Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii): A Seasonal Look

Turk’s Cap, Malvaviscus arboreus  was one of the first native plants that I became acquainted with when I began my native plants gardening adventure.

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From the beginning, I was smitten.

Over the years, I’ve  planted  seven Turk’s Cap shrubs, all of which spread and developed into large specimen plants which anchor several of my garden beds during the course of the long growing seasons here in sunny Austin, Texas.

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Turk’s Cap is a native southern United States plant, but is also native to Mexico and Cuba.  There are cultivars of this plant, like ‘Big Momma’, (who names these??) , that are listed as herbaceous perennials in USDA gardening zones 7-10.  Though this native Texan dies to the ground during our normal winters (except in South Texas), this hardy shrub emerges every spring and gifts to the garden and wildlife a long and prolific parade of blooms and fruits.IMGP0440.new

The Turk’s Cap is not picky about soil, nor does it need much water once established. Considered an understory plant, Turk’s Caps are best in shade,

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…but flourish in full sun and anything in between.  In full sun, the leaves will turn downwards, darken, and crinkle in a manner that many gardeners find unattractive.   The plant looks like it’s struggling in the blazing sun and heat, but even under those conditions, Turk’s Cap is a tough and drought hardy perennial. All of my Turk’s Cap shrubs grow in shade to part-shade and in fairly heavy soil, but I’ve seen others perform beautifully in full sun while planted in sand.    In shade and part shade though, the foliage is lush and suggestive of plants that are tropical mallows–which Turk’s Cap is!

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Turk’s Caps are classified as shrubs, but I always think of them as a forming in a cluster or thicket and as performing more like herbaceous perennials.   They tend toward the amorphous–shooting upwards and outwards from their thick roots after winter and reaching for the sky throughout spring, summer and into autumn.

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During a wet spring, Turk’s Caps grow quickly, adding lots of stem length and leafy greens.  Over the course of the growing season, those stems can flop over and look rangy, especially once heavily laden with masses of blooms. That’s a fine way to go if you’re aiming for a casual, wild garden.  But if structure in the garden is a goal, Turk’s Caps can and should be pruned.   Here is an example of a wayward limb.

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The snipped off wayward limb allows a more formal look.  This group,

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…is one that I should have pruned back after our heavy rains in the spring and early summer (2015).  I failed to complete that little chore and now this shrub has limbs flailing and falling this-a-way and that.  I don’t think this is horrible and certainly bees, butterflies and hummingbirds have no issue with wonky limbs, but the human Turk’s Cap tender who prefers a tidier look, should keep this hardy shrub checked. This example is more representative of how I like my Turk’s Caps:

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Actually, this large bunch is one of the first Turk’s Caps that I planted and is over 20 years old.

To keep the mature Turk’s Cap well-shaped, I prune up the outside limbs to about 2 feet in height, the next group inward to about 3-4 feet in height, in a graduated form, shorter to taller, toward the middle of the shrub.  In general, I only prune for shape in late spring, with the occasional lopping off, as needed, in late summer or fall. It’s an easy, quick chore and I only prune what needs pruning.

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Here in Austin, Turk’s Caps emerge from the ground in early spring with  fresh and vibrant green foliage.

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Depending upon rainfall, Turk’s Caps will grow in a moderate to rapid pace.  If the spring is wet, the stems grow to about 4-5 feet, sometimes reaching 6 feet tall by late May, but often with little bloom development.  During drought, moderate or otherwise, the foliage growth is slowed, but flower development (at least in my garden) isn’t retarded at all.  Personally, I prefer Turk’s Caps during drought–these shrubs grow and bloom, without the rank limb development that occurs in wet years; the shrubs don’t require pruning under those circumstances and that’s a good deal for the lazy gardener.

Ahem.

Turk’s Caps begin their flower show in late spring (May in Austin) and the blooming continues throughout the summer months, with no rest.  Summer is when Turk’s Caps shine.

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Or rather, bloom like crazy.

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The shrubs produce masses of blooms, each day, with each bloom lasting for several days. In a cluster, one can find buds, blooms and those destined to become fruits.

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The petite flowers are stunning:  they remind me of a jaunty turban, complete with pollen plume.

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The Turk’s Cap belongs in the Mallow or Malvaceae family, thus sharing many characteristics with other hibiscus plants. The ruby-red, tiny hibiscus blooms never quite open.

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Bees of all kinds, butterflies, and hummingbirds love these blooms.

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Additionally, because the Turk’s Cap shrubs form thicket-like,  birds and lizards use it for cover.   Turk’s Caps are considered moderately deer resistant.

One of the things you’ll notice in these photos are holes in the foliage.  During some summers, there is munching of the wide and wonderful Turk’s Caps foliage.

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In the American garden of the past century, sterile, non-insect attracting plants were the desired garden outcome.  As we have come to realize that wildlife is seriously threatened and in decline, the wildlife-friendly gardener recognizes that insects, often the larval stage of important pollinators like butterflies and moths, will eat foliage.  Furthermore, it’s actually okay that they eat foliage–that’s what they’re supposed to do and that’s what the plant is there for.  The plant won’t die; it’s uncommon for an insect herbivore to actually kill its host plant.  It happens, but it’s not the norm.  Are the holes unattractive? Well, it depends upon whether you want foliage that looks unreal–completely pristine and untouched–or whether you understand that there is a powerful and complex food chain mechanism at work in your garden.   I like to think that the holes in the foliage are feeding beneficial insects that become pollinators or perhaps, food for  birds or small mammals.  Acceptance of some leaf damage is all about  perspective and some knowledge of the natural world. Remember that plants were invented to serve insects, birds, and mammals.

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Once fall is firmly in play, with its shorter days and eventually, cooler nights, Turk’s Cap shrubs cease blooming.  Here in Austin, that occurs in October. The fruits begin developing in late summer,

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…and turn a luscious red during the fall months.   I’ve never tasted them (not sure why, I should correct that!) but the fruits reportedly taste like apples.  The Spanish name for Turk’s Cap is Manzanilla, which means “little apple”–and you can clearly see why.

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In my garden, Blue Jays and Mockingbirds are particularly fond of these fruits.

As the days and nights cool, the Turk’s Cap foliage turns yellow.

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It’s not a particularly spectacular fall foliage display and in fact, the limbs lose some foliage and the plant becomes sparse and spindly during the cooler fall and early winter months, prior to the first hard freeze. In late fall, If my Turk’s Caps look sloppy, I trim them up just a bit  to give the shrub a neater look.

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The meager foliage in late fall is in striking contrast with the lushness that is the signature of the spring, summer, early/mid fall growth pattern.

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In my urban garden, it takes a hard freeze to completely knock the Turk’s Caps to the ground for the duration of winter.

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At that point, sticks rising from the ground is what a Turk’s Cap shrub is. I let the leaves fall as mulch and then, when I can no longer stand the brown gloom,

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…I whack them back to the ground.  That singular event, usually undertaken in late January or early February, is the major pruning that this plant requires.  The result a minimalist garden look, to say the least. It’s a good idea to pair Turk’s Cap shrubs with evergreen or structured plants so that the minimalist look is, well, minimized.  Here in Austin, winters are variable–sometimes they are consistently chilly with freezes throughout on a regular schedule; sometimes winters are very mild with no freezes at all.  In mild no-freeze winters, I usually prune the still-green limbs with a few new leaves to about 12 inches from the ground in February.

The toughest situation for plants is when a hard freeze occurs early (I define “early” as anytime in December), with the remainder of winter being mild–no hard freezes at all.  In that situation, Turk’s Caps will flush out with new growth in January or early February.  No worries though for an established Turk’s Cap plant; the early growth will be slow and if there is a hard freeze once the new growth appears, the freeze will damage the leaves and maybe the stems, but the tough plant will survive.  At that point, prune to where there is green on the stem, sit back and let spring happen.

I’ve paired some of my Turk’s Cap shrubs with a native Texas groundcover, Heartleaf Skullcap, Scutellaria ovata ssp. bracteata, because I like the combo of the bright green Turk’s Cap foliage mixed with the subtler, softer Heartleaf foliage throughout late winter and spring.

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Very nice.

Once past winter’s chill, Turk’s Caps flourish–in foliage and blooms.

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Turk’s Cap is a staple plant in my garden.  Lovely and reliable, it’s a rich wildlife plant, as well as being a water wise and low-maintenance plant for the gardener.

Spring

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Summer

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Fall

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Winter

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Turk’s Cap is a plant that any gardener who is interested in feeding wildlife, while also enjoying a long blooming cycle, should add to the garden.

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You’ll be happy you did.

I’m glad to join with Gail of clay and limestone to profile our wonderful native plants.  Check out the link to learn about other native plants.

 

Butterfly Bucket List: Texan Crescent

In joining with Anna of The Transmutational Garden and her fun and informative Butterfly Bucket List monthly meme, let’s have a look at this pretty garden visitor:

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Texan CrescentAnthanassa texana, is a common butterfly species in my garden and throughout a wide range of the tropics and a large part of the western to southern United States. This is a small pollinator, only about 1 to 1.5 inches across with wings spread wide.  A rapid flyer, fortunately these gregarious butterflies rest frequently and I spot them sunning on all sorts of foliage in my garden.  They’re very good about posing for photos.

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While not an eye-poppingly beautiful member of the Lepidoptera bunch, the muted coloration provides good camouflage, especially in shady gardens and I think this little butterfly is quite pretty.  Brown, rust and cream comprise the  primary color scheme, but in such a fetching pattern of those colors.  Look at the sheen of blue in the eyes,

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…and along the thorax as this guy or gal, moves around the oregano bloom, modeling all sides of its fashionable summer wear.

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Texan Crescents hang out in open, dry areas and are common in urban settings. Adults nectar on a many different  flowers.  I routinely see them nectaring on the florets of oregano,

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ZexmeniaWedelia acapulcensis var. hispida

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…and sunflowers.

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Texan Crescents have always been part of the insect mix of my garden, but this summer, I’ve noticed more than usual.  There was quite a bit of rain in late spring/early summer, but if that was the reason for a population boom, surely I’d see more of other butterflies too and that hasn’t necessarily been the case.  The host plants for this butterfly are plants of the Acanthaceae family.  I grow several perennials from this moderate-sized group:  Flame AcanthusAnisacanthus wrightii quadrifidus, as well as several Ruellia species–a true native and a couple of cultivars.  Additionally, a new plant  has made itself quite at home in my garden–the native Branched Foldwing, Dicliptera brachiata, 

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…also a member of the Acanthus family and one that I recently identified; you can read about that  here. The Branched Foldwing is the only new plant in my garden that might host the Texan Crescent and I think it’s this garden surprise that is helping to gift more of these cuties to my garden and the surrounding areas.  I have found eaten and damaged leaves on the three Branched Foldwings that I’ve located,

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…and more damage on the Foldwings than on any other of the Acanthaceae plants.  Though I haven’t yet spotted eggs or larvae on the plants, my suspicion is that the Branched Foldwing are to thank for the larger numbers of Texan Crescents.

Regardless of where their botanical nursery is located, I’m glad to host these little butterflies in my garden–may Texan Crescents always flutter!

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Check out the The Transmutational Garden to learn more about butterflies and their importance in a healthy and diverse garden.

Cool White

Austin in August is not cool. Austin itself is cool (as we’re constantly reminded)but it is toasty here during our summer months and August is the sweaty king of this heat-challenged time of the year.  I think (hope!!) that the peak of the hot Austin summer has passed and we gardeners can look forward to the  “second spring” flush of blooms which grace our gardens in September, October and November. Until those glorious fall months, there is some cool in my garden in the form of the night-blooming DaturaDatura wrightii.

P1070722.new Also known by a variety of poetic names like Sacred Thorn-apple, Jimsonweed, and Angel Trumpet, this dramatically blooming perennial shrub is a widespread North American native.  The stunning flowers open at sundown,

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…and are available for viewing by gardeners and nectaring by moths throughout the night,P1070721.new

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I wasn’t quick enough document with the camera, but two small native bees busily worked in the center as the flower was closing early morning.  Wild bee breakfast!

The foliage is described as “coarse”, but I’ve always liked the muted grey-green color and the open form of this shrub.P1070775.new

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The foliage on my Datura has been a food source for something this summer and I’m guessing that the larvae of some variety of Sphinx Moth  have enjoyed the greenery.  I haven’t seen any caterpillars, only the many holes they’ve decorated the Datura leaves with.

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I have seen Sphinx Moths in the garden this summer.

All parts of this plant are toxic and  it’s well-known for its narcotic qualities; Datura was used in religious ceremonies of some Native Americans.

Viewing these blooms is a sublime experience for me.

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