Friday, March 30, 2012

Week Five: Wildflowers and Wildscapes

The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center welcomes visitors year around.

One of my number one, very favorite places in all the world–except for our wonderful Wildscape here at the Pink House, of course–is the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in southwest Austin.

The 279-acre complex features about 650 native Texas species of plants mostly from the Hill Country region. I’ve visited the center in years past (as recently as January) and always get so energized when I see natives growing so beautifully and seemingly carefree. Who needs ornamentals and lawn grass? More so, I celebrate the endless habitats provided there for wildlife.

Week Five of our Master Naturalist training with the Highland Lakes chapter–held at the wildflower center–covered our vanishing state’s species and landscapes for wildlife.

Our morning began with a lecture by Flo Oxley, the center’s former director of plant conservation and education (she plans to teach full time now, I think).

“When a plant is listed as endangered, we still have some time,” she said. “I like the idea that it’s a hopeful thing.”

When she asked if we could name an endangered animal, we came up with species right and left: horned toad, Houston toad, salamanders, oryx and many more. However, when she asked for the names of endangered plants, we were so fast with names.

“We draw blanks when it comes to plants,” she said. “They don’t have big brown eyes and fur. You can’t wrap your arms around a sunflower. That’s called ‘plant blindness.’ We see plants, but we don’t.”

North America has more than 20,000 native species plants. Globally, there are 300,000 plant species with another 250,000 to 300,000 yet to be discovered and described.

Currently, “30 percent of our world’s flora is at risk of extinction,” Oxley said. “Right now, at this minute, a plant has gone extinct. Right now, we’re experiencing the world’s greatest loss of species. And it’s all human driven. We’re worse than the asteroid that hit Earth 65 million years ago!”

Of the 700-plus federally-listed endangered species, 61 percent are plants, she said. “We’re not treating the root cause of the problem–loss of habitat,” she stressed.

According to Oxley, one in five native plant species in North American are declining, threatened or nearly extinct. “Why should we care? Aldo Leopold said it best: ‘When you’re tinkering with nature, keep all the parts,’” she said, paraphrasing the great late naturalist. “Another one of my favorite nature quotes is from naturalist John Muir: ‘No matter how you pick it apart, everything in nature is connected, and we’ve forgotten that we’re connected, too.’”

Many threats endanger our natural world: urbanization (YES YES YES); agriculture and ranching; recreation; introduction of nonnative species (plant and animal); over collecting from the wild; PLANT BLINDNESS.

Cool factoids: The 5,000 species of native plants in Texas comprise 25 percent of all North American plant species! Plus, one percent of Earth’s flora occurs on the Edwards Plateau. (Another reason to care about our native species!)

In addition to 23 endangered plant species and five threatened, Texas also has 204 species of concern. “These are plants we know that are in crisis,” Oxley explained. “Do they need to be listed as endangered or threatened? We don’t have the resources or information to know for sure.”

For more info on our plant species in crisis, visit

What can YOU do? “Educate yourself. Ask questions. Be vocal. Set an example. And GET INVOLVED,” Oxley advised us.

“Our home gardens will be the last refuge for some of these plants,” she added.  

A fresh flower display helps visitors recognize native wildflowers.

Big red sage (Salvia pentstemonoides), extinct in the wild.

Flo Oxley shows Pat a Texabama croton (Croton alabamensis var. texensis).

After a brief break, Oxley led us on a tour of the center’s Research Building. Inside, she showed us the Herbarium, where approximately 3,200 plant specimens are documented and preserved. The specimens represent 200 families, 500 genera and nearly 1,000 species, she said.

In the seed lab, she explained how volunteers clean and process collected seeds, using sieves and a special aspirator. “Timing is everything,” Oxley said. “You’ve got to collect them as they’re dispersing and process them properly, then get them into the freezer.”

A third component in the Research Building is the center’s Seed Bank, where seeds are preserved in short-term plastic bins, medium-term in refrigerators and long-term in a large Kenmore freezer. “The most successful seed bank in the world is an empty one,” Oxley noted. “But this is a hedge, a safety net, to grow back species. For example, we have seeds here for Bastrop that will help people there reseed and reintroduce their native species.”
Inside the center's Herbarium.

Machines used to clean and process seeds.

The big freezer that stores seeds long term is RARELY opened.

A custom-made seed chamber where seeds are stored until they're processed.

The center's Demonstration Gardens.

The red blooms are Wright's penstemon (Penstemon wrightii)...breath taking!

Kelly Conrad Bender is the co-author of Texas Wildscapes: Gardening for Wildlife.

After an hour lunch break, Kelly Conrad Bender, an urban wildlife biologist (who specializes in ecosystem management) with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, discussed landscaping for wildlife (a favorite topic of mine!).

Basically, a wildlife habit requires: food, water and shelter.

“Our traditional lawns were an attempt to emulate the old estates of Europe,” she said, referring to typical yards planted with ornamental trees, shrubs and grass. “They take out the diversity of native species to make a unique appearance. They’re as sterile as a parking lot.”

When landscaping for wildlife, keep two keys in mind: plant a variety of species and create layers (canopy, understory and groundcover). 

Why choose native species? They’re well adapted, disease and drought resistant, and co-adapted with native wildlife species, Bender said.

For more information on Wildscaping and how to certify your property as a Texas Wildscape, visit TPW's website: Texas Wildscapes.

Our last activity for the day was a tour of the gardens with Master Naturalist Linda O'Nan with our Highland Lakes chapter.

One of the state's native passionflower vines.

I thought damianita (Chrysatinia mexicana) was really pretty.

I have to insert this somewhere: it was my Fifty-Again (for the third time) birthday! What better way to celebrate (since I couldn't be with my husband and mom) than to spend the day at the Wildflower Center! Celia took these three pictures for me. And before classes started in the morning, Sammye led everyone in a "Happy Birthday" song to me. I was so touched. (Yeah, Ken, I'm sentimental that way!) Later, Ed serenaded me with a solo rendition ... funny!

At home, my sweet husband surprised with me a yard-art praying mantis that had just recently "caught" a bee!
And on my way home, look what found me at the Sol'stice Home and Garden Expressions nursery...a damianita, a birthday gift to myself!

 Ed and Celia, my classmates, said I could post their photo...


Our class curriculum takes us to the Flying X Ranch, where we'll learn about rainwater harvesting and native grasses of the Hill Country. 


Anonymous said...

Ed forwarded this to me -- you're a good writer!

Thanks for sharing,
Beverly Walker (Ed's girlfriend)

Sheryl Smith-Rodgers said...

Hey, thank you, Ed's Girlfriend!! :-) Look forward to meeting you sometime soon, Beverly. My best, sheryl

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