Native Son – August, 2009

Hosts to the writer in Fort Bend County (left to right): Master Gardener community relations director Brenda Dresner, Texas AgriLife horticulture agent Shari Koch, Master Gardener landscape co-director Jane Gray, and Master Gardener board vice president Glenn Dresner. All photos by Steven Chamblee.

Come Together
Road Trips to Woodway and Rosenberg

So exactly a week ago today, I grin broadly as I pass through Coolidge, Texas, with its sign proudly boasting of the annual Mesquite Tree Festival. “These folks got gumption,” I think to myself, “to proudly celebrate something hated by so many people.” While I’m not sure they will ever turn the tide of true mesquite maligners, perhaps they can enlighten a few folks to the attributes of a truly great tree. Hmmm, and to think of how many people manage to overlook the thorns on a rose….

Soon, I’m rolling south out of Mexia, down Highway 14, on my way to do a talk in Rosenberg, a little town sitting on the southwest fringes of Houston. As the miles roll by, the hit-and-miss pattern of summer rain becomes apparent, and differences in range management practices become blatant. Some years you can get away with overgrazing; this year you can’t. Many pastures are shaved down to mere whiskers … those that got rain are green; the ones that didn’t are brown. On properly grazed pastures, the grasses are taller and green. I get to thinking how these pastures mimic our current state of the economy and how, for many folks, their luck seems to have run out. I temper this thought with the knowledge that our country has seen tougher times than this, and with faith, community, and resilience, we’ve pulled though. Who knows … perhaps we’ll even be stronger for the struggle.

Snow on the Prairie and horses, south of Mexia.

Here and there are spots of wildflowers, including that old baked-earth reliable favorite, Snow on the Prairie (Euphorbia bicolor). Tiny flowers are subtended by large green- and white-striped bracts, which makes the plant look snow-frosted. Related to the quintessential Christmastime poinsettia (E. pulcherrima), Snow on the Prairie also contains an irritating milky sap, which is why it is not grazed by animals. This year drought and overgrazing have reduced competition, to let this plant thrive. Usually limited to small, irregular patches, Snow on the Prairie in some fields appeared as masses of heavily-bracted blossoms, leaving no doubt as to how it earned its name. The sight reminded me that every year, wet/dry/hot/cold/whatever, certain flora and fauna thrive while others suffer.  Change the environmental conditions, and a different set of plants and animals survive and fail. Sounds like life, the way my folks taught it to me.

Closely mown grasses beside unmown grasses, south of Hearne.

Rattlebush, just north of Roseberg.

I can’t help but giggle a bit as I pass by a little old rest stop. The “manicured” grass is closely mown to about 2 inches, to make sure it looks nice, I suppose. In wet years this works, but this year it’s as brown as burned toast, while the unmown roadside grasses (10 to 16 inches tall) are beautiful, sporting lovely shades of green. Seems like a lesson’s in there somewhere.

A bit farther south I see lots of rattlebush (Sesbania drummondii) along the roadside, in flower but without the namesake fruit. This plant kind of defines “open and airy” growth habit, and the pale yellow blossoms hang delicately about the plant. When pollinated, they will transform into wonderful four-sided, four-winged, papery capsules with loose seeds inside that rattle when shaken. Just cool enough to keep children and a few middle-agers fascinated for hours.

So I finally ease past the cotton fields and into Rosenberg on Highway 36, just about two hours ahead of presentation time. I am promptly kidnapped … er, escorted to a Mexican restaurant by Glenn Dresner, husband of Brenda, the oh-so-organized lady who arranged for my visit. I got a little tensed up by the “let’s go right now” reception, until I realized what was actually bothering me was that 44-ounce soda pop I got waaaay back up the road in Hearne. Thankfully, the bano was between the front door and the table. Since I had a few minutes to kill, I was inspired to write upon the bathroom wall: “’Relativity? Spend an hour talking with a pretty girl and it seems like a minute. Spend a minute sitting on a hot stove and it seems like an hour. That’s relativity.’ — Einstein.” Seemed like the thing to do at the time.

Just kidding about that last part. Anyway, I thought my presentation went well — we laughed, we cried, we learned, we bonded — and I got two amazing surprises. The first was a gigantic birthday cake, complete with a group-sing of Happy Birthday.  (I’ll be 50 next month.) The second was a familiar face: Phyllis DeGelleke, a delightful woman whom I knew years ago from my days at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. True to form, she is still as sweet as sugar.

Steven’s favorite Rosenberg garden sign.

Custom-floored twin bridges in the Rosenberg community gardens.

When I went to tour the Fort Bend County Master Gardener Demonstration Gardens, I wasn’t sure what to expect … after all, these Master Gardener groups are always outdoing one another. Just two weeks ago, I was amazed by the gardens down at the Bright Arboretum in Woodway, Texas (west of Waco) … killer color from the best looking Pride of Barbados (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) I’ve ever seen, as well as impressive agave and cactus collections, diverse tree plantings, clever water features, and … drum roll … resident roadrunners! No kidding … they appear with amazing regularity. While the garden was beautiful and the meeting hall lovely, the best part of the visit was the warmth of the people, who took the time to make me feel like part of the family. That Dublin Dr. Pepper didn’t hurt either.

I snapped a few photos of the Rosenberg Texas AgriLife building as my hosts politely herded me toward the back … and no wonder why. Wow! These folks have been busy. Over a dozen different theme gardens, ponds, arbors, bridges, and flowers everywhere! Lots of delightful details (signs, wind chimes, sculpture, etc.) make these gardens more than just pretty plant collections, but places to wander and discover, be charmed and get inspired. I had expected a few botanical surprises since the garden is so far south, but after a few minutes, I was humbled to the point of personal shame. Felt like I got caught with my plants down! 

Prudence might dictate that I leave out the part about that infamous Houston-area humidity, but I always let it all hang out for you e-readers. Apparently my hosts were accustomed to it, so they kept their cool, but I was sweating like a dachshund-gnawed soaker hose. Ever genteel, they never said a word about it.  (I believe a tip of the hat to their parents is in order for those lessons taught half a century ago.)

Brenda Dresner, Steven and the early 50th birthday cake.

The ride home was a joy, partially due to a fresh shirt and nice scenery, but primarily due to the kindness of my hosts and the courtesy of the folks on the road.  Slower drivers eased over to let others pass; everyone’s turn signals were working; tailgaters took the day off. I thought about how folks often help each other out during hard times, and how our communities become more than just a bunch of people living near each other. A kind word, a sweet gesture, an unexpected hug. A few bales of hay for a neighbor who missed the rain; a little tractor work when another’s equipment is down. Closing up the neighbor’s henhouse at dusk when he’s late getting home. A surprise birthday cake for a guy from Weatherford…. Most of the time, it only takes a penny’s worth of effort to make a dollar’s worth of difference. And while we wait for the rains to return — and they will come again — I can’t think of any better investment than our families, friends, neighbors, and countrymen.

Peace & love,

About the author: Steven Chamblee is the chief horticulturist for Chandor Gardens in Weatherford and a regular contributor to Neil Sperry’s GARDENS magazine and e-gardens newsletter.

Plan your visit to historic Chandor Gardens now. We have made lots of changes this past year, so if you haven’t seen Chandor Gardens lately, you just haven’t seen Chandor Gardens! We’ve got heirloom color plants, waterfalls, fountains, sculpture, grottoes, a labyrinth, and more. You can go to the website ( for a preview and call 817-613-1700 for reservations and more information.

A little help from my friends….
I still need some destinations for my Texas road trips!  If you would like me to speak to your garden club or group, just shoot me an e-mail at to make arrangements. I’m inexpensive and low maintenance, and you know I love to go just about anywhere, so let me know. No city too big; no town too small. As long as it has a Farm to Market road nearby, I’m in.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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