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Tuesday - May 08, 2012

From: Austin, TX
Region: Southwest
Topic: General Botany, Pollinators, Rare or Endangered Plants, Seed and Plant Sources, Wildlife Gardens, Planting, Propagation, Groundcovers, Shade Tolerant, Grasses or Grass-like, Herbs/Forbs, Shrubs, Trees, Vines, Wildflowers
Title: Restoring the woods in Central Austin.
Answered by: Leslie Uppinghouse


I live in Austin, south central between Red Bud trail close to the low water bridge and Bee Caves road. My question: I want to make the wooded sections of my yard attractive. They have filtered sunlight, shade with the predominant trees being Live oak and cedar. Out of control weed problem in this area. Very rocky soil. Any suggestions for plantings.. small trees, shrubs, flowering shade loving plants, tropical look alikes. Need hardy natives as my sprinklers do not serve this area.


 A woodland understory is one of the most typical wild landscapes in Travis County Texas. These areas of Texas have some of the most diverse plant species combinations you can find in central Texas. If you walk around the Red Bud Trail area or any woods in western Travis County, you will see that this type of habitat is divided by height. All of the plants in this type of setting are competing for light.

The high canopy as you described, is dominated by Oaks and the Junipers. Most Austinites refer to Junipers as Cedars (Juniper fever just doesn't rhyme as well) Under this canopy is a plethora of understory trees and shrubs. This layer is probably where you can have the most fun in planting. There are so many species of natives for you to choose from that find these conditions favorable.

Below are the shrubs and herbaceous perennials and annuals that fill in any gaps of light remaining. This gives you a lush landscape that will look interesting all year round. If you are careful to plant what would grow naturally, once established (which should take about a year) nothing should need irrigation. 

The hardest part of your task is to have the patience to plant in the rocky limestone soil. Don't skimp on digging and maybe take your time in planning and planting this area. For one, you won't become discouraged with how hard it is to dig holes in rock, secondly, if you move slowly through the process you might find that some of your " weeds" might be pretty little annual natives that you are unfamiliar with. Try not to clear the area too quickly. Until you are sure of what is beneath your feet, don't remove it. Some of these smaller natives are not commercially available and it would be a shame to remove them.

For this project you can use our recommended species section of this web site to search for your area and sub-search for a light requirement of part shade. You will see, that you have many species to choose from. We have for this question expanded out of the recommended species list, searching the entire Explore Plants database to bring in some species that although you might not find readily available in a nursery as a plant, you could find in seed. Rather than be daunted by the selection and the length of this answer. Sit down with a cup of tea and enjoy the reading and the research, and become inspired for your task at hand.

First we will talk about understory trees. These plants are some of the best Texas has to offer: Ilex decidua (Possumhaw) and Ilex vomitoria (Yaupon) are two great trees that add year round color. Possumhaw has beautiful berries in the winter that the birds will love. Yaupon is evergreen, combined with the Possumhaw you would have a nice Ilex mix.

Cornus drummondii (Roughleaf dogwood) Would be a great plant for this situation. It is happy in a variety of conditions. It likes moist soil but also does very well in dry limestone soil. It grows in partial to deep shade. Roughleaf dogwood is also a very important plant in terms of food for birds and nectar for beneficial insects, particularly bees and butterflies.

Sophora secundiflora (Texas mountain laurel) Mountain Laurel is a staple for this exact area you have described. You mentioned having a tropical feel and the Texas Mountain laurel can give you that with its deep glossy evergreen leaves and abundant fragrant purple flowers. These trees are slow growers, so when purchasing a plant think about the size. Also like the dogwood, Mountain laurel can take a multitude of conditions, especially light. You can grow them in full sun or dark shade. You should have good luck with blooming in both conditions. 

Diospyros texana (Texas persimmon) Is another taller understory tree. It can reach 35 Ft but more commonly will be between 15-25 Ft here in central Austin. Texas Persimmon loves woodlands and rocky slopes with limestone soil. 

Juglans microcarpa (Little walnut) Is a great option specifically because it grows in the shade in very rocky soil. It prefers to grow in drier soil so keep that in mind if you have some particularly harsh areas. 

Sambucus nigra ssp. canadensis (Common elderberry) If you do have some wetter areas plant an elderberry. This is a staple in the woodland forests along streams and waterways. It provides important food to almost everyone living in the woods here in Central Texas.

Rhus virens (Evergreen sumac) is another woodland staple for this area. This sumac is a bushy evergreen, it has glossy shiny green leaves and a waxy pinkish white flower which provides for bees and butterflies late in the summer. It is also a host plant to ground streak butterflies.

For some smaller shrubs: Cephalanthus occidentalis (Common buttonbush) might work in this situation. It likes to live in moist wooded areas, however it also likes to grow on hard limestone bluffs. It is a cute bush with bright green long leaves with fuzzy round white clusters of flowers. 

Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii (Turk's cap or turkscap) Is a great understory shade shrub. Turkscap has some of the brightest green leaves found in the understory. Combined with cherry red flowers, this shade loving plant can do a lot to add color to a large area, especially during the hot months of summer. Turks cap live in both sun or shade, dry or wet conditions.

Mahonia trifoliolata (Agarita) is another must for the woods. An evergreen shrub with dark green sometimes variegated leaves and bright yellow flowers. Agarita loves the rocky woods. The red berries are an important food source for birds and small mammals. 

A good companion to the Agarita would be Mahonia swaseyi (Texas barberry) Only found in the Texas Hill Country, this shrub loves limestone shade habitat and is again, an important food source for many, as well as a good nesting shrub for birds.

Don't forget to add some perennial flowers, ground covers, vines and grasses to this area. These plants take the last of the light. They do well here, for a number of reasons. The natural mulch that the deciduous trees and shrubs provide keep moisture and nutrients in the soil all year long. These lower plants not only use these resources but help to protect them from erosion and evaporation. They provide food and shelter to the smallest of the animals, insects and reptiles. All of these need our help and protection as their natural habitat is becoming less and less available. Here are the best of the best for your area:

 Asclepias asperula ssp. capricornu (Antelopehorns) are a nice creeping or clumping perennial. They are hard to describe, truly, so click on the link and read all about it. They are best found in seed form. A good resource for seed would be the Native American Seed Company

Wedelia texana (Zexmenia) is a sometimes evergreen perennial with bright upright orange flowers that last and last through the summer.

If you have a moist area Capsicum annuum (Chile pequin) is a great Edwards Plateau staple. It has lovely hot red peppers that birds, people, and animal can all enjoy.

Matelea reticulata (Green milkweed vine) is a tiny twining vine that grows in the woodlands though shrubs and trees and grasses. Walking around the woods you might miss it altogether. This plant is endemic to the Edwards Plateau and probably only found in seed form commercially. Pearly milkweed like many other Asclepiades are host plants to Monarch butterflies. The white sap (milk) in the stem contains an alkaloid that renders the Monarch caterpillar as well as many others poisonous to birds. 

Parthenocissus quinquefolia (Virginia creeper) Can be used as a climbing vine or a lush ground cover and you probably will not have any say as to where or how it will choose to grow. A staple for the Texas woods, Virginia creeper will have either five or seven leaves radiating out and layering one set of leaves on top of another. This gives the Virginia creeper a more formal look than many other vines in our area and can be used easily in a formal garden. It is also one of the earliest vines to color in the fall. It has dark purple berries that are enjoyed by both birds and animals.

Smilax bona-nox (Saw greenbrier) is another staple in the undergrowth, here in Central Texas. A prickly vine that in a cultivated garden might be considered a pest. Here, however it is an important shelter and food source for many. So many, that some are worth listing: Wood ducks, grouse, wild turkeys, bears, songbirds, white tail deer, raccoons, and squirrels to name a few. Plants like Smilax should never go unappreciated. This type of plant plays perhaps the most important role when talking about habitat balance. Dense growth pattern on the ground and the ability to climb into the treetops provides a large range of distribution of services. When you spoke about this area being overwrought with weeds, take a close look at your plants and if you have Smilax in the mix, think hard about why you would ever want to remove it. 

Verbesina virginica (Frostweed) Forms colonies of plants by spreading through rhizomes. Frostweed is a taller ground cover with soft fuzzy green leaves and a cauliflower shaped head of white flowers. 

Here is a list of grasses that would be good to add to your area, we won't go into descriptions other than to say that any listed here would do well in the area you have described. Some are winter grasses and some are summer grasses so click on the links to learn more about each:

Sorghastrum nutans (Indiangrass)Schizachyrium scoparium (Little bluestem)Nolina texana (Texas sacahuista) (a lily, but acts much like a grass), Carex planostachys (Cedar sedge) ( likes to grow right under the Junipers), Bouteloua curtipendula (Sideoats grama) and Bouteloua hirsuta (Hairy grama).

Our shade areas here in Travis County are important to preserve. Every yard that can add species diversification helps in keeping our cities cool in the summer and provide important corridors for plants, birds and animals. Once you have these plants in the ground you should see them multiply easily and take care of themselves. If you can add enough species to your wooded area that would normally be there then you should see your deer eat more of your woods rather than your flowers and lawn. The delicate balance of species combination is not complicated. By adding just a few of these plants you can only help to restore your woods.



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