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Wildflower is published quarterly by the Wildflower Center. Its content is national in scope with articles about the conservation and use of native plants as well as news from the Wildflower Center. A subscription is provided to Wildflower Center members as a benefit of membership.

Letter from the Executive Director - Spring 2003

There are times when initiatives born of the best intentions can go astray. During my five-year tenure here at the Wildflower Center and, before, as director of the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Ariz., I strongly encouraged the use of native plants in urban and suburban landscaping. In Phoenix, I urged people to "bring the beauty of the desert back into the city," and I found it gratifying to see this concept take hold. One could hope that this advocacy would bring about only favorable results. But the truth is, in some places, native plants are being "loved to death." This is a particularly serious concern in America's desert Southwest, where the slow-growing nature of cacti and succulents makes these plants difficult to supply and costly to produce.

Thus, it was painful to read a recently released, long-awaited study by TRAFFIC North America (a program of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature and IUCN, the World Conservation Union). In this two-part 122-page study entitled "Prickly Trade: Trade and Conservation of Chihuahuan Desert Cacti," editor Christopher S. Robbins details the devastating effects of certain desert landscaping practices - particularly in Phoenix and Tucson, Ariz. - on the natural vegetation of the Chihuahuan Desert of West Texas and northern Mexico. Landscape demand for specimen desert plants of various species including agave, cactus, yucca, and ocotillo is depleting native plant populations in these regions.

According to the study, tens of thousands of native desert plants are harvested from private land holdings in West Texas for sale to nurseries and landscapers in Arizona. There also is evidence that plants from Mexico's portion of the Chihuahuan Desert are being transported illegally across the border and represented for sale to nurseries and landscapers in Arizona as plants that come from Texas. Most of these plants are mature specimens that create spectacular-looking landscapes when transplanted. The report indicates that 100,000 documented live plants from West Texas were imported into Arizona between 1998 and the first half of 2001. The study concludes that this harvest is not sustainable and states: "The primary markets are southwestern U.S. cities with an arid climate where consumers are trying to conserve water by resorting to desert landscaping with plants like cacti instead of water-intensive gardens. Contrary to their best intentions, gardeners and homeowners are addressing one conservation issue at the expense of another."

By far the most commonly imported plant from Texas to Arizona is the ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens), a slow-growing thorny plant with long, straight woody branches and orange-red flowers that is often mistaken for a type of cactus. In addition to its use as a landscape accent plant, ocotillo has become a nostalgically trendy fencing material for urban and suburban landscapes in the Southwest. Massive quantities of ocotillo appear to be moving from the Chihuahuan Desert to the cities of the Sonoran Desert, where it also is native. What is particularly troubling about the harvest of ocotillo is that it is an important nectar plant for migrating hummingbirds. Wholesale removal of ocotillo from the Chihuahuan Desert could adversely affect hummingbird migrations. Sadly, much of the desert landscaping that takes place in the Phoenix and Tucson areas today is done to replace plants that have been stripped from the land by modern construction practices. Most builders, rather than working carefully within a restricted "building envelope" that leaves native vegetation in place, grade the entire construction site. This unfortunate practice necessitates the total revegetation of the land by its new owner. Ironically, many of the plants used to revegetate landscapes are the very ones destroyed in the first place! Thus the land takes a double hit - the loss of its original flora, plus the loss of the replacement plants from their true home.

I continue to strongly support the use of native plants in desert landscapes. But I equally urge each of us to resist purchasing plants that have been removed from the wild. There are many nurseries in the Southwest that sell sustainably acquired desert plants, and these businesses deserve our support. It is my hope that TRAFFIC North America's latest report will encourage a more respectful consideration of the total context of our landscape designs and inspire a resolve to create them from local, sustainably harvested seed and plant sources. Our planned landscapes should honor the land and its rich diversity, not destroy the source of their inspiration and beauty.

Robert G. Breunig, Ph.D.

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