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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

You can’t buy ”Cross Timbers” heritage anywhere, but you can preserve it


 
This natural north Texas area is called “Cross Timbers” by ecologists. Also, Cross
Timbers Park is a 70-acre park in the south of Denton. As yet it hasn’t been deluged by soccer fields and joggers, but it’s going that way.

It seems that many people think the term “Cross Timbers” is merely a made-up name.
Actually, Denton is mostly in the Eastern Cross Timbers –the popular name for this area in “pioneer-speak”. Unfortunately, there is hardly any real “Cross Timbers” left today, having been plowed under and paved over to accommodate subdivisions, shopping malls, highways and the like. Which makes Cross Timbers Park very special.

The origin of the name can be traced down several paths, depending on who’s talking. The most popular, however, has its roots in the natural geography and vegetation of this area. Most forests here run in north-south bands.  Rivers, on the other hand, run roughly east-west. The result was that pioneers (who  avoided dangerous river crossings) had to cross bands of forest as they traveled between the rivers, heading west. Thus the name: 
”Cross Timbers”.

In academic, ecological terms, this area was a “savannah” which is defined as a grassland prairie spotted with trees. (Mostly post oaks and blackjack oaks in this instance). In many areas the characteristic trees were so thick that they were forests. In the 18th and 19th centuries in fact, the Cross Timbers was a well-known geographic feature marking the eastern edge of the American grasslands.

Nowadays, however, there are embarrassingly few remnants of the Cross Timbers left. Much of the original soil has been “urbanized” by extensive construction, farming and introduction of non-natural soil. Descriptions of this region’s forest abound in the historic literature and the Cross Timbers was often THE most prominent feature on historic maps of the period 1830 – 1880. 

Even though 19th-century naturalists generally put the range of the Cross Timbers region over a large stretch of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas – the native ecosystem is now found in only a few large parks, preserves and isolated patches of countryside and floodplains.

Many kinds of plants thrived in the Cross Timbers, but almost all the natural canopy trees were species of oaks. Among them were millions of tough smilax vines (those pesky, thorny vines also called catclaw vine or greenbrier).  But vegetation would not exist at all in this type of soil if “traffic” were not limited in some way. The Cross Timbers soil is sandy, porous, unstable and nutrient-poor. Consequently, the natural vegetation is fragile and easily killed.

The Cross Timbers is tied to the sandstone geology, and is limited by the local climate; rainfall being the biggest factor. This area (which includes Denton) gets between 23 inches and 43 inches per year. Coupled with high summer temperatures and frequent droughts, this area is ideal for the native oaks. When artificial irrigation is introduced, many other plants will survive here, although vegetative life and wildlife is still very fragile.

Despite a growing awareness of the Cross Timbers’ heritage , what little remains is being demolished at an alarming rate.  The opportunities for tourism revenue are still huge however. Few regions present better opportunities to integrate heritage tourism with
conservation than the Cross Timbers. 

So, as you look around Cross Timbers Park, glimpse an Eastern Bluebird perched on a limb, hear a hidden Woodpecker or Chickadee, and teach your child about real-life nature, think of all that came before us, and all that Cross Timbers used to be and it’s immense educational opportunity, without a flood of things like picnic tables and swing sets.

 

 

Owen Yost, in addition to blogging, is a Landscape Architect emeritus from here, whos worked in north Texas for over 30 years.  He is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), International Society of Landscape Architects, the National BirdFeeding Society, National Wildlife Federation and the Audubon Society. He was honored with a Lifetime Achievement award by the Native Plant Society of Texas. His design office is at northwestern68@yahoo.com