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David Creech, regarding Lynn Lowrey

REEL: 2296


DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. We’re in Houston, Texas on the campus of Rice University. It’s November 13, 2004, and we are gathered on the occasion of the Lynn Lowery Symposium. I have the good fortune to be talking to David Creech who is Director of the Steven F. Austin University Mass Arboretum and has known Lynn for many years, and I wanted to thank you for taking the time…

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DC: It’s good to be here.

I’d like to start this interview by asking you how you first met or became familiar with Lyn. Maybe you can extrapolate a little bit from that.
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I was an undergraduate at Texas A&M University 1966 through 1970. I was majoring in—in horticulture and I had an advisor, Dr. Hollis Bowen that was intrd—interested in introducing blueberries as a potential new crop to Texas, and rabbiteye blueberries, vaccinium ashei are indigenous to the Southeast, and he extrapolated that we could grow them here, and it didn’t take long to find out that the one person that we needed to visit with was Lynn Lowery. So I remember distinctly loading up in the truck and off we went to Houston, Texas to visit Lynn at the Lowery Nursery, and stepping out on Westheimer,
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and I remember some strange long-haired kids there and everything was back in cans back then; we always do plastic pots now and different types of containers, but I always tell my students that I am pre-plastic in a way, and so this goes back a long time. And he had the strangest collection of plants that you’ve ever seen, and I was kind of mesmerized by that and sure enough, he had a number of species of vaccinium, and had some varieties and—well, what struck me and I still remember today is is that Lynn was so
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generous that we he found out what we were doing, he insisted that we take something else, and all of this was, of course, for free. I think a lot of people may know that Lynn was in the nursery business for different nurseries, and he was—to be totally honest, not that good at it because he would give everything away, he’d close the gate. He’d leave for trips, you know, he just was the consummate plant hunter. So that’s how I met Lynn in the early days over thirty years ago. And in the seventies I communicated with him by writing and by some visits, all on fruit related. In the mid eighties I began—I was a professor at Steven F. Austin State University, and we began an arboretum project. That snowballed, and when he knew about that, we were fast friends really from about ’83 on.
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Made numerous trips to Mexico with Lynn and lots of trips into the Piney Woods of east Texas looking for different plants.


DT: Earlier you said that you first met Lynn by visiting one of his nurseries, and I thought maybe you could tell us about some of the trips that you took with Lyn, not just to Lyn, but maybe some of the plant collecting and prospecting journeys you made with him.

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DC: Well, Lynn had been doing a lot of trips to Mexico pretty much on his own. And I don’t know what happened, but in the 1980’s he basically began to want to share where he’d been, what he’d seen, some of the plants, and he asked me if I wanted to go along, but unfortunately, he always asked you the day before. And, but on one particular occasion I did jump in with him on one of his first trips, and Lyn’s trips to Mexico, they were addictive, they were addictive to me because I was one of those people that enjoyed
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staying in a modest hotel with a gunnysack for a door, and loud noises at night, and basically roughing it out in the San Madre Oriental Mountain Range. San Madre is a beautiful, beautiful botanical region. It was once connected to Texas when it was wetter tens of thousands of years ago, so, so many counterpart species—it’s easy to be in the San Madre and see plants that you recognize as east Texas flora. We were once
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connected, and so that was a trip and basically we would hit Bustamante and concentrate on the three to six or seven thousand feet elevation levels and looking for plants that might be a little bit unique, and back then almost any—every trip you went you would bring back something that had never been in the United States, and there were botanical specimens brought in that were actually named from those expeditions. So marspermum susanum was one and some of the many varieties too of plants, so the pink scutellaria
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skullcap, and I think we were trying to put together—I was really getting kick out of working up this presentation because it forced me to go through the arboretum and say, “Well, I got that plant from Lyn.” And then go back to my record books; we have a database and so, so many plants from that first—those first expeditions were, you know, keepers and they’ve ended up being a part of your landscape. So I think that’s—that’s a legacy in itself. They were modest trips, things were not very organized, the maps we had were crude, and we were on trails so that wasn’t on the maps and we stayed lost, but
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I spoke enough Spanish, and the truck was so beat up and ugly I don’t think anybody wanted to rob us. And—and I think—that had a lot to do with it. And got to meet a lot of wonderful people on those expeditions from 1986 to 1992. I kind of quit in ’92, but Lynn had took many, many trips before then—before he integrated a lot of his friends into it and I think he was realizing he was getting old and he wanted to share the plants and their habitats. I—I remember I roomed with him a lot, and I can remember that he never slept, and you’d wake up and he’d be reading, and he had all kinds of botany
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books. And he’d sleep two to three hours a night. Now he would have a tendency to kind of fall asleep in the afternoon; when he was driving you had to watch him, but he was a very, very tireless individual—a little slow, but he was slow and steady and always had his eye open for a new plant, and I was quite impressed with his character. The trips were one thing but his character was another—he had a great effect on me in terms of his giving nature. He doesn’t fit in well with the modern society in the sense everybody in my business now wants to patent a plant. If you find a plant, blah, blah in your nursery—
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whatever, you sh—can patent it and you can get twenty years where you have copyright royalties and—and make all this money. Lynn was way beyond money, and that’s a different kind of a person than we have today.

DT: You mention that some of the plants you found in your recent inventory of the arboretum came from trips with Lyn, and I was wondering if you could try to give some rough gauge of the impact of your relationship with Lynn and maybe some of these trips on your current career at the arboretum and the collection the arboretum has.

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DC: That’s—that’s a difficult question, you know, because the arboretum is a very large organism, like the one that’s going to happen here at Rice, I mean I’ve been at the arboretum business since 1985 and I’m not sure anybody really controls it, it kind of controls me, and you get a lot of people involved. You have boards of advisors and
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arboretum groups and people with plant desires, and somebody puts money together and that garden—theme garden happens, fountains, etc. I’ve always tried to maintain a Lynn Lowery philosophy on giving plants away, and that’s not often the case in many arboretums. The J.C. Raulston Arboretum at North Carolina State has the same philosophy; you’re a horticulturist, a nurseryman, you can go there, you can get cuttings, it’s not a lot of hassle. A lot of arboretums and bot gardens don’t allow that, and we operate under the philosophy “give—give it away, give it away, give it away, it will come
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back ten-fold.” And I really think that in a lot of ways it does, but because of plant patenting and copyrighting and branding and trade marking of names, things are a lot tighter than they used to be. In the early 1990’s, late 80’s everybody shared things, now they share what they think they might not patent. And so you have bullpens with chain link fences around them at the nurseries, and you have high security situations, and a lot of arboretums and the universities don’t share and they don’t evaluate. Lynn was
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always—and I agree with him—so was J.C. Raulston, both kindred spirits in the plant-hunting world, thought that let the industry sort it out, let the landscape sort it out. Put the plant out, let’s evaluate it. Now—and if it’s a good plant it will rise to the surface and it will become a popular plant. If it’s showy, if it’s colorful, if it’s tough, if it’s durable, if it’s resistant to insects, it will show itself. That doesn’t hap—doesn’t operate that way now. It you have a rare, unusual cultivar, and you’re in the nursery business, your tendency to test it is behind the chain link fence because you don’t want to test anywhere
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else; somebody might get it, somebody might steal it, somebody might release it. And so sharing—sharing has changed. It’s due to the fact that we have so many plant patents that have made people a lot of money, and everybody wants in on that. When you buy an Encore Azalea, for instance, which are popular all over Houston, you’re buying a plant that has given the breeder, Buddy Lee, some money. It’s made him a very rich and happy man. And it’s given PDSI money, the nursery that squired it on in. Lynn would have
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never done that. He—he would have been offended by the concept of making money off of a plant that God gave us. And a lot of arboretums, a lot of nurseries, I think, you know, that knew Lynn had been influenced by that. And I think in a lot of ways, it’s—it’s kind of paid off at the SFA Mast Arboretum. We have a very generous nursery base, and have had a lot of benevolent spirits come through here, just like the one that will happen here at Rice. Once you get people afflicted and infected with horticulture and enthusiasm
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for plant material, it’ll happen here at Rice. And you have alumni here, I would suspect, that are quite capable of making this a real powerhouse arboretum.

DT: In the last few moments you’ve told us a little bit about Lyn’s effect on you, personally. This whole spirit of generosity and sharing of plant material and on the arboretum and its sort of open-shop attitude toward horticulture. I was wondering if you could talk about Lyn’s impact on landscaping in general, whether it’s the culture or the industry or the look of what we see and…

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DC: It—it—it’s substantial, and you can go back to some of his few writings in the nursery business—he had a Lowery Nursery Newsletter, for three or four issues, and this goes way back, and he wrote in terms then, that we think of now as modern concepts of habitat gardening, you know, adaptive plants in the right spots, diversity, diversity, diversity. He did a lot of values of native plants; why grow native plants? A lot of people think—and really that started with Ladybird and Carroll Abbott in 1980’s, was when—and actually I spoke at the very first wildflower deal up at TWU with Ladybird,
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and I can remember it was like breaking new ground, and, “We need to use these—these natives,” and—and Lynn Lowery had been preaching on that pulpit for a long, long time, really since the 1960’s and ‘50’s even a little bit in some of his writings. Those newsletters are available, they’re not—I found some and gave them to Mary Pickens, she can tell you about them, but the writings were micro-pocketing plants and how we pick sites and site selection. The plant needs elevation; the plant needs to be on a raised burm,
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and how you recognize how the plant lives in its habitat is how you’re going to end up trying to imitate and mimic it in your landscape. So don’t put a dry-loving plant in the—in the middle of a bog, and the other way around, and—and actually you can put them in close proximity, but as long as you don’t give them wet feet and you can get plants to live adjacent to each other. He talks in terms of texture, so—which is not spoken of really in the 50’s or 60’s very much in terms of putting bold foliage plants next to finer textured
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plants to carry contrasting. He was very big on wildlife and food, food habitats, larval plants, he’s talking about wildlife food plants, and—and the side of him that first introduced him to me, the fruit industry, he was a complete rabid nut on paw-paws and jujubes and every kind of fruit that you ever imagine. A lot of people don’t know that side of Lyn, that he really was into edible landscaping when it wasn’t even cool. So that—that, I think, is—is an impact that we’ve had. Now if you look at landscapes, I—I
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don’t think anyone would deny the fact that a lot of the landscapes you see in Texas and the south have been influenced by a number of his plants and particularly the Mexico oak world, I would say, because thousands of them are being planted, and they end up making bold statements in the landscape, and they’ve been planted because they’ve worked out and they’re tough, and they can stand our cold, and they are evergreen, and they don’t—you know, I mean, we’ve been very impressed with them at SFA. We’re zone eight and
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so—and then the myriad of plants goes on, the little leucophyllum that so many nurseries are selling, Lyn’s legacy is—is probably—probably one of the benchmark plants. The pink scutellaria that I showed in my slide program, David, was actually made Plant of the Year in early 1990’s by Lone Star Nursery. It was one of their promotional—promotional items. A lot of people don’t even know Lynn is the finder of that. It was eventually picked up and—plants start off quietly and nobody knows who actually introduced it, and I know that one of my former students, Tim Kiphart actually named it Texas Rose. A lot of people think Tim found it, but that happens in this plant business;
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people will often times take credit for plants that they may not have found, but they introduced it, I mean they probably distributed a lot of it, so the other Lynn Lowery plants fall into that kind of domain. He funneled a lot of plant material to a lot of different people, and while he may not have actually found the little katie ruellia that’s everywhere in the south from here to Florida, the little dwarf form of ruel—ruellia, it really wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for Lyn’s—Lyn’s nursery, and then Katie, and
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then Nolan found it in a can, so you end up, I mean, the connection between plants and people and ultimately our landscape is—is pretty—pretty distinct.

DT: Well that’s really helpful. You’ve been nice enough to answer some pretty specific questions. I was wondering if you’d like to wrap this up by just any more open-ended comments about Lynn and his impact on you.

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DC: Well, I was—it’s not easy. 1997 I was asked to give a talk at a—at his memorial service and I can remember taking all my notes and throwing them away. And I had a lot of trouble with it because it really didn’t have a lot to do with the plants, you know, I mean, we’re all here to—to gather together plant people. I go to plant conferences and give a lot of talks. It’s kind of preaching to the converted, and I work in the nursery industry, landscape industry and the characteristics of Lyn, his—his personality, his personal characteristics are—are such that I think it left a big impact on me in terms of
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sharing, you know, sharing things. I—I think that’s held us in good stead. I’m not sure it pays off, you know, because I get—I have a board of advisors, I have directors, I have volunteers at the arboretum, and they always think that we should charge more, you know or we should charge people for what we do, and you won’t even—you know if I box up plants and ship them off to some—somebody I—I pick up the UPS or Federal Express. And they always think I should charge people, and I say, “Oh no it’ll come back.” And eventually people—that’s what J.C. Raulston did in—did for his garden a lot, and it’s kind of what Lynn has done his whole life, and you know, it may not end up being a
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tangible financial thing, but it ends up being a lot of good plants distributed, a lot of good will, everybody’s happy. Life is short, you know, and I think that part of Lyn’s personality was—I don’t know—I just admired it. You don’t run into it very often, you know, and that was probably the one thing that I think he was—he was really a stand-out in the crowd of horticulturists that we have here today.

DT: Fair enough. Thank you, very much.

[End of Interview with David Creech – Reel 2296]