Discovering a Botanical “Wonderland” With Alpine’s Patty Manning

By Andrew Stuart

There is “an involuntary hunger for greenness which lies at the heart of all desert-lovers,” novelist Lawrence Durrell claimed. He saw it in North African Bedouins. It’s true in West Texas, too.

In our area, there’s no better cure for that hunger than an outing with Alpine’s Patty Manning. Manning moved here from Dallas in 1991. She had a master’s in art, and a lawn business in her hometown, but, in a classic Big Bend country narrative, she needed a new start. She became an expert in West Texas botany, and she’s making important contributions in understanding and preserving our native flora.

“I just love a limestone habitat, by God,” Manning says.

It’s a rainy June day, after a blessedly rainy spring, and Manning is headed to a favorite place: a canyon on a friend’s ranch in the rough, hilly country west of Sanderson.

Manning managed the greenhouse at Sul Ross State University for two decades – since her retirement in 2014, she’s continued to collect and propagate native seed. She works with Big Bend and other national parks to map their flora. This limestone landscape is one she returns to to collect seed.

“This is such interesting country because there are so many little canyons,” Manning says, “and some of the plants are separated from each other, and even though they may be related, there may be slightly different variations or varieties in different canyons.”

Cacti diversity is pronounced in limestone. Ferns and ground spurges carpet exposed bedrock. Plants emerge from niches and crevasses. Even before reaching the canyon, Manning identifies favorite plants along the dirt road: birdwing passionvine, cedar sage, Sabatia campestris, or Texas star.

Rain lilies have flowered, radiant white, with the showers. Near the canyon are Texas persimmons, and a desert olive loaded with fruit – Manning grows this plant in her garden.

Plants have always been surrounded by lore, myth and memory. And modern botany remains an eminently human affair, a matter not just of taxonomies and DNA, but of stories, characters and lineages.

Manning’s own initiation came from legendary scientists and naturalists at Sul Ross: Michael Powell, the author of Trans-Pecos plant guides, now emeritus professor, and the late Jim Scudday. Scudday cultivated relationships with area landowners, and his field trips were a revelation of the Big Bend’s diverse habitats. 

In the early 2000s, Manning collaborated with botanist Michael Eason, now of Alpine, on his work with the Millenium Seed Bank Project – a global seed-gathering effort. They visited here often. Eason’s keen eyesight gave him an edge, in spotting both plants and animals. And it sometimes made for whiplash.

“He slams on the brakes,” Manning says, “jumps out of the car, and runs over to this shrub – and he comes up with this horny toad, about that long, that was the same color as the limestone. I don’t know how he saw it. He said, ‘Well, it moved.’” 

Manning continues on foot into the canyon, and a botanical wonderland. The gorge is lush, with Mexican redbud, littleleaf ash, goldenball leadtree, Texas kidneywood and flowering yellowbells. Red, trumpet-shaped flowers – rock penstemons – paint the canyon.

Manning’s on the hunt for a plant called Turner’s cliff thistle. It’s named for renowned botanist Billy Turner. Dr. Powell, Manning’s teacher, was Turner’s student. The plant is found only in this limestone country.

“It’s this really gorgeous thistle,” she says, “aptly named, because it comes out of these cracks in the canyon walls, the cliffs, and instead of being purplish, like a lot of the thistles you see alongside of the road, it’s this deep crimson red. It’s really beautiful.”

Now, here it is, tucked 10 feet up on a cliff.

But the outing reaches its climax near the canyon floor, at a small tree, bursting with berries.

“Look at you!” Manning says. “Aren’t you gorgeous – serviceberry. Awesome. The fruits only have about one or two seeds. That made my day.”

The Big Bend or toothed serviceberry – Tlaxistle or Tlaxisqui in the Nahuatl language – is found as far south as Guatemala. This is its northern limit. The berries are pink, juicy – and delicious. Finding such sweetness in the forbidding outback is like stumbling on a hidden treasure. 

The return drive includes fording a creek swollen with the rain. But a rainy day in West Texas, with an expert guide like Patty Manning, is a botanical safari.