Taking what I’ve learned from my last job, I have spent the last couple weeks collecting native plant seed, and I have been surprised by what I’ve found. That great prairie diversity* is out there, often hidden among the nasty non-native invasive Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense), and along near forgotten backroads of the county; roads that show the ecological devastation of the past and present, and roads that could lead to hope as future barrels of native seed are trucked to a new home – those worn out sandy loams waiting to be given one more chance to make its last stand, accompanied by the plants it evolved with for millennia.
*According to Shinners and Mahler’s, the North Central Texas region contains almost half of all the plant species found in Texas (46%).
To date, I have gathered some 54 species of native plants, and that number could easily double or triple, as there are still the collection seasons of spring and summer next year.
The Cross Timbers ecoregion is considered by some authorities to be the easternmost band of deciduous forest before you break out into the Broken Red Plains, a sub-region of the Great Plains. Largely a conflagration of different ecosystems such as prairie (tallgrass and mixedgrass), woodland, oak savanna, and forest, the Cross Timbers are dominated first and foremost by Post Oak (Quercus stellata), with an understory of prairie grasses; Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), along with lesser amounts of Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), and other grasses. Some of the dominant forbs (wildflowers) are Dotted Gayfeather (Liatris punctata), Maximillian Sunflower (Helianthus maximilliani), Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa), and Horsemints (Monarda species).
In some areas, the Cross Timbers are densely impenetrable closed-canopy forests of low-growing, old-growth Post and Blackjack Oaks (Quercus marilandica). It is those types of forest conditions that inspired Washington Irving to write, in his book A Tour of the Prairies, “I shall not easily forget the mortal toil, and the vexations of flesh and spirit, that we underwent occasionally, in our wanderings through the Cross Timber. It was like struggling through forests of cast iron.”
Though Irving probably had no ecological understanding of the area he was traveling through, he did appear to have the common sense to understand that this land was not meant to be grazed year round by cattle inside a barbed wire fence: “The Cross Timber… stretches over a rough country of rolling hills, covered with scattered tracts of post-oak and black-jack; with some intervening valleys, which, at proper seasons, would afford good pasturage” (emphasis added). If only everyone else had that same common sense in today’s misguided world of economics first, ecology second, then the abundant Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) “problem” would not be the way it is today throughout much of Texas, the southern Desert Southwest, and Northern Mexico.
A listing of more exhaustive Cross Timbers resources can be found here.
Two great places to see the Cross Timbers ecosystem are The Nature Conservancy’s Keystone Ancient Forest Preserve and Lake Mineral Wells State Park.