Adam Black parked his black Tundra beside State Highway 105 outside Brenham one morning in mid-April and trudged into an unruly-looking tangle of green stuff wedged between the asphalt and a scrubby tree line. Not far down the road, pastures were carpeted with Lupinus texensis, the iconic Texas bluebonnet. Black had his phone camera out, but he was looking for less conspicuous blossoms. I was tagging along on a day of rare-wildflower monitoring, specimen collecting, and pollinating—conservation work that would take us seventy miles east and keep us on the road almost until sundown. Most of the habitat Black showed me was surprisingly accessible and vulnerable. I live in Brenham, and I’d passed this spot for years without a second thought about what might be growing here.
We sidestepped a decomposing skunk. Semis, pickups, and SUVs raced by. It was 60 degrees, and Black had on a T-shirt and shorts. He stooped to photograph a dark pink blossom on a tall stem: Echinacea paradoxa var. neglecta, or Bush’s purple coneflower.
The blossoms looked like pastel, dark pink badminton birdies, with less flashy rays and more pronounced seed heads than cultivated coneflowers. First recorded in Texas by botanist Charles Wright in the 1840s, Bush’s purple coneflower went unseen in this state for about 170 years—until Texas Parks and Wildlife botanist and plant ecologist Jason Singhurst rediscovered it in Cook County in 2017. Black then found it near Columbus and Brenham. “This is one of five tiny sites in Texas where this flower still exists,” he said.
The coneflowers would have been more widespread in the area a few hundred years ago, before the land was farmed, ranched, and turned into towns and highways. “These probably only survived because they get timed roadside mowing,” Black said. Texas’ endless miles of right-of-way hold some of the last known prairie relics because twice-yearly mowing mimics natural disturbances the wildflowers need to survive—work that was accomplished centuries ago by grazing bison and periodic wildfires. State agencies are working to identify more roadway sites they can manage with mowing. Sometimes the solution is as basic as setting mower blades at six inches, so plants have enough left on them to bounce back when their seasons arrive.
Dozens of the coneflowers poked through thorny tangles of greenbrier amid a smattering of white larkspur, yellow Engelmann’s daisies, bluebonnets, and Indian paintbrush. Black gave a thumbs-down to a pretty little powder-blue flower: “That one is invasive. Linseed, a semi-parasitic plant from the Mediterranean,” he said. He was more pleased to see prairie Indian plantains and bundleflowers because they are picky about where they grow, and thus good indicators of a quality prairie remnant. Prairie Indian plantains are semi-shrubby, leggy things that sprout candelabras of small, creamy flowers. The feathery stems of young bundleflowers, which would grow a few feet tall by summer, were still hugging the ground; they’re a type of legume whose little white pom-poms become wrinkly seed heads and food for wildlife.
“You won’t find them on just any old roadside,” Black said. “That’s the thing. There’s a lot of not-so-showy stuff that’s a critical component in some of these areas.”
Black, 47, specializes in not-so-showy stuff. From his home near Millican, about twenty minutes southeast of College Station, the freelance plant hunter roams the state in search of endangered flowers and other plants. He’s less interested in their beauty than their conservation status, often collecting specimens for scholars and gardens across the world that participate in the Smithsonian Institution’s Global Genome Initiative, an effort to document and collect the DNA of all the earth’s living things. Fieldwork is the most time-consuming and expensive part of that process, and few institutions have the funds for it. Seeds and cuttings Black has collected in Texas have ended up growing in botanical gardens as far away as Europe and Asia. Some also have gone to nurseries across the U.S. “I am very much in favor of getting these rare plants into cultivation,” he said.
Despite his unconventional background—he’s a self-taught college dropout—Black has become one of the state’s foremost authorities on rare flora. “People like him are underappreciated. He’s an amazing field botanist,” said Morgan Gostel, who created the Global Genome Initiative’s garden program and is now a research botanist at the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. Black’s fieldwork is essential and urgent, Gostel told me. “At the drop of a hat, he will go into the field to find a rare plant that has a small window to pollinate and collect seed. It’s really important.”
The Lone Star State is home to about 5,800 plant species. More than 400 are endemic, and often hyper-localized within pockets of incredibly specific habitat. Texas has ten or twelve ecoregions, depending on whose map you follow, that mark the confluence of the nation’s east, west, northern temperate, and southern subtropical zones. Each ecoregion has fickle, rare wildflower species dependent on specific soil compositions, geological formations, weather, or some combination of all three.
Black has a tight grin, a loose beard, a mop of long and receding blond hair, and an intelligent, wary, and slightly preoccupied gaze. He grew up tromping through the Florida Everglades—the weird kid with the field guide who needed to go out and find everything in it. He had a gift for finding rare tropical plants, including orchids that were being poached into extinction. “I knew where to go,” he said. “Otherwise, nobody in their right mind would penetrate back in those swamps, with all the snakes—which I liked too—and mosquitoes.” Roughing it was half the fun. Plant hunting in Texas rarely requires that much effort, but he still keeps camping gear wadded up on the floorboard of his truck, just in case.
Black quit college his freshman year, partly to avoid classes in molecular biology and chemistry. He’s a visual guy, more of a plant savant who needs to see things hands-on, out in the wild. By the time the late conservationist John Fairey brought him to Hempstead to direct the horticulture program at Peckerwood Garden in 2016, Black had worked for a reptile breeding company, operated his own small nursery of weird plants, and managed the forest pathology and forest entomology labs at the University of Florida. A lot of well-known rare plant experts were rooting for him.
The John Fairey Garden, as it is now called, is internationally known for its collections of rare, arid-climate species from Mexico, other parts of North America, and Asia. Fairey and Black were kindred spirits. But as the elderly founder’s health failed, priorities for the garden’s future shifted. By November 2019, about four months before Fairey died, Black was out of a job—so he became a freelance plant conservationist.
In the time since, he’s driven thousands of miles in the service of rare Texas plants, primarily oaks and wildflowers. Texas, like the rest of the world, is undergoing both a plant extinction crisis and a plant conservation crisis that experts attribute to “plant blindness”—meaning that most of us tend to ignore plants, rather than consider them important species to appreciate and preserve.
Blackland prairie and post oak savannah, which are distinct ecoregions, once defined the landscape in ways that were easier to see along the route that Black and I took. Now it’s all just agricultural land or urban sprawl. Our next stop was a nature trail smack-dab in the middle of an affluent subdivision in College Station. The developers built the trail to preserve the endangered Spiranthes parksii, or Navasota ladies’ tresses, a terrestrial orchid endemic to drainages in the post oak savannah. The flower blooms in the fall, but Black hikes the trails year-round because the habitat is rich. This spring, he found a small colony there of Calopogon oklahomensis, or Oklahoma grass pink, another rare terrestrial orchid. The species had not been recorded in Brazos County in close to twenty years.
Some of the homes at The Villages of Indian Lakes cost more than $1 million, and Black expected to be perceived as suspicious when we parked at one of the neighborhood’s trailheads. But we passed no one. The low woods had been cleared slightly around the trail to let in sunlight and encourage native flowers.
We examined the leaves of a fall-blooming spider lily; the flower of a not-so-common species of gallardia; and Stillingia texana, or Texas queen’s delight, a perennial spurge that has tall yellow spikes. Mostly, though, we scoured the ground for sundews, carnivorous plants so barely there you have to know what you’re looking for to even spot them. They’re like sparkly red, starfish-shaped splashes that could have been left on the ground by a kid with a tube of fabric paint.
Black was hoping to spot more grass pinks. The sundews that grow with them might be easier to see, he explained. We came to his find—a precarious spot where the trail was washed out, less than a hundred feet from someone’s backyard. A half dozen grass pinks were blooming, so close to the trail a hiker could easily have squashed them. The fluorescent pink stakes Black had set around the colony a few weeks earlier were still there. This in itself seemed like a miracle.
“To pollinate these orchids, I need a very specific tool,” Black said, grinning. He plucked a blade of grass to do the job and leaned in to clasp a blossom smaller than a fingernail. The white tuft at the top was a bluff to attract pollinators. If the insects that once helped Oklahoma grass pinks multiply were around, they would land on that tuft looking for nectar, inadvertently hitting the real sweet spot on the other end. But they likely were not around. An alarming decrease in native pollinators is part of the rare wildflower conundrum.
Black’s chances of saving this colony are slim, so he was pollinating the plants to preserve their genetics. If he could induce them to produce seed, he would also collect a section of roots with mycorrhizal fungi that would be needed to propagate the plants. Longwood Gardens in Pennsylvania had agreed to grow them and share them with other botanical gardens. Swiftly, Black eked out a drop of pollen from one of a blossom’s anthers and brushed it onto the stigma. He might as well have been pollinating a strand of hair. He noticed a seedpod forming on a grass pink he had pollinated a few days earlier. “A good sign,” he said.
For our final stop, Black drove south, then east onto the two-lane U.S. 90 toward another ecoregion: the Piney Woods. He tends to look at the side of the road more than he looks at the road. By lunchtime we were in Huntsville, but there was no stopping for a quick meal or even a restroom break. Botanist Michael Eason, one of Black’s plant-hunting pals and the author of Wildflowers of Texas, later told me that’s the norm on expedition days. Some days there are more rare plants to see than daylight hours to see them.
Eason’s Texas Flora group on Facebook has more than 19,000 members, but the pros are purposefully vague about the whereabouts of rare plants. They only share specifics with friends they trust not to poach or trample. And truth be told, pictures suffice for most people. “Very few people have the passion to drop everything and drive two or three hours to go see one plant for five minutes,” Eason said.
Past Huntsville, Black parked on a service road within the Sam Houston National Forest. A friend had told him about a prairie remnant here where a few specimens of Spiranthes brevilabris, or short-lipped ladies’ tresses—another rare terrestrial orchid—had been spotted. The gate was locked. Black’s GPS app told him the clearing was about a mile and a half ahead.
The first mile of our hike, on the forest road, made me happy to be alive. The sun had warmed the air to a perfect, non-humid 75 degrees. Fresh fronds of emerald-green bracken fern glowed across parts of the forest floor. We saw emerald flower scarabs on the tight, corona-like umbel of Asclepias variegata, the redring milkweed. Black was less interested than I was in the common but fancy purple blossom of a wild iris.
Eventually, we were scrambling over decaying logs in a thicket, dodging still-bare branches of American beautyberry and the sharp leaf blades of Sabal minor, the dwarf palmetto, watching for snakes with every step. Finally we found the clearing. Much of it was covered with stalks of winter-fried bluestem. The ladies’ tresses would be around the edges of the thick stuff, where the soil was more to their liking, Black said. He quickly found some. The flower spikes were like needles in a huge haystack, with tiny white blossoms that spiraled along thin stems maybe eight inches tall. They were a little underwhelming. “We came all this way for these?” I asked.
“You’re one of very few people who have seen them,” he said patiently. “It’s definitely one of those not-real-exciting things to look at. But someone’s got to care about them.”
About 95 percent of Texas land is privately owned, which makes it hard for botanists to know exactly what’s out there. Some plants deemed rare could be more common than they realize—a tantalizing thought, especially given the vast tracts of West Texas. Proactive conservation requires maintaining relationships, not just the land, as property passes from one generation to the next. “Texas has a lot of handshake agreements,” said Singhurst. “There’s a lot of hope and prayer that people will steward and manage rare plant populations.”
Singhurst keeps a state database of 441 flora deemed of greatest conservation concern. About half were found on private land, he said—and that’s important because endangered plants do not have the same legal protections as endangered animals on private property. “It’s all about wildlife habitat,” Singhurst said. Even pockets of just a few acres can provide the diversity some insects and animals need. One conservation site in Harris County covers less than four acres near big-box shopping centers, yet still holds 200 plant species, including the endangered Texas prairie dawn.
A few weeks after our excursion, Black posted more pictures on Facebook of the coneflowers near Brenham. After heavy rains, the plants were flourishing and surrounded by the wispy white blossoms of prairie bishop’s weed, another important native pollinator wildflower. New species tend to be discovered these days in herbaria, where plant geneticists like Gostel are examining the DNA of specimens that, in some cases, were collected decades ago. Who knows what Black and others are collecting that might eventually reveal itself more fully in a lab?
But that’s not what keeps Black going. He planned to retrace our journey and venture farther in a few days with Eason and a handful of other friends. They had permission to visit private land near Madisonville with a rare species of sand verbena Black had never seen before. “It’s an endemic with really showy flowers that open in the afternoon, then they’re moth-pollinated. They only grow in a deep, loose, sandy environment; fossil dunes that are free of competing vegetation,” he said. It was the most excited he had sounded all day.