Book review: Rare Plants of Texas

(Book review originally published in 2008 in a gardening newsletter)

Other than botanists, who knew that the yellow columbine was actually a rare plant of Texas? Most gardeners who plant this perennial choose it because they like its foliage or they want a shade-lover that produces blooms.

Yet there it is on pages 84 and 86 of the 2007 edition of Rare Plants of Texas, published by Texas A&M University Press and authored by Jackie M. Poole, William R. Carr, Dana M. Price and Jason R. Singhurst.

The preface describes the book as the first published catalog of “all the listed, candidate and globally rare plants of the state of Texas” – about 5,100 of them. Only California and Florida claim more, according to the authors, who map the state into 11 natural regions originally developed by the LBJ School of Public Affairs to provide ecological insight.

Texas has so many plants precisely because of its geological diversity, said Bill Carr, one of Rare Plants’  four authors. From the Piney Woods region in the East to the Trans-Pecos in the West, the ecology of Texas includes bottomland forests, plains, beaches and plateaus. In the Edwards Plateau region that includes much of the Texas Hill Country are springs that are the source of many Texas rivers, as well as seeps, shallow soils, and canyon and riparian wetlands.

Many species in the Hill Country grow only here, and many are hard to spot and are restricted to certain habitats, like cliff faces. “You will find cool stuff if you look,” he said, mentioning such plants as the Tobusch fish-hook cactus, which can be as small as a penny or up to 3 inches in diameter, and which blends in with grasses. It’s not “greatly rare,” but it is hard to see, he added.

Should gardeners have the 600-page Rare Plants in their libraries? That depends on how much a gardener wants to know. The book is filled with fascinating information about plants, as well as a history of Texas plant conservation and threats to rare plants. It also provides an easy way to look up plants, and you can find out where a plant came from, its scientific name and its global or state rank as to rarity. Bibliophiles will love it.

But if you only need to know that the plant is adapted or native to the area, whether to plant it in sun, shade, or either and how much water it will need – probably not. Rare Plants is a valuable reference and education tool, but not imperative to gardening.