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Mike Shoup, regarding Lynn Lowrey

REEL: 2297

DT: My name is David Todd. Today is November 13, 2004. We’re at Rice University in Houston Texas, and we’re gathered here on the occasion of the Lynn Lowery Symposium organized by Peckerwood Garden. It’s given us a chance to visit with a number of friends and colleagues and students of Lynn Lowery, a famous planstman, and one of those illustrious crew is here today, Mike Shoup who is head of the Antiques Rose Emporium in Brenham and President of the Heritage Rose Society, and I wanted to thank you for taking time to come and talk a little bit about Lynn and his impact on yourself and the plant world in general.

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MS: It’s—it’s wonderful to be here, I, you know, it’s—it’s been a nice journey kind of going back and—and—and rediscovering some of our—my earlier jaunts with Lyn, and—and so I love the opportunity to kind of to visit with him. I—I remember meeting Lynn first time as a student at Texas A&M, this is back in 1973, I believe, was the date that I first became acquainted with Lynn Lowery—no that’s wrong, it was 1975, and it
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was—I was at Texas A&M. I had already graduated from Trinity University in San Antonio. I was at Texas A&M in horticulture. I was getting my masters de—degree. Dr. Ed McWilliams took a field trip to his nursery, and this was up in the Conroe area, his nursery north of Houston, and we—and I remember being struck by the unusualness of what—what we saw. It was not your typical nursery with organized rows of plants, and nomenclature so that you could learn stuff. It was—it was a diversity of—of wild
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plants, of plants in disarray, you know, very overgrown with weeds in some cases, but plants flourished everywhere. And he would walk around in—in—in—and show us, you know, his inventory, and—and everything, you could tell he was—he was passionate about each one of his plants, and he knew stories about it, where he got it, and—and so there was just a wealth of knowledge. So as—as uncharacteristic as the nursery looked, it was a—it made a profound impression on me because of how much this man knew and how much—you know, how much more organization really was there in his head. And
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so this was my first acquaintance with Lyn. And I didn’t think much of it at the time. I didn’t realize I’d be going into the business; I didn’t know what I was be doing. I was a student, but, you know, lo and behold, several years later I did go into business for myself, and—and operated a nursery that we loosely called Containerized Plants. And we grew ordinary material like ligustrums and Asiatic jasmines and privets and the very common stuff that fills up, you know, our garden centers every, you know, every year, and was successful at that for a couple of years, but realizing that I’m competing with
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much larger nurseries and many more nurseries growing the same material, we had to create a niche, and this was—this was born out of the fact the economy was—was going south in Texas in the early 80’s and so our business was struggling. And we did have to compete. So in order to create niche, I started looking at the natives again, and this opened my eyes up again to that acquaintance with Lyn. I knew he still had a nursery, and was still, you know, walking around and—and—and selling these plants, and felt like
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this was an opportunity to offer, you know, some–some plants that have evolved here in Texas as alternatives to these overused lugustrums that—that the garden centers have. So that’s how essentially I became a little bit more aware of Lyn’s work, not, you know, our initial encounter at Texas A&M, and then secondarily when I opened my nursery and started selling plants, realizing that native plants could give me a—a niche that may insulate me from the competition. And so we started collecting plants in the back roads of Texas, you know, and we found yaupons and different things, but the—the biggest
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efforts, the bis—biggest successes always came from—from Lynn sharing stuff. And our gardens—we went to the conventions and we had a catalog made full of native plants, and sketches of these—these plants. And so we were offering to the public, in a—in a way I guess we were competitors of Lyn, but he would have never thought that because he was so generous he wanted everybody to succeed in—in getting these plants, these native plants out into the environment. But for me, you know, this was a hard time and we struggled with the nursery, and in the—in the early 80’s I took a trip with him to Del
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Rio and I took a trip with Tom Marek who is now the owner of Magnolia Gardens here in—in—just outside of Houston in—in Magnolia. And—and that was a very memorable trip because we went on a boat ride across Lake Amistad to this little area, this remote area that—that you can’t even get to by foot it—it would appear. We had to get—you know, we had to get a—we had to get in a boat to do it, and we walked on this real rocky terrain and found wonderful quercus canbyii, Texas pistache and—and he was so
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generous and so—such a teacher, and—and it was—it really made an impression on Tom and I on that trip. And—and—and he even said that there’s some dwarf forms of this Texas pistache that would make a good landscape plant in the industry, you know. So this—I thought so too and then they were beautiful plants and I set out—I even invested a couple thousand dollars in a—in a—in a tissue culture process to see if I could get some of this dwarf—this dwarf form of Texas pistache mass produced and grow it in our nursery and sell it. I felt like I’d have the market cornered. And it didn’t work out,
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the tissue culture did not work out, but, you know, this is one of the—one of the types of trees that—that he shared. He also shared a lot of information, one of—one of which I—I spoke of earlier today was the—the—the—the lore of these plants. He had so many tricks and so many little bits of information about each plant, and he—and the discovery of that, you know was—was—and the way he portrayed that to people was magnificent.

DT: Could you give us an example?

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MS: Yeah, a great example is—is one of the—of the acorns in Monterrey. We went to Chipinque, a wonderful little mountain south of Monterrey, and in that area you have plants that you don’t think would grow together; roses—I mean plants that—that love acid soil, plants that love alkaline soil were growing side by side. So it’s a real confluence of almost two geograph—geographic regions together on one mountain side. But they have live oaks like our live oaks which are fabulous in the fact that they are—
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are evergreen during our winters. Well, they have the same thing, but they’re much larger leaved, and so the—one of them is quercus polymorpha the other one is quercus risophylla, and there’s just wonderful forests of these plants. And we collected acorns, and he says that in order to get through the—through the—back into—across the border into the States, they—they need—these seed had to be perfectly clean. If they see any worms or bugs on them, you know, they’ll—they’ll throw them away. And he said a certain trick about getting the worms to—to—to kill the worms so that they don’t have
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any is to put them in—in water, and bring the heat up to about 120 degrees, and that kills the larvae but doesn’t hurt the viability of the seed. And he says the way you do that; you stir this with your bare hands. You put—you put the—your hands into the water and stir the water and have it start cooking, and when the temperature gets to where you can’t stand it anymore, you turn the fire off, remove it from the—from the stove and everythi—and it’s 120 degrees, and that’s perfect for killing the larvae and having the
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viability of the seed. So, I mean this is just one story of many that—that he, you know, he taught us, and—and—and we introduced a lot of those oaks and—and—and yaupons and—and salvias, and penstemons and different things that he helped us collect and helped us find. and what he sh—shared with us. And so the—the—our nursery evolved in to offering these native plants, and I struggled with that as well, to be honest. I didn’t, you know, it was a hard sell. Public was not embracing this. They’re new, they didn’t know anything about them, but what it did allow me, it allowed me to evolved into
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collecting old garden roses that grew in the same environments that these native plants evolved in because people in, like cemeteries—and—and—and—and planting a—a—a—a beautiful rose plant in—in honor of the loved one that may have been deceased that—that family passes on and in many cases in these cemeteries these roses or plants would live on. So cemeteries are like mini arboretums of time-tested plants. And so this is—this is how we started collecting roses and realized we had an opportunity in selling a lot of these adaptive roses and—and we made a much more viable business out of that. But
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our gardens today—we have—we have one in San Antonio, one in Brenham, they offer the roses, and that’s—that’s the main, you know, hook that—that we have, you know, in the main branding, I guess you’d say that the Antique Rose Emporium has, but our gardens are full of his natives, and they marriage in with the roses. And so even today we’re—we’re—we’re still very involved with the native plant push.

DT: You said you made a number of trips to Mexico with Lynn to learn about prospecting and collecting plants. Did the techniques he taught you there of finding good specimens and collecting them in the right way at the right season and so on, help you when you go to these abandoned cemeteries or…

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MS: Yeah.

DT: …residential lots and collect your rose (?)?

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MS: Yeah, it—it did. I mean, your statement is partially true, I—I didn’t take very many trips with Lyn. Lynn told us about Chipinque, about the—the mountain in Mexico, and we went separately, by ourself, but he did tell us the techniques on how to—how to process the seed, and he certainly—and we did certainly did go to the—to the Del Rio to Lake Amistad and—and—and collect with Lynn personally there. And we learned a lot on that trip about how—how he processes things, how he keeps things cool, keeping, you know, a seed viable and—and cleaning it and things like that. And yes, those techniques are—are—are certainly what I have used, you know, in—in—in—in—in like collection of roses and stuff that we have since done.

DT: Did he teach you much about how to actually transplant and find the correct soil or the correct sun exposure for different kinds of plants?

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MS: In—in all honesty, I did not have that kind of exposure with Lyn, not as much. I—I wasn’t—you know we were separated by, you know, a couple of hours and—and—and I, you know, and when I visited his nursery, you—you know, many times he wouldn’t be there, or you know, we wouldn’t—I just did not have that much contact with Lynn other than this—this one trip and then a couple of times with other people socially and things like that. So I—I can’t characterize it that way. I don’t have that kind of experience. I think others will.

DT: Earlier you said that he had taught you an appreciation for native plants, and I was wondering if you could talk just a little bit about the conventional plant industry and how that’s different and why it’s predominant over the native plant industry that you and Lynn and many others have worked and developed.

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MS: Yeah, the—it’s—it is interesting that the i—i—imported exotics continue to out sell a lot of the Texas native plants. I have—I have to think that it’s—it’s a—it’s a—it’s—it’s a—it’s a familiarity type of thing, that people are—see their neighbors having the petunia and they think that that’s what they need to have as well. And they’re less courageous to branch out. And to be honest, you’ve got to understand in—in defending them, they don’t know what they’re getting into, and so they’re, you know, from an
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educational standpoint bringing in and embracing some native plants—they probably would like to do, but they don’t know the performance of the plant and they don’t have an educator or a plantsman that is actually telling them how these plants are to be planted or how to landscape with them, then it is going to be a hard sell to them to—to buy them. So they’re buying familiarity, and that’s why it’s hard to really, I think, for native plants to get ingrained in the—in the common thread of—of horticulture. It takes educators, it
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takes special people, like you saw a roomful of today of telling the public, you know, how to use these plants and not to be afraid of them, but that—I think that’s some of it is the fact that the homeowner just doesn’t know, you know. They don’t know what the—what—what the expectation is going to be and so that shies away—I think they shy away from its use.

DT: Well when you make the pitch which I guess is similar perhaps to or influenced by the pitch that Lynn made to you, how do you convince somebody that native plants are superior to conventional?

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MS: I show them. We have gardens, and that’s the best way. And that’s—Lyn—Lynn touched people with his collecting. And, you know, what I’m doing is—is—trying to show people that old garden roses are true garden plants, are wonderful plants to garden with, and by planting them in—in—in marriage the—married—in—in—in blending
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them with native perennials and—and—and—and some of the woody plants that Lynn collected in our gardens, they see this in mature form, and then they can take those ideas home with them because we have those plants there ready for them to—to purchase. So we’re trying to create gardens that actually show the effectiveness of roses and natives together, and that’s—that’s what our nursery is all about. We have one in San Antonio that is much more xeric, more dry, you know, you know, more—a completely different
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personality than the one we have in Brenham. And so the plant material that we have in the San Antonio garden have the agaves and the yuccas and the much more xeric plants that are appropriate for San Antonio with the—the roses in a landscape setting. And so people see these, you know, these—these displays and are more apt to buy the plants and take them back, you know, home with them. As far as the one in—in Brenham, it’s the same thing. The plants we have there are the roses with some of the plants that Lyn—some of the native plants, but it embraces a little bit more of east Texas because it’s a
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little bit more friendly that way. So, we—we have taken what Lynn has showed us, and I guess what we’re doing a little bit that’s—that’s a little different is that we’re creating display gardens of those plants to educate people. If we can get somebody to come in and say, Oh, this is how this looks, and this is how I can use it, then they’re more likely to embrace it and take it home. It’s very hard to go up to a home owner and say, you know, “Plant this yaupon,” if they don’t know anything about the yaupon, and if they can see it and—and see what it does and—what it—what the expectation of it is, I think they’ll be
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more likely to embrace it.

DT: You said that Lynn engendered a kind of curiosity and courage and going to new places, trying new plants, investigating what would work in the strange climate and soils…

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MS: Right. That he tested the ranges—he tested the ranges of a lot of his—of the plants he found, exactly.

DT: Can you maybe talk in general about what sort of impact Lynn has had on the plants that are used, the landscape that you see in people’s yards and commercial sites, the whole attitude about…

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MS: I was talking—I was talking to some—to some of the people today, and it’s—it’s interesting because native plants really had a—a, I think a—a big interest, a big influx of a—of a—of energy if you will. You know back in the, oh late 70’s, early 80’s and then it kind of wavered a while, and people struggled trying to—to incorporate into, you know—to—to incorporate native plants, or to have nurseries that just featured native plants. It’s—it’s been kind of a roller coaster. But I think that—that his—his work and you’ll—we’ll see some of the gardens today really embodies a—a—you know a
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naturalistic approach. It’s really—it’s much more common sense approach to—to gardening because it’s—it incorporates the laws of mother nature, a diversity of plant material growing together that would embody th—this particular garden themes. And I think that that’s what’s remarkable, you don’t have the manicured, straight rose, the soldiers, the—you know, the—the effects that really dominate our landscapes. That is friendly to a lot of consumers because they’re used to it, and—and having something
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wild and diverse and—and—and free-flowing is—is—is not what they’re accustomed to—to—doing, but in—in reality, it makes a whole lot more sense because it’s going to be a lot more stable. You don’t have to get out there and prune it or mow it, or do a lot of the things that we—we fuss over our yards with. So I think his methodology is very good in—in—in reality it should go into the future with—with a whole lot more application. You know, it makes more sense.

DT: You said that Lyn’s attitude about landscaping is a lot of common sense to it in that it’s, I guess these plants are more durable, and there’s less upkeep with them and they’re just suited to this environment. I wonder if there’s also an ecological side to the kind of plants that he was promoting?

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MS: Well, yes, I mean native plants are—are—are like anything wh—if you discover a particular variety of—of Texas pistache in south Texas, you know, it’s not necessarily a good plant for east Texas or central Texas. And so he—he challenged that range, and that’s what was so remarkable about him, is he got this plant into other people’s hands where they plant it and—and—and if it was successful, then you’d see it in that particular region. And so you know in a large—in—in—in a big way he—he showed us, you know, plants that were not in certain areas that would work, and yet they were truly
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adaptive plants, I mean they were plants that—that, because they evolved, you know, in this region certainly had the potential of being—ma—being a much better plant for the homeowner, simply because they don’t require the—the fussiness of the schedules of spraying and things like that that we—we—we tend to do with some of the oth—the imported exotics that we bring in. So, to me it just makes, you know, using the plants that you see in the environment around your house, and around your area, using them
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tastefully in creating that diversity is—makes a lot of sense. And he was more—he was more of that ilk, if you will.

DT: Well, is it fair to say that by using these natives you probably end up using less fertilizer, less insecticide…

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MS: Oh, certainly, certainly. It’s such a—it’s a much more common sense—you know, you don’t see people going out and fertilizing mother nature, you know, and yet everything grows fine. They’re—they’re—they’re maintained by mulches and by the natural evolution of the—of the seasons, you know, leaf falling and creating their own mulches and—and that in itself is the fertilizer for the—for the plants in the future and creates the—the energ—or the food for the microbes whose byproducts is fertilizer. So, yes, I mean, it—it’s—it just makes more sense. If we can get away from—from synthetic
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fertilizers, from chemicals and, you know, I know that the homeowners would embrace that. And that’s the way to sell this product, is from the stand point of use—use native plants, they have—you know they evolve in your back yard, they belong here, and—and you have the capability of tastefully displaying them in your gardens.

DT: We talked about some of the aesthetic sides and what Lynn taught us, and the common sense sides and the ecological sides, are there any other sorts of lessons or legacies that Lynn Lowery has left?

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MS: Well, I really tried to point this out his morning. I think that one of Lyn’s, I think, biggest attributes, and you see it here today, is the way he touched people and the way he, you know, his—his legacy is in the fact that people want him to live on in—in—in —in the—in the concept of—of bringing these wonderful plants back, you know, into—into the—into future gardens. And he did it in a manner that—that didn’t utilize money. It utilized, you know, a helping hand, or a—a comment or—or just the energy of his tireless
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work and dedication to—to the plants themselves. And—and I think people today realize, you know in this—based on the ones that we saw in the room today, you know that—that, you know, he was incredible and—and how many they—how they—he’s getting more energy after he’s dea—you know it’s like a Van Gogh, you know that he’s getting stronger since his—his departure. And so you know that—that somebody is a whole lot more powerful when they can touch somebody in that manner. So that’s all I would say, I’d say he’s touched a lot of people and in that vein, his legacy will live on because they’re not going to forget about him.

Fair enough. Thank you very much.

[End of Interview with Mike Shoup – Reel 2297]