Expedition: Mexico, 1994

Plant Delights/Yucca Do Expedition to Mexico


  1. John Fairey, Peckerwood Gardens
  2. Carl Schoenfeld, Yucca Do Nursery
  3. Richard Hartlage, NJ Parks System
  4. Ken Selody, Atlock Farm, NJ

Plant exploration is something we read about in the garden history books...tales of slashing through the jungles, climbing mountains, or trudging thru deserts, in search of the holy grails of the plant world...new species. With the fervor of past plant explorers, there are few plants that have not been discovered, at least so we thought...we were wrong!

Current plant exploration often consists of retracing the steps of earlier discoverers, and not exploring new uncharted regions. Modern day explorers often search for a lifetime, and never happen upon the ultimate reward...finding a new undiscovered plant species.

Over the Thanksgiving holidays, I was fortunate to accompany a plant exploration expedition into the mountains of northeast Mexico with two of the most prolific plant explorers of the last half century, John Fairey and Carl Schoenfeld of Yucca Do Nursery/Peckerwood Gardens.

The Yucca Do expeditions began in 1988, when renown plant explorer Lynn Lowery took the Yucca Do owners, John Fairey and Carl Schoenfeld, on a trip into the unexplored mountain regions of Mexico. John and Carl were so enchanted with the region and its flora, that they embarked on a lifetime mission to research the flora of this region of Mexico.

There mission was made more difficult because no complete Flora of Mexico exists, and conservation of the regions flora is virtually non existent. One of the unexpected, but rewarding results of Yucca Does work, according to John, is that the Mexicans are now becoming more aware of their wonderful flora.

John and Carl's business venture, Yucca Do Nursery is a mail order nursery that helps to support their plant collecting efforts. During each trip seed are collected for further testing. The excess seedlings are grown for years, and eventually offered in the catalog.

The expedition that I joined was their 59th into the Mexican mountains. After flying into Houston, I spent the night at John's home at Peckerwood Gardens...just to the west of Houston. The wonderful 5 acre display garden serves to test and display many of the wonderful finds from their Mexican expedition like the wonderful Mexican evergreen oaks, Quercus polymorpha and Quercus risophylla. Since both John and Carl have backgrounds as artists, the plant collections are themselves a meticulous work of art.


We departed early in the morning for Mexico, which took us 14 hours to reach our first nights destination near Saltillo...if you've got a map, that's about an hour and a half southwest of Monterrey, Mexico.

One of our first stops was for food. On collecting days, we might spend 14 hours without any sign of civilization, so we were instructed to buy food and drinks while we could. The water in Mexico is reknowned as off limits, so our purchases included lots of bottled water, soft drinks, snacks, lunchables, and a seeming years supply of Pepto Dismal...or so it would become known. It was odd seeing Christmas trees being sold here with such hot temperatures and everyone still wearing shorts. Perishable food and drinks were stored in ice chests, and away we went.

Having never been to Mexico, crossing the border was a unique experience, as we had to completely unpack the car...actually it was an Isuzu Trooper with nearly 140,000 miles. The Mexican inspector tried to confiscate some of our more appetizing foods that we had purchased for the trip, but I suspect that was only because we passed through the station near lunch time...funny, but he wasn't interested in the Pepto.

We had to detour down a couple of side streets to get into Mexico, due to the miles and miles of tractor trailers that were backed up at the border waiting to get into Mexico. According to Carl, these lines were non existent prior to the recent passage of The North American Free Trade Agreement aka: NAFTA...hmmm.

As we drove toward our hacienda (an old Mexican bed and breakfast) in Saltillo Mexico, the annual rainfall amounts decreased from 45 inches per year in Waller, Texas to only 12" as we approached Monterrey. As we drove, it was fascinating to watch the vegetation change from deciduous trees to cacti, agaves, and yuccas.

Our hacienda was fascinating...ligustrum lucidum as street trees, all with white painted bases and smaller shrubs used in a most unusual design style.


The next morning, we launched out, back to Monterrey, but this time we detoured through the mountain chain called the Seven Sisters (actually a part of the Sierra Madre Oriental range). The twisting, winding road through the mountains was bumpy enough for one of those car shocks commercials. As we made our ascent toward our upper destination of 8000', I quickly realized that I was in for a special treat.

It didn't take long for the collecting to begin. The rules were, that we could collect small amounts of seed, or occasionally cuttings of particularly nice forms of plants. Plants are allowed, but only when their are no seed and no cuttings, and then only a small sample of the plant is permitted.

Our first stop was a beautiful patch of shrubby perennial salvia, either Salvia gregii or Salvia lemmonii with bright purple flowers. Growing beside the salvia was several large clumps of mexican mint marigold, Tagetes lucida...both with plenty of seed. Identification is often a guess, since many of these plants have never been grown in cultivation...and we couldn't put our hands on a botanist.

Each type of seed is collected and stored in a bag, which is then carefully documented with the collection location, altitude, growing conditions, and a collection number. If there are any questions about the plant in the future, the plant can be re located for further study.

The roads were lined with felty grey leaved butterfly bushes...at least two different species of buddleias...nothing like the buddleias that we are used to growing. I don't know if the seed were ripe, but we gathered them anyway. Other nearby finds included penstemons, oreganos, eryngiums, asclepias, and a plethora of unknown yellow composites. It was great to see familiar favorites like Yucca australis and Arbutus xalapensis in the wild for the first time.

One of my most exciting finds was Hunnemania fumariifolia, a cut leaf poppy relative. It resembled an Artemisia 'Powis Castle' in foliage, but with buttery yellow flowers. Although the first clump had no ripe seed, we were able to find an abundant seed crop higher on the mountain. Non native species to the area were quite noticeable through the mountains, as we also saw large drifts of Nicotiana glauca (blue tree tobacco), a native of South America.

Agaves were very plentiful, although it was surprisingly tough to find any with ripe seed. If you have never seen agave seed stalks, the flower spike reaches from 10 to 15 feet in height, depending on the species...with the seed perched in pods at the top. The stalks would have to be sawed off, the carefully lowered, not to spill the ripened seed.

We were finally successful in getting seed from Agave stricta (a small narrow leaf agave), Agave macroculmis (a large blue species), and Agave lophantha (a small agave with a central yellow stripe down each leaf).

The Agave americana ssp. protoamericana was one of the most spectacular, but less hardy agaves that we saw. It had the most spectacular bloom spikes...8" thick and nearing 15 20' tall. These spikes, which closely resemble asparagus shoots on steroids, form in the fall, but don't open until spring. In many areas, the villagers use these agaves in place of fences...a very effective way of saying, KEEP OUT!

As we rose in elevation, we reached a series of shear cliffs that were filled with a spectacular Agave bracteosa. After scaling the slippery rocky cliffs, and gathering seed stalks, we were disappointed to find that the high winds blowing through the canyon had already dispersed all of the seed. We were extremely disappointed since plants from this altitude should be hardy in zone 7.

Other plants that we think of as growing in Mexico, such as opuntia cacti, were plentiful. The unique natural combinations of plants was most fascinating, as the opuntias grew alongside ferns, tillandsias, and a plethora of strange shrubs. I've got to say that it is an unusual sight seeing Spanish moss growing on cacti.

We found ourselves continually driving across a series of streams that seemed to mysteriously flow across the road, every mile or so. Since farming is the only means of livelihood in these remote dry mountainous villages, water is at a premium. The farmers have diverted the mountain streams and dug miles of trenches to bring water to their crops.

Being one who is less than enamored of high elevations, it was not especially encouraging to pass by the large number of memorials that dotted these mountainous roads. These memorials are carved out in the rocks to loved ones who had perilous outcomes on these stretches of road...I guess drinking and driving has even more dire consequences in this area.

The less glamorous part of collecting seed is cleaning. Cleaning of seed is done as you drive, in the room at night, and again when you awaken in the morning. All seed must be meticulously clean from insects and debris for passage through the border inspections.

Cleaning seed is done either by picking out the chaff, or by the use of sifting screens. Many seed harbor insects that live inside the seed. By putting the clean seed inside a plastic bags, the insects will get overly warm, and crawl outside the seed where he...or she, can then be discarded.

As we climbed past 6000' into the cloud forests, the world took on a different feel. As we stopped for lunch at an overlook, we were amazed to watch the clouds roll in beneath us. Since the rainfall is slight in these areas, many of the plants depend on the moisture from the clouds for their survival.

As we reached the higher elevations, around 7600', we began to look out for plants that we had seen at lower elevations. Plants in this area would stand a better chance of being hardy back in our zone 7 gardens. I was excited to collect a small tillandsia bromeliad from this high elevation. It was at this point that our trip perspective changed, although it was unknown to us at the time. John was investigating a lily in the creek bed, while I searched nearby. John bolted upright, where we stood for several moments. When we returned to the vehicle, John told us that he had a bad case of cramps...probably indigestion. It was only later that evening when we knew the full extent of our newest dilemma.

Many plants that we know as herbaceous perennials were evergreen shrubs in this region. We passed by several such examples including Eupatorium viburnioides (evergreen joe pye weed), and Rhus muelleri (evergreen sumac), both attractive shrubs.

As we made our descent into Monterrey, Carl described one of their earlier expeditions, which occurred after a hurricane had devastated the area. Many of the road that they had traveled months earlier were not to be found. Carl pointed out areas where mountain roads had been in the past, only to have mother nature force the residents to start over again in a new location.

Monterrey was our first sign of North America in Mexico. I knew as we drove into town and were greeted by McDonalds and Pizza Inn that we were no longer in the boonies. It was interesting, however, to see that things like electrical codes hadn't yet reached the standards of other countries with a similar superficial appearance.

As we cleaned ourselves and our seed collections, John decided that after feeling bad most of the day, he would get checked out by a doctor before we headed south into the really desolate areas of Mexico.

After a couple of hours in a Mexican hospital, we were greeted with the news that John had suffered a heart attack during our trek thru the mountains that morning. There is nothing quite so sobering as a medical emergency in the middle of a strange land. The following morning, with the doctors assurances that John would be okay, and with his insistence that we continue, we departed Monterrey, leaving John in the care of his best friend, who happened to live in Monterrey.


We headed south to the literal middle of nowhere, closest to the small town of Victoria (3 hours south). We arrived in the late evening at a wonderful old hacienda that John and Carl had stayed at many times before. We had been warned that the hacienda was busy with an American bankers convention. While I thought this was odd, things made more sense when we arrived to instead find a bikers convention...I guess something got lost in the translation.


The next morning, we were off to the Puerto Purification Mountains in the state of Tamauliapas. We passed miles of tillandsia-laden power lines and had just begun our ascent, when I began to notice that there were ferns growing everywhere...in the cacti, hanging from the cliff, beside the road...everywhere. This was also our first sighting of the lovely black-fruited beauty berry, Callicarpa acuminata.

One of the most exciting finds of the morning was a spectacular climbing fern, Lygodium volubile, which had leaves twice the size of our native climbing fern or it's Japanese counterpart. Most of the other ferns that we saw belonged to the genus pellaea (button ferns), polypodium (resurrection ferns), davallias (rabbit foot ferns), adiantum (maidenhair ferns), asplenium (spleenworts), and cheilanthes (wooly lip ferns). As I would find out later, Mexico is home to nearly 1000 species of ferns...who knew.

It was particularly exciting to see that many of the ferns here grew in full sun. I had never encountered the genus Notholaena before, but quickly fell in love with this sun loving fern with fuzzy blue foliage. Just when you think, you can't get any more excited, we would round a curve and spot another exciting find. Stop the car, we yelled, as we approached a solitary Cyathea tree fern.

Spores and divisions were collected and will be planted out back at home in the spring to begin hardiness trials. Since many of these ferns have never been cultivated, we can't even venture a good guess as to their hardiness.

After finding a open spot to pull off for lunch, we climbed until we entered forests that were filled with palms. The dominant species was Sabal mexicana, a giant palm to 30' tall with massive fronds. In the same area, we saw tremendous numbers of what appears to be Sabal minor, although the books say it doesn't grow in this area...could it be that no one has ever looked?

The ground cover flora of the woodland areas was quite a shock for me. Peperomias, tradescantias (wandering jews), and begonias were the norm...certainly not what I expected to find in the woods of Mexico.

The higher we traveled, the more abundant the sago palms, Dioon edule, became. These prehistoric palm relatives were literally covering the ground. While these are normally not winter hardy for us, I am certain that the higher altitudes of these plants will most certainly yield some forms that will survive our winters.

As we passed 3000' feet, we began seeing one of the most spectacular sights on the trip. The Agave, cacti and dasylirion-covered cliffs were also covered with a spectacular bromeliad called a hechtia (hechtia). These flat silvery foliage rosettes stretched to 3' across...an absolutely stunning sight. The cliff were also dotted with echeverias, and a variety of grey and brown leaf sedums.

One of the plants that we were searching for, was a cold hardy parlor palm, Chamaedorea radicaulis. This dwarf palm is known to exist in the region, but only to 3000'. Finally, as we neared 4000', we found two clumps of this rare palm. Unfortunately, as was the case with most palms, there were no seed in sight...c'est la vie...or however they say it in Mexican.

The most exciting find of the day, occurred as Carl was peering over the edge of the cliff. Ten feet below was a ledge with a solitary ferny-foliaged dahlia, which closely resembled a yarrow...and yes, it had seed. With visions of a newly discovered species, and without a second thought, off the edge Carl jumped (I couldn't watch this). He returned a few minutes later with 8 seed...I still shake every time I recount the incident.

As it was getting late, and we were all visibly shaken, it was time to return to the hacienda. I don't know if I have relayed the severity of the mountain roads, especially when backing down a narrow mountain when you encounter another vehicle, but the thought of making a three point turn at the edge of the high cliff is enough to make the best driver squirm. I will gladly admit to getting out of the car during this episode.


For our final day, we headed to the Sierra Chiquita mountain range, also a part of the Sierra Madre chain. What was to be different, is that there were no roads, so this was one of those climb yourself mountains. Carl and John had never been into this mountain...something about rumors of an village of assassins that lived nearby...hmmm.

Until we reached 3000', this could best be described as a non-user friendly mountain. The 60% rocky slope of slippery shale-like soil was populated with agaves, cacti, and acacias...in other words...you couldn't grab anything that wouldn't grab back! I was fascinated to find cacti growing in shade, even as epiphytes in tree branches, growing in pockets of debris.

Finally, exhausted, we reached the top...actually, I was the only one exhausted. While the flora had been sparse on the way to the top, the plateau at the top was rich with some of the most fabulous ferns and orchids that I have ever seen. The most exciting find, however was a giant isolated grove of cupressus which, according to Carl, don't match the description of any of the previously discovered species.

With herbarium specimens in hand, and rolls of now used film, down the mountain we headed. We looked more like a scene from the film, Romancing the Stone, as we slipped and slid down the steep cliff face. Finally, as the light was fading from the sky, we returned to find our vehicle awaiting our return. At the bottom of the mountain, a mirage-like stream appeared from nowhere, laden with huge patches of Xanthosoma violacea.


Still concerned about John, we agreed to abandon the remainder of our expedition. After a half day to finish cleaning the seed, we were ready to return. After stopping for fuel and being mobbed by neighborhood kids trying to sell us the usual tourist trappings, we were off for the border crossing. Passing through customs was interesting to say the least. The crossing that John and Carl usually used had been closed, and we were directed to the inspection station at Brownsville, Texas. With the inspectors knowing less about the plants than we did, a fascinating three hour visit with the plant inspectors, and we were on the road again, returning to Yucca Do late that evening.

After a series of heart procedures, John is again as active as ever and continuing in his role as plant explorer and gardener. Carl has since purchased the nursery from John, and it is now in the process of developing the nursery and garden into a "conservation trust" so that it can be maintained well into the future.

Many of the seeds collected are already sprouting and growing, and many of the cuttings rooted. After we have trialed these plants for adaptability to our area, we look forward to sharing.