Winter berries, ghostly agaves, and early spring flowers at the Wildflower Center

I visited the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center yesterday for a media preview of the new children’s garden that will be opening in May (more to come soon), and I made a quick tour of the main gardens before heading out. All was quiet and still on this chilly, overcast Thursday afternoon, and I had the gardens nearly to myself. The hush extended even to the plants, which were dormant or freshly cut back and awaiting spring’s warmth. The architecture of the place always fascinates me.

The architecture of certain plants is equally stunning. Pictured here, at the garden’s entry, is a ghostly, sinuous combo of Agave americana and Texas persimmon (Diospyros texana). Seep muhly (Muhlenbergia reverchonii), perhaps, still holds winter-bleached seedheads aloft.

A wider view reveals the inky-green cedar trees (junipers, actually) that contribute to Austin’s evergreen wildscapes.

Limestone and decomposed-granite paths lead through winter-cleaned gardens where spiky Harvard agave (Agave havardiana) and softening Mexican feathergrass (Nassella tenuissima) offer contrasting textures.

This xeric garden is tucked amid boulders behind the center’s iconic, spiraling cistern-tower. On warmer days, the cafe seating visible just beyond will be filled with visitors enjoying the views.

But I enjoy these late-winter views quite as much as the spring wildflower displays the garden is known for.

Low limestone walls with peek-a-boo window openings surround the demonstration gardens at the heart of the Wildflower Center.

During the media tour I learned that an overhaul of the demonstration gardens is being considered for a future phase of work at the rapidly growing Wildflower Center. I am glad to hear it. I’ve long thought this part of the garden could do with a refresh. The conglomeration of little, square beds lacks cohesiveness and a wow factor. Since the Wildflower Center already has quite a few naturalistic gardens, I’d like to see this area transformed into something more daring — a garden to knock the socks off visitors unused to seeing native plants used creatively in a non-naturalistic fashion. Senior director Damon Waitt told us that Christine Ten Eyck, a visionary Austin landscape architect who specializes in native plants, has submitted preliminary drawings for this area. I hope I won’t have to wait too many years to see what this becomes.

Moving on, I admired the smooth, mahogany trunk and limbs of this Texas madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) leaning nonchalantly on a low wall.

Nearby, golden groundsel (Packera obovata) brightened the woodland floor like a pool of sunshine.

Behind these petite wildflowers, dwarf Texas palmetto (Sabal minor) raised its fan-like leaves above a gurgling stream.

Another view of the golden groundsel. Soon columbines will take their place in the sequence of spring wildflowers.

But a colorful vestige of winter, the sparkling, red berries of possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua), stood out above other plants on this visit. Everywhere I looked, blazing berries brightened the quiet winter garden.

Possumhaw is a deciduous cousin of the commonly grown yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria). Despite the ice earlier this week, a shimmer of chartreuse leaves were appearing along the branches.

An enormous possumhaw grows next to the spiraling cistern-tower.

I showed this possumhaw a month and a half ago. Yesterday its brilliant berries mingled with fresh, green leaves.

A still-dormant Mexican buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa) leaned longingly toward it, eager for spring’s awakening touch.

As I was leaving I noticed this pretty weeping yaupon holly (Ilex vomitoria ‘Pendula’) in a pot — a nice evergreen accent for a patio. I had quite a large weeping yaupon in my former garden, and miss it. Seeing this one, I felt as if I were seeing an old friend.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Fall hike at St. Edward’s Park in northwest Austin

We’ve been hiking at St. Edward’s Park — more of a greenbelt trail, really — for 20 years, enjoying the reliable flow of Bull Creek, the treetop views from the bluff that follows the creek, and the park’s relative solitude, especially as compared to Barton Creek Greenbelt. We’ve hiked pre-kids, with babies in front carriers and toddlers in back carriers, with eager school-age kids running up the trails ahead of us, pausing only to chunk rocks in the water, and with our pre-teen daughter and her friends for a “birthday hike” (we love that she chose a nature hike as her birthday activity).

Last Saturday morning the kids, both teens now, were away from home, one at a sleepover, the other on a road trip to Dallas. David and I decided to visit St. Edward’s Park without a kid in tow for the first time in almost 18 years. We did, however, bring along our dog Cosmo for his first hike at the park. He seemed to enjoy it too.

The drive along Spicewood Springs Road, just northwest of Loop 360 and only 4 miles from our house, is especially scenic in the fall when the bald cypresses along the creek turn rusty orange. The view pictured above is glimpsed from one of the many low-water crossings along the road — crossings that are often underwater and impassable during heavy rains.

The narrow, two-lane road twists and turns through tunnels of overhanging trees, past white-fenced horse farms, and across meandering Bull Creek numerous times, offering views like this.

The low-water crossings are not bridges but just strips of pavement across the creek, with no guard rails, giving you a nearly creek-level view of the water as you cross. People drive too fast along this shoulderless, curvy road, so it’s not a good place to walk or stand with your camera to get a photo (ahem). Though hazardous, it’s a beautiful drive, but probably one day the state will replace the crossings with actual bridges and widen the increasingly trafficked road, destroying its out-in-the-country atmosphere. Enjoy it now.

St. Edward’s Park is accessible via two small parking areas along Spicewood Springs Road. The first one is little more than a pull-out. The second has room for about a dozen cars. Dogs are allowed but must be on leashes on the bluff side of Bull Creek, which is part of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve. It’s my pet peeve to be approached by dogs off-leash, especially wet and muddy ones, so I wish the entire park was subject to leash laws.

From the parking area you enter the park through a savannah of grasses bordered by oaks and cedars (what we call our native junipers).

Stands of prickly pear add the contrast of their Mickey Mouse ears.

I spotted this mullein growing amid the grasses.

The green junipers make a pretty backdrop for the grasses and trees that are coloring up for fall — or already bare.

The trail leads to Bull Creek at various points. We wanted to cross in order to hike the hill trail along the bluff, but because of recent heavy rains, the creek was running high, and the stepping stones we usually cross on were either underwater or washed away. Evidence of recent flash floods was plain to see, as brush and other debris hung from the limbs of creek-side trees at a height well over my head.

Rather than get our feet wet, we followed the trail a little further to where it meets up with Spicewood Springs Road and darted over the low-water crossing to avoid getting caught out there by a car shooting around the bend. Like I said, the road is not safe for walking, but we were quickly back on the trail, on the bluff side of the creek.

The bald cypresses were littering the water with their needles.

As we started climbing the rugged hillside trail, I saw shrubby white boneset, or white mistflower (Ageratina havanensis), one of several native plants I spotted on our hike that I’m growing in my own garden. It’s fun to see them in their native habitat — like catching a glimpse of an old friend in an unfamiliar part of town.

Atop the bluff — part of the Balcones Escarpment that separates the blackland prairie on the east side of Austin from the thin caliche soils in the hills of West Austin — the trail follows the creek 300 feet below. For the most part you only catch glimpses through the cedars and oaks that edge the bluff.

But every so often the trees clear and this view opens up.

The cedars smell of Christmas, but soon the pollen from the male trees will cause cedar fever misery across the city.

Some of the oaks were colorful with golden leaves.

And another


Twistleaf yucca (Y. rupicola) clings to the thin soil among the cedars. Yep, I’m growing this native at home too.

Devil’s shoestring (Nolina lindheimeriana) also colonizes these inhospitable, rocky slopes. I grow this grass-like plant in my front garden, where it helps hold the soil on a natural berm.

It cascades so nicely.

The narrow trail hugs the cliff up here, with a steep drop-off on the right down to Bull Creek.

More views. Those are rooftops on the hill in the distance.

We are surprisingly close to town.

Twisted cedar trunk

And here’s a cheerful native wildflower that I grow in my garden: four-nerve daisy (Tetraneuris scaposa).

Cosmo surprised this guy along the trail, and he was decidedly not cheerful about being investigated by a dog’s nose.

It’s a Texas alligator lizard, which I’d never run across before. His body was about 6 inches long, with a tail that added another 8 inches.

Check out that blue tongue! I snapped a few photos, and then we backed away. Sorry to alarm you, little fellow.

A native grass or a sedge? I’m not sure.

After some ups and downs across crumbly rocks, the trail eventually leads back down to the creek, with this rugged “stair” of exposed limestone being the final challenging part of the trail for the less sure-footed hiker.

Barbed-wire fencing separates the park from privately owned land.

As you near the creek, bottomland natives like American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) appear. This is a shade-loving favorite in my garden.

I don’t know this one — an aster of some sort? Update: Annie in Austin suggests Texas aster (Symphyotrichum drummondii var. texanus).

And we’re back to the creek, upstream from where we started.

The stepping-stone crossing was underwater here too, and someone was trying to lay a new line of boulders on which to cross.

Cosmo tried to hop across on them, but the rocks were slick and in he went. It’s not too deep, but his legs are quite short. David and I got across with damp but not soaking feet.

An exposed limestone ledge follows the creek here.

More fall color — it seems a little early this year and especially colorful.

Another handsome twistleaf yucca

I leave you with one last view of Bull Creek. This is one of my favorite spots, where the bluff rises up on one side and water drips like a bead curtain to ripple the water (see the line of white to the right of the fisherman; that’s where the water falls). A fly fisherman stood ankle-deep, casting into the deeper water where we’ve often seen fish. What a perfect spot, whether he caught anything or not.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

California coastline, Point Lobos wildflowers, and Stinson Beach

Northern California is home not only to one of the most beautiful cities in the world but also to breathtaking natural scenery. During our family vacation in San Francisco in early July, following the Garden Bloggers Fling, we rented a car on two occasions in order to cruise the scenic coastal highway and see some of the natural areas for which the state is famous.

One morning we headed south to Point Lobos State Natural Reserve. Despite the name, you won’t see wolves there, but you may see sea lions, or, as they’re known in Spanish, lobos marinos (sea wolves). The park is treasured for not only for its spectacular views but its rich marine habitat, popular with scuba divers.

I found its wildflowers to be quite beautiful as well. Clinging to crumbling, windswept cliffs, a tapestry of ground-hugging plants painted the highlands in rich hues…

…and ghostly silvers.

Sea cliff buckwheat (Eriogonum parvifolium)

The flowers darken with age.

Orange bush monkeyflower (Mimulus aurantiacus), a hummingbird attractor. While I wasn’t quick enough to get a photo, I did see a hummer darting among the flowers.

We also spotted a few deer nearly hidden in green, heathery growth along the trail back to our car.

Fog settling like a blanket over the highlands

At another point in the park we hiked a rugged trail that leads down to this black-rock beach. For a sense of scale, look for the tiny figure of a man on that beach — in the middle-right of the photo.

Basking on the triangular rock at left…

…were a number of speckled seals. My daughter still enjoys calling them “rock sausages,” a term we heard while whale-watching in the San Juan Islands a couple of years ago.

Also that day we spent a few hours in beautiful Monterey, pictured here, and charming Carmel-by-the-Sea. I’d love to spend an entire day in Carmel.

Another day we drove north from San Francisco, stopping wherever we fancied for a view or a stroll. I didn’t take a lot of photos but just enjoyed the drive. We stopped for supper in a tiny beach town called Stinson Beach, where we ate a good meal outdoors on the deck at Parkside Cafe, bundled up in our jackets, huddling near a heater — in July! I was in heaven.

Around sunset we walked down the road to the beach, where we were suitably impressed by this sign warning swimmers of riptides and great whites.

As Texans used to the bathtub temperatures of the Gulf of Mexico, we couldn’t fathom why anyone would get into the chilly surf. Plenty of swimmers were playing in the water (despite that sign), but we were content to hang out on the beach. My kids and husband look so cold — in July!

San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, softened by fog

So many wonderful natural areas and state parks lie just a short drive from San Francisco. I wonder how many weekends it would take a resident to see all of them. We felt fortunate to have time for two excursions, north and south of the city, but there was so much more to see. All the more reason for another Bay Area trip one day!

By the way, if you want more info and beautiful pics of the northern coast, check out my friend Meredith O’Reilly’s blog Great Stems. She and her boys toured the area this summer, and her informative series of posts about their outdoor adventures will inspire you to go as well. (Under Archives on her blog’s sidebar, choose July 2013 and August 2013 to find her Pacific Coast travel posts.)

That wraps up my own series of posts about my California vacation. I’m pleased to have gotten through the dullest months of an Austin summer by focusing on a cooler part of the country. But now the garlic chives are blooming, and the American beautyberry is starting to purple. I’m anticipating fall, my happiest gardening season, and it’s time to turn my attention to my own garden again.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.