Autumn Natives

I live in a region with nearly year-round gardening. Summer is hot–that’s a given–and winter is chilly, punctuated by hard freezes–sometimes rainy, sometimes dry. Spring and autumn are delightful, even when spring ends earlier than I’d like and autumn arrives way after it’s due. These pleasant months are the best times to be outdoors and in the garden; I’d suspect that many Texas native plants agree.

Perennials in the Asteraceae family are common, but well-worth having. These cheerful Fall aster, Symphyotrichum oblongifolium, bloom for 2-3 weeks and I always look forward to their lavender display.

I like Fall aster even when it doesn’t bloom, but how can you not grin when you see these charmers?

This combination of blooming perennials and shrubs provides interest for the gardener and food and cover for birds and insects. The background shrub is Barbados cherry, Malpighia glabra. Its subtle pink blooms are barely visible in the photo, outshined by its more colorful companion blooms. White blooms atop the leggy stalks of Frostweed, Verbesina virginica and the red hibiscus-like flowers of Turk’s cap, Malvaviscus arboreous are worthy competitors for attention to the lemony-yellow daisies of Plateau goldeneye, Viguiera dentata.

More Goldeneye to brighten your day.

It’s not just flowers that add to autumn’s beauty, but native grasses are at their peak during this time. My garden is a shady one and I only have a few spots of truly full sun and therefore, limited room for the stunning native grasses that grow well here in Central Texas. Native grasses need the blast of the Texas sun to shine! But this Big muhly, Muhlenbergia lindheimeri, sits in one of those sunny places. It’s a gorgeous plant–even in winter–but in autumn, its fluffy panicles sway gracefully in the breezes.

The muhly is photobombed by a couple of branches of native Turk’s cap (left and front). The pinks in the background belong to the non-native Coral vine.

Be still my beating heart, I love this plant. I’m now growing several in my front garden (the back is too shady to host these sun lovers). This is the oldest of the bunch and I think by next year, the youngsters will be just as impressive.

A different specimen from the one above.

Another Goldeneye/Frostweed vignette benefits from the addition of Inland sea oats, Chasmanthium latifolium.

Inland sea oats are excellent grassy perennials for shade. The “oats” are chartreuse in spring, deepening their green during summer, turning tan in autumn. I think that the group in the above photo turns toasty earlier because it receives more sun. This group below, growing in my back garden and in significantly more shade, still retains some of its green highlights; eventually, they’ll all turn to a warm tawny until pruning, just before spring.

Texas craglily, Echeandia texensis, is a less common garden perennial than the others I’ve profiled, though available in some local nurseries. I purchased mine from Barton Springs Nursey years ago and mine have spread somewhat by seed, but I’ve also separated the fleshy roots into new individual plants.

The lovely flowers, alternately posed on tall bloom spikes, are small, orange-yellow and lily-like. Texas craglily is a member of the Liliaceae family.

The base of the plant is grassy, with fleshy foliage and despite its delicate appearance, a tough and drought-tolerant perennial. From its grassy base which appears in late spring and provides lush green throughout summer, the plant sends up bloom stalks in September, blooming until November. An elegant plant, the bloom stalks move with the wind, flowers and seed pods in almost constant motion.

This week marks Texas Native Plant Week, a celebration of the native plants of our regions. Texas is a big place with a wide range of topography and weather patterns, but there’s something for every garden, plants that will please every gardener. Native plants, Texan or otherwise, are must-haves for any garden. They’re easy to grow, they belong where they grow, and they nurture endemic wildlife. In the bigger picture, most regions enjoy a wide palette of gorgeous and valuable native plants: trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals, grasses and succulents. No matter where you garden and call home, if you haven’t tried growing natives, give it a whirl! You’ll be amazed at their beauty and ease.

Garden Art

As it’s Texas Native Plants Week, I thought I’d contribute a photo which profiles a few of the lovely native plants in my garden, as well as a seasonal piece of garden art which has highlighted the front garden this fall.

Clockwise, starting from the bottom left of the photo: the winter rosettes of Big red sage, Salvia pentstemonoides and moving upwards, the pink blooming shrubs, Rock rose, Pavonia lasiopetala. Behind those, peeks out white blooming Tropical sage, Salvia coccinea paired with some spikey foliage of a Red yucca, Hesperaloe parviflora, plus three, second year Big muhly grasses, Muhlenbergia lindheimeri. The two yellow spots of sunshine in the background come in the form of Plateau goldeneye, Viguiera dentata and their frothy, cloud-like companions are Frostweed, Verbesina virginica. Lastly, the diminutive daisies dancing at the bottom right are Blackfoot daisy, Melampodium leucanthum.

For more information on growing native plants in Texas, check out these informative sites, Native Plant Society of Texas and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

Native plants are beautiful, easy to grow, and reflect the place where you live–in Texas, or elsewhere. Native plants evolved alongside their companion critters and so attract and nurture pollinators, birds, and wildlife of all kinds and sorts.

Native plants bring a garden to life.

I’m linking with Anna, in Oregon, for Wednesday Vignette. Additionally, I’d like to give a nod and a link to OregonFlora, a gorgeous website profiling the native plants of Oregon. This site gives information about where native plants of Oregon are found, how to use them in home gardens, and lots of other valuable information for anyone interested in native plants. This site and the work related, is headed by my friend, Dr. Linda Hardison with her Oregon State University team.

Native plants rock!

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