With the celebration Friday of Earth Day, there’s occasion for both despair, and hope. In the 52 years since the first Earth Day, we’ve witnessed ecological destruction without parallel in human history. But there are also signs we might be at a watershed moment, one of fundamental change.
It’s evident in ways that can seem small, or humble. In the two years since the pandemic began, interest in native-plant gardening has boomed in the U.S. In opting for natives – over the longstanding American ideal of a neat, grassy lawn – gardeners and homeowners embed themselves in their local environment, and contribute to its community of life. They go beyond exploitation, or even a “do-no-harm” ethic, toward a reciprocal relationship with the nonhuman world. And it’s no ascetic act – the reward is a garden or yard that abounds in beauty and life.
The Big Bend Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas has been making this case for two decades. On Saturday, April 30, in Alpine, they host a native plant sale. Whether you’re a veteran gardener or a novice, it’s an opportunity to deepen your connection with West Texas.
Karen Little is the manager of the Plant Resources Center at Sul Ross State University.
“If you’re into plants you don’t really need TV,” Little said. “There’s lots of sex and violence right there. Plants are just fun.”
The center is a partner of the native plant society, and is providing many of the plants for the sale.
As the center’s sole staffer, Little is responsible for multiple greenhouses and gardens. She furnishes plants for special university occasions, and supports classes and student research projects. But the center was founded – by pioneering Big Bend botanist Michael Powell – for the study and conservation of the region’s native plants, and for educating the public. That remains Little’s touchstone.
“That’s my favorite part of the job,” Little said, “is growing and selling native plants and educating people about them.”
For many, the most striking feature of Trans-Pecos Texas is its landscape – its vast spaces and stony mountains. Its plant diversity is a subtler matter. But with open eyes, that diversity is wondrous. There are more than 2,400 species of vascular plants here – 17 percent of the state’s flora. Each embodies the character of this rugged place.
Cultivating those plants likewise requires an attention to this place, its character and its elements.
“I can speak from experience when I say that native-plant landscaping is intimidating when you first move to the desert,” Little said. “The desert is harsh. I came from Illinois – a lot of people come from East Texas – and you’re used to water, and different kinds of soil. Even as a botanist, it was nice to have someone I felt comfortable talking to, and to be able to afford to buy a plant and maybe make a mistake.”
For Little, those guides included Patty Manning, her predecessor at the center, and the late Alice Stevens. Now, she’s providing that guidance to new Big Bend gardeners.
A first step, Little said, is understanding the soil, and what can grow there. She and others will be on-hand at the April 30th sale, to provide tips on identifying soil composition.
Little said there are some common mistakes. Gardeners often feel the itch to plant in spring – as nature greens and blooms. But for many plants here, it’s best to wait for summer rains.
And just because a plant is native doesn’t mean it won’t require initial attention and care. “Native” can apply to plants that aren’t found in one’s immediate neighborhood. Little herself lives on the grassland flats, but has cultivated trees – tracy hawthorns, Mexican redbuds, Ponderosa pines – that are found in the region’s canyons and mountains. When young, those trees might need extra protection from the summer sun.
Gardeners can take advantage of the shade cast by a house or shed, Little said, or by another plant.
“Everything you do changes your little ecosystem a little bit,” Little said, “and you can work with that and run with it. I couldn’t have planted madrone unless I’d first planted wild cherries and provided a little shade.”
There’s no shortage of natives that can bring luminous color to a garden or yard – from a penstemon’s red flowers to an Esperanza plant’s “yellow bells.” But the vitality of native plants extends far beyond color.
Plants and their pollinators are, of course, bound in relationships of deep interdependence. Plants provide birds and insects with the shelter and food they need. Plants, in turn, need those creatures to reproduce. Native plants provide local wildlife – from migrating hummingbirds to solitary carpenter bees – with resources non-native plants can’t. A native-plant garden is a haven for native wildlife.
Though – there are some people who are squeamish about this business of the birds and the bees. Little remembered one gardener who was drawn to the blue flowers of the native mealy sage – but balked at planting it when she learned it would draw pollinators.
“I made the mistake of saying it was a sexual way of plants getting together,” Little said, “that they use animals to connect the male parts and female parts. I could tell that was a big mistake, that she wasn’t interested in having bees, or in plants having sex in her yard.”
Few Big Bend native plants are available at commercial nurseries. Making those plants available has been a long-term effort – by Little and Manning, by botanist Michael Eason, by the native plant society itself, and others. But as supply has increased, so has demand – interest in native plants is growing here, as it is across the country.
It couldn’t be more timely. Through climate change and habitat destruction, human actions have profoundly disrupted natural systems – and starved non-human creatures of vital resources. Cultivating native plants might seem a modest step – but every native-plant garden or yard helps supplement what has been lost.
And, Little said, it affirms our kinship with the whole, in ways that are satisfying, and invigorating.
“I try to promote not just native-plant landscaping,” Little said, “but I try to promote living in nature. We think we’re in charge of everything – we insulate ourselves in our houses and cars – but what we need to be doing is living with our neighbors, with the insects and the birds. It’s a healthier way to live.”
The native plant sale is Saturday, April 30th, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., at Eighth Street and Avenue E in Alpine, just behind Forever West Texas Realty. Purchases can be made with cash or check only.