Mercer Volunteer Spotlight: Don Dubois

For Mercer volunteer Don Dubois, a childhood interest in insects turned into a lifelong passion for native plant gardening.

Now, as a volunteer at Mercer Botanic Gardens, Dubois brings his passion for wildflowers and insects together in Mercer’s native plant group, where he specializes in growing native plants for March Mart.

“My first love as a kid was insects and all kinds of bugs and butterflies,” he said. “Anything that will attract butterflies or grow a caterpillar are the plants that I choose for our group and grow at home.”

An Indiana native, Dubois remembers exploring the forest with his mother and learning the names of wildflowers. On those walks, he would watch butterflies sip from the wildflowers and search for insects among the leaves.

“We would pick wild berries and mushrooms and all types of things,” he said. “She would point out all the different wildflowers.”

That love of nature stayed with Dubois throughout adulthood, even while earning a PhD in chemistry and starting a successful career at PPG Industries, a major supplier of paint and specialty materials.

In 2002, Dubois retired and moved with his wife to Texas. When he started volunteering at Mercer two years later, Dubois got a crash course in growing Texas natives when he signed up for the native plant group.

“I learned all the wildflowers in northern Indiana where I grew up. When I came to Texas, I had to learn a whole new set of wildflowers,” he said.

Now, with a couple hundred species of plants in his garden, Dubois is considered by many as an expert on Texas natives.

“Something is always in bloom, so my garden is popular with the butterflies,” he said.

As the lead of the native plants group, Dubois helps decide which native plants are featured at March Mart. In many instances, native group volunteers provide material from their own gardens.

“We have some standard plants we grow because people are always looking for them,” he said. “We try to grow the plants that no one else supplies, too. Each year we try to select showy plants or choose plants we haven’t grown in a while, so there’s always a variety to choose from.”

Some of Dubois’ top performing native plants include Gulf coast penstemon, bluebonnets, and little bluestem. For butterfly gardens, Dubois suggests new gardeners try mistflowers and tropical milkweed, which is easier to grow than the native variety.

“Gregg’s mistflower blooms in the summer and fragrant mistflower blooms in the fall,” he said. “The fall-blooming variety is a hit with monarchs because its bloom time coincides with the monarch migration.”

Dubois encourages everyone who loves low-maintenance plants that are good for the environment to try a few natives in their landscaping.

“Natives kind of take care of themselves,” he said. “We always encourage people to grow natives because they belong here and they can take what mother nature dishes out. After the freeze, most of the tropicals are gone, but the natives are still hanging in there.”