Mike Heep spends his days cultivating native plants and educating people about the benefits of using indigenous vegetation in gardens and landscaping projects. Native plants are drought and freeze tolerant, and attract the birds and butterflies for which the Rio Grande Valley is famous.
In 1964, Heep moved from San Antonio to the Harlingen area with his family. He operates Heep’s Nursery on the same two-acre tract where he grew up helping his father grow citrus and palm trees.
“We started in 1978,” Heep said. “What my father would do is he would grow a few fruit trees and things like that in a real small little greenhouse. And then we started growing palms on a bigger scale.”
During those years and while Heep taught biology at UTPA before retiring in 2011, he grew and sold plants native to the Valley. Gardeners and landscapers tended to favor more tropical vegetation until Mother Nature helped change the way some people thought.
“I had started growing a few of the natives just for my own interest,” Heep said. “And then in 1983, we had that historic freeze. So, in 1984, all of a sudden there was more of a demand for the natives. We had no business plan. We just started growing more and different natives as the demand increased.”
The frigid temperatures that killed so much of the popular tropical vegetation was only part of the equation that gave natives a higher profile. “A lot of credit goes to the Native Plant Project,” Heep said. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to compiling and sharing information on indigenous plants and their benefits. “They have done so much over the years promoting native plants.”
In 1989, yet another freeze of historic proportions struck the Valley. “That’s when it really kicked in,” Heep said about the interest in native plants. “A lot of people had replanted a lot of tropicals after the ’83 freeze, and then they got froze out again in ’89.”
More small nurseries have joined the ranks of growers specializing in native plants, but they still can be hard to find. “There’s almost no small nurseries anymore,” he said. “They used to be everywhere, little backyard nurseries.”
Heep’s Nursery is open to the public, depending on his schedule. “We are open when I am here,” he said with a laugh. He may be out collecting seeds or giving presentations on native plants at nature centers like Quinta Mazatlan in McAllen. He advises people to call before coming.
Heep’s natives also find their way into commercial landscaping more frequently these days. “There are some landscapers that use a lot of natives in their stuff,” he said. “It’s increasing all the time and we’re seeing more small growers like myself working with natives, which is good.” Heep also grows native seedlings for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to use in habitat restoration projects.
While some people simply want plants that can withstand heat and drought conditions as well as freezing temperatures, others are motivated by the Valley’s wildlife. “A lot of people want natives for wildlife,” Heep said. “We get calls from people that just want to put in a butterfly garden. And some of the schools do that. They want a bunch of plants that will attract pollinators and, you know, lots of butterflies. And other folks want a lot of bird plants.”
Heep is a true believer in the benefits of native plants, and he is encouraged to see the interest grow. “It’s really interesting how many people know about native plants these days. And a lot of them are self-taught people. They will come out here and identify something almost nobody would know. I’ve got a couple of pretty rare plants right now and the other day a guy came out and knew what they were right away.”