Suzanne Simpson is a Houston-based ecologist working to protect the natural landscapes that define Texas. She maintains certification as a professional ecologist from the Ecological Society of America and is a trained Texas Master Naturalist. Her favorite moments outdoors include hiking with her hound and finding snakes, but not at the same time.
Simpson talked with our team about her new book, Wild Houston, ahead of its launch party at the Garden on Oct. 29.
Wild Houston, a book described as “equal parts natural history, field guide, and trip planner,” is one in a series that focuses on the often overlooked natural environments of major cities and metropolitan areas.
When the publisher approached Suzanne Simpson through mutual conservation acquaintances in Houston, her extensive ecological knowledge of the area felt like a perfect match for the ambitious task of writing about the ‘wild side’ of such a large and ecologically diverse city.
She partnered with John Williams, another first-time author and long-time Texan, on Wild Houston. “John is a great photographer and really told the story of what we were writing through pictures,” she said of her co-author, adding, “I’m super passionate about natural history and ecology. I mostly handled the first section of the book, and John handled the second section.”
Simpson believes fans of the Houston Botanic Garden might particularly like getting the full backstory of ecosystems in Houston and how they developed, a pre-history that often goes unmentioned in historical accounts of the city. Garden members will enjoy learning about how local natural habitats were shaped, even before the Garden’s prior life as a golf course.
“I was taught growing up that Houston was basically a wasteland before it was developed. We are exploding that myth in Wild Houston!”
On the process of writing the book, Simpson said she was surprised by how long it actually took from ideation, to research, to drafting and final proofing. In fact, she began field research and writing before the Garden even opened in 2020—which is why she was unable to include it as a suggested field trip in the book. She intends to add it in a future edition, though!
“I learned a lot while writing Wild Houston. I had a lot of knowledge to begin with, but there’s always more to explore. I think that’s a really inviting premise—that no matter how much you know, or don’t know, there’s always more to learn,” she said.
Something that many people may not know is that Houston is one of the most ecologically diverse places in the U.S. It is one of only two cities declared a biodiversity hotspot. The designation means Houston has an incredible amount of biodiversity that is under great threat.
Multiple ecosystems exist in the Houston cityscape — including piney woods, prairies, coastal marshes, and post oak savannah — featuring plants and animals specialized to those habitats. These ecosystems have blended transitional zones called ecotones that often see the emergence of new species not found in other habitats. “We have incredibly rare natural assets here, and we have a duty to protect them,” Simpson explains.
Simpson mentions that green spaces like the Garden are benefiting native wildlife populations through the preservation of their natural habitats. “If plants and wildlife have no place to live, then those species will cease to exist,” she said.
Her personal favorite animal species, the Alligator Snapping Turtle, is a prehistoric turtle; the largest freshwater species in America. It was previously thought to only be found in rural waterways with fast moving currents, but was recently discovered right here in Buffalo Bayou. And there are more than a few of them; there is a thriving population in the bayou’s brackish waters.
Simpson said the discovery and population resurgence highlights the resilience of natural wildlife. “This species has a very restricted range, so we have a true treasure here in the murky depths of the bayou. We really have to protect it,” she said.
But preservation isn’t only important for plants and animals; it is also immensely important for humans. Natural environments provide a range of services that are hard to replicate once gone. For example, in the Houston area, natural ecosystems can help absorb flood water and filter pollutants from waterways. “Mother Nature is our greatest engineer,” Simpson said.
Her favorite ecosystem, the bottomlands, include big cypress trees, wide flood plains, and lots of amphibians and snakes. “It feels like you’re enveloped in a totally different time and place, with so much natural history. Exploring the bottomlands is a joy and a humbling experience,” she said.
Many don’t realize that Houston’s diversity of wildlife and ecosystems rivals our cultural diversity. We have abundant varieties of natural habitats, as well as humans, here in the Houston-area — and they all make our city what it is.
The Garden is proud to be a source of outreach to the public, providing educational resources, building understanding, and fostering a space where all Houstonians and visitors can learn about the natural environment.
Wild Houston will be available for purchase soon in the Garden Shop. With holiday shopping just around the corner, the book would make a great gift for someone new to the area looking for hiking trails and public parks to explore, or even long-time Houstonians who love the outdoors and want to get more familiar with the city’s natural wonders.
This handy and extensive guide is suitable for beginners and experts alike, and includes information on over 100 local species, along with suggested day trips.
Be sure to join author Suzanne Simpson at the Garden on Oct. 29 for the book launch event.