My Texas Mountain Laurels have successfully withstood Texas’ capricious weather patterns, from extreme drought and heat, to mild winters suddenly punctuated by bitter cold, icy conditions. Two years ago, during the historic nine day deep freeze, not-so-affectionately called Snowpocalypse or Snowmageddon, both of my laurels endured damage. Several limbs, big and small, died back. Some I pruned, others I left for the birds’ perching pleasure. No blooms happened that March, but both trees survived, albeit thinner in foliage and form.
Last week, another cold snap settled in for several days. It wasn’t as cold, only 29-32F, but rain, turning to ice, covered everything.
The half-inch of ice played havoc on tree limbs (and utility lines) all over Central Texas. The only damage in my garden was to my older Texas Mountain Laurel. This specimen, already weakened by age and 2021’s Snowpocalypse, suffered several breaks due to the heavy ice, impacting its canopy.
The tree survived, but a significant bit of top foliage is now gone. It wasn’t a lot of foliage, but enough of these extra bits now gone add arboreal insult to broken-branch injury.
This pile of foliage and limbs now sits out by the street, awaiting the City of Austin yard waste trucks to haul it away, to continue existence as compost, mulch, or Dillo Dirt.
What remains has shaken off the ice and is ready to move on to spring–and beyond.
This is the older Texas Mountain Laurel a few days before the ice storm. The upper left quadrant of foliage is where I have recently observed the Eastern Screech Owl couple perching together, as they meet one another each evening at sundown.
In the photo below, you can see that the foliage in that area is missing. However the tree remains viable, though weathered and aged.
The canopy is not as dense as it once was, the green not as robust and full. This tree is entering its last years, any ice damage adds to its struggles.
This second laurel has always grown shade. It’s never been as large or full as the other and sustained some damage from 2021’s storm.
This year’s ice storm had no real impact on this little tree. It’s ready for its spring flowering, limited though it is by shade.
Severe cold events and summer droughts have challenged both laurels, but they are tough plants and they stand their ground. The possibility of extreme weather events should always be considered when choosing plants for a garden. I wouldn’t hesitate to plant more Texas Mountain Laurels–and I have!
Last autumn we removed an old, freeze-damaged Arizona Ash from our front garden. Within a few hours, the west-facing garden morphed from mostly shade to full sun. With no tree canopy protecting the garden, it now faces all day, blistering Texas summer sun and that’s a thing that demands respect as well as tough-as-nails plants. I recognized early on that some established plants would welcome the challenge, but others would need immediate removal, and a few would require observation throughout the growing season to assess their viability in the changed conditions.
This is a view of my front garden in early December from the corner where the driveway and street intersect, using the zoom feature to capture the innards of the garden where the yellow chairs sit.
All that remains of the poor tree is a stump, now happily hosting a large potted bougainvillea, thriving in the searing summer sun.
A front-on photo in December demonstrates a completely new landscape in the center part of the garden. I transplanted appropriate plants from other parts of my garden, as well as newly purchased shrubs, perennials, and some small trees to this open garden. The southeast quadrant of the garden (behind the orange pot, along the right side of the photo) and the northwest quadrant (outside of this photo, to the left) are the two sections of establish plants that I left in place.
This shot was taken in June, roughly at the same angle. Stuff grew in! Who knew that would happen? Full disclosure: the following photos were taken in late May and June. (I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while.)
The tall 5-7 foot spikes in the background, right side of the photo, are American Basket flowers, Centaurea americana, and in the middle of the garden, you can see the large leaves of a couple of common sunflowers, which have grown to 6-8 feet. Both of these annuals have bloomed since late May, providing for pollinators, and now, as they complete their blooming cycle, for birds who are feasting on seeds. The tall plants have also allowed privacy for the seating area of the garden. I have planted several small trees and large shrubs for the long-term, but it will be a few years before they will be large enough to act as privacy screens.
I left bits and bobs of Common Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, and they’ve proved pretty and hardy, rocking their rich green foliage and fresh, creamy flowers.
To this bright landscape, I added Globe Mallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua, its grey foliage and creamsicle-orange blooms a fetching combination, several pink-to-red flowering evergreen Autumn Sage, Salvia greggii shrubs, and silvery Wooly Butterfly bush, Buddleja marrubiifolia. These new plants have flourished in the heat and with the abundant sunshine. Graceful Mexican Feathergrass, Nassella tenuissima (bottom right in photo), Gulf Muhly, Muhlenbergia capillaris, and rusty Little Bluestem, Schizachyrium scoparium, are new native grass additions. All are well-adapted to harsh conditions.
Red Yucca, Hesperaloe parviflora,adds lofty salmon flowers and keeps the little Red Oak tree company.
In June and July the sunflowers and basket flowers have towered over the garden. Pollinators are busy from sunrise to sunset: bees buzzing, butterflies flitting, and hummingbirds chasing one another, vying for dominance over disputed territory. Pretty pink- blossomed Rock Rose, Pavonia lasiopetala and the crimson blooms of Big Red sage, Salvia pentstemonoides, rest below the taller plants at the corner of the garden.
As this very hot summer drags on, some plants are showing heat damage. At the corner of the garden grows a ground-cover, Blue Mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum. It has struggled with the heat and morning-to-evening sun, plus it’s situated at the intersect of the street and driveway, enduring reflective heat from the asphalt and cement.
Crispy critter! Last summer, which was a more ‘normal’ summer, the ground-cover grew well, lush and green, blooming beautifully in autumn. But this summer has been particularly hot; Austin just recorded its hottest 7 day streak ever and we’re breaking heat records regularly. The mistflower isn’t up to that kind of grilling. There’s also no water at this corner; the soaker hose is situated about three feet away. So what to plant there? I’ll probably go with one of the smaller native grasses or something like a Blackfoot Daisy, Melanpodium leucanthum or a small native yucca–all sun and heat lovers needing minimal water and care.
The sunflowers and basket flowers are colorful protectors of the center part of the garden, which I enjoy in the early mornings and late evenings. Their growth is a little wild and rangy, but I like that and more importantly, wildlife is pleased with the choice of meals.
Native perennials, like cheery Engelmann’s Daisy, Engelmannia peristenia, and the blue-blooming Henry Duelberg sage, Salvia farinacea, are rock stars, happy during long weeks of heat, though even they are growing weary with the oven-like temperatures.
Purple Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, always puts on a good show, though the blooms are mostly done and seeds are spent; I’m currently pruning them to the ground, their rosette set to weather the remainder of summer. Coneflowers generally return in autumn with rain and cooler temperatures, not as tall or prolifically, but flowering nonetheless. While that’s something to look forward to, temperate weather seems almost an impossible dream right now.
While I’m pleased with most of my established and new plants, I’ll need to remove many irises and all of the day-lilies and crinum lilies. The full-day summer sun is too much for these bulbs. I’ve also grown a couple of shade-loving spring ephemerals and they’re now frying in this sunny, hot garden. If they survive until fall, I’ll need to move them elsewhere.
As I observe the good, the meh, and the ugly of this new garden, I realize that changes are required and I look forward to the time when I can tweak the problem areas. It’s way too hot to contemplate the particulars of that work for now, so I’ll have to be content with mulling, fretting, and flip-flopping about what I want to plant.
A garden is ever-changing, never completed, and full of challenges .
The ice arrived on Thursday, a sheet of crystalline wet over everything.
Little precipitation has fallen since, but not so the temperature. Austin has been below freezing since Thursday and as of Sunday afternoon, my garden sits in a freezer of mid-to-low 20sF, the cold to continue much colder overnight and into the next couple of days.
Shrubby Blue sage is native to Texas, but I haven’t grown it during the kind of deep-freeze that currently holds my garden hostage. Will new growth appear along each branch and limb, or will the shrub require pruning to the ground? I won’t know that answer for a while yet.
The non-native perennials that I grow–from Mexico and points southward–will suffer in this frosty time. Some may die, or be knocked back so hard that it will be next autumn before recovery is sufficient for blooming: I’m looking at you Mexican Honeysuckle and Mexican Orchid Tree! Both are heat lovers, not snow bunnies, and at least in my garden, have never lived through this much cold. The spring/summer pollinators will miss the bounty these two plants offer. My hope is that the plants are chastened, not defeated.
That is also true of Firecracker plant, Russelia equisetiformis. Native to Mexico and parts of Central America, my three clumps will definitely die to the ground, even though it’s been evergreen in my garden for the past few years. I hope the roots survive and the plant rejuvenates in spring. I don’t hold any hope for the return of popping blooms until next autumn.
The blooms still look red-hot, but that’s all that’s hot on this plant for now.
Another native plant, Chili pequin, Capsicum annuum, clings to its tiny, spicy fruits–those left unpicked and uneaten by the birds and the Hub.
Behind the pequin sits a group of non-native, but freezer tough, Burford Holly. Along with the deep green foliage, they’re also carrying ripe berries and plenty of ice. No doubt the Cedar Waxwings will feast once the temperatures return to Austin normal. I’ll need to park the car in the garage.
Ice droplets, rather than fruit and foliage, currently decorate the small Chili Pequin shrub.
It’s not often that Central Texas experiences long periods of freezing temperatures, or temperatures that dip to single digits, but it’s not unprecedented. I’ve live here since the late 70s (started college in 1978) and this is the third true deep freeze Austin has seen during those decades, but this one will prove a historically cold event. Typically, our freezes are of short duration and rarely dip lower than 20F (in the city). During the past two decades, mild winters have become normative. Gardeners are understandably lulled into complacency, planting inappropriately with tropicals and tenders, assuming mild winters are always expected, when in reality, contrary results are delivered just often enough for reminding.
I’ve certainly made that mistake. Many times. Ahem.
Native plants, evolved to withstand the capricious nature of Texas weather patterns, will come through this bitter, deep cold intact and ready to meet another growing season, whereas many non-native plants will be crumble and mush.
This native Roughleaf Dogwood, Cornus drummondii, looks cold and forlorn in its bare-n-icy form. The two plants behind it, Star Jasmine vine, Trachelospermum jasminoides, and, at the bottom, Cast Iron Plant, Aspidistra elatior, are seemly green-n-growing.
If our temperatures reach single digits, especially for two nights, along with almost a week of sub-freezing temperatures, the Star Jasmine will likely die to the ground–gone, kaput. Maybe it will return from the roots, maybe not. To its credit, native-to-China and Japan Cast Iron Plant is hardy and evergreen for most winter weather, but I’ve never grown it in single-digit temps, so I won’t predict whether, in a week’s time, the foliage will be green–or gone.
But sometime in March, new foliage, followed by lovely white blossoms will appear on the Dogwood; the gardener will rejoice, the pollinators will feed.
One of the first native trees I planted is this Texas Mountain Laurel, Sophora secundiflora. Rich, glossy foliage year round, decorated with luscious purple, fragrant blooms in March and April, is today, was yesterday, and will be for the next several days, wearing a coat of ice. The small tree’s genetics remember that the Arctic has visited before and it knows how to weather the weather. I doubt the laurel will miss a beat in its preparation for the spring flower show and stalwart summer, fall, and winter beauty to come.
I confess to dreading what my garden will be when this Arctic blast has frozen its last. That being said, plants live, plants die, changes happen. A garden is always in flux, always evolving with nature’s influence or human touch. It will survive in some form and shape and I’ll replace or renew, depending upon time and creative inspiration.