My Life and Times with Columbines — Greg Grant, May 6, 2020

Neil, some of these details and memories are sketchy, as they go back about 30 years. And I hate to burst your bubble, but I didn’t “invent” the ‘Texas Gold’ columbine. Yes, I selected out the showiest of the native Texas columbines and perhaps I named it, but like almost all of my plant introduction stories, Dr. Jerry Parsons — with his drive, his will, and his inspiration — made it all happen.

As a young gardener, I didn’t know columbines existed, although I’m sure I had seen them in my seed catalogs. I certainly had never seen one in a Texas garden.

I’m pretty sure that the first native columbines (of Texas or anyplace else) I ever saw were in a mass at Dr. William C. Welch’s former home and landscape in College Station. I’m not 100 percent certain, but I suspect the legendary plant collector Lynn Lowrey introduced them to him. The bed was quite spectacular. It was Hinckley’s columbine, which was destined to become a Texas Superstar (in 1993, according to Dr. Parsons).

Dr. Welch and I planted this same variety at the then-new Antique Rose Emporium, where I worked while in graduate school, 1985-1986. About that same time I was introduced to the late Pam Puryear, founder of the Texas Rose Rustlers.

A couple of years later, I was the county horticulturist in San Antonio (1987-1989 I think). When Pam found out that Jerry and I were working with columbines, she shared that her cousin, Emily Lott, had done her graduate work at Sul Ross on them and had brought one of each species and variety to Pam’s home and garden in Navasota, where they had been planted side by side. By the time I got to know Pam, they had hybridized (which they are prone to do) and she mailed me a slide of what she referred to as a “bastard columbine.” Anyway, it turns out that the species and varieties that existed in Texas were Aquilegia canadensis (eastern columbine), Aquilegia chrysantha chrysantha (golden columbine), Aquilegia chrysantha chaplinei (Chaplin’s columbine), Aquilegia chrysantha hinkleyana (Hinkley’s columbine), and Aquilegia longissimi (long-spurred columbine).

Aquilegia chrysantha chrysantha (golden columbine). Photo taken by Neil Sperry at base of Cattail Falls, Big Bend National Park.

When Jerry and I started trying to procure enough seed to plant seed blocks for introduction into the nursery trade, it became clear to me that folks had columbines with different looks. Some were more yellow with skinnier petals and longer spurs and some were more showy, a bit bi-colored with wider petals and shorter spurs. It was then that I got out my taxonomy books and studied all the columbines Pam’s cousin had researched. Naturally, Pam shared Emily’s thesis with me.

Lott, E.J. 1979. Variation and interrelationships of Aquilegia populations of Trans-Pecos Texas. M.S. thesis, Sul Ross State University, Alpine, TX.

I’m not sure what went on while I spent two years at Louisiana State University, but when I got back to San Antonio and was working as director of research and development at Lone Star Growers, Jerry and I planted stock blocks of pure Aquilegia chrysantha hinckleyana to collect from and to provide to the nursery trade for introduction. Jerry planted a nice area under a Montezuma cypress in his backyard, while I planted a nice stand on a slope at Lone Star Growers.

Somewhere in here, after Jerry and I realized there were several different kinds of golden columbines native to Texas, most of them going around as Hinkley’s, we decided to go to Big Bend to find them all! I remember going to Cattail Falls in Big Bend, where we photographed Aquilegia chrysantha chrysantha, NOT Hinkley’s. We also saw some beautiful Aquilegia longissma in a flower bed at a local business. But no A. chaplinei or A. hinkleyana.

On one occasion, the late Joe Bradberry, my boss at Lone Star Growers, and I made an ill-fated attempt to visit a stand of Hinkley’s columbines on a ranch at Capote Falls, by then narrowed down as the only location where these treasures grew. Unfortunately, Joe’s maroon Cadillac and his position on the board of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center weren’t enough to gain us admission, and we never saw the site.

Since we already had seed, all was OK; we just needed to separate out Hinkley’s and provide it to the growers.

We then ran into germination and vernalization (cold dormancy) issues, which were solved by sending the seed to Colorado for early plug production, then bringing them back to San Antonio, where they were produced outside through the winter and bloomed the first spring in gallon pots. Once we had selected (and named) the columbine, Dr. Parsons, Dr. Steve George, and I decided it was worthy of being named a Texas Superstar. Lone Star Growers could be the main wholesale supplier.

At that juncture, I went to our sales director, Tom Dickerson, and told him we needed a bunch for the promotion. Tom didn’t want to grow more than a few thousand, fearing we’d be stuck with them — as Lone Star had been in the past with other native plant introductions. I was convinced that wouldn’t be enough for the state of Texas for such a pretty and special plant, so I pulled rank and went to the president, Joe Bradberry, who called us both into his office to hear our points of view. I explained what a great plant it was and that we were the only source for a major promotion. Joe looked at me and asked, “How many should we grow?” I said at least 10,000. Joe said, “Grow 12,000.” Tom glared at me and grimaced with skepticism.

Fortunately, the plants grew and bloomed beautifully, and ‘Texas Gold’ columbine sold out in one week. Tom Dickerson helped to load the trailers.

Note from Neil: Both Greg Grant and Tom Dickerson have been great friends of mine for 30-40 years. I smile as I read Greg’s words. Each man has done so much to enrich the Texas nursery industry. This is a wonderful story.

Posted by Greg Grant
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