A Botanist, A Politician, and a Sage

The disputed crape myrtle

As she retold the stories of a pair of charming and heart-warming turtles — Torty New Zealand’s oldest survivor of World War I, and Myrtle, a fictional but sensitive creature who is bullied because she happens to be purple — friend and fellow blogger Gallivanta provided reassuring proof that both authors and illustrators have the power to change our world for the better.

In the process, she added some interesting details from New Zealand’s history, riffed a bit on the color purple, and then provided a bit of botanical trivia.

As a tail-piece to these Chelonian Tales, let me remind you of the original purple Myrtle. She was not a turtle. In the 19th century she became so popular (supposedly) that many people gave her name to their daughters. She’s a true beauty and she was the very first purple Myrtle I ever met.
Myrtle’s  full name is Crape Myrtle, or Crepe Myrtle: Lagerstroemia indica. She’s hardy and resilient and, although she is a native of China and Korea, she is the Official State Shrub of Texas.

Reading that postscript, I couldn’t have been more astonished if a purple turtle had walked through my door. Like most Texans, I know our state flower is the bluebonnet and that we honor the mockingbird as our state bird, but it never had occurred to me that we might have a state shrub — let alone one that’s native to China.

It wasn’t hard to unearth the facts. Crepe myrtle became the official state shrub of Texas on June 18, 1997, when Governor George W. Bush signed House Concurrent Resolution No. 14.  After ten Whereas‘s, written in language fully as flowery as the shrub in question and clearly meant to flatter as many constituencies as possible, the following Resolutions were entered into the record:

RESOLVED, That the 75th Legislature of the State of Texas hereby formally recognize the valuable addition of the crape myrtle to our native flora and declare the crape myrtle the Official State Shrub of Texas; and, be it further
RESOLVED, That Lamar County be declared the Crape Myrtle County Capital and that Paris, its county seat, be designated the Official Crape Myrtle City for their longtime association with the celebrated shrub; and, be it further
RESOLVED, That Waxahachie be declared the Crape Myrtle Capital of Texas and that Brazos County be recognized as an Official Crape Myrtle County for their communities’ lasting contributions to the beautification of Texas.

That might have been the end of the story, had not a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service botanist by the name of Thomas Adams — the same Tom Adams who led the grass workshop I attended, and who’s helped me identify plants at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge — discovered that crape myrtle had been named our state shrub. As he wrote in response to my curious email, he was “a little perturbed” to find that a native plant hadn’t been chosen.

After making the discovery, he enlisted help from members of the Native Plant Society of Texas, and the group began to study their options. Eventually they decided Leucophyllum frutescens — a native shrub popularly known as cenizo, or purple sage — would be the best choice to replace the crape myrtle.

When Adams contacted his State Representative, Dennis Bonnen, the legislator agreed to sponsor a new resolution, but suggested a politically savvy option. Rather than ruffling feathers by trying to replace the crape myrtle, Bonnen urged creating a new category for the sage.

And so it was. With only six Whereas‘s and one Resolved, House Concurrent Resolution No. 71 was approved on May 27, 2005, and Leucophyllum frutescens — the purple sage — became the official native shrub of Texas.

Long before the Texas legislature put its stamp of approval on Leucophyllum frutescens, I’d come to love the plant that thrives under a variety of common names: Texas sage, Texas ranger, cenizo, silverleaf, or purple sage.

A tough, desert-loving plant native to Texas and Mexico, purple sage is resistant to drought, foraging deer, freezes, high winds, salt spray, and blazing heat. Its foliage has the soft, grayish appearance of mealy blue sage or dusty miller, and its blossoms, which range in color from pink to lavender, tend to appear in times of high humidity.

Since suddenly rising humidity generally precedes rain in arid or semi-arid climates, sage often blooms just before a rain. This quirky yet predictable behavior has led to yet another name for the plant: the barometer bush. Depending on conditions, particularly during extended dry periods or in the midst of drought, a blooming sage often signals coming rain, and excitement over its flowering can be palpable.

I first encountered blooming sage on a ranch road south of Uvalde, Texas. Astonished to see the nondescript, silvery-leafed shrubs I often passed awash in shades of lavender, thistle and plum, I asked a rancher about the abrupt change. “Just you wait,” he said. “They’ll be rain comin’ along, for sure.” 

Three days later, it poured.

In 2017, a lack of rain hasn’t been an issue in southeast Texas, but things are drying out, and concerns about drought are rising. During our last significant drought, I stopped watching the weather reports, but I did keep an eye on the sage. The plant tolerates city life as well as country living, and the movement toward xeric landscaping has increased its use in my area substantially.

One day, I noticed that plants around the parking lot of a local business had broken into riotous bloom. Every inch of the bushes was covered with purple flowers, nearly obscuring their silver leaves. I mentioned my sighting to some friends, and bravely predicted rain. Precisely when it would arrive I couldn’t say, but I knew that it was coming.

And after a few days’ wait, there was rain.

At first, there were only scattered showers: enough to wet the pavement and leave shallow puddles along the curb. The next day, after an afternoon cloud built up over the lake, the rain didn’t stop for an hour. Despite little actual accumulation, people were beginning to smile.

For the next few days, sporadic showers continued until, exactly ten days after the sage began to bloom, drizzly-and-scattered turned into significant rain. When I visited the barometer bush, there wasn’t a bloom to be found, but the glittering drops of rain covering the plant more than made up for its loss of color.

Certainly, it could have been coincidence. But more often that not, our nondescript, silvery-gray shrub has equaled or beaten the forecasters for accuracy. Let sceptics say what they will. In the midst of any dry spell, I’ll keep a close eye on the barometer bush, and if it surprises me by suddenly blooming, I’ll know to pay attention.

There’s no question that Texas’s official state shrub is beautiful in its own exotic way: its deeply saturated colors, long bloom time, and offering of seeds to migrating birds all are welcome.

But our official state native shrub is useful and dependable. And, honestly? In a harsh land historically given to drought, nothing shines so beautifully as a blooming barometer bush.


A Rising Green

Brazoria National Wildlife Refuge, February 2, 2017

After weeks of fruitless horizon-scanning and radar-consulting, the roiling smoke plume rising over the southwestern horizon seemed promising. Before long, I’d found confirmation: a scheduled burn at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge was underway, and the section being burned would be accessible by road.

February 2

I’d been hoping to visit a native prairie after a prescribed burn, and my opportunity had arrived. The January 31 burn, carried out under the supervision of the Texas Mid-Coast fire crew on 515 acres of land, would be accessible via Hoskins Mound Road, my usual route to the Brazoria refuge.

When I arrived at the refuge on February 2, a portion of the world I’d known there appeared to have been obliterated.
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Life’s Little Vacancies

Wichita, Kansas

Somewhere between Ness City and Hugoton, it occurred to me: most of the aging, slightly down at the heels motels still clinging to life along the business routes of small Kansas towns had “(No) Vacancy” signs somewhere on their property. A few signs had been modernized with neon. Others were more traditional: wooden, with an adjustable covering for the dreaded “No” that, when visible, sent discouraged and already weary travelers father on down the road.

By the time I reached Satanta, I was a little weary myself, and ready to stop, so I paused to ask a convenience store clerk if the town had a motel. It did. She gave me directions, and I found it easily enough. Unfortunately, I hadn’t found it soon enough. It had a sign, too, and the sign said, “No Vacancy.” Forty minutes later, I had a room in Hugoton.
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Reconsidering The Lilies

Egg dyeing; a surfeit of candy; patent leather shoes; fancy dresses in pastel colors; white gloves, and hats decorated with straw flowers: such were the traditions of Easter during my childhood, and I loved them all.

Only one aspect of our celebrations held no appeal: the appearance of the ubiquitous Easter lily. Its image adorned greeting cards, church bulletins, and the Easter Seals we affixed to letters and bill payments, while live plants filled store aisles, appeared at the front door in the hands of well-meaning neighbors, and nearly outnumbered worshippers on Easter Sunday.

Everyone said they were beautiful. It’s true that they were pretty enough, but what others called their fragrance, I thought of as their odor. In my twelve-year-old opinion, eau de skunk would have been preferable.
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(Click to enlarge)


One flower at a time, please,
however small the face.
Two flowers are one flower
too many, a distraction.
Three flowers in a vase begin
to be a little noisy.
Like cocktail conversation,
everybody talking.
A crowd of flowers is a crowd
of flatterers (forgive me).
One flower at a time.  I want
to hear what it is saying.
                                                      “Bouquet” ~ Robert Francis

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