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Big Bend Country—Where Wildflowers Wait for Rain

The craggy landscape of the Big Bend region softens with the rosy colors and delicate textures of moisture-sensitive cenizo and many other plants.

Big Bend’s springtime floral bounty belies the widespread belief that the Chihuahuan Desert is a barren wasteland. On the contrary, the desert abounds with life that’s ingeniously adapted to the hot climate and scarcity of water.

A vaquero of legend who called Big Bend “the place where the rainbows wait for rain” spoke the poetic truth. Here in this Chihuahuan Desert heartland west of the Pecos, myriad flowering plants—from herbs, shrubs, and trees to cacti, agaves, and yuccas—await life-renewing rains that usher in a floral extravaganza as showy and multihued as any rainbow. Given a modicum of rain, something blooms in Big Bend country year round. Even in late July and August—the region’s so-called “fifth season”—monsoonal showers trigger lavish displays of flowering perennials and cacti. But of all the seasons, springtime is showtime for the flower fanciers, botanists, birders, photographers, landscape painters, and desert-lovers who travel hundreds of miles to see Big Bend in bloom.

Essentials

Flower fanciers touring Big Bend are pretty much on their own. The vast region is mostly despoblado, with more than a million acres of desert, canyon, and alpine wilderness preserved in two vast parks: Big Bend National Park and Big Bend Ranch State Park. Contact the park headquarters listed below for updates on weather and wildflower conditions.

Many of the paved national park roads, as well as FM 170 (known as the River Road) from Lajitas to Presidio, are favorable routes for wildflower displays. Ranger F. Gus Sánchez suggests that you "look for wildflowers off paved roads, where runoff makes ideal, moist conditions for flowering plants."

Ranger David Long encourages park visitors to "explore canyons and arroyos. Wherever there is accumulation of moisture, you'll find a greater variety of flowers," he says.

Collecting or destroying plants is prohibited in Big Bend's national and state parks.

Big Bend National Park (801,000 acres) can be reached via US 385 from Marathon, Texas 118 from Alpine, and FM 170 from Presidio. Water and gasoline are available at park headquarters, Panther Junction. Groceries and other supplies are available at stores in the Chisos Basin, Rio Grande Village, Castolon, and Panther Junction. Chisos Mountains Lodge in the Basin offers overnight lodging (call 915/477-2291 for reservations). Tent camping and RV sites available in the Basin, Rio Grande Village, and Castolon. Park entrance fee: $10 per car, good for 7 days. Write to Supt., Big Bend National Park 79834; 915/477-2251. Web site: www.nps.gov/bibe.

Big Bend Ranch State Park (287,000 acres) extends north and west of Big Bend National Park, along FM 170 and the Rio Grande between Lajitas and Presidio. The Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center in Lajitas (915/424-3327) is the park's eastern gateway. Fort Leaton State Historical Park (915/229-3613), 4 miles east of Presidio, is the western gateway. Visitors can pay a daily entrance fee ($3 per person) and daily activity fee ($3 per person) and obtain permits at either gateway. Entrance fee waived for Texas Conservation Passport holders. Write to Supt., Box 2319, Presidio 79845 (915/229-3416). Web site: www.tpwd.state.tx.us.

The Barton Warnock Environmental Education Center, named in honor of the late Dr. Barton Warnock, the dean of Big Bend botany, interprets five biological landscapes of the Chihuahuan Desert, as well as 570 million years of its geological history. The center features a new international interpretive exhibit (Una Tierra–One Land), a self-guided 2-acre botanical garden, a bookstore, a gift shop, and a research library. It will soon house Dr. Warnock's herbarium of hundreds of desert plants. The center sponsors classes and special events. Hours: Daily 8-4:30. Write to HC 70, Box 375, Terlingua 79852, or call the number listed previously.

For additional wildflower information, visit the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute, 4 miles south of Fort Davis on Texas 118. The center offers a 20-acre arboretum, cactus greenhouse, gift shop, library, and access to the Modesta Canyon Trail. Hours: Mon-Fri 9-5 year round, Sat-Sun 9-6 (Apr. 1-Sep. 4, 2000). Admission: Free; donations accepted. Write to CDRI, Box 905, Fort Davis 79734; 915/ 364-2499. Web site: www.cdri.org.

Books

While botanists prefer the scientific precision of Latin names, most flower fanciers like the descriptive simplicity of common folk names. Sotol or "desert candle" is easier to say and remember than Dasylirion leiophyllum, and there are even times when "DYF" (damn yellow flower) is preferable to Perityle vaseyi, a West Texas sunflower known as margined perityle. Nevertheless, a little basic knowledge of plant life can add to one's viewing pleasure.

The following books, available at libraries and some bookstores, provide a good start: Naturalist's Big Bend by Roland H. Wauer (Texas A&M Univ. Press, 1992); For All Seasons: A Big Bend Journal by Roland H. Wauer (Univ. of Texas Press, 1997); Cacti of Texas and Neighboring States: A Field Guide by Del Weniger (Univ. of Texas Press, 1984); and Medicinal Plants of the Desert and Canyon West by Michael Moore (Museum of New Mexico Press, 1990). Of special note are two hard-to-find books by Barton H. Warnock: Wildflowers of the Big Bend Country, Texas, and Wildflowers of the Davis Mountains and Marathon Basin.

Resources and Workshops

The Big Bend Natural History Assn. offers books, maps, workshops, and field trips. Write to BBNHA, Box 196, Big Bend National Park 79834; 915/477-2236. Web site: www.bigbendbookstore.org.

The Big Bend Touring Society offers natural history workshops. Write to Sam Richardson, Box 609, Terlingua 79852; 915/371-2548.

For information on wildflower and landscape photography workshops at Big Bend Ranch State Park, see aforementioned address and phone number, or call Jim Carr (713/486-8070) or Peggy Parks (512/398-7627).

From the February 2000 issue.

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