- Community Assistance
- Road & Bridge
- Capital Improvements
- Parks & Recreation
By Darlene Conley Hostetler,
Jones Park director
August 2017 was a month many Texans will never forget. Hurricane Harvey brought approximately 38 inches of rainfall over a five-day period to the Humble and Kingwood area and up to 50 inches of rain over the entire region. The San Jacinto River at Highway 59 crested at more than 69 feet, the highest in recent history. Flood waters overwhelmed the park up to the front entrance gate, measuring 6 feet 4 inches in the Nature Center – two feet higher than the 1994 flood event when the Nature Center flooded for the first time.
Despite damage to the Nature Center and our educational materials, we opened the park three weeks after Harvey and successfully hosted all three fall events, including Tricks & Treats Among the Trees, Pioneer Day, and Old-Fashioned Christmas. We owe a huge thank you to the many faithful volunteers who pitched in before, during, and after the flood with tasks like sorting, moving, cleaning, and washing. Also, just seeing their smiling faces right after the storm lifted our spirits! They worked in uncomfortable and unpleasant conditions, and we couldn’t have done it without them.
Renovation of the Nature Center is underway and major portions are expected to be complete in May. We still have months of recovery ahead, but with such dedicated staff and volunteers, we’ll pull through and come out stronger than before!
For decades, Mercer Botanic Gardens served as a sanctuary for all varieties of plants. When Hurricane Harvey struck, floodwaters up to 8 feet high swept through the greenhouses, overturning tables and displacing hundreds of plants.
When news of Hurricane Harvey’s destruction broke, botanic gardens from across the country contacted Mercer to offer help and botanical specimens. Now, Mercer staff and volunteers are determined to rebuild stronger than before.
Missouri Botanical Garden sent horticulturists, laborers, and a truck packed with donated materials, including a new chainsaw and a power washer. The horticulturists worked for three to four days with Mercer’s Greenhouse Manager Jacob Martin to help save plants in Mercer’s living collection, which includes camellias, cycads, conifers, and daylilies. After arriving, they helped scour the area for lost plants that floated out of the nursery. Plants were found deposited throughout the property in trees and in the woods. Work also involved staking fallen trees, digging up mud-covered plants, pressure washing the greenhouses, and helping pull plants out of sink holes. They also rebuilt a stairway to Mercer’s two-story staff building destroyed by a fallen tree.
With all the help and hard work over the past months, Martin said plants are starting to green up and recover.
“The nursery is pretty much back to normal,” said Martin. “We are starting to rebuild the collections. All the greenhouses are back up and running.” Martin has also started making improvements to the existing greenhouses that will fortify them against future floods.
“My goal is to collect cuttings or seeds off all the plants that have any chance of being damaged this winter, so our collections do not take another hit,” he said. “We also need to build higher shelves that will not flood and develop a better anchoring system for some of the hard-to-find collections to ensure there is no way they can float away. “The nurseries are doing well, they are filling up with lots of material for spring planting. The next wave of winter color is going to be planted soon, as well as a large crop of bluebonnets that we are anxious to get in the ground. The cold weather is here so all the greenhouses are full to the brim with tropical and cold tender plants.”
When Mercer Botanic Gardens joined the Center for Plant Conservation (CPC) in 1989, it made a pledge to protect some of the country’s most imperiled plants. In late August, Hurricane Harvey put that pledge to the test.
At the time, Mercer maintained about 30 plant species for the CPC’s National Collection of Endangered Plants. Many of these plants are grown in Mercer’s Conservation Nursery, Endangered Species and Native Plant Garden, and Prairie Dawn Preserve, while their seed is preserved at Mercer Botanical Center. When Harvey hit, more than 10 feet of water overwhelmed the Conservation Nursery, one of Mercer’s hardest hit locations. Even after the storm, much of Mercer’s CPC collection was underwater for five days before staff could begin cleanup.
Despite the damage, staff recovered most plant stock and all identification tags. With cleaning and pruning, endangered species such as the Neches River rose-mallow (Hibiscus dasycalyx), trailing phlox (Phlox nivalis), scarlet catchfly (Silene subciliata), and false dragonhead (Physostegia correllii) showed new growth and some even bloomed. Only two out of nine Brazos River yucca (Yucca necopina) seedlings in the Conservation Nursery were lost.
“Mercer’s conservation staff, fortunately or unfortunately, have much experience with pre-hurricane, flood, and wind disaster maintenance strategies for CPC collections,” said Precinct 4 Botanist and Conservation Manager Anita Tiller. “Thus, the conservation collection suffered minimal loss due to our maintenance protocols and diligent post-flood cleanup of nursery stock. Plus, most of our plants are flood resilient!”
Some of Mercer’s most devastating losses were to its garden display collections, said Tiller.
“Mercer maintains and displays an impressive collection of palms and cycads native to subtropical and tropical regions of the Americas and the Old World,” she said. “Mercer lost some palm and cycad specimens as result of the Hurricane Harvey flood. Other specimens have lost their leaves. For those, our horticulturists must wait until spring and check for regrowth to determine whether specimens survived flooding. We are hopeful, as many palm and cycad species are adapted to floodplain habitats.” Although the Mercer Botanical Center building only received eight inches of water, it contains fragile specimens that must be kept in a cool, dry environment, including a herbarium and frozen seed bank for the National Collection of Endangered Plants. Fortunately, the building’s standby generator kicked before the building lost power, leaving Mercer’s seed bank undamaged.
By design, Mercer Botanical Center’s most valuable equipment and specimens are located on the second floor. Mercer’s MERCA and SBSC herbarium collections, which are necessary for documenting Mercer’s rare plant collection, also survived the flood. Losses include a few books in the botanic library that served as reference material for the seed bank and herbarium.
Tiller attributes the botanical center’s recovery to the quick work of Precinct 4 employees and volunteers. “Within two days of the water receding, staff repaired the damaged A/C unit, removed the drywall, and relocated office equipment upstairs,” said Tiller. “Mercer volunteers also assisted staff soon after the flood with cleanup, boxing and moving the library collection upstairs, and Conservation Nursery cleanup and inventory.” Other areas were mostly spared from the worst of the flooding. The Precinct 4 Prairie Dawn Preserve suffered minor erosion along the fence line and continues to serve as a valuable resource for seed collection.
In October and November, Mercer staff surveyed plants and collected seedlings at the preserve from plants including Bracted Gayfeather (Liatris bracteata), Houston Daisy (Rayjacksonia aurea), and Texas Windmill Grass (Chloris texensis). The seeds were then banked at Mercer and at Mercer’s partner location, the USDA National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation (NLGRP) in Fort Collins, Colo, for the National Collection of Endangered Plants. “Volunteers continue to assist us at the Prairie Dawn Preserve, Mercer’s Botanical Center, and the Conservation Nursery with flood recovery and routine maintenance for the collections,” said Tiller.
Mercer volunteer Fred Camarillo didn’t set out to be the butterfly man. He picked up the moniker one day while giving a presentation to students in Spring ISD.
“All of a sudden, a kid yelled out, ‘It’s the butterfly man!’ It wasn’t my favorite name at first,” he said. “But, if that’s what it takes to make a difference, I’ll be the butterfly man.”
The name is fitting. As president of the Spring Creek Education Society, Camarillo now spends his free time advocating for the dwindling monarch butterfly population. The statistics are troubling. Every year, fewer butterflies complete the migration cycle from the United States and Canada into Mexico and California. In the last 10 years, overwintering monarch populations have been the lowest on record, according to Monarch Watch, a nonprofit that focuses on the monarch butterflies, their habitats, and their migration. Summer breeding grounds are also being lost at a rate of 2.2 million acres per year, the organization reports.
To combat the decline, Monarch Watch started the Monarch Waystation Program in 2005, which is a grassroots effort to expand monarch habitats throughout the nation. So far, individuals, schools, and organizations have created more than 5,000 certified monarch waystations in home gardens, schoolyards, parks, and commercial landscaping. “In the spring, monarchs begin migrating back to the United States, laying hundreds of eggs along the way,” said Camarillo. “The habitats Monarch Watch participants create along the way ensure the butterflies have somewhere to lay their eggs.”
In 2014, the nonprofit Spring Creek Education Society opened the first monarch waystation in what was formerly an empty ditch at Precinct 4’s Dennis Johnston Park. Dubbed the Butterfly and Hummingbird Garden, the waystation required more than 300 volunteer hours to build.
“No one knew if the garden would survive considering that area was prone to flooding,” said Camarillo. The nonprofit got its answer in 2016 after the garden survived two devastating floods. When 75 percent of the plants bounced back on their own, Camarillo knew the project was a success.
Now, the organization has a more ambitious plan to simultaneously create a butterfly habitat along the 40-mile Spring Creek Greenway and stabilize the creek banks. Since milkweed is the monarch’s primary food source, Camarillo needed a type of milkweed hardy enough to survive frequent flooding.
“Zizotes milkweed (Asclepias oenotheroides) have a 15-foot taproot that will anchor the plant to the ground and prevent erosion during floods,” he said. “They also tolerate the high soil pH level, which is common along the banks of Spring Creek.”
Soon after choosing the perfect variety of milkweed, Camarillo ran into problems. To cover such a wide area along the greenway, he would need helpers. When Camarillo found out about Precinct 4’s tree planting program along the greenway, he contacted Mercer Arborist Laura Carlton and the two came up with a solution that would benefit both organizations.
“Commissioner Cagle had already tasked us with planting fruit and nut trees along the greenway,” said Carlton. “When we learned of the Spring Creek Education Society’s plan to plant milkweed in the same areas, we decided to combine the two projects. Now, we can both cover more ground together.
Already, the team has planted milkweed at Mercer Botanic Gardens and along Spring Creek Greenway near Highway 59 and Jesse H. Jones Park & Nature Center. “It was pleasant to see some of it come up already,” said Carlton. “The plan is to continue planting various milkweed species along the trail.”
With Zizotes milkweed priced at $5 per seed packet, funding was also a challenge. To make the operation more sustainable, Precinct 4 built a greenhouse at Dennis Johnston Park for the organization to grow its own milkweed.
“We’re now producing our own native plants at the greenhouse,” Camarillo said. “Not only does milkweed help monarchs, but it also helps people. It can improve drainage channels and help prevent erosion.”
For more information about the Spring Creek Education Society, visit springcreekeducationsociety.wordpress.com.
Volunteers at Mercer Botanic Gardens have a new tool to help prepare for Mercer’s largest plant sale of the year.
In January, Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust awarded The Mercer Society (TMS) the Metal to the Petal Utility Vehicle grant to replace a utility vehicle damaged during Hurricane Harvey.
“The vehicle will help our volunteers transport plants from our greenhouses to March Mart and the Gift and Plant Shoppe,” said TMS President Maryanne Esser. “This grant will help us get back on track after floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey damaged our tools, greenhouses, and plants.”
Every year, TMS hosts a garden-wide plant sale benefitting Precinct 4’s Mercer Botanic Gardens. After Hurricane Harvey devastated the gardens, many volunteers believed they would have to cancel the plant sale.
Instead, Mercer staff and volunteers rallied after the storm and recovered most of the TMS plant stock. With repairs at the park also progressing, TMS planned the plant sale to coincide with the reopening of Mercer Botanic Gardens’ East Side Gardens, which has been closed since sustaining major flood damage in late August.
March Mart shopping hours are now scheduled for Saturday, March 17 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the East Side Gardens. Early shopping for TMS members with VIP access starts Friday, March 16 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. and for TMS members Saturday, March 17 from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. Early shoppers have the best chance of taking home some of Mercer’s rarest plants not available at local nurseries. Shoppers who would like to participate in March Mart early shopping can visit the TMS website to purchase a membership or upgrade their membership level for VIP access.
In the meantime, TMS volunteers are making do without proper equipment to provide a quality plant sale like the one’s held in previous years.
“Plants are currently moved by our volunteers on hand carts. Plants are transported from one greenhouse to another and ultimately to the Gift Shoppe or March Mart for sale,” said Esser.
“The existing carts can only transport 32 one-gallon pots at a time, whereas the utility vehicle can hold 80 one-gallon pots. This improved efficiency will allow volunteers to accomplish more in less time and work in inclement weather.”
Visit themercersociety.org for more information on TMS.
Want to support Mercer Botanic Gardens and find the perfect gift for the gardener in your family? Check out The Mercer Society Gift Shoppe at 400 Main Street in Old Town Spring. Filled with botanic treasures, holiday gifts, and an assortment of plants, The Mercer Society Gift and Plant Shoppe is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. through December.
An assortment of Hurricane Harvey-hardy spring and summer bulbs are available for purchase. Proceeds benefit Mercer Botanic Gardens. Previously located at Mercer Botanic Gardens, The Gift and Plant Shoppe temporarily closed after sustaining damage during Hurricane Harvey.
The Gift and Plant Shoppe is operated by TMS, the philanthropic nonprofit that provides support to Harris County Precinct 4’s Mercer Botanic Gardens. TMS raises funds for Mercer through volunteer-driven events, donor sponsorships, contributions, and educational programs throughout the year. Anyone who would like to donate toward Mercer’s recovery can visit themercersociety.org/ways-to-give/donate/. Checks should be made out to The Mercer Society.
2,620.86 Miles of Roads