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Plant Focus

Quercus macdougallii
A rare oak endemic to the Sierra Juárez in Oaxaca

2022 Pre-Conference Tour: Western Texas

27–30 August 2022

The opportunity to participate in the Western Texas Pre-Conference Tour was a very special opportunity for me. After sharing seeds and communicating with members of the International Oak Society for several years on social media and over email, I finally became a member of IOS in 2019. Having just accepted a tenure-track faculty position at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY, it was finally time to begin getting more involved and planning my first IOS Conference. After the lingering effects of the pandemic dashed my hopes of visiting Taiwan for the first time, I was excited to see that the rescheduled Conference location in New Mexico preceded by the Tour through Western Texas would allow for plenty of oak viewing in other unique, oak-rich environments.

I arrived in San Antonio shortly after noon on Friday, August 26 and immediately began exploring the area around the hotels. It had been about ten years since my last encounter with the flora in this part of Texas, and I was eager to become reacquainted, even just with the plants present in a heavily urbanized area. The next morning, I was up early for breakfast in the hotel lobby, eager to see if there was anyone I could recognize as being part of the Tour. I struck up a conversation with a gentleman who seemed to be prepared for a few days in the field, and indeed he was another member of the Tour, Dr. Paul Manos. I had been reading Dr. Manos’s publications for years, including some of his recent molecular work on Quercus in preparation for the Conference. This was just the beginning of the introductions as our group assembled and burritos were distributed before heading out into the Texas Hill Country.

Collecting near Leakey
Collecting on the Edwards Plateau near Leakey, TX

Our first stop of the tour was near Leakey, and it offered a range of interesting woody flora. Netleaf hackberry (Celtis reticulata) may have been the most abundant species, and I was able to collect seeds from several individuals as well as from Juglans major, Sideroxylon lanuginosa, and Platanus occidentalis. The latter looked a bit odd to my eye, and Tour leader Adam Black noted that although the individual before us appeared to be P. occidentalis, the taxonomic situation within this genus is in flux, and many workers recognize P. palmeri as another species present in the area. Other genera such as Forestiera, Rhus, and Juniperus were also present.

Only a few miles from our first stop, we continued ascending the plateau and enjoying some magnificent views before pulling over at a spot Adam and co-leader Michael Eason had identified as hosting some interesting oaks. Somebody in our van mentioned that this might be the spot where we could see the taxon known as Q. marilandica var. ashei; indeed, the roadside was flanked by several individuals that matched its description. I found this variant of Q. marilandica very interesting and distinct, and some of the trees were covered in smallish acorns that several members of our group collected in the hopes that they would be mature enough for viability. Also present was Q. fusiformis, but the individuals in this area had very few or seemingly unripe acorns. Seed-bearing individuals of Q. buckleyi and Q. vaseyana were present, and we were fortunate to find two forms of Q. laceyi growing in close proximity: A lobed form, and an unlobed form with distinctively blue foliage. Interestingly, Adam noted that these forms generally come true to type from seed, a hypothesis that several of us will be testing.

Quercus marilandica var ashei
Quercus marilandica var. ashei near Leakey, TX © Emily Beckman Bruns 

This area quite literally bore fruit in terms of collecting other woody genera. Scrambling up fence posts and through shrubbery was the Texas-endemic Parthenocissus heptaphylla, as well as an unidentified Vitis. I was excited to find several Diospyros texana shrubs with ripe fruits, which allowed me to both collect seed and compare the interesting and delightful flavor to the more commonly consumed Asian and Eastern North American persimmons. I had been excited to keep an eye out for the Edwards Plateau black cherry (Prunus serotina ssp. eximia), sometimes referred to as a subspecies, variety, or even synonym of a variable Prunus serotina ssp. serotina; I was fortunate to find two trees in heavy fruit from which to collect and eventually study the progeny. We encountered an excellent specimen of Pinus remota that was coning quite heavily, allowing members of our party to add this species to our collections. Other woody taxa on this stretch included Dermatophyllum secundiflora and Zanthoxylum hirsutum.

Once our collecting urges had been sated along this stretch, we headed west towards Del Rio for lunch and fuel before heading towards Langtry and a visit to the Pecos River Overlook. On the way, we stopped briefly at the site of a large Q. muehlenbergii to collect acorns, as well as some seemingly wild native pecans (Carya illinoenensis). Once at the overlook, we took in the spectacular views of the Pecos River bridge before continuing west. On a rocky slope overlooking the Rio Grande, I was introduced to Karwinskia humboldtiana, a buckthorn family (Rhamnaceae) shrub with beautiful foliage, and soon became reacquainted with creosotebush (Larrea tridentata), which was becoming more common as we continued west. Our final stop of the day was near Sanderson to view and hopefully collect Q. mohriana. Unfortunately, this area appeared to have been hit hard by the recent dry weather and only a few small acorns were present on these plants. A beautiful, glossy-leaved specimen of Cercis canadensis var. mexicana appeared to have leafed out suddenly due to recent rains, and evidence of newly spent flowers were present. I took some interest in trying to identify a shrubby and rather wickedly armed Condalia but was unable with my limited knowledge of the genus and the features present. “Why do you want THAT?” cried one of my peers.

Pecos Reiver
The Pecos River between Comstock and Langtry, Texas

After spending the night in Alpine, we headed towards Big Bend National Park to spend the Sunday hiking. Although no collecting was allowed in this area, there was no loss of excitement due to the unique sky island landscape and presence of so many interesting oak species that many of us had never seen in person. Most of the group took the Pinnacles Trail to the ridge where it bifurcates into the Boot Canyon and Emory Peak trails. We began seeing interesting oaks right near the trailhead itself, with trees referable to Q. gravesii making an appearance as well as Q. emoryi, Q. grisea, and according to my notes, some possible Q. pungens. Adam took a moment to quiz the group on an unusual shrub with mostly trifoliate leaves, which turned out to be Fraxinus greggii; the overall presentation and character being most unusual for an ash!

Quercus intricata
Quercus intricata full plant and branch detail at Big Bend National Park

Some members of the group hiked a bit past the terminus of the Pinnacles Trail, and here I made the acquaintance of Q. intricata for the first time. Pressing on a bit farther, we located a young specimen of Q. graciliformis and farther still, a shrubby plant that Adam described as being the closest individual adhering to the description of Q. carmenensis that he was aware of in the park. Encountering these three oaks in situ was a very special experience. Although there was thunder and lightning in the latter part of the afternoon, we largely avoided the rains that fell near the trailhead and Chisos Basin Visitor Center. The glistening trunks of Arbutus xalapensis, combined with some incredible rainbows over the sky island scenery on the walk back down the trail, created a surreal landscape for this New Yorker. Once off the trail, we set out for a hearty and well-earned meal at The Starlight Theatre Restaurant in Terlingua before returning to Alpine.

Quercus aff. carmenensis
Quercus aff. carmenensis at Big Bend National Park

The next morning, we departed Alpine and headed towards Jefferson Davis County to visit the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute (CDRI) and Fort Davis. On the way, we stopped to see and collect from an impressive Q. grisea. In Fort Davis, we stopped to see a spectacular Q. gravesii on the southeast corner of the lawn around the Jefferson Davis County courthouse, absolutely loaded with ripe acorns falling out of their caps and on to the ground. North of Fort Davis, we stopped to collect from a roadside Q. grisea and shortly thereafter, we stopped for a more extended lunch break off the main highway, where we saw a particularly fine specimen of that species.

Quercus grisea Madera Canyon
A spectacular Quercus grisea near the Madera Canyon trail, north of Fort Davis

We hit the road again as storms were gathering all around us, and at one point we were very fortunate to avoid a surge of runoff that manifested as a raging torrent over the highway. After waiting on higher ground for about an hour, the waters subsided and at last we were on our way to our lodgings for the evening.

Desert flash flood
Desert flash flood!

The final and by far most memorable day of the tour started with a trip to McKittrick Canyon in the Guadalupe Mountains National Park. As at Big Bend, collecting was not allowed; however, the scenery, abundance of oaks, and overall richness of the flora more than made up for that. As the trail meandered over dry creek beds and through scrubby oak (Q. grisea, Q. pungens) forests and woodlands chock-full of Q. muehlenbergii and Acer grandidentatum, members of the group began to spread apart as new treasures were spotted in seemingly every nook and cranny. The Q. muehlenbergii had an interesting character with glossy, jaggedly-toothed leaves and darker, more furrowed bark than I am used to seeing. Somebody remarked that these plants were perhaps of the var. brayi persuasion, if you subscribe to the legitimacy of that disputed taxon.

Quercus muehlenbergii
Quercus muehlenbergii in McKittrick Canyon strike a rugged pose

We made our way to a grotto where we enjoyed lunch before making our way back out of the canyons. I spotted as many new woody plants on the way out as I did on the way in, including Choisya dumosa, Ostrya knowltonii, and an interesting and apparently native Lonicera. Dr. Manos insisted that we stop and smell the vanilla-like bark fragrance of the local Pinus ponderosa, which lived up to the hype and was a new experience for me.

Finally, we were on our way to a nearby salt flats for a group photo before heading towards El Paso and then Las Cruces for the opening of the Conference.

Group photo salt flat
Tour participants on the sat flats outside Guadalupe Mountains National Park © Shaun Haddock

Photos © Philip Crim unless specified

A detailed Tour report will be published in the 2023 issue of International Oaks (Proceedings of the 10th International Oak Society Conference). IOS members can view more photographs of this Tour in a photo gallery here.