Solitary Sentinels

Singular stems reaching for the sky, a few sunflowers serve as sentries in my back garden.

Disk flowers ruddy, ray flowers yellow, all heads face east in morning light. The sentinels are fixed in their spots, moving only with breezes and birds’ perches.

Having chosen its particular garden, each sunflower stands its ground.

A Sunflower Summer

It’s been a bright and sunny sunflower summer. I always have sunflowers in my summer garden, presumably gifts from the digestive systems of a variety of birds and their fuzzy-tailed sunflower seed-loving friends, the squirrels. These urban dwelling critters disperse the remains of black-oiled sunflower seeds taken from feeders, dropped unceremoniously to the soil, which then fulfills its role in nurturing growth. This year, the numbers and sizes of sunflowers are over-the-top–literally. Each stalk is huge and there are scads of them. I pulled out quite a few, some when were very small and others as they grew taller, but my pruning shears were no match for the sunflowers determination to define my summer garden.

I kept most of the sunflowers at the center and back of my gardens so they wouldn’t interfere too much with beloved seasonal perennials like creamy Yarrow, Achillea millefolium and cheery Zexmenia, Wedelia acapulucensis var. hispida.

My home sits on the curve of the street and has no sidewalk. Toward my sister-in-law’s (SIL) home (right side of photo), I allowed the sunflowers to reach their sunny faces to the sky and form a floral barrier to the end of the garden.

From the other side, you can see that my SIL also took a pruning shears-off attitude toward the sunflowers in her garden (again, right side of photo). If anything, she may have more of these yellow monsters than we do!

A head-on photo of our two gardens gives you some idea of the statements these sunflowers make!

Also, you’ll notice that the trees look like it’s still we’re still in winter. Arizona Ash trees are the signature trees in both our front gardens and these two trees were badly damaged by February’s winter storm. They will never recover and will never again be fully foliaged trees. The green that you see, along the trunks and the lower branches, is all the trees will ever produce. We’ll be removing our trees later in in autumn. My once shady, west-facing front garden will become a full sun garden and changes are required. Some of the current garden inhabitants won’t like the Texas sun beating down everyday and will be removed; sun-lovers like native grasses and sun-worshipping perennials and shrubs will thrive in the heat and blossom with the blasts of daily sun. I’m sure whatever sunflowers show up next year will be perfectly happy in the new conditions. The end of a tree is a sad, sad thing and the end of two adjacent trees doubly so. I’ll miss their cooling effects, sweet movement of foliage in the wind, and the activities and songs of birds taking refuge in their canopies.

The pollinators have worked the sunflower since opening day in April or May. Honeybees are especially fond of sunflowers and are often covered with pollen after they’ve spent some time nuzzled in the flowers.

As blossoms fade, seeds develop and a new set of feeders show up for that bounty. This male Lesser Goldfinch, Spinus psaltria, is one of many birds who’ve enlivened the fading stalks with their busy munching. Feeding alongside the goldfinches are doves (both White-winged and Mourning), House Finches, House Sparrows, and Carolina Wrens. Often when I step outside, there’s a whoosh of wings and scatter of birds as all the eaters take flight.

As the Lesser Goldfinch perches prettily, his belly is yellow; when he bends to eat seeds, his back sports cool white racing stripes!

The sunflowers are definitely the stars of the garden show, but it hasn’t been all sunshine with the sunflowers. For about 18 months, I’ve experienced random outbreaks of itchy, angry red rashes, typically on my legs and arms. I couldn’t figure out what was triggering the annoying and very uncomfortable rashes–until this summer. In conversations with my SIL and other sunflower-growing neighbors, I learned that they were experiencing reactions to the sunflowers, resulting in itchy rashes. I realized that it was the sunflowers that were causing my itchy-scratchies, but it couldn’t only be the sunflowers. The rashes have occurred in autumn and late summer, too, when these particular sunflowers (that come from bird feeder black-oiled sunflower seeds), are done for the year and pulled from the garden. With observation, I then recognized that the native Plateau goldeneye, Viguiera dentata that I grow and which blooms in late summer and fall, also was resulting in my rashes. Both plants are in the Aster, or Asteraceae, family of plants, and I grow quite a few other Aster plants: Purple coneflower, Zexmenia, Gregg’s mistflower, Blue mistflower to name a few. So far, I think I’m safe with most of the Aster family plants, as long as my contact is limited; just brushing against most of them (not the two main culprits) doesn’t to end with me scratching for days and looking for relief. When I have experience outbreaks, I’ve taken Allegra and I have a prescription hydrocortisone cream; both are helpful. Even so, it takes a week or more for the rashes to clear up.

I’ve always been a t-shirt and shorts girl-in-the-garden, but I’m now covering up when I have work to do: long linen pants, some shirts from The Hub, and equestrian gloves which cover my arms to the elbows. And, when it’s hot and sunny, a hat. In the new gardening get-up I’m avoiding new rash outbreaks and it’s good to know that I can still garden, even if I look ridiculous.

Hot July

Clear blue skies dotted with drifts of puffy clouds, warm south breezes creating shadow puppetry underneath leafy trees, and the onslaught of truly toasty temperatures are all reminders that summer has settled in.  This is a relatively mild summer compared to some of recent years and one benefiting from plenty of rain in May and June.  The humidity is high and skin is sticky, hats are worn, sunscreen applied, mosquitoes are slapped, water taken, and air conditioning is always appreciated:  it’s hot July in Central Texas.

As well, the garden is lush, with blooming action to satisfy pollinators and gardeners.

My Retama treeParkinsonia aculeata, has bloomed non-stop since May.   The flowers are borne in clusters and bees buzz all around.

Petals are sunny summer yellow, except for one with a honey gland which turns the petal orange-red.

Retama are native to the southern and western states of the U.S., but have proven invasive in other parts of the world.  My tree is about 15 years old and beginning to decline.  It’s only produced a couple of viable seedlings in my garden, one of which is now about 3 feet tall.

I’m quite fond of Tasmanian flax lily, Dianella tasmanica, ‘Variegata’.  I originally planted several individuals for their fun foliage and brightening impact in my shady back garden.  My garden also wanted some structural detail and I’m not a fan of spiky plants,  so softer grasses and grass-like plants appeal.   Plus, flax lily stands strong against our hot, typically dry summers.

While Flax lily are noted for foliage they do produce blooms.  The slender, slightly arching bloom stalks are graceful and the petite flowers are shooting-star enchanting.  They last for quite a long while.

I recall seeing some small native bees and flies around the blooms last summer, but haven’t spied such things this year.   This flower looks like it’s ready for a pollinator pal.


Some years ago, I was given a tiny seedling of a Mexican orchid treeBauhina mexicana.  It was early autumn and I dutifully planted, watered, and mulched  the baby tree.  After a cold winter with a number of hard freezes, I assumed that the seedling orchid tree was probably a goner.  However, it returned and now, a decade (or so) later, it returns each spring after winter freezes, and in mild winters, remains evergreen.  This little tree blossoms on and off through the long growing season.

With a rangy, shrub-like growing habit, my original specimen sports pure white flowers.  A favorite flower among the pollinator crowd, the larger swallowtail butterflies are enamored with the gorgeous orchid-like blooms.

The original has bequeathed several seedlings, some of which I’ve given to gardening buddies, but one I kept and planted in my front garden and it’s flourished.  The blooms on this tree are tinged pink, rather than the pure white of its parent.  In the photo below, check out the smeary green metallic bee (left side) heading with determination for a taste of Mexican orchid nectar.


Nothing says summer like sunflowers!  I feed my urban bird visitors black-oiled sunflower seed year-round and each spring dozens of individual sunflowers germinate from those very seeds.  I cull most of the seedlings, but allow some to stay.   They always grow tall, but with this year’s rain, they’ve grown Jack-in-the-beanstalk giant.

It’s not a difficult task to find someone feeding on these happy flowers almost anytime of the day.

As the flowers fade and seeds replace blooms, House and Lesser goldfinches (and other birds, too) become feeders-in-residence on the tall annuals.


My pond gurgles and flows in increasing shade each year.  The water isn’t impacted by the shady situation, but the pond flowers bloom less, though still manage some lovely and welcome flowers.  These pink pretties are waterlily Nymphaea ‘Colorado’.  Soft pink petals paired with golden centers, the flowers float among fish and fins and lily-pad foliage.

A pond colleague, Pickerel rush, Pontederia cordata, sits in the bog section of the pond.

In contrast with the lily flower floaters and their spider-like spread of leaves, Pickerel rush is upright in both floral and foliage form.


If this were March rather than July, the Yellow columbineAquilegia chrysantha,  would be a resounding choice as a main garden bloomer.  But this is the first year EVER that I’ve seen columbine bloom in my garden through June and into July.  These summer columbine blooms came from one particular columbine plant and the blooms certainly weren’t as prolific as they are in the spring, but the individual columbine shrub flowered until about a week ago.  Of course I’m not complaining about the summer appearance of a typical spring bloom, I’m just baffled at this bit of serendipity and have assigned credit for the bonus blooms to our rainy June.

Sweet flower mug shot, face forward,

…and side view.

The columbines are done for the year, I believe, but I enjoyed their long bloom cycle in 2019.  I’d love it if this summer’s blooming business signals a trend, but I’ll be surprised if the summer columbines make an appearance next year.


My mother was a gardener who planted.  She didn’t particularly care about color or form or name of plant–she just like plants and especially flowering plants.  My parents gardened near the Gulf of Mexico and in their garden grew this crinum lily.


Long ago, before they both died, they gave me a number of bulbs which I planted in my own back garden.  I don’t know the crinum’s name, nor do I know from where it originally hails.  Blooms from this lovely lily have been rare treats in my garden; usually, it’s one stalk per year in mid-summer and that’s it.  Most years, no blooms appear and I’ve long contented myself with the crinum serving as a nice foliage perennial, rather than anything of a floral nature.  This summer–again, it’s the rain–all of my established crinum plants have bloomed and each with several bloom stalks.  What a treat it’s been!


Conversely, the Texas native TurkscapMalvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii, is normally a powerhouse bloomer in the summer. Not so this summer.  Thanks, rain!

Turks are wonderfully drought tolerant and prefer to live and bloom in dry, shady conditions and my garden supplies plenty of that.  The summer started wet and lots of foliage grew, but not as many blooms popped on the plants–including Turkscap–which prefer arid conditions.  As we’re now in a more normal dry summer pattern, the crimson hibiscus-like flowers are making up for lost time.

The little honeybee accommodated my photo by flying in and nectaring at just the right moment.


Another summer bloomer grown in Central Texas is the Pride of BarbadosCaesalpinia pulcherrima.  It’s an eye-popping plant with shocking orange and yellow flowers, along with dramatic red stamens.  It’s hard to ignore and why would you want to?

A popular landscape plant,  this prolific bloomer is root hardy here in Austin, but evergreen in the southern parts of the state.  Pride of Barbados is also a pollinator magnet; bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds all spend time working the blooms’ bounties.

I only have one spot that comes near to providing enough light for this sun lover and even there, my specimen is, quite frankly, a little lame.   In the right conditions–full, blasting sun–these herbaceous perennials can easily grow 5 feet wide and 6-8 feet tall.  They are drama queen plants!

July in Austin is a mixed-bag:  blue skies are full of cheer and hope, but hot temperatures wear thin over the long days.  There’s plenty in the garden worth celebrating though and I hope your July garden is providing a good flower and foliage show too.