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My book,  Remarkable Plants of Texas: Uncommon Accounts of Our Common Natives, was published by the Univ. of Texas Press in January of 2009. Check out the webpage (where you can also order a copy): http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/books/turrem.html   You can also check out where I’ll be doing presentations and booksignings on their Upcoming Events page: 

http://www.utexas.edu/utpress/news/events.html

I started the book about seven years ago as a labor of love.  I was pretty familiar with the more common plants of Texas — what they looked like, where they grew, what their names were — but I wanted to know something more about them.  That “something more” could be as trivial as how the plant got its name, or as complex and mysterious as how archaic man used the seeds for thousands of years.   Was this tree used extensively for wood in the past?   Does its appearance always indicate water?   Which plants have been used extensively for food, medicine, or material goods?   Does any of our flora appear in legends or folklore?  Do certain plants have iconic status in our area?  If so, why? 

To my surprise, there was no easy way to obtain this information.   Field guides, whose main purpose is to help you identify the local flora, occasionally include tidbits or remarks, but these are tantalizingly brief.  Furthermore, field guides are almost always limited to a type of plant (trees, shrubs, flowers, etc.) and frequently focus on a particular region of the state.   Fascinating facts appear in the scientific literature, but they are scattered over decades and across dozens of often obscure journals.  Unique insights can be mined from chronicles, diaries, and early expeditionary reports, but these frequently lack indices, so you have to read through hundreds of pages before hitting gold.

 So I set out to fill this void.  I read as many sources as I could about a particular plant, made extensive notes, and then tried to boil down all the information into a condensed, easy-to-read account of the plant.   In each case, I tried to ask myself, “What’s really remarkable here?  What stands out?  What’s unique about this plant over hundreds of others like it?”  A story would emerge and I tried to follow it, and honor it, as much as shape it.  Sometimes the subject matter was historical or archeological in nature; sometimes, medicinal, chemical, or pharmacological; at other times, purely cultural; and almost always, a complex interweaving of several of these. 

 I enjoyed doing the research and writing so much that I actually resigned from my former job and spent two years living on savings and finishing the project that I had begun about five years before.  (By the way, I highly recommend a “mid-life sabbatical,” aka “mid-life crisis”!)

The result is a work of non-fiction that I trust is engaging and very readable.   There are 65 “accounts” or units, covering over 80 plant species native to Texas (but most grow extensively beyond our borders, too).  The plants selected represent the “major players.”  That is, they represent the intersection between being common or well-known in Texas, and having the richest stories to tell.   Trees, shrubs, wildflowers, grasses, cacti, vines, and aquatics are included.  The heading of each unit displays color photos, scientific and common names, the origin of names, a brief description, and notes on habitat and distribution, so in this respect the book “feels” like a field guide and can easily by stowed in the backpack.   On the other hand, the stories are interesting enough that one can simply sit back and read them as a narrative — an overview of the natural history of our native plants.

The people mentioned in this book reflect the historic diversity of Texas including:  pre-historic peoples, indigenous tribes who lived in or moved through the state, French and Spanish explorers, Hispanic and Anglo settlers, and contemporary citizens.  Sources run the gamut from archeological findings, chronicles, pioneer journals and diaries, reports from early scientific expeditions, ethnobotanical works on Native Americans, studies of African-American folk healers, cowboy ballads, state symbols and place names, current scientific articles, and even interviews with contemporary naturalists, ranchers, and other lovers of the land.   A map and glossary are included mainly as a way of locating the many Native American tribes mentioned, and as extra clarification on a few botanical and medical terms.  I also include an extensive bibliography which each unit references.

Remarkable Plants of Texas is a one-volume, easy reference for Texas’ most common and ethnobotanically interesting plants, and it is written with a broad audience in mind.  Anyone interested in the native plants of Texas will find something of value here, from novices to experts, from casual observes to plant aficionados, from gardeners and naturalists, to landscape architects and botanists, from city-dwellers and suburbanites, to ranchers and park rangers.  The book does not presuppose botanic knowledge, and technical terminology is kept to a bare minimum.  Whatever your level of interest in native plants , I hope this book will open your eyes to the remarkable stories that surround our flora, such that you never look at these plants again in the same way.