Post-Thanksgiving and we continue our very slow but steady march through the changing of summer into fall. Technically measuring by the sun, moon and stars, we are well into the season which we call fall or autumn, but here in the desert things tend to linger in their previous state for quite some time before they actually get motivated to get up and move on. I and many others have been accused of lingering like this on those lazy hot afternoons, no need to be alarmed, it’s just an indicator of the geography.
We have yet to drop below 32 degrees for a freeze which can be typical in a lot of years or not, depends on the year. One thing not freezing yet differentiates is the ability for frost tender plants to continue to grow and thrive, like my basil and jalapeno pepper plants, still hanging on to the summer vibes. 2022 was quite a shitty summer for growing vegetables anyway so all the better that we have an unknown length of extended bit of summer growing left. I am prepared for a freeze to happen any day now so that affords me the absolute luxury of adorning my breakfast salads every morning with fresh basil.
I took a walk with Pancho down canyon over some slickrock and past a tinaja. We walk this way only occasionally as the slickrock is challenging for hooved creatures like a donkey and it requires great patience of me to walk him through the course. A technical walk like this is not possible if I have any scheduled events later to attend. Water crossing are similar challenges, it is a trust building exercise though and is important to stir the pot sometimes. I want to keep walking with him without the control of a lead rope (and on this day without halter as well.) I want to keep developing this skill because I enjoy his presence more as a friend and companion than a subordinate so we just have to walk the more difficult route occasionally.
We made it over the slick rock just fine. Pancho took a route that was more of a steep drop down off the side into the tinaja and it was all I could do not to freak out just watching him walk that path. Culture has taught me well though, externally I speak words of encouragement and smile as internally visions in my head play of broken legs and which gun I would use to shoot him in the head to put him out of his misery after the fall. I am not my thoughts, my ego is always so dramatic. Pancho’s tail whip swishes constantly back and forth as he finds a premium clump of grass to chew. I can sense he is proud of what we just accomplished.
Harbored in the protective alcove of a creek bend and short canyon wall just beyond the slick rock and tinaja there was this wonderful Mexican Buckeye specimen, Ungnadia speciosa. When I saw it I was delighted as I always am when I see this species. Mexican Buckeye are not exactly rare but certainly not something I would call common either, it is a tree after all so just in general trees in the Chihuahuan Desert can be considered ‘not common.’ A Mexican Buckeye being even a less common occurance among those considered trees, much less common than mesquite, desert willow, white-thorn and catclaw acacias and even cottonwoods, when I find a Mexican Buckeye it always feels special, like I located a hidden treasure chest and I am allowed to unpack and admire the contents for a while without jeopardizing the secret.
I remembered after a moment though that I have met this tree before. Of course I have been past this creek bend before, but not on a day that the little tree flashed so vibrant yellow, up and out of it’s quiet alcove, it was in spectacular fall color! The Mexican Buckeye is certainly one of my favorite natives and it stands out from the rest by the spring flower display, the buds breaking before the leaves push out. The leaves are also not common for a desert native in that they are broadleaf and deciduous. Now that I have met the Mexican Buckeye in this time of year I can add that it stands out from the rest for its fall colors too.
Barton Warnock provides us with a good short description in his book Wildflowers of the Big Bend Country Texas
“Ungnadia speciosa, Beautiful clusters of purplish-pink fragrant flowers appear before this much branched shrub develops its leaves; plants normally 4-10 ft. tall; the brownish pods, about 2 in. across, hang empty on the shrubs for 2-3 years. Seeds are shining, brownish-black and considered poisonous; excellent honey-bee plant and desirable ornamental, [flowering] March to June.”
I thank the little tree for the visit as I always have conversations with the things around me, living or not. “Thanks for the fall cheer little canyon tree, my donkey and I will come here again but for now we need to go gather the courage to travel back up the slick rock and around the tinaja and walk back home.”
You can, of course, grow Mexican Buckeye from seed and I highly recommend it as a practice. The seed is fairly large for a seed, about ¾ inch diameter. It is dark brown, shiny and feels smooth and nice to hold in your hand, easy to collect and enticing to carry in your pocket as a token of some fantastic place where you found the mother plant. The first Mexican Buckeyes I grew from seed started on a river trip through Santa Elena Canyon. We were hiking in Fern Canyon, the wonderful little Mexican tributary of the main canyon that is as narrow and deep as a proper slot canyon should be. I collected a few seeds and three of them ended up in a #5 pot of soil that same fall. The pot of soil gets a drink everyday. It is an act of hope, hope that the water and soil and temperature are correct, hope that the seed is an easy one to sprout and hope that if it does sprout the roots will take hold and provide that sense of grounding that we are all needing when we plant trees. Many times that pot of soil is just that and a bit of hope that turns into nothing more. In the case of the three seeds from Fern Canyon, to my utter surprise, two of the seeds sprouted and grew into two short little tree seedlings. My friends and I kept the little trees alive for two more years in the pot as we passed it around to whomever was still in Terlingua at the time who could keep the hope alive and give it a drink every few days.
We moved out to our property in 2014 and we brought that pot of hope with us from the protection of our former rental in the ghost town to the undeveloped and wild spot in Dark Canyon where we built our home. Our spot is on the edge of wilderness. The story of keeping our little homestead going is a story which includes a lot of losses of chickens, cats, trees and other plants, even that one poor goat. I did the best that I could with those little Buckeyes, I did the most work to the soil as I had ever done and those little tree seedlings got planted and anchored themselves in. Hope lies in the sense of grounding from planting baby tree seedlings on a newly acquired desert homestead.
Not ironically, the site I selected to plant the 2 seedlings in no way resembled the protected alcoves of fern canyon and the baby Mexican Buckeyes were doomed from the start. One spring the leaves of one of the seedlings never emerged. I waited many months with hope and then finally decided to bend the stem to check for a pulse and it predictably snapped off in my hand. Dead. Thinning the planting it would be considered if the act had been intentional. It’s sad to lose a life but overall not a bad thing, less competition for scarce resources. The surviving tree is living. There is still hope.
Of course the requisite fate of the surviving seedling was an early death too, but no need to dawdle, get on with it. Pancho came to live with us that same year.
We don’t even remember why it all happened. The question comes up every now and then especially with new acquaintances, “Why did you get a donkey?” Well we actually have no idea why, I don’t think there was an option of not getting a donkey once the situation started playing itself out so maybe that’s why. Anna and I had been discussing a business idea where we could have a ‘burro bar hop.’ Tim was working with Titi on the maintenance crew at Far Flung Outdoor Center. One afternoon Tim asks “Hey Titi, you know where we can get a donkey?” and Titi responds, “Of course, I have one you can get.” Simple enough. “Ok, how much do you want for him?” the next obvious question was asked and Titi responds “Oh, you can have him. He’s free” I was there for this conversation and I remember vividly Titi’s words, and I laugh and laugh about them now. Oh yeah, here, have a donkey, he is free. But so we did just that. We had to fast track building a barn and a paddock and then about two months after that conversation Pancho came to live with us. He was 2 years old and had already been castrated, thank goodness, because we really knew nothing about getting that done. From the time that he first arrived we let him out to walk around and also socialize with us every day. It wasn’t too long before we figured out where the other fences needed to be, mainly one around our house to keep Pancho from wandering in and eating everything. He has been caught in my kitchen delicately investigating the items on the counter. He knows what he does is wrong, it is worth it though according to a curious donkey.
It only took one bite for the little Buckeye seedling to succumb to its ultimate fate, death in the jaws of a curious donkey. Same as the Barbie head, multiple t-shirts, boots and shoes, the rear-view mirrors on the jeep, handlebar grips, tool handles or anything else within the reach of a donkey neck over a fence, chewed up and either swallowed or discarded.
These days I work with native plants from a differing perspective. I don’t need to plant my own seeds in a pot anymore to appreciate the species. Although I would like to have my own Mexican Buckeye planted at my house that I can care for and admire, I know the conditions here just aren’t right. Ultimately what I want for the species is to see it thrive where it needs to thrive in the region, sometimes that is at people’s houses and sometimes it’s not. In practice this means first and foremost being an advocate for the native plants and their kin. That is what this writing is about, sharing stories and information. Second to education and actively, I take more care to get the seed in the ground in a not too dissimilar environment from where the mother plant is growing and I do it with hopelessness, no expectations or desires, just a helping hand. Downstream the seeds are distributed naturally but upstream they must be taken by birds or humans or other critters. So that’s what I do now, when I find a Mexican Buckeye, I collect some seeds and then plant them during the wet periods upstream of where I found the mother trees. I have no idea if any of them have ever sprouted but I would bet that some have, they sprout so easy.
You can of course start you own Mexican Buckeye from seed, and I highly recommend it as a practice. Seek the mother trees in rocky canyons and ridges, in quiet alcoves protected from full sun and places that would have damp soil in many circumstances. Seasonal creeks are a great place to look. I have found them in limestone soil such as in Fern Canyon and in volcanic soil such as the specimen featured here. The seeds should be shiny, hard and almost black; there are three seeds per pod, just enough to get you started.
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Mexican Buckeye fruits photo by Leslie Landrum is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)
Warnock, Barton. Wildflowers of the Big Bend Country Texas. Alpine, Texas. Sul Ross State University. 1970