In a pair of office spaces in a nondescript strip mall in northeast Austin, a massive undertaking has been quietly underway for years. Here, Scooter Cheatham—tall, commanding, sporting a full head of snow-white hair and a boyish grin—and his microscopic staff painstakingly convert mountains of field research into thick, hardback volumes. Welcome to Useful Wild Plants, Inc., the organization that has been diligently cataloguing 4,000 species of native and naturalized Texas plants for four decades.
Currently there are three volumes of Useful Wild Plants of Texas, the Southeastern and Southwestern United States, the Southern Plains, and Northern Mexico, with the ultimate goal being 15 books. Organized alphabetically by genus, each plant is described by species, region, common name and uses.
The Useful Wild Plants (UWP) Project has a single criterion for plant-inclusion—if it’s useful to humans, it makes the cut. Of course edible plants fit the bill, but so do those used for textiles, livestock feed, nesting, medicine, perfume and landscaping.
Cheatham stumbled into the project in 1971 as a graduate student. Hoping to avoid writing a traditional thesis, he convinced his professor to allow him to do an experimental archeology project on his grandmother’s property. He and his friend Glenn Goode, now an archeologist, set out on this adventure, determined to live off the land. They caught an armadillo and an opossum—not exactly five-star cuisine—but it was the abundance of plant life that was most striking. They realized that the knowledge to discern edible from poisonous would have offered a broader menu. Soon after, Cheatham was off and running—intent on capturing as much plant information as he could and delivering it to the rest of us. “I think this is an obligation,” Cheatham says of his work.
But he and his crew have had their work cut out for them. While working on the project, Cheatham—along with help from Cheatham’s wife, Sheryl, former student Lynn Marshall and her mom, Jane Marshall—soon realized there is staggering plant diversity in Texas. “Texas is an intersection of eleven zones,” Cheatham says. “It’s like the hub of a wheel that radiates all the way to Canada and Argentina. It dates from prehistoric to recent times.”
To further educate the public and garner support for UWP, Cheatham hosts Weedfeed classes. Students sign up for a six-week session or a one-day Speedy Weedfeed hike, where they learn all about useful plants. Some get overexcited—Cheatham refers to it as “chlorophyll fever”—and want to test edibility by tasting unknown plants. But Cheatham vehemently forbids the eating of plants that he isn’t positively sure are safe, and he institutes the unofficial “broken-wrist rule” by jokingly encouraging students to use any means necessary to prevent stupid ingestion.
Whether doing research or holding classes, Cheatham gets his biggest kicks working out in the field—much more, he says, than when his team must buckle down to write, organize slides (350,000 and counting) and market their efforts.
“Nothing else is being done like this anywhere in the world, and it should be,” notes Lynn. “If we don’t pay attention to the plants, we’re going to kill them off.”