Keeping Texas looking like Texas should get a bit easier if two bills introduced by State Rep. Mike Villarreal (D-San Antonio) pass the Texas Legislature this session.
HB 1116 would create a Texas Native Seed Competitive Grant Program to fund and promote the development and cultivation of native seed. If HB 1135 passes, a Native Seed Committee composed of 12 individuals from around the state will be charged with crafting a master plan for encouraging native seed production and diversity.
Persistent drought, climate change, limited statewide water resources, and an enlightened community of young gardeners and environmentalists – who see "going native" not only as a conservation imperative but a moral obligation – are fostering fertile grounds for taking native plants mainstream. It's about time.
For years gardeners and commercial growers have been enamored with invasives and imports. Asiatic jasmine, African Bermuda grass, Chinese holly and Indian Hawthorne have comprised the plant palette for San Antonio and other Texas landscapes for decades.
"We're watching our environment being homogenized," said Dr. Kelly Lyons, a Trinity biology professor, restoration ecologist and invasive plant specialist, who worked with Villarreal on the bill. "The place we're living has a strong sense of place and it's starting to look like every other place."
Those inappropriate plant choices don't work in the context of climate change and three years of drought. They're catching up with us. SAWS, our water utility, recently launched a conservation initiative that discourages the wasteful irrigation of inappropriate lawn choices by offering incentives to replace grass with native and drought tolerant beds. The program offers rebates to homeowners that convert turf to native and well adapted plants through a paint-by-numbers style garden plan that includes a selection of native plants and instructions for their care.
The program makes sense in our part of the world. Native plants use less water, require less mowing and maintenance, and fewer fertilizers, soil amendments, and pesticides.
Native plants also provide easy-to-maintain and much-needed habitat for pollinators and birds.
Bees, butterflies, bats and other pollinators serve as itinerant field workers in our food chain, making one-third of our food crops possible. Tomatoes, strawberries, squash, apples – none would be able to reproduce with pollinators. The decline of the Monarch butterfly migration, a unique natural phenomenon that unfolds in Central and South Texas each fall, is largely attributable to the decline of native milkweed habitat. And the honeybee, Mother Nature's master pollinator, and bats, nocturnal pollinators, also have been negatively effected by native habitat loss and pesticide use.
Villarreal introduced the two bills at the behest of Lyons, who has been working to facilitate the diversity and commercial availability of native plants for years. "TXDot wants to use natives, but they don't have enough seed," said Lyons over lunch recently, adding that the public transportation agency is the largest buyer of native seed in the state.
Cultivating native seeds for commercial production is no easy task. Native plants, which flourish on their own terms in the wild, are often difficult to cultivate commercially and on schedule. In many ways, the very traits that make native seeds and plants so desirable also work against them in a commercial context.
For example, native seed has never been improved through grower selection, the process by which growers choose the most successful plants for reproduction. Unlike highly selected corn and wheat species that have been agriculturally selected to yield 100% germination rates, up to 20% of a native seed harvest can be "hard seed"--that is, seed that will not germinate the first year, but may or may not germinate later.
This makes it difficult for growers to cost effectively produce seed on a timetable and even more challenging to sell it to consumers when one-in-five seeds lay dormant, said Bryan Gentsch, spokesperson for the Texas Seed Trade Association, which supports the legislation after adjustments. The group represents more than 100 seed suppliers including eight native seed companies in Texas.
Biologists like Lyons point out that "hard seed" serves as nature's insurance policy, keeping a percentage of seed dormant to germinate another, perhaps more welcoming, day and ensure the perpetuation of the species. All agree that creating a reliable, diverse native seed supply will take years.
Native American Seed Company, one of the largest suppliers of native seed in the country just 115 miles west of San Antonio in Junction, can attest to the challenges. “These kinds of conservation efforts can’t be done ‘right now.’ It takes time,” said the company's chief seed wrangler George Cates earlier this year when discussing a native milkweed seed initiative, undertaken through a grant from the Xerces Society, a pollinator advocacy organization. "Half of what we do fails, but that doesn't make us stop."
But it should get easier if Villarreal's bills pass. The Native Plant Society of Texas appeared at committee sessions to make statements in support of the legislation. "We've had a lot of droughts," said Ricky Linex, vice president for NPSOT and a professional wildlife biologist at the National Resource Conservation Service. "I think THIS drought is making people aware," said Linex. With statewide water restrictions and massive losses of lawns, trees and other plants, "If it's gone, you might as well replace with a native," he said. Linex also mentioned that because of the drought, consumers are more likely to seek out native and drought tolerant plants "It's supply and demand. If people want them, more nurseries will carry them."
That kind of talk is music to a native plant advocate's ears. Karen Guz, conservation director at SAWS, frequently alludes to the drought's "teachable moments" in explaining the utility's penchant for native plants in a town in love with its St. Augustine grass. With policymakers, SAWS and a public increasingly willing to try something new in the garden, the time for native plants has arrived.
"We have a great opportunity to keep Texas looking like Texas," said Lyons, who attended graduate school in California where intense agricultural activity and the widespread import of Mediterranean species has left the state's native plant population weak. "Texas is in relatively good shape compared to the rest of the country. It was mostly grazed here, so that doesn't have the same impact that intensive ag does. We have a unique opportunity right now."
The San Antonio Botanical Garden's Viva Botanica plant sale takes place this Saturday and is a great place to get acquainted with native plants cultivated specifically for San Antonio.
Monika Maeckle writes about gardening, butterflies, conservation and the Monarch butterfly migration at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. She covers nature in the urban environment for this website and serves as a volunteer on the SAWS Community Conservation Committee. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @monikam.