July 24th, 2006
Beckoning Green

Mild summers are the anomaly. No matter how much I love to garden, I need to find more plants than can handle Austin’s summer heat and drought on their own.

In the spring when the perennials strain for a bit of sunlight to produce a weak flower or two, I consider thinning out the trees. Come the dead of summer and I think about planting more. Oh beautiful trees! How could I be so whimsical? How could I let my fancy be captured by those flashy, seductive flowers? Their joys are fleeting but trees stand strong and true through the years.

I walked around the garden today to note what plants kept their looks in heat and drought without any primping from me. I have a lot of drought-tolerant plants…but just because they can tolerate this heat, doesn’t mean they thrive in it. The crape myrtle, oleander, wisteria, confederate jasmine, ruellia, Tecoma stans, plumbago, duranta, salvia, Turk’s cap, and magnolia all need supplemental water. Even with water, most plants take a droopy siesta between 2PM and 7PM every day the temperatures hover around 100.

Are there really any plants that can go it alone?

The hands down winner is Texas mountain laurel, Sephora secundiflora. This slow-growning small tree has glossy medium bright green leaves that never wilt. It looks fresh and green on the worst summer day. I don’t water it at all; however, in February, if it is a dry spring, it will reward supplemental water by producing much showier flowers.

My Texas persimmon, Diospyros texana, also seems unfazed by July’s dry heat. The tiny leaves have a silvery gray cast, so it doesn’t provide the refreshing sense of cool green that Texas mountain laurel does. It does have an attractive peeling bark similar to crape myrtle.

I’ve never tended the heavenly bamboo, Nandina domestica, except to thin it. It doesn’t get a drop of water or even a mulching from me. Still it never wilts or browns. I use it as hedge to provide a wind break and a green backdrop for the north border of the garden.

The Mexican plums, Prunus mexicana, are still looking good this year. Usually by the end of summer, the leaves will be brown and bug bitten. They’re ten years old now and each year they get bigger and tougher.

I don’t know how much drought the sago palm, Cycas revoluta can stand because I haven’t put it to the test. It looks tropical but it prefers good drainage to a swamp or it can rot. I keep it in partial shade because it gets sunburnt during the worst part of summer. Its deep glossy green looks very refreshing.

My asparagus fern, Asparagus densiflorus, (neither an asparagus or a fern) continues to remain a bright yellowish green. I have two planted in the ground and one in a pot. I cover them in a freeze. Last year, one froze back to the ground but came back again when temperatures warmed up. (In Austin, the ground doesn’t freeze.)

The varigated Agave americana, a passalong from Valerie is thriving. At this rate, Zanthan will soon be turned into an agave garden. In contrast, both types of yucca and the aloe vera get burned under the intensity of Austin’s July sun.

by M Sinclair Stevens

4 Responses to post “Beckoning Green”

  1. From Pam/Digging (Austin):

    You beat me to the punch! I was planning a post to sing the praises of Texas mountain laurel, my hands-down winner of drought tolerance and summer beauty too. Maybe I will still do it—that’s a plant that deserves a lot of praise.

  2. From M2 (Austin):

    I bought some asparagus fern once. It was supposed to be a “disposable” plant, just to last long enough to provide some small shelter for a fledgeling bird. Mein gott, it’s nigh unkillable.

  3. From Annie in Austin:

    We planted two Texas mountain laurels in the front garden at the last house – then moved right when they were looking great. I hope the new owners appreciate them. We bought a TX Mountain Laurel to plant here, but this time we put it right by the back door, for our own pleasure, instead of for people on the sidewalk! They do grow so slowly, it seems.

    There are a couple of nandina here, which do seem plenty tough. You don’t have Abelia, do you, M? Our Abelias in sun seem to need at least some water, but there are a couple of large, established Abelias in semi-shade that look wonderful with no help from me. They also have a light fragrance.

    Annie, I forgot about the Abelia. Yes I have one near the driveway growing in among the nandina. Apparently it likes to be cut back severly to flower the following summer. My neighbor planted three along our mutual fence line but they all died within a year. Like most plants it needs a little help getting started. — mss

  4. From r sorrell (Austin):

    Well, I guess I need a Mountain laurel. Our Mexican Plum is still green, but the leaves are drooping a little. My asparagus fern, which also died back over the winter, is doing well, also.