Native Son – February, 2012

Regeneration will keep the Lone Star State beautiful. Photos by Steven Chamblee

The Regeneration of Texas

Daphne odora, the plant that prompted this essay.

When I was 8 years old, my phone number was 5642. In the rare instance we had to call outside my tiny town, the number was TAylor 8-5642, but that involved talking to the operator … which was OK, because she was always nice, and talking to her made me feel like I was getting another phone call for free. I closed my eyes for a few minutes — and here I am, 52 years old and researching the concept of biological senescence of Daphne odora with my RBG-Sydney [Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney] buddy in Australia … with my phone. The phone has evolved much more than I have in that time; it has gone wireless, developed touch sense, become intuitive, speaks 88 languages, and can show movies. I, on the other hand, have remained hard-wired, grown bigger not smaller, developed sporadic memory loss (“senior moments”), retained only 12 Spanish phrases (including my life-saver, “estoy perdido” — “I am lost”), and often feel like my life is a Hope and Crosby movie. In short, I am senescing and my phone is regenerating.
Senescence is the change in the biology of an organism as it ages after its maturity. In other words, what happens to a living thing after it grows up. Not all things just get creaky, cranky, and crunchy with age, like me. Some adapt well to it, even blossom with it, like Dick Clark, George Burns, and my marathon-running, fitness-fanatic brother, Jim. Freaks of nature? Not at all … well, maybe Jim.  Some plants are famous for their wondrous longevity — bristlecone pines can live 4,000 years, giant sequoias 3,000, oaks 500. Animals, too — giant tortoises can live 200 years; lobsters 100; ocean quahog clams 400. Think about that … a clam that was sitting down there on the ocean floor all cute and happy when the Pilgrims sailed over it.

This Weatherford salamander has the capability of regrowing its tail and other vital parts.

Some animals don’t live that long, but cheat death through regeneration, like the sea star that grows a new arm when it loses one. (“Agnes! I’ve misplaced my arm again!” — “My show is on. Just grow a new one.”) Many lizards can regrow a tail after losing it to a predator. Newts and salamanders can regrow limbs, tails, jaws, eyes, and some internal organs. Now I can almost comprehend tail regrowth, but eyes, jaws, and guts? C’mon, that’s pretty impressive. But then there’s the hydra. No, not the nine-headed, “unkillable” mythological beast, but that’s what inspired the name. The real hydra is a tiny freshwater animal that is, in theory, biologically immortal. Whatever part of it stops working or dies, it just regrows a new one. Given a stable environment, it just might regenerate itself forever. (Don’t you know someone’s gonna make skin cream out of these things … ugh.)

My lovely wife passes behind me, reads over my shoulder, and mumbles, “I thought this was a plant article….” Sorry … we’re almost there.
The grit in the gears to the hydra’s immortality is “given a stable environment.” Our environments are always changing due to fire, flood, drought, tornadoes, volcanoes, pestilence, and human activity. (I probably missed a catastrophe or two there, but you get the point.) The 2011 Texas drought/fires is an example we can see right out the front door. Millions of trees have died already, and the Texas Forest Service is predicting that millions more will die within the next year or two due to the stress they endured last year. Well, that’s enough to make me want to go back to bed. Fortunately, there is good news in the midst of all of this balderdash. Not only do lizards and newts and hydras (Oh my!) regenerate … entire ecosystems regenerate.

Ecosystems are communities of living and non-living things within a given area. Even when they appear to be “wiped out,” like the areas around Bastrop, there is much our eyes do not see, and as Jurassic Park’s Malcolm said, “Nature always finds a way.” The new ecosystem may or may not resemble the former one, depending upon environmental conditions and other factors, but Texas earth has a seed bank, and Texas people have heart. We can and we will regenerate our forests and gardens. It is happening at this very moment.
On a personal note, my garden took a beating last year. Chances are, your home garden suffered and will need some re-planting, too. This is our chance to build the future … will our gardens slowly senesce into pitiful patches of poo, or will they regenerate into realms of botanical beauty? The choice is largely up to us. Think twice before you buy the first beautiful bloom you see at the nursery. What will that tree/shrub/perennial look like a year from now … in five years … in 20 years? Is this plant really the right long-term choice for your Texas garden, or are you under the stupefying influence of a pretty label and smarmy marketer (“… grows anywhere with no care, producing billows of luscious, fragrant blossoms from January to December….”)? This is not the time for snake oil; this is the time to plant smart.

Top row: Left photo – A bur oak leaf in fall color. Right photo – Bur oak wears large, deep green leaves all summer. Middle row: Left photo – Crape myrtle flowers brighten the spirit of summer days. Right photo – Crape myrtle foliage glows bright in autumn. Bottom row: Left photo – This newly planted lacey oak is still wearing its winter foliage. Right photo – Rich, silvery-blue foliage makes alligator juniper shine in the garden.

Talk to your local independent nursery, extension agent, or Master Gardener group. Visit your local public garden and talk to the grounds staff. Take a class or attend a lecture. Research on-line and see what the Texas Forest Service is doing and how you can help. The time is now. Twenty-six million Texans can easily plant twenty-six million trees. Now that’s what I call a great start. As for me … I’m planting lacey oaks, bur oaks, crape myrtles, and alligator junipers at my place. What will you plant as your part of the regeneration of Texas?

Steven and his father planting a Japanese maple in late winter.

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. See Steven’s weekly segments on Dig In DFW (Fox 4 KDFW-TV, Saturdays 6 a.m.), as he criss-crosses the Metroplex.

Steven adds these notes. Plan your spring visit to Chandor Gardens now! March 18 — The Bridal Faire will have lots of new and exciting surprises. March 31 & April 1 — Come and be a part of our annual Spring Fling! Music, food and fun for all ages. 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 details.

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
Back To Top