Native Plant Road Trip to Tomball

The roof garden at The Arbor Gate nursery in Tomball, a sign of things to come, says the author. All photos courtesy of Steven Chamblee.

Lucky Sevens

Hated to do it, but I broke my own road trip rule and hopped on an Interstate for a jaunt down to Tomball, Texas, just on the northwest outskirts of Houston. Time was a factor, so after a quick errand to Big D, I slid on down I-45 in hopes of makin’ time. I did pretty good until the fields of bushy bluestem beside the road began calling to me, “Come hither! Feel my fluff!” I was a goner….

Bushy bluestem

Now, bushy bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus) isn’t just lovely; it’s downright “hit the brakes” gorgeous when those glomerate glumes (clustered grass bracts) are backlit by the autumn sun. Soft and vibrant green in summer, turning coppery and fuzzy in the fall, it’s a wonder this stuff isn’t made part of the Thanksgiving cornucopia, declared the “Official Grass of NASCAR” or … something. So I’m out there in the bar ditch cooing, caressing, cavorting, and … er … taking pictures of my new love when I notice a giant beaver head floating about 60 feet in the air. That can only mean Buc-ee’s.

All roads lead to Buc-ee’s

I’ve been seeing the signs for 100 miles, so I figure I’ll go over to this tourist trap for a fill-up. Well, little did I know I’d fall in love again … and so soon. When the automatic door slid open, I could almost hear angels singing. The air smells of candles and food, echoes with chatter and laughter — and the staff is throwing around free samples of, well, just everything. I finally worked my way back to the restroom and just about fainted. Now Mr. Road Trip has almost passed out at the mere sight of some public restrooms before, but not like this. Before me lay 2,000 square feet of gleaming tile, chrome, and ceramic wonders … all as spotless as Queen Elizabeth’s private bidet. I pulled out my cell phone to take a picture, then quickly realized that my enthusiasm might well land me some deluxe accommodations in the Madison County jail … so, sorry, folks, no photo. You’ll just have to see it for yourselves.

Steven and Jack, TAMU campus

As luck would have it, the bushy bluestem coaxed me to get off at the right exit, so I slid on over to College Station for a little bit of Aggie hospitality at Texas A&M University. Truthfully, I’d only been there twice before, and the most recent visit was about 10 years ago when I managed to irritate, offend, and ruffle the feathers of a professor … and all in a 90-minute visit. Well, times have changed and so have I, and let’s suppose the prof got over it, too. I tagged along on an orientation visit and got a good feel for the campus. The students were sharp and upbeat, the grounds clean and manicured, and the pizza ranked pretty high, too. Perhaps the biggest change for me was my impression of the cadets. Ten years ago, I thought they seemed kind of uptight. Today, I saw in them the future of our military and our country. Steeped in tradition and disciplined to razor sharpness, they represent the best of the best, and I am honored just to walk among them. 

Serendipity led me to the revered Century Oak. This amazing live oak specimen cascades down onto the ground and rolls on like a tidal wave. Aggie legend says the tree is enchanted, and if you walk under it with your love, the bond is forever. Walk under it alone and you will never find your true love! (See Neil’s article on pens made from Century Oak wood.)

The Century Oak

Classic road sign

Sabal palms in mixed-hardwood forest

All good things must end, so I said goodbye to Aggieland and headed south on some small roads. I knew things were getting good when I found myself on Possum Walk Road. Before long, the roadside forests were full of dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor), which makes for a real strange-looking woodland. Mixed hardwoods rose high from the forest floor, which was peppered with the large (3 to 5 feet long and wide), pleated, split-tipped leaves of this native Texas plant. Related to the much larger (up to 50 feet) but less cold-hardy sabal palm (Sabal mexicana), dwarf palmetto never forms a traditional trunk, and maxes out at about 7 to 9 feet tall. Forming dense thickets at water’s edge, it easily colonizes stream banks, crowding out almost everything else. In a forest setting (or, as in the areas around Houston, a landscape setting) it grows less densely. It produces copious amounts of hard, round, black seeds that germinate readily. Richard Hartman, a local palm expert and close friend of mine, once harvested seeds from the dwarf palmetto colony at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden (40 feet inside the old entrance on University Drive) and got 100 percent germination from them. I can’t remember what happened to those 400 seedlings.

Old-fashioned outhouse

So, after checking out the palmetto forests, I bumped into the old cemetery at East Sandy, which is chock full of history … and a little surprise. Just outside the back corner of the fence, I spotted a set of good, old-fashioned outhouses. Curiosity got the best of me, so I pried open the men’s facility. Wow … pretty cryptic, but judging from the rolls of T.P., still operational. Hadn’t seen one of these since my summer in West Virginia (1977), where it was part of the daily routine. Ya know, some things back in those “good ole days of yesteryear” weren’t.

Okay, so I got lost and asked for directions. Not a bad thing, except about that time, Wes, my neighbor back in Weatherford, called me on the cell phone. I told him what I was doing. He informed me that since I’d asked for directions, my “Man Card” had been revoked. C’est la vie.

The Arbor Gate main building

The Arbor Gate owner, Beverly Welch, and Cleo

Of course, all of this horsing around meant that I slid into Tomball about 20 minutes before my evening presentation at a nursery named The Arbor Gate. The crowd was fun, the night air perfect, and all went well. The next morning, I returned to The Arbor Gate to visit in earnest. Glad I did, because it is about the nicest nursery you’ll ever see. Headed up by owner Beverly Welch, The Arbor Gate simply has it all. Wall to wall, they have a wonderful selection of ornamental and edible plants, many displayed in garden settings. Classic, whimsical and Texas-style garden art and accoutrements abound, often woven in and through the garden’s permanent plant displays. Indoors, the rooms are literally packed with well-organized gadgets, gifts, and goodies. Perhaps best of all, the staff really know their stuff, and can help you find just the right plant, pot, or plan for your garden. And even if you don’t like to garden, who could resist a few minutes of petting and playing with their precious pooch, Cleo?

The Arbor Gate also has a roof garden, designed and built on a smaller scale, so it’s relevant to most homeowners. More than a flashy trend, rooftop gardens are destined to become an essential element in our earth-friendly, resource-wise future living spaces. I like to see opposites, especially the juxaposition of past and present — antique garden art and revolutionary roof gardens; old outhouses and futuristic flushers; baby blue highways and impressive interstates. Makes me think of the fluidity of life, how it flows on with or without us, and how our everyday decisions determine whether we ride the wave, or are consumed by it.


Scarlet sumac

Such are my thoughts as I head homeward, passing small colonies of scarlet sumac (Rhus glabra) along the roadside, its screaming red leaves shouting out for me to notice, to appreciate. Seems like enough reason to stop, snap a few pictures, and spend a few moments with it. Maybe that’s all any of us wants … to be noticed, appreciated. Maybe someone will stop and visit with us for a few minutes … maybe even take a picture. As I pull up in front of my house, I take a moment to notice the trip odometer … 777. Yeah, I’d have to agree with that.

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. Steven adds these invitations:

Fall into autumn color at Chandor Gardens. 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. Combine your Chandor trip with a visit to nearby Clark Gardens for a full day of blooms and beauty.

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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