News Categories: Parks & Trails

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 mercerbotanicgardens@hcp4.net or visit www.hcp4.net/event/mercer-ambassadors-2/. For more information about the master gardener program, visit hcmga.tamu.edu/.

Read More
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.

Read More
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)

Read More
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.

Read More
26 Feb
By: Communications 0

Strack Family Member Shares History of Kissing Tree

One of Julie Haggard’s earliest memories involves playing in her aunt and uncle’s barn near a large oak tree. Although the barn disappeared long ago, the oak tree lives on in Precinct 4’s Kissing Tree Park.

Dubbed the “Kissing Tree,” the ancient oak tree near Louetta Road and T.C. Jester rose to fame after residents rallied to save it from the ax after plans for a new convenience store nearby surfaced. Pledging to protect the tree, Commissioner R. Jack Cagle had the county purchase the property, and he opened Kissing Tree Park in 2017.

Since then, Laura Medick, who heads Precinct 4’s Legacy Trees Project, has been investigating the tree’s history.

“We already knew the Kissing Tree was important to the community,” said Medick. “The large outcry made that clear. But we also wanted to find out if the tree could become important to other Texans as a ‘Famous Tree of Texas.’”

Medick made major progress in late 2019, when she met Julie Haggard, whose family settled in north Harris County more than 170 years ago. Armed with old photos and a book of family history, Haggard provided details linking the Kissing Tree to Herman Strack, her great grandfather and a German immigrant who came to the United States in 1848. A successful blacksmith, cattle owner, and businessman, Strack accumulated an estimated 1,445 acres over his lifetime. Family records show a large oak tree believed to be the Kissing Tree marked Strack’s homestead and blacksmith shop.

Haggard recalls exploring the Strack family property when she was young and encountering the Kissing Tree. Large even then, the tree stood out with its twisting, moss-covered branches.

“The tree was always covered in Spanish moss,” said Haggard. “We used to make nests for Easter eggs out of it.”

The tree’s fame grew in the 1980s, when Earnest Strack, a descendant of Herman Strack, built the Strack family restaurant and the Strack wedding hall just northeast of Herman Strack’s homestead and blacksmith shop. According to stories passed along by Haggard’s children, the tree was popular among couples, and many proposals took place under its branches, earning it the moniker Kissing Tree.

Although the wedding hall and restaurant have closed, the Kissing Tree remains a beloved part of the community. Through the Legacy Trees Project and the book Famous Trees of Texas, Medick hopes to extend the tree’s legacy long past its lifetime.

“Legacy Trees is about preserving history,” said Medick. “We do this primarily by growing new trees from material collected from historical trees and sharing this unique history with park visitors and volunteers. But we can also preserve history in books like Famous Trees of Texas for people across Texas to see.”

Read More