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Cynthia Mueller: Her Name May Be Unfamiliar, But Her Work Is Not

By Jay White
Contributing Writer

The last 40 years have been a golden time for Texas horticulture. During this time Texas Gardener magazine began publishing. A young horticulturist named Greg Grant was beginning to breed maroon bluebonnets and rescue forgotten roses. His mentor, Dr. William C. (Bill) Welch, was changing ornamental horticulture by extolling the benefits of “Southern heirloom plants.” Dr. Doug Welsh assembled and led a team that made the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service and its Master Gardener and Junior Master Gardener programs the envy of most other states. He also wrote the best-selling Texas Garden Almanac. Each of these three men have built great careers in different areas of horticulture. Yet, while their areas of outreach have all been vastly different, they have all mutually benefitted from one person — Cynthia Mueller.

Although not widely known, Cynthia Mueller of College Station is quite possibly the best horticulturist working in Texas. She may also be the most humble. Even if she would never tell you directly, she has played an integral part in several of the most notable horticultural trends, changes and programs that have come out of Texas A&M since the mid-80s. While you may not know her name, you know her work.

Cynthia is a self-taught horticulturist who has edited just about everything Dr. William C. (Bill) Welch and Greg Grant have ever written. In addition to her editing skills, she is an accomplished botanist, plant breeder and author who has written for numerous publications and has also created innumerable programs for Extension Horticulture and the Master Gardeners. She helped edit Doug Welsh’s Texas Garden Almanac and also helped both Doctors Welsh and Welch research and edit a book on the native-plant landscape around President George W. Bush’s home in Crawford, where dignitaries visited during his presidency. However, unless you have known her for years, you would not know any of these things.

While Cynthia has become the go-to editor for these men, she is first and foremost a horticulturist. When Cynthia moved to Houston from sunny, southern California, she had no idea where her life would take her. She attended college, married and had children. She soon found herself in the San Antonio area, where she began building her first cottage garden. She didn’t know it then, but this garden would start a life-long cycle of learning and relearning that would lead her down the back roads of Texas and into the halls of academia. Her love of learning led Dr. Bill Welch to comment, “Cynthia has been a part of Texas Horticulture for so long because she is a lifelong learner who encourages others to continue learning about gardening.”

Cynthia grew up with paternal grandparents who loved gardening. Their garden was full of hydrangeas, buddleias, guavas, geraniums, breath-of-heaven shrubs and ‘Talisman’ roses. While her grandparents’ garden is the one where she grew up, the one that truly inspired her was Huntington Gardens in San Marino, California. She used to spend hours looking at all the plants in the gardens while her family was in the Huntington Library and Museum. In those days, children were not allowed inside the museum, so Cynthia was free to wander the grounds unsupervised. This freedom allowed her the time to truly observe the plants. This stirred in her a curiosity that she is still working to cure.

Cynthia moved to Texas at 16 and soon found herself enrolled at the University of Texas. Her time at UT exposed her two activities that would serve her well in the future — plant identification and editing. Thanks in part to her love of plants, she became a student worker in Dr. Billy Turner’s botany department. She spent a lot of time working with the herbarium specimens used by the department. Working this closely with the specimens used for plant identification gave her a good foundation for the horticultural career that was still many years away. She also worked as an editorial assistant for a botanical periodical produced by Department Chair Dr. Gordon Whaley.

Even though Cynthia loved the relationships she made, and the education she received from UT, she did not wind up as a working botanist. Instead, life pushed her into a career as a medical-school administrator. In 1983, Cynthia finally retired from the career that had supported her and her family for so long. With more time on her hands, she began to devote more and more time to the gardens and plants she had loved since childhood.

Cynthia’s first attempts at creating a serious garden began when her family moved to the San Antonio area. She tried to use the arid, South Texas soils to re-create the gardens of her youth. This set her on a path of discovery that still drives her today. The first thing Cynthia learned while creating her garden was that most commercial horticulture of that time was not being developed in, or for, the Texas gardener. Plant catalogs of the day were designed for East Coast and West Coast gardeners only. If you wanted to develop a lovely garden in Texas, then you needed to get your plants from other Texans.

While in San Antonio, she also became interested in collecting “antique roses.” The first rose she propagated was Rosa laevigata, the Cherokee rose. At the time, she didn’t know it was a difficult rose to propagate, so she simply filled an old wooden produce box with sand, stuck in cuttings and they grew! This success encouraged her to seek out other plants. Whenever she found something interesting she would bring it home, research it and propagate it. Soon her beds were bursting with beautiful, tough plants that had survived for years with little care in South-Central Texas.

Job changes led Cynthia and her growing family to Fayette County, Texas. She bought an old farmhouse on a rural property and set about transforming it into a working farm. She enrolled her children in 4-H and began breeding Dutch belted and silver marten rabbits, Percheron horses, paint horses and quarter horses, beef cattle and mammoth jackstock and mules for show. She raised fowl of all types, such as English game chickens, srebrniak and other pigeons, parrots, doves and small finches. She also bred ‘New Color’ canaries for show.

While she was busy raising livestock with her children, she still found time to collect old, forgotten garden roses, landscape plants and bulbs — like rain lilies, Rhodophiala (schoolhouse lilies), Hippeastrum (amaryllis), and Hymenocallis — that she received from generous local gardeners. Her cottage gardens were soon magazine worthy. During this time she also explored undocumented caves hidden in the limestone deposits surrounding San Antonio and the Hill Country, participated in local cultural activities and even survived a rattlesnake bite.

Cynthia was developing a reputation as a fine “plantsman.” However, she was not singly focused on horticulture. Cynthia is incredibly well read and she loves the arts, history, literature and the natural world. She has spent a lifetime learning and encouraging others to learn. Her ability to talk deeply on a wide array of topics has endeared her to everyone who has worked with her, especially Greg Grant. According to Greg, “Cynthia Mueller is a one of a kind, a Texas classic. I don’t even remember the first time we met, but we were immediately bound by a love of bulbs and a love of terriers. She’s as smart and well-read as they come and can carry on a conversation about anything with anybody. In addition to every amaryllid that ever graced the South, I’ve heard her converse on breeding everything from donkeys and chickens to the proper coloration of rat terriers. Cynthia has been a dear friend of mine for years and an immense help with my writing and my career. There’s none better. I’ve even been squirrel hunting with the woman!”

In 1986 Cynthia heard her first lecture on “antique roses” by Dr. Bill Welch. She had no idea that her decision to attend that lecture would be the start of a 30-year career that would allow her to leave her own mark on Texas horticulture. All she knew at the end of the lecture was that she felt like she had found a focus for her activities. She was thrilled to have finally met other people who shared her love for finding, documenting and preserving plants of the past. By the time she and Dr. Welch met, she was already an experienced collector of these antique plants and the stories that accompanied them. He recognized a kindred spirit and immediately initiated her into a group of plant lovers known as the Texas Rose Rustlers, who were about to significantly change ornamental horticulture in the U.S.

These were exciting times in Texas horticulture. By the 1980s, roses had become so hybridized that they had developed a reputation as expensive pets that were looking for a place to die. Overly hybridized roses were susceptible to every pest and disease imaginable. They were quickly losing their place as the queen of the garden. The Texas Rose Rustlers were receiving national news coverage for their work finding and preserving forgotten roses that seemed to thrive on little or no care. The introduction of these tough antiques to the landscape trade revitalized the rose’s reputation and led to the creation of a new branch of landscape horticulture. With the help of the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog and passionate promoters like Cynthia, Dr. Welch and a young Greg Grant, demand for these “new” roses skyrocketed. Mike Shoup and Bill Welch, with the help of all of his Rose Rustling friends, created The Antique Rose Emporium, which still supplies the public and the trade with these tough antique plants that have returned the rose to her proper position as queen of the garden.

Cynthia remembers this as one of the happiest times of her horticultural career. She recently shared this with me: “When I lived in La Grange, Texas, in the 1980s and 1990s, I would often see and collect old roses that had lost their names, as well as other basically forgotten older cottage plants. Gardeners are usually always generous to spread their treasures around whenever they are admired. When I met Dr. Bill Welch, Greg Grant and Pam Puryear of the Texas Rose Rustlers group, it was really like Old Home Week! Here were other people interested in the same sort of plants that I was! I really miss Pam Puryear of Navasota (1943–2005) because she was one of a very few persons known to me who would get into the car and drive slowly down country roads looking for interesting plants, then would be willing to stop and collect or dig them up.

“I’ll never forget a time we went to the Agrippina Cemetery in Grimes County. We came upon the old cemetery at a time when the gardenias and crapemyrtles were in flower. The cemetery was on a high place created out of sugar sand, with no water available for plants. When we parked at the bottom of the hill and began to walk to the cemetery, the powerful gardenia smell almost knocked us over! The shrubs were at least 10 feet tall and even greater in diameter with many trunks. All this was surviving on nothing but rainwater. I still have the native clematis C. pitcheri (purple leatherleaf) growing in my garden from one of our collections at a low-water crossing near Navasota. The seeds did not germinate for three years, but when they finally began to show themselves they prospered and now there are always new volunteer vines to dig, share with friends and remind me of a very special time.”

After several years, her children grew up, the Texas Rose Rustlers slowly faded into the past and Cynthia found herself in Galveston working with William Johnson and his very successful Master Gardener programs. She also found time to volunteer with Gary Outenreath (Director of Horticulture at the Moody Gardens) and Dr. James Duke (ethnobotanist from the USDA). These two gentlemen were collecting plants from the jungles of the Americas to determine if they had any pharmacological properties that medical science could utilize. Cynthia had mastered her propagation skills saving antique ornamental plants. She was thrilled to be able to use them to assist these scientists as they tried to find plants that could improve humanity’s future. This was important work and Cynthia threw herself into it. She was humbled when her efforts were recognized with the Moody Garden’s Volunteer of the Year award.

During her time in Galveston, Cynthia had to learn to garden all over again. The sandy, salty and windy Texas coast was not the best place to grow the heirloom, cottage plants she loved so dearly. Since not gardening was simply not an option, Cynthia did what she does best, she re-learned how to garden with plants she had never grown before. Tropicals such as gingers, bananas, giant tropical crinums, bougainvillea and oleanders did well, and Cynthia learned to love them. Before long, her garden was once again filled with beautiful, tough plants that local gardeners had shared with her.

When I met Cynthia she was living in College Station and happily filling up another garden with found plants. She was still volunteering in Extension as the editor of Horticulture Update, an on-line resource for Extension agents. While that was her title, her duties were diverse. According to Dr. Welch, “Cynthia is extremely knowledgeable in many areas of horticulture and she excels in botany, plant propagation, entomology and history. Her plant-identification skills have made her the go-to person in our office when Texans need help identifying that unknown thing that popped up in their yard, garden or pasture. She also continues to provide valuable assistance and support to the Landscape Design Study Course program that has been coordinated through my office and Texas Garden Clubs, Inc., for many years. Cynthia has earned the respect of the Horticulture staff, faculty and students for her knowledge and willingness to support Extension Horticulture’s educational programs across the state and nation. Cynthia has made valuable contributions to many areas of Extension for many years. She continues to enjoy working with faculty, staff, students and extension clientele helping to provide sound answers to gardening questions.”

Yes, the past 40 years have been a golden age for Texas horticulture. During this time Cynthia Mueller has been a part of a large amount of work that has been accomplished by Texas A&M Agri­Life Extension. Uncomfortable with the limelight, she used her skills and passions to quietly leave her fingerprints on much of this work. While she has been shy about attaching her own name to things, those who have worked with her know that she has made everything she has worked on better. If you have enjoyed the books, programs, resources and research that have come out of A&M in these past 40 years, then you have been a big fan of Cynthia Mueller — even if you never knew her name.

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