Benny J. Simpson, 68, Horticulturist Who Pioneered Native Planting, Dies

by Dianna Hunt
Staff Writer of The Dallas Morning News

Benny Jack Simpson, a Dallas horticulturist who pioneered the use of native plants in urban Texas landscapes, died late Friday after a monthlong illness. He was 68.

The family received visitors at 4 p.m. Sunday [December 29, 1996] at Turrentine-Jackson-Morrow Funeral Home in Allen. Services were held at 2 p.m. Tuesday [December 31, 1996] at Northfield Community Cemetery in the Motley County town of Northfield, where Mr. Simpson was born and grew up.

Mr. Simpson, a researcher for more than 40 years at the Texas A&M Research and Extension Center near Campbell Road and Central Expressway, specialized in locating hardy indigenous plants that could be adapted for gardens in Dallas, Houston and other Texas cities.

"He was really the heart and soul, the impetus, for the interest in native plants today," said Linda Smith, a Dallas landscape architect. "He was one of those early people who realized that native Texas plants fit Texas."

He also wrote A Field Guide to Texas Trees, a thick volume published in 1988, that devotes a page to each of Texas' native trees.

Rosa Finsley, whose Kings Creek Gardens nursery in Cedar Hill specializes in native plants, said Mr. Simpson's influence can be seen throughout the area.

"He's brought a tremendous number of native plants into cultivation," Ms. Finsley said. "One of the things that has been so great about Benny is that he not only got the information but he shared it."

He called himself a "plant hunter," and his scouting trips to Big Bend and other remote Texas locales for new plants were legendary.

He introduced nine formerly wild species into commercial nursery production, including the desert willow, mountain sage and false indigo.

"One thing that Texas doesn't have and never has had and never will have is enough water," Mr. Simpson told The Dallas Morning News in a 1993 interview. "It's getting to be important that we save as much water as we can and grow the kind of plants that can survive on very little when they have to."

He was honored last summer with the dedication of the Benny J. Simpson Texas Native Plant Collection at the Dallas Horticulture Center. The collection, planted in Fair Park as part of the Horticulture Center's botanical collections, features 345 plants representing 84 species.

Mr. Simpson began working as a scientist in 1954 at the Texas Research Foundation, which in 1972 became part of Texas A&M University's vast research and extension service.

In 1973, he began seeking out hardy, drought-resistant plants for home and office landscapes.

"Boy, it was rough the first few years," he said in the 1993 interview. "People were shaking their heads at me like they didn't know whether I was wasting the state's money or not. People were saying to me, 'Hell, we're just paying you to camp out.'"

Dr. Tim Davis, research director at A&M's Richardson extension center, work with Mr. Simpson for seven years. He said Mr. Simpson was always willing to share his ideas.

Mr. Simpson is survived by his mother, a brother and two sisters.

Reprinted with permission of The Dallas Morning News, from the Sunday, December 29, 1996 issue.