When in Drought
OVER THE QUARTER-CENTURY I have lived in the Texas Hill Country, spring has always been a lush, lovely time in my garden and across the wildscape. The rains that begin in late February and continue through May nourish a colorful, crazy quilt of wildflowers flung across the meadows and woods, a special blessing after the drab browns and grays of winter.
But the realities of climate change and the recent parade of Las Niñas have had an impact, and the spring forecast doesn’t look good for the southern tier of states, especially across the Southwest. If you’re a native plant enthusiast, you’re looking for plants that will splash color across your garden without extra water. Here are eight I have grown successfully. They have a wide native range across the Southwest and north into the plains. All are drought-tolerant, although they will appreciate watering while they’re becoming established.
They’re commercially available, too.
Plains blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum). This delightful zinnia look-alike is smothered in crisp white ray flowers with gold centers. On its native rocky slopes across the Southwest, north to Kansas and Colorado, it grows in isolated 6- inch clumps. In my garden (good drainage, full sun, alkaline soil), it mounds to 8″ x 18″ and blooms profusely from mid-March. Mildly fragrant and alluring to bees but not, it seems, to deer. “Blackfoot” refers to the tiny foot-shaped bract that surrounds the seed and turns black on maturity. I’ve grown this successfully from seed; plants are available in native plant nurseries.
Damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana). A low (1 – 2 feet tall) perennial evergreen desert shrub, damianita produces small yellow ray and disk flowers from April through late summer and into fall – a golden carpet when massed in a group. Used as a single plant, its rounded form complements sculptural succulents in a desert garden; older plants can be attractively gnarled and twisted. Native to calcareous soils and limestone slopes, damianita flourishes in full sun (leggy in shade), loves heat, demands good drainage and prefers alkaline soils. The dark-green needle-like leaves are highly aromatic. Used by Native Americans to treat fever and rheumatism – and also thought to be an aphrodisiac.
Lantana (Lantana urticoides). This drought-resistant landscaping staple was once used to treat stomach problems and as a poultice for snakebite. At Meadow Knoll (the name of our 31 acres of Texas Hill Country), we’ve culled the invasive lantanas (L. camara) from our pastures, because the foliage and seeds are toxic to our cattle and sheep (not to birds, though). This South American native readily hybridizes with native species and has wreaked havoc in more than one U.S. state – most notably Florida. Personal testimony: The stems and leaves are prickly and can cause a rash. Bruised, the leaves have a pungent odor that most folks don’t like.
But contrary to what you might think, there’s nothing horrid about L camara’s cousin, L. horrida – now properly known in the botanical community as L. urticoides. Texas lantana tolerates poor, slightly acidic to alkaline soils, thrives in the summer sun and can be used as ground cover, a border plant or in hanging baskets. In the northern part of its range, it’s grown as an annual; farther south, as a perennial. I cut my plants back to about 3″ in early winter and look for blooms in early May – the butterflies are looking for them too!
Salvia (Salvia spp.). Native plant enthusiasts love aromatic Salvia greggii, the softly formed drought-resistant shrub (a member of the mint family) that blooms in a palette of colors from early spring through fall. But three other salvias deserve attention too. All enjoy alkaline soils.
- Mealy blue sage (Salvia farinacea) I love this durable mid-size (2 – 3 feet tall) early-blooming perennial. The gray leaves contrast with the green of other plants; the lavender-blue blossoms are lovely in dried bouquets. Hummingbirds and bees enjoy its nectar. Native to Central and West Texas, mealy blue sage is propagated with cuttings and seeds (cold-moist stratification helps salvia seeds to germinate). According to Sally Wasowski (“Native Texas Plants,” p.208), the common name for S. farinacea was inspired by the silvery fuzz (“mealiness”) of its leaves and stems.
- Engelmann sage (Salvia engelmannii) This plant forms a compact (18- inch) mound of velvety gray leaves and features pale-blue tubular flowers on 4- to 6-inch flower spikes. A favorite of butterflies and hummingbirds (but disdained by deer), the plant is lovely in rock gardens or naturalized meadows. Propagate this perennial by division, rooted sections or seeds.
- Cedar sage (Salvia roemeriana) Got shade? You’ll love cedar sage, a tidy 12- inch plant with attractively scalloped leaves and crimson blooms on 2- to 3- inch spikes. It evolved in the shade of junipers, so it’s a natural in a shaded corner of a rock garden. Like other red-flowered salvias, the sweet blossoms are edible and make a pretty garnish for salads and desserts.
Penstemon. My favorite penstemon is the wild foxglove (Penstemon cobaea), which blooms in spring across the Plains states, north into Missouri and Nebraska, and south to the Gulf. From a gray-green rosette, the plant pushes up 9- to 10-inch bloom stalks, bearing flowers along the top 6 inches. The blossoms resemble foxgloves (hence the name), white and pale-pink through lavender and rosy-purple, with darker streaks and spots in their throats. I’ve grown these from the seed of wild-grown plants (cut the spent bloom stalks, let the seeds ripen and scatter them in the fall just before a rain). They bloom the second year and continue to bloom for a couple of years after that. But please, if you spot some growing wild, collect only a few seeds from a given area. And don’t dig the plants: Penstemons resent being moved.
Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii). Named for the shape of its flower – vermillion-red petals whorled turban-like around a protruding stamen – this tall (to 6 feet), rather coarse perennial boasts a wide native range and flourishes in a variety of soils, acid to alkaline. Turks’ cap grows in part shade in a corner of my garden, where it blooms enthusiastically from mid-May through the summer. I cut it back to the ground after the first freeze; if you’re gardening in a warmer climate, you’ll want to cut it back anyway, to keep it from becoming a bully. Propagate it by seeds, cuttings or division – or you can just stand back and let it do the job all by itself.
Turk’s cap isn’t just pretty to look at. Its young leaves can be cooked as a potherb. The fresh flowers are an edible garnish for salads and can be dried and brewed into an amber tea reminiscent of hibiscus, its Malvaceae cousin. The mealy, marble-sized red fruit tastes something like apple; it can be nibbled, boiled down to syrup or made into a jelly. Delena Tull, in “Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest,” offers a recipe for Turk’s cap jelly.
Other uses are medicinal: In Mexico, a strong tea is brewed from the flowers to treat diarrhea, while a poultice of the leaves and roots is applied for chest congestion. The leaves and flowers produce a reddish dye. And of course, the fruits are enjoyed by birds and other animals. I once encountered a nocturnal raccoon pulling down the plants and snatching the fruit. I don’t know which of us was more surprised.
Agarita (Mahonia trifoliolata) and cousin Texas barberry (M. swaseyi) The Spanish name for this spiky plant, agrito, means “little sour” – referring to the tiny, tart fruits that appear on the silvery, holly-leafed, mid-sized (3-5 feet) shrub in early summer. But it is the bloom that interests us here, for the saffron-yellow flowers that appear in January and February provide desperately needed nectar to winter-hungry bees. As Matt W. Turner observes in “Remarkable Plants of Texas,” agarita has a unique method of delivering the goods. The base of the stamen is touch-sensitive. Triggered, the stamen pops the nectar-seeking bee on the head, dusting it with pollen. The small scarlet berries produced by this nifty arrangement are truly tart. I prefer mine as a jelly with plenty of sugar – although I admit that harvesting is a time-consuming chore. (I spread a sheet under the bush and whack the branches with a broom handle, then sort the ripe berries from the twiggy chaff and unripe berries.) Agarita root, pounded, was used to treat impetigo and ringworm and also for toothache. The bark yields a yellow dye, and the prickly plant is safe haven for small birds and wildlife. It’s not terribly picky but does best in mildly acid to mildly alkaline soils.
Texas mountain laurel (Sophora secundiflora) blooms in early March. In a good year, this small evergreen tree (to 10 feet or more) is laden with luxurious wisteria-like purple blossoms that smell like grape Kool-Aid and attract every pollinator within miles. This isn’t a laurel at all (much less a “mountain” laurel), but it does have other revealing names, such as “big-drunk bean.” The Indians of the Southern plains brewed Sophora’s large red seeds into an intoxicating ritual drink. They also used them as currency and strung them as protective necklaces.
We have 30 of these trees, all grown from seed I collected in 1987 from container-grown trees on Sixth Street in Austin. I nicked the seeds with a file, soaked and planted them, three to a 5-gallon pot, with 90 percent germination. Two years later, I set them out along the edge of the woods, where they flourished untended (and unbrowsed by our resident deer); in four more years, the little trees began blooming. In wet springs, they are attacked by Sophora worms (Uresiphita reversalis), which I pick off. Bt helps, if applied early enough. Sophora’s early-spring blossoms are well worth the extra work.
More spring blooms for dry times
- Calylophus (Calylophus spp.). Sunnyyellow spring dazzler, open evenings to moth pollinators.
- Chocolate daisy (Berlandiera lyrata) and Texas green eyes (Berlandiera betonicifolia). Two yellow spring bloomers that love dry sandy or calcareous soils.
- Desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata). Ever-blooming low-growing annual, daisylike flowers on gray-green mat.
- Greenthread (Thelesperma filifolium). Drought-defiant annual. Seeds becoming commercially available.
- Huisache daisy (Amblyolepis setigera). Dark-yellow center, brighter yellow rays. Annual: shake spent plants to reseed.
- Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulchella). Shown above, this showstopper thrives in poor soils, many color variations. A freely reseeding annual, blooms late spring.
- Plains penstemon (Penstemon ambiguus). Mass of low-mounding flowers, white, palepink in the morning, deeper pink later, hence its name: P. ambiguus).
- Prairie verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida). Purple blooms on sturdy low-growing shortlived perennial, very early bloomer. Bee plant, rock garden favorite, reseeds easily.
- Standing cypress (Ipomopsis rubra). Boasts showy, red tubular flowers on a stem that can reach 6 feet.
Climate change compels us to pay attention to the plants around us and invite into our gardens the adaptable plant partners that fit the emerging order of things. As gardeners, we’ll have to learn a few new tricks – but there are plenty of plants that are eager to teach us.
Susan Wittig Albert is the author of the China Bayles mysteries.