By Andrew Stuart
As every school child learns from Johnny Appleseed, bringing plants to the people is good work.
Since 2002, the Big Bend chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas has been spreading the news about native plants. And on Saturday, April 22, the nonprofit will host a plant sale, behind Chambers Realty at Avenue E and North Eighth Street in Alpine. The sale will feature more than 75 native species, and as many as 1,000 plants.
Planted in a garden or lawn, native plants can reinforce a sense of place. And they provide food and habitat for wildlife – from hummingbirds and solitary native bees to monarch butterflies and more.
But it’s not easy to find these plants in a commercial nursery.
At the sale, many of the plants will have been grown from seeds gathered by botanist Michael Eason.
Eason worked for 10 years for the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, primarily on a global initiative called the Millennium Seed Bank Project. Botanists gathered seeds around the world, to safeguard wild flora against future extinctions.
Eason and others collected from more than a thousand native plants in Texas. He worked extensively in the Trans-Pecos, and in 2006, settled in Alpine. Eason’s work with the seed bank ended in 2010. His obsession with collecting seeds did not.
“It’s a hard habit to break – collecting seeds,” Eason said, “so I continue to collect seeds, from various travels or out of my garden or various other gardens here in Marfa, and take those seeds and give those back to the growers, whether that’s the Wildflower Center or a handful of nurseries there in Austin.”
Eason has worked with private landowners. But he said the region’s roadsides offer abundant opportunities. From years of experience, Eason knows where to find plant populations – and when their seeds can be gathered. He said the Davis Mountains Scenic Loop is especially rich.
“Along the Scenic Loop especially,” Eason said. “There are easily 30 species that I know about that are off the roadside, and we just stop and collect, and then we’ll do Casa Piedra Road, or River Road, and then between here and Del Rio.”
Eason typically gathers about 10 percent of the seeds of a given population – leaving enough for that population to continue to thrive.
Eason said his top recommendation is penstemons. The sale will include several species of the flowering native. Eason gathered penstemon species from stony washes near the Rio Grande to the upcountry of the Davis Mountains. He said all of them will thrive in good soil.
“It’s really amazing to see these thing come on,” he said. “Right now we have one that is currently in full bloom, and just about the time that one is going to start fading, the next group is going to come on. If you plant several different species, you will always have a penstemon in flower.”
Growers have propagated the seeds Eason collected, and Eason has planted the natives in area gardens. These gardens, in turn, have become an important source of native seeds.
Others are working to expand the availability of native plants. The greenhouses at Sul Ross State University are an important resource. And in 2012, Alpine’s Borderlands Research Institute launched a program called the Trans-Pecos Native Plant Materials Initiative. The BRI is developing seed stock for 60 native species, and will pass that stock on to commercial growers. The seeds could be used to re-vegetate after wildfires, at roadsides and at oil-well pads.
As always, the native plant society痴 spring plant sale is held in connection with Earth Day, and this year’s sale is held on thOne Way Plant Nursery — on Ave. E and N. 8th St. in Alpine. The sale will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The sale is cash or check only, and native-plant experts will be on-hand to guide and educate buyers.
“I would definitely like to invite everyone out on Earth Day and come and see what we will have,” Eason said.
The spring sale will focus on herbaceous, green and flowering plants. There will also be perennial shrubs and both small and large trees, as the plant society will not host a fall plant sale this year.