By Suzanne Labry
The 33 counties that make up South Texas are one of the earth’s “last great habitats,” according to Dr. Fred Bryant, the Director of the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute (CKWRI) at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. The region lying south of a line from Port O’Connor to Victoria, northwest to San Antonio, and west to Del Rio is one of the most biologically diverse in the world, and Bryant is passionate in his belief that the area deserves as much environmental concern and consideration as tropical rainforests and other more widely publicized endangered ecosystems. To that end, Bryant and his associates have made it their mission to educate the public about the special flora and fauna that inhabit South Texas, and make people aware that recognizing and conserving these treasures is a matter worthy of their attention.
The A.E. Leonard Native Plant Garden is a major aspect of this effort. The two-acre botanical garden — named for the South Texas family who funded its development — is adjacent to the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Center, a 7,500 square-foot, multipurpose building focused on public education and outreach. The Center is located at the Tio and Janell Kleberg Wildlife Research Park on the northwest corner of the Texas A&M University-Kingsville campus.
“When we finished construction of the Center in 2005, I wasn’t thinking about a botanical garden of native plants to go with it,” said Bryant. “David Mahler had designed a water feature and also a cactus and succulent garden just as landscaping for the building. But then David and I got to brainstorming, and we said, ‘Well, hey, why don’t we expand the educational aspect of the Center by adding other South Texas native plants?’ That’s what we ended up doing and we are extremely proud to say that the garden is designed to include only plants that are native to South Texas.”
David Mahler is a well-known botanist and landscape designer whose Austin-based company, Environmental Survey Consulting, specializes in native plant communities with an emphasis on habitat restoration and native landscaping. Bryant had seen the replica of a Hill Country stream that Mahler created at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, and asked him to develop a water feature for the Center as well. Since natural water features aren’t exactly standard in South Texas, the two came up with the idea of installing the only type of water feature that is, in fact, common in the region: a windmill with water flowing out of a pipe into a water trough. “When water overflows the tank onto the ground, cattle create an ephemeral pool that fills up with wetland plants like arrowheads and blue-flowered waterlilies when conditions are right,” explained Mahler. “That became our model for the water feature at the Center.”
Having to think outside the box in coming up with the water feature wasn’t the only design obstacle Mahler had to overcome. The Kingsville area is noted for its heavy, clay soils and flat topography, but Mahler was charged with replicating ecoregions throughout all of South Texas. The acreage found in 33 counties adds up to miles and miles of Texas, so it’s hardly surprising that a variety of habitats would be needed to represent such a vast and diverse terrain.
Mahler and his design partner, Judy Walther, divided the garden into sections that reflect the different soil types, water requirements and growing conditions found in the various regions of South Texas. The different ecoregions represented are the riparian zone — representing the riverbank woodlands along the Nueces and Rio Grande Rivers; Bordas Escarpment — representing the caliche ridge that extends from Starr County to the north and eastward to the Nueces River; Gulf Coast prairie — representing the tall-grass prairie that extends inland from the Gulf of Mexico; mesquite-acacia savannah — representing a grassland ecosystem characterized by the high shrubs and widely-spaced trees as found in the Rio Grande Plains; South Texas sand sheet — representing the fine sands of the Coastal Sand Plains north of the Lower Rio Grande Valley with its characteristic dunes; and live oak motte — representing the dense stands of live oaks found in the Coastal Plains.
“In creating a habitat, there’s no real endpoint,” said Mahler. “A lot of credit goes to gardener Mark Madrazo, because maintaining the habitats requires a lot of care. Without Mark, the garden would be overgrown and invaded by exotic grasses and weeds.” The areas are separated by walking trails and identified by signage. To create the different areas, Mahler and his team hauled in 200 cubic yards of sandy soil for the sand sheet section and another 200 cubic yards of caliche for the Bordas Escarpment. For the oak motte, they brought in over a dozen 20-foot-tall live oak trees.
Reproducing the various habitats would not have been possible without the active participation of South Texas ranchers and landowners, including David Killam’s Duval County Ranch, the McAllen Ranch, the King Ranch, the Jones Ranch, Lee and Ramona Bass, and the Kenedy Ranch, to name a few. Both Bryant and Mahler credit these dedicated stewards of the land as being crucial to the creation of the Leonard Garden. “Landowners donated truckloads of dirt and rocks used to create the habitats,” said Mahler. “And very few of the plants we have in the garden can be found in the nursery trade. Most of South Texas is privately owned and in order to find plants, we had to go directly to the ranchers and landowners. They have been incredibly generous in allowing us to go onto their properties with buckets and shovels to dig up plants.”
Buddy and Ellen Temple and their family own Temple Ranch in Duval County near Freer, Texas. For the past 21 years, they have worked to restore South Texas native grasses to their ranch; their ranch-compound landscape features such South Texas trees, shrubs and plants as huisache, retama, sweet olive, persimmon, yucca, prickly pear and cenizo. The Temples have shared many plants with the Leonard Garden. “Buddy and I appreciate the Leonard Native Plant Garden because it features the plants that we find on the ranch in such abundance. These plants are beautiful; they supply food for birds and animals, bugs and butterflies. Bringing these plants into our landscapes as native plant gardens, like the Leonard Garden, is good for us and for all the critters that they support,” said Ellen Temple, the former President of the Board of Directors of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.
Another important contributor to the Leonard Garden is South Texas Natives, a project also located within the Tio and Janell Kleberg Wildlife Research Park. South Texas Natives was created in 2001 to obtain seed collections from remnant native plant populations in order to replace the use of non-native seeds for roadway, utility and pipeline rights-of-way revegetation. To date, South Texas Natives has released seed of 24 native plant species to the commercial market. The majority of the grasses featured in the Leonard Garden come from those grown by South Texas Natives.
Planting only species native to South Texas has been a learning process for everyone concerned. Using University of Texas retired botany professor Billy Turner’s Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Texas, Judy Walther created a list of about 2,500 South Texas natives. Of that list, approximately 350 are now growing in the garden, and it has taken Mahler and his team almost a decade to build that collection. Mahler might dig up five plants from a ranch, plant a couple of them in the garden, and plant a couple more in his nursery as insurance. Sometimes it takes several tries before a plant will take. Seed is collected from blooming plants for future propagation. Once the success of a woody plant or succulent is assured, it is given a custom-made ceramic identification tile and added to the garden’s plant guide, which now lists 180 species.
Many of the plant species found in the Leonard Garden are rare, and some are exclusive to the region, such as the spotted beebalm, which grows only in the South Texas sand sheet. Five species of tuberose grow in the United States, but four of the five grow only in South Texas and all can be found in the Leonard Garden. Many of the garden’s other plants grow only in such remote areas that it would be difficult to ever find them in the wild.
Fred Bryant sees the A.E. Leonard Native Plant Garden as a safe haven for the region’s unusual and fragile flora. “Some of these plants might not persist outside of cultivation 20 years from now, given the changes that are taking place in South Texas,” he said. “For example, the Eagle Ford drilling boom may result in 50,000 wells being drilled and 2,000 miles of pipeline being built, which will have an enormous impact on the region’s plant and animal life. There’s really no place like the Leonard Native Plant Garden.”
The A.E. Leonard Native Plant Garden can be seen by appointment only. For details, contact the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute by phone, 361-593-3922, or by email, email@example.com.