Horticultural Heroes

by | Jun 11, 2024 | Feature, Magazine, People

The wind whips over a stretch of Pflugerville, Texas prairieland, rustling the grass and setting tiny orange and blue flags bobbing. Each marks the location of a special plant, its long summer foliage hidden among the golden grass stalks. In the near future, this former residential property will be bulldozed and developed. 

But on this bright, humid morning, the people wandering the prairie in safety jackets and hard hats aren’t there for construction. They’re volunteers with the Native Plant Rescue Project, and they’re here for the plants. 

The loamy plains and hardscrabble hills of the Texas Hill Country host a botanical garden’s worth of interesting native plants, each specifically evolved to thrive within the challenging landscape. But many of these plants — uncultivated by private nurseries or academic institutions, unrecognized by casual wildflower enthusiasts — are under pressure from the boom in development throughout the I-35 corridor. As ranchlands and empty fields are converted into housing and businesses, some of the region’s interesting plants are at serious risk of losing ground. The Native Plant Rescue Project is here to offer them a way out. 

The Texas Hill Country sits at the intersection of multiple habitats. To the east of I-35 runs the rich, dark clay of the Blackland Prairie, fueling tall grasses and agriculture. To the west rise the rolling hillsides and limestone outcrops of the Edwards Plateau, with their pockets of hardy plants and fields of seasonal blooms. This crossroads landscape — raked by summer heat and occasional gushes of rain — has given rise to a patchwork ecosystem filled with interesting and opportunistic native plants and wildflowers. 

Some, like the famous bluebonnet, are beloved, grown in nurseries and seeded avidly throughout private property. Many others are more obscure, but no less fascinating, with names that seem right out of a fairy tale: longleaf buckwheat and narrowleaf puccoon, slimflower scurfpea snake apple, prairie pinkroot and Dutchman’s britches. Some have showy flowers; others bloom in more subtle ways, their blossoms poking up above the bronze grass in high summer, when the bright carpets of spring have withered. 

“I’ve always been interested in native plants, but I didn’t know ours,” said Ashley Landry, leader of the plant rescue. She grew increasingly fascinated in plant identification through her involvement with the Texas Master Naturalist Program and use of tools like iNaturalist. She also began looking for native plants to put in her yard. But whenever she went to a local nursery, she found few of them available. “There was this disconnect between the plants I could see out in the field, and the ones I can get,” she said. 

More concerning, she said, was the fact that many of the plants that interested her in Williamson, Travis and Hays Counties were at serious risk of being paved over. In 2022, the suburb of Georgetown saw the fastest rate of growth in the country, with Kyle and Leander not far behind; with that growth in Travis, Williamson and Hays counties has come attendant housing developments, business parks, box stores and parking lots. “With the development everywhere, we’re throwing these plants away when they’re not available in the nursery trade.” 


Landry founded the Native Plant Rescue Project last summer to save her favorite blooms. PHOTO Ann Alva Wieding

Last summer — after spending time researching the legalities and talking to other native plant societies — Landry started the Native Plant Rescue Project, an initiative powered by volunteers from the Native Plant Society of Texas, Good Water Master Naturalists, and other interested parties. She finds potential sites by keeping an active eye on construction permits filed in Williamson County. There are subtleties to this, she said: plots of Blackland Prairie to the east of I-35 are more likely to have been used for agriculture, with native species lost to the plow. “On the west side its easier to find these cool plants but you have to watch for overgrazing.”[/caption]When she finds a spot that looks promising, she’ll drive by the roadside perimeter to see if anything interesting — cacti, milkweed, perennials — is growing there. Then she contacts the landowners with a pitch that includes pictures of any plants she’s seen.

Some landowners never get back to her. But she’s worked hard to forge agreements with others in the construction permitting process, who give permission for her and her volunteers to enter the property and take whatever plants interest them. Most of these landowners prefer anonymity, and the site of these rescues is kept secret. Others, like Sabey Construction, are enthusiastic about the experience.
“We really try to respect what these landowners want and make it as easy and risk free as possible,” Landry said. “We couldn’t do it without them, and I think it’s the most ethical way to take plants and do good with them because the plants would otherwise perish.”

Once they get the go ahead, Landry and volunteers visit the property to scout for any important plants, mark them, and form a plan to go get them. In 2023, that occasionally meant trekking around properties in triple digit heat, sometimes in stands of tall grass with a risk of rattlesnakes. Volunteers drag along wagons and carry special shovels on their backs, working carefully to extract plants and get them into cooling bags. Then they fill in the holes and go, bringing the rescued plants to their new homes.

Some of those plants — particularly cactus species like horse crippler, lace cacti, pineapple cacti and the little Missouri foxtail, which crouch unobtrusively amid dry prairie grasses — end up at botanical gardens like the Wildflower Center or San Antonio Botanical Garden, in part because cacti reproduce slowly and are at particular risk for poaching.

“In general the two botanical gardens are for conservation, so they can be caretakers of these species,” Landry says. “If it’s in a yard, someone can move or die, and the property can change hands. In the gardens, it’s forever.”

FROM LEFT Volunteers prepare for a day of plant rescue in Pflugerville, Texas; Landry and a volunteer admire an intricate root system; A longleaf buckwheat (Eriogonum longifolium)on its way to salvation. PHOTOS Ann Alva Wieding

Native plant seeds also go to the Wildflower Center’s conservation seed bank, part of a collaboration that’s just beginning to flower. “They’re not necessarily always rare species that we’re collecting, but they’re really interesting because these populations are going to be wiped out,” said Jessi White, Wildflower Center seed bank coordinator. Landry and White are also figuring out places they can share seeds with to increase the amount of native species in gardens public and private. “They are central Texas natives, so we want to keep them where they’re best — in central Texas,” White said. “Because these properties are being developed, it’s a really good opportunity to connect with community, share these seeds and save plants that otherwise are not going to be around much longer.” 

Landry places a particular emphasis on getting native Hill Country plants into the nursery trade. Many of the Texas plants sold in Austin-area nurseries come from far afield — as far east as Houston or from the deserts of the Trans-Pecos, she noted. There are comparatively few species available from nurseries or seed companies in Austin’s backyard. “We want to change that to where you can actually buy more Central Texas species from native plant growers,” Landry said, so that gardeners can source natives, like a medicinal plant, from the commercial trade. “We send some of our rescue plants to local growers for propagation, and we also collect seed to send to Native American Seed, who will propagate and sell it, so that more of these species will eventually be available to the public.”

The trick, however, is to make sure that the plants are distributed as widely as possible, Landry said. That doesn’t just ensure that these plants will be distributed around Travis and Williamson Counties in the future: it also ensures that the plants are on people’s radar. For many people in Texas, Landry said, spring wildflowers are the main show, and summer- and fall-blooming species are rarely discussed.

Some of the work Landry does is within Round Rock, Texas which recently joined the Xerces Society’s Bee City USA program and has been an enthusiastic supporter of the rescue. (Austin is already a member.) Despite these initiatives, municipal inertia can see wildflower meadows mowed in areas of Georgetown or Round Rock after the more visually alluring spring season, dealing a blow to the fall blooms. Mowing itself isn’t necessarily the problem — roadsides have been mowed for decades, Landry says, and remain an important reservoir for species that have had a harder time on agricultural land. But it helps to be intentional about where and when it’s done. 

“Sometimes these city departments want to do the right thing, but there are different parts of city government that don’t always talk to each other,” Landry says. “Everyone wants to plant pollinator gardens, but if we manage what we have — we already have acres.” 

A parcel of dry, rocky grassland slated for development hosts a surprisingly rich number of species. PHOTO Ann Alva Wieding

An eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii) brightens up a development site. PHOTO Ann Alva Wieding

It’s a bright, cool morning in Pflugerville as Landry and her volunteers fan out. The property they’re working over was once a residential plot, with a relatively well-kept front lawn and a back acre left to grow wild. The resulting parcel — a dry, rocky grassland — is surprisingly rich in species. Knee-high grass swishes against our legs as we walk. Landry points out several unobtrusive but handsome species: the tall, purple-flowered Leavenworth eryngo, Barbara’s buttons, and twist leaf yucca. Dragonflies zip like dogfighting aircraft overhead.

But the volunteers are on a mission. Landry stops regularly to mark clumps of longleaf buckwheat, a stalky, white-flowered plant that’s particularly beloved of bees. There are several mature individuals throughout the property that she’s flagged, and as we walk, she keeps noticing more. Finally, she brings the rootslayer shovel off her shoulder and digs it into the stony ground, cutting a wide circle around a big buckeye. The ground bulges and buckles as she pries it up. Then she carefully places it in a cooler full of cool water for the roots. Then she moves on to the next plant, and the next. Around the field, her colleagues are busy harvesting as many plants as they can.

Some of what they’re collecting isn’t blooming yet. Landry herself stops now and then to pull up seemingly unremarkable bits of root and gristle-dry stalk. There are plenty of species that need rescuing which aren’t in bloom by the time they get out to a property, she says, and you need to be able to recognize them regardless of the state they’re in. Very often, they come out to find that Landry’s initial quick estimate of species has been wrong, and that there are far more interesting plants than expected.

But that’s the difficulty: there’s a limited amount of time and space, and many of these properties contain snapshots of species assemblages under serious pressure. Sometimes all they can do before the bulldozers arrive is to save a handful of plants, and let the landowners know what treasures they had, hidden in the seemingly unremarkable grass.

“A lot of time they’re very surprised by what we find,” Landry says. “I once had one of the developers tell me, ‘I just thought it was weeds. I just thought it was trees and weeds and rocks.’”