Houston: Mercer Botanical Gardens (Six on Saturday #32)

Mercer Botanical Gardens are located north of downtown Houston, very close to George Bush Intercontinental Airport.  I had visited the gardens once before, about seventeen years ago, but remembered very little, so during our recent trip to Houston, I took the opportunity to renew my acquaintance.

I had forgotten about Hurricane Harvey.  During the flooding last year, the gardens were submerged under eight feet of muddy, polluted water.  Clearly the floods did a lot of damage, and just as clearly the gardens employees and volunteers have been working very hard to repair the damage. This article from the Houston Chronicle describes the devastation, and a google image search will show you what the gardens once were.  These six pictures will give you a little taste of what the gardens are now, and a hint of what they will be again.

1.  Dead palm tree


Some of the garden grounds were still closed off, and in the open areas damaged plants were still visible.  After the flooding, last winter included an unusually prolonged cold spell in the Houston area, which probably did not help the tender palms.  Virtually all of those that were still alive had damaged fronds, but that damage is temporary.  I’m not sure if this palm tree was left in the ground because the staff had been overwhelmed, or if they were waiting to see if it might resprout.

2.  Zephyranthes (rain lilies)


Many of the plants that seemed to be in the best conditions were tropical bulbs and rhizomes, particularly those that tolerate wet soil (crinum, gingers, etc).  Presumably, these plants resisted being washed away by the flood, and any top damage was easily replaced.  I saw an enormous clump of Hymenocallis caribaea, unfortunately not blooming, that was in prime condition, but the best flowers were on these unlabeled Zephyranthes.  They were blooming all by themselves in a rock garden area that appeared to have been recently renovated but not yet replanted.

3-5. Tropical shrubs and trees

Erythrina crista-galli, one of the parents of Erythrina x. bidwillii

Although many of the beds are thus far, still fairly barren, splashes of color from vigrous perennials and fast growing tropical trees and shrubs hint at how spectacular the gardens will be again in a few years.

Huge, hot-pink flowers of Lagerstroemia speciosa
Stachytarpheta mutabilis (coral porterweed)

6.  Anolis sagrei (brown anole)


The gardens were swarming with little brown anoles.  A. sagrei is native to Cuba and the Bahamas, and it is an invasive species in the southeastern U.S.  where it often replaces the native Anolis carolinensis (green anole).  My parents’ garden south of Houston still has green anoles, but I didn’t see a single native lizard at Mercer.

So, that’s Six on Saturday and a very brief look at Mercer as it is now.  For more Six on Saturday, head over to the blog of The Propagator, who started this weekly exercise and collects links from other participants.

Houston: Brazos Bend State Park


This week we traveled to see family in Houston.  While there, we visited two places that may be of interest to readers of this blog:  Brazos Bend State Park and Mercer Botanic Garden.

Brazos Bend State Park is a 4897-acre park on the banks of the Brazos River in rural Fort Bend County, about 45 miles from downtown Houston.  It contains prairie, bottomland forest, and various wetlands, and it is one of my favorite places to visit in the Houston area because of its varied wildlife.

The primary appeal of Brazos Bend–at least for our family–is the large population of American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis).  On a warm summer day, they are everywhere.

Be careful if you decide to sit on a log.
And pay attention if you go down to the water’s edge.
Don’t dabble your fingers or toes in the duckweed.

In the winter, we sometimes don’t see any, but this week was hot (95 F) and very, very humid–perfect weather for gator viewing.  The kids stopped counting at thirty.


The rangers recommend that visitors stay 30 feet away from alligators.  That can be difficult when they park themselves beside the trail.


Discretion is the better part of valor, and it is usually best to turn down another trail. Nevertheless, some people get a bit too close:


I prefer to trust in a good zoom lens.

In addition to the alligators, there is a lot of other wildlife in Brazos Bend.  On past visits, we have seen armadillos and feral pigs, but this year all of our sightings were in and around the water.  We saw three red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) laying eggs and a fourth lumbering across the path, probably on its way to build a nest or returning to the water after finishing.  We didn’t bother to count the turtles in the water.

Red-eared slider on her nest.

There were also a wide variety of water birds, including:

Black-bellied whistling duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis)
Common gallinule (Gallinula galeata)
A black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) who looks as though it is up to no good.
green heron
Green heron (Butorides virescens).  There were also a number of little blue herons (Egretta caerulea), but none held still for a photograph..
Great egret (Ardea alba)
A bedraggled anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) drying itself after a swim.

Just about the only animals we saw that weren’t aquatic or semi-aquatic were the golden silk spiders (Nephila clavipes) that had spun their webs along (or across) the trail in wooded areas.


We also saw some of the same animals a little closer to home.  One morning, I strolled down to the spillway near my parents’ house, where the neighborhood lake drains into Oyster Creek.  A handsome family of black-bellied whistling ducks was sheltering on top of the spillway.


Mama duck was keeping all of the ducklings tucked under her wings, probably because several herons were skulking nearby, ostensibly fishing but probably keeping an eye open for stray ducklings.

Great blue heron (Ardea herodias)
Black-crowned night heron

The herons flew away, complaining loudly, when eldest offspring and I walked down to see what we could see in the creek, and as soon as they were gone, mama duck let the babies out.


That’s probably enough photographs for one post.  I’ll save Mercer Botanic Garden for another day.

Trilliums at Plant Delights Nursery (Six on Saturday #22, February 24, 2018)

This weekend is the first Plant Delights open house for 2018, so the whole family made the pilgrimage down to Raleigh to sign over our paycheck (and possibly first-born offspring) to Tony Avent.  After buying a few more plants than planned, we took a walk around the gardens.  The Agaves and other desert plants were looking a little the worse for wear after the cold snap in January, so the shade garden was where all the action was.  A variety of spring ephemerals were starting to bloom, but my attention was captured by the trilliums and their fantastic mottled foliage.  It being Saturday, here are six of them.

1.   Trillium x Freatum PDN #14


This plant was absolutely my favorite of all the trilliums in the garden.  I love the combination of  brownish mottling and yellow flower with darker orange overlay.  If someone (hint, hint, PDN staff) were to tissue culture this plant, I would buy the heck out of it.

Trillium x Freatum is Plant Delights’ own hybrid of Trillium “freemanii” x Trillium cuneatumT. “freemanii” seems to be an unpublished name for a Trillium population, possibly allied to T. cuneatum, in Hamilton County, Tennessee.

2. Trillium maculatum ‘Kanapaha Giant’


3.  Trillium stramineum


4.  Trillium decipiens


5.  Trillium reliquum


6.  Trillium “No Tag”


For more interesting ‘Six on Saturday’ blog posts, click over to The Propagator.  You’ll see his contribution and links to those of other participants.

Brief intermission

I have been away at a conference in Washington, DC.  Until I have a chance to get back out into the  garden, please enjoy this portrait with significant horticultural content that I saw while touring the National Gallery of Art during my lunch break.


Rubens Peale with a Geranium was painted by the human subject’s older brother, Rembrandt Peale, in 1801.   According to the story attached to the painting, the botanical subject was grown by Rubens Peale and was the first of its kind to bloom in North America.

“Painted in Philadelphia, the work could be described as a double portrait because the geranium, reputed to be the first specimen of this exotic plant ever grown in the New World, is as lovingly portrayed as the painter’s brother is…Combining firm, clear drawing, carefully modulated color, and an intense devotion to detail, twenty-three-year-old Rembrandt Peale produced an eloquent expression of his family’s philosophical orientation.”  Source


Summer vacation 2: downeast Maine and Kingsbrae Garden


(I meant to write this shortly after the post about our trip to the Pacific northwest, because I thought it would be interesting to compare the flora, both wild and cultivated, of the two northern locales.  But something else always seemed to require my attention, and now two months have gone by.  Luckily, photos of flowers never wilt.)

Part the First: Introduction

near Cutler

Towards the end of summer it is our habit to rent a little cottage on the coast of Maine and spend a quiet week hiking, fishing, and sampling the lobster rolls from as many different seafood takeouts as possible (the best this year:  Bayview Takeout on Beals Island).  The primary appeal of the area (apart from summer temperatures a good twenty degrees F cooler than North Carolina) is the coastline.  As a youngster, I imprinted on rocky shores in Cornwall and Norway, so the sand beaches and dunes of North Carolina, pretty as they are, can’t compete.  The granite slopes tumbling down to cold, deep water are evocative of happy childhood memories, and there can hardly be a better way to spend a summer afternoon than exploring a rocky tide pool.

Great Wass Island Preserve

We go far enough “down east” to leave the heaving mass of vacationers behind, and it’s not unusual to have a couple of miles of shoreline or a mountain trail all to ourselves.  Just an hour’s drive to the west, there are traffic jams in Acadia National Park, but we often see more wildlife than people.

I’m not very good at distinguishing grey seals from harbor seals.  I think this is a grey.

Afternoon visitor to the cottage garden
eagle 2
Not sure if the Noble Symbol of our Nation is reacting to current politics or has a fish bone stuck in his throat
Low tide

I just can’t get enough of this scenery.

Tunk mountain
The view from the top of Tunk Mountain is worth the climb.
water striders
Water striders on Jones Pond, Gouldsboro


Part the Second:  Wildflowers

Of course, whenever we go for a drive or a hike, I keep my eyes open for interesting plants.  This year, I noticed some similarities between the coast of Washington and that of Maine, despite more than 3000 miles,several mountain ranges, and four degrees of latitude separating the two locations.

In both places, one of the most common wildflowers is Chamaenerion angustifolium (fireweed):

Chamaenerion angustifolium (fireweed)

Spiraea species are also common along the roadside.  In Washington we saw pink flowered Spiraea douglasii and S. densiflora, while in Maine we see the white S. alba. Both fireweed and white meadowsweet are native to the mountains of North Carolina, but I have never seen them growing in the piedmont.  Too hot in summer, I would imagine.

Spiraea alba (white meadowsweet)

I saw some very interesting plants during a hike in Great Wass Island Preserve, where part of the loop trail runs just above the high tide line.  There’s really no trail at all for several miles, just occasional blazes painted on the rocks.  The cracks in the rock accumulate enough soil for plants to survive in what must be one of the harshest environments imaginable: baking in summer, frigid in winter, and dry when it isn’t being lashed by salt spray.

Great Wass Island
Great Wass Island Preserve

This is the home of a very pretty Campanula species that almost seems too delicate to grow in such a tough habitat.

campanula 2
Campanula sp. (bellflower)


Nearby, I also found and odd little plant with a cloud of tiny purple flowers above prostrate leaves:

sea lavendar
Limonium carolinianum (sea lavender)

I also found a succulent that I tentatively identified as a sedum.  When I looked it up later, I discovered that I wasn’t far off.

Rhodiola rosea, formerly Sedum rosea (roseroot)
roseroot 2
Beside this R rosea are the sword-like leaves of immature Iris setosa (beachhead iris).

The interior of the island is a shield of bare granite that the trail crosses to return to the parking lot.  Where a thin layer of acidic soil has accumulated on the rock, lichens and moss form a carpet among various ericaceous shrublets and stunted Pinus banksiana (jack pines).  In early August, the soil and moss was bone dry, and the leaves of wild blueberries and other ericaceae were already taking on their autumn colors.


Where the topography of the rock results in poorly drained pockets of peat, sphagnum moss and carnivorous plants grow.  I saw numerous Drosera rotundifolia (roundleaf sundew) and a few Sarracenia purpurea subsp. purpurea (northern purple pitcher plant)


This plant was growing in shade, so it has much less red pigmentation than plants growing in a more sunny location.  The presence of red veins in the pitchers shows that it is not the all-green Sarracenia purpurea subsp. purpurea forma heterophylla

For comparison, here is a red plant that I found a couple of years ago in Quoddy Head State Park, a little further northeast towards the Canadian border:

Sarracenia 2

And here are the shorter, wider pitchers of the southern subspecies, Sarracenia purpurea subsp. venosa, growing in North Carolina :

Sarracenia 3


Part the Third:  Kingsbrae Garden

No matter where we travel, we like to visit local botanical gardens, so one morning we drove about a hundred miles and crossed into Canada to visit Kingsbrae Garden in St. Andrews, New Brunswick.  On the drive up Route 9 to the border crossing at Calais, we stopped at what may be the most beautiful highway rest area I have ever seen.

rest area with lobelia

It also had the smelliest outhouse, but I didn’t take a photograph of that.

Along the stream, bright red Lobelia cardinalis were in full bloom.

rest area with lobelia 2

Interestingly, the same species was blooming at the same time in my garden 600 miles to the south.

Kingsbrae Garden was well worth the trip.  It isn’t all that large, but it is beautifully landscaped and contains a wide variety of native and exotic plants.

The first area a visitor encounters is a formal knot garden.


Kingsbrae succulent
Sempervivum in bloom

Below that is an informal perennial garden:


There’s a pond:


And interesting shrubs:

Kingsbrae hydrangea
Hydrangea paniculata
Cephalanthus occidentalis (buttonbush), native to New Brunswick and North Carolina
Rhus typhina (staghorn sumac), also native to New Brunswick and the mountains of NC

The sculpture garden incorporates works by Canadian artists:

Something Stirs by Joel Palmer
Salmon Vortex by Alanna Baird
Cascade by Donna Mayne

And there are Alpacas.  At lunch time, they come out to the main lawn to mingle with the visitors.


If you find yourself in New Brunswick (or in Maine and have your passport), Kingsbrae is well worth a visit.