A hiker in the Frio Canyon could easily pass near a horticultural rarity without noticing it at all.
Nestled into limestone cliff sides along the north fork of the Frio River are two clusters of Salvia pentstemonoides, one of only eight known wild populations of the plant worldwide.
Commonly known as Big Red Sage, this shrub-like plant can blend easily with other native flora until the summer months when it produces sweet, vibrant red flowers that attract hummingbirds and bees. The salvia thrives in well-drained rock and clay, making the limestone cliffs of the Edwards Plateau region the perfect host for endemic populations.
Big Red Sage was first documented in the Texas Hill Country in the 1840s and was thought to have gone extinct a century later. In the mid-1980s, however, populations of the rare Salvia were found in a canyon in Bandera County and at Frederick Creek in Boerne. Dan Hosage collected seeds in Boerne and first sold them at his nursery near San Marcos. Today, propagated Big Red Sage can be purchased from several Hill Country nurseries, lending their lemon-lime scent to gardens around Central Texas.
Wild sightings of the salvia continue to be rare, though, which made the discovery of the Frio River Canyon population that much more exciting.
The two clusters—as many as 60 plants in total—sprout from high cliff sides, limestone shelves, and even a river bank of shale-like limestone fragments. Nancye Drukker, a Texas Master Naturalist, made the first known discovery of Big Red Sage in the Canyon in July of 2015 while at a retreat at Laity Lodge.
Uncertain what she was seeing, Drukker sent a few photos to Texas Parks and Wildlife (TPWD) botanist and plant ecologist Jason Singhurst, who “completely freaked out.”
Drukker returned to the Canyon just a few days later with Singhurst in tow to formally document the population. The next summer in 2016, Drukker worked with TPWD on official maps of the area, and that September Drukker found a second cluster in the Canyon’s population.