Native Son – October, 2007

I finally managed to wrap up work, slide in the truck, and point the bumper east for the most beautiful college campus in Texas, Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches. I received an invitation to give my Chandor Gardens presentation as part of the SFA lecture series, and I shamelessly jumped at the chance to go and hob-knob for a few hours with Dave Creech, Greg Grant, Dawn Stover, Barb Stump, and the rest of the fine folks that make the Mast Arboretum shake, rattle and roll. I expected a good trip, but what I got was double-dipped in wonder and sprinkled with epiphanies.

I tossed my itinerary out the window (metaphorically; I never litter) almost immediately and headed over toward Tyler to see if “Cousin Mark” over at Chamblee’s Roses was working or misbehaving. I exited off the freeway to photograph some wildflowers and fell quickly into the waiting arms of my true love … one of those little Farm-to-Market roads that are never on the map. I was immediately lost and drunk with the pleasure of my good fortune. I found a little five-acre pond fringed with soft rush and ambled about happily as the occasional passing car slowed to witness the silliness. Yes, I sang out loud to the rush, for it is truly one of the unsung heroes of the native plant world, and the turtles seemed to like the tune.

Botanically known as Juncus effusus, soft rush is a plant so common and so useful that everyone needs it, and yet, ironically, I’ve never even seen it in any plant nursery. The multitude of long, thin stems (they look like leaves, but they are indeed stems) stretch upward to about waist high, then arch over to create a sunspray effect not unlike some of those gorgeous thin-leaved yuccas. Deep, dark and evergreen, it prefers acid, soggy soil and generally grows at water’s edge, but easily adapts to being submerged to depth of about 5 inches (perfect for water gardens) or to life in a well-watered pot. It has no insect or disease issues, and puts off tufts of straw-colored flowers about halfway up the stem in April through June. I see most natural populations in full sun, but I have a beautiful specimen at Chandor Gardens growing in heavy shade … and no one knows what it is because it’s growing in a garden.

So an hour or two later I rolled into Tyler, and after a tour around the loop, finally found Chamblee’s Roses. They treated me like I really was part of the immediate family. Mark Chamblee was away (fishing for marlin and smoking Cuban cigars is the story I got), but I received the royal tour from the royal staff and headed off with a few Buck roses and a load of Knock Outs in various flavors.

After my presentation at SFA, some benevolent soul slipped me a nice 3-gallon Confederate rose for my garden. For those who don’t know the plant, it’s not a rose at all, but a type of herbaceous perennial mallow (Hibiscus mutabilis) that can easily grow to more than10 feet tall in a single season. It flowers during early and mid-summer, and I remember Fort Worth Botanic Garden greenhouser (and SFA graduate) Heather Thormahlen planted one near the Concerts In the Garden entrance, to the delight of thousands of wide-eyed admirers. The 6-inch wide flowers unfold almost white in the morning, and gradually darken to a rich rose color by nightfall. The double form is more common than the single, and is a bit richer in color as well. Native to China, this large, carefree, dramatic garden beauty has been a staple of Deep South gardens for so long (over two centuries) that many people think it occurs naturally in the United States. It is rare in the nursery trade due to its awkward appearance in a plastic pot, so it remains one of the great “pass-along plants” that avid gardeners have shared back and forth across the garden gate for generations.

I slept through the night (rare for me) on a feather top bed in a house built in 1850, and spent a few hours the next morning chatting and gardening with its amazing owner, Ann Phillips, to whom I assigned the title of “Grand Dame of Nacogdoches Gardens.” Antique rose names rolled off her tongue with fondness and ease, like she was naming well-behaved grandchildren, and she told me the story behind each one. Personally, I liked the story about the rare rose in her garden that startled Texas horticulture legend Bill Welch with its presence there.

You guessed it … the Confederate Rose found a home in Miss Ann’s garden, and I was SO glad for having something appropriate to share with her. (No new roses allowed in this heirloom garden!) Plants and smiles are like that…they ebb and flow between friends without concern of origin or ownership. It’s not really about the plants, you know…it’s about the karma of kindness.

Note: A special thanks to the SFA folks, who took me to lunch, gave me a ride in a drop-top T-bird and loaded me down with plants for Chandor Gardens. The spirit of generosity, friendship and true learning that exists at SFA is truly amazing. Stop by for a few semesters and check it out. If you don’t love it, I’ll just eat my lumberjack shirt.

“People may forget what you did and what you said, but they will always remember the way you made them feel.”—Maya Angelou

About the author: Steven L. Chamblee is Chief Horticulturist at Chandor Garden in Weatherford. He is also a contributing editor to Neil Sperry’s GARDENS Magazine, where his writing appears each issue. For more information, visit

Come out to Chandor Gardens and see us sometime. Just take I-20 west to exit 409, hang a right, go 2.1 miles and hang a left on Lee Avenue . Head straight twelve blocks and you’re driving in the gates. Call 817-361-1700 to let us know you’re coming and we’ll light the incense and show you around. You can always go to for a picture tour and more information.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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