New walk­ing path in Hous­ton park re­veals the next phase in restor­ing an en­vi­ron­ment to its nat­u­ral state

Houston Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Molly Glentzer STAFF WRITER

Be­fore dawn, the thick rub­ber treads of our Nikes and New Bal­ances made a mea­sured, steady tick-tock with each step along the crushed gran­ite path of Memo­rial Park’s Sey­mour Lieber­man Trail. No one dilly-dal­lies at this time of day, when the rit­ual of ex­er­cise is more about an­tic­i­pa­tion than re­lax­ation, with hours of meet­ings and dead­lines ahead.

But on Wednesday, a tall chain-link fence di­verted my friend Suzanne and me from the fa­mil­iar, mun­dane path we could walk in our sleep. The fence also blocked the Memo­rial Loop Road, di­rect­ing us into new, more man­i­cured ter­ri­tory. Our pace slowed. Stopped. Even in the dark­ness, we could see that the once-scruffy woods on the park’s eastern edge had be­come a pret­tier place to walk, along a bio-swale with newly planted trees and or­derly swaths of young na­tive peren­ni­als and shrubs.

As luck would have it, we were among the first trail users to ven­ture through Phase I of the Eastern Glades, which opened to the pub­lic this week. Fi­nally, some of the land­scape ren­der­ings I’ve mem­o­rized dur­ing sev­eral years of re­port­ing on the Memo­rial Park Con­ser­vancy’s long-term, trans­for­ma­tional mas­ter plan had come to life.

I’ve walked at Memo­rial since the early 1980s, not al­ways faith­fully but of­ten enough to see the steady widen­ing of the trail, ap­pre­ci­ate light­ing im­prove­ments and ob­serve how a small wild­flower patch near the golf course changed with the sea­sons and

ma­tured. A wild heron usu­ally fishes there in the morn­ings and evenings, down in the gar­den’s rock-lined drainage some­thing-or-other.

I mourned with the rest of Hous­ton when se­vere drought and hur­ri­canes dec­i­mated an ur­ban for­est that of­fered bet­ter views of the golf course in the 1980s and ’90s, be­fore the Chi­nese tal­lows, ash trees and in­va­sive un­der­story plants took over. I un­der­stood why some peo­ple re­sisted what sounded like a rad­i­cal idea a few years ago: Nel­son Byrd Woltz’s sci­ence- and data-driven plan to dial back the land­scape by not a few dozen years, but hun­dreds.

At all of Hous­ton’s ma­jor parks, we’re ad­just­ing to the look of a “new” na­ture that still feels slightly alien (al­though not to wildlife): An ecosys­tem of blended prairie, savanna and wet­land habi­tats that embrace our land for what it is. We’re still a few years out from see­ing what these en­vi­ron­ments will re­ally look like; the de­signs have jumped from pa­per to the ground, but most of the plant spec­i­mens are still ba­bies.

No mat­ter. I was so ex­cited Wednesday morn­ing, I re­turned to the park that af­ter­noon to see the new trail and its plants in bet­ter light. A monarch but­ter­fly flit­ted among gan­gly spires of just-planted pur­ple li­a­tris. A cater­pil­lar crawled on its break­fast of as­cle­pias leaves. Bright golden rud­beck­ias and the spiky white balls of rat­tlesnake mas­ter caught the sun.

The new sweet­gum and elm trees will pro­vide more shade within a few years. Con­ser­va­tion di­rec­tor Car­olyn White iden­ti­fied the low­er­grow­ing, hard-work­ing grassy stuff that will fill out to pro­vide wildlife shel­ter above ground and wa­ter-fil­ter­ing roots be­low — soft-stemmed spike rush, bris­tle grass, brown seed pas­palum, Chero­kee sedge, lit­tle bluestem and Gulf muhly.

Clethra, coral­berry and sweet­spire shrubs line the top of the swale, along with some un­happy fra­grant sumac that will likely be re­placed with Bar­ba­dos cher­ries. Yes, even the pro­fes­sion­als can be trial-and-er­ror gar­den­ers.

In the fu­ture, most of the plant ma­te­rial will be har­vested from the park it­self, raised from seed at a green­house the con­ser­vancy shares with the Hous­ton Ar­bore­tum and Na­ture Cen­ter. (They are al­ready grow­ing up about 200,000 plants.)

And the land­scape is still tak­ing shape. Phase I of the 100-acre Eastern Glades — which land­scape de­signer Thomas Woltz en­vi­sions as a na­tive but semi­for­mal park within the park — was mostly an in­fras­truc­ture pro­ject. It’s the start of a new park en­trance in­spired by Hare & Hare’s orig­i­nal, 1930s land­scape plan.

The new trail lies just west of a new two-way ac­cess road that con­nects Memo­rial Drive to the old loop road and a new me­tered park­ing lot with 150 spaces — park­ing fees will ben­e­fit the con­ser­vancy. There’s also a new re­stroom and wa­ter sta­tion. Stormwa­ter from the build­ing’s metal roof will land in a rain gar­den that drains into the bioswale, which cap­tures runoff from the en­tire lot, fil­ter­ing it bi­o­log­i­cally be­fore it flows through pipes to­ward a tem­po­rary pond.

A fence will soon go up along the new trail’s still dense west side, as Phase II glade con­struc­tion be­gins. That will bring more park to the park: The old road will be re­placed with a savanna grass­land, and a large lake and wet­land habi­tat will be built near the golf course.

Late in the af­ter­noon, sun­light danced among the nee­dles of thin, tow­er­ing pines high above the trail. A num­ber of snags, the totemic re­main­ders of dead trees, also rose sharply through woods that will soon be par­tially cleared to cre­ate the savanna.

I’m still get­ting used to the word “glade,” but I’m al­ready rel­ish­ing thoughts of my first walk there.

Pho­tos by El­iz­a­beth Con­ley / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Run­ners try out the new trail in Phase I of the Eastern Glades at Memo­rial Park. The trail, part of the park’s on­go­ing mas­ter plan, opened this week.

Na­tive plants, in­clud­ing li­a­tris, line the new trail.

El­iz­a­beth Con­ley / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Black-eyed Su­sans line the path­way of Phase I of the Eastern Glades at Memo­rial Park. The park land­scape is be­ing trans­formed into an ecosys­tem of blended prairie, savanna and wet­land habi­tats.

El­iz­a­beth Con­ley / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

The new crushed gran­ite trail is fit for run­ners, walk­ers and dogs on leashes.

Molly Glentzer / Staff

Rat­tlesnake mas­ter is among the na­tive peren­ni­als that bloom along the pol­li­na­tor gar­den and bio-swale of the new trail.

Molly Glentzer / Staff

Park­ing fees at the new Eastern Glades lot will ben­e­fit the Memo­rial Park Con­ser­vancy.

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