On Burros and Buckeyes

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.

Mexican Buckeye, Ungnadia speciosa fruits, photo courtesy Leslie Landrum

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.

Pancho entering the tipi, circa 2018

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.


All content by SustainableTerlingua.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License unless otherwise noted.

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

3 Facebook groups you should join

If you aren’t already a member of Facebook just skip this article, there’s no need to join just for these groups. I will admit fully that I have tried to leave Facebook for good more than three times. Just a few months ago I had a message pop up and an old friend was ranting in a group message from 10 years ago. I tried then and there to delete all of my messages so I would not have the ghosts of the past come back to greet me anymore but I soon discovered that there was no feature for deleting every message, it had to be done one by one. Well since I was so determined I did embark on this task. The group message from 10 years ago was not something that I wanted to deal with again. I had to highlight each message, select delete and then confirm. Highlight-select-confirm. Highlight-select-confirm. Highlight-select-confirm. Highlight-select-confirm. I dedicated close to an hour of this repetitive operation before I gave up and deleted my entire profile. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

“I did it!” I declared in the kitchen later, “I deleted Facebook!” I was elated to be free, finally. But if there is one thing you learn when you delete a social media app it’s the things you miss out on that were truly valuable and served to actually enhance your life. It’s true, I was missing out and these feelings were not FOMO from the night life in town, it was about not being able to interact in my top three favorite groups that consequently have to do with the natural world.

1. Terlingua Weather.

Yes, there is a period at the end of Terlingua Weather. and your little quirks are why I love you so much TW.

You know when you join a group that has Terlingua in the title and seems like the location should be the main focus of the whole group but a bunch of people want to post regularly about things happening in Alpine? Yeah I find that annoying too and Terlingua Weather is not that group. It is strictly about the weather in Terlingua!

You know when you join a local group that has something in the name like Weather and you feel like it should be the main focus of the group but some people regularly post memes about stuff like dogs and happy hour. Yeah, I find that annoying too and Terlingua Weather is not that group either, in fact memes are extremely rare. This is a group with absolutely no drama, it’s just local people talking about the weather, and it’s awesome. You should join!

A donkey looks over his shoulder in a snow scene
I totally shared this pic in Terlingua Weather.

2. West Texas Vegetable Gardeners

I have been a member of West Texas Vegetable Gardeners for several years and at first it was real slow going. There were a few posts here and there and more people looking for answers than had answers. Since the pandemic hit it really allowed people to examine their lives and get back to the Earth. It was a gardening revolution and the little West Texas Vegetable Gardeners group has now grown to over 5 thousand members.

This group was originally started by some folks in Midland and you will still get daily conversation from people in that area but it’s truly West Texas in that there are regular people posting from Lubbock to Terlingua. The moderators have done an excellent job of keeping the group focused on growing vegetables in the harsh conditions of West Texas, and no more than that. No sales or commercial advertising are allowed, it is just neighbors helping neighbors so it is truly an organically grown. Can we ask for anything more than a group that stays true to their roots and is not overrun with spam? I think not.

Woman in her garden holding a basket of vegetables
This is what it’s like. Pictures of people in their garden with baskets of vegetables that they grew and harvested, but in West Texas!

3. West Texas Xeriscape Gardeners

Xeriscape is a term you should get familiar with if you aren’t already. Merriam-Webster defines the term xeriscape as “a landscaping method developed especially for arid and semiarid climates that utilizes water-conserving techniques such as the use of drought-tolerant plants, mulch, and efficient irrigation.” By that definition alone it makes sense for us to design our landscapes with xeriscape in mind. I also like to point out that xeriscape focuses mainly on plants which are native to the region. I am a huge fan of native plants so I am also a huge fan of this group. West Texas Xeriscape Gardeners is an incredible resource for learning about the native plants that will survive and thrive in our landscapes.

Echinopsis plants at the Cactus Gardens, Ashington, Sussex
Echinopsis plants at the Cactus Gardens, Ashington, Sussex by Roger Kidd is licensed under CC-BY-SA 2.0

Many people consider xeriscape to be only cactus and stones like the preceding image but the world of xeriscape and native plants contains a plethora of soft flowering plants. Spending some time exploring West Texas Xeriscape Gardeners will introduce you to many of those plants, like these blackfoot daisies.

blackfoot daisy and bluebonnets


If you are not a member of Facebook I still do not recommend you join just to become members of these really great groups. But if you already have an account and have just been avoiding social media for a while, this might inspire you to take another look at your relationship with the platform. If used for specific purposes that are truly valuable and serve to actually enhance your life, like local weather and gardens, well then that’s fine and dandy.

Working with greywater sources

Greywater is defined as water that has already been used in a household water supply that does not come from the toilet. (Toilet water is blackwater) Water from sinks, showers and washing machines qualify as greywater. It is too dirty for people and pets to drink but not too dirty for plants to drink as the plants are able to filter out the nasty from the water and just use the good stuff. A properly designed greywater system in essence, is a biological filter for your home’s wastewater.

Creating a greywater distribution system can be very simple. A bucket under a handwashing sink catches the draining water, at the end of the day you take the bucket out and dump the water onto a tree. That’s it! The concept relies entirely upon redirecting the greywater that would have otherwise ended up in a wastewater system onto a secondary source such as a shade tree, that can then add further value to a home.

But it does not stop there, the concept can be refined and elaborated upon to create a system that works time and time again without any additional user input and requires minimal maintenance. These are the systems that I design and install and it just takes a little more information from the basics to get there.

Construction of wetland for cleaning and distributing high amounts of laundry water
Construction of wetland for cleaning and distributing high amounts of laundry water

Important Safety Considerations

First off, greywater is only one step away from blackwater, ie. poo poo water, so we need to address and understand some health and saftey concerns and state regulations before beginning the design. Texas is not a highly regulated state but there are in fact, state regulations regarding the distribution of greywater, mostly regarding spetic tank sizing. That should tell you something right there about the importance of a correct design. The State of New Mexico also has some additional regulations that are worth reading as they are more specific about the actual practices of using the greywater.

An interesting point to note about Texas and New Mexico regulations is that a common source of greywater, the kitchen sink, is NOT allowed in greywater reuse systems. Think for a minute about everything that might end up in a kitchen sink like animal blood, grease and larger pieces of vegetables. What if you just did an oil change on your car and you need to wash up? Having the kitchen sink drain to the septic helps keep potentially toxic water out of the greywater system and out of the biological filter that you are building in your greywater treatment plan.

Pro Tip

If you are happy to DIY then I highly recommend to buy this book by Art Ludwig, there is no better resource with regards to greywater technology. Create an Oasis with Greywater
Most of my designs are based entirely upon or modified slightly from the concepts in this book and Art’s decades of experience in greywater systems. For immediate satisfaction you can browse the site OasisDesign.net to dig deeper into the information.

First things to consider

The following are expectation checks for Terlingua greywater systems just to get you started before you start designing.

  • Designs are best before construction begins. A newly conceived outdoor shower or washroom is an excellent candidate for greywater reuse. An existing fully plumbed in-slab system that drains to septic is not.
  • If you leave your homestead for several months at a time, create a backup plan for the plants that depend on your greywater system. This could mean a neighbor using your clothes washer or a system designed only for annuals.
  • Our soil is salty and alkaline and greywater irrigation increases the salinity by the addition of pee, sweat and soaps (yes you do pee in the shower and almost all “natural” cleaners contain sodium laurel sulfate) Soil quality will degrade over time without periodic flushing of salts or replacement of all soil, only conceivable in a containerized bed.
  • Grewater is best if it infiltrates the soil immediately, holding onto greywater by draining into a holding tank or letting it pool at the surface is not good practice.

Should you grow food with greywater?

The chance of contamination from greywater goes up the less water is filtered and the closer it comes to your mouth. The best practice is to leave greywater for growing shade, not food. You should balace your risk tolerance on a scale of 1-10.
1 (least risk) = using greywater for sub surface watering of landscape plants
10 (most risk) = directly pouring greywater on lettuce plants and not washing the leaves before fixing a salad.
Somewhere in between is using greywater for an edible fruit tree such as a pomegranate– you must be the judge and I will make no claim that I told you either or.

Garlic grown with pure rainwater only


Data compiled by the EPA indicates that, as a national average, landscape irrigation is by far the largest single use of water at both residential and commercial sites, using 59% and 35% of water, respectively (EPA, 2013) In hot climates, outdoor use ranges from 59%-67% compared to 22-38% in cooler climates (AWWA, 1999). There is no doubt that water is our most precious resource so if we can use rainwater and use it twice then we can achieve a much greater efficiency in our landscapes. Using greywater to water roots, which then grows to provide shade to our living areas just makes perfect sense.