Plant This: Purple prickly pear adds rich winter color


Photos of rich-purple pads on a spineless prickly pear called ‘Santa Rita’ sent me running to the nurseries about 10 years ago. I came home with this, a purple prickly pear I thought was ‘Santa Rita’ but now believe to be Opuntia macrocentra. What’s the difference? Long spines, for one thing. O. macrocentra sports white spines the length of sewing needles on its upper pads.


Also, its purple coloring isn’t as intense or beautiful as the coveted ‘Santa Rita’. Still, the colorful pads are striking, especially in winter, when the purple intensifies.


I planted mine in this purple pot nearly a decade ago and have done nothing to it since but watch it grow. It soaks up blazing full sun on the deck all summer. It remains outdoors all winter, no matter how cold it gets. That’s how tough it is. Even so, it’s looking a bit ragged lately, and I believe I’ll repot it this spring to give it a boost.


In April, purple prickly pear puts out a handful of splendid, tissue-petaled yellow flowers with deep-red centers.


A glorious surprise, don’t you think?

Note: My Plant This posts are written primarily for gardeners in central Texas. The plants I recommend are ones I’ve grown myself and have direct experience with. I wish I could provide more information about how these plants might perform in other parts of the country, but gardening knowledge is local. Consider checking your local online gardening forums to see if a particular plant might work in your region.

All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Plant This: Grapes gomphrena


Since first planting it at Green Hall Garden in 2008, I’ve known this delicately branching gomphrena cultivar as ‘Grapes’, but it also goes by ‘Little Grapes’, ‘Itsy Bitsy’, and airy bachelor’s buttons. By any name, it’s a moderately reliable perennial in my fall garden, sometimes remaining in bloom well into a mild winter — like this year, still blooming in mid-January.


Its airy, slim-branching form resembles Verbena bonariensis. The singly held magenta flowers are about the size of a pencil eraser, or perhaps mouse-sized pom-poms.


Normally a freeze would have browned the leaves and bleached the flowers by now, but this year it’s still adding rich color to a part-shade bed beneath a crepe myrtle, where it combines nicely with variegated flax lily (Dianella tasmanica ‘Variegata’) and iris foliage. The leaves, you’ll notice, have colored up with a tinge of magenta too.


In its prime, in October and November, its green leaves contrast well with silver-leaved plants. I tried it with gray globemallow (Sphaeralcea incana) once, and loved the combo, but the globemallow didn’t thrive in the part-sun bed I’d planted it in. I believe that ‘Grapes’, like other gomphrenas, would probably take full sun in our climate, but I can’t confirm.


In spring and summer, you’ll hardly notice ‘Grapes’, and it can be easy to forget. Then its fall explosion of tiny flowers is a sweet surprise. Normal winters kill it back to the roots, and a hard winter may kill it outright. But most years it’ll come back reliably in spring. To give it a good start, plant it in spring, after any danger of frost.


And consider growing it in a pot to bring those airy blooms up where you can really enjoy them. I used to grow ‘Grapes’ in a big stock-tank planter along with ‘Macho Mocha’ mangave and silver ponyfoot (Dichondra argentea), and the colors harmonized nicely.

Pick a bunch of ‘Grapes’ for your garden and enjoy its delicate beauty next fall!

Note: My Plant This posts are written primarily for gardeners in central Texas. The plants I recommend are ones I’ve grown myself and have direct experience with. I wish I could provide more information about how these plants might perform in other parts of the country, but gardening knowledge is local. Consider checking your local online gardening forums to see if a particular plant might work in your region.

All material © 2006-2016 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Plant This: Flipping for Philippine violet


Autumn is a boom time for most Austin gardens, with a spring-like explosion of flowering perennials like salvia, lantana, mistflower, and native daisies. Add Philippine violet (Barleria cristata) to the mix, and enjoy weeks of tubular purple flowers clustered on upright stems of glossy, green leaves.


Native to southeast Asia — but neither a violet nor of Philippine origin, according to online sources — Philippine violet is root hardy here in Austin’s zone 8b, meaning it dies back to the ground in winter but comes back in spring. It’s one of those somewhat cold-tender plants that I’d wait to plant until late spring in order to give its roots a whole growing season to establish before winter. It appreciates morning sun or bright shade in my garden.


I’ve heard that deer find it tasty, so mine are planted in the fenced back garden. It grows 2 to 2-1/2 feet tall and about 1-1/2 feet wide, but I suspect it’d grow larger if given more water. Mine are watered once a week in summer.


I resisted trying Philippine violet for a long time, thinking it too tropical (i.e., thirsty) for my garden. But now I look forward to its fall show and am impressed by its toughness and long bloom period — typically, from mid-October through mid-November. And those glossy green leaves are handsome all spring and summer, even when it’s not in bloom.

So try Philippine violet, fellow mild-winter gardeners. I predict you’ll flip for it.

Note: My Plant This posts are written primarily for gardeners in central Texas. The plants I recommend are ones I’ve grown myself and have direct experience with. I wish I could provide more information about how these plants might perform in other parts of the country, but gardening knowledge is local. Consider checking your local online gardening forums to see if a particular plant might work in your region.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

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