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Master Naturalists: Learning and enjoying native plants

By By Paul and Mary Meredith
Feb. 20, 2014 at midnight
Updated Feb. 19, 2014 at 8:20 p.m.

The pink azalea (Rhododendron canescens) is the native azalea that grows in a native area north of Beaumont.  The yellow azalea  (Rhododendron flammeum) is a native azalea that grows yellow to gold to almost red in the Southeastern U.S.

Coming soon for Lila de los llanos

Next month, Lila de los llanos (Echeandia chandleri) (grown from our Lila's seeds) will be distributed to Louisiana Society for Horticultural Research members so that they (more than 200 mostly recreational gardeners) can grow it in their gardens and then report in spring 2015 how the Lila did in their particular growing conditions.

Learning about native plants in Mary's family meant learning about blooming plants. Mother most enjoyed pansies. After pansies piqued Mary's interest, she turned more to wildflowers.

First were big sunflowers on Kansas prairies. Next, she learned about three Texans - Indian paintbrushes (Castillejas), bluebonnets (Lupines) and Indian blankets (Gaillardias). Her family saw those during visits to North Texas. But her real favorite became the evening primrose, showy primrose (Oenothera speciosa).

She called them pink buttercups (logical to her). Only years later did she learn their real name. But then recently she had a happy shock - hearing another wildflower lover call them pink buttercups - in public, no less.

Her pink buttercup experiences encouraged her awareness of the differences among what everyone knows. Many times, no one knows much about particular native plants - including that the plant even exists.

Native azaleas

Our native azaleas were beautiful blooming shrubs with branches showing among its blooms. In Cajun country, we had native azaleas that people stopped to see. One favorite, the pink blooming native, Rhododendron canescens, grows in far Southeast Texas.

Our other favorite, Rhododendron flammeum, blooms yellow to gold to almost red, and sometimes, it has several colors in a bloom. It grows in the Southeastern U.S. We helped prove native azaleas don't thrive in our Coastal Bend soils and climate.

Texas bluebonnets

Mary, Texas-born but not a Texas resident, realized when we moved here that she really enjoyed understanding more about bluebonnets. Seeing a second bluebonnet variety started her searching for more information about the six state flowers (bluebonnets).

She found descriptions of native bluebonnets in a book that is well-respected for its information about numerous Texas wildflowers. It is also well-respected for how the author handles the book's information.

The current edition has information about Texas' state flowers including how many state flowers Texas has. How many we have is not always reported right. (Mary even encountered one state website that says Texas has five. Behind the times.)

The six current state flowers differ. For example, some are perennials, and some are annuals. They also grow in different climates. We see one variety (Lupinus texensis) on many Texas roadsides; they're used to help stabilize those roadsides.

Another variety (Lupinus perennis) is very uncommon in Texas. It was known from only one stand - near the southern-most stretch of the Texas-Louisiana border.

It was collected there in 1931, but decades passed before it was collected in a second Texas location. Another thought - they are not-blue bluebonnets. Definitely another story.

Lilas (Echeandia)

Several years ago, we received a rare Texas plant native to the Valley - Lila de los llanos (Echeandia chandleri). An associate from a South Texas native habitat center grew and distributed them to get more data about the plant's growth under different circumstances, and to increase its population.

We shared seeds with a gardener friend. He planted some, but couldn't use them all. So he tossed the others into a nearby flower bed. They sprouted and now bloom there annually.

During some very cold winter several years back, our plant grew in a 16-inch pot on a raised deck, several feet away from the house. The deck's slatted roof allowed air to flow in and out depending on the weather.

Our Lila de los llanos kept growing and blooming there outside all through the winter's cold. Not bad for a plant from the Rio Grande Valley - near the river's mouth.

We haven't heard how the population size is changing.

Source: "Wildflowers of Texas," Geyata Ajilvsgi, 2002; "Rare Plants of Texas," J.M. Poole, W.R. Carr, D.M. Price, J.R. Singhurst; wildflower.org.

Paul and Mary Meredith are master naturalists. Contact them at paulmary0211@sbcglobal.net.

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