News Categories: Mercer Botanic Gardens

18 Mar
By: Communications 0

Mercer Ambassadors Team with Harris County Master Gardeners

Anyone who has volunteered as a Mercer Ambassador in the past few months can tell you it’s an easy and enjoyable way to spend a few hours outdoors on a Saturday or Sunday.

“If you like talking to people and making them feel at home, you’ll enjoy being a Mercer Ambassador,” said volunteer coordinator Jamie Hartwell. “The Mercer Botanic Information Center is often the first place visitors stop after entering the gardens. People who are looking for maps, directions, and information appreciate seeing a friendly face to help them. Most just want to know the way to the restrooms and the library!”

The information center has been closed since Hurricane Harvey, but the need for information is always present, especially for first time visitors.

“We have so much information to share that can make a visit to Mercer an educational experience,” said Hartwell. “Ambassadors pass out flyers about upcoming events, Mercer maps, and Precinct 4 publications. Happenings is a comprehensive source of information that lists Precinct 4 events and activities, not just at Mercer.”

The most recent publication that’s been added to the table is the bountiful butterflies color pamphlet, which includes a butterfly life cycle diagram, butterfly guide, caterpillar raising tips, and ways to attract butterflies to your garden. It’s a colorful and easy tool to use for butterfly identification.

“Visitors like finding out about Mercer’s upcoming events and activities,” said Kim Jordan, an ambassador who volunteered with her daughter, Georgie Jordan. “Mercer has so much to offer besides beautiful surroundings, like Lunch Bunch, Storytime, camps, and volunteer opportunities, to name a few. Whether they’re one-time visitors here because they have a layover at the airport or they’re Mercer regulars, most everyone appreciates being welcomed and thanked for visiting.”

Volunteer groups are also popular at Mercer, including the Grand Lilies chapter of the National Charity League (NCL), Harris County Master Gardeners, and the Texas A&M Agrilife Extension Service.

“The public parks fit perfectly with our mission of educating Harris County residents on gardening and horticulture,” said Brandi Keller, a master gardener program coordinator with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. “Visitors often stop on their way out of the gardens, after they’ve formulated questions about plants they’ve seen on their walk. We appreciate this unique collaboration to serve the local community.”

To find out more about the Mercer Ambassador program, email or visit For more information about the master gardener program, visit

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18 Mar
By: Communications 0

Foster A Legacy Tree Program Now Available to Nonprofits

A unique educational opportunity is available for Harris County Precinct 4 residents! Laura Medick, an arborist with Precinct 4’s Legacy Tree Project, invites schools and nonprofits to adopt a historic tree to display in a public space. The saplings are descendants of trees listed in the Texas A&M Forest Service’s Famous Trees of Texas.

Participating organizations will be asked to care for the sapling and share its history with the public. This program is especially beneficial for schools and other educational facilities to teach students about history and nature.

“This is a great way to teach children about Texas history and the importance of trees,” said Medick. “We hope to plant many more historic trees at schools and nonprofits throughout Precinct 4.”

Click here to apply for the program.

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18 Mar
By: Communications 0

Name that Flower February 2020

By Christy Jones

With large, dramatic leaves and showy clusters of fragrant white flowers, this ornamental has brightened gardens for centuries.

It grows well in masses at the back of an annual garden or as an accent plant

in large, mixed containers. The plant can reach heights of 3 to 5 feet with a spread of up to 2 feet. Perfect for moon gardens, the star-shaped flowers appear like bursts of fireworks in the moonlight.

Happiest in well-drained, fertile soil, this native of Argentina grows in full sun to partial shade and thrives in Houston’s hot, humid weather. Keep it out of the wind though or you may need to add stakes for support. As a member of the nightshade family, this plant is a parent of commercial tobacco.

Reveal: Flowering tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris)

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18 Mar
By: Communications 0

Mercer Meets the Grand Champions of Big Bend

Seed collecting trips have become an important tradition at Mercer Botanic Gardens.

Horticulture staff members travel to exotic locations around the world every year to gather seeds and material from plants, grasses, and trees for Mercer’s garden display collections.

But staff members last year didn’t choose the lush tropics of Ecuador, the redwood forests of California, or even the coastal marshes of Florida. Instead, they headed to the deserts of west Texas, a region known more for its expansive mountain views and arid landscapes than diverse plant life.

The team of plant experts spent five days in early October collecting seeds and studying plant habitats at Big Bend Ranch State Park. The goal was to collect samples from one of the two champion Mexican blue oak (Quercus oblongifolia) trees at the park, which are the largest of their kind in Texas.

“It’s a very slow-growing oak compared to other trees,” said Brandon Hubbard, the grower for The Mercer Society. “That’s why it was so nice to see the mature, champion ones.”

Mexican blue oak trees thrive in environments that closely resemble that of Mercer, a region that botanists refer to as a riparian zone.

“We thought that Mercer would be a great place to (try) one of these trees that goes through lots of floods,” said Jacob Martin, the greenhouse manager at Mercer Botanic Gardens.

Once the group returned to Mercer, they planted the acorns of the Mexican blue oak tree in cages to keep squirrels from digging up the seed. When ready, the trees will be planted in the garden. Other seeds collected during the trip were added to Mercer’s cache of reserve seeds shared with garden institutions around the world. Maintaining these seeds is important to the global botanical community and for the preservation of all plant species.

“The biggest part of it is conservation,” said Martin. “If another center shared seeds with us and they experienced some catastrophe, we have a reserve of some of the seeds they may have lost. It’s always good to trade and share so nothing is ever lost.”

As a participating institution for the Center for Plant Conservation National Collection of Endangered Plants since 1989, Mercer maintains a seed bank of rare native plant seeds for research and restoration. These rare native seeds are collected under strict protocols. Before the seed collecting process begins, Mercer employees must get permission from the property owner and the proper permits to maintain healthy seed populations in the wild.

Mercer staff members climb trees to harvest material from hard-to-reach places and use pruners and other tools to pick seeds growing closer to the ground. Fallen acorns must be collected no more than a day after hitting the ground or they may go bad or be eaten. Samples from fruit-bearing trees and plants are also collected and preserved for later plantings.

Collecting trips have yielded 170 plants and approximately 30 different species so far, and more seeds are being planted at Mercer each week.  Many of the species are collected in the wild and can be used for research. Mercer has additional gardening trips planned this year to help preserve critically endangered trees.

Volunteer opportunities are available for those who can pick and clean seeds or want to volunteer in any other capacity. Mercer also accepts seed donations, but all donations must be dated and labeled to prevent the spread of invasive species.

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18 Feb
By: Communications 0

Pruning Made Easy: Learn from the Experts at Mercer

By Suzzanne Chapman

Improperly pruned plants seem to pop up everywhere, from the butchered crape myrtle languishing in the local shopping center to the sheared blue point junipers framing your neighbor’s door. Often exhibiting stunted, unnatural-looking branches and limbs, these malformed plants can ruin the look of a garden faster than any pest.

Fortunately, learning proper pruning techniques is easy once you understand a few general guidelines. Best of all, many plants are forgiving, so you can keep practicing until you’re ready to tackle trickier plants and trees.

Getting Started

Determine when your plants can be safely pruned before beginning, and ensure that you have the proper tools for the job. Select hand pruners to make small, detailed cuts and loppers or handsaws for bigger limbs. Make sure your tools are sharp and clean to prevent the spread of pests and diseases. You will need to maintain some fine motor control over your tool of choice. Remember, a machete is not a tool for pruning.

Next, decide which pruning technique is appropriate for your plant. Keep your goal in mind when deciding how to proceed.

  • Deadheading, which is removing spent blooms, can produce new growth and encourage reblooming, lending the plant a refreshed look. Avoid deadheading seed-producing plants like coneflowers until after the seed has ripened, especially if you plan to harvest the seed.
  • For herbaceous perennials, like gingers, remove freeze-damaged stems to the ground, allowing the plant to rest for the winter. Fresh new growth will sprout in spring.
  • To refresh arching shrubs like mock orange (Philadelphus species) and Florida leucothoe (Agarista species), cut stems back to ground level.
  • Roses and hibiscuses are among the shrubs that can be trimmed at the nodes to encourage more branching and full growth.
  • If a plant blooms in the spring, wait until after it blooms and then shape it. Common spring-blooming plants include azaleas, camellias, and Texas mountain laurel.
  • Plants that bloom in summer or fall should be pruned in early spring. These plants include esperanza (Tecoma stans), golden dewdrop duranta, and butterfly bush (Buddleja species).

When making cuts, avoid cutting into the bark collar on a tree limb, and do not allow limbs to tear. Only cut back one-third of the plant at any time to reduce plant stress. Finally, only prune the stems or branches that you can manage. Consider hiring a professional for larger projects, such as oak tree pruning.

Choosing the Correct Plant

Of course, experienced gardeners know the best policy is to keep pruning to a minimum. If you have a small space to fill, choose a small plant. Large plants will lose vigor and appear unhealthy if pruned too often. Look for plants listed as “dwarf,” “nana,” or “carpet,” which are usually smaller and slower growing.

Hedges should be trimmed routinely to maintain a manicured look. Always trim these plants so the top is narrower than the base — like a pyramid with a leveled-off top. Sun can then reach all sides of the plant so the lower stems will remain full and leafy. Traditional boxwood hedges and southern yew only need to be trimmed a couple times a year in December and June to maintain their full, rounded shape.

How to Prune Specialty Plants

Some plants have special pruning requirements. Plants like palms may die if improperly pruned, while hydrangeas and other shrubs that bloom on old growth may simply stop blooming for a season.

When tackling blooming plants and trees, trim for shape immediately after the plant has bloomed. For trees, start by removing dead or crossed limbs and suckers, which are underdeveloped stems coming from the ground. Thin overgrown crape myrtles to an open vase shape to allow for better air circulation, but never cut them back to stumps. When pruned incorrectly, crape myrtles develop unsightly knuckles and weak branches that cannot support their flowers.

For more extensive pruning or tricky plants like palms, consult local experts. Mercer boasts an expansive volunteer program that encourages visitors to learn from professionals while giving back to the community. Mercer Ambassadors and master gardeners with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service are available at Mercer every weekend from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. to answer gardening questions. Experts will also be available at Mercer’s annual March Mart Plant Sale on Friday, March 20, and Saturday, March 21, until 4 p.m. Other educational opportunities are available during monthly Lunch Bunch programs, specialty plant sales, and workshops hosted throughout the year.

If you choose to do your research online, stick to local sources like the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Remember, any information written for a northern climate may not be accurate for the Gulf Coast region.

The resources below offer information on gardening, Harris County Master Gardeners, and Mercer’s Ambassador program.

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