Monday, September 26, 2011

One Man's Fight to Save Nearly Extinct Texas Wildflower

Photo courtesy: © W.D. Bransford

Several weeks ago, I wrote a blog about Andy Wood and his single-handed fight to save the Ramshorn snail. I am delighted to share a similar story from Texas. The Bracted twistflower is endangered in Texas. The majority of the remaining plants live in Walter Stewart's guest bathroom. He is hoping to restore the Bracted twistflower population one day from the plants he is tending in his own home. Read on for inspiration. One (wo)man can make a change.

The delicate violet blooms of the Bracted twistflower were once a common sight along the roadside in Texas Hill Country, but nowadays the most surefire place to find them just might be in Walter Stewart's guest bathroom. For the the past year or so, the retired physicist has made it his mission to help save the dwindling species with a sense of hospitality that's rarely extended towards plants -- literally opening up his home for use as makeshift nursery. Stewart's efforts have been so effective, in fact, that the washroom he built for visitors has helped sprout what may be the largest population of Bracted twistflowers left on Earth.

Perhaps what makes the rare flower so worth saving for someone like Stewart is the fact that it's unique to Central Texas; All told, Bracted twistflowers are only known to grow in just five counties in the region. In recent decades, however, the little purple flowers has become all too rare a sight as housing developments have swallowed up their habitat and changed in rainfall patterns have made it hard to grow. The species is so threatened by such factors as to have been named a candidate for the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service just last month.

For Flo Oxley, who serves as director of plant conservation at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the future seems uncertain for Bracted twistflowers: "In some years, we'll see lots and lots in some places, and in some years, we won't see any. And given the drought we've seen the past couple of years, we have not seen these plants in a while," Oxley tells the American-Statesman.

What the flowers needed was a hero -- not with one with a fortress of solitude or bat-cave -- one with a guest bathroom in the town of Bee Cave, Texas. So in steps Walter Stewart:
For more than a year, a 66-year-old Bee Cave man has been growing one of the largest known stocks of the plant in his guest bathroom.

Years ago, Oxley froze many of the tiny twistflower seeds — about the size of tomato seeds — from Travis County plants as a precaution against the plant's disappearance. Last year, Stewart and his wife, Mary Smith, revived some of Oxley's cryogenically stored seeds.

"We went from 42 seeds to 21 plants to 72,251 new seeds", Stewart said. "Ask how I know — we counted them."
There in his guest bathroom, presumably somewhere between the decorative soaps and embroidered towels, Stewart has helped revive the species, presently in their second spring of growth. When they are strong enough, each of the plants are moved from their special nursery to a table on the Stewart's patio, where they have collectively become what might be the largest population of twistflowers around.

As lovely as they may be to look at, Stewart is hoping to one day have a hardy enough group to give them a fighting chance again in the wild: "We want to get this plant off of my tables and into the ground."

With any luck, and some added protection for their inevitable listing as an endangered species, Bracted twistflowers will once bespeckle the Texas Hill Country landscape, inviting nature-lovers to enjoy their home as if to return the favor shown to them by one of the most hospitable among us.

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