5 commonly overlooked plants you don’t want to miss

The human world tends to be built for the big and boisterous, the extroverts, those who need to stand out from the crowd. The natural world however, especially in the desert, grows into a balanced approach which incorporates successes beyond grandiose, successes that lie in qualities such as long hibernations followed by quick and ephemeral reproduction, drought tolerance when resources are scarce, a large range of adaptability for when resources are abundant, and camouflage. Below I highlight some of my favorite native plants that can easily be missed if you don’t pay attention.

Blackfoot Daisy, Melampodium leucanthum

This small low growing clump packed with little white flowers is delightfully adapted to living in dry arid conditions. It grows in some of the seemilgly harshest conditions like limestone ledges and ridge tops. With regular rain it will flower all summer.

Blackfoot Daisy, Melampodium leucanthum (Photograph by Matt Licher) CC BY-SA 

Why I’m overlooked: Low, round clumps stay dormant until rains bring the small white flowers
Where to find: on dry rocky flats, tolerant of many soil types and conditions
Propagation: From seed, Blackfoot Daisies are grown for the commercial nursery trade.
Water Needs: very low once established, regular watering for continuous flowering

Resurrection Fern, Selaginella pilifera

A day or two after a summer monsoon rain you may notice the world around you turning remarkably green. It is strange that you didn’t notice before, is it all just in your head or are the stones coming alive?The Resurrection Fern, what was once a brown, dead looking ball of plant matter slowly becomes vibrant and unrolls to absorb the sun’s rays in the afterglow of the summer monsoons. It does seem like a miracle has happened if you witness it for the first time.

The Resurrection
While searching in vain for a photo I could use of the dry plant I came across this wonderful rendition of The Resurrection by Claude Mellan licensed under CC-CC0 1.0

Back to the plants please!

resurrection fern, Selagivella pilitera
Selaginella pilifera individual, look at the details on those scales!

“A beautiful resurrection species, whose circular form cannot be appreciated until sufficient rain falls to spread open the enrolled branches. When closed the plants appear the color and size of old horse-apples.”

Barton Warnock, Wildflowers of the Big Bend Country Texas
resurrection fern
Selaginella pilifera, Resurrection Fern grouping (Photograph by Angela Linda)

Why I’m overlooked: Appears as a brown ball of dead plant matter until after a rain
Where to find: North facing slopes wedged below rocks in limestone or volcanic substrates
Propagation: Can be transplanted into a porous soil.
Water Needs: Very low, rainfall only

Rain Lily, Zephyranthes sp.

The site for the donkey pen we chose due to a lack of vegetation. It’s a barren dusty light colored soil that I would guess is very alkaline. It’s mostly silt and not clay which is good because it’s not slippery. After a good summer rain the donkey pen transforms, it blooms with portulaca, purslane and rain lily–the ephemerals. The rain lily, the yellow flowered Zephyranthes longifolia is the quickest to reproduce. It emerges from a single underground bulb in just a few days, blooms for one day and seeds out then dies back within the next week.

rain lilly
Zephyranthes herbertiana, a white flowered rain lily

Since I like to collect the seeds and spread them out I have to be on my game to catch the quick cycle. The black seeds are contained in a triple lobed pod and are large enough that they are easy to handle. If my timing is right, I collect the seeds and then spread them in the arroyos closer to my house.

rain lily seedpod
Rain Lily Seedpods (Photograph by Janna Hill) CC BY-NC 4.0

Why I’m overlooked: Only flowers for one day after a rain and the whole plant structure dies back quickly
Where to find: I see them in a wide range of soil conditions, more often on flatter ground than steep slopes in both volcanic and limestone soils
Propagation: From seed
Water Needs: very low, rainfall only

Dayflowers, Spiderworts or Widow’s Tears

This inconspicuous plant gets the name Dayflower from the fact that each flower only lasts one day, in fact, each flower only lasts a few hours in the morning. It gets the name Widow’s Tears from the drop of fluid that collects in the spathe surrounding the flower. I’ve heard that this same fluid can be extracted from the stem, dried and stretched into a long filament hence the name spiderwort, this explains the spider part anyway.

Widow’s Tears, Commelina erecta var. angustifolia
My best attempt at photographing the widow’s tear effect

One reason I love these plants so much is because they present striking blue flowers. It is a dazzling color that catches the eye. Other than the sky, blue is the least common color found in the natural world. Spiderworts are perennials and very easy to care for. They like to be planted along with other flowers in a bed so that they can stretch out and weave their way through the more secure structure of woody plants to pop out a little half inch blue flower every morning.

Spiderwort, Tradescantia occidentalis (Photograph by Amber Harrison)

Why I’m overlooked: Grows mostly amongst other plants and presents small flowers for only a few hours each morning
Where to find: sandy soils on the banks of arroyos, in thickets, dense brush and under trees
Propagation: I have been successful with root division, the roots are fleshy and take to cutting well with very little set back for the plant. I have also had success scattering seeds in my irrigated flower beds.
Water Needs: Medium, regular watering to keep them flowering each day

Living Rock Cactus, Ariocarpus fissuratus

When you finally spot one of these cactus hiding in the rocky limestone you should look under your foot because you are probably standing on his sister. Found only in Big Bend this species ia aptly named the Living Rock. They are much easier to spot amongst the limestone hills in fall when they bloom a fuschia flower.

living rock cactus
Living Rock Cactus, Ariocarpus fissuratus (Photograph by Angela Linda)

This cactus is popular with collectors as one of the few species without thorns. In fact, this species has been caught up in an international cactus smuggling ring and continues to be threatened by poachers.

living rock bloom
Living Rock Cactus, Ariocarpus fissuratus (photograph by Angela Linda)

Why I’m overlooked: Excellent desert camouflage
Where to find: limestone rich soils, rocky slopes and ledges
Propagation: From seed, transplanted from areas that will be disturbed by development
Water Needs: very low, rainfall only

Due Diligence When Buying Plants Online

You will likely find some of these species for sale if you do a quick internet search. While there are many reputable sellers out there, unfortunately the plant trade can be quite a profitable endeavor for bad actors. There are laws that prevent harvesting of natural resources from public lands but poachers can often hide from law enforcement. On private lands, the practice of wild harvesting all of the plants in an area, leaving none to support future generations is not entirely illegal. International sales are difficult to monitor. Desert plants are especially vulnerable because they tend to be slow growers and may be marked as rare or exotic species, factors which influence higher prices.

You should know where the plants you buy come from and how they were grown or harvested. Speak with the seller, a reputable seller will be able to provide you with an origin story. Avoiding wild harvested species all together is certainly an option but wild harvesting can also be accomplished sustainably. Ask the seller to explain to you their wild harvesting practices. You can also look for plants labeled field grown, seed grown, or propagated from cutting to be sure the plants were propagated ethically. As a consumer, you have more power to influence sustainable practices than any other agency on the planet.

The Ethics of Wild Harvesting

Wild harvesting of plants to propagate and use personally can be accomplished in a legal and sustainable manner. It is legal in some cases to forage seeds, berries, leaves, cones or mushrooms for personal use from public lands such as any land administered by the National Park Service, Texas Parks and Wildlife or the lands designated as Parques Nacionales in Mexico but you should first contact the respective park service to ask specifics and or obtain permits.
–Do not collect plants or plant parts from public lands without the proper procedures in place.
–Never collect endangered, protected or sensitive species even on your own property.
–Do not enter private lands for any purpose if you do not have permission to do so.
–Harvest first from areas that will be disturbed by development.
–Make sure you know your plant and can make a positive identification.
–Never harvest the first plant you see, find the healthiest population that does not appear to have been harvested.
–Never take more than ten percent or more than you need
–Always ask the plant if it wants to go with you first. Yes, really.
–Fill holes, spread the seeds of collected plants and return to the area later to monitor the effects of your harvest.