Spring is an amazing time of year at the park.  Some of the flowers that bloom make it difficult to believe that you are really in the desert.  The photo above is of a Mexican Buckeye tree.

Because of the amount of water in the park, there are many unexpected plants present.  Seeing the Mexican Buckeye in bloom is like being in another part of the country.  This section of the blog will showcase some of the spectacular spring blooms, some of the unexpected plants, and some of the more distinctive grasses.

The ocotillo is a plant that puts on a nice show in the spring.  

Possibly the most spectacular blooms are on the cacti, which come in many varieties.  They are interesting to look at and beautiful when in bloom and/or fruit, but it’s best to keep your distance from them because of their thorns.  The big thorns can hurt, but the little ones (called glochids) that can be found on Prickly Pears and other members of the genus Opuntia, such as Chollas, are almost impossible to remove once they get into your skin.  The latest addition to our cactus collection is unfortunately not in bloom.  It is the rare El Paso Pincushion, which has orange flowers.  The Sand Prickly Pear is a very pretty variety, with it’s rose to lemon yellow flowers.  The Comanche Prickly Pear, with it’s beautiful red and yellow flowers, is probably the most common Prickly Pear in the park. There are additional photos of cacti in this album.

One of the plants that grows all over the park that does not look particularly like a desert plant is Canaigre, (also known as Dock or Desert Rhubarb).  It is recognizable by its broad leaves and red stems (hence the Rhubarb name).  It produces tall flower heads, and the subsequently the leaves and seed heads turn rusty brown.  The biggest patch of this can be seen in the lake bed behind the interpretive center.

One cannot forget to mention another group of plants that dominate the Chihuahuan desert landscape: yuccas and agaves.  There are three varieties of yucca growing in the park: Banana Yucca (great example in front of the interpretive center), Soaptree Yucca, and Torrey Yucca.  The Torrey yucca is the first to bloom, starting in early April.  The Torrey Yucca and Banana Yucca look a lot alike.  The easiest way to tell the difference is that if it looks like a tree, it’s a Torrey Yucca.  The Banana Yucca never grows a trunk.  The Sotol is a plant that looks a lot like the Agaves, with the tooth-edged leaves, but it is actually related to the Yuccas.  The Sotol plants are either male or female; the gender can be determined by looking at the flower stalks - they are very different.  This photo shows a female plant.  The one Agave that grows in the park is the Lechuguilla.  It is a succulent rosette that stays at ground level.  After it blooms the plant dies, although by the time that happens the original roots have usually sent up babies to replace the dying plant.  The seed pods can be seen in this photo.

The biggest surprise of all is the large number and variety of ferns (seventeen species) and their relatives growing in the park.  All of the photos (below and in the photo album) are different varieties of fern found in the park.  The first one shows a fern in its most commonly seen state, primarily dry and brown.   The remainder show what some of the varieties look like when there has been some rain.  In July, 2015, we learned that a fern growing in Comanche Cave is a rare one, Phanerophlebia auriculata (Eared Holly Fern).  Photos are in the album.

Star Cloak Fern

There are also plants which are known as ‘fern allies’.  The are related to ferns, and are seemingly equally unexpected in the desert.  The first one is a Spikemoss, Selaginella peruviana.  Like the ferns, this Spikemoss is usually seen in its dormant state.  With even a small amount of rain the fronds will unfurl.

The other fern ally in the park, which grows only in the wetter areas, is Ferriss Scouring Rush (Equisetum xferrissii).  It is a primitive plant, closely related to Horsetails, which go back to prehistoric times.  The photo shows a particularly healthy clump.

During the weekend of the interpretive fair in 2014 we learned that there are Liverworts growing in the park.  They are a primitive plant related to mosses, which can usually be found growing with mosses.

There are a number of significant trees in the park.  The most important one is the Cottonwood.  Cottonwood trees were always a welcome sign to travelers in the desert.  Because they require up to 50 gallons of water per day to thrive, they indicate that there is water nearby.  Hackberry trees are quite common in the park.  They are very hardy and will grow anywhere they can find a foothold, including in cracks in the rocks.  There are also Goodding’s Willows (close-up of flowers here) in at least a couple of areas where water is known to collect, such as near the dam in Mescalero Canyon and around the edges of the ponding area behind the Interpretive Center.  Other trees that can be seen in the park include Western Soapberry (close-up of the leaves here) and Chinese Elm.

Most of the shrubs in the park will be discussed in a subsequent section.  One that is seen in multiple areas of the park is Wright’s Silktassel, a relative of the Dogwood tree.  It is mostly recognizable by the leaf color and shape, and the red color of new stem growth.

An herbaceous plant that does not have a distinctive flower, but which is easily recognized by its seed pods, is the Cocklebur plant.  The Cocklebur is noteworthy because its ability to stick to other things was the inspiration for the invention of Velcro.  It can be found growing in some of the wetter areas of the park.

The final category of plants we will discuss here are the grasses.  Grasses are generally quite difficult to identify, so you won’t see too many here.  The ones we are showcasing here are easily recognized because of their distinctive look.

001 Little Bluestem Grass, Rotated.jpg

The grass pictured above is possibly one of the most beautiful.  It is called Little Bluestem.  This one shows a close view of the flower stalk; the photo in the link shows what it looks like growing in the field.

Fluffgrass is easily recognized by it’s tiny size.  It grows along the major pathways in the park.  Grama grasses are also easily recognized, because all of the flowers/seeds hang off one side of the stem.  The most common one, which grows throughout the park, is Side Oats Grama, the state grass of Texas.  In 2014 there has been enough rain that some of the Side Oats are as much as four feet tall.  Other Grama grasses include Blue Grama, and an unidentified variety which is unmistakably a grama grass.

Bush Muhly Grass is recognizable during its blooming season, as the flowers present as a purple haze above the plant.

The final grass we will mention is Lehmann’s Love Grass, which is an invasive alien in the state of Texas.  This grass was planted in many areas of the park by the Boy Scouts, who were attempting to help with erosion control.  Hopefully this grass will not crowd out any of the native grasses.

© Susan L. Stone 2015                   rovingstones@me.com