and variety of wildflowers. But remember that this is a desert, and long dry periods are not uncommon here, so there are times when flowers are few and far between. "Drought" is a natural part of this environment, and these plants have adapted to survive the dry periods. Remember also not to pick or trample our wildflowers so that they can live, grow, and flower another day.

Plants

Big Bend National Park is a great place to learn about plants! Many of the plants here in the Chihuahuan desert have spines or barbs that might catch on your cloths as you walk by them. These spines are to protect the plant from animals that might be after thier water or fruits. Those that do not have spines, will catch your eyes with thier flowers or general appearance. Over 1,000 species of plants are found within Big Bend National Park. In recent years park botanists, technicians and volunteers have found many new species and rediscovered some that haven't been seen in years. One of those plants, Hidalgo ladies tresses hasn't been seen in over 60 years!

Sixty years of botanical exploration

The Chisos Mountains, with their high diversity and sky-island habitat, have historically attracted many amateur and professional naturalists. Despite the remote location and difficult access of this rugged mountain range, the majority of the plant species in the Chisos were well-documented by the founding of the National Park sixty years ago. As far back as 1885, pioneering botanist V. Havard recognized the unique character of the Big Bend flora and described many species previously unknown and endemic to the region. In fact, the efforts of these early naturalists, including Omer Sperry, C.H. Mueller, and E.G. Marsh, helped clarify the importance of protecting the diversity of the region by creating Big Bend National Park.

In the past sixty years, the park staff and cooperating scientists have built upon this knowledge base. In the 1950s and 60s, Barton Warnock, the longtime botanist at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, was instrumental in documenting plant species occurrence and habitat requirements and establishing long-term ecological monitoring plots in the park. Park staff use these data to design and implement restoration and conservation projects to maintain the fantastic diversity of life in the Big Bend.

Current projects include grassland restoration in the Harte Ranch area, fostering riparian recovery at upland springs, weed control and re-establishment of native plant communities in disturbed areas, and the cautious re-introduction of fire as an ecosystem process in grasslands and woodlands.

Park Biologists are currently mapping rare, endemic, and threatened plants parkwide. We use these data to protect existing known populations and to define habitat conditions of rare plants. In 2004, we are focusing on orchids. At least nine species of orchid occur in the park, with seven species being considered rare or very rare. Several species of saprophytic coralroot occur only in a few mountain ranges in Trans-Pecos Texas and adjacent Mexico. Big Bend National Park is one of the only protected areas in the Chihuahuan Desert that supports such orchid diversity. Recently, the rare plant mapping project uncovered a rare gem that had not been seen in the U.S. since 1931 -the Hidalgo ladies-tresses. Knowledge of the location and habitat of this and other rare plants allows us to prevent accidental disturbance of populations and to make decisions about the appropriate use of wildland fire in these systems.

Knowledge is power. Big Bend National Park is committed to using the ecological knowledge, and associated decision-making power, accumulated by dedicated staff and scientists, to protect these fragile ecosystems for the next sixty years and onward.

More Common Plants

Mesquite
Prosopis glandulosa, or honey mesquite and Prosopis pubescens, screwbean mesquite, are both found in Big Bend National Park. These shrubby trees are armed with straight, stout spines that are solitary or paired, and have deep, drought-defying roots. The fruit is a tough pod where the seeds are partitioned and embedded. The fruits were an important food source for the Native Americans. The developing pods are sweet raw or cooked. The seeds are also edible and could be ground into flour or meal. The meal could be mixed with water to make a lemony drink. The drink was also fermented. The sap or pitch, was used to waterproof baskets, make candy, and produce a black dye. The sap was mixed with mud and plastered on the head. Once dry, it was removed leaving the hair shiny, black, and lice-free. The inner bark and roots were a source of fiber for baskets. The hard wood was an important source of tools and weapons. Today mesquite is used in posts, carvings, tool handles, gunstocks, and for barbecues.

Piñon Pine
Pinus cembroides, or the Mexican piñon pine, is a small evergreen tree with needles in clusters of two to five. They produce a woody cone that matures in two years and produces an edible nut. Although the nut has a hard shell, it is very tasty and was prized by the Native Americans. The nut stored well for winter and was high in protein and calories. This tree was once more widespread in cooler times and is now considered a relic species. It provided pitch or sap for waterproofing baskets, chewing gum, and also was used medicinally to treat sore throats and remove splinters. A tea made from the needles is high in vitamin C.

Juniper
Rose-fruited juniper, Juniperus erythrocarpa, is the shrubby juniper of the park. Typically growing no taller that five feet, the alligator juniper, Juniperus deppeana, has checkered or scaly bark and is taller and more tree-like than other junipers in the area. Drooping juniper, or Juniperus flaccida, is common in Mexico but only found in the U.S. in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park. Its needles droop causing this small tree to appear like it always needs a drink of water. The bark of all three juniper species provided a source of fiber for sandals, mats, and baskets for early Native Americans. The cones are small and berry-like, and were used in seasoning meats and for beads in necklaces.

Yuccas
Yuccas are members of the lily family and bloom every year if there has been enough rainfall. The four yuccas of Big Bend National Park, Faxon yucca or giant dagger (Yucca faxoniana), beaked yucca (Yucca rostrata), soaptree yucca (Yucca elata) and Spanish dagger or torrey yucca (Yucca treculean), all have trunks that elevate the leaves above the ground. The trunk is often covered with dry, dead leaves. The leaves are long, fibrous, and spine-tipped. The cream-white flowers appear in late spring and produce a fleshy or dry fruit with black seeds. The flowers are pollinated primarily by the yucca moth. Native Americans ate the flower buds, petals, and young stalks. The fruits and seeds were also eaten. The fibrous leaves were used to make cloth, rope, mats, sandals, and baskets. The root provided soap and was used as a laxative.

Prickly Pear
There are sixteen species of Opuntia in the Trans-Pecos area of Texas. These species tend to hybridize, so it is often difficult to determine which prickly pear is which. There are two general varieties. The chollas that have cylindrical stems and the prickly pears that have flattened stems. The cacti have spines instead of leaves to conserve water and carry out all food production through the stems of the plants. The spines are numerous and can be yellow, brown, pink, red, or black in color depending on the species. The flowers appear in April and are usually yellow (prickly pears) or pink (chollas). Fruits are usually maroon (prickly pears) or yellow (chollas) and some varieties are very juicy and sweet. The Native Americans ate these fruits, called tunas, and today we use them to make jellies and syrups. The young cactus pads or nopals were used as a potherb (like greens) or pickled. Their taste is typically described as a cross between green pepper and okra. The seeds were eaten in soups or ground up for flour. The pads were sometimes split and soaked in water and could be used to bind wounds with the sticky side down. The insides are similar to aloe vera and softened the skin and lessened pain. The bitter juice from the pads could be used as an emergency source of water. In Mexico, fields of prickly pear are grown for a scale insect, the cochineal, which grows on the pads. This insect is used to produce a beautiful natural purple dye.

Grasses
In terms of geographic distribution and the number of individual plants, the grass family is the most successful flowering plant family in the world! Over 8,000 species exist worldwide, covering one-third of the planet. They are found in the tropics, marshes, forests, tundra, and desert environments. Native Americans harvested over fifty kinds of grass seeds. No one type was considered an important food source, but when combined the seeds had many uses. The seeds could be boiled for a mush, made into bread, ground into flour or meal, and used to thicken gravy. The seeds could be eaten raw, but tasted better dried, roasted, or ground. The leaves of many species were used to make baskets, mats, or flutes. Today two-thirds of the crops cultivated on earth are cereal grasses such as wheat, rice, corn, oats, barley, rye, millet, sugar cane, and hay.