Native Son – September, 2011

A sea of gently waving Cooperia blossoms. All photos by Steven Chamblee.

Native Junipers: Road Trip to Mineral Wells

I had to run an errand to Mineral Wells the other day … simple enough. How was I to know the richness of the day that lay ahead of me?

As I headed down Hwy 180, my mind drifted back a few decades to a story that happened at the other end of this road, way out west in Seminole, Texas. Returning from a New Mexico road trip, I was flat broke, but had a few bucks left on a card when I pulled into the Raymond Restaurant. After inquiring and finding out they took only cash or checks, I felt my heart sink and my stomach growl. The owner, Mr. Jimmy Myers, smiled real big and told me to “Sit down and eat. You can send me the money when you get back home.” I must have looked as stunned as I felt, because he told me that he does this fairly often, and has never lost a dime. He looked me square in the eye and said, “I believe in people.”

Mr. Myers indeed knew what he was doing, and not because I rounded up that $14 and change tab to a nice even $25 when I sent him the money. His faith in the basic honestly and decency of his fellow humans led me to have a little faith in myself, and to extend that same courtesy to others. I never made it back to the restaurant, but, when you think about it, I never really left.  One visit, one brief encounter … and I’ve been carrying that proverbial “blue marble” in my pocket ever since.

A green tinge has returned to the meadows west of Fort Worth, courtesy of a few inches of rain and some cool nights, and with it comes one of my favorite gifts of autumn … rain lilies! There are many species of small bulbs called rain lily, but around here, the name means Cooperia drummondii. A single, inch-wide, creamy white bloom is held atop a slender stem (peduncle). You’ll usually see them in small groups in meadows and bar ditches alongside the highways, but every once in a while, they colonize into huge masses, like the ones right down the center median of Hwy 180 as you enter Mineral Wells from the east. Triggered by a certain temperature/moisture combination, they emerge with astonishing speed — and for about two days if the weather is warm and dry; up to five days if it’s rainy and cool. The fun part is to watch the petals turn pink as they begin to fade. After the flowers have withered, the grass-like leaves develop, making and storing food for the next bloom cycle.

Left photo: Classic architecture stills stands at the Baker Hotel. Right photo: Movie stars and high society once strolled through the Baker’s entrance arches.

An old post oak snag mirrors the fate of the Baker Hotel in the distance.

I decide to stop in at the famous Baker Hotel, a now-vacant grand pleasure palace that soars into the sky over Mineral Wells. It had its heyday from 1925 to 1949, when magical mineral waters drew celebrities, movie stars, and the well-to-do from all over America to drink, soak, and swim their way to health. As I walk the perimeter of the property, it isn’t difficult to imagine my way past chain-link fences, overgrown vegetation, and crumbling facades, back to a time when Big Band music and pipe tobacco swirled and twirled above colorful ball gowns and jet black tuxedoes. I can almost see dashing young couples spilling out into the evening air for a stroll about town, while children laughed and splashed in the extravagant pool. The rich character of the hotel is still visible in the graceful arches, wrought iron windows, and ornate finials that grace the exterior. About 25 years ago, I walked right through the unlocked front door of the hotel to discover the place surprisingly intact, though a little creepy. Today, padlocks and plywood keep me out, and I get only a few glimpses of the debris-strewn floors inside. For decades, I have heard talk of a restoration. My heart loves the thought of it; my brain can’t think of any way to make it sustainable. This is a job for big love and deep pockets. Time will tell, I suppose, so I move on.

The cheery red blossoms of Turk’s cap brighten a Mineral Wells residence.

An estate sale sign draws me into a neighborhood, and soon I am caressing the most compact, floriferous Turk’s cap that I have ever seen. Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus drummondii) is a native Texan famous in gardening circles for the unusual turbinate flower petals, the ability to flower well in shade, and its uncanny knack of taking shrub form where you want a perennial/perennial form in place of a shrub. Humans and hummingbirds are equally attracted to the amazing flowers — bright reddish-orange petals that swirl upward in a spiraling fashion, peeling open at the edges, and topped with a tiny red fountain jet spewing forth. The “jet,” comprised of fused reproductive structures (styles/female and stamens/male), is a common feature of all members of the Mallow family, which includes cotton, hibiscus, hollyhock, and the popular Texas wildflower, winecup. Dr. Greg Grant, famous for his innovative plant breeding and that silly laugh, even developed a pink-flowered version of this plant and named it for Texas Rose Rustler ‘Pam Puryear’.

The old amphitheater comes to life again.

A spectacular ponytail brings delight to the author.

The estate sale is gargantuan, and I end up with a big box of tools that I’ll probably lend away to friends, which is okay, since I’ll probably never use half of the stuff anyway. On the way out of the neighborhood, I bumble into The Rock Schoolhouse. The school is the oldest one in town, and was built in either 1886 or 1884, depending upon whether you believe the Texas Historical Commission plaque or the one by the PTA. Either way, it’s a great old building, and the community is keeping it up. I venture into the adjacent Senior Center to ask a few questions, and run into a sweet soul named Linda. Friendly, helpful, and enthusiastic, she soon heads for the door to show me some plants outside. It is only then that I see that lo-o-o-ong ponytail, which I make such a fuss about that she lets me touch and photograph it. Such treasures are rarer than a five-carat diamond.


Perfectly embedded steps display the skill of the amphitheater’s builders.

Linda also makes sure I get introduced to the amphitheater, a quasi-natural wonder from Depression Era days. Constructed of delightfully sculpted (by Mother Nature) mossy sandstone boulders, the amphitheater is a bit like an Andy Goldsworthy work of art — natural materials gathered from the site and gently manipulated into pleasing forms. If the lines weren’t so straight, you’d question if people actually built it. Sitting quietly, it absorbs you. Soon, you can almost hear mumbling, like Aldo Leopold whispering (for effect) to a group of wide-eyed students. After communing with the lizards for a while, I head over to check out another garden that Linda has pointed out, featuring a large tree-form yucca (probably Yucca faxoniana), a cultivar cenizo (maybe ‘Lynn’s Legacy’), and several red yuccas.

Coral-colored Hesperaloe blossoms shine in front of an old tree yucca.

Tough as nails, this Hesperaloe is right at home in this reflected heat location.

I love red yucca. I love the name “red yucca.” I love the fact that it’s not red and it’s not a yucca. But then again, “coral-flowered hesperaloe” doesn’t just roll off the tongue. Botanically known as Hesperaloe parviflora, red yucca has it all: long, luxurious, clumping foliage that is tough as nails; no poky spine at the end of the leaves; tall, beautiful spikes of lovely blossoms; no insect or disease issues (okay, deer will eat the flowers); and it attracts hummingbirds. It is actually pollinated by the black-chinned hummingbird. Native to the Brownwood/Goldthwaite/San Saba region, it is one native plant that has managed to escape me in situ, or in its natural location. I’m rather curious how in the world I missed it while driving around down there. Not to worry … there are road trips ahead. There are still plants to discover, friends to find, memories to make … and little blue marbles to share. Still not heard about the blue marble? Well, that’s a tale that will have to wait until another month.

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:

Fall into Autumn at Chandor Gardens! The ornamental grasses are billowing, the roses are blooming, the sages are sizzling, and the  Encore azalea collection is ready to pop. 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 for more information. 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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