Cabinet Curiosities: Frontera, Texas

This is the first of our “Cabinet Curiosities” series, which explores significant items in our Herbarium collection. This article was written by Joe Lippert, Digitization Coordinator.


Cryptantha oblata, collected on 12 May 1852 in Frontera, Texas.

In 1852, the former Republic of Texas was two years past the Compromise of 1850 that solidified the state borders we are all so familiar with today. The portions of New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and Wyoming once connected to our state were very sparsely held by any form of government because of raiding parties by hostile Comanche warriors from the nearby Comancheria. And one of the places raided by those fierce warriors was a tiny trading post named Frontera, the same name written in flowing cursive on the original collection label of our specimen. To the left of the primary label is another, smaller note that reads “Coll. Charles Wright”.

Cabinet-Curiosities-FronteraTX_email-croppedLocated 8 miles northwest of present day El Paso, for a short time this small outpost established in 1848 was the first custom house on the recently established international border between Mexico and the State of Texas. The newfound importance brought with it surveyors to delineate and parcel out the open and boundless land of the Southwest, and included on a survey in 1849 by the U.S. Army was a young Yale graduate and botanist by the name Charles Wright. Promised nothing more than transportation of his baggage during the 673 mile trip, he arrived on foot in El Paso 104 days later but flush with collections of wildflower seeds and botanical specimens. Wright lived in El Paso for the next four years, surveying the US-Mexico border and discovered 50 new species of plants in addition to collections of avifauna such as Empidonax wrightii (American Gray Flycatcher). Then in 1853, Wright left West Texas for a spot on an expedition to the North Pacific via Asia, and never returned to the high deserts of the Southwest.


Frontera did not exist much longer after Wright’s time, remaining a small frontier trading post and later a ranch until 1855, when the spot was abandoned for too many Comanche raids and not enough military protection. One can still find evidence of the post on mail delivery maps until the 1860s, but today only paved streets and quiet neighborhoods remain of that outpost.

Unlike the forgotten town of Frontera, we retain a tangible memory of the region’s botanical history that can never be lost as long as we preserve these irreplaceable specimens. In the process of digitizing BRIT’s collection of specimens from Texas, to date we have uncovered almost a dozen specimens by Charles Wright from this period of his life. With the help of Herbarium staff and volunteers, we have now preserved the life’s work of a lesser known but no less important Texas botanist who worked tirelessly to explore and collect plants from the unfilled places on a world map.

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A Trip to Seville Farms


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A couple of weeks ago, over half of the BRIT building was eerily empty for a day as the whole research department set off for a tour of Seville Farms, which one of our board members, Billy Brentlinger, owns and operates with his brother, Bobby Brentlinger.

Seville Farms is a large-scale plant nursery providing annuals, perennials, and ground covers to numerous garden centers across Texas. The farms have five facilities containing nearly five million square feet! On this trip we visited the headquarters in Mansfield, Texas, and Billy and his right-hand-man John gave us an in-depth tour of the operations, start to finish.

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An industrial seeder fills a tray with growing media, mostly composed of peat. The tray then passes under a stamper that pokes small divots into each cell. Testing shows that the seeds germinate best if they’re planted in the exact center of the cell, and curved divots or depressions help center the seeds.

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The seeder uses a revolving drum with tiny holes in it to pick up seeds from the hopper (“breathe ’em in”)…

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… and drop them into the trays (“spit ’em out!”).

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Can you see the little seeds in the divots?

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Billy Brentlinger (above in purple) expertly handled the endless stream of questions one would expect when a group of 15 botanists is surrounded by plants!

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Many thanks to Billy and John for giving us such a wonderful tour! We’ll be inspecting the labels on all our future plant purchases looking for that familiar name.

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Where Are They Now: My Time at Mile High by Miranda Madrid

This is the first in a new “Where Are They Now?”series featuring guest posts from former interns, volunteers, staff, and friends of BRIT. This month’s post is from former BRIT intern and herbarium staff, Miranda Madrid.

Hello! I wanted to share my experience in the Mile High City with all of you back home in the great state of Texas. I am currently participating in a year-long service program in Denver, Colorado, while I discern my path as an up-and-coming environmental scientist.


My first couple days in Colorado were spent in the mountains. Amazing views!

My service group, Colorado Vincentian Volunteers, is a nonprofit organization based in Denver dedicated to inviting young people into a process of transformation through companionship with those who are poor and marginalized.

So what exactly does this mean?

Essentially, the group functions similarly to a domestic Peace Corps, but with a spirituality component. While the program consists of 20 participants, I live with 9 in a home we fondly call COHO. We are quite an interesting bunch—making the best of our small stipends and simple living by going on hikes, having movie days that turn into nights, and sharing community meals. It’s actually a lot of fun navigating a new city and continuing to transition into an “adult” with 9 other friends by your side.


A few of my housemates and I during our fall retreat in October.

Beyond the community life and spirituality component, all participants work at different nonprofits throughout the city, specifically working with those communities that society has placed on the margins. While some head off to clinics, schools, homeless shelters, etc., I am lucky enough every day to head to The GrowHaus in the Northeast Denver neighborhood of Elyria-Swansea. Not to be mistaken with other types of grow houses in Colorado, The GrowHaus was established in 2009 to be an indoor farm, market, and education center that works to combat food insecurity for the residents of the Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea neighborhoods.


The GrowHaus’ Market provides healthy, affordable food to all people!

The GrowHaus operates on the belief that healthy food is a right, not a privilege. In the 1960s, the neighborhood transitioned to a predominantly Latino community—which it remains today. The community suffers numerous barriers to its development. I-70 separates a large part of the community from Metro Denver and is responsible for air and noise pollution. The area is also heavily industrialized, and in the late 1990s, the EPA declared 80216 to be one of the most polluted zip codes in all of Colorado. Due to the plants and factories, there are higher than normal levels of cadmium, arsenic, and lead in the soil—meaning residents have to import soil to enjoy the food they grow. On top of these environmental concerns, the community exists in a food desert, where healthy, affordable food is hard to access and unhealthy, cheap food is easy to come by. Public health becomes an issue because people suffer from asthma and diet-related chronic diseases more than the Metro Denver population.

So enter The GrowHaus…where we recognize the barriers in our community but focus on the many assets that the residents provide us. The GrowHaus operates holistically: food production (hydroponic and aquaponics farms growing lettuce to be distributed locally); food education (an interactive space to provide experiential education to all who seek knowledge); and food distribution (a Mercado that sells culturally appropriate foods on a sliding scale price system). Our work is focused on providing healthy, organic, local food at an affordable cost combined with empowerment and education for the journey ahead. From Cosechando Salud/Harvesting Health to adult and children MicroFarm classes to the annual Christmas party and toy drive, we work to meet people where they are and thrive in the community feel of our neighborhood. Being a predominantly Latino community, there is a rich tradition around food. We believe in not only providing ingredients that are important to the traditional Latino diet, but approaching our teaching in a culturally sensitive way. After all, we are not here to impose our values on the community but to walk in solidarity with our fellow neighbors.


The GrowHaus was able to provide gifts to 450 children during our Toy Drive.


The GrowHaus has a free grocery program and cooking/nutrition class every Monday, Cosechando Salud/Harvesting Health. Food that would otherwise be thrown out is instead distributed to the community.

My title at The GrowHaus is Programs Assistant so I wear many hats with my fellow co-workers. I assist in managing volunteer groups, the internship program, and maintaining our greenhouse space which includes a food forest, rabbits, chickens, and compost. I also assist the Education and Community Outreach teams leading tours, service learnings, after-school kid classes, community events, and more. It is absolutely a steep learning curve and a very busy place to work. One of the best and most challenging parts of my job is the opportunity to practice speaking Spanish. I am thankful that most people are pretty patient, giving me the chance to struggle and learn.


In our hydroponic farm, where we grow Bibb lettuce and distribute locally.


One of our chickens by the name of Rosa. We use her eggs in our kid’s cooking class.

How does this work tie to ecological, food, and social justice and everything in between?

My first week at The GrowHaus was nothing short of a reality check. Back in the spring, when I learned that my placement site was The GrowHaus, I was thrilled—to be part of a nonprofit dedicated to the environment as much as I am. However, when I arrived in Denver and learned of the other job placements that my fellow CVVers were embarking on, I felt less-than. They were going to be looking into the eyes of the homeless, hearing the stories of refugee families, and getting a closer look at poverty in the U.S. I was simply going to be providing healthy, affordable food to those in need. I naively thought I understood this complex issue and did not need to be awakened to any additional perspective.

And then came my first week, where sights, sounds, and smells showed me that isolation and poverty come in many different forms. To have a house does not mean that one is much better off. To provide one’s family with dinner does not mean that opportunity awaits. I had to learn that just because I don’t see it, does not mean it does not exist. In my search to understand justice, I had to see that people on the margins do not always fit my ill-conceived, stereotypical image. I am so thankful to have learned this lesson early on.

One of the most amazing things I learned from my director has stuck with me these past few months: The GrowHaus uses food as a lens for viewing many social justice issues. The GrowHaus is not just a space to shop for healthy, local, affordable food; it is a brave space in which hard conversations can be had and laughter and companionship abound. The GrowHaus works to empower its community to make the right health choices for themselves and their family with confidence—how to shop on a budget, how to cook healthily, how to grow a garden, how to become true leaders in their families and communities.

In all of the political mix that has encapsulated my time here, The GrowHaus reminds me what inspired me to be an Environmental Scientist in the first place.


My favorite in The GrowHaus, our beautiful passionflower.

Any questions, comments, or just to say hello, please email me at

¡Nos vemos!


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Hidden Treasures: Curtis’s Botanical Magazine

This article is the first of our year-long “Hidden Treasures” series in which Alyssa B. Young, Special Collections Librarian, features notable works in the BRIT rare book collection.

Curtis's Botanical Magazine 01

One of the treasures of BRIT’s rare book collection is Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, a premier journal for early botanical illustrations and descriptions. The journal has featured over 10,000 color illustrations in its 230 years of publication. Originally titled The Botanical Magazine, it is the longest running illustrated botanical periodical and is still being published today.

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The first volume was published on February 1, 1787, by William Curtis, an English botanist and apothecary who aspired to make information about ornamental and exotic plants affordable and accessible. As stated on the title page, the magazine was “intended for the use of such ladies, gentlemen, and gardeners, as wish to become scientifically acquainted with the plants they cultivate.” It gained popularity due to its approachable mix of beautiful illustrations and practical information, presenting serious botanical science in an easy-to-understand format.

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Curtis instructed his artists to draw the plates “from the living plant, and coloured as near to nature, as the imperfection of colouring will admit.” The first 30 volumes feature copper engravings that were colored by hand, leading to slight (but precious) inconsistencies between each copy. Accompanying each plate is a description of the plant containing the scientific name, common names, plant properties, growth characteristics, and history.

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BRIT’s first six volumes of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine belonged to Charles Cotesworth Pickney (1746-1825), a Revolutionary War veteran, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and a signer of the United States Constitution.

Contact for more information about this magazine or our rare book collection.

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Notes from the Field: Yunnan, China

Dr. Peter Fritsch, BRIT’s VP of Research and Director of the Herbarium, is on a visiting scholarship from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, based at the Kunming Institute of Botany in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. Peter went on a brief (8-day) field trip in late October-early November to far northeastern Yunnan Province and the bordering area of Guizhou Province. Below are some photos from his trip.


The arrow on the map above shows the location of my field work, in Weixi and Yiliang counties.



Typical scenic shot in this region—limestone mountains blanketed with native forests in the least accessible parts.



One of my specialty groups, Symplocos of the Symplocaceae (sweetleaf family). It’s mainly a tropical family—we have one species in Texas, S. tinctoria. This one is S. setchuensis. Flowers resemble that of a small version of Camellia, but are usually white instead of pink.



Hazy but otherwise beautiful day. Overlooking a valley, with corn in the foreground (no rice grown in these parts).



Pass between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. Apparently the weather is always like this here. So, unknown to us, it was one of the more brutal and rather dangerous “hikes” (actually climb) that I have done in a while. No real trail, average 70% slope. One false step in some places…



A real treat to see this, the Dove Tree (Davidia involucrata in the dogwood family Cornaceae), one of the only places left where it occurs in the wild. Spectacular when in flower.



Another rare treat: Rehderodendron macrocarpon, in one of my pet families, the storaxes (Styracaceae). Has one of the oddest fruits you’ll see, football shaped and ca. 2.5 in. long. Inside is a hard bony center surrounding the elongated seeds, with radiating parts to the edge, and in between is a corky material. I can’t imagine what disperses this, and we found all the fruits dropped right under the tree.



Low limestone hills. The beginnings of what farther east will become the bizarre landscape of Guilin. I guess Guilin will have to wait ‘til next time!



Field team, out of the cold—and onto those short stools (you need good knees in Yunnan). From left to right, Ren-Fu Lu, Hong-Hua Liao, our driver Ting-Xun Liu, and Dr. Lu Lu, my colleague from KIB. Ren-Fu Lu is Dr. Lu Lu’s father, and he’s a sharp-eyed plant collector and incredible mountain climber.



Colorful dinner—the plants in the upper left dish are grape ferns (Botrychium). Sorry, tasted terrible. Those in upper right are fungi—much better.



Me at the Kunming Institute of Botany herbarium in Yunnan, China, where I’ve just finished annotating their Styracaceae (storax family) collection. About half the specimens were mis- or unidentified—the family is a challenging one taxonomically, but I’ve been studying these plants for over 20 years and know them well. The annotated specimens extend in front of the image to all the way to the back wall behind me, and total around 800 specimens, including some rare and endangered species. The work took five days and was conducted as part of a visiting scholar fellowship gratefully received from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

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