Wild Winterland

by | Dec 5, 2016 | Landscapes

Bare branches make bold silhouettes against milky winter skies. Photo: Wildflower Center.

Bare branches make bold silhouettes against milky winter skies. PHOTO Wildflower Center


MOST PEOPLE DON’T think of visiting gardens in winter, but we’ll tell you a little secret: Winter is one of the most subtly beautiful times to visit the Wildflower Center. And with average highs in the low 60s during December and January, it’s also one of the most comfortable times for alfresco exploration in Central Texas.

To help coax you out of hibernation, we polled our staff for a list of can’t-miss winter flora, fauna and phenomena at the Center. So put on some layers, enjoy the feel of thick socks in your hiking boots, and hit the trails and gardens in search of these (and your own) winter wonders.

Frosty Flora

Plants that wear winter especially well

Grasses like gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) and bushy bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus) become particularly striking as they bloom in fall and winter. It might be surprising to think of grasses as blooming, but they do! Check out these sassy grassies:

Winter Grasses

LEFT Santa might consider edging his garments in the soft white tufts of bushy bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus). PHOTO Sally and Andy Wasowski RIGHT Gulf muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) catches sunlight in a purple haze. PHOTO Wildflower Center


Bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) is true to its name in winter. Come see these native trees when they’re actually bald — or right before they shed their feathery needles, when their fiery orange foliage lights up Texas waterways.

The Center’s director of horticulture wasn’t alone when she highlighted frostweed (Verbesina virginica) as a winter favorite, calling it “pretty spectacular and bizarre” after a hard freeze. It’s an elusive spectacle, however; Frostweed’s interesting “ice trick” often melts with the heat of day, making it hard to witness in person. Keep an eye out for our upcoming frostweed plant profile to learn more.

Our manager of volunteer services says she loves pointing out baby bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) this time of year. Not sure what a bluebonnet seedling looks like? She anticipated that (see below left):

Winter blues birds

LEFT Baby blues. PHOTO Carrie McDonald RIGHT Cedar waxwings feast on possumhaw (Ilex decidua). PHOTO Wildflower Center


Possumhaw (Ilex decidua, above right), another winter fave, is beloved for both its bright red berries and those berries’ ability to attract birds. There’s a large possumhaw between our Café and Observation Tower, and it’s been known to fill up with cedar waxwings in winter. Word nerd fun fact: A deciduous holly, possumhaw’s latin name means just that; “decidua” means “shed” or “fall off.” And “haw” is a colloquial term for fruit!

Brumal Birds

Speaking of birds …

Eastern bluebirds are known to hang out in the Texas Arboretum.

Great horned owls start courting in the evening; look out for our sometime-resident great horned owl, Athena, nesting in the entryway’s sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri) planter. She has been known to arrive in February.

Look for common ravens roosting in the beams of the Visitors Gallery and Library.

Lesser goldfinches enjoy feasting on the dried seed heads of Maximillian sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani).

A resident bird nerd pointed out several other species who drop in for the holidays, including:

  • Harris’s sparrow
  • Pyrrhuloxia
  • Song sparrow
  • Orange-crowned warbler
  • Hermit thrush
  • Spotted towhee
  • House wren
The Arboretum Trail gets sun-kissed. Photo: Wildflower Center.

The Arboretum Trail gets sun-kissed. PHOTO Wildflower Center

Wintry Walks

Winter is a great time for walks! The sun is not your enemy, and movement warms you up.

Walk the Arboretum Trail and soak up the sun (instead of hiding in the shade); feel the crisp winter air on your face as you glide on one of our Cathedral Oaks swings; and look for foraging squirrels among our native Texas oaks.

Warm up those muscles by building a fort (fort-building materials can be found in the Family Garden and the Texas Arboretum), then snuggle into it and listen for winter sounds.

Explore our Savanna Meadow Trail and listen to the ephemeral creek babbling after a winter rain.

Go on a sculpture hunt! Head out in search of J.J. Priour’s “Local Light & Water” sculptures, situated throughout the grounds and on display through May 28.

Join us for Winter Tree Fest Sunday, January 29, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. We’ll be celebrating Texas trees in the Arboretum with family-friendly tree climbing, s’more roasting and fort building!

Seeking sanctuary?

We’ve got you covered.

Warm up in the Store and view Mary Lambeth’s “Roadside Colors” paintings (through December 22) or Joan Son’s “Fieldnotes” origami (opening January 14); tuck into the McDermott Learning Center to catch Taylor Winn’s “ABSTRACT x NATURE” exhibit (opening January 7).

Stop in the Wildflower Café for a warm lunch or beverage … we hear their cookies are great too.