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Ms. Lillian's Legacy

Beloved gardener’s plants live on

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Diane Hale, Gigi Shapiro, Barbara Rizzo and Melissa Reichert

Diane Hale, Gigi Shapiro, Barbara Rizzo and Melissa Reichert (from left) remember Ms. Lillian under the tree planted in her honor on Tanglewood Boulevard. (Photo:

Every once in a while, someone comes along who not only brightens the lives of those close to her, but also lights up the lives of countless friends, acquaintances and strangers. Lillian Illig was one of those people.

Ms. Lillian, as she was affectionately known, moved with her husband Carl, associate general counsel for Humble Oil, and three children into one of the first homes in Tanglewood in 1950. Her son, Dale Illig, an attorney who lives in Georgetown, Texas, remembers the neighborhood as “highly uncivilized and wonderful for a kid. It was wide-open spaces,” he says. (Dale’s sister, Elaine Illig Davis, lived in Houston and recently passed away; his other sister, Carol Illig Lake, lives in Tanglewood.)

As the neighborhood grew up and the Illig family settled in, Ms. Lillian and her friends came up with an idea: Establish a neighborhood garden club. And so, in 1951, the Tanglewood Garden Club came to be, with Ms. Lillian serving as its first president. This spring, the club celebrates 65 years with a special tribute to Ms. Lillian and her gardening friends.

“Mother grew up kind of poor,” Dale says. “She didn’t really have a lot of pretty things or gardens. So I think when she was given the opportunity to plant her own garden, there was no question that she was going to plant flowers and take care of them.

“She picked roses every single day,” Dale says. “They had to work hard to produce, but she always said, ‘The more you pick the more they bloom.’ It was one of her favorite phrases.”

Lillian Illig

Lillian Illig, founder of the Tanglewood Garden Club, lives on in the plants still thriving in local gardens. Buzz readers first met Ms. Lillian Illig in April 2006 in the article The Constant Gardeners, when this photo was taken. We also ran a tribute, The First Lady of Tanglewood, for her 100th birthday. 

Ms. Lillian shared her love for gardening, both through the garden club that she founded and through other neighbors. “Mother literally took a flower arrangement to the garden club every time they had a meeting or event. From 1951 until the year of her death in 2011.” She was 102.

To celebrate her birthday every year, Ms. Lillian would walk Tanglewood Boulevard, handing out gardenias from her beloved gardenia bush, which always bloomed just a few days before her May 14 birthday. “She’d give away those gardenias to people,” Dale says. “It didn’t matter who they were. She’d walk out to people’s cars and give them away. It was always at 7 in the morning.”

In addition to the flowers, Ms. Lillian would bring birthday cake. Even on her 102nd birthday, her last, she was outside, handing out cake and her famous gardenias. “She was just a gregarious person who knew how to be happy,” Dale says.

Melissa Reichert, Gigi Shapiro

Melissa Reichert, who lives on Ms. Lillian's former lot, and Gigi Shapiro were thrilled to find Ms. Lillian's beloved gardenia bush still alive behind Melissa's garage. (Photo:

After Ms. Lillian’s death, the family decided to sell her house. The lot sold to a builder, its fate determined as a tear-down. “The worst thing was not the house being torn down, but the garden,” Dale says. “We were having this terrible feeling that we all loved the garden, and we really didn’t know how to handle it. So we sent messages to some friends, asking them to come take plants and cuttings.

“I wanted to move that gardenia bush so that it would still bloom every year on Mother’s birthday. Davey Tree tried to move it. They came with all this equipment, and finally they said, ‘If we remove it, it will die.’

“The gardenia bush didn’t want to leave. It wanted to stay there.”

Other plants were happy to find new homes, mostly with Ms. Lillian’s fellow garden club members.

Kristine Solberg, a member of the club since 1997, has two of Ms. Lillian’s ferns. “Ms. Lillian would bring samples to garden club meetings,” Kristine says. “Little pieces, with the stems wrapped in wet paper towels. My Boston fern started with just one or two little pieces, maybe 10 years ago.

“I also have an asparagus fern in a pot that came from her yard, when her son told us to take pieces. Then the builders shut us down. I was laughing then because what I really wanted to take was some of her dirt! She had some of the best-looking black dirt in Houston.

“I was there when she was over 100. She had little pots with tomato plants growing from seeds, and she was telling her gardener what to do right up until she died.”

About the gardener: Dale says she had a “succession of them,” but that Raoul, who has since moved, was the one Ms. Lillian spent time with most recently. “She loved to walk around the garden and tell Raoul what to do, even when she was traveling in a chair. They would hold hands. They were very close.”

Diane Hale, a past-president of the garden club and a member since moving into the neighborhood in 1978, also remembers Ms. Lillian’s compost. “She had a huge supply of homemade compost made by continually adding leaves, soil, water and other greenery, and turning it so it could compost,” Diane says. “This was one of her specialties and one reason for her great results.”

Diane says, “I have a beautiful bougainvillea in a large pot, [that we somehow lifted] into my car when Lillian’s family offered to share her plants. It always outperforms my other bougainvillea, which is 25 years old. I always think of Lillian when I see the splendor of this plant!”

Diane also enjoyed tomatoes – “transplants” from Ms. Lillian’s garden – for many years. “Ms. Lillian favored Celebrity tomatoes and would grow them painstakingly in her kitchen from seed, then transplant them into an efficient tomato garden in her yard,” she says. “I enjoyed many great tomatoes from those transplants.”

Lillian Illig

Lillian Illig is remembered on Tanglewood Boulevard as the founder and first president of the Tanglewood Garden Club. The potpourri and cuttings surrounding the marker are from plants she originally nurtured, now thriving in the homes and gardens of Garden Club members. (Photo:

Another garden club member, Nelda Moffatt, thinks of Ms. Lillian whenever she uses chives from her garden. “I still have a bed of [Ms. Lillian’s] garlic chives that I use all the time except in winter when the plants die back. But with spring, the slender blades add taste to every salad and occasionally to pan-sauteed scallops. And yes, I do think of Lillian every time I use it.”

All over Tanglewood, Ms. Lillian’s garden is alive. Even in Georgetown, Dale has a cutting from a fig tree, one that Raoul harvested for him. “I don’t have the patience [Mother] did, but I planted that cutting in my backyard maybe 20 years ago, and it’s a 40-foot fig tree now.”

But what about the gardenia bush that was left behind for the builders to tear down?

That’s what Gigi Shapiro wondered when The Buzz started talking about Ms. Lillian’s story and the garden club’s 65th anniversary. Gigi, who has been a member of the club since moving to Tanglewood in 1996 and has held the position of president, and nearly every other board position, set out to discover what had happened to the beloved gardenia. She did that by knocking on the door of the new home on Ms. Lillian’s lot.

“One does not know how they will be received or who is on the other side of the door,” Gigi says. “But Melissa had a nice smile, so I knew it would not be painful.”

“Melissa” is the new home’s owner, Melissa Reichert.

“I was very surprised,” she says. “Gigi came to my door, and I had never met Gigi. I actually had just joined the garden club and thought, ‘Oh no, what did I do wrong?’ But she wanted to tell me about the history of Ms. Lillian. I had no idea.”

“I started by asking if she was aware that she had the most famous garden in Tanglewood,” Gigi says. “’No,’ she told me. So I asked if she was aware that the first lady of Tanglewood lived there. ‘No.’ So I said, ‘Do I have a story for you!’

“Melissa was fascinated and smiling, and she asked why she didn’t know this story already. I just said, ‘I guess I hadn’t knocked on your door before.’”

Gigi asked Melissa if she had any plants that might have been Ms. Lillian’s. Melissa told her no, the builders had cleared the lot. “It broke my heart, because she had the most beautiful garden,” Gigi said. “I got a little teary, and Melissa did too, and we hugged. Then Melissa said, ‘You know, there are two old plants behind the garage, and I don’t know what they are.’ I asked if I may see them.”

One of the plants, behind the garage, wedged between a generator and a wall, caught their eyes. “It had the bloom of a gardenia,” Gigi says. “I said, ‘I think that’s it!’ We all got very excited. Melissa’s husband got involved. They called someone out the very next day to start caring for it.”

“I feel pressure not to let anything happen to that plant,” Melissa says. “Johnny Steele [the landscape architect] has been taking care of it now. He thinks it can be moved, and we are hoping to find a beautiful spot in the front yard so everyone can see it. I feel so honored. It’s the only thing that was left behind!”

Gigi says, “If you think about it, there was no reason for Melissa to think anything special about that plant behind her garage. For all practical purposes, it hadn’t been cared for simply because no one knew of its significance.

“The fact that it is still surviving and can be restored to perfect health, it must have the constitution and fiber of Ms. Lillian.”

And through her resilient, beloved gardenia and the Tanglewood Garden Club, Ms. Lillian lives on.

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