HARLINGEN — The parking lot of Hugh Ramsey Nature Park was suddenly a busy spot one morning last week.
A half-dozen Texas Master
Naturalists are holding their weekly workout here, botanical warriors bent on furthering the cause of the Rio Grande Valley’s native plant
All are volunteers, and some have been providing knowledge, desire and muscle for more than a decade as they nurture “keeper” native plants, and bring the wrath of an angry gardener down on the interloper species that have invaded.
“We started work in the park in 2000,” said master naturalist Frank Wiseman. “I have been volunteering here since 2000, and so has Christina.
“Actually Christina came over before the park was really open as it is today, because she used to live right across the Arroyo and she would bring her daughter over here to teach her some of the plants when her daughter was in elementary and junior high,” Wiseman says.
Christina would be Christina Mild, who is here today, gloves and pith helmet at the ready, to help lead a team which also includes master naturalists Anita Westervelt and Volker Inschweiler.
“Frank and Christina are our gurus,” Westervelt says.
The task at hand is the bio-retention structure sitting smack in the middle of the already-baking Hugh Ramsey parking lot. The bio-retention area is part of the park’s recent makeover by the city, and is intended to flush out pollutants as the first in a series of basins which use natural filters to purify rainwater.
Inside the bio-retention area are hundreds of plants which aid in that process. But the native Valley flora, as ever, is in danger of being pushed aside by non-native invasives.
On this day, outsider weeds can expect no mercy.
Roosevelt weed (Baccharis neglecta)
Anita: “I’ll get the poison stick.”
Christina: “I have some very heavy-duty clippers.”
Roosevelt weed, also called Depression weed, is a large shrub that resembles a willow. Its common name was pinned on it during the 1930s, when agricultural fields in the Plains were left fallow as farm families left or were driven off the land during the Great Depression.
Here at the south end of the bio-retention structure, some specimens are growing five feet high. Volker Inschweiler is busy uprooting the Roosevelt weed with a shovel, and is taking no prisoners.
In the background, white-winged doves coo their “who-cooks-for-you” love song as they fight for a place in the morning choir of birdsong, which even manages to rise above the traffic drone from North Ed Carey Drive.
Today, Baccharis is definitely going to get its comeuppance in the bio-retention structure, and will be removed with extreme prejudice.
Horse weed, (Conyza Canadensis var. glabrata)
Anita: “Is it horse mint, Christina?”
Christina: “Horse weed. C-O-N-Y-Z-A … Conyza. It’s native, and it’s widespread, but it doesn’t really do anything for animals that we can see, so it’s just kind of a tall, weedy species that would detract from the native things that are growing here.”
As the master naturalists work, it becomes apparent that despite their impressive individual knowledge, they freely, even joyously, concede they don’t know everything they are still learning.
It also becomes clear the attitude allows their accumulated knowledge of the flora of the Rio Grande Valley to blossom within the team framework, and the result is their collective knowledge seems even more impressive.
Mexican buttonbush (Cephalanthus salicifolius)
Frank: “Did she show you the Mexican buttonbush? It’s got one bloom on it.”
Anita: “Is this rare?”
Christina: “Absolutely, positively, no doubt about it.”
Christina: “Mexican buttonbush. There’s a more common one that has larger leaves that is all over the southern coastal region. But this one, if we wanted to find it, we could go search along the Rio Grande and we would find very few.”
Anita: “It’s great for butterflies, for nectar.”
Climbing milkweed (Funastrum cyanchoides)
Frank: “Did you know that this is a milkweed vine growing in here?”
Anita: “Yes, and there’s a lot of it on the snakeyes back there.”
Christina: “Do you want it out or in?”
Anita: “I’d say keep the climbing milkweed.”
The climbing milkweed is an aggressive grower, and can cover fences or other plants in practically no time. On the plus side, it is a host plant for several butterfly species, including Queens, Monarchs and Soldiers.
The practically year-round growing season in the Valley is one of the unique aspects of life here many people overlook, or take for granted.
“I’ll tell you what’s unique about the Valley, and people who live in other parts of the country can appreciate this,” Westervelt says. “Like in the Midwest, things bloom at a certain time. Well here, no, they don’t. Even the half-inch rain we got will promote the trees that are wont to bloom after a rain.”
Purple Marsh Fleabane (Pluchea odorata)
Anita: “This is fleabane. Frank calls it something else.”
Frank: “Yeah, it’s Pluchea.”
Christina: “Oh yeah, and the Hispanic name for it is canela — does that mean cinnamon?”
One of the purple marsh fleabane plants has been pulled accidentally, and flowers, stem and root lay on the hot asphalt of the Hugh Ramsey parking lot, never to rise to greet the sun again. This apparently is a common thing when weeding plots in pursuit of invasive species.
Anita: “It jumped out.”
Christina: “Well, maybe we could spread those seeds around.”
Anita: “Oh, by a pond, yeah. I have this near my resaca in the marshy area and it’s beautiful.”
Christina: “It only grows in kind of wet places so we never saw it here until after Hurricane Dolly.”
The master naturalists: A how-to
For certified experts, the Texas Master Naturalists are a welcoming sort and encourage others to follow their path.
The requirements are listed on the state chapter’s website at https://txmn.org/about/frequently-asked-questions/
“It really is easy, it just takes some time,” Westervelt says. “The classes begin every January for 10 weeks, three hours once a week for the 10 weeks in the evenings, and you’re taught by professors from the universities, experts in specific fields and local experts.”
During the 10-week training period, trainees will also participate in 10 hours of field trips. Then comes eight hours of advanced training during the winter months in specialized areas, she said.
“One of the reasons I joined the master naturalists was I wanted to know what I’m living around,” Westervelt said. “I’m a transplant, I’m not a native Texan.
“I wanted to be able to describe what I was seeing in writing,” she added. “And then I’m a workshop junkie and I wanted that network of being able to find things that interested me where I could continue learning.
“I found all of that in the master naturalists.”