Big Red

When I was a child, I liked the soft drink Big Red.  Shockingly red and overly sweet, Big Red is a cream soda which originated in Waco, Texas and was marketed throughout the southern half of Texas, which included my native hometown of Corpus Christi in South Texas and my current hometown of Austin in Central Texas.  Fast forward multiple decades, add some (?) maturity, a bit of culinary discernment, and a passion for gardening, and I discovered another Texas Big Red that I love even more: the beautiful perennial, Big Red sage, Salvia pentstemonoides.

I became familiar with Big Red sage when I worked for a handful of years at Zilker Botanical Gardens (ZBG) a couple of handfuls of years ago.  The objects of my admiration grew in a full-sun garden which bordered the main parking lot and was part of a troupe of other tough, native plants.  Big Red sage grew from lush, evergreen rosettes, sending bloom spikes upwards to three feet tall in May.  Rich red blooms decorated the bloom stalks for the summer months.  As I tended the gardens and observed the spring and summer bloom cycles,  I liked the Big Red sage so much that I purchased several for myself from Barton Springs Nursery

I planted the Big Reds in my back garden, adjacent to my pond where they were very happy for 5 or 6 years.  Because my back garden is shadier than the garden I tended at ZBG, the stalks leaned a bit, rather than growing in the erect fashion as preferred, but the plants bloomed well for several years, adding pops of deep magenta along an elegant bloom stalk throughout the summers.  Hummingbirds and several species of carpenter bees were regular visitors, enjoying nectar enclosed within the blooms.

Once the bloom season was over, I’d prune the stalks to their rosette, leaving an evergreen groundcover, in its resting state, awaiting the next bloom season. 

Over the past few years, I’ve moved all four plants to my front garden as they experienced increasing shade and declining blooms where they first lived.   Big Red sage is a plant that should bloom and for as much and as long as possible.  For that, it needs a good dose of sunshine. 

Where they now sit along the driveway and near the street, they receive blasting west sun and bloom well in their sweet spot.   I moved the Big Reds in two different autumns and all transplanted easily, flowering without missing a beat the first springs after their migrations.  These native perennials don’t require much water;  this year, I’ve only watered twice.

The color of the flowers is interesting: early morning sees the blooms in a deep purple/ red hue; the hours following, a pinking-up occurs, though the blooms remain a definite rich red. 

Hummingbirds visit the Big Reds, but the most common visitors are the Southern Carpenter bees and the Horsefly-like Carpenter bees.  Mostly, these bees nectar steal, but presumably–and hopefully–there’s some pollen gathering during those feedings, owing to the carpenter bees’ size and pollen gathering hairs.  That said, my Big Reds have yet to seed out and I’d love to have some baby Big Reds.  It might be that pollination is limited or that I mulch too thickly for fallen seeds to take root.    

I like the way the bee holds on to the bloom itself;  a bee-to-flower hug.

Aside from its beauty in the garden and value for pollinators, the Big Red sage has an interesting history.  It is endemic only to Central Texas, not occurring naturally anywhere else. It was discovered in the mid-1800s and by the mid-1940s was believed extinct.  But in the mid-1980s several different populations of Big Red sage were discovered and several groups of Big Reds have been found since, though some established colonies have disappeared.  According to the Native Plant Society of Texas, the plant’s natural range was originally a “ten county” region around Kendall County; Kendall County now boasts about 60% of the surviving natural colonies. 

Barton Spring Nursery in Austin carries the plant (mine were in one-gallon pots) and Native American Seeds has carried the seeds in the past, though with a quick look-see of their 2020 spring catalog, I didn’t spy any, but it’s an interesting catalog to peruse nonetheless.    I recall that I’ve seen Big Red sage listed in the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center bi-annual plant sales. 

For more about Big Red sage, check out these two articles from the Native Plant Society of Texas: On the trail of big red sage  and New stand of big red sage found  

A Surprise Basket

I like early mornings.  I need the time to myself, to wake up, to think about the day ahead, to breathe the outdoors. The light is soft and even in the warm, humid Texas summer, the morning walk through the garden is calming, refreshing.  I love the sunrise, the sparkle of light through the trees, casting shadows, then not, across the garden.  I replenish the bird feeders and baths and notice the changes in the garden.  I feed the fish in the pond.  This morning ritual doesn’t take much time and is a good way to face each day.

While my eyes are bleary, at least until the caffeine kicks in with its magic, I’m often surprised, and usually pleased, by the bits of news the garden has for me.  Recently, I was in my front garden and was flabbergasted when I spied a bit of pink underneath a Mexican Orchid tree, whose flowers are decidedly white.

What ho, you frilly, pinky thing!  The anemone-like flower was low to the ground, highlighted by the rising sun to its east.  Its plant companions, a Purple Heart,  Tradescantia pallida and a low branch from the Mexican Orchid tree,  Bauhinia mexicana, are there, always, but made room for this new resident.  It reached out, made sure I noticed–an American Basket flowerCentaurea americana

Some time ago, my blogging buddy, Shoreacres of the beautiful Lagniappe and the thoroughly charming, The Task at Hand, mailed some basket flower seeds to me, which I happily spread out in autumn of 2018–and then, completely forgot about.  I never assume the seeds would germinate (because seeds will, or won’t, and I go with the flow) and particularly not in this shadier, rather than sunnier, spot.  I’d spread the seeds in the same garden, but primarily in the part of the garden where the west sun bakes, figuring that the sun-loving annual would be content to grow there.  I recall having extra seeds and tossing out those extras in this area;  here we are, nearly two years later, a single American Basket flower in bloom.

I’m tickled pink.

Thistle-like in structure, its filaments are soft, not prickly.  American Basket flowers are native to Texas and a number of other states, typically growing in prairie-type settings.  I checked that day and for the next few days, for interested pollinators.  I never saw any, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t visit, only that I didn’t see. Basket flowers attract butterflies and native bees and I hope that some found this specimen, though it was so low to the ground.  I would love for some pollination to have happened, so that I enjoy another surprise again next summer.

I’ll have to wait and that’s okay.  The basket flower find reinforces the commitment to my early morning strolls and especially, to the connections that gardeners and plant lovers share.   

With grateful appreciation for the many knowledgeable garden/nature bloggers who share their seeds (thanks, Linda!), tell stories, and express their love of the natural world.  Today, I’m linking with Anna and her lovely Flutter and Hum and Wednesday Vignette. 

They Have Arrived

They’re back.  The Monarch butterflies, Danaus plexippus, are now wafting through Central Texas, orange and black wings gracefully flit against the Texas sun before alighting at blooming plants for nourishment, sustaining their long flight, continuing their annual life cycle.

Like so many of us, Monarchs face an uncertain future:  climate change, deforestation in Mexico, overuse of pesticides and herbicides in urban gardening and commercial farming in the United States are just some of the challenges to a viable population of these insects.

I am joyful at the first Monarch sighting in spring and then again, in autumn.  Currently, my garden offers a diversity of flowering plants–native and nonnative–in which the butterflies nectar from before they move southward toward their winter home.  In autumn, it’s all about providing blooming flowers for these hungry, hungry butterflies.

In spring, the availability of milkweed (Monarchs’ host plant) is paramount for the hungry, hungry caterpillars.

Female Monarch on Frostweed (Verbesina virginica)

This generation of adults are those last born in the northern parts of the United States and Canada and are now headed to Mexico.

Female Monarch on Plateau goldeneye (Viguiera dentata)

Once these remarkable insects arrive at their destination, they will gather in dramatic clusters by the millions, high up in the Oyamel fir forests of the Sierra Madre Mountains in Mexico. The unique situation offers cold temperatures and high humidity during the winter–the evolved perfect environment for Monarchs’ winter rest.

Male Monarch on Frostweed. The two black marks located on the hind wings, plus thinner black webbing indicate a male.

The adults who overwinter in Mexico are those who will return through Texas (the major migration pathway) next March, laying eggs on a variety of native milkweed plants.  That first (or is it the last?) generation begins the life cycle all over again: adults mate, females lay eggs, the adults then die.  Eggs hatch, caterpillars eat the milkweed, morph to the next generation, the flights resume.  The ancient rhythm continues in leap-frog fashion, northward through spring and into summer.

Female Monarch on Skyflower (Datura erecta)

At some point in August, six generations later, because of a change in light and through a magnetic pull that the Monarchs have responded to for eons, the last set of adults turn southward and begin their 2000 mile journey toward the Mexican mountain firs which await winged occupation.

Stopping briefly as they migrate to Mexico, Monarchs are enjoying a respite in my garden; the first of many arrived a couple of days ago.

I am an appreciative witness to this natural event.

I’m joining today with Anna and her Wednesday Vignette.   Check out her beautiful Flutter and Hum for musings of various sorts.