Born in Texas: Native Plants
There are three types of plants: 1. native plants that grow naturally in a region and have not been introduced or altered by humans; 2. adapted plants which have been introduced to a region and thrive without pampering once established; and 3. exotic plants that require special care.
North Texas is in the Blackland Prairie. The soil is dark and fertile, high in clay, and ranges from a shallow covering to a few inches of soil over a deep chalk base. The soil pH is alkaline and averages 7.8 on the pH scale (higher in some areas). Our soil is called “cracking clays” because it shrinks and swells to produce large, deep cracks that form in dry weather.
Our climate is classified as warm and temperate, with hot, muggy summers and cold, windy winters. Over the course of the year, the average temperature varies from 35-96 degrees, with some days in the 100’s. The warm season lasts from June 4-September 17, with an average daily high of 87 degrees; the hottest day of the year is typically July 31. The cold season lasts from November 25-February 24, with an average high of 63 degrees; the coldest day of the year is typically January 5. Precipitation ranges from 28-40” in an average year. The wettest season is from April 9-June 28, and the driest season is from June 28-April 9. Texas weather changes rapidly and sometimes dramatically.
These soil and weather conditions tax plants that easily grow in other parts of the country, but plants native to this area have evolved to cope. They are heat tolerant, drought tolerant, have lower water requirements, fewer pests and diseases, and require less fertilizer.
There is a long list of plants that are native to Texas. They come in a wide variety of colors, textures, sizes and shapes, and you can easily create a lovely garden using only native plants. Here are some of my favorites:
Texas Redbud (Cercis canadensis var. texensis) grows 10-15’ tall and wide, with a rounded canopy. Most often it is multi-trunked. The very glossy, dark green foliage is slightly heart-shaped with a wavy edge. The flowers emerge before the foliage in the spring and are a bright magenta color. The flowers are edible, with a lovely sweet-tart flavor, and they look stunning as a decoration for baked goods with a white icing. Full sun, but will tolerate part sun.
Possumhaw Holly (Ilex decidua) grows 7-15’ tall and wide, with a spreading, rounded canopy. This is a deciduous Yaupon Holly drops its small, glossy, deep green serrated leaves in the fall to reveal abundant ornamental orange-red berries. The berries persist throughout the winter, or until the birds eat them. Full sun to part shade.
Texas Mountain Laurel (Sophora secundiflora) grows 10-15’ tall and wide with a dense branching structure and rounded canopy. Fragrant flower clusters (they smell like Grape Koolaid) in a beautiful shade of blue-purple dangle from the branches in the spring. Plant it in a sheltered location as it may be harmed by temperatures below 10 degrees. A new variety ‘Silver Peso’ has silver tinted foliage and is hardier. Full sun.
Indigobush (Amorpha frutiosa) grows 6-8’ tall and 5’ wide with a loose, informal structure. It has lacy, dark green compound leaves. Showy spikes of 3-6” long purple flowers protrude from the plant in spring. It serves as a larval food and nectar for several types of butterflies. False Indigo will tolerate drought as well as poor drainage, but needs occasional deep irrigation in the extreme heat of summer. Deciduous. Full sun.
American Beautyberry (Callicarpa Americana) grows 4-6’ tall and wide with long, arching branches. Coarse, medium green leaves are rounded with a tapered end. Small, unspectacular pink flowers appear in early summer, followed by clusters of ornamental violet-purple berry-like drupes that are a favorite of birds and other wildlife. Deciduous. Part sun to part shade.
‘Little Henry’ Virginia Sweetspire (Itea virginica ‘Little Henry’) grows 2-3’ tall and wide. Slender, medium green, tapered foliage is closely spaced on a somewhat upright form. Fragrant white flowers that resemble shooting fireworks cover the plant in the spring. Foliage turns a beautiful red-orange color in the fall. Mahogany red stems are attractive in the winter. Deciduous. Part shade.
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) grows 18” tall and 1’ wide, giving it a strong vertical presence in the garden. Narrow, lance-shaped leaves support large clusters of bright orange to yellow-orange flowers all summer long. Flowers give way to seed pods that split open to release silky seeds for dispersal by the wind. It serves as a larval food and nectar for Monarch butterflies, but cut the plant down in late fall to encourage the Monarchs to continue their migration. Full sun to part sun.
Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) grows 12-18” tall and wide. Delicate, blue-green foliage forms on a vase shaped plant. Drooping, bell-shaped, large and yellow flowers appear in the spring and are a favorite of hummingbirds. Keeping the soil moist after bloom will prolong the attractive foliage, but when summer heat causes it to decline cut the plants to the ground. Part sun to part shade.
Hardy Blue Aster (Aster oblongifolius) grows 2-3’ tall and almost as wide. Finely cut gray-green foliage is fragrant. It has a mounded appearance with tight buds that form during the summer; buds open in the fall to reveal masses of violet-blue daisy like flowers that attract butterflies. Asters benefit from pinching out the growing tips spring through early summer to maintain a more attractive shape and avoid the necessity to stake otherwise floppy plants. Full sun with afternoon protection.
Gulf Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaris) grows 2’ tall and 2’ wide. Glossy, wiry, thread-like, dark green foliage forms an attractive clump that sways with the slightest breeze. In the fall, spectacular clouds of airy, open, bright pink-purple flowers float almost a foot above the foliage. Blooms best in full sun, but will tolerate part sun.
Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) is a hardy, evergreen vine that grows to 20’. This twining vine has long, tapered, glossy leaves that can climb a vertical support or sprawl on the ground as an informal, mounding ground cover. Late winter through spring, fragrant, yellow, trumpet-shaped flowers brighten the garden. Prune lightly after flowering to produce fuller growth. Blooms best in full sun, but will tolerate part sun.
Pigeonberry (Rivina humilis) grows 1’ tall and wide and is a tough ground cover in shady areas. Dark green, heart shaped foliage with wavy edges creates small clumps. Pinkish-white flowers and red berries simultaneously adorn the plant spring through fall it. Leaves and stems turn purple-red in fall. Part shade to shade is best, but will tolerate some morning sun.
Spider Lily (Lycoris radiata) has narrow, green with silver stripes, strappy foliage throughout the winter, but it disappears in the spring. Just when you’ve forgotten about them, you’re surprised after a fall rain to see stalks that burst from bare ground. These are topped with a loose ball-shaped bloom of hot red, curvy petals. Plant in groups of three or five, making sure that the bulb necks are planted just above ground level. They naturalize to create beautiful drifts. Best flowering in part sun.
I'm working on a list of Native Texas plants and I'll publish it when it's complete. We’re fortunate to have such an extensive list of native plants that laugh at our harsh growing conditions. You can easily create a beautiful garden with natives alone, or add in some hardy adapted plants for variety.