Native Son – October, 2007

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I’m all about the journey, not necessarily the destination. Translated, that means I’ll take about any excuse to get out and drive around this wonderful world just to revel in and discover the amazing things all around us.

Sometimes I have to work hard at it, while other times it comes easy. So when I got a call from longtime friend Schelly Cory over at the Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary in McKinney, it didn’t take much fancy talking for her to get me to come over and play Father Christmas in the gift shop there.

Being a Saturday morning, I figured Highway 121 wouldn’t be too crowded, so I took that way. Since I got an early start and it had been over eight years since I last drove it east of the airport, I also figured they had to have finished all that “stop every seven seconds” construction. Sometimes I just figure wrong.

But all went well and Father Christmas did his duty and I headed out back of the museum to hike the superb nature trails threading through the 289 acres there. Fortunately, I was able to escape from each of the live action dinosaurs along the first trail (don’t you just LOVE the cool museum exhibits these days?) and wander down into some solitude.

Now this was the Heard I remember from my stint working as the museum’s first horticulturist back in 1996-97. Dense woodlands, loaded with songbirds, squirrels, crazy fungi, and things like supplejack vine, opening up occasionally to reveal a rare short-grass prairie ecotone clinging to a hardscrabble limestone escarpment. And although I could hear faint sounds of “civilization” in the distance, I was truly immersed in the experience, and fantasized about being an explorer from the 1800s as I trod through the crunchy leaves in the path.

Suddenly, I rounded a curve and saw her standing there, frozen in time, just like she did when black bears freely roamed this part of Texas . At first I felt ashamed that I had not remembered her more clearly, for she and I have talked together many times, but life moves quickly and erratically for us humans. She gracefully forgave me and accepted my embrace like she had been specifically standing there all along, just waiting for me to return – which, of course, was actually true, since she’s been right here for over 250 years.

She’s technically known as Quercus macrocarpa, although known around the museum as simply, “The Big Bur Oak Tree.” Measuring more than six feet in diameter and 90 feet tall, she is truly the queen of this forest, and with a quick scan of the surroundings you can see her family all about, from tender young saplings to weathered 50-footers. Like their grandmother, they all started as those large “golf ball” acorns that continue to feed the squirrels and thrill the children who walk down that path every day.

Because of her age, she now wears exceptionally deep-grooved bark, thick enough in places for me to lose my fingers past the second knuckle during a hug. Her stout limbs and form have come through the years in amazingly good condition, with few broken branches and no hollows in her trunk. This attests to strength of not only her wood, but of her growth habit. All of these attributes make nursery-grown bur oaks excellent choices for most Texas gardens, particularly ones with deeper native soil.

I am awed that she has seen and felt and survived so much during her life, and I don’t doubt for a minute that she will outlive me. From what I’ve seen, it’s usually the windstorms that take down the big trees, though I’ve seen some go down due to disease. (I’ve noticed that both foresters and scientists stop short of saying bur oaks and other members of the white oak group are impervious to the dreaded oak wilt disease; instead, they opt for the term “resistant.” (Anyone who appreciates the difference between a “waterproof” watch and a “water-resistant” watch shares my thought.) Regardless of the terminology, members of the white oak group are definitely much less likely to acquire oak wilt. Part of the reason may be related to the structural arrangement of the vascular system of the trees, which, incidentally, makes the wood of the white oak group excellent for making watertight barrels.)

All too soon, the sun is starting to fade and I know I must head on out. Regretfully, I did not make it down to the giant sycamore tree that grows in a sharp bend of Wilson Creek, just down from the wetlands. Normally a short-lived species in North Central Texas, this tree’s roots have made it to the creek bottom, allowing for a constant source of water through many summers and droughts, allowing her to attain a massive size that is rarely seen west of Nacogdoches.

As I drove home, I remember all of the people and events that made my time at the Heard a most wonderful experience. Sadly, most, like me, left the museum for greener pastures. But a few special faces still remain, and like the trees, make that little museum a true treasure for its community. Heck, even Neil Sperry knows that … he’s put down roots in McKinney as well.

This article is dedicated to the memory of Heard Museum Gift Shop Manager Debbie Sedgwick, who passed away just days after my visit. She would want you to visit the museum.

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

Steven Chamblee will teach Horticulture classes at Weatherford College this spring semester! Credit and non-credit classes are available. Contact Mike Brown at for details.

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 12 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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