Spectacular Spring Blooms... Local Naturalist Excels at Growing Natives

Sensory overload might be the best description for a stroll thru the South Texas chaparral this time of year. Colorful blooms abound and tantalizing aromas waft thru the countryside.

There are roughly 1,100 species of native plants in South Texas and some of the most beautiful and fragrant are in spectacular peak flower. The four main acacias, huisahce, huisachillo, chaparro prieto and guajillo are all blooming in abundance as are yuccas and other natives.

"One of the things I like about acacias is that right after winter towards the end of February and the early part of March they are about the very first ones to bloom, and almost all of them bloom at the same time," says naturalist Benito Trevino as he examines a thorny bush covered in creamy white blossoms. "This is chaparro prieto or black brush acacia. It is a very useful plant. They are very good for deer browse, and they also provide for dove and quail."

"Right now the deer are feeding on the flowers. Earlier, when the flowers were not blooming, they were feeding on the buds, and next month they will be feeding on the seed pods. In June, July and August they will feed on the dry seeds, and later on they will browse on the leaves."

The foliage on the black brush or chaparro prieto is a dark greenish hue that almost appears black in some lighting situations, and that is how this important native plant got its name. Each year Trevino grows some 2,500 of these plants for sale as landscaping. They are grown in an extensive nursery on his ranch Las Lomitas in Starr County along with approximately 125 other native species.

Trevino grew up in the ranch country on the outskirts of Rio Grande City and learned a great deal about native plants from his parents and grandparents. They instructed him on the food and medicinal values of natives, but it wasn't until his return from college, where he majored in botany and minored in chemistry, that he began to intensively study and cultivate the cherished plants of his boyhood.

"I started growing in 1988 and in 1992 I finally started growing commercially. At first I could hardly give native plants away, I could not sell them that was for sure. Today, I cannot meet demand. We are growing over 100,000 a year, and if I could grow maybe 150 or 160,000 a year, then maybe I could meet demand."

"Right now I am right at 600,000 native plants that I have grown in my nursery. In the next four years I should hit a million. Once I get to a million, I'll feel, okay, I've contributed something to South Texas," he says with a laugh.

Growing wild on Trevino's property is another acacia resplendent in yellow-orange blooms and exuding a wonderfully sweet aroma. "Sometimes people confuse huisachillo and huisahce, but huisachillo in general is a small tree usually no more than eight to ten feet tall. Here on the ranch in this upland area they are about five feet tall. You could call them a small tree or a large bush."

Huisache is a small tree growing upwards of 12 feet, and this time of year they are blooming profusely throughout the Valley with flowers similar to huisachillo. "The flowers are more yellow than orange on the huisachillo and on the huisache more orange than yellow. A lot of the perfume industry involves the huisache. They grow it in large amounts and harvest the flowers."

"There are some 800 species of acacia in the world and they grow primarily in subtropical regions such as parts of Australia and South Africa. It is about the third largest genus in the world, and we have at least a dozen acacia in Texas. A natural gun called gun arabic or gum acacia is derived from some acacia. The resin is used in the manufacture of soft drinks." The gum produced by the trees reseals their bark in the event of damage, a process call gummosis.

Guajillo, acacia berlandieri, is also flowering. This spreading shrub or small tree has multiple stems emanating from the base. The gray to whitish branches have delicate, almost fernlike leaves, and the blooms are white puffballs. Guajillo is an important browse species for whitetail deer. "It is also a great source for honey. Guajillo honey is an excellent, light, very sweet honey. HEB uses it for their vanilla ice cream in the summer. If you go to the ice cream section they will have vanilla usually sweetened with guajillo honey."

Trevino started out growing only about 30 species, but he now propagates 125 different types of native plants. "Every year as I go along the countryside and I find a new plant that I am not growing, I collect seed and keep adding. This year I am adding probably five species that I have not grown commercially."

Successfully germinating many types of native plants has proven to be challenging work, and Trevino along with a handful of other local nurserymen have discovered traits and developed unique techniques that have yet to be publicized. "We are basically pioneers. I have been growing for a long time and I am still learning. A lot of the information we have discovered and learned has not hit the bookstores yet."

Trevino has been preparing a journal for a decade chronicling his extensive work. "It is a major undertaking. Because I want to take a plant like black brush and cover everything, landscaping, germinating; and for the plants that have food or medicinal values I'll explain how to use it medically or I'll provide a recipe. And when I cannot capture with a photograph the things I want to explain explicitly I am having to do drawings, so it is a long process."

Benito is not sure when his manuscript will be completed, but hopefully it will be finished about the time he grows that millionth plant. "I am reaching the point where I cannot do quite as much physically, so I am going to have to scale back somewhat on my nursery production and devote more time to writing. I hope to finish in five or six years."

Benito Trevino's journal will contribute immensely to a fuller understanding of the fascinating native plants that have supported man and wildlife for centuries in South Texas. "I think my grandparents realized the treasure they had, but they didn't realize how extensive it was. I think what has really helped me add to their knowledge is the fact that I step 15 feet out of my front door and I am in the brush. I get to see things that people who do not spend so much time in the environment ever get to see."

"The insects, the birds the coyotes; you get to see their importance in distributing seeds. Once I understand nature's part it really helps me in my nursery to figure out a way to simulate that little route from when seeds drop to when they germinate. If I can follow the natural process, I can get there a lot faster than trying to just treat it like a commercial seed that has been germinated by man so long now that man is the vehicle to get it to germinate. It really helps to unlock the process by living here amongst nature."

If you are interested in seeing or purchasing native plants Trevino and his wife Toni offer tours and can be contacted thru their website www.rancholomitas.com

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Copyright 2007 Richard Moore