Native Son – November, 2012

Landscape colors, from the ground up: fading sumac, Ashe juniper (green), Texas red oak, and cottonwood. All photos courtesy of Steven Chamblee.

Leaves & Steves

No cognizant man in his 50’s can observe a tree draped in colorful autumn leaves and not feel a strange little twinge in the back of his brain that leads to the thought, “Maybe the summer of my own life is coming to a close as well.” Quite naturally, this leads to some introspection about procrastination, which is usually followed by some kind of spontaneous action, often involving a physician or a florist … but never in that order. He might send a dozen red roses to his bride’s work. He might proudly bring home a nice houseplant and feel suddenly ashamed when she thanks him for the “nonpareil Aglaonema.” (“Dang it! I told that florist lady I needed a purdy one, like a philly-dindy-hoo.”) He might even show up at the house one afternoon with dreamy eyes, a fist full of orchids, and an ill-conceived plan to fly to Hawaii for the weekend. Any well-trained woman can quickly bring the conversation around to, “Maybe we should go to the doctor for a check-up,” and be prepared to hold him tenderly as he weeps upon her shoulder and mumbles, “I heard that scope thing’s bigger’n a python and the doctor used to work for Roto-Rooter.” Her lips may gently reassure him with, “There, there, my dear,” but her thoughts wander … “Hmmm … two weeks in Hawaii, three Broadway musicals, season tickets to the symphony … and maybe that couples retreat in Santa Fe.”

Colorful foliage leans out from the triple-strand fences.

Luckily, my own autumn enlightenment led to a little road trip. Yeah, it started simply enough … just a quick jaunt over to the precinct barn to recycle, but there were hundreds of full fall flame red oaks billowing over the three-strand fences along this two-lane road…. I was plumb outnumbered, so I stopped to check things out.

The eyes of the peepatrator.

Texas red oak leaves in transition from green to crimson.

So I’m out there beside the road, crunching grass, rubbing leaves, taking pictures … when I get the feeling I’m being watched. A quick double take tells me there are no humans down this stretch of crumbling asphalt, so I go about my business. A few seconds later, I come eye to eye with the peepatrator. I’m having a stare-down with a leaf … no foolin’. A couple of well-placed, flat leaf galls (or something mighty close to that) have given this leaf and my imagination a connection — and why not? Here we are, eyeballs to wasp galls, because an ever-so-slight wink in the cosmos started a tiny tug on the ellipses in our galaxy that led to a wee tilt in our Earth that caused our Sun’s light to refract a little differently so the temperatures cooled and the days shortened which was detected by the flora which reacted by slowing chlorophyll production which resulted in a loss of its green masking effect and allowed the underlying pigments to become detectable by my limited visible spectrum of light which then focused this light on  photoreceptors on the back of my eye which stimulated my retinal ganglion cells to the point where I just had to stop and see for myself what all the fuss is about. I mean … who wouldn’t?

So, I’m out there talking with this leaf, which is part of a Texas native tree that science nerds call Quercus buckleyi and most everyone else should call a Texas red oak, when I lapse into a declaration of love that would have Elizabeth Barrett Browning rolling in her grave.

How do I love thee, tree?  Let me count the ways.
I love your depth and breadth (20’) and height (30’) … just about perfect for horticultural use.
I love thee for the way your roots are adapted to survive in rocky, alkaline soils.
I love thee for being a superior choice of oak for those folks living west of I-35.
I love thee for your brilliant red leaves, which you flaunt reliably every fall.
I love the way I can find thee at independent nurseries, but rarely/never the big box places.
I love thee freely, but know that the nursery owner has bills, so I will gladly pay the modest sum.
I love the very thought that you will make my world a better place, even after I’m gone.

‘Fireworks’ begonia explodes with color at Steve’s Leaves.

A tiny split-leaf begonia captures the connoisseur’s heart.

The elusive and mesmerizing Cissus discolor.

Scrumptious variegated Boston ferns are a feast for the eyes.

Dozens of chenille vine hanging baskets dazzle the author during his visit.

The Steves share some stories and a few plant samples.

Eventually, I get that mountain of beer, ahem, soda bottles into the recycling bin and head over to Lewisville for a visit to Steve’s Leaves. I must confess to you, dear reader, that I have been meaning to visit this place since I first heard of it in … insert shamed expression here … 1986. Now, before you hop in the car, please know that this is a wholesale and on-line operation — not a retail store. It’s not that they’re not friendly folks; they’re just busy folks … no time to staff a cash register all day. (Check out for all the details.)

Greeted by owner, Steve Rosenbaum, I am immediately submerged in a giant humidor of horticultural delights. The steamy greenhouse holds thousands of plants and hundreds of unusual and amazing cultivars. It’s kind of like visiting a wealthy French family’s wine cellar … there’s simply no room for anything but the very best, so you don’t find anything “usual” here. Sure, Steve has begonias, but they are extraordinary begonias with puckered and patterned leaves. He has cactus, but they are primitive cactus (before leaves evolved into spines) with pink-tinged golden leaves that adorn 20-foot-long vining stems. He even has Cissus discolor (rex begonia vine), an amazingly intricate purple-stemmed vine with lance-shaped leaves with silver inlays that I fell in love with when I was a greenhouser at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden. Steve has a triple-tiered system … hanging baskets overhead, crowded benches at waist height, and plants growing from the floor underneath the benches. Aisle after aisle of tropical wonders … delicately dangling string of pearls; petite-leaved, pink-stemmed peperomias; billowing baskets of weeping chenille … all carefully cataloged and perfectly cultured.

After two hours, I’m nearing ornamental overdose, so we take a break outside and Steve tells me about how he started growing plants on his windowsill back in junior high school. Five years and two backyard greenhouses later, he was soon filling his Olds Cutlass to the brim on Saturday mornings and not returning until it was empty. In a flash, the decades are gone, the greenhouses are large, Steve’s hair is gray, and now he’s standing next to another gray-headed plant nerd under the browning leaves of post oaks. My journey was very different, but it still led me to this exact spot on this big, ol’ planet Earth. The ellipses of people’s lives sometimes intersect; sometimes they don’t. Today, I met an old friend for the first time. Who knows … it may be the last time. Few things in life are certain: the leaves will fall from the trees, our time on this earth will pass, and somewhere out there in the cosmos, there’s a colonoscope with my name on it.

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:

Add a visit to Chandor Gardens to your holiday shopping list. Then 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 too small. Just send me an e-mail at and we’ll work something out.

Posted by Neil Sperry
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