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May 2009 cover image eastern screech-owl

Texas Reader: Amazing Plants

Little-known facts about common flora.
By E. Dan Klepper

Immediately upon reading the first few pages of Remarkable Plants of Texas, botanicaphiles like me will give a big shout out to the book’s author Matt Warnock Turner. Turner has done something with Remarkable Plants of Texas — Uncommon Accounts of Our Common Natives (University of Texas Press) that no other Texas botanical publication has done quite so thoroughly. He has compiled an exhaustive cultural history of the state’s most common native plants, providing an informative compendium of facts about favorites like mesquite, sumac, live oak and yucca. Unlike most sources that provide a taste of a particular plant’s history only to leave detail-obsessed readers hungry, Remarkable Plants of Texas goes whole hog.

"There is a simple need to know the names of plants, how to recognize them, and how to distinguish them from similar species," Turner writes. "But once we know what we are looking at — whether a pecan, prickly pear, or bluebonnet — is there nothing more to know? Is there anything remarkable or noteworthy about the plant? Did it play a role in history? Is it useful to humankind? Does it contain medicinal, psychotropic, or toxic compounds? Is there unusual ecological or biological information about it? Is it particularly important to wildlife — birds, bees, or butterflies? Does it have cultural significance today, and if so, why? In short, what is its story?" Turner makes answering all of these questions an entertaining read, discussing over 50 Texas favorites in 300-plus pages.

While some of the information included in the volume may be familiar to avid readers of Texas botanical references, a good portion of it will be new and enlightening. Read, for example, about the unusual history of the huisache, a plant often considered a nuisance by many landowners: "Unbeknownst to many Texans," writes Turner, "huisache has an amazing history in the European perfume industry…First cultivated for perfumery in Rome toward the end of the sixteenth century, Acacia farnesiana became industrially important in Provence starting around 1825. Known as cassie ancienne in French perfumery, the tree is extensively cultivated on the outskirts of Cannes and near the famous distilleries of Grasse...Cassie extracts are difficult to produce, since the flowers are hand-collected (amid the many thorns), the quality of the harvest can be easily ruined by violent storms or early frost, and the delicate perfume is destroyed by steam distillation and must be carefully extracted by volatile solvents. Extrait de cassie, the end result, is one of the more costly scents in the industry and is rarely used in its pure state; instead it is employed to extend and deepen the notes of other fragrances, especially those involving violet bouquets." Sacrebleu! Who knew?

Remarkable Plants of Texas is full of such moments, all of them bound in brilliant red cloth binding and lime green end papers. The visual appeal of the book and its layout, illustrated generously with full-color photography, supports an encyclopedia of excellent reference material as well as enhancing a satisfying read, both valuable assets to have in any Texas naturalist’s library.

 

 

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