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Mary Anne Pickens, regarding Lynn Lowrey

REEL: 2298

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It is November 13, 2004. We’re on the Rice University campus in Houston, Texas and what’s brought us together here is the Lyn Lowery Symposium that was put on by Peckerwood Garden and which brought together a number of plantsmen and plant enthusiasts to remember Lyn Lowery who was a noted plant collector and explorer and nurseryman. And I –I think we have the good fortune of talking to Mary Anne Pickens who was President of the Native Plant Society, Vice President of the Southern Garden History Society and has done a lot of research and investigation about Lyn Lowery’s life, his work, his impact on other people and I wanted to take this chance to thank you for talking to us about Lyn.

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MAP: Happy to be here.

DT: I thought we might start this by asking how you became familiar first with Lyn and interested in his life and work?

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MAP: Well, when I was President of the Native Plant Society, everyone, of course, referred to Lyn, but we never saw him at meetings, and I quickly learned that this was never going to happen. We had given him an award and he wrote a very nice letter thanking us for the award. And the secretary sent me the letter and I read it, and in it he had said, “I would like to have a few people come down to Carriso for a field trip this fall.” Well this letter was written early in, hmmm, he died in ninety-seven so it would have been January, February of that year. And so I stopped by Anderson’s Nursery a
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time or two after that and thanked him for his kind offer and I said, you know, “How many people are you—are you willing to have?” “Well we’ll—we’ll just wait until a little closer to time and then we’ll talk about it a little bit more.” And every time I drove by, that was kind of the answer I would get, and of course in the meantime he’d be giving you plants and-and so forth. And so I did know him just this much and then that—late that summer is when he died. And so he died before our next annual meeting came up, and so I never got to go to Carriso Springs with Lyn Lowrey, but a couple of years after
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that Bill Welch was planning a program for Southern Garden History Society, it was meeting here in Houston, and he asked me if I would do a paper on some of the prominent local horticulturists. And he suggested Lyn, and he suggested Robert Vines and a couple of others. And it didn’t take me too long into just very casual research and I came back and I said, “Bill we can only do one, and we can only do Lyn.” And he, of course agreed. And so that’s why I started my research on Lyn.

DT: And how did you pick up the trail on Lyn? He was a very soft-spoken person.

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MAP: He was, but everybody—I remember as President of the—of the Native Plant Society going to his memorial service which was at the Robert E. Vine Center, and I remember looking around me thinking, “Oh my gosh, everybody with any kind of plant name is here.” You had people from major universities, you had people from the extension service, you had garden writers and authors and, you know, and everyday gardeners and they were all here, and you realized that everybody there had a connection. And I remember walking out of the sers—service with David Creech, and I said, “David,
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would you please write an article about Lyn for our native plant newsletter?” And he, of course said he would. And—and then two years later when Bill’s asking me to do a program on Lyn, well of course, David Creech was one of the people I went right back to. And I—I called Mike and Patsy Anderson, his daughter and son-in-law, and they were very, very generous, and then they said something about, “You might contact Sally Wysoski because she has interviewed Lyn in the last couple of years.” And so when I
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called Sally, she said, “Oh yes, I’ve got this whole stack of material I’ll send you.” And zap, I had it. And then after that it was like filling in around the edges, and of course Bill Welch had been in business with Lyn. Greg Grant had known him, Jill Nokes, who was a friend of ours, had—had worked with him, and, you know, there was just—there was—you just finally had to say, okay they’re only going to let me talk an hour and I have to stop right now kind of thing. So that’s how it kind of all got started.

DT: Was there some sort of introduction in doing your research on Lyn to the kind of collegial nature of the plant world?

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MAP: Well, Lyn—no, I kept hearing he didn’t write—he didn’t write much and he talked less. Well, but everybody had a story. And it—and it took me a while to figure out he would talk, but he would talk to a few people at a time, and if you could track both people down, then you could get Lowrey’s stories. And it was hard for me to—at the beginning to narrow it down, you know, what aspect of his life do I want to talk about? And I finally kind of broke it up into three sections, which was his work as a nurseryman, and a—then his—his work as a plant collector and—and his influence on other people. And so in my original program, those were some of the things that I—I sort of touched on.

DT: Well, could you maybe summarize those three parts or the highlights of each?

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MAP: Well, this—Mike Anderson was the one when I asked him I said about the plants that Lyn introduced and that’s when he told me the story of—well I don’t know exactly if you understand plant introduction, but for Lyn it was just simply planting something in someone’s garden. And he would convince you that you—that this was a great plant and you needed to try it. She said—he said but as far as a big, you know, agricultural—this
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plant was introduced by Lyn Lowrey; you’re not going to get it. And I said, “Well, what plants are associated with Lyn?” And so he started naming things, and the things that he named first were the Mexican oaks, and there were three Mexican oaks. And—and then he came on down, and he talked about the little katie ruellia that nobody had—had done anything with that appeared at katie—at the nursery after Lyn sold it to Katie Ferguson, and this was a Lyn Lowrey plant, and he told me about pistache and—and the Anaconcho Orchid and—and a lot of things like that. In the meantime Patsy was over there
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pulling out old newsletters and copies of horticultural journals that had Lyn’s articles, and she copied all of those for me and I could kind of go through them and see the plants and he—when he wrote the article on Acacia wrightii, for instance, he got letters from all over the world. And I guess plant people all subscribe to these journals, and the news gets passed around and you know, this, to me was very impressive because it was the day—before the days of all the internet, when something got put on the internet and everybody has it fifteen seconds later. It wasn’t like that, but—but he had letters from—
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from everywhere on that one article about Acacia wrightii, and I thought that was very interesting, and, you know, he—he had so many favorite plants but he did consider the Anaconcho Orchid and the Texas Pistache two of the most rare and that he—particularly the pistache, he wanted to propagate them before their natural habitat was lost. And it took me a while to kind of work into the Robert Vines part of the story and realize how close a relationship that was. I did speak to the man at the Robert E. Vines Science
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Center, and he had—had told me how interesting is was when Lyn and Robert Vines would come in from a collecting trip together and he said Robert Vines, being the taxonomist, would be over there thinking, “Well is this—is this a new species or could this be some sort of a hybrid, or I wonder what this is?” And Lyn would be sitting over there saying, “I wonder how I can propagate this?” you know, “What’s the best way to propagate this?” And he apparently with the Texas pistashe tried every kind of direction
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on propagation, you know, cuttings and seeds and, and he did realize quickly that one in some thousand or fifteen hundred would have a little leaf and that’s the one that he said would be worthy of propagation like little dwarf yaupon and kind of thing. He had—Jill Nokes says he has an incredible power of observation and that, you know, he could be driving down the highway and—and spot something that hey, this is good, this—this has a little different look, yea, yea I know it’s a guaricon, but it’s a little better than what I usually see, and then that would be the one that he would slam on the brakes and collect the seeds from.

DT: And part of the appeal was aesthetic that it would fill in as ground cover or…

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MAP: He—yes, yes. He was—he was very much a plant person. I’ve heard it said that he never met a plant that he didn’t like, and I asked Dr. Mike Williams about that, who was a friend of his that—from A&M and I said, “Can you tell me so—some of the plants that—that Lyn really liked?” And he said, “It would be much easier for me to tell you about the plants he didn’t like.” And I said, “What were those?” And he said, “Ligustrums, and red-tipped petunias, and things that are so very common.” You know, and he said, “He loved all plants.” And he was—Bill Welch told me that when he was in
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business with Lyn, that Lyn was always trying to push the plant palette. He wou—expand it, get some more things here, and he was not at the beginning, and—and nor at the end a native plant purist. He just liked plants that would do well. He liked to provide them with the right habitat and he just didn’t want them to—to be just common. He wanted, you know, to spice up your life a little bit, and like in ordering the plants from the viburn—viburnum luzanicum from California and then he planted them and they did well and, you know, he used them forever, and he was not a nati—a native plant purist. He just wanted a good adaptable plants.

DT: It sounds like he was looking for plants that adapted well, that were easy to have in your yard and that…

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MAP: Low maintenance…

DT: They filled in a point in the palette that were aesthetic, but I’m curious about that remark you made earlier where he was particularly interested in propagating the Texas pistache, and I’m quite sure they were rare plant, so there…

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MAP: Right.

DT: …was an environmental angle…

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MAP: Yes, there was a—definitely an environmental angle to this, you know, he was afraid that their habitat would be completely lost and he wanted them propagated and out there before it—they were lost. And this is when he had hundreds of pots going and Dr. McWilliams said he told him, you know, “Well now Lyn, you need to, you need to put a good price on these things. This is a very rare plant and nobody has it.” And he said, “To show how much attention he paid to me, he gave most of them away.” And that too was very typical. But he wanted them out there; he didn’t want to sell them. That wasn’t the point. He wanted them scattered so that the plant would be available. It would be in the
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trade and out there for protection so that it would not be lost. And so that was—that was his point there. And another one was the anaconcho orchid from Uvalde—very isolated, you know, endemic plant. And he kept going back to that one spot to get it, so that it could be grown in a—in more widely diverse places, and of course, it can be. So, I don’t think that anybody’s ever really fallen in love with the Texas pistache except for Lyn,
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but—but hey have fallen in love with the orchid.

DT: Speaking of the Texas pistache, that he did some hybridizing too was he…

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MAP: Yes, he did.

DT: …skilled…

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I think so.

DT: …botanist?

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MAP: You know, he—he obviously—a lot of it, I think, was trial and error, but he—he tried a variety of things and—and Dr. McWilliams said that he grafted the Texas pistache onto the Chinese pistache. Lyn liked this business of having corresponding plants from opposite sides of the world, you know. He liked the persimmons, you know, the native persimmons versus the Japanese persimmons, and he—he liked—liked the chionanthus retusa from—from China well, he liked to compare it and grow it with the chionanthus virginica and so he—he was very interested in the two species.

DT: Speaking of Oriental plants, I understand that he was very interested in medical application and cancer properties of some (?)

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MAP: Yes, one of his very last interests—and I hate to admit that he gave me a camptotheca and I let it sit in a can until it died. I’m very bad about that. He—he got a call one day saying that this gentleman needed some camptotheca for cancer research and the only place that he could get them were from California and that it was very, very expensive, and they just needed to have a bigger group to work with, needed more plants than they could afford. And so Lyn hung up and said, “Well let me think about that just a little bit.” And he remembered that something like thirty years ago he had planted a
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camptotheca in a man’s yard in Kingwood. And so he went up, called him up and sure enough, yeah it was still there, and so he goes out and there are seedlings coming up. And so he dug up some of the seedlings and brought them home, and Mike Anderson said, “you know, and we soon had cornered the market on camptotheca.” And then from all of those little babies, Mike Anderson said, “We either have to get out of the nursery business and raise camptotheca, or we have to do something else.” And at this point was even after, I think, Lyn had been diagnosed with cancer himself. And they ended up giving these plants to the Stamen Foundation and to biomed, and for their cancer research. And so, yes, he made a very big contribution there, provi—providing them with this material, and I think the research still goes on. And David Creech can tell you more
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about this because David was involved with a Dr. Lee who was from China and—and went to China because Lyn connected people and put people together. And Dr. Lee was seeking camptotheca for some of his research in forestry and ended up going to China through a grant that Lyn was able to provide him with through contacts, you know, Lyn was not interested only in the plants. He was interested in the people, and—and so he did very definitely make his contribution to—to medical research. And I think it’s—it just shows what a wide range of interests Lyn had from finding a pretty plant for your garden
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to providing plants for medical research, and every aspect in between. He was—his early writings kept talking about planting in school grounds and in public places, you know, to educate people, and to serve as little arboretums and things. And he—he was doing this years and years ago and it’s—it’s very pleasing to—to know that now we have the wildflower center in Austin and we have Lowrey Arboretum here on the Rice campus and—and all of these things and he played—and the Robert E. Vines Science Center. He—Randy Beaver told me that probably eighty percent of the trees there were—were planted by Lyn, so, you know he certainly made his contributions in so many ways.

DT: It sounds like from what you said, that a lot of his contributions have been routed through other plantsmen or universities or through the wildflower center or the Vines Center, but it seems like he also touched a number of clients with their own personal gardens, backyards or corporate clients who had plants put in around their parking lots. Can you talk a little bit about how he might have educated some of these clients?

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MAP: Well, you know, at the beginning when he hung out his shingle at his very first nursery on Westheimer and it said “Landscaping, Rare Plants, Fruit Trees and Native Plants” he, at that moment set about starting to educate people. And I have—have heard a number of people tell me that when Lyn would—people would come in, and they would spend a lot of time talking, and they might buy fifty cents worth of something, but they might not. And that he spent a lot of time just talking and sharing ideas with people,
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and—but you know, this was his manner. It didn’t bother him if they got a little knowledge from him, well that was just fine. And through the years, that body of knowledge that he passed on and—but I do think that in Houston itself, that some of his original clients that were of means and could—could help him financially, came through—the lady architect, landscape architect named Ru—Ruth London. And she very early on recognized, as she described him to my friend Anne Jones, that he was a—a—a gentleman, he was such a southern gentleman. And he knew everything about plants, and
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besides that he was cheap. He was inexpensive, and she could afford him. And so, but—and apparently Mrs.—Miss London was very generous in, you know, when she had a client she did not know plants, but she knew Lyn knew plants, and she would call Lyn and he would do the plant angle of it. So you know, he—he had a little help for some—from some people like that, and of course when he had a client like Anne McNamara Jones that—she wanted her to do her garden, and once he had done her garden, well then
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this was quite a new and revolutionary thing, I think, to have a garden in River Oaks that wasn’t carpet grass and azaleas and so…

DT: You know it’s intriguing to me; it seems his message moved almost like a virus. That it wasn’t as if he sent out thousands of identical plants like soldiers. It was much more subtle and intricate the way the network built itself. And I‘m wondering if you can try and summarize for us what you think the ultimate impact has been of Lyn’s life and work through this kind of underground movement he started.

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MAP: Well, I think that his—actually being described as a virus is kind of—that’s interesting, David because it—it—it did go from person to person. And he influenced so many people who then—and it goes back to what I was saying at his funeral: every one of those people that were there has a realm of influence either as writers or teachers or extension service agents, that they could pass on the knowledge that Lyn had passed on to them. And it really was a ripple effect, I think, rather than virus, maybe it’s like throwing that pebble in the pool and you have the ripples go out. And—and Lyn was the one who threw the pebble in the pool, and he did a very good job because he did influence so many people.

DT: Well put. Is there anything you’d like to add?

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MAP: No it’s been a—it’s been a real pleasure for me for the past few years to have done some of this research on Lyn. And I—I feel like I know him a lot better than I actually did. It’s—it’s been a real, real pleasure to know him.

DT: Thanks for sharing with us.

Well, two things, a photograph, and we have a …so let me see…

[End of Reel 2298 and End of Interview with Mary Anne Pickens]