Winter is here, with intermittent nighttime temperatures dipping as low as 25 degrees, and daytime temperatures somewhere between the 40s and the 80s. We will likely have more extreme cold in January and early February, but perhaps not; most weathermen are predicting a milder and (unfortunately) drier winter this year.
Many of us think about color or interest in the garden as something to be considered from spring to fall, but we are fortunate here to have many plants that are showy even in the dead of winter. In this column, I’d like to elaborate on a few of our native plants that work well here in Central Texas, and show either bloom, fruit, or other notable attributes at this time of the year.
I’ll start first with the trees. Possumhaw holly (Ilex decidua) is closely related to Yaupon Holly, but loses its leaves with the first frost. This leaf drop allows the beautiful red berries to stand alone on the branches, and they are present in much greater quantities than on the evergreen variety. The Loblolly Pine (Pinus taeda) holds its rich green needles throughout the winter, and produces large quantities of mid-sized pine cones that feed wildlife and can be used in holiday decorations. Native to SE Texas, and adapted here in Bastrop County if given some supplemental water, the River Birch (Betula nigra) exhibits satiny, silver bark that later peels, revealing a cinnamon-brown trunk beneath. The tree grows quickly to 30-50 feet, and is usually multi-trunked in form.
Several native small trees or large shrubs are also decorative in winter. The Texas Mountain Laurel (Sophora secundiflora) is known to many for its grape-scented purple blooms that come in February or early March. The plant is evergreen year round and has beautiful shiny green leaves. Carolina Cherry Laurel (Prunus caroliniana) is another evergreen, with dark green shiny foliage and purple/black berries that remain on the branches much of the winter. The wood/twigs/leaves of this plant smell like almond oil when cut or broken. Wax Myrtle (Myrica cerifera) has bluish berries in winter; its thin evergreen leaves are also fragrant when bruised. Evergreen Sumac (Rhus virens) grows slowly to about 12-15 feet in size, and the shiny green leaves take on a burnished red tinge in winter. Fuzzy orange red berries are present in winter. Plant it in well-drained soil only.
The Mexican Plum (Prunus mexicana) also blooms in late winter, before the leaves develop, and the white blooms are very fragrant, as well. On mature trees (to 25 feet) the bark becomes satiny, a blue-gray in color, with darker, horizontal striations. Another deciduous small tree that blooms in February is the Redbud (Cercis canadensis var. texenis or mexicana). Both are distinct varieties of the Eastern Redbud, but more tolerant of our Central Texas heat and less than acid soils. The hot pink flowers are borne along the twigs and branches, again before the leaves unfurl. There is also a white flowered variety of the Texas version.
A few medium to small native shrubs are also showy in winter. Agarita (Berberis trifoliata) is evergreen, has small holly-like leaves (spiny), blooms a bright yellow in winter, and may carry its bright red berries through the fall and into winter. Coralberry (Symphoricarpos orbiculatus) is a low-growing shrub that spreads by underground runners and does best in a moist soil that has had compost added. It tolerates shade and the magenta berries remain decorative into winter.
Few native perennials are showy in winter, with exception of only two I could find in the literature. Bulbine (B. frutescens) is a low growing and fleshy leaved evergreen plant that begins blooming in January and carries on through spring. It is available in both yellow and orange/yellow varieties. Four Nerve Daisy (Tetraneuris scaposa) is evergreen in our area and bears daisy like yellow blooms from late winter to fall on a low growing tufted base. It requires well drained soils and is often used in rock gardens.
One of our native vines is showy in winter; Carolina Jessamine (Gelsemium sempervirens) is evergreen and can be grown as a groundcover, or supported upon a trellis or grown into trees. It flowers in late winter and the bright yellow flowers are very fragrant. It should be noted that flowers and foliage are poisonous if ingested. Hopefully you can find room in your garden for one or more of these plants, which my brighten a cold winter day.