Sunday, January 8, 2012

Prairie Inspiration

A few years ago, I was in a used book store and flipped through The Prairie Garden: 70 Native Plants You Can Grow in Town or Country by J. Robert Smith and Beatrice S. Smith. The book was published in 1980 by the University of Wisconsin Press and  covers planning, planting, maintaining a prairie garden on a large or small scale. Although the book is written from a northern prairie perspective, the principles can be adapted to Texas gardens. Additionally, several of the seventy prairie plants profiled in the book are also native to Texas.

The printed text by the Smiths is informative and makes this book worth reading for anyone considering a prairie garden, but it is the handwriting left by the unknown, previous owner of this particular book that make it special and inspiring.

From the title page to the blank pages at the end of the book, the previous owner filled this well read book with quotes and notes about prairies, meadows, and nature. This poem by Emily Dickinson is a fitting addition to the title page of the book. Here is a sampling some of the other embellishments the prior owner added to the book.

Summer Over All
Standing in the meadow with summer over all, 
Buttercups and clovers, grasses growing tall.
Each is part of music, vibrant in the air.
Gentle upward motion; growth is constant there.
Standing in the meadow, white clouds overhead,
I am lifted upward in a silver thread;
Covering me in sunshine, checkered by the shade.
I look into heaven, thrilled and unafraid.
- Priscilla Sanders

The previous owner of the book obviously lived in Texas. These pages reference the names of people, such as Bob Burleson and R. C. and Mildred Mauldinthat were active in the promotion of native plants and restoration of prairies in Texas 30 years ago. Geoffrey (rather than Gregory) Stanford was a past president of Native Prairies Association of Texas. Sally Wasowski wrote several books on landscaping with native plants and I own several of them.

Disney's Oscar winning 1954 documentary The Vanishing Prairie can be streamed online. I remember enjoying this movie in elementary school. I watched it again recently. It was dated, but still somewhat entertaining. 

There are also names of north Texas prairies on these pages. It appears that the Tridens Prairie in Paris is still around. The Penn Prairie in Cedar Hill appears to be part of the Cedar Hill State Park. The Heard Museum is still active in McKinney. I could not find any online references to the Lawrence and Marshall Prairies. Were they developed and paved over?

The prior owner of this book clearly had a passion for prairies and grasses. I can't help but wonder what this person did with their passion for the prairies. This page lists nine Ornamental Native Grasses for Landscaping. Another page, not shown, lists 39 prairie plants. I wonder if the writer ever planted any of these plants in their garden?

Based on the handwriting, my guess is that the writer was an older person and this book was sold after they died. I can't imagine that the prior owner would voluntarily part with this book after putting so much effort into research and documentation.

I'm a little prairie flower
Growin' wilder ev'ry hour 
Nobody cares to cultivate me 
'Cause I'm as wild as wild can be.

Most of the original prairies have been lost to farming, overgrazing, and development. Some estimate that less than 1% of the 20 million acres of Texas tallgrass prairies remain and only .004% of the Blackland Prairies remain.

We will never again see the vast open spaces of prairies that once covered this continent's midsection. Fortunately, there are private landowners and groups that are inspired to preserve or restore the remaining prairies. Additionally, more people are recognizing the value and beauty of prairie plants and are inspired to incorporate them into their landscapes as specimen plants or in dedicated prairie beds. Some of us extremists were inspired enough to remove our lawns and replace them with prairie plants. 

A couple of side notes: While trying to identify people referenced in the book, I came across the site for The Texas Legacy Project. This site features many raw video interviews of people that made some sort of impact on the Texas environment. Most of the interviews I sampled were in two one hour parts. Included are interviews with Bob and Mickey Burleson (Burleson Prairie), David Bamberger (Selah Bamberger Ranch Preserve), and Bill Neiman (Native American Seed).

I also found out that J. Robert Smith, the author of the book, ran a nursery in his backyard called Prairie Nursery. When J. Robert Smith retired, he sold the operation to Neil Diboll who is known for his promotion of native plants in the landscape.

Finally, I hope I did not violate any copyrights. If I did, please let me know and I will make the appropriate citations or remove copyrighted material.


  1. A wonderful treasure certainly fell into the right hands. Perhaps someone will see this and fill in more details.

    Thank you for this beautiful post.

  2. seems amazing that such a one-of-a-kind books could have fallen into such appreciative hands as yours. It's not just a reference book anymore...but a tome of a link-minded individual as well. Love all the quotes...anything by Dickinson gets me where it counts...she had an especially sympathetic spirit. I love the drawings showing the root structure of the plants...I'm always been amazed by that aspect of prairie plants. I have one book about urban prairies that has a chart of dozens of plants and their above and below-ground's AMAZING!

  3. what a find!!
    and it makes the book even more special with all the handwritten side notes!

    you were drawn to each other....

  4. WOW!!! How cool is that?? That book was MEANT to find its way to you. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I buy a lot of used books, but I've never seen one so filled with beautiful verses. What a great touch of serendipity that you received this one!

  6. That book is a treasure. So glad it fell into your hands.

  7. What a great book for you :-) Did you find any plants that the previous owner had listed that you don't have in your garden that you'd like to try? How wonderful for you to share her (I assume) kindred gardening spirit through her writing :-)

  8. Thanks for all of the comments. I was fortunate to find this book. I usually look for the best looking copy of used book, but I knew I had something special as soon as I flipped through the first couple of pages. $5.98 well spent. Maybe I will add my own entries and one day the book will find its way into the hands of someone else with an appreciation of the prairies. Or maybe I will just add a link to this site.

    Toni, I don’t know why, but I think it was a woman too. I did not find any new plants in the book that woud grow in my prairie, however there are several plants of the northern prairies that I found interesting.


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