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Ask Mr. Smarty Plants is a free service provided by the staff and volunteers at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center.

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Monday - April 20, 2015

From: ROUND ROCK, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: Grasses or Grass-like, Shrubs, Trees, Vines
Title: Plants for a children's playground
Answered by: Guy Thompson

QUESTION:

We have extensive native gardens on our 2 acre property, but my children want a garden of their own with plants they can hide under and that are good for imaginative play. Are there any native plants that arch (other than yellow jasmine) or have large leaves that fit the description. The garden area is large and will be full shade (under live oak), part sun and full sun.

ANSWER:

I have raised three children and five grandchildren in the Austin area.  Fortunately, I have a sloping rocky yard with a creek in the bottom.  But my kids also have made good use of the native plants on the property.  Here are some of the species I have seen them enjoy.

Ungnadia speciosa (Mexican buckeye) normally has multiple trunks which fan out in all directions.  Two of these planted about ten feet apart would grow into an overhanging deciduous shelter great for a hideout.  To form a dense overhanging wall on one side I would suggest Sophora secundiflora (Texas mountain laurel) or Ilex vomitoria (Yaupon).  The latter also provides red berries for birds in the Spring.  The buckeye has interesting seed pods and seeds useful in making beads and other doodads.  These plants can be pruned to suit.

If you have an arbor Wisteria frutescens (American wisteria) can furnish a lightly shaded deciduous canopy. 

Chasmanthium latifolium (Inland sea oats) is a rapidly growing grass reaching three to four feet in height.  Planted in a spiral pattern it could be a neat maze.

 Verbesina virginica (Frostweed) is a very versatile plant.  It's flowering stalks rise to five or six feet and, when dry in Winter, can be snapped off and used for fort construction.  They will not bear weight (but are strong enough to be used for one season to stake beans).  After a hard Winter freeze frostweed stems send out fantastic curls of ice crystals.  

Quercus texana (Nuttall oak), or Texas red oak, planted on a sharp angle to the ground, grows into a suitable treehouse spot in time (for grandchildren).  

Vitis mustangensis (Mustang grape), when it grows into a vine of one inch diameter over a live oak or Q. texana limb, is excellent for a Tarzan moment.  

Nolina lindheimeriana (Devil's shoestring) is made to order for any child interested in basketmaking.  

And Zanthoxylum clava-herculis (Hercules' club) can be guaranteed to astound when your kids invite friends to chew a leaf and numb their lips.

Most of these species should be available at one of your local plant nurseries.

I hope your property has sites suitable for some of these recommended species. The children will know intuitively what to do with them. 

Finallly, I encourage you to seek inspiration by visiting the new, children-friendly Family Garden at the Lady Bird Wildflower Center.

 

From the Image Gallery


Mexican buckeye
Ungnadia speciosa

Texas mountain laurel
Sophora secundiflora

Yaupon
Ilex vomitoria

Inland sea oats
Chasmanthium latifolium

Frostweed
Verbesina virginica

Texas red oak
Quercus buckleyi

Mustang grape
Vitis mustangensis

Devil's shoestring
Nolina lindheimeriana

Hercules club
Zanthoxylum clava-herculis

American wisteria
Wisteria frutescens

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