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.

Cherry blossom bonanza at Dallas Blooms


I’m not normally drawn to massive displays of crayon-bright bedding annuals, preferring instead the seasonal beauty and interplay of texture and form provided by perennials, shrubs, and trees. But this winter has been, by Texas standards, rather long and chilly, so when I heard that Dallas Arboretum‘s annual Dallas Blooms was opening last Saturday, while we were to be in town for a college visit with my son, I jumped at the chance to soak in a little spring color.


The bulbs, as it turned out, were mostly still waiting for warmer weather. But no matter. A cotton-candy assortment of cherry trees was in full bloom, and I oohed over every pink petal.


Don’t they make your heart sing?


These cerise flowers look especially pretty against the blue-green of an Arizona cypress.


And they all looked stunning against the bright blue sky.


Celebrating its 30th year in 2014, Dallas Blooms is an annual festival of spring bulbs — more than 500,000 — as well as cherries, azaleas, and various other flowering annuals and perennials. In other words, it’s a magnet for moms snapping Easter portraits of bow-tied or sundressed tots and pros making portraits of teenage girls in candy-colored, floaty quinceanera gowns.


But it would be hard to compete with the frilly, bedecked cherries, I think.


Each year Dallas Blooms has a theme, and this year it’s “Birds in Paradise.” The stars are two 13-foot-tall topiary peacocks holding court on the main lawn. They sure do make a statement. I thought they were pretty fun.


Their bodies are planted with thousands of liriope plants, giving them a shaggy appearance.


Their colorful tails, spread across the lawn, are made up of pansies and violas.


Later in the spring, these will be changed out for warmer-season annuals.


The peacocks’ necks and heads seemed to be planted with dwarf mondo grass. A metal beak and coquettish glass eyes complete each bird.


A plume of actual peacock feathers adds the finishing touch.


Also on theme are 5 or 6 playhouses for children constructed to resemble birds or bird nests. This owl playhouse was my favorite.


After taking in the main lawn’s bedding display and extravagance of flowering cherries, we strolled the garden paths to see what other spring bloomers we might find, enjoying this tranquil pond along the way…


…and a charming tadpole pool.


I admired these cedar-branch trellises, each panel unique, with branches arranged to resemble trees.


These would look good in an Austin garden, since we’re right in the heart of cedar country.


Mockingbirds were busily building nests in these large holly bushes.


Love, it seemed, was in the air.


Pale-green and cream-colored hellebores brightened a shady bed.


And berry-studded hollies provided evergreen structure as spring awakened the garden.


More structure in the form of a path-spanning arbor


Back to the stars of the festival, however, with a swath of early daffodils and pink and blue hyacinths.


Is any flower more cheerful than the spring-trumpeting, sunny daffodil?


Equally determined to announce spring’s arrival were the unfurling buds of a saucer magnolia (I think).


But, ah, those cherries!


They sang the sweetest song of spring.


The bees heard it too.


If you’d like to see Dallas Blooms, the festival runs through April 6, with a finale of 6,000 blooming azaleas. The Arboretum’s Facebook page predicts full bulb bloom in a week to 10 days, especially if warm weather holds.

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

Plant This: Evergreen sumac


Is your garden winter-dreary, lacking in greenery after the latest sub-freezing blast? Or is your tired, old red-tip photinia hedge finally succumbing to photinia fungal disease? If so, take a look at evergreen sumac (Rhus virens), a small tree or large shrub native to the drylands of central Texas, New Mexico, and northern Mexico.


As the photo above illustrates, “evergreen” is a bit of a misnomer. In full sun its leaves turn a burnished red in winter (in shade it remains green). Also, it’s not a true evergreen since, like live oak and Texas persimmon, it drops and immediately replaces its leaves in late winter. Mere technicalities! Evergreen sumac is a fine screening plant, one that provides year-round greenery whether you’re growing it in full sun or shade.

I took the photos above at the Wildflower Center last weekend (late January). The closer view reveals furry, red berries — a late-winter smorgasbord for birds.


This one, peeking between two live oak trunks, is growing in my garden in dappled shade. Lacking bright sunlight, it never blushes coppery red, but that’s OK. When winter’s tans and grays start to feel dull, evergreen sumac is still pleasantly green. I took this photo in early fall (late September), when clusters of creamy white flower buds appeared amid the shiny leaves.


In another week, when the small flowers opened, the shrub was buzzing with eager honeybees. This is an excellent pollinator plant.


Evergreen sumac is native to dry hillsides, so be sure it has good drainage. Rocky soil? No problem. Heavy, clay soil? Hmm. Try it where you have terracing or a slope so that water can drain away during our occasional flooding rains. Plant it throughout the winter, but do remember to water deeply every couple of weeks throughout that first summer to get it established.

Expect evergreen sumac to grow 8 to 12 feet tall and wide. It can be pruned up tree-form to reveal its gray, scaly bark or left shrubby and loose. But keep in mind that it grows quite slowly, so prepare to be patient or buy a larger plant for immediate impact.

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