A Study in Ice

The ice arrived on Thursday, a sheet of crystalline wet over everything. 

Spent bloom stalk of Red Yucca, Hesperaloe parviflora

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.

Ice covered Shrubby Blue sage, Salvia ballotiflora
A closer look

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.

Limbs of the Dogwood with Jasmine background

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.

White mistflower, Shrubby boneset (Ageratina havanensis): A Seasonal Look

Is this fresh snow, newly laden upon branches?

While suggestive of frosty stuff, these white fluffs are instead the wonderful cotton-like flower clusters of White mistflowerAgeratina havanensis, glorious in autumn blooming.

White mistflower, also known as Shrubby boneset and Havana snakeroot, is a native Texas shrub, ranging from the Edwards Plateau region of Texas to northern Mexico.  It’s promoted as appropriate for growing zones 7-11.  In colder areas, the mistflower is deciduous, but retains some, or all, foliage further south.  My White mistflower hasn’t been deciduous for several years, though prolonged hard freezes have stripped the shrub of most, if not all, of its foliage in past years.  Best with more, rather than less, sun, this mistflower blooms fairly well in partial sun (some direct morning, with afternoon dappled), like what exists in my back garden.

The arched branches are obvious in this photo.

White mistflower is not a shrub that should be regularly pruned, nor pruned formally, as its many slender, arching limbs create a casual effect in the garden.  The prettiest mistflower shrubs I’ve seen have all been situated on slopes, in full sun, cascading in frothy waves over rocks.  My one shrub grows under the canopy of a deciduous oak tree, in moderately heavy clay soil and on a flat surface.  To counter the amorphous form of mistflower, I’ve planted some structural companions.

The Softleaf yucca provides a structural  contrast to the meandering ways of the White mistflower.

The tiny flowers are borne in terminal clusters and cover the shrub for 3-4 weeks in the fall.  I don’t always prune my shrub back after winter, so I can usually count on enjoying a few spring blooms.  The flower clusters flush pink just before they open in full and they are pollinator magnets.

Migrating Monarch butterflies adore these tiny flowers! I’ve counted as many as 20 on my shrub.

As do the honeybees!

This Tachinid fly also loves the White mistflower blooms, along with Frostweed blooms–both boast  white flowers in autumn.

There are many kinds of pollinators who visit the mistflower blooms:  bees (native and honey), a variety of butterflies and moths, flies, and hummingbirds.   The White mistflower is also the host plant for Rawson’s Metalmark butterfly. When blooming, the flower clusters blanket the back garden with a sweet/spicy fragrance.  The flowers and pollinators that White mistflower attracts are the primary reasons this shrub is a desired garden addition, but it’s also water-wise and somewhat deer resistant.

My biggest problem with White mistflower is that birds love to flit through the shrub, eating insects along the branches, and once it’s time for spring pruning, I don’t posses the heart to whack it back to the ground.  I like shrubs that provide cover for the birds, and since mine rarely looses all its leaves, I’m reluctant to completely cut the shrub back. The result is that over the past few years, my mistflower has grown quite large and unwieldy.

I remedied my aversion to mistflower pruning late this past spring:  I pruned the mistflower down to about 12 inches and moved it to a slightly different spot where it will receive a smidge more sun.  By pruning this growing season, I’ll have a tidier shrub in autumn.  I’ll pinky swear to be a better mistflower gardener in the future.

I will prune the White mistflower in late winter.

I will prune the White mistflower in late winter.

I will prune the White mistflower in late winter.

There!  I’m sure that will do the trick for me!

The beauty of the blooms last well into December, as the seed heads are also attractive.

Still in flower, some seed heads are beginning to form.

The spent blooms-to-seed heads become a warm, toasty color, retaining their fun fuzz factor, and are decorative until a hard freeze and/or winter winds scatter them.  I usually spot a few seedlings in spring and summer and have shared many with other gardeners.

Post bloom period, the seed heads are attractive–less bright white, more muted.

The foliage thins as temperatures drop and sunlight diminishes.

Once a hard, lasting freeze happens, the shrub drops all remaining leaves and is dormant for until late February or early March.  (That’s here in Austin–further north, dormancy will last longer, south of Austin, foliage will flush out earlier, or may remain evergreen.)

 

October, November and even December are peak points of interest for the White mistflower, but it’s a lovely plant during other times of the growing season.  In spring, brilliant foliage adds to the greening of the garden.

When I prune my mistflower, the shrub bounces back quickly, limbs shooting upwards and arching gracefully as time march towards summer.  A few scattered blossom clusters appear in late spring/early summer, though it’s only a pale preview of the fall blossom show.

During summer, the shrub is tough–never wilting in heat, nor languishing in drought.

But it’s in the fall that the mistflower demands attention–and gets it!

I’m thrilled when buds begin developing!

The blooms never disappoint!

 

White mistflower is an easy plant to grow.  It requires minimal watering (after it’s established), is an excellent wildlife and pollinator plant, and provides mostly year-round  interest.  If you garden in Texas, it’s a must-have shrub for the native plant lover and wildlife provider.  It’s probably evergreen, or nearly so, in South Texas, deciduous in north Texas, something in-between in Central Texas.  It’s lovely everywhere!  If you garden elsewhere, check out your county extension agent’s office and local gardening community for information about this valuable shrub.

In spring and summer: White mistflower is full and lush and provides cover for wildlife:

This is an early spring (March?) shot after a hard pruning in February.

In autumn: snowy, fuzzy beauty abounds!

Here, the blooms are developing, but not quite open.

The flower clusters appear to weigh down the limbs.

In late fall and winter, seed heads are attractive.  The shrub may or may not be evergreen, it simply depends on where it’s planted.

 

Frost Again

A few weeks ago I wrote about the whimsical ice art produced by FrostweedVerbesina virginica, typically revealed by the season’s first hard freeze; you can read about this winter’s ice art unveiling in my garden here.  I was coldly, but pleasantly surprised this past weekend to see more Frostweed ice sculptures after Central Texas–and my garden–plummeted to 20ºF (-6ºC).

Curled and swirled outwardly from the fractured and frayed epidermis of the stems, the ice is fragile, usually melting within a few hours as the Texas sun warms.

In the shady parts of my garden, the ribbons of frost remained a testament to the chilly weekend.

Even in sun-warmed spots, the ice art endured through Sunday, mid-day.

Some years, the Frostweed ice capades never materialize because temperatures don’t reach the freezing point. In other years when temperatures have fallen just to freezing, but no lower, and then later a deeper freeze occurs, the sap in the Frostweed acclimatizes so that the immediate and dramatic burst-freeze-ice curl doesn’t happen. In those years, it’s just plain old un-frosty Frostweed sticks amongst the downed, brown discarded leaves until it’s time to prune the sticks and rake the leaves.

This year, with temperatures swinging wildly from 80ºF to 20ºF and back again, the Frostweed proved its worth for the winter garden–at its base,

…and at its crown.

…and in a vase.