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Cox, loved plants, was authority on Texas trees

May 17, 2019

For Paul Cox, a man who loved plants, the sight of crape myrtles being crudely topped or utility crews pruning trees under a power line could bring tears.

“It hurt him. He’d have to look away in pain and anguish that anyone would do that to such beautiful plants,” recalled his wife, Michelle.

Once, she said, Cox was escorted out of an Earth Day event after upsetting people with a sign that read “Save a Plant, Eat an Animal.”

A longtime employee of the San Antonio Botanical Garden, Cox, 66, died May 8 of complications of an auto-immune disease and dementia.

In 1977, while attending Stephen F. Austin State University, he was recruited to San Antonio for his knowledge of native Texas plants.

Cox quickly proved his worth, and over the next three decades, served repeatedly as supervisor or interim director.

“He was just a real selfless, hard-working and knowledgeable guy, and it never went to his head,” recalled Hall Hammond, the first president of the San Antonio Botanical Society.

“To me, over the many years, he was the most important person there. He gave it continuity, he knew where things were, and he would help anyone anytime he could,” Hammond added.

Working with Japanese gardeners and designers, Cox played a key role in the creation of the Kumamoto-En Garden, a joint project with San Antonio’s sister city, Kumamoto, Japan.

He also co-wrote “Trees of Texas: A Friendly Guide,” which helped many a budding naturalist solve arboreal mysteries.

Born in Dallas, Cox later moved to McKinney, where family trips to the Heard Museum inspired a love of plants and nature.

His father, Robert Cox, flew for Braniff Airlines, and his mother, Doris, was a homemaker.

“He was a good brother. We were united against a common foe, Capt. Bob Cox, so we got along really well,” said Robert Cox II, 70, his older brother.

“That was in the golden age of aviation, when the captain was god, and it was hard for those people to bring it home,” he added.

Co-workers at the Botanical Garden recall his mission as an educator, his quirky sense of humor and his willingness to help others.

Horticulturalist Don Pylant, 62, hired in 1979, described Cox as “my friend, a mentor and a horticultural partner in crime.”

“We had fun. We constantly communicated using lines from Star Wars and he was formidable when it came to Trek trivia,” he added.

When a gardener named Robert Reed, who could not hear or speak, joined the staff, Cox took action.

“Paul took the trouble to learn sign language and it spread through the staff. We had a great time at meetings, signing things across the room,” Pylant said.

After Ying Doon Moy, a refugee, was hired as a gardener, his past career as a professor and plant geneticist in China came to light.

Cox and others set him up to resume his specialization and Moy began breeding hybrid plants.

“He ended up producing some fruits that can take a frost, loquats, papayas and a giant hibiscus called the “Moy Grande,” Pylant said.

Calvin Finch, 72, the longtime conservation director for SAWS and Express-News gardening columnist, counted Cox as a friend, and regularly consulted with him.

“He was, in my opinion, the most skilled at identifying plants in this part of Texas. Anything we couldn’t deal with, we referred to Paul. And if he couldn’t identify it, it was time to call a conference of horticulturalists and botanists,” said Finch.

Twice married and the father of six kids, Cox, after his retirement in 2009, became a full-time “Mr. Dad” to his four youngest children, taking them to school and on trips, teaching them about nature and cooking for the family.

“He loved everyone and was really into taking care of people,” said his wife, Michelle Cox, 49.

According to those close to him, Cox’s favorite place on earth was the East Texas Pond area that he helped create four decades ago at the Botanical Garden.

The small lake, with an authentic Fayette County log cabin nearby, is ringed by sweet gum, magnolia and loblolly pines, trees that Cox likely encountered while at college in Nacogdoches.

“His soul resides at the East Texas area,” said Karen Lang, 65, his first wife.

“He was there when they brought in the soil and put together the cabin, and for the making of the lake. That area of the gardens truly was Paul’s,” she said.

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