JACKSONVILLE, Texas — Ruth Nichols doesn’t know exactly why or when she developed her love of plants and flowers. It’s just always kind of been there.
The 95-year-old mother of a Texas senator has been a garden club member for more than six decades — 10 years in Pasadena and another 54 in Jacksonville. She even carries the title of Master Flower Show Judge Emeritus.
“My mother was interested in plants, I grew up in a home that was interested in plants,” Nichols said. “I certainly liked trees. I’d hate to live in a part of the country without trees. East Texas has plenty of them. That’s why we choose to move to Jacksonville — because of all the hills and trees, too, and the people.
“I brought my children up to appreciate plants and trees and they’ve always helped me in my garden club work, always carried and toted and fertilized. I had four boys.”
Nichols was recognized Monday as the namesake of the Texas Forest Service Ruth Bowling Nichols Arboretum in Jacksonville during a formal dedication ceremony. Nichols was in attendance, as was her son State Sen. Robert Nichols, Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, Texas Forest Service Interim Director Tom Boggus, Jacksonville Mayor Robert Haberle and scores of others.
The dedication came more than a decade after the idea for the arboretum first was conceived. It was 1996 when Sen. Nichols, then a local businessman, donated 3.5 acres of land to house a regional office for the state agency. He then leased an adjacent, similarly-sized parcel of land to the agency for just $1 per year.
Texas Forest Service officials decided to create on the adjoining land an arboretum devoted to educating school children, Boy Scouts, Master Gardeners and other educational groups.
The new office opened its doors in May 1999 and the arboretum followed suit shortly thereafter. It features 10 American forest historic trees including the Stephen F. Austin Live Oak planted in memory of Ruth Nichols husband, Tally Nichols. Also at the arboretum are various types of pines that can be found throughout East Texas.
Texas Forest Service District Forester Jason Ellis has overseen the arboretum since 2006. Since his arrival, Ellis has been working with area Master Gardeners to develop a large display garden that can be used for conservation education.
The group also has helped solicit funding to replace signage throughout the facility and purchase tools and a tool shed for the garden, Ellis said. He noted that once the garden is complete, vegetables grown there will be donated to the HOPE Foundation, a clearing house for non-profit agencies and churches in the county.
Ultimately, Ellis said, he would like to add more signage as well as an outdoor education facility, where the garden club could meet and he could teach groups coming through the arboretum about forest management, wildfire prevention and prescribed burning.
The forester said he’d also like to boost the number of educational groups that come through. Every fall, 400 fourth-graders from northern Cherokee County converge on the arboretum of Fall Ag Day. Ellis said he’d like the facility to serve as host for other, similar groups.
“I think that there are other ways to learn besides in a classroom,” Ellis said. “It’s one thing to look into a textbook and read about forest or landscaping or gardening practices. But to actually get out there and get your hands and feet dirty and walk around in the mud, that’s a better learning experience. It’s hands-on.”
Ellis and the Master Gardeners originally hoped to name the facility after Sen. Nichols because of his connection to the facility. But when asked, he requested the arboretum be named after his mother.
The dedication kicked off at 10 a.m. Monday. After several speakers, the dozens in attendance were allowed to wander through the facility before reconverging near the garden, where the ceremony concluded with a ribbon cutting.
Ruth Nichols joked that she doesn’t have a favorite flower or tree. She loves them all equally. Well, almost equally, she said wryly, noting that she’s not a big fan of “sticky burs.”
“I don’t know why they choose me, I really don’t. There are other people that have been in garden club a long time, too,” Ruth Nichols said, humbly. “But I appreciate it and I’m honored by it and I’m very proud of it.”
For more information, go to the Ruth Bowling Nichols Arboretum web site. To schedule a group visit, contact District Forester Jason Ellis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 903-586-7545.
Texas Forest Service Contacts:
Jason Ellis, District Forester
Holly Huffman, Communications Specialist