Turkey Hill Wilderness Area and East Texas Plant Symposium Heal Body and Mind

By Brandt Mannchen

Sometimes I must escape to heal both my body and mind.  I did that recently when, with two of my buddies, I drove to Nacogdoches, Texas to attend the fall East Texas Plant Symposium of the Native Plant Society of Texas (NPSOT).

On the way to the Symposium, we stopped at Turkey Hill Wilderness Area (THWA) in Angelina National Forest, not far from Sam Rayburn Reservoir.  This 5,473-acre wilderness has undulating topography with Longleaf Pine/Bluestem, Shortleaf Pine/Southern Red Oak, Loblolly Pine/White Oak, and Water Oak/Willow Oak/Shagbark Hickory plant communities.

We stopped near Pisgah Cemetery Road and walked to Clear Branch.  It was obvious that the drought and high temperatures of the Summer had affected THWA.  The mixed hardwood and Loblolly Pine upland forest was very dry but none-the-less had impressive, large, Sweetgum, White Oak, Shortleaf Pine, Southern Red Oak, and a Black Cherry tree.

The slope forests were also impressive with large Cherrybark Oaks, Swamp Chestnut Oaks, American Beeches, and Loblolly Pines along with Sugar and Red Maples.  Clear Branch was bone dry as were Willow Oak flats.  We saw many small American Paw Paws in the understory along with Eastern Hophornbeams and American Hornbeams.

I was surprised to see Southern Cranefly Orchid leaves growing in the uplands during the Fall when in the past I had seen them on slopes in the Spring, just before their blooming stalks grew.  We noted that there were grape ferns on the forest floor, and some had sporing stalks.  Plants make the best of even bad times and reproduce to pass on their traits.

We visited Ayish Bayou, across the road from THWA, and found that it had very low water levels, although Bald Cypress trees were impressive.  We also found a Swamp Chestnut Oak that was over 49 inches in diameter.  A beautiful tree that’s seen many wet and dry years but survived right next to the bayou.

We circled THWA and on the south side visited Sand Creek and Wash Branch.  These streams were small, but the American Beech forests were beautiful.  The day started out hot and sunny but now was cloudy and threatened rain.

In Nacogdoches we had a great Mongolian stir fry dinner and visited the local brewery near our hotel where we met several old friends.  One of the things about these get-togethers is that you visit with people you haven’t seen for years.  It’s always delightful for my mind to see their faces, hear their voices, and watch them smile.

The next day we visited “Scrappin Valley”, one of the field trips that was held as part of the Symposium.  I had wanted to visit this forest for over 20 years, and it was neat I was finally able to fulfill my dream.  This forest preserve has been protected with a conservation easement so it should be able to evolve as a open forest for many more years.

It drizzled rain all day but this disappointment was overcome by seeing the Longleaf Pine upland forest with endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers and seepage streams.  These streams have baygall-like vegetation (seepy/shrubby) near rock outcrops of the Catahoula formation.  You don’t see bedrock often in East Texas and this made for a wonderful change in scenery along with the Post Oaks and other hardwoods that lined the seepage streams.

Many presentations were made about plants found in East Texas during the Symposium.  We heard a rollicking tale by Dr. David Creech about the trials and tribulations that he’s faced since the Stephen F. Austin State University gardens were founded in 1986.  Dr. Creech had the audience rolling with laughter at his description of key times during the history of the gardens when things didn’t go exactly as planned.  If there was a plan!

The time went by much too quick, and we had to drive home.  However, for me, my body and mind were refreshed and rejuvenated and that’s what it’s all about.  Mind and body healing in the forests of East Texas.