Native Son – April, 2012

Wildflowers in bloom at Homestead Heritage near Waco. Photos courtesy of Steven Chamblee.

Road Trip to Waco

I first knew I was different from most people when I saw the “Pet Rock” in a store window. Sure, I got the humor of it, and readily admitted that it was funny. It was simply a matter of economics. That little box of rock cost about five bucks, and since I was pulling down a hearty $1.35 an hour, I just could not envision working half a day for a rock … even one that could be trained to “stay.” Heck, my pal Fred Flintstone had a better exchange rate than that. I guess way back then I was destined for “the road less traveled.”

Seems like every time I tried to do things the “normal” way, it never seemed to work out for me. The “classic” vacation destinations left me feeling like a schmuck. (”Why am I the only one who seems to mind waiting two hours in line for a three-minute ride?”) The “smash hit” TV programs seemed to be more about mean people wrecking cars while abusing firearms than good stories. (Andy Griffith and Gomer Pyle were my favorites, and I did like “Happy Days” until it turned into the Joanie and Chachi love fest.) The shortest distance on the map always led me right to a road construction nightmare. So I learned to love the things often overlooked by the masses. Good thing, too, because by doing so, I discovered the good stuff … like today.

Foggy morning photo, complete with cross.

I head out into a thick fog this morning, and can’t resist taking photos out the window as I drive. This is truly “shooting blind,” as all one can do is point the camera out the window and click away. (It’s always a surprise when you view the pics later.) A quick stop in Fort Worth to load up my dad and son, and we’re on our way to Waco. I usually travel solo, so this is kind of a treat.

Blue yucca.

Instinct and serendipity lead us to the Carleen Bright Arboretum in Woodway, where we tour the brand new events center (talk about the perfect place for a wedding!) and the garden before my talk. The garden is predictably lovely (it always is), but also shows me a new thing or two (it always does). Today’s fleur du jour is the blue yucca (Yucca rigida) in full screaming bloom. The inflorescence is huge, rivaling that of Yucca rostrata. In layman’s terms … 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide … about as big as a pickle barrel. Hundreds of ivory-hued, intricately detailed flowers are neatly arranged candelabra style along the sturdy flower stalk. It’s so beautiful I can hardly believe it is real. I have long loved this yucca’s pale blue leaves and strong sculptural form, but this is the first time I have seen it in full flower. As impressive as it is, blue yucca is not appropriate for most gardens, as the spines on the ends of those stiff leaves could skewer an armadillo. But not far down the path, there is a plant that belongs in every Texas garden north and west of Houston.

Red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) has always been one of my favorite garden plants, though the blooms aren’t red and it’s not a yucca. (I understand … “coral-colored Hesperaloe” doesn’t just roll off the tongue.) It is close to being the perfect plant — Texas native; long-lived; no insect or disease issues; any soil or moisture except soggy; the 30- to 36-inch-long evergreen leaves are not sharp or spine-tipped; the beautiful flower spike arches gracefully to about 6 feet and is laden with lovely pendant blossoms that attract hummingbirds and butterflies. It’s everything I could ever want in a plant, but it can grow a little too big for some of those small urban and patio sites … until now.

The spectacular ‘Brakelights’ red yucca.

The fine folks out at Mountain States Wholesale Nursery in Arizona have been working on perfecting the red yucca … and I think they’ve hit the bullseye with their red yucca cultivar ‘Brakelights’. First off, it’s still the same tough plant, only smaller. The leaves reach about 18 to 20 inches long, so the whole plant is more compact and tidy. The flower spike is a little shorter as well — to about 4 feet instead of 6. But the real kicker is that the flowers are fire-engine red, making it not only more bold in the garden, but even more attractive to hummingbirds. I don’t usually get all worked up about new plant cultivars, but this one is enough to make me get all warm and fuzzy.

So I’m out here swooning over blossoms in the garden when I look over and see my dad and son. Dad is rolling his eyes and giving me the “My boy, The Flower Nut” look. My son is giving me the “Really, Pop…you’re embarrassing me” look. Perfect time to move on….

From left, Buz Chamblee, Janet Schaffer, Jeanette Kelly, Sharon Richardson, Steven Chamblee, and Bonnie’s Greenhouse owner, Sandra Killough.

Sandra Killough conducting her magic at Bonnie’s Greenhouse.

Guinea hen peeks out from mixed perennial bed.

Dutchman’s pipe, Aristolochia sp.

Variegated St. Augustine grass at Bonnie’s Greenhouse.

After the talk, the “Arboretum Ladies” (Jeanette Kelly, Sharon Richardson, and Janet Schaffer) take us over to Bonnie’s Greenhouse. I have been intending to make it to this nursery for about five years now, but I was always in a pinch for time and I never happened upon it. Let me tell you folks, you will not happen upon it … it’s tucked away tighter than Jack Benny’s wallet. But it’s worth the search, for down this little rainbow road you will find a true pot of gold nursery. Sandra Killough bought the nursery she used to work at, and kept the name after Bonnie retired. I think she also kept the charm and spirit of the place, because it is magical. A small flock of beautiful guineas roam freely through the tidy nursery and lovely display gardens, vacuuming up grasshoppers, pillbugs, and other garden pests the old-fashioned way. Garden art dangles from the old ‘Muscogee’ crape myrtle, herbs billow from the benches, and flowers flow freely from wall to wall. Ladies adorn benches throughout the nursery, sitting and chatting with no hint of a hurry. Bonnie’s has many old-fashioned and tried-and-true plants — EarthKind roses, native trees, and Texas-tough shrubs. You can find lots of quirky and unusual plants here … Cuban oregano, Alamo vine, and Dutchman’s pipe come to mind. They even have Australian tree fern in a 4-inch pot!
Even with all of the nursery’s charms, the real star of the show here is Sandra. She floats through the garden like a butterfly, seemingly never in a hurry, yet always busy. She speaks with a relaxed confidence about the plants, tossing cultivation tips and kind caveats into the air as she goes about. And she listens. Not sure how she does it, but she can handle with ease a small cadre of gardener customers spewing questions like a water wiggle. Every person gets a personal answer, and she never seems put out in the least by it all. She also knows instinctively who needs a handshake and who needs a hug. She knew right away that I am a hugger! Go see for yourself! (Bonnie’s Greenhouse, 5198 Orchard Lane, Waco, TX 76705. For more info, visit or call 254-799-7909.)

After a wonderful visit, the Arboretum Ladies take us over to a little place called Homestead Heritage. From the blacksmith shop to the real grist mill to the big barn with its water collection roof, there is something for everyone here. It’s kind of like an Amish farm, but they use electricity and combine modern technological thinking with good old-fashioned common sense to create a sustainable vision for the future. The buildings are beautiful, the gardens are gorgeous, and the food is fantastic. Yes, they have a restaurant … with ice cream that will make you melt! Of course, you’ll have to take the road less traveled to find this place. Luckily, they have a website to help with that. (Visit or call 254-754-9600.)

Top left: Homestead Heritage yarrow. Top right: Homestead Heritage barn peak. Bottom left: Mexican feather grass at Homestead Heritage. Bottom right: Heirloom variety wheat at Homestead Heritage.

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:

Come out to the gardens before it gets hot. 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
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