During a late autumn trip through Arkansas’s Ouachita mountains, I stopped at a scenic overlook to enjoy the sunset. As I stepped out of the car, I nearly demolished a plant unlike any I’d ever seen. No more than a few inches tall and without any apparent foliage, its slender stalks bore what I assumed to be seeds. Round and green, they looked like English peas, or thin strings of grapes.
Once back in Texas, I began searching for information about my Arkansas oddity. Thanks to Sid Vogelpohl’s article for the Arkansas Native Plant Society, I learned that I’d stumbled across a cutleaf grape fern (Sceptridium dissectum). The fern appears in late summer to early fall, produces a solitary frond, and is named for its round, clustered sporangia, which do resemble a bunch of grapes. Intrigued, I posted about the fern on Lagniappe, and continued searching for information.
Eventually, I learned that grape ferns also are native to Texas, although they’re confined to the eastern part of the state. Nacogdoches County, one of ten listed as a location by the USDA, was close enough to warrant exploration. Narrowing my search, I discovered the fern included in a 1999 checklist of vascular plants inventoried at Nacogdoches’ Tucker Estate, now part of the Pineywoods Native Plant Center.
Although I’ve evacuated to Nacogdoches during hurricanes and pass through the town occasionally on my way to visit relatives, the existence of the Native Plant Center surprised me, as did the existence of a wildflower demonstration garden there. Promoted by Lady Bird Johnson and named in her honor, the garden grows more than a hundred plant species native to east Texas.
As I read about the Plant Center’s history and about the work taking place at Stephen F. Austin University’s Mast Arboretum, I was equally surprised to find that both institutions have been deeply involved with three rare Texas plants: the Neches River rose mallow (Hibiscus dasycalyx), Texas trailing phlox (Phlox nivalis spp. texensis), and a beautiful white flower commonly known as Winkler’s Gaillardia, Texas white firewheel, or Winkler’s blanket flower (Gaillardia aestivalis var. winklerii).
Despite my affection for Gaillardia generally, and my familiarity with the unusual colors it can produce, the thought of a rare white blanket flower astonished me. Clearly, it was time for a trip to Nacogdoches.
Arriving at the Native Plant Center, I first asked a pair of young men if they knew where I might find the cutleaf grape fern. They pondered, then pointed to a booted woman pulling a red wagon filled with plants and plastic pots. “You need to talk to Dawn,” one said. Eventually, I learned the woman was Dawn Stover, the person responsible for herbaceous plant collections at both the Mast Arboretum and the Plant Center, as well as for their horticultural greenhouse facilities.
When I asked Dawn if she knew where, or even if, the cutleaf grape fern still grew on the grounds, she wasn’t certain. She thought it might be growing somewhere in their forty acres, but she couldn’t take me to a particular site.
“Well,” I said, “do you happen to know if there are any of the Winkler’s Gaillardia still blooming?” Her eyes lit up, and she grinned. “I can show you some,” she said. “They’re over here.” In less than a minute, we were standing in front of several beds filled with beautiful flowers.
As I began photographing the flowers, Dawn explained the history of the Native Plant Center’s work with them, and her own development of a color form with purple rays and dark centers. A few of the purple flowers still were blooming, but given my love of white flowers, the native seemed far more attractive.
Endemic to Texas, Winkler’s Gaillardia grows only in Hardin county, with some occurrences reported in Tyler and Newton counties. Seeing them at the Native Plant center had been delightful, but the experience left me determined to see them in their native habitat: the sandy soils and pine-oak woodlands of East Texas’s Big Thicket. I soon learned that the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary — a 5,654 acre Nature Conservancy site located between Kountze and Silsbee — provides habitat for Winkler’s Gaillardia, as well as for the endangered Texas trailing phlox and a beautiful scarlet catchfly (Silene subciliata).
The Sanctuary, a combination of swamp, open-floor forest, and southern pinelands, is rich in plant and animal species, and serves as part of a comprehensive effort to protect and restore the longleaf pine ecosystem on the west Gulf coastal plain.
A bit of luck allowed me to make contact with Shawn Benedict, superintendent at the Sanctuary, and he graciously offered to spend some time with me when I arrived. I thought I detected a bit of amusement in his voice when he said he was certain he could help me find some white firewheels. He had reason to be amused; he already knew what I discovered only after I arrived. Scattered throughout the pine and oak woodlands that stretched into the sanctuary, the gaillardia were plentiful and obvious: some still in bud, some in seed, and others in full bloom.
After we admired the flowers, Shawn provided a brief tour of other Sanctuary highlights, and then went off to other things. For two more hours I wandered the trails, amazed by the variety of plant life. In that world, so different from the coastal prairies I’m most accustomed to, I wasn’t able to identify many of the plants fading away in the late October sunlight. But finding the Winkler’s Gaillardia had been my goal, and I’d succeeded beyond my wildest imaginings.
At the grand opening and dedication of the Pineywoods Native Plant Center and Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Demonstration Garden on April 8, 2000, Lady Bird herself was able to attend. After the festivities, she wrote a letter of thanks to David Creech, co-founder and for several years co-director of the Plant Center, including these comments about the luncheon decorations and the gifts she received:
I especially loved the wildflower table arrangements and little pots of Winkler’s white firewheel. Tomorrow, the men will plant my white firewheel, and I can’t wait to see the beautiful rare blossoms grow in in my very own yard! Thank you so much for your generosity in allowing me to take enough for the ranch, my house in Austin, and the Wildflower Center!
Lady Bird is gone now, of course, but the rare flower she loved continues to bloom in her gardens, at the Pineywoods Native Plant Center, and in the sandy soil of an east Texas preserve. When early summer arrives, I’ll be searching for it again. This time, I know where begin.