Along the Oak Trail (part 2)


On Monday September 27, 2004, after a few days of rest, we set off for the second part of our oak journey. We were planning to go all the way to the Chisos Mountains in southernmost Texas, right on the Mexican border. Together we had worked out an itinerary with many interesting stops. Allan wanted to show me a number of oak habitats in Colorado, New Mexico and Oklahoma and I really wanted to go to the Edwards Plateau and to Big Bend National Park in the Chisos Mountains; but there would of course be time also for the unexpected…
We took Interstate 25 South to Colorado Springs, where we left the freeway heading for Phantom Canyon, which is near Canyon City, Colorado. Many years ago Allan learned of the existence there of a disjunct population of oaks in the so-called Quercus x undulata group.  (Q. x undulata is the name used by some taxonomists for a hybrid complex where Q. gambelii has crossed with any other white oak species with which it is sympatric [e.g. Q. grisea, Q. turbinella, Q. muehlenbergii, Q. mohriana, Q. arizonica…], now or at an earlier historic period.  It is sometimes quite difficult to trace parentage because of backcrossing with one of the parents. It should be noted that Q. x undulata, while a useful tag, is not recognized as a valid taxon by most scholars of oak taxonomy.)
When we reached Phantom Canyon we found many different forms of Q. x undulata on drier sites; one multi-trunked individual right by the road has become quite a nice tree with a grey dentate leaf. We took some herbarium material and named the tree Quercus x undulata ‘Phantom Canyon’. Not far from it, and hidden behind a Celtis reticulata, we spotted another charming oak with a broad but short and coarsely toothed bright green leaf. We named this one Q. x undulata ‘Phantom Holly’ because the leaf is somewhat reminiscent of Ilex.
There were cattle grazing peacefully on the other side of the almost dry creek bed, which emphasized the wild, rural character of the place.  I crossed over to look for acorns in a grove of Q. gambelii growing under the more humid north face of the steep red cliffs which define the east side of the canyon. Suddenly Allan called to me that he had found something interesting: a small tree with pretty grey-green entire leaves which we named Q. x undulata ‘Rim Rock’. (It is important to take herbarium material, specify location, and name all of these new acquisitions to prevent any confusion in the future.) Allan will come back during early spring to take scions so that we can graft all of the trees that we have named.
There must be many more interesting trees here in this canyon, where dry habitats alternate with more moist ones, but we decided to move on because we needed to get to Raton (just across the state line in New Mexico) by this evening and there were a few more places he wanted to show me before we reached our destination.  Back on the freeway headed south, we made another stop at Colorado City, where Allan wanted to show me Q. x undulata ‘Rusty’, a multi stemmed oak with an interesting “alligator bark” and leaves which have good crimson fall color.
Not far away we noticed a group of medium sized trees which on closer examination appeared to be Q. x mazei (Q. gambelii x Q. macrocarpa). The leaves clearly show the influence of Q. macrocarpa but the acorns, lacking the fuzzy fringes on the acorn cap, look more like Q. gambelii.  We gathered a few acorns, took notes, and returned to I-25.  A short distance south of Colorado City, at the Apache Creek exit from the freeway we stopped again because last fall Allan and Scott Skoggerboe had found there an interesting Q. gambelii with sweet acorns; they named it Q. gambelii ‘Bear Tree’ because black bears had broken most of the higher branches trying to climb onto them to reach the tasty acorns.
Along Apache Creek we saw several scattered small groups of Q. gambelii which are actually clumps formed by root suckers from a single tree.  We saw one such clump with nearly eighty trunks, really an interesting example of vegetative reproduction. Right beside the ranch road we also noticed a native hawthorn with black berries; I was pretty sure that this one was Crataegus erythropoda because I still had the determination key in my head from the previous week when I had to determine C. rivularis in Utah.  Allan promised to collect scions of this Crataegus next spring.
Suddenly the owner of a nearby ranch appeared and asked us somewhat suspiciously what we were looking for. When we told him of our interest in the oaks, he declared that they are considered pests by the farmers and he also asserted that they are exotic trees introduced here by early settlers.  He did not believe that they were deliberately brought in, but rather resulted from hitch-hiking acorns, possibly on the shoes of “them immigrants.” This is of course a preposterous notion, since the oaks are all Western native trees, but we did not argue with him: he was quite certain of the correctness of his belief.  His ranch covers 50.000 acres, most of it leased. This seems to be an immense spread, but I presume that one single cow needs a hundred times more space to get sufficient food than it would in the lush green meadows of Belgium.
Around sunset we crossed the state line and entered New Mexico, the “Land of Enchantment.” We stayed overnight in a motel in Raton where we had reserved a room the day before. Most of the time when we travel we have a picnic for lunch, but in the evening we like to have a decent meal.  Allan refuses to eat fast food (called “junk food” in America) so, as during the first part of our journey in Utah, we enjoyed at the end of the day a variety of delicious meals, mostly of foreign origin, such as Mexican, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, and Greek.  Standard American cuisine in this part of the United States is not particularly wholesome, consisting mostly of fried meats and greasy gravy over potatoes of some sort.  And local waist lines reflect this unhealthy kind of diet…
The next morning it was a little misty and drizzly but we had to move on because there was a lot to do again that day. Last year, Allan discovered and named a nice clone of Gambel’s oak with brilliant red fall color (Q. gambelii ‘Yankee Red Head’) near Yankee, here in the north-eastern corner of New Mexico. All the way from Yankee to Folsom we drove across a plateau of grassland with scattered clumps of Q. gambelii, Q. x undulata, and Robinia neomexicana with numerous seed pods still hanging on the branches. The flowers of this shrubby New Mexico Locust vary from rose to bluish-purple. There was some early autumn color on one of the oaks and we gathered a few of the best colored leaves and put them on top of a rock for a photo.
Folsom, New Mexico, an unincorporated village and now a virtual ghost town, is one of the preeminent places in North American prehistory.  Here it was in 1926 that archaeologists found exquisitely crafted fluted spear points in undisturbed association with bones of an extinct species of bison, Bison antiquus.  This discovery clearly proved that the ancestors of American Indians were already in America at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, more than 10,000 years ago.  Prior to this find it was believed that the presence of people in the Americas was of very shallow time depth, perhaps as little as 2,000 years.  Discoveries since the Folsom find have pushed the time horizon even farther back, and it is an open question at present exactly when humans first arrived in the Western Hemisphere.  But it is certain that it was a very long time ago, possibly thousands of years earlier than when people killed and butchered archaic bison near Folsom. 
Just east of Folsom we stopped to visit Q. x undulata ‘Folsom Grey’, another charming oak with a narrow grey entire leaf.  Not far from this spot we also viewed two interesting low shrubs Q. x undulata ‘Baby Doll’ and Q. x undulata ‘Folsom Blue Dwarf’, plants which Allan discovered some time ago.  The former is a large population (probably not derived from a single individual) which has tiny grey leaves with shallow sinuses and pointed lobes. “Folsom Blue Dwarf’ is a single plant which measures nearly two meters across in both directions.  It is low, around one meter in height; it has blue-green leaves which have a handsome wavy margin.  Although it is deciduous, from the appearance and color of the leaves one would suspect it to be an evergreen.  Despite appearances, all of the oaks in this part of New Mexico are deciduous.
In some places along the road we saw the Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximilliani), a tall prairie sunflower which is very showy, with its many bright yellow flowers in bloom along the stalk all at the same time.  This plant is of course related to the domesticated sun flowers grown all over the world for their large, edible seeds.  We also saw many common sunflowers, Helianthus anuus.  Also in bloom were a lot of mentzelias (probably Mentzelia decapetala) with large white flowers somewhat resembling those of St. John’s wort.  All the rivers in this region are seasonally dry, but the native trees (oaks, cottonwoods, hackberries, soapberries) are well adapted to the harshly arid climate, and most are flourishing.
This is one of the coldest parts of New Mexico and it almost defies reason that perennial plants such as cacti could grow here. During the cold but dry winters, temperatures can easily go down to -20°C. But cacti there are, both low growing prickly pears and “tree cacti,” called by the Spanish name cholla, forming stubby scrub forests one to two meters in height in many places.  (It might be better to refer to these areas as “thorn savannas,” since the chollas are always spaced rather far apart.) In June the club-like branches of these impressive plants are covered by dozens of purple-red, silky flowers which are a sight to behold.
Between Folsom, New Mexico and Branson, Colorado we saw two Mexicans picking seeds of pinyon pine (Pinus edulis) and a little farther down the road we climbed over a fence and hiked to a low bluff a short distance away to have a look at a clump of Q. x undulata with beautiful ruby-red fall color that had caught Allan’s eye when he was scouting in the area a few years ago. He named it Q. x undulata ‘Red October’ and tagged the clump so we easily relocated it, even though it was not yet in its fall color. 
Around lunchtime we arrived at Kenton, Oklahoma, which is located at the very western tip of the Oklahoma Panhandle and which is the only part of Oklahoma in the Mountain Time Zone.  (Kenton is about three miles east of the New Mexico state line, and only six miles from the Colorado state line to the north.  Since both of these states lie in the Mountain Time Zone, it is easy to see why Kenton chose to place itself in the same time zone.) We went first to the local mercantile store, jokingly called the “Kenton Mall” by the owner, where we had a nice talk with the friendly clerk who had only one or two teeth left in his broadly-smiling mouth. While we drank a cold refreshment, he informed us that the village has fewer than 20 inhabitants but it does have three church communities.
Just outside the village, atop a sandstone outcrop which forms a natural rock garden, we enjoyed a picnic lunch and contemplated the beautiful scenery of this wonderful spot. This place is so quiet, peaceful, touching, impressive—staggering—that I sat silent before it…Without Allan I would never have found this place and I would never have been able to admire the many beautiful hybrid oaks that grow all over the sandstone outcrop where we were sitting.  Just east of the base of this sandstone island stands Q. x undulata ‘Kenton Blue,’ a small tree (3 meters tall) with a large blue green entire leaf that can be up to 10cm long. It is unlike any other oak that we have seen around Kenton and we both think that it is worth introducing to the nursery trade. Allan says that he finds interesting new oaks here every time he visits.
After scouting the oak swarm at our picnic spot, in the late afternoon we drove to the north, past Black Mesa, crossing the Colorado state line again to drive through a stretch of the “Comanche National Grassland”. When we reached “M” Road in Baca County, Colorado, we turned west and followed it for a short distance, until it suddenly plunged into Cottonwood Canyon.  Canyons here in the southern Great Plains are not like the deep narrow canyons of the Colorado Plateau; rather they are more like narrow valleys bordered by sandstone rim rock.  At the point where the road enters the canyon it is fairly broad, and the creek which formed it, Cottonwood Creek, is a mere trickle at the south side of the canyon.
The most striking oak trees in Cottonwood Canyon have been described in International Oaks, the Journal of the International Oak Society (Issue 16, Spring 2005, pp. 7-26) under the name of Q. x mazei, a putative hybrid between Q. gambelii and Q. macrocarpa. Just as in the case of the hybrid between Q. turbinella and Q. gambelii in Utah (“Along the Oak Trail,” Part 1) one of the parents of this hybrid (Q. macrocarpa) disappeared from this region at some time in the past, possibly long ago. But Q. macrocarpa clearly left a trace of its morphological characteristics in its hybrid progeny.
The first trees that we observed after entering the canyon were two oaks growing side by side with leaves very close to those of Q. gambelii.  (It may be that these two trees are nearly pure Q. gambelii, but they are nevertheless hybrids [Q. x mazei] as are most or all of the large oaks in the canyon.) From a distance these twins look like a single tree with a rounded crown about 8 meters high. Other trees farther into the canyon are still bigger and look more like Q. macrocarpa and the leaves on some of these trees even look like the big, deeply cut leaves of Q. frainetto, the Hungarian oak.
Not all of the oaks in Cottonwood Canyon are Q. x mazei because we also found many trees from the Q. x undulata hybrid complex. One such tree has a very interesting long leaf with deep, sharp dentition along the edge; Allan has named this one Q. x undulata ‘Curly Locks.’ The leaves on this tree persist until almost the following spring, and give it a distinctive appearance, not unlike a full head of curly blond hair.  Not far from this tree are three charming little trees with small but long, deeply cut leaves like those of some forms of Q. alba Allan named these trees ‘The Three Sisters,’ and this will be the name of record for material collected from them. These trees appear to be of mixed ancestry, although Q. gambelii seems to be the strongest element.
While trying to collect some herbarium material, Allan cut his finger and this prompted us to drive to the nearby ranch Everett to seek first aid, which was very graciously offered by the rancher. After thanking the rancher for his help, we continued on our way though seemingly endless grassland to finally arrive in Springfield, Colorado, the county seat of Baca County, just before sunset.
The next morning, September 29, we headed south again, quickly crossing the Oklahoma Panhandle and driving on to Amarillo, Texas, the largest city in the Texas Panhandle. Along the way we made a stop at Palo Duro Canyon State Park but I couldn’t really enjoy the scenery because I had had a bad headache all morning.  While in the park we scouted for oaks, even though the official list available at the park visitor center did not list oaks as one of the plants native to the park.  We found a small clump of three or four trees at our second stop, very fine specimens of a different sort of Q. x undulata, and subsequent search by Allan established that those trees are actually probably the only ones in the park.
Driving eastwards from Amarillo on Interstate 40 we saw frequent small copses of Sapindus drumundii (called locally “Chinaberry tree,” although the more usual English name is “soapberry tree“) and the farther east we drove, the more populations of Quercus havardii we saw. This rhizomatous oak grows in deep sand and a single population can cover several square miles. Such groves (if shrubs only a few decimetres tall can be called groves) are called “shinneries,” a word derived from the French name for the oak, chene.  The acorns are quite big for such a small oak but we found no fruit, since it matures and drops in August. 
Just past Shamrock, Texas I noticed a neat small tree in a fenced field which on closer examination appeared to be a hybrid between Q. stellata and Q. havardii. Right here is the western limit of the range of Q. stellata and in such border areas there is always a good chance of encountering hybrids. Hybrids very often originate in an area where one species is abundant (in this case Q. havardii) and the other is scarce (here, Q. stellata). A farm wife who accidentally came by while we were stopped, (she was looking for a lost calf) asked me what I was looking for. She looked a little surprised when I told her that I had come all the way from Europe to look at oak trees. That evening we stayed in a motel in Clinton, Oklahoma and even though I was very tired I still took time to write down my impressions of another exciting day. 
On Thursday September 30th we visited the Sunshine Nursery, owned and operated by Steve and Sherry Bieberich.  Steve is a native of Clinton, and a dedicated nurseryman working in a difficult area—dry western Oklahoma. It is always interesting to visit a fellow nurseryman; Steve is also an avid plant hunter with a great passion for elms. Among his collection of elms are Ulmus gaussenii, an elm with a very rough leaf and Ulmus parviflora var. corticosa, the Korean Elm, with lovely corky bark.
In a climate with more than 100 days per year with temperatures above 30°C, plants grow very rapidly, providing you give them enough water.  Accordingly, all the plants grown on open ground in the nursery are put into root control bags and are watered daily during the growing season by a drip system. The trees in the nursery rows are spaced out well and the rows are kept free of weeds by cultivation and with the herbicide Round Up. Steve showed us Platanus occidentalis var. glabrata, a local plane tree whose leaf has a glabrous underside; this species might be interesting for wide use because most of the other species in the genus have an irritating dust that comes off easily when their leaves are touched.  In the same row there were some hybrids of Q. macrocarpa and Q. muehlenbergii which, despite their young age, were covered with large acorns. In a shaded tunnel Steve proudly showed us year-old seedlings of Q. buckleyi, already almost a meter tall.  Steve is very generous and he gave us seed from his refrigerator of several other interesting tree species.
Steve’s house is surrounded by an impressive collection of rare trees, some of which I’m familiar with, while others, such as Sophora secundiflora and Bumelia languinosa are completely new to me. Steve also showed us a few selections of a thornless Maclura pomifera, the Osage orange.  The English name refers to the large green, bumpy fruit which the tree produces.  The wood of this tree was used by American Indians to make bows, hence the French name “bois d’arc”.  (On a humorous note, some people who do not know French assume that the arc in the French name refers to Noah’s ark, and they conclude therefore that this tree furnished the material for that venerable ship!) Before the invention of barbed wire the common thorny form of the Osage orange was widely used for hedges, both in America and certain parts of Europe.
Shortly before lunch we set out in Steve’s car to see a few interesting places in south western Oklahoma. As we passed the entrance to the nursery he called our attention to a compact form of Q. fusiformis which had appeared in a bunch of seedlings in the nursery. Q. fusiformis is closely related to Q. virginiana.  The main reason why I had wanted to visit this region was because the nearby Quartz Mountains in Greer County, Oklahoma, are the northernmost station for Q. fusiformis.  The species is smaller and hardier than Q. virginiana and the acorns have a more pointed shape. I would love to try this interesting evergreen oak at home in Belgium, and I hoped to find some acorns here.
Along the road near the small town of Arapaho, Oklahoma, we stopped to take a look at an interesting hybrid oak population on an old oil drilling site. It is very probable that one of the parents of this hybrid population is Q. muehlenbergii, the chestnut oak, but it is difficult to tell what the other parent or parents might be. We took some herbarium material and called these trees Quercus x ‘Arapaho’. 
After a ride of about an hour we reached the summit of the Quartz Mountains, where we found quite a few Q. fusiformis trees with lots of acorns on the ground. Working together we picked up a good quantity. We then continued our trip eastward until we reached The Wichita Mountains Wild Refuge near Cache, in Comanche County, Oklahoma. In front of the visitor center they had planted Q. virginiana instead of the native Q. fusiformis, which really annoyed Steve, especially since they had asked for his advice on landscaping and then did not follow it.
The Wichita Mountains are very old, and though low, are quite rugged, built mostly of red granite; the soil is accordingly acidic, unlike the surrounding plains, where the soil is quite limey.  The refuge includes nearly 60,000 acres (around 24,000 hectares) of protected natural habitat.  Almost all of the animals originally native to the area (only the large carnivores—panthers, bears, and wolves-- are gone) are found in the refuge, notably the American buffalo (Bison bison) and the American elk (Cervus canadensis); both of these species became extinct in the Wichita Mountains in the 19th century, and had to be reintroduced.  There is also a small herd of Texas long horn cattle, which might also have become extinct if they had not been preserved here.  The highest peak in the Wichita Mountains is Mount Scott, 2,464 feet (750 meters) above sea level.  There is a road all the way to the top of mountain, and as we drove up, we stopped from time to time to look at trees. We saw Q. marilandica var. ashei , the Texas blackjack oak, and Q. stellata growing together and a little higher up we found Q. muehlenbergii and lots of Q. shumardii that, to me, looked exactly like Q. acerifolia; according to dendrological references, this tree grows only in the Ozarks in Northern Arkansas. At the same places we noticed Acer grandidentatum, Celtis reticulata, Juglans microcarpa and Diospiros virginiana. From the top of Mount Scott we had a wonderful view over most of the south western part of Oklahoma. 
On our way down I asked Steve about the central pivot irrigations system which can be clearly seen from high up in the air when flying over the western U.S.  Steve explained that it sometimes takes three days for the giant metal feeder arm to make a complete circuit, but one system can cover up to 160 acres (about 65 hectares). In the evening we invited Steve and Sherry to dinner at the local Chinese restaurant and we had a great time listening to Steve’s stories about plant hunting and Chinese food on his trips to China. That night we stayed at Steve’s place; in my room I read a copy of ‘The American Nurseryman” which Steve had given me. It was very late when I turned out the light and went to sleep.
The next morning, October 1, after a hearty breakfast which Steve prepared for us, we left Clinton and drove to Oklahoma City and then on to Dallas, Texas, where we wanted to visit Benny Simpson’s oak collection at the Texas Agricultural Research Station. (We had failed to make an appointment for the visit earlier that week but we were nevertheless given permission to visit the collection.) There are no labels attached to the trees but we easily recognized Q. gravesii, Q. buckleyi, Q. fusiformis, Q. shumardii, Q. graciliformis, Q. margaretta, Q. laceyi, and Q. vaseyana. From the ones that we did not recognize we took some herbarium material that we could use later to make a determination.  In the late afternoon we drove through the city of Dallas and continued on our way to Hillsboro, Texas, where we found a motel with a swimming pool. 
On Saturday, October 2 we started off very early because we planned to drive all the way to the Edwards Plateau while still leaving some time to visit a few interesting sites along the way. Soon it began to rain heavily, so we were glad to be in the car rather than out tramping through forest and field.  But because of the rain we couldn’t drive very fast and it took more time than we had expected to complete the day’s drive.  Shortly after lunch we merged onto Highway 476 to Tarpley, Texas. We made a stop when we saw some sturdy oaks which we thought were Q. stellata. But we were both wrong, misled by the shape of the leaves. Seeing the seedlings come up at home in the spring of 2005 made me realize that these oaks were black oaks and so they couldn’t have been Q. stellata, which is a white oak. I should have noticed that the acorns were growing on the previous year’s twig and that the leaves had bristle tips. When I later took a closer look at the herbarium material I realized that we had been mistaken and that the trees probably were hybrids between Q. marilandica var. ashei and Q. buckleyi. I hope that the progeny will provide a bit more information about the parents of this remarkable hybrid. 
We continued our drive in the direction of Utopia and suddenly we realized that we were almost out of gas. We drove as carefully as we possibly could, hoping that we would reach Utopia before the tank was completely empty. Luck was with us, and we reached the town—and a gas station- in time. I don’t think that we would have driven much farther, we were already down to fumes! Between Utopia and Rio Frio I suddenly noticed a hawthorn and I asked Allan to stop, but there were no fruits on the tree, which make it quite difficult to determine. Nearby we saw Q. marilandica var. ashei and next to a gate with a plate labelled “Bear Creek Ranch” we saw a shrubby oak with remarkable leaves having very wide central lobes.  Here and there on the plant we clearly recognized the leaves of Q. marilandica var. ashei and those of Q. buckleyi, while elsewhere other leaves were intermediate and could easily be mistaken for those of Q. stellata. (I collected some scions from this obvious hybrid, but unfortunately none of the grafts succeeded.) As we drove on Highway 83 towards Junction we saw quite a lot of trees of Q. buckleyi and Q. laceyi along the road but it was about a month too early for the stunning red autumn colour of the former. In Junction we found ourselves a plain motel where the lobby was full of memories of the Vietnam War; it turned out that an old veteran of that war was the manager of the place.
On Sunday, October 3, we drove west along Highway 10 via Sonora and Ozona until we reached the Pecos River at Sheffield, Texas.  There we stopped to rest and immediately noticed a nice shrubby Q. vaseyana (Quercus pungens var. vasyana) laden with tiny acorns. The leaves are rather small and narrow with from three to five toothed lobes on each side of the blade.  This is the so-called Trans-Pecos Region and as we drove towards Fort Stockton we could see the vegetation gradually become more xeric.  In the distance we could see low mesas but around us everything was flat and dry, with scattered yucca and prickly pear cactus, some of which are about two meters high. We left the freeway at Fort Stockton and took Highway 385 south to Marathon, Texas. We had received instructions from Patricia Manning of Sul Ross University as to where we could find Q. mohriana along the way, but we didn’t find any oaks at the indicated spots. A few miles farther on, between Marathon and Alpine, Texas, we did find a small population of oaks that probably are Q. mohriana. Around 6 o’clock in the evening we arrived in Alpine, a quiet college town in Brewster County.
We had an appointment the next morning with Ms. Manning, who takes care of the living collection at Sul Ross University. In the greenhouse she grows hundreds of cacti and there are quit a few interesting trees on the university grounds. We had lunch together and Patty gave us further instructions about where to find some of the plants that I wanted to see. Before we left, Patty gave us some seed of Q. havardii and Crataegus tracyi, a hawthorn that I would really love to see in the wild. Some time ago on the internet I had found a beautiful picture of C. tracyi in brilliant red fall color which I used as a screensaver on my computer during the months before this trip.
After lunch we drove to Fort Davis, where you can admire a few big Q. gravesii trees right in front of the city hall. With Patty’s instructions we easily found C. tracyi at a rest stop on the road to Kent, a few miles outside of Fort Davis. Not far from that spot we also found Fraxinus cuspidata, the flowering ash of the Trans-Pecos and Juglans microcarpa, which, as the name indicates, has tiny fruits and narrow leaves. We also began to see the evergreen Q. emoryi, but none of them were as big as the ones we saw in Glenwood, New Mexico, in 2001. 
We had wanted to drive all around Mount Livermore but a spectacular thunderstorm was coming right at us and we thought better of trying to drive in the mountains in this kind of weather.  The year 2004 was particularly wet for this region, with three times as much rain as normal, and this may be the reason why we found such an abundance of acorns and fruits of all kinds.  So we drove back to Alpine and went to bed quite early because we needed to make an early start the next day. The motel (“The cheapest in town” said the sign) is next to the railway tracks and many times during the night I heard long trains passing by, mournfully wailing as they went through town.
The next morning we got up at 6 o’clock and had a substantial breakfast before setting off, full of expectations, for the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park. The Rio Grande, which forms the natural boundary between Mexico and Texas, makes a big bend south of the Chisos Mountains, hence the name of this national park. It is a long drive south from Alpine to Study Butte, but we both enjoyed the spectacular views of the mountains and the long shadows made by the rising sun. This national park is so vast that it is best to carefully plan such a trip before departure; we were lucky to have instructions from a few people in the International Oak Society so that we knew where to go. Before lunch we wanted to do the Blue Creek Canyon, thanks to an article on the oaks of the Trans-Pecos by Michael Melendrez, an expert on the oaks of New Mexico and the Trans-Pecos region of Texas.  In the article he indicates where Q. vaseyana and Q. graciliformis can be found.
At the trail head, before setting off, we enjoyed the breathtaking vista of the Chisos Moutains in the low early morning sunlight. In the beginning the trail is clearly marked by some rock cairns, but farther on we were walking in the dry river bed and we saw no more signs. At first the vegetation was very xeric, typical of the hot and dry portions of the Chihuahua Desert, but as we made our way upstream we noticed how the vegetation was gradually changing as more and more trees and shrubs began to appear. One of these was the shrubby Fraxinus greggii, an evergreen ash with tiny light green leaves. Another was Ungnadia speciosa, which has fruits somewhat like some horse chestnuts, hence the English name ‘Mexican Buckeye’. We also saw true acacias (eight species of this far-flung genus occur in the Trans-Pecos region), as well as Chilopsis linearis, the desert willow, and Diospyros texana, the Texas persimmon, whose small black fruits are a source of a black dye used to stain leather.
Soon we were surrounded by impressive rock formations and we began to see the first Quercus vaseyana, their branches weighed down with acorns. The dry riverbed was full of acorns and I was surprised not to see more wildlife, since there was such an abundance of food. I was always on the lookout for bears, mountain lions, snakes, killer bees, fire ants and scorpions, as I nervously made noise and paid attention to where I stepped; Allan, on the other hand, appeared to have no apprehension whatever.  (Maybe he knew something that I didn’t!). Suddenly we came upon a natural tank filled with water, set in rocks which were too steep for us to continue.  It was clear that we had lost the trail and that we wouldn’t be able to see Q. graciliformis this time. We decided therefore to go back to the truck and drive to the other side of Emory Peak (7825 ft) where, on the advice of Antoine le Hardy, we wanted to do the Pine Creek Canyon Trail. We were lucky to be driving Allan’s 4-wheel-drive pickup truck, which doesn’t seem to have any trouble driving on narrow roads littered with rocks and full of holes.
It took about half an hour of driving to reach the trailhead where we would leave the vehicle and proceed on foot. We took some food and plenty of water and set off for Pine Creek Canyon, surrounded at first by desert vegetation dominated by a Sotol species (Dasylirion wheeleri or D. texanum).  Looking south the vista was breathtaking: in the foreground, various peaks of the Chisos Mountains, in the far distance, the Sierra Madre Oriental, in Mexico, gradually fading from view. After about an hour of hiking we noticed a few Q. emoryi and also Q. x robusta, a hybrid of the former with Q. gravesii. Even though it was October, it was very hot and the hike strenuous as the path became steeper and steeper.  But for the most part we forgot all about these inconveniences because the views were so extraordinary and there were so many interesting plants to see. The higher we got, the more vegetation we encountered, so that finally we were surrounded by lush green maples (Acer grandidentatum), pines, oaks, junipers, madrones (Arbutus xalapensis) and all kinds of herbaceous plants. We really didn’t know where to look first in this veritable paradise. Somewhere up ahead we could hear water splashing from the rocks, but it was difficult to estimate the distance in a deep canyon like this.
By now, however, we were both a bit tired and it was getting on towards late afternoon, so we decide to go back to the truck and head back to the place where we planned to have supper. I have to say that this was undoubtedly one of the most wonderful days of my life and I promised myself to come back again someday to this Texan “El Dorado.” Shortly after midnight we arrived back in Alpine where we quickly went to bed and as quickly fell asleep. 
On Wednesday, October 6, 2003 we left Alpine with the goal of reaching McKittrick Canyon, in the Guadalupe Mountains, by noon. We had been there before during the South-Western Oak Expedition in late August 2001, but the place is really worth a second visit. In front of the old schoolhouse at the Frijoles Ranch Visitor Center are two huge chestnut oaks (Q. muehlenbergii) and an interesting smaller tree which seems to be a hybrid of the former with Quercus grisea.  We received permission to take some herbarium material from that tree, and we named it Q. x ‘Frijoles Ranch’. 
Walking through the canyon this time it struck me how differently I looked at things now, owing to the fact that my knowledge of the genus Quercus has evolved so much since our last visit here two years ago. For example, I can better see the differences between the species now.  But in some regions, especially where hybridization has occurred, the morphological characteristics of the trees are not as clear as the descriptions in field guides, so there are still unanswered questions. Hybridization makes determination problematic, but on the other hand it offers an almost endless spectrum of new and interesting trees with different form, leaf-type, leaf color, and soil requirements. Allan and I, and other people such as Michael Melendrez, believe that there is an enormous potential in the native oaks of the U.S. Southwest for attractive cultivar selections deserving a spot in our gardens. It goes without saying that these selected plants would have to be propagated by vegetative means, in order to preserve their desirable qualities. The right choice of a rootstock would then help the grafted plants to adapt to the different soil types and climate and moisture regimes. While discussing these issues, we set out in the late afternoon for the drive to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where we planned to spend the night.
The next morning we visited Dripping Springs on the west side of the Organ Mountains. We had also visited this place during the South-Western Oak Expedition in 2001, but we waned to have another close look at Q.  organensis. This evergreen oak is sometimes regarded as a hybrid between Q. arizonica and Q. grisea (Q. x organensis) but other people regard it as a separate species similar to Q. polymorpha.  In the afternoon we drove to the north side of the Organ Mountains and parked the truck at the Aguirre Springs Camp Ground. On our way up to the campground we made a short stop to look for acorns of Q. turbinella; this could well be the hardiest of the evergreen white oaks, since it occurs also in more northern locations such as western Colorado and Utah.
Once we reached the campground we located the loop trail and began our climb.  The trail was quite steep but we took our time and looked at the trees and the beautiful scenery. Here too, the vegetation gradually changed as we got higher. At the trailhead we were surrounded by Q. turbinella and Q. grisea but farther up we began to encounter more and more Pinus ponderosa and Q. arizonica. We also encountered occasional enormous individuals of Juniperus deppiana, the Alligator juniper, its bark in square platelets like the pattern on alligator hide. Other trees which came into view were a couple of small Fraxinus velutina and the first Q. gambelii of the day. Still higher up Q. gambelii became more abundant and we also saw trees that must be hybrids between Q. gambelii and Q. arizonica. All too soon we had to return to the truck to head for Albuquerque, where Allan’s brother was expecting us at dinner time.  These high, cold Organ Mountains are another place that we would like to come back to some day, since (according to Michael Melendrez) there are many more interesting trees higher up.
During the 360 km long trip on I-25 from Las Cruces to Albuquerque Allan put on classical music and it was as if we hovered over the freeway as we sped along. The blue sky was adorned with thousands of tiny white clouds of almost equal size and we continued our drive without saying a word, enjoying the music and the beautiful sky. We took turns driving because we were both tired from the three weeks we had spent touring and hiking.
Walter, Allan’s younger brother, and Tina, his wife, were waiting for us at a Mexican restaurant near their home in Albuquerque, where we had a sumptuous evening meal. Tina was born and grew up in Scotland, and she seemed happy to meet someone who was also from Europe, which doesn’t happen often in New Mexico.  Walter is a master ferrier and he has given courses on horseshoeing all over the world. In his house, where we spent the night, he has a huge collection of western horse gear (saddles, bridles, bits, spurs, chaps), horse paintings, and walking sticks that he has made from wood which he has collected from the wild during his travels.  Each one has been lovingly carved and polished by his magic hands.
The next morning we said goodbye to Walter and Tina, and after a short drive south on I-25 we arrived in Los Lunas, where we intended to visit our friend Michael Melendrez, the organizer of the South-western Oak Expedition back in 2001.  Michael is the owner of the nursery “Trees That Please” but “Soil Secrets,” his other business, is taking more and more of his time. He produces soil supplements and microrhizae, which are symbiotic fungi that have a positive influence on the health of plants. In his front yard he showed us a number of interesting oaks, among them a vigorous Q. gambelii with big acorns which he found in the Gila Wilderness in south western New Mexico. He gave us both some acorns from the tree.  We showed Michael all of the herbarium material that we had collected during our trip, because he is almost alone among plantsmen in his knowledge of south western native flora, and uniquely able to appreciate the significance of what we had encountered.  But since we still had about 800 kilometers to drive today, we kept our visit rather short, and we were soon on our way again, this time headed north once more on Interstate 25.
On the long way back to Allan’s home in Colorado we made only a few short stops to eat or look at trees. Near Cimarron, in North Eastern New Mexico, we left the freeway to look at an interesting Q. x undulata with leaves a bit like those of Q. grisea, which Allan discovered here in 2001(Quercus x undulata ‘Cimarron’) .  I was driving at the time, not paying much attention to how fast we were going when suddenly we heard the siren of a police car behind us ordering us to pull over. The patrol officer asked for identification, and when he looked at my passport he asked me with puzzlement if Belgium is a country…Ignorance is obviously one of the benefits of living in a large, almost completely autonomous country… He issued me a ticket and advised me to pay the fine immediately at city hall if I didn’t want to get in to trouble when leaving the country.  I took his advice, of course…
We made our last stop in a rest area north of Colorado Springs near Larkspur, Colorado, where there is a low colony of Q. gambelii, with very interesting long narrow leaves. We took a few scions and called this promising oak: Q. gambelii ‘Forbidden Path,’ since there was a sign indicating that the public was not allowed past the fence which we had to cross in order to reach the oak. It was already dark when we finally arrived at Allan’s house in Boulder and we were both very tired but happy to arrive home safely after we had travelled so many miles and seen and done so many interesting things. 
On Saturday Oct 9th, the last full day of my stay with Allan, we noticed that Boulder now looked very different than when we left two weeks ago. Almost all the trees had turned red and yellow and the colors were much more vivid than what I am used to seeing at home in Belgium.
But although this was my last day in North America, we refused to not do something memorable:  we drove 40 miles north into Rocky Mountain National Park so that I could take back to Belgium some impressions of the high mountains which make this state so distinctive among the American states.  We drove to an altitude of a little more than 3500 meters (nearly 12,000 feet), almost to the top of the Continental Divide; Allan proudly told me that the state of Colorado has more than 50 peaks which surpass 14,000 feet (roughly 4,500 meters) in altitude. Longs Peak, the highest mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park, is 14,259 feet high. Just past the Alpine Visitor Center, in view of the Never Summer Mountains, I got out of the car and stood in the early autumn snow so that Allan could take my picture. Although I felt somewhat faint and short of breath, I could not help but admire the stunning vista of these ancient glacier-carved peaks. Locked seemingly forever in a regime of relentless cold, they seemed more eternal than anything I had ever seen before.  The other enduring memory I have of Rocky Mountain National Park is very contemporary: on a sunny meadow farther down, we saw a huge herd of elk, consisting mostly of does and yearling young, managed and dominated by a huge bull elk with a massive rack of antlers. Now is the rutting season, and the bull was kept constantly busy preventing any females from wandering away or any marauding young bull from picking off females from his harem.  I did not envy that bull, who had almost more than he could do to fulfil his destiny…
And so my vacation with Allan came to an end; in the evening, in a Nepalese
Restaurant in Boulder, we had a sort of farewell dinner with a few of Allan’s friends.  It was a quiet end to a truly memorable exploration of much of the Southern Plains and Southwest of the United States by a Belgian nurseryman eager to view its wonders and to bring some of them home to Europe. 
In closing, I wish to thank my friend Allan Taylor for everything that he did to make this trip so successful.  Thank you, Buddy!  During the past three weeks we have seen and learned so much that it is difficult to capture it in words.  Nevertheless, I have tried, through this report, to let my readers travel with us through a truly enchanting part of the world: The U.S. Southwest.