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"Pocket Prairies" Preserve Houston's Native Plants

"Pocket prairies" have been popping up all over Houston, helping beautify the city while preserving the native plants that are now harder to find in Harris County.

Jaime Gonzalez, community education director of the Katy Prairie Conservancy, cut some blossoms off roughcone flowers Aug. 6 at a prairie in Deer Creek.

Just south of Houston, past the oil refineries and wedged between two housing subdivisions is one of the most endangered ecosystems on the planet — a coastal prairie.

At the College Park Prairie, Jaime González, community education director at the Katy Prairie Conservancy, clips the withering blossoms off of rough coneflowers, which are now rich with seeds. All around him, prairie plants are thriving. Bright purple prairie blazing stars and spiny white rattlesnake masters mix with tall green grasses and yellow black-eyed susans across the 53-acre prairie.

González's mission, along with a group of other conservators, is to transplant these seeds to the heart of Houston, into what he calls “pocket prairies,” or gardens of native foliage. Pocket prairies have been popping up all over Houston as part of an initiative to beautify the city while preserving the native plants that thrived in Harris County before it became a sprawling, concrete landscape.

“What we try to do is replicate some of the structure and function of a native prairie,” González said. “We're trying to create something to scale in an urban environment with the right collection of flowers and grasses to give butterflies and birds a place to lay their eggs and get food.”

The pocket prairies have received a boost in popularity since Texas' devastating drought. González said as trees and plants shrivel up, Houstonians are looking for ways to beautify the landscape without much watering.

The low watering requirements are just one reason why Hermann Park intends to install its third pocket prairie. Meanwhile, the second is being renovated to feature a walking path and signs with QR codes so visitors can find out information on the plants with their cellphones.

“Prairies are one of our most endangered ecosystems,” said Diane Kerr, manager of volunteer programs at Hermann Park. “The grasses are significant to a lot of habitats. Putting in native grasses benefits the area by bringing in color and wildlife.”

The pocket prairies are funded by the land owners, not the city, but city officials have voiced support for the program. Houston City Councilman Ed Gonzalez has been especially vocal about adding more greenery to the city's landscape, and has been pushing business owners to incorporate "parklets," which are very similar to pocket prairies, into their storefronts and office buildings. 

"We have assumptions that the business community won't be in favor of this, or that the city government isn't interested," Ed Gonzalez said. "But we can have a conversation, and let developers know that this can make developments more appealing, and that the consumer is supportive of environmentally-friendly products and businesses that are good stewards of the environment."

Not everyone is so excited about the idea of planting tall grasses in the middle of the city. Many view prairie plants as weeds, or fear the tall grasses could hide snakes. Jaime González said some police have even expressed concerns that the gardens could be used by criminals to hide dead bodies.

“We have to do some myth busting,” he said. “We have to be very up front with these efforts to lead public tours of these grasslands, and demystify them for people.”

But perhaps the biggest hurdle is preserving the few large, biodiverse prairies that act as seed banks for the others, such as College Park Prairie, which could soon be mowed down and replaced with a housing subdivision. To save it, advocates need to raise a $250,000 initial payment by Nov. 1, after which they'll need to raise more money to buy the land once they negotiate a price with the owner.

“It's the rarest of the rare. We don't know if we’ll find another one this diverse,” said Marc Reid, coordinator of Save College Park Prairie. “When it's gone, we can't replace it, and if we don't have those genetics we can't restore or reconstruct other prairies.” 

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