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.

32 Responses

  1. Nice tour. Winter lets us see what good ‘bones’ the Wildflower Center has.
    By the way…that first photo is stunning.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Thank you, Linda. Yes, all those walls make for amazing bones, plus the agaves and other succulents add their evergreen structure as well. —Pam

  2. Peter/Outlaw says:

    How nice to have the garden all to yourself. I always see pictures of this place overflowing with wildflower blooms so it’s nice to see these views! You’ve got to feel sorry for any plant with the name vomitoria.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Ha! So true. It’s a good warning not to sample those berries though. Update 3/8: For more info on the botanical name, see Peter Schaar’s comment below. —Pam

  3. Shirley says:

    Great views of what might be typically seen as a drab time of year in the garden. Scenes like these always confirm that native plants work best in our climate.

    I’m glad to learn the demonstration gardens might be changed. That area could be more inspiring and there are more interesting gardens on site that can be used to educate and encourage our use of native plants. I know what you mean about waiting since Ten Eyck has been working on a project for the San Antonio Botanical Gardens new master plan. I keep looking for construction to get going!

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Shirley, I’ve heard that Ten Eyck is working on a new entry for SABT. Very exciting! I look forward to seeing it one day as well. —Pam

  4. Laura says:

    What great pictures! A perfect example of how beautiful Austin can be in the winter. Why doesn’t my yard look like this??

  5. Tina says:

    I haven’t been there in so long–I need to make a trip. Great photos, as always. I agree with you about the demo garden area. I like it, because it is a “demo” but surely something more interesting could be done–it’s always felt awkward, not in keeping with the rest of the Wildflower Center.

  6. Jenny says:

    Yes I thought the first photo was stunning too. You certainly have the photographer’s eye. Things were a little bit behind over there so I am hoping that some warm days will bring on everything in time for the big spring events. I am always amazed by how quickly the garden comes to life in the spring.

  7. Kris P says:

    What a beautiful serene garden, even when still in the clutches of old man winter. I hope to get there someday.

  8. Caroline says:

    Lovely, lovely!

  9. Marsha Walters says:

    Absolutely love the first shot. It is perfectly composed and does what is intended-it draws you into the garden.

    Thanks for all your work.


  10. Astra says:

    I really want to put in a possumhaw but I’m not sure I have room for both a female and a male tree. Someone at the Natural Gardener said the male trees can pollenate up to a mile away but I live in Allandale and haven’t seen a single possumhaw in the neighborhood. Can hollies of different species cross-pollinate?

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Astra, I don’t think you’ll even find a male possumhaw for sale, as only the female trees have the beautiful berries. Luckily, you shouldn’t need to worry about it. According to the Texas AgriLife Extension Service — and my experience is the same — “It’s usually not necessary to plant a male pollinator, since ‘wild yaupons’ and other hollies seem to provide sufficient pollination.” So happy planting! —Pam

  11. Les says:

    I wish more people would embrace our native deciduous hollies, especially commercial landscapers who here, keep planting Chinese and Japanese hollies over and over. There are few plants that can beat them for long term winter interest. Thanks for showing these photos, the more of I see of this place the more I have to see it in person. I rely on their web site’s plant finder for info on natives.

    • Pam/Digging says:

      Possumhaw is very popular in Austin, happily. At this time of year it sells itself. Commercial landscapers always go for the evergreens, but deciduous plants offer their own special beauty, don’t they? —Pam

  12. Gorgeous photos! The first one is spectacular, love the composition and lighting. The possumhaw is a real standout.

    PS I recently purchased a Japanese Maple that is the same variety that you have. Hope it does well here in SA. Once again, you have inspired my plant selection:)

  13. peter schaar says:

    For Peter/Outlaw: I. vomitoria is closely related to I. paraguyense, from whose leaves mate, highly caffeinated, is made. Amerindians used to make a similar tea from I. vomitoria just before battle. After drinking it, they would make themselves vomit, then drink more tea. In this way they would become super caffeinated for the battle. Hence the species name.

  14. Nice cloudy weather scenes – you’re right on the berried and deciduous bringing drama to a cloudy scene – evergreen blends with so much good design there. Even if the design is working with natural plant communities. Truly special…

    • p.s. – I think I’ve missed that uniquely shaped madrone by the wall…next time, I’ll try remembering and look for it.

      • Pam/Digging says:

        David, when you’re at the Hill Country Stream, walk toward the “headwaters” and you’ll find the madrone in the corner on the right, in a bermed-up bed along the wall. There’s another, larger one in the vicinity as well. —Pam

  15. Lori says:

    Love your pictures, as usual!

    And I’m so happy to hear that they’re gonna redo the demo garden and that Christine Ten Eyck is involved. I love her work, and I really feel like that area needs a revamp. I really need to go back to the Wildflower Center for a visit– it’s been years.