By Katie Cantrell
Photography by Meg Griffiths
Over the airwaves, the cries for help come in.
I have fallen in love with lantana plants. The bushes are producing berries. Are these safe to eat? Is the acorn of a bur oak edible? Can I eat the seed pods of wild sweet peas?
Faster than a flowering fig tree, it’s Mr. Smarty Plants to the rescue!
This fearless gardening guru whips out the answers on the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s website, protecting adventurous eaters everywhere from possible gastric doom. Our botanical hero’s plant powers extend to all native plants in North America, and confused cultivators from all corners of the globe write in for assistance. One question remains: which unassuming Austinite is the face behind the facts?
As it turns out, Ms. Smarty Plants might be more accurate. Nan Hampton is the original Mr. Smarty Plants, having taken on the duties in 2002 after retiring from running a genetics instruction lab at the University of Texas.
Hampton is certainly a smarty pants, holding multiple degrees from the University of Texas: bachelor’s degrees in zoology and Plan II (the university’s liberal arts honors program), a master’s degree in library and information sciences and a doctorate in zoology. You might notice a lack of botany or horticulture on that list. So how did she become the alter ego for this botanical brain?
“I got the Wildflower Center volunteer letter and saw that this [Mr. Smarty Plants] was one thing they needed to do,” Hampton remembers. “I thought, whoa, I’d like to do this, because of my degree in library and information science. I thought the biology background and that degree were good to answer questions about botany, although I didn’t know that much about botany and don’t claim to know a lot about it now. I know how to look it up, though.”
Good research skills certainly come in handy when you never know what’s waiting in your inbox, especially when time is of the essence.
“One of the most interesting questions we ever got was a picture that someone sent us,” Hampton recalls. “The woman said, ‘I am sending this for the lady that I take care of. She is dying of cancer. She’s had this plant forever and she doesn’t know what it is.’ We looked and looked and I finally found it. It was not a native plant, but we got to tell her what it was before she died.”
A difficult question like that can take as much as four hours to research and answer, but Hampton usually manages to respond to around eight questions in the 10 to 20 hours a week she spends on the job. To keep up with demand, Mr. Smarty Plants sports a split personality these days—Hampton shares the position with fellow Wildflower Center volunteer Barbara Medford and others, who Hampton says answer at least as many questions as she does.
“Barbara and I agree that this is the best volunteer job we’ve ever had,” Hampton says. “It’s probably the best job we’ve ever had. We say we should be paying them to let us do this.”
It might be her best job ever, but it’s certainly not all Hampton does with her retirement. She spends four hours a week recording books at Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (reading biology textbooks, naturally), works the phone banks for public radio station KUT’s pledge drives, has resumed the piano lessons she began as a child, takes French lessons, and has collected seeds from her property in Lampasas County for the Kew Gardens Millennium Seed Project. In addition, she and her husband are avid travelers, counting Antarctica and a recent trip to northern India among their adventures.
Even with a full plate of activities, Hampton has no plans to hang up her green cape anytime soon. It’s a good thing, too—especially for the hungry readers that depend on her to know that you should never eat Lantana berries or sweet pea pods, but bur oak acorns are safe as long as you thoroughly boil out the tannins first.
To ask your questions go to wildflower.org and click on “Mr. Smarty Plants” in the “Explore Plants” tab.