Gardening With Native Plants
Carol Cullar, Eagle Pass News Guide, August 11, 2002, © 2002, 2003
Scientists have just announced that this has been the hottest century/decade/year we have had in the last 800 years or so; and debate rages over hot issues like global warming, greenhouse effects in the atmosphere, El Nino weather patterns, and holes in the ozone. Other researchers have found a river of fresh water beneath the Atlantic Ocean flowing off the melting polar icecap and expect this to disrupt the Gulf Stream, plunging North America into a mini-ice age. Most of us would just like to live a peaceful life and as the ancient philosophers advocated, simply tend our garden.
Despite recent rains, drought in the Southwest is now being compared with that of the early 50s and covers about one fourth of the nation, while tension and frustration over water and water allotments and water debts between the U. S. and Mexico continue to rise.
The Rio Grande is a limited water source, and as populations and water usage increases in the region, alternative water sources will be required, which in turn will involve passing increased service costs on to the consumer. That's inevitable. But what if we break the chain and, rather than increasing our water demands, begin to find alternatives? Some of those options can really be attractive and don't even involve showering with friends!
One of the most productive means of conserving water is gardening with native plants. Once it has established its extensive root system, then a genuinely native plant is on its own and can be relied on to grow, blossom and bear fruit without large expenditures on upkeep or water.
The trick is identifying a "native plant!" Despite the very best intentions of gardening centers and commercial nurseries in the region, there is a caveat emptor, a buyer beware, that should be noted: the "native" label on a tag at a nursery ONLY means native to Texas! Native to Maverick County is, well, a rose of another color!
Texas is generally divided into nine biotic regions based on rainfall, soil types, and regional vegetation. Maverick County sits at the extreme north edge of the South Texas (Tamaulipan Biotic Province) division and shares characteristic vegetation with regions to the west (Chihuahua Desert) and north east (Hill Country.) We are in Zone Nine when it comes to frost periods.
Within the County are regions with little topsoil and primarily limestone, caliche soils. Other regions are given over to sandy clay river bottoms in the vegas. Gardeners need to consider their location before selecting trees and shrubs better suited to the vega and vice versa. Sycamore, pecan, cottonwood are ideal trees for the sandy lowlands. Up on the bluffs overlooking the river, the Texas or Mexican persimmon is better suited and will grow beautifully when planted singly or in a small grove. Other ideal trees/shrubs for Maverick County are Texas ebony (Pithecellobium ebano), retama (Parkensonia aculeata), Texas paloverde (Cercidium texanum), Border paloverde (Cercidium macrum), and huisache (Acacia farnesiana), as well as numerous other varieties of acacia, hackberry, and mesquite.
It is generally recommended that tree and shrub planting be done in December and root systems for these plants be given a two year period of generous watering in the form of deep soakings to get them started. After that they are hardy to long dry periods.
Ideal shrubs that are rarely utilized are the Calderona (Krameria ramosissima), Allthorn (Koeberlinia spinosa), Blackbrush acacia (Acacia rigidula), Guajillo (Acacia berlandieri), and my personal favorite, Guayacan (Guaiacum angustifolium). Guayacan flowers between March and April with lilac to purple flowers and forms interesting seed pods containing two large red seeds. Its dramatic branches are dark, stark and leaved close to the bark, creating bold silhouettes against light walls.
The bonus one receives for planting native plants is the increase in nesting birds and wandering butterflies attracted to their blooms and branches
Gardening for scent can also create pleasant spaces for humans and wildlife alike. Cresote (Larrea tridentate) is particularly redolent, flowering through August with yellow flowers and thriving on the limestone soils away from the river.
For more showy flowers and hundreds of butterflies, the blue boneset or mistflower (Eupatorium coelestinum), is a must.
Further examples of South Texas plants can be found in Trees, Shrubs & Cacti of South Texas by James H. Everitt and D. Lynn Drawe. Butterfly gardening or gardening for hummingbirds are also topics upon which large amounts of information can be found on the internet.
In a later article the Nature Center will deal with perennial flowering plants that take little water to thrive in this region and should be planted in the fall or late winter.