By Staci Engman
Imagine yourself lounging in a garden that is beautiful, colorful, and lush. A symphony of chirps and tweets welcomes you as a host of birds fly about and feast on the ripened fruit of the abundant native plants. You are shaded by tree branches that sway in the cool, gentle breeze, and the air smells fresh and clean. The moment is peaceful, serene, natural, and harmonious.
Peter Beste’s garden, at his home nestled in the northeastern foothills of the Franklin Mountains, is such a garden, and a number of his plants were rescued from those very mountains. Although his exquisite front and back yards are 20 years in the making, Beste aims to teach area residents that vibrant, easy-to-maintain, economical native and adaptive plant gardens that provide shade and require very little water are possible for everyone in this region.
He does just that and more, as a member of both the El Paso Cactus and Rock Club (EPCRC) and the El Paso Native Plant Society (EPNPS). For 80 years, EPCRC has promoted the conservation of native cacti for their low water use and low maintenance qualities. The 42-year-old EPNPS has the same mission on behalf of native woody plants, shrubs, and trees. Each club strives to educate the public about native cacti and plants, respectively, with a particular focus on the rescue of rare cactus and plant species from areas slated for development. “We are losing more and more native habitat because of civilization encroaching on nature,” Beste says. “This is especially critical close to mountains because the number and variety of plants increases greatly in that habitat. Flat and sandy regions are not as rich in plant life. If we have to have urban sprawl it should be there.”
Jim Hastings, a fellow member of both clubs, concurs, “Living in our environment is a delicate balancing act. We have issues of conserving water for the future, evidence of a changing climate and impacting the balance between naturally occurring plant and insect and animal life.” Hastings notes that native plants and wildlife have a symbiotic relationship because they evolved together. The more pristine the environment, the greater the mutual benefits to people, plants, and wildlife. “Our plants and geographic features provide shelter and food for animal life. The animal life returns nutrients to the environment which nourish plant life,” he says. “Insects and birds are essential to pollination of plants and often spread seed to continue plants. When we develop land, we impact that natural balance and can reduce both animal and plant populations and their role in the natural environment. We need to look at such impacts and plan development to minimize the negative effects we might cause.”
Whenever possible, the clubs work directly with developers for access to sites before they are bulldozed in order to rescue rare cacti and plants growing there. “In one instance,” Beste says, “we removed close to 3,000 plants from the site planned for a school. About half those plants were saved by the school district and returned to the school landscaping when construction was completed. Others were distributed to other organizations, projects, and individuals for landscaping and preservation. Plants saved included many varieties of cacti, ocotillo, agaves, sotol and many desert shrub varieties.”
For obvious reasons, uprooting and replanting cacti can be tricky work. Beste and Hastings wryly joke about having the scars and bruises to show for their rescue efforts. “Cacti and other native plants can choose interesting locations to germinate and grow,” Hastings comments. “Sometimes these sites can be precarious on gravelly slopes and on the far side of arroyos and washes or beds of loose sand. Most cactus aficionados can share stories of getting stuck in loose sand, having a blowout or dead-ending in a wash of large rocks in a dry stream bed and having to back out. Most us have skidded down a slippery slope with our arms full of a carefully collected prickly specimen plant and sometimes finishing by skidding on our bottoms down the last few feet of that slope. And we can’t forget the occasional startled reaction of a disturbed snake, rabbit or roadrunner we come upon. It is a toss-up to see who jumps highest when that happens!” The upside is that cacti are generally tolerant of being moved and replanted. Sadly, that’s seldom the case with woody plants and shrubs. Those plants are often destroyed when an area is bulldozed for development.
Both EPCRC and EPNPS hold monthly meetings on topics ranging from native plant, succulent, and cacti information; irrigation methods; landscaping tips; and rainwater harvesting. They welcome anyone who would like to learn more about our local heritage plants, as well as adventurous types who want to help rescue native cacti. Representatives from area schools are encouraged to attend in order to learn how to create gardens on their campuses.
The meetings are free and open to the public. Membership dues for each club vary by age, individual, or family rates. Club members enjoy access to field trips, the EPCRC Cactus Raffle held on the first Saturday of July, special presentations throughout November celebrating Cactus Appreciation Month, the Garden Tour held each spring, and other special activities.
What: El Paso Cactus and Rock Club meetings
Where: El Paso Outdoor Resource Center (Memorial Park), 3105 Grant Ave. 79930
When: first Saturday of each month, doors open at 9:30 a.m., meeting and programs begin at 10:00 a.m.
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/epcrc
What: Native Plant Society of New Mexico El Paso Chapter meetings
Where: St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, 1810 Elm St. 79930
When: second Thursday of each month or as notified, social time at 6:30 p.m., meeting and programs begin at 7:00 p.m.
For more information, visit www.facebook.com/Native-Plant-Society-of-New-Mexico-El-Paso-Chapter