Summer on the Road

Mexican plums, blooming in spring.
All photos courtesy of Steven Chamblee.

Mexican Plum

This man of 50 years can take only so much heat these days, so I leapt at the chance to go to Oregon a few weeks ago. Back just three days now, and my memory is almost as blurred as the deadline for this article, so I took a walk through my meadow to get some perspective and try to focus. Along the east fence line, a small grove of Mexican plums stood panting and sweating in the twilight heat, leaves wilted down all pitiful-like … oh wait, that was ME. 

Mexican plum leaves

Mexican plum (Prunus mexicana) is a tough, native Texas tree that’s used to this kind of summer swelter. Like all native plums, it is a member of Rosaceae, the rose family, but unlike all the other plums, Mexican plum is more of a single-trunked tree (to 15-20 feet) than a scrubby bush, making it far more useful in most gardens and landscapes. It flowers before putting on leaves in spring, right about the same time as the native redbud trees, so the two make excellent planting companions. 

I’ve always liked the fragrance of Mexican plum flowers, but couldn’t ever quite describe them well, until I was handed a small cluster of blossoms this past spring by Mike Shoup, owner of the Antique Rose Emporium down in Independence, a few miles outside of Brenham, Texas. “Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and tell me what it smells like,” says Mike. 

“It’s familiar, but I can’t quite place it.” 

Mike grins, “How about a hot, freshly made tortilla?”

As usual, he was spot on.

Mexican plum fruit

Every spring, the creamy-white clusters of blossoms also remind me of a little girl over at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden, who, years ago, proudly announced to her pre-K class, “Look! The flowers look like popcorn. It must be a popcorn tree!” (And somewhere in the distance, Art Linkletter smiles.)

But it’s not spring now, and those leaves are just hanging there all drooped over, mocking me like they do every summer … and every spring and every fall. You see, that’s their trademark — they always droop. A week after a 5-inch toad-floater, they look like they need a little drink of water. In the middle of a hot, dry August, they look the same way. The only difference is that in August, I take it “personal.”

The quarter-sized fruits always seem to fall off before they fully ripen, but even so, they taste pretty good for free food falling off the trees. I’m not even going to touch that old “they’re good for jelly” routine — I’ve already met more than enough pectin-packin’ grandmas that could make my old boots taste good with little more than a steel pressure cooker and a sack of sugar.

So, eventually my walk takes me back into the house, carrying a few fresh eggs and a subject for this article. The house is strangely still and quiet, so as a means of inspiration, I end up looking at some of the 900-plus photos I took in Oregon. The covered bridges, the rocky coastlines, the beautiful forests, the Japanese and rose gardens in Portland, the incredible waterfalls, the beach….

Head-sized hydrangeas

Oregon’s rocky coast

Portland’s Japanese Garden

Portland’s Rose Garden

The beach. There I am, 1800 miles from my house, walking down the sands of Nye Beach in Newport, wind blowing gently and the waves curling softly, when it hits me in the gut … again. Tears fill my eyes and I don’t care. The day before I got on the plane to come here, I had to bury my little dog Belle. I keep expecting to turn around and see her getting into some kind of mischief, looking up at me with those big, brown eyes for forgiveness. She’s gone now and she had a good life and I know all that, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less.

A few minutes later, I see a young couple with a puppy, chasing the water back and forth as it comes in and goes out. My heart saddens with loss. Seconds later, that puppy sees me from about 100 feet away, and in a moment I’ll never forget, runs straight to me and jumps into my arms, smothering me with doggie kisses, just like Belle used to do. What a gift to me when I needed it most! Someone even took a picture. The owners ran up all apologetic for the pup’s “misbehavior,” and I tried my best to explain how wonderful it was, but I’m not sure they could understand all of my blubbering.

Doggie kisses

On one hand, I doubt they’ll ever really know what that simple act meant to me. On the other hand, I hope there’s a moment like that waiting for them in their future. Life is a mixture of joy, sorrow and a thousand other emotions, but it’s too short not to have a friend like Belle, even if you have to lose her. 

In another couple of weeks, I’ll take another little road trip and swing by the local SPCA. I’ll just bet there’s another friend waiting there to meet me. I hope she likes road trips.

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 notes:


This article is written in loving memory of my little Belle, who, in her short six and a half years, reminded me every day how wonderful life can be. She rode with me on most of the road trips I’ve written about in Native Son, and was always up for any adventure that came along. I was always proud she picked me to be her Daddy.

Clockwise from left: Belle; Belle visits Round Top;
Belle at Blue Moon Gardens.

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.

I can always use another road trip! Let me know if you’d like me to come out and speak to your group sometime. I’m low-maintenance, flexible, and you know I like to go just about anywhere. No city too big; no town to small. Just send me an e-mail at and we’ll work something out.


Posted by Neil Sperry
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