Healthy living means eating right, working out, and relieving stress. It also means taking responsibility for the natural environment on which we depend. If we nurture our ecosystems, rivers that supply us with drinking water become clean, wetlands regain their ability to shield us from hurricanes like Katrina, forests expand into carbon sinks that slow global warming, and farm soil comes alive, protecting our vegetable harvests from pests and minimizing the need for pesticides.
Stewardship of large wetlands, rivers, and forests may not be your game because it is political. But we all can rebalance the immediate environment we inhabit. What I have in mind is the lawn. Lawns constitute two percent of the continental United States, an area four times the size of any irrigated crop.[i]
Most lawns are filled with imported vegetation. In Houston, my hometown, you’ll find Bermuda grass from the Middle East,[ii] crape myrtles from China, tulips from Western Asia,[iii] daisies from Europe, and bougainvilleas from Brazil. These newcomers are crowding out plants, insects, birds, and other wildlife that were here for thousands of years.
Even migratory animals are under pressure. An example is the famed Monarch butterfly, which passes through Houston on its way to Canada. Only recently did the Washington Post reveal that since 1990 nearly a billion Monarchs have vanished.
By re-envisioning our lawns and making them at once beautiful for ourselves and hospitable to local wildlife, we can restore lost ecology. In that spirit my husband Terry and I have been tossing about ideas for removing several non-native ornamentals from our lawn. The plan is to replace them with fruit trees, thereby localizing our food supply, and Houston native plants to create space for habitat.
Houston native plants at your fingertips, thanks to Mark and Mary Bowen
If you live in the Bayou City and would like to incorporate Houston native plants into your landscaping, you might benefit from a great resource I’ve created. It is based on the book Habitat Gardening for Houston and Southeast Texas by Mark Bowen and Mary Bowen.
Published in 1998, the book describes the ecology of this region – coastal prairie in a semi-tropical climate with heavy clay soil, large swaths of tall grass, and a limited number of trees. Before European settlers arrived, this prairie was home to herds of buffalo. Today the buffalo are gone and the prairie has shrunk to one percent of its former size.
The Bowens want to give Houstonians the tools to bring back some of the original habitat. They provide advice on how to establish a prairie, create a coastal woods ecosystem or wetland, improve soil health, and attract wildlife. Here’s their guiding principle for habitat gardening:
Plants from your region historically should be given first consideration to meet your needs. If a native plant can’t be found which meets a particular need, then attempt to identify a naturalizing plant from other parts of Texas, from the Southeastern United States, or another part of the world with a similar climate.
The heart of the book is a list of over seventy Houston native plants that are particularly suitable for landscaping your garden.
Here’s the hitch. Habitat Gardening for Houston is out of print with only a few hardcopies traded on Amazon. A Kindle version is available, which I purchased. As it turns out, the Kindle contains the entire text but not a single photograph. Picture my disappointment when I went through the list of perennials, shrubs, and trees: How was I to decide on a plant if I had not idea of its visual impact?
Houston native plants in the Encyclopedia of Life
After a few moments of brooding I had a Eureka moment. Only recently had I discovered the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), a brilliant project that aims to create an open and trusted digital encyclopedia of life on Earth. With support from established institutions such as Harvard University and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, EOL is bound to mature into a trustworthy and widely used resource. Why not create a collection within the Encyclopedia of Life that’s based on the work of Mark and Mary Bowen? Inspired, I went to work.
A few days have passed, and the collection is complete. It contains the entire list of plants produced by the Bowens, together with some basic annotations and links to a detailed and evolving encyclopedic record. To view the collection, click here. You can use it on its own or, better yet, purchase a Kindle copy of Habitat Gardening in Houston and use that in combination with the collection. The fact that the Kindle copy lacks photos is no longer a hindrance.
How to use the EOL collection on Houston native plants
If you wonder how you might put the collection to use, here’s an example.
Considering a hedge for our lawn, Terry asked me to research suitable plant material that is either native or has proven value as a habitat plant. Two weeks ago I would not have known where to begin with this endeavor. But thanks to EOL I was able to visit my collection, sort it by plant type, and browse through the sections on shrubs and generic native plants. I found that the wax myrtle only requires a spacing of three to four feet, which means it can be grown as a small shrub.
Next, I pulled up “wax myrtle hedge” on Google Images to see if other people have built hedges from wax myrtle. Indeed they have.
The cinch is that 37 species of birds like the seed of this shrub. This means the wax myrtle can fulfill two functions: provide privacy for us and habitat for wildlife. How cool is that?
Where can you find Houston native plants?
Perhaps you end up using the collection – I sure hope you do – and come up with a list of plants you want to purchase. You will likely not find them at your nearest discount gardening center, because those stores cater to the majority – folks partial to crape myrtles, tulips, daisies, and bougainvilleas. Finding native plants is a tad challenging. Here’s a list of local stores that might help you:
- Buchanan’s Native Plants, a store in the Houston Heights.
- Joshua’s Native Plants, a store on W. 18th Street.
And here is a list of expert institutions with knowledge of where to find Houston native plants:
- The Houston Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas. It occasionally holds native plant sales.
- The Houston Arboretum and Nature Center, a non-profit urban nature sanctuary that provides education about the natural environment. Occasionally it holds plant sales.
- The Mercer Arboretum. It is a park and botanical garden run by Harris County’s Precinct 4. Its “About” page states that “Mercer employs a team of experienced botanists, horticulturists, and gardeners who offer a wealth of knowledge and information, and will gladly assist you in anyway they can during your visit.” Occasionally Mercer offers native plant sales.
- The Native Prairies Association of Texas, a non-profit membership organization dedicated to the conservation, restoration, and appreciation of native prairies.
- The Katy Prairie Conservancy, a non-profit land trust that seeks to enhance wildlife habitat and restore both tallgrass prairie and wetlands.
- The Armand Bayou Nature Center in Pasadena. They preserve Armand Bayou’s wetlands prairie, forest and marsh habitats, making them available to the public.
- The Gulf Coast chapter of the Texas Master Naturalist. The Texas Master Naturalist is an organization that wants to develop a corps of well-informed volunteers to provide education dedicated to the management of natural areas in Texas.
This should get you started. I wish you good luck as you transform your environment into a space of hospitality. May you enjoy it.
Notes and references
[i] Milesi C., C.D. Elvidge, J.B. Dietz, B.T. Tuttle, R.R. Nemani, and S.W. Running. 2005. A strategy for mapping and modeling the ecological effects of US lawns. Paper presented at the 3rd international symposium on remote sensing and data fusion over urban areas, and at the 5th international symposium on remote sensing of urban areas (joint symposium), Tempe, AZ, USA; March 14–16 2005. Freely available online here. The authors say that lawns are “three times larger than that of any irrigated crop,” which means they are four (not three) times the size of that crop. See Dr. Math.
[ii] Farsani, Tayebeh Mohammadi, Nematollah Etemadi, Badraldin Ebrahim Sayed-Tabatabaei, and Majid Talebi. “Assessment of genetic diversity of Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon) using ISSR markers.” International Journal of Molecular Sciences 13, no. 1 (2012): 383-392. Freely available here.
[iii] Christenhusz, Maarten J.M., Rafaël Govaerts, John C. David, Tony Hall, Katherine Borland, Penelope S. Roberts, Anne Tuomisto, Sven Buerki, Mark W. Chase, and Michael F. Fay. “Tiptoe through the tulips–cultural history, molecular phylogenetics and classification of Tulipa (Liliaceae).” Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 172, no. 3 (2013): 280-328. Gated copy available here.