What we came to see – the magical dogwood blossoms.
On April 5 Kathryn and I joined David Hurt and a jovial band of hikers for a trip into Dogwood Canyon in Cedar Hill, Texas. The physical formation of Cedar Hill upon which the city of the same name and several others stand, is one of the highest spots between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. It is an outcropping of chalk, a formation known as the Austin Chalk, that runs from Austin, north nearly to the Oklahoma border.
This rock formation creates a clear physical marker of the boundary between East and West. Dallas is east of the line, Fort Worth, Gateway to the Old West, is 30 miles farther west. On this outcropping is married the plains of the west with the oaks and forests of the east. Within a few miles of the line, the botanical landscape changes, cowboy prairie lands one way, forest lands the other.
On the chalk itself, the soil is thin and alkaline. The alkalinity is a function of the chemical composition of the chalk underneath it.
Dogwoods love the forests of East Texas with their acidic soils. Early spring produces fireworks-like bursts of white dogwood blossoms in the understory of East Texas forests. Dogwoods die out well east of Dallas as the soil changes acidity; driving from Dallas one can count on 30 to 60 miles before finding a dogwood.
Except in Dogwood Canyon. There, where entrepreneur David Hurt originally planned to build a family hideout and getaway, he found a stand of dogwoods defying botanists and the Department of Agriculture’s plant zone maps, blooming furiously in thin alkaline soil atop the Austin Chalk.
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Truth be told, David already understood the land to be special by the time he found the dogwoods. The canyon provided thousands of years of residential space and building materials to golden cheeked warblers. It features trout lilies, a local orchid of surpassing beauty and evolutionary timing, and another orchid that may have found a way to live without chlorophyll in partnership with some fungi. In short, it’s a unique piece of land valuable to birds and birders. Hurt and friends from the Audubon Society spent more than $7 million to take over the land and protect it. Within a few years it is planned to be home to a facility to bring nature to urbanites and students, at their own backdoors.
Now, a few times a year, the Audubon Society lets in a few aficianadoes to see the place.
David Hurt shows poison ivy and Virginia creeper, and how to tell the two apart; Dogwood Canyon, Texas.
Visitors meet on a roadway to hike in. Hurt narrates the story of how he almost built on the land, and how he came to be the prime mover in a conservation effort. He points out the rare plants, the common ones, and tells stories of how patience and being a Texan with roots in the land helped convince land owners to become land donors to conserve the land.
A half-mile, down a run, up the other side, down and up again. Hurt stops next to a ladder oddly placed beside the trail and lashed to a tree. “Here it is,” he quietly says. “Look up.”
Dogwood trees blossom a week or two before the leaves pop out, but by the time our group gets to the canyon, leaves already partly block the view of the blossoms from below. Suddenly the wisdom of the ladder in the forest wild becomes clear. A quick climb, and peeking just above the canopy, one sees the splash of the dogwoods in the forest. Dogwood blossoms perfume the air above the canopy, sweet and heady.
18 feet up, the blossoms reveal their charms.
Worth the hike, worth the climb, worth the $7 million.
America’s conservationists are aging. The average age is rising of the membership of the Audubon Society, of the Nature Conservancy, of the National Wildlife Foundation, of almost all of the nation’s conservation organizations. Education programs planned for places like Dogwood Canyon, Texas, are hoped to spark a prairie fire of concern for protecting and preserving our natural resources and natural beauty.
David Hurt points to features of the dogwood flower.