Expedition: Texas, 1998

  1. 9/16/98 update
  2. by Tony Avent
  3. Plant Delights Nursery, Inc.
  4. www.plantdelights.com
  5. 9241 Sauls Road
  6. Raleigh, NC 27603
  7. 919.772.4794
Shop for Perennials at Plant Delights Nursery


The trip to Texas was an initial search for a range of heat and drought tolerant plant material, especially Texas natives that are not currently grown much beyond the borders of Texas. Texas is divided into 9 vegetation zones, with much of east Texas actually resembling parts of eastern North Carolina.

Prime cities of interest were Dallas (zone 7b/8a), Nacogdoches (zone 8a/8b), Austin (zone 8a/8b), San Antonio (zone 8b), and Houston (zone 8b/9a) Specific plants of interest are naturally occur ing baptisia species and hybrids and rain lilies. The baptisia hybrids with bicolor flowers were initially discovered in 1938, just north of Dallas. Surprisingly none of these plants have ever reached the horticulture industry.

Friday 8/21 Dallas, TX (zone 7b/8a)

The plane landed at 10:03am after a direct flight from the Raleigh Durham airport. After picking up a rental van at the Dallas Airport, off I went into the wide country that is Texas. Heading north from the airport, my first stop was near the suburb of Plano to visit the Texas A & M Research Station Center on Coit Road.

None of the staff was there...probably lunch time, so I roamed around the small test plots out behind the horticulture building. There were a number of older tree specimens, left from the collections of the late Texas plantsman Benny Simpson. The annual and perennial plots were pitiful at best, being devastated by the heat and drought that this record setting summer had produced. Dallas had endured 3-4 months with no rainfall and 35+ consecutive days over 100 degrees F. Obviously maintenance of the garden was not a high priority.

Plant that did impress me were large clumps of two perennial hibiscus, H. 'Moy Grande' and H. 'Flare'. H. 'Moy Grande' has the largest flower of any hardy hibiscus that I've seen. It was bred by Dr. Moy at the San Antonio Botanic Garden. Also the clumps of the hibiscus like Ipomoea fistulosa (tree morning glory) were grand with their abundant lavender flowers. There were also some very nice specimens of leucophyllum in the parking area, but without labels, this stop left a bit to be desired.

After lunch, I was joined by Bill Seamen of Kings Creek Landscape Division in Dallas who had agreed to show me a stand of white flowered B. australis that he had spotted years earlier. After driving north up highway 75, we exited just before the town of McKinney to find our first patch of baptisia along a fence row in what is known as black land prairie soil. Instead of B. australis that I expected, the entire colony was B. minor (B. australis var. minor), which in my mind is one of the finest of the baptisia species. Unfortunately, most of the plants in the trade are grown from garden collected seed, which produces inferior plants that are mostly interbred with B. australis. This was indeed a great chance to gather some wild collected seed. These plants became very easy to spot with the foliage still green and the 1' stalks clustered with giant 3" long black pods held sturdily atop the plants.

Further down the access road (exit 44 off Interstate 75), we found the pasture (light colored sandy soil) full of B. minor where Bill had seen the white forms nearly 10 years earlier. Seed were gathered in the hope that a percentage should flower white. I should mention that baptisias are inedible to livestock...according to our information this is due to some type of toxicity. Another plant that excited me was the acres of the annual Euphorbia marginata (Snow on the Mountain). This was to become my favorite and most prominent weed for the rest of the trip. Bill had to return to town and I continued on the baptisia trek.

The next stop was further north, just west of Blue Ridge Texas. In an area of white chalky rocky soil I found another patch of B. minor. It will be interesting to see the differences as these plants are grown out back in NC. Each stop was like being caught in the crossfire of a gang related shooting, as thousands of giant grasshoppers scattered with every step. It was almost more than I could stand as these giant torpedoes came whizzing by, with more than an occasional direct hit.

Finally I reached Fannin County, Texas where many of the hybrids have been found. After 2 hours of driving around with no success, I opted for dirt farm roads. Finally at the intersection of county road 270 and 275, I hit the jackpot. Unmown fields on both sides of the road were filled with Baptisia sphaerocarpa. I made several collections from plants with upright seed heads and some whose seed heads leaned at an angle (a sign of possibly interspecific hybrids).

Several more collections were made later that evening as the light dimmed. Back on Interstate 75 heading back to Dallas, I found an incredible array of Baptisia minor lining the access road to the highway...visible even in the twilight. More seed were collected to evaluate for possible differences.

Saturday 8/22

Morning arrived early and I was off to Rosa Finsley's Kings Creek Gardens in Cedar Hill for a morning lecture. The short drive south of Dallas was easy on the weekend, and I even had time for a shopping spree at this quaint garden center before time to talk. The garden center is filled with unique treasures, much of which was discovered by former business partner and Texas plant guru Logan Calhoun. I strongly recommend this as a stop if you are in the Dallas area. After the lecture and lunch, I was off to visit Logan Calhoun's home garden only 15 minutes away.

Arriving early afternoon at Logan Calhoun's garden was indeed an incredible experience. Calhoun who is a renown plant collector has been extremely ill, so I felt fortunate to catch him when he was able to spend time in his fabulous garden. His small, but incredibly packed garden is filled with treasures from his collecting trips in Texas, Mexico, and around the world. After 5 hours of stories and taking cuttings from his garden, it was time to say goodbye. Before leaving, he remember a stand of the rare Iris x kochii (a fall bloomer) on an abandoned lot nearby, so we sped over and gathered a few rhizomes for trial.

Although it was getting late, I had to try and reach another of the hybrid baptisia sites north of Dallas. Traffic had thickened and the drive this time took nearly 2.5 hrs. I will now admit that driving along back roads with a flashlight looking for dormant baptisias probably was not a great idea. Although I did make one more collection of Baptisia seed, it was not the hybrid for which I was searching...I guess this calls for another road trip.

Sunday 8/23

Sunday morning was spent with octogenarian nurseryman Ralph Pinkus of Tawakoni Plant Farm, who along with nursery manager Brice Creelman toured me around their Dallas facility. Ralph is one of the larger growers of field grown hostas in Texas...a unique venture. We then visited a retail garden center, Northwoods that is run by Ralph's son.

After lunch, it was off to the east Texas town of Nacogdoches (zone 8b)...a 3 hour drive. The drive went quickly after I began finding the highways lined with Baptisia leucophaea. I made a number of collections including several with seed pods that were much smaller than the typical B. leucophaea and some with pods that resembled B. sphaerocarpa. Many of the highways had just been mowed, so the only collecting that remained were plants which grew close to the pasture fence lines.

I arrived in Nacogdoches in time to head for the Stephen F. Austin State University Arboretum (SFASU). There I met up with an old friend, assistant director Greg Grant. Greg and I spent the rest of the evening looking at the wonderful collections at the arboretum, which is modeled after the work that the late JC Raulston did at NCSU. Greg, a noted plantsman and former New Product Development Coordinator for Color Spot Nursery is both an instructor, and in charge of the annual and perennial plants displays at the arboretum. He impressed me with a nice collection of brugmansia (angel trumpet), and a number of new verbenas including V. 'Pink Princess', and V. 'Mabel's Maroon' (wow!).

After dinner, we spent the next hour searching the dumpsters of Nacogdoches for boxes to ship back the plants I had already collected. After interrupting dinner for several hungry cats and a couple of other unidentified animals, we finally found a couple of stained but usable boxes for shipping. Off the hotel to prep and pack plants.

Monday 8/24 Nacogdoches (zone 8a/8b)

Next morning, Greg and I headed out from the arboretum to visit Greg's home garden, and then on to his parents garden, which is often featured in his slide shows on using old fashioned plants. We were able to collect Baptisia leucophaea again from his parents fields along with seed of Erythrina herbacea...what a nice weed problem. In addition, the rare fall flowering Hymenocallis yulae dotted the field. Greg mentioned that his dad used to bale it along with the hay.

After a wonderful lunch thanks to Greg's mom, we traveled around the corner to visit one of Greg's bulb fields, filled with Rhodophiala bifida in flower (bright red), and Lycoris incarnata. Although I had know rhodophiala before, I am in love with this bulb now like never before. This tough amaryllid flowers every fall, unlike its cousin lycoris which can be sporadic at best. I have grown a lot of lycoris, but have never seen this gem. The pale pink petals are each striped down the center with a dramatic violet streak.

We also spent part of the day looking along the highways for a small patch of Baptisia leucantha (large white spikes) that Greg had seen earlier near Nacogdoches. This species is very rare in Texas, and I desperately wanted to make a southern collection. After no luck, we finally headed further south (1.5 hrs) to the town of Warren to visit the nursery of Ted Doremus. JC had always told me that when I went to Texas, I must visit with Ted.

Arriving after 5pm, we had to lure Ted back from his home, but he couldn't have been more cordial. We spent the next couple of hours on golf cart touring around this fabulous nursery. The wholesale nursery features an array of mostly woody plant including a fabulous row of the NCSU introduced dwarf loblolly pines and some stunning large Mexican buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa).

On the way back, we made a couple of more stops, one to see a fastigiate columnar sweet gum that Greg had discovered and named L. 'Apollo'. Not being a fan of sweet gums, this one was truly fabulous and need to be propagated. We also found a nice patch of Oxalis violacea in flower along the highway. Although the foliage was missing on this spring bloomer, recent rains had obviously forced the dormant flowers to reflush.

Tuesday 8/25

My first visit was to the UPS shipping office to get rid of the first three boxes, then back for a final visit to SFASU. This was the first time that I had a chance to see arboretum director Dr. David Creech. Dr. Creech (who spent his sabbatical at NCSU) took me on another whirlwind trip of the SFASU campus, where I saw rare and wonderful plants tucked everywhere. We also visited some of the newly acquired land where the arboretum is planning an azalea garden.

After lunch, it was time for the 5 hour drive to Austin. After a number of baptisia stops (B. leucophaea) and spotting my first rain lilies (Zephyranthes chlorosolen) , I arrived around 5pm.

After checking into a hotel for the evening (LaQuinta Inn), I knew I had made a good choice when I saw the pool area planted with assorted hibiscus seedlings, including one extraordinary 10' pink flowered specimen. Somehow cuttings managed their way into my backpack. With a few hours of daylight left, it was off to see more plants.

My final stop for the day was the garden of nurseryman and native plant guru Pat McNeal. Just south of Austin in Manchaca and down some winding dirt roads, I found McNeal tucked into his office/home working at the computer. Despite having no formal horticulture training, McNeal's brilliance was quickly evident.

Although McNeal's nursery was quite small by wholesale nursery standards, it was truly one of the highlights of the trip. Everywhere I looked were fascinating native Texas plants including an incredible array of native ornamental grasses. Pat had just had a wonderful article published in American Nurseryman on the native grasses. His specimen of Sporobolus wrightii v. wrightii was also stunning in flower...I have a fondness for this genus of grasses.

Other than the grasses, my favorites included giant specimens of Agave scabra and A. macroculmis. I was enthralled with the native four O'clock's (Mirabilis jalapa) with bicolor red and orange flowers....wow! There were a number of native salvia and leguminous plants that were also new to me that deserve a trial in the east.

After traversing the nursery and gardens until dark, we skipped over to a nearby restaurant, the it was back to the hotel for the evening. I had been watching the weather reports at night, as a tropical storm was both in the Gulf of Mexico and a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean. Earlier this morning, hurricane Bonnie had been sitting still of the coast of NC. During the day, Bonnie had started moving rapidly toward our nursery in NC and tropical storm Charlie was drenching the lower parts of Texas.

Having just experienced a direct hit from Hurricane Fran two years earlier, I prepared to abandon the trip and return to Raleigh. Upon calling home, my wife Michelle informed me that the Raleigh Durham airport had already been closed and that returning would be impossible. This is the kind of news that makes for sleepless nights.

Wednesday 8/26 Austin, TX (zone 8b)

By morning, the hurricane had stalled off the NC coast and appeared to be turning north...away from the nursery. As there was no turning back at this point, the plant trek continued.

I returned to McNeal's Nursery and spent more time perusing the nursery. By mid- morning, Pat and I were off to visit the nearby Native Texas Nursery. This growing enterprise where Pat got his start is a larger wholesale nursery with a wide array of fabulous native plants including a number of McNeal's selections.

The next stop was the LBJ Wildflower Center in Austin. I was most impressed with the center which featured some wonderful southwestern architectural features along with a superb array of well grown native plant material. Some of the gardens are designed, while much of the facility is truly native habitat. This is a must for visitors who are truly interested in the native flora of Texas.

From here, we dropped into a private estate in Austin where Pat's friends were modifying the landscape. What a garden it was! Imagine my surprise when I found garden writer and plantsman Scott Ogden of San Antonio (another of the Texas gardening gurus) engaged in a large planting project. They informed me that the initial design was done by Penelope Hobhouse, but Scott was hired to add more plants that would actually handle the hot Texas climate.

After a quick tour of the 5 acre property that included a pool house larger than my home, we all visited a local restaurant for a lunch and intense plant discussion.

From here, it was off to Barton Springs Nursery, a retail establishment with a superb plant selection. With a good offering of crinums and hymenocallis, my rental van didn't leave empty. I highly recommend this stop for gardeners visiting the Austin area.

After a long and intense day, it was off for the 1.5 hr drive to San Antonio for the evening. Upon settling in and checking out the weather reports back home, things looked considerably better. Hurricane Bonnie was moving off to the north, although the nursery was enduring 40mph winds and about 3 inches of rain. At least a crisis had been adverted.

Thursday 8/27 San Antonio (zone 8b)

Thursday morning started with a visit to the wonderful San Antonio Botanic Garden. I was greeted by the garden horticulture managers, Paul Cox and Steve Lowe. We had purchased a number of bulbs earlier from Lowe, who also operates a wholesale operation for southern bulbs. One of the highlights for me was to see some of the breeding efforts at the garden. In addition to some of Steve's bulbs, I saw the hibiscus trials from Dr. Moy. You will of course recognize the name from the hibiscus with the largest flower, H. 'Moy Grande', which was created at the garden. Steve tells me that there should be more of Dr. Moy's hybrids released in the near future.

In addition to the outdoor gardens at SBG, there is also a very large and extensive conservatory complex. My favorite plant however had to be the giant tree pokeweed. I wonder if it would grow outdoors...hmmm!

After lunch, it was off to visit the Lone Star Division of Color Spot Nursery. Color Spot is now the largest nursery in the US, with locations spread throughout the warmer zones of the US. James Spivey, the new plant director toured me around the facilities including some of the old collections from the late plantsman Lynn Lowery (a former employee). I was blown away by the giant old trunked specimens of the woody lily Nolina nelsonii (a yucca relative). I cannot imagine why this stunning plant is not grown more as it is well adapted here in NC.

James is working on a number of new plants from his own breeding program including some stunning new verbenas and some colored ruellias.

With a few hours of daylight left, James and I headed out to the Hill Country for a quick plant expedition. From San Antonio, we headed north west past the towns of Bandera and Mendina. Not far out of San Antonio, the flora changed as we moved into the mountainous hill country. Our first stop was when I sighted a fence row of Dasylirion texanum with one plant in full seed. This was a fascinating stop as we also found a lovely purple scutellaria, a red edge form of Yucca rupicola, Yucca constricta, and the stunning Vernonia lindheimeri in flower.

Further down the road, another stop by a roaring stream was filled with Dasylirion texanum along with an entire hillside of Zephyranthes drummondii (some in flower). After collecting a few bulbs it was time to retrace our steps back to Austin for the evening. Perhaps a future trip will leave more time to fully explore this fascinating area.

Friday 8/28

Before departing on Friday morning, I wanted to pay a visit to gardener Margaret Kane in San Antonio. Margaret is sort of like the Texas version of Elizabeth Lawrence...she was gardening with unique plants before it was cool. Margaret's daughter Joan met me at the house, where Margaret, cane in hand gave me the grand tour. The garden was filled with gingers, lycoris, zephyranthes, and even the rare pink flowered rhodophiala, R. spathacea. This was a real treat, as Margaret had flown to NC two years earlier to pay a visit to our garden.

Next, it was off to Houston...a mere 4 hours away. Along the way, I was told not to miss Shoemakers Hill Country Nursery in New Braunsfells. This was indeed a treat, and about as close to plant overload as I ever get. For nearly three hours, I wandered through every nook and cranny of this delightful retail paradise. There is no doubt that owner Chip Shoemaker is truly a plant maniac. Now with a van full of new Texas native plants, it's back on the road again to Houston.

By early evening, and after a number of baptisia stops (probably B. leucophaea), I arrived at Yucca Do Nursery and Peckerwood Garden in Waller, TX. This is the adjacent homes of plantsmen John Fairey and his business partner Carl Schoenfeld.

It didn't take long to hop out of the van and into John's horticulturally mind boggling garden. The gardens had grown dramatically in both size of plants and scope since I had last visited in fall of 1994. The gardens are truly a phenomenal collection of plants from around the world with an emphasis on Mexican natives.

Saturday 8/29 Houston, TX (zone 8b-9a)

Saturday morning was spent conducting a fund raiser for the Peckerwood Garden Foundation. The foundation has been set up under the auspices of the Garden Conservancy to help preserve the gardens as a public area for the future. The morning session featured tours of both John's garden and his wonderful collection of Mexican folk art.

After lunch, I persuaded Carl and co-worker Wade Roitsch to accompany me to a drive toward Corpus Christi to the little town of Refugio. Both Logan Calhoun and Scott Ogden had urged me to make the trip, since after tropical storm Charlie, all of the rain lilies should be in bloom at this famous rain lily location. By mid afternoon, we were off for the short 3 hour drive.

The entire way we saw rain lilies, but most were the very common Z. chlorosolen. Only a few minutes north of Refugio on hwy 77, Carl spotted the first yellow rain lilies. It was fascinating how the medians and roadsides were strewn with Z. chlorosolen, while the yellow rain lilies were only found in the road median.

I had been warned about the terrible mosquitos, and had brought along a bottle of 100% Deet, but nothing could have prepared me for what we would encounter next. Within 10 feet of our van, we were each covered from head to toe with literally thousands of mosquitos. The Deet did an decent job for about 3 minutes, until the mosquitoes swarm had sucked all of the repellant from my skin and began to attack. I've lived through some serious mosquito attacks before, but nothing remotely like this. Even after returning to the van, the mosquitoes clung on for dear life. This led to an incredible swatting episode every time we closed the doors. By the time we finished the front license plate on the van was completely obscured with dead mosquitoes. Actually I worried about the mosquitoes only until Wade told me about the rattlesnake that they nearly tripped over during their last trip to this area. It seems that when the area floods, the rattlers are forced out of hiding and into the rain lily habitat.

We did manage to find numerous large patches of Z. pulchella...a superb golden yellow flowered rain lily. Growing nearby was Z. smallii, a naturally occur ing hybrid of the day blooming Z. pulchella and the night flowering fragrant Z. chlorosolen. These sweetly fragrant rain lilies occurred in a range of colors from near white to a clear light yellow. All plants were full of nearly ripe seed, as they had been in flowering mode since the heavy rains nearly a week earlier. By picking the entire stems, the seed will ripen naturally in about a week. Actually Carl and Wade had been through the area immediately after the storm and indicated that both the medians, roadsides and part of the road had been completely submerged after the tropical storm hit.

We made several more stops along the main road before we turned off on one of the side roads. There in the mucky fields on both sides of the road were acres of rain lilies including both Z. pulchella and Z. smallii. After making several more collections, the mosquitoes got the better of us, so we packed it in for the evening. It was time for a nutritious meal at Whataburger and then the long drive back to Peckerwood Gardens.

Sunday 8/30

Our first stop the next morning was a visit to Bost Botanicals in Houston. Carl and Wade had never heard of the famous hibiscus guru, despite living less than an hour away. We arrived to a large fenced and gated compound filled with hibiscus. Entering the gate, we found a swampy yard complete with thousands of pots of hybrid hibiscus plants. Owner Georgia Bost admits a love/obsession relationship with the hibiscus plant...the plant that will save the world. Not only is she patenting many of her hybrids for ornamental use, but she has done extensive research for use in fiber production, along with a number of other economic byproducts. I will admit that the thousands of jugs of multicolored hibiscus vinegar was shocking, but then so was the use of hibiscus as edible cake decorations. I anxiously await the release of these fascinating plants.

From here, we were off to the Mercer Arboretum in Humble, just north of Houston. We arrived prior to lunch time and were greeted by horticulturist and plantsman extraordianaire Linda Gay, along with the new garden director, Dr. Pat Duncan. It had been years since I had seen Duncan, a former classmate at NCSU in the 70's. They gave us a tour of the gardens and before they had to depart for other commitments. We spent the rest of the afternoon further perusing the garden which were filled with a number of wonderful treasures. Linda has assembled a tremendous ginger and crinum collection which is among the best I've ever seen. While many of the garden areas are still newly planted, it won't be long before this will be widely recognized as a must stop for plant nuts.

After a long afternoon, we headed north of Houston to try and locate a patch of Baptisia leucantha that Carl had seen nearly 10 years earlier near the Navasota River. After driving through and hour of driving rain, things cleared as we neared the Navasota River. We had made a number of stops along the road, but all we had found was more Baptisia leucophaea. Carl remembered that this baptisia was down in the low moist bottomland, unlike the other baptisias that preferred dry ridges.

At one of the final low areas near the river, I spotted a couple of lone plants sitting out in a field. Obviously, constant mowing of the pastures and the road sides had all but eliminated the baptisia from the site. Quickly grabbing the dozen or so seed pods, we headed back toward the highway, when a blue pickup came speeding toward us along the edge of the pasture. After a 5 minute tirade about abusing his pasture, I finally got the farmer to calm down and listen to reason. Evidently, he had been the victim of pranksters cutting his fence and letting his cows out of the pasture, and he thought we were part of the band of thieves that had been causing him problems. After assuring him that our mission was anything but clandestine, he calmed down, which was especially good after seeing the large semi-automatic weapon that was laying on the seat beside him.

After that scare, we were nearly out of daylight, and on our way back to Peckerwood again for the night.

Monday 8/31

Monday morning, I departed south of Yucca Do for Hines Nursery. Hines is a large wholesaler of ornamentals and in competition with Color Spot for being the largest nursery complex in the US. I was greeted by New Plant Director Tom Foley Jr. (the former Assistant Director of the NCSU Arboretum). We spent several hours looking though the millions of plants in the massive production areas. It is truly incredible to ponder the vast amount of plants that must flow through a facility such as this.

Departing Hines, I headed north to the home of Scott Reaves. Scott is the Manager of another smaller wholesale operation in Texas called TreeSearch Farms. Scott toured me around his small, but fascinating cul-de-sac garden, then off to the nursery. We spent the rest of the evening touring around the well maintained display gardens and the array of fabulous plant material.

The final evening was spent near the airport packing for an early Tuesday flight back to Raleigh. With 2,700 miles on the rental car, it would be glad to spend the rest of the trip on a plane. I'm glad to report that most of the plants survived the shipping well and are now being trialed at our gardens. It is our hope that some will be on the fast production track, while others will take a while to determine their value here in the east.