Winter wonderland at the Wildflower Center

This is what winter looks like in Austin: autumn leaves persistently hanging on, ornamental grasses bending in a north breeze, evergreen live oaks and cedars (junipers, actually), and bright blue skies. It may not be everyone’s idea of a winter wonderland, but I love it.

I visited the Wildflower Center yesterday, and when I wasn’t looking over my shoulder for marauding cougars (just kidding!), I was gazing in delight at the lingering beauty of fall on display in the gardens. This has to be one of the best leaf-peeping years ever in Austin, and many of the trees were still clad in bright reds and yellows.

On that quiet Tuesday around noon, the center was emptied of visitors—I saw only three others—and I enjoyed not only the garden’s beautiful, native plants but its peacefulness.

A limestone-slab bench offers a view of the Naturalistic Garden, one of three sample garden designs for suburban Austin yards. A smoke tree’s yellowish orange foliage brightens the corner.

Smoke tree foliage

The view from the bench. The biggest Texas mountain laurel I’ve ever seen anchors the opposite corner of the Naturalistic Garden (it must be 25 feet tall), and a yucca and yellow jasmine vine provide a little more winter greenery. The stock-tank pond, which inspired my own, provides year-round interest.

Typical winter greenery in the Hill Country: spineless prickly pear. I love how this cactus looks when it’s been artfully pruned and kept in bounds, like this one. However, they can get monstrously out-of-bounds when they grow wild in fields. When I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, one homeowner in the Oakwood Historic District grew them in a sunny strip along the side of her house, and they were gorgeous when they bloomed. I still remember them all these years later.

A bigtooth maple’s leaves glow yellow. I like this tree’s smooth, tan bark too.

Havard agave backed by Mexican feathergrass

Here’s a lovely vine I’d never heard of: rattan vine (Berchemia scandens ). It’s a wetland plant, and Austin seems to be its far-west range. This one grows along a stream near the Meditation Garden.

A close-up of rattan vine’s blue-black drupe

The Meditation Garden. The paper bags (plastic, actually) you see lining the walls and paths are luminarias. The Wildflower Center recently offered a holiday evening tour with lighted luminarias.

Rusty blackhaw viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum ). Wasowski’s Native Texas Plants says this viburnum is “slow-growing and hard to propagate—and always in demand.” I can see why. This little one is lovely.

Maidenhair fern grows along the stream.

Flaming Texas red oak leaves convinced me that I hadn’t missed anything by not making a leaf-peeping trip out to Lost Maples this year.

Texas red oak. Look at the beautiful green, gray, and white striations of the bark.

While I was snapping pics of the oak, a roadrunner darted out of the grass at my feet with an insect in its beak. Beep-beep! Grasshoppers were whirring in the grasses, so I’m sure he was feasting.

Bushy bluestem, a prairie grass

Goldenball leadtree’s (Leucaena retusa ) blooms look like yellow pom-poms. According to Native Texas Plants, leadtree is deciduous and flowers from April to October. Clearly this one thinks it’s still Indian summer. NTP adds, “This tree has been found to be winter-hardy as far north as McKinney and Midland and could probably go even to the Red River.” So all you Dallas gardeners need to find a place for this unusual beauty in your gardens.

Below the landmark cistern tower grow Texas mountain laurel, Mexican feathergrass, purple coneflower, prickly pear, and other Hill Country and prairie plants.

OK, so there was a little bit of Christmas going on in the gardens. A possumhaw holly dazzled my eyes with hundreds of red berries. I can’t think why the birds haven’t eaten them all yet. Maybe they’re dining on grasshoppers while they can.

A potted weeping yaupon holly. A tall weeping yaupon grows in my front garden (one of the few plants from the previous owner that I was happy to keep), but I see that it looks great in a pot too.

Festive flower buckets hung on the walls of the main building mix branches of yaupon holly, juniper, and silver cenizo.

But during Austin’s brief winter, spring is never far off. A small bluebonnet field covered in small rosettes of our native lupine—and a rock to sit on—promises great photo ops come April.

A bluebonnet rosette—waiting for spring.

10 Responses

  1. Joe M says:

    Excellent pictures. I am excited to see the Texas Red Oak pictures. I finally tracked one down for myself last week (In Albuquerque no less, 6 hours away from where I live) and I’m hoping it will do well here in Prescott, Arizona (5200 feet). Nurseries here sell Pin Oaks every fall and they quickly die from the conditions. Prescott equals mountain/desert soil, alkaline and rocky. Pin oaks = acid, humus filled soil. I don’t get it, why established nurseries sell plants that won’t work here is beyond me. I’m not talking just one or two trees for the select few who will coddle them but 50-60 tree’s that they push every fall. I have a neighbor who has been growing a Texas Red Oak for 10 years and it is beautiful, small, but nice. (every tree grows about a third to half its natural size here, harsh windy and dry conditions will do that)

    So anyway, I’m rambling but thanks for the pictures. Hopefully my texas red oak will be just as nice in 30 years.

    Good luck with your red oak, Joe. It is a beautiful tree, providing one of the more reliable sources of fall color for Austin.

    Your frustration with nurseries that stock plants that won’t survive the local climate is understandable. After a couple of hard lessons, I now steer clear of those places (and big box stores’ garden shops) and shop only at nurseries that focus on adapted or native plants. Luckily, Austin has two great nurseries like that : Barton Springs Nursery and Natural Gardener. Does Prescott lack a good native-plant nursery? (Sounds like an untapped market.) —Pam

  2. Joe M. says:

    Commenting on the smoke tree. Nice to see a real smoke tree, instead of the common smoke bush that everyone grows. I tracked two of those down last year. A one gallon and a 5 gallon tree from Forest Farm in Oregon. They survived our summer and looked pretty good this fall. Wouldn’t you know that the one gallon tree that I planted has doubled in size in one year (lots of love on my part) and the 5 gallon just sat there. The five gallon tree was even planted in the more protected micro-climate. Oh well, that just shows that with tree’s the smaller you plant them, the better they will do. That kind of begs the question – why in the world do nurseries in my neck of the woods sell mainly 15 gallon, 25 gallon, and various boxed trees and very few 5 gallon trees. I can only afford the 5 gallon and 1 gallon tree’s in the first place, I can plant them, and they actually grow. I will never understand the nursery business.

    I’d hazard a guess that nurseries in your area stock large trees because trees grow so slowly there and people want instant results. You’re right, though—small trees have a better survival rate than big ones and often catch up to the size of the larger ones in a few years.

    The native smoke tree (pictured in my post), Cotinus obovatus, is kind of hard to find. It grows naturally in the rocky hills, not the prairies (Austin straddles these regions, and the Wildflower Center is sited on prairie clay soil). A horticulturalist at the Wildflower Center once told me that the native smoke tree is difficult to transplant, and they believe that it needs certain microbes or minerals or something specific that it can only find in its native soil. So when they transplanted their smoke trees to the Center, they brought in a truckload of the native Hill Country soil as well. Interesting!

    I have a Chinese smoke tree (with reddish-purple leaves) in my back garden. It was one of my early garden purchases (at a big, non-native nursery), and the nurseryman assured me that it would grow well here and needed full sun, etc., etc. During the first summer, it completely defoliated, though leaves came back in the spring. The next summer, it crisped up and defoliated again. Pitiful. I ended up moving it into the shade of my cedar elm, where it now lives quite happily. No more defoliating, and it blooms nicely in the spring. But it has remained very squat, and I’m not sure it’s grown more than a couple of inches in the six years I’ve had it. Still, I do like the unusual color ; Austin doesn’t have many red-leaved plants. —Pam

  3. This is a lovely photo essay, Pam. We haven’t been to the Wildflower Center in December but apparently it’s a great time to go there.
    The smoke tree really caught my eye, too, and in Illinois the ‘Royal Purple’ variety grew so lushly that it was frequently used as an accent in perennial borders, cut down to the ground every spring, so it would be about 5-6 feet tall in late summer. The native variety looks lovely, but there’s no sense in looking for something that wants a truckload of Hill Country soil, because I think mine is prairie.

    Straddle is the right word for the regional terms. I’ve got three Texas gardening books open on my desk, each with a soil map – with slightly different designations for my neighborhood. One book puts us squarely in “Prairies and Crosstimbers”, another shows our land close to the border between “Crosstimbers & prairies” and “Blackland prairies”, and the third has us in the “Edwards Plateau”, with no “Crosstimbers/Prairies” even existing on the map. No wonder everything I try seems like an experiment.

    Annie at the Transplantable Rose

    PS Did your Barbados cherry defoliate after the weather turned cold? I have one that’s about 3 -feet tall, which kept its leaves so far, and a newer, larger one about 5-feet tall, on which every leaf is now light brown.

    Annie, my Barbados cherry is still going strong. No sign of frost damage, but then it hasn’t gotten very cold here and it’s protected from the north by my garden shed and fence. —Pam

  4. Thanks for the fall tour of the Wildflower Center. The change of ecosystem there to a dryer hill country caliche is why I have always thought Austin was further north and west. It is so not Houston all the way to North Florida pine forest and muggy swamp.

    Red Oak has long been on a wish list for me. A variety were planted at Uof F. They were beautiful trees and grew extremely well. I want my ashes planted with one. I would imagine your Texas Red Oak is different from Quercus rubra. Fifty years may be too long to wait to plant some. Soon I will have a place to put some in the ground.

    Christopher, our native red oak is Quercus texana, appropriately enough. Its only downside is its susceptibility to oak wilt, which has long been a problem in some Austin neighborhoods. —Pam

  5. chuck b. says:

    Really beautiful! I love the strong sense of place you get with the right mix of plants. And I really like the bunches of tall grasses. I’ve been fantasizing about a monocot garden lately. Lots of strappy leaves and grasses. I wish I had more room.

    Yes, a strong sense of place is exactly what native plants give to a garden. That’s what I learned from the Wildflower Center when I moved here from North Carolina and tried to plant azaleas and gerbera daisies and other plants that sulked in Austin’s soil and climate. The WC taught me that local plants not only perform better and with less care but look gorgeous and provide a connection with the local landscape.

    I’m no purist, however. I mix non-natives into my garden too, but only those that look right with my natives. I don’t use many tropicals for that reason. Although there are many that grow well in Austin, they don’t look natural mixed with Hill Country and prairie plants. Oh well, one can’t have everything. And you’re right, Chuck. There’s never enough room, is there? —Pam

  6. What gorgeous pictures of a beautiful garden! I had never seen pics of bushy bluestem in a garden before but I love it–it has kind of a papyrus look to it, somehow. So different from my smooth-bladed little bluestem.

    I was already inclined to purchase the “hardy succulents” sampler from High Country Gardens, but after seeing your Harvard agave backed with the fine-texture grass I am definitely sold.

    Thanks, Kim! If you ever come to Austin, I highly recommend a visit to the Wildflower Center. There’s so much to see in every season. Good luck with your succulents from High Country. I love that catalog. —Pam

  7. […] And so do I. The Wildflower Center is where I fell in love with gardening in Austin, and where I learned to love the native plants that make Austin look like Austin. It’s still my favorite public garden to visit in my hometown, and a great place to take visitors. One cool morning or evening, or even a rainy day, go for a visit and you’ll fall in love with it too. […]

  8. Teresa Hanak says:


    I found your site while searching for an option to save a red oak (I’m not sure of the variety) in our front yard. It is about 7.5 inches in diameter and about 20 ft tall. Unfortunately, the previous owners planted it in a crowd and we’ve been told by an arborist to cut it down. The guilt is getting to me so I’m searching for anyone who might want to try to transplant it. Any thoughts?

    Thank you,
    Teresa Hanak, Cedar Park, TX

    I’m with the arborist on this one. I think it would take a professional tree mover to move a 20-foot-tall oak tree, and even then, moving it would probably damage the roots of the other trees. Better to cut it down. —Pam

  9. […] Center in other seasons or years, visit my posts: Wildflower Center & Jill Nokes book-signing Winter Wonderland at the Wildflower Center Goblins in the Garden at the Wildflower […]

  10. […] Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center is a must-see destination in all seasons, but an autumn or winter visit is always delightful—and less […]