• Sierra del Carmen

    Big Bend

    National Park Texas

Sixty years of Botanical Exploration

Hidalgo ladies-tresses

Hidalgo ladies-tresses orchid

Photo - courtesy of Betty Alex

The Chisos Mountains, with their high diversity and sky-island habitat, have historically attracted many amateur and professional naturalists. Despite the remote location and difficult access of this rugged mountain range, the majority of the plant species in the Chisos were well-documented by the founding of the National Park sixty years ago. As far back as 1885, pioneering botanist V. Havard recognized the unique character of the Big Bend flora and described many species previously unknown and endemic to the region. In fact, the efforts of these early naturalists, including Omer Sperry, C.H. Mueller, and E.G. Marsh, helped clarify the importance of protecting the diversity of the region by creating Big Bend National Park.

In the past sixty years, the park staff and cooperating scientists have built upon this knowledge base. In the 1950s and 60s, Barton Warnock, the longtime botanist at Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas, was instrumental in documenting plant species occurrence and habitat requirements and establishing long-term ecological monitoring plots in the park. Park staff use these data to design and implement restoration and conservation projects to maintain the fantastic diversity of life in the Big Bend.

Current projects include grassland restoration in the Harte Ranch area, fostering riparian recovery at upland springs, weed control and re-establishment of native plant communities in disturbed areas, and the cautious re-introduction of fire as an ecosystem process in grasslands and woodlands.

Park Biologists are currently mapping rare, endemic, and threatened plants parkwide. We use these data to protect existing known populations and to define habitat conditions of rare plants. In 2004, we are focusing on orchids. At least nine species of orchid occur in the park, with seven species being considered rare or very rare. Several species of saprophytic coralroot occur only in a few mountain ranges in Trans-Pecos Texas and adjacent Mexico. Big Bend National Park is one of the only protected areas in the Chihuahuan Desert that supports such orchid diversity. Recently, the rare plant mapping project uncovered a rare gem that had not been seen in the U.S. since 1931 –the Hidalgo ladies-tresses. Knowledge of the location and habitat of this and other rare plants allows us to prevent accidental disturbance of populations and to make decisions about the appropriate use of wildland fire in these systems.

Knowledge is power. Big Bend National Park is committed to using the ecological knowledge, and associated decision-making power, accumulated by dedicated staff and scientists, to protect these fragile ecosystems for the next sixty years and onward.

This article by Park Botanist Joe Sirotnak originally appeared in the Fall 2004 issue of The Big Bend Paisano.

Did You Know?

Amon Carter presenting President Roosevelt the deeds to Big Bend

President Franklin Roosevelt received the deed to the property of the Big Bend on D-Day (June 6, 1944). The park was formally established six days later, and officially opened to visitors in July 1944. More...