A Libbie for Texas

Last year, on the Spring Equinox, Texas lost a big soul, a good friend, and a lover of all its plants and creatures.

Elizabeth Rice Winston was many things–a debutante, a teacher, a naturalist, and a free spirit. I knew her as the owner and heart of Peaceable Kingdom, a gorgeous parcel of Washington County field and forest. It was a one-time commune, a school for craft and natural history and spiritual enlightenment, a stunning garden, a home, and a haven for plant people and bird watchers. Over the years, Libbie touched hundreds of lives. She had a way of making you feel welcome and a knack for introducing all of her favorite people to one another.

Libbie was also mistress of Winston Ranch, some 7,000 acres in Uvalde County, bordered on one side by the Sabinal River. I had the very good fortune to visit Libbie on the ranch three times as part of botanizing houseparties. I will never forget her hospitality or the hundreds of beautiful plants we collected. She always knew the best places to look and would drive us all over the ranch in the big white truck. She’d stop wherever we wanted to and we could poke to our hearts’ content. Always surrounded, of course, by the dogs. Libbie said her life’s goal was to be “hip-deep” in dogs, and she certainly accomplished that!

One evening, we made one last collecting run down by the river. We found Reverchon’s Blazingstar, Mentzelia reverchonii, in bud just as dusk was falling.

By the time we got back to the ranch house for several hours of plant-pressing, this amazing plant had unfolded its petals in the collecting bag, and we saw for ourselves how it earned its name.

These blossoms are more than two inches across. With the numerous stamens, the result is the botanical equivalent of an explosion of fireworks.

We collected and photographed so many beautiful plants on that trip, but it was this one that I came back to when I wanted to make a thank-you for Libbie, something that would recall the magic that was Winston Ranch. I drew up a chart on graph paper and stitched it up on black fabric, because the flower had to be a blaze of yellow in the dark.

That’s not a very good photo–it doesn’t capture the bright lemon and rich greens, but it will do.

I know I still have that crude graph-paper chart somewhere, but I can’t find it. Reverse-engineering a chart from the finished piece gives me this:

There is black outlining to bring out the details of the leaves, buds, and sepals. And then the stitcher would need to add all the stamens, which are just straight stitches ended with french knots.

Libbie is gone now, and her loss still hurts. The world is a little less bright for her not being in it anymore. Recently, through a roundabout route, my stitched piece unexpectedly came back to me.

I will treasure it always. Miss you, Libbie.

Last, and Actually Least

The smallest of our local bluets is Houstonia micrantha, the Southern bluet. That specific epithet means “tiny flower,” and boy, do they live up to the name!  The white blossoms are only a few millimeters across.  Houstonia rosea (the pink one) is shorter, but has larger flowers.

ho_micr-claude bailey

Image by Claude Bailey, University of Tennessee, Knoxville

These flower at the same time as the other bluets and are frequently found in mixed populations.  Here are H. micrantha and H. pusilla growing together:

image of Houstonia micrantha, image of -

Photo by J. K. Marlow.

It’s not unusual to find white-flowered individuals of H. pusilla in a population, but the size of the corolla and the stature of the plantslet you know they’re not H. micrantha.

Here is a pretty dirty sketch.  I didn’t like that one side-view flower, so I redrew it above.


And the hand-drawn chart, with corrections and color notations.


Again, I’ve played with four different colorways for the foliage.  It doesn’t seem to matter to the eye.  They all say, “bluet.”  In the field, the vast majority of plants will have foliage that is simply chlorophyll-colored, and the brain sorts it out by texture.  (The best looking-out-the-car-window-at-60-mph plant identifier I ever knew was red-green colorblind.  He could tell EVERYTHING apart by texture alone, though Christmas decorations were sadly lost on him.)

Here’s the chart as output by the program.  It’s hard to see the stems.  A good printout (rather than a screen-cap) would have them as distinct black lines.


I can’t  show  you a color-block chart on white because–go figure–the white squares disappear into the background.  But here is how the bluets might look stitched on taupe:


Or, if stitched life-size:


I think, on a background sufficiently distinct from white, I won’t need to outline the flowers or delineate the border between the tube and the flared part of the corolla.  (Botany lesson: the term for flowers shaped like this is salverform, with the narrow part  of the blossom termed the tube, and the spread-out part is called the limb.

And see–they do play well with the blue ones!


I’m still not sure they look like something Gerda drew, but I’m pretty happy with them.  I’ll try to make sure the next plant I chart up is one Gerda also did, so that we can make a direct comparison.

They Also Come in Pink

Don’t let the name fool you—not all bluets are blue.  Houstonia rosea comes in shades of pink, from rose to pale purply-pink.


The plants are even smaller than Houstonia pusilla, the bluets I charted first, but their flowers are proportionately bigger.  Their middles are yellow or greeny-yellow, rather than green.  (It’s H. caerulea, a bluet we don’t have, that has the sunny yellow middles.) Often, the flower shades to white or very pale pink between the outside of the corolla and the middle.

So at lunch today, I drew a few.

pink bluet sketch

Traced on graph paper, with colors noted:

pink bluet handchart

A color chart looks like this:

pinkbluets color chart-small

And if i stitched them more-or-less life-size on taupe:

pink bluets taupe-small

Squee! They are so cute.*  I may tinker with them a bit.  The fruit on the third one is clunky.  But mostly, I’m happy with them.  They are going to play nicely with the blue ones, too.


*I have several times had the pleasure of going out in the field with the great Texas botanist, Marshall Johnston.  (He and Donovan Stewart Correll wrote the book on Texas plants—literally!  Their Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas continues to be useful, even though it has been out of print for forty-ish years.)  He knows all the plants, in all stages of growth.  Whenever I would exclaim about some tiny plant and call it cute, he would correct me.  “Plants are not ‘cute.’   They may be interesting or beautiful, but they are not  ‘cute.'”

Sorry, Marshall.  These little guys are cute.