|By Suzanne Labry
empstead, Texas, located in the southeastern part of the state, is probably best known for bluebonnets in the spring, its annual watermelon festival in the summer and as a convenient place to refuel between College Station or Austin and Houston. It’s fair to assume that as people speed along Highway 290 just east of the Waller County seat, they have no idea they are passing an exquisitely beautiful garden that is not only a world-renown repository of more than 3,000 rare and unusual plants from the United States, Mexico and Asia, but that is also home to a first-rank horticultural and botanical research site with an international reputation for scientific discovery.
Peckerwood Garden is a jewel hidden in plain view. Located on FM 359 just a few miles south of Highway 290, it is easy to pass right by without realizing the 39-acre garden is there. There is little visual clue from the road to indicate the profusion of plants that lies just beyond what appears from the road to be ordinary pastureland. Even its curious name, Peckerwood — so-called not for the pejorative term (as many believe upon hearing it), but rather after the plantation in Patrick Dennis’ novel, Auntie Mame (1955) — belies the beauty to be found beyond the fenced boundary.
Begun in 1971 by Professor John Fairey, who has taught design at Texas A&M University in the College of Architecture since 1964, the garden has expanded through the years from its original seven acres. The most recent purchase of the 20-acre former site of Yucca Do Nursery (which has since relocated to Giddings) brought Peckerwood to its current size and substantially enhanced the garden’s infrastructure by adding additional greenhouses, a visitor parking area, a small residence for garden interns, an office and restroom facilities.
Professor Fairey’s skill in design has been brought to bear on the landscape of the garden, although his plan is so subtle that the end result appears to be nature’s own. An artist’s eye is surely behind the fluid, graceful arrangement of the numerous beds, which morph in shape and size over time as plants mature, and in the unusual juxtaposition of textures, shapes, and colors. Grass pathways and gravel walks connect the various areas of the garden.
A love of and fascination for plants is evident, not only in the remarkable variety of species on display, but also in the care taken to provide suitable habitat: raised sandy mounds in the “dry garden” that keep cacti and succulents healthy in the heavy clay soil of East Texas; understory trees nestled beneath canopies of ash, elm, magnolia, oak, pine, and sycamore in the “woodland garden,” bald cypress happily anchored in the spring-fed creek that runs through the property. Peckerwood Garden is both serene in feel and startling in its diversity.
Alarmed by the degree and pace of economic development and its destructive effects on the environment, John Fairey was a pioneer in recognizing that many plant species in Texas and especially in Mexico were in increasing danger of being lost forever. In the late 1980s, he began traveling to Mexico’s Sierra Madre Oriental Mountains to collect seeds and cuttings of rare and endangered plants. He has made close to 100 expeditions since then, bringing back these living treasures and providing them sanctuary and continued existence at Peckerwood Garden through a painstakingly recreated ecosystem. Counterparts to the southern U.S. and Mexican plants, non-invasive plants from Asia and other parts of the world have also found a home at Peckerwood, adding to the unusual mix of trees, shrubs and other flora to be found there. The garden has been called “a working laboratory of a balanced environment.”
In 1998 the Peckerwood Garden Conservation Foundation was established and Peckerwood became affiliated with the prestigious national organization, the Garden Conservancy. The Garden Conservancy’s mission is “to identify and preserve America’s exceptional gardens for the education and enjoyment of the public.” Peckerwood is one of the Conservancy’s Preservation Project Gardens, the only Texas garden to be so recognized.
Conservationists, ecologists, botanists, horticulturalists and naturalists come to the garden to view and study plant life at Peckerwood. Germ plasm (genetic material) from the garden’s rare plant collection has been shared throughout the world. Peckerwood’s seed bank has provided seeds for the University of California at Berkeley, Harvard University, North Carolina State University, University of California at Santa Cruz, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Cholipo Arboretum Foundation in Chungchong Namdo, Korea. According Peckerwood staff, “research and educational partners have included joint research projects, seminars, classes, and internships at the garden with students and faculty from the University of Texas-Austin; TAMU-College Station; TAMU-Prairie View; and Rice University, Houston.”
It is not necessary to be a university or a botanical organization to get plants from Peckerwood’s collection, however. Anyone can purchase seeds from the garden’s online seed store (http://www.peckerwoodgarden.org/seeds). The list of seeds available is enough to set any gardener’s imagination soaring with visions of rare agaves that were discovered on lava fields, two-foot-tall begonia spikes, mahonias with “madly undulating” leaves, the Blanco crabapple (a rare native Texan), unusual bulbs, yews that can survive Texas heat, and on and on and on. Cultivars are propagated and sold at a number of “open days” and the propagated plant list is as tantalizing as the seed offerings.
“Open days” refers to the weekends of the year that Peckerwood Garden is open to the public. Although special arrangements can be made to privately tour the garden at any time, Peckerwood is not set up to allow unrestricted access. The garden is simply too fragile and the staff too limited. The two fulltime employees (Chris Camacho, garden manager; and Adolfo Silva, a fulltime gardener) and one part-time employee (Connie Stegen, foundation administrator) are wonderfully knowledgeable, however, and they are eager to share the garden’s treasures with visitors, as is John Fairey, who is always available at garden functions.
A winter lecture series offers additional chances to see and learn about the garden. It is also possible to tour John Fairey’s impressive collection of Mexican folk art, pre-Columbian art and furniture by designer and architect George Nakashima. Membership in the Peckerwood Garden Conservation Foundation, which provides a number of benefits and special opportunities, is welcomed and encouraged.
The next time you’re passing through Hempstead, do yourself a favor: take a detour and visit Peckerwood Garden. You’ll be amazed by what you find there — the unexpected, the unusual and the rare await your discovery at every turn.