Datura inoxia
Datura innoxia known commonly as angel’s trumpet or thornapple, a hallucinogenic and deadly nightshade found commonly in Central Texas.

April 14th, 2008
Susan Wittig Albert: In Search of China’s Father

Update: Winner Announced

Congratulations to Dianna Otterstad of Lewisville, TX who won a copy of Nightshade in the drawing.

Today I’m happy to welcome author Susan Wittig Albert. As I read her latest China Bayles’ mystery, Nightshade, I was thrilled to discover that several scenes are set quite near Zanthan Gardens and in other Austin locales quite familiar to me. Now I’m expecting to see China around every corner. I did have the pleasure of meeting Susan during last weekend’s Spring Fling–which just goes to show, that in the world of gardening and mysteries, you never know what might happen next. — mss

In Search of China’s Father: A Book-Bridging Story

Many thanks to MSS for hosting me today at Zanthan Gardens. China Bayles logoThis blog tour celebrates the launch of Nightshade, the latest China Bayles mystery. For those of you who haven’t met her, China is a former criminal defense attorney who left the rat race and moved to Pecan Springs TX, a small town at the eastern edge of the Hill Country, halfway between Austin and San Antonio. There, she owns an herb shop and tends her gardens, when she isn’t solving mysteries. One of the mysteries she’s compelled to solve arises out of her own past, out of her father’s death, some sixteen years ago.

(Spoiler alert: this post contains some information that is part of the mystery—but only some. There’s still plenty of mystery left for you to solve.)

China’s Past, China’s Present

Real people have a past—that’s one of the things that make them so interesting. Writers know that their fictional characters need a past, as well: to give them depth and substantiality, to make their present actions understandable, and to hold the reader’s interest. As a series writer (mysteries are usually written in series), I’ve loved having the opportunity to let my characters’ pasts come to light gradually—not all at once, and not all in one book, but bit by bit, as their present situation summons up the memories of the past.

book cover Thyme of Death

China Bayles tells us a bit about her past in almost every book. In Thyme of Death, we learn that her father, Robert Bayles, a successful Houston lawyer, influenced her decision to go to law school and become an attorney. She did it to “get his attention,” she says, “to please him.” But nothing China did could ever please Bayles, a cold, remote man who had little time for his daughter or his alcoholic wife.

A bit of my own personal history here: China’s relationship with her father was modeled on my own troubled relationship with my father, a stern, distant man who inspired me alternately with adoration, as a girl, and fear, as a teen and as his alcoholism grew worse. I struggled with my feelings for him for years, even after he died. Writing about China’s relationship with her father has helped me see mine more clearly.

book cover Bleeding Hearts

As the series moves along, we begin to understand that China’s inability to trust men arises in part from her unhappy, untrusting relationship with her father. In Bleeding Hearts, more of the backstory emerges. We find out that when China was in her teens, she had a weekend and summer job in Bayles’ law office, where she met the partners, her father’s secretary, Laura Danforth, and Danforth’s son Buddy. We learn how her father died, in a fiery car crash sixteen years before the present. And we discover that Laura Danforth was her father’s mistress, and Buddy—now a practicing attorney, introduced by his real name, Miles—is her father’s son. This back story plays out as one of the mysteries of the book, as China meets Buddy. At the end of the book, Miles gives her a batch of letters Robert Bayles wrote to his mother, letters that cast China’s father in an entirely new light.

book cover Spanish Dagger

In Spanish Dagger, more details of China’s father’s story emerge. We discover that Laura Danforth did not believe that the car crash that killed Bob Bayles was accidental, and that she was still trying to solve the mystery when she died. Miles, her son, is carrying on that search and wants to involve China, who is not at all anxious to get dragged into a past that she finds altogether unpleasant. But in Nightshade, China has to get involved, when the search for the facts behind her father’s death comes home to haunt her. What happens in this mystery is going to change China’s life completely, in ways she can’t begin to understand—not yet.

In Search of China’s Father: A Book-Bridging Story

The story of China’s father was so complex that I didn’t want to try to tell it and solve its mysteries all in one book. Instead, I chose to develop it across three books: a trilogy within the series. The story is introduced as a subplot in Bleeding Hearts, when China meets her half-brother and learns about her father’s illicit affair with Laura Danforth. It continues and is expanded (but is still a subplot) in Spanish Dagger, as China finds out more details about Danforth’s investigation into Robert Bayles’ death. It becomes the central plot in Nightshade, where all the mysteries are finally resolved.

I love writing mysteries because they’re written in a series and a series offers so many possibilities for character development and extended story-telling. I could never have told the whole story of China’s relationship with her father and her discovery of the truth behind his death in a single book. It would have been far too complicated, and important parts of it could not have been developed.

book cover Nightshade

I realize that I’m taking a chance doing this. Some readers may be irritated at not having every loose end tied up in the final chapter, as is usually done in a mystery. And a reader who begins the series with the second or third book in the trilogy may have some catching-up to do. But the story itself was too rich to compress and too important to ignore. So here it is, complete at last—that is, as much as a story can be completed. As I said, what happens in Nightshade is going to alter China’s life in some very important ways. How? Well, gosh. We’ll just have to wait for the next book or two, I guess.

Susan’s Blog Tour

Want to read the other posts in Susan’s blog tour? You’ll find a calendar and links here.

Thanks again to Zanthan Gardens for hosting me today. And thanks to all the readers who are following this blog tour through cyberspace. If you have questions or thoughts to share, post a comment. I’ll be around all day, and tomorrow and the next, to reply to your comments. — Susan

My pleasure, Susan. — mss

Narcissus Grand Primo
2008-02-15. Narcissus ‘Grand Primo’ blooming in the back.

February 15th, 2008
GBBD 200802: Feb 2008

Carol at May Dreams Gardens invites us to tell her what’s blooming in our gardens on the 15th of each month.

February 15, 2008

Just after January’s GBBD, Austin got a hard freeze which wiped out all the late hangers-on that I had written about. So everything new for February is new for the year. Austin’s spring is slowly unfurling, and like a new bride is dressed in white: paperwhite narcissus, summer snowflakes, and the Mexican plum blossom. However, the overriding color in the garden in February is the spring green of all the little overwintering annuals and spring bulbs, putting down their roots and gathering strength for their big show next month.

Narcissus Grand Primo
2008-02-15. Narcissus ‘Grand Primo’ blooming in the front, too.

The roses are about as dormant as they get any time of the year. None are blooming today and I had only two flowers since last GBBD, both on ‘Madame Alfred Carriere’. But all the roses are budding out. Unless we get a hard freeze, I think I’ll have roses before the next GBBD. The same is true of the Indian hawthorn, Rhaphiolepis indica. It had a few early flowers, isn’t blooming today, but is full of buds.

New for February

Leucojum aestivum
2008-02-15. One summer snowflake began blooming. I think it was dug up by a squirrel and replanted because it’s off by itself.

Paperwhite narcissus Grandiflora
2008-02-15. My only bought and named paperwhite, ‘Grandiflora’. The flowers are twice as large as the naturalized ones. (The tiny ones by the mailbox are still blooming, too.)

Prunus mexicana
2008-02-15. The largest of the three Mexican plum trees is just starting to open its flowers.

Still Blooming

Lantana montevidensis
2008-02-15. The lantana is still blooming even though it’s leaves are frost-bitten.

Lupinus texensis
2008-02-15. The amazing bluebonnet that began flowering on December 15, 2007 hasn’t quit yet. In fact, it’s just getting going. Quite a few other bluebonnets have buds now and will probably bloom within a week.

The List for February

  • Dianthus chinensis
  • Lantana montevidensis
  • Leucojum aestivum
  • Lobularia maritima
  • Lupinus texensis (another bloom on the plant that flowered in December)
  • Mahonia bealei
  • Narcissus papyraceus (small ones by mailbox)
  • Narcissus papyraceus ‘Grandiflora’
  • Narcissus tazetta italicus
  • Narcissus tazetta ‘Grand Primo’
  • Oxalis triangularis (purple only)
  • Prunus mexicana (The large one from Gardens
  • rosemary (Even more flowers than last month.)
  • Viola cornuta ‘Sorbet Coconut Duet’

Narcissus tazetta italicus
Narcissus tazetta italicus is very reliable in my central Texas garden.

January 15th, 2008
GBBD 200801: Jan 2008

Carol at May Dreams Gardens invites us to tell her what’s blooming in our gardens on the 15th of each month.

What! It’s GBBD again. I can’t believe it’s been a month since my December post. Carol’s put the pressure on us southern gardeners to come up with a lot of flowers for those of you buried under snow. When I looked out the window, I saw a lot of green in the garden but not many flowers. Although there’s always something blooming here, it’s not the perpetual bower of flowers some of you imagine.

rose New Dawn
I waited and waited for this ‘New Dawn’ bud to open. Then it froze.

It’s been a very dry winter so there seem to be fewer narcissus and roses blooming. Austin finally had a few nights this winter where the temperatures dropped to the high 20s, finally doing in the stragglers from last year–or so I thought. Wandering around with my camera set to macro, I found a few new flowers to share and some hangers on from last year.

New for January

The Narcissus tazetta italicus opened yesterday (1/14) almost exactly a month after the first paperwhite. This is about two weeks later than they usually open in my garden. There are some paperwhites still blooming but the Chinese sacred lilies have come and gone.

Another new flower for January is Mahonia bealei, leatherleaf mahonia. It opened it’s first flower on January 6th and only a few more have opened since. I can’t see them from my kitchen window, yet, like I can when it’s in full bloom. Mahonia bealei

Typical winter bloomers

The rosemary had one flower last month and now has three. Summer 2007 was very hard on rosemary bushes throughout Austin. It was so rainy that a lot of our xeriscape plants just rotted. My rosemary bush was about three times bigger than it is now. All but one stem died.

The violas are in full bloom. They are so perky and persistant that I bought another flat of them. For the record, that’s 36 viola plants for $30. The other overwintering annuals, Dianthus chinensis and the sweet alyssum are also fulfilling their winter duties.

Surprise Hangers On

After some cold weather the first week of the year, the Dolichos lablab vine died back. When I began pulling it down to put in the mulch pile, I found section of vine still blooming in a protected corner.
Dolichos lablab

I had hoped that the Podranea ricasoliania had died back finally but there is a section just north of the garage that escaped the freeze and is still blooming. And I was further surprised that a flower opened on the Thai basil. The basil surely should be dead by now. I dug up the other basil plant and potted it up. We’ve been enjoying basil and pine nuts over Central Market’s handmade mozzarella this week.

Thai basil
Although some leaves are frost damaged, the Thai basil hangs on and has finally bolted.

Another survivor so far is the lantana. Actually the leaves, as you can see in the photo, are frost-nipped but it continues to put out flowers, some white, some purple. I have another lantana plant on the opposite side of the yard which died back to the ground on the first cold night.
Lantana montevidensis

I was expecting the duranta to die back to the ground. All three plants look green and don’t show any frost damage yet. They are all putting out miniscule flowers and golden seedpods at the same time. I love the contrast.
Duranta erecta

  • basil, Thai
  • Dianthus chinensis
  • Dolichos lablab
  • Duranta erecta (both flowers and berries)
  • Lantana montevidensis
  • Lobularia maritima
  • Lupinus texensis (another bloom on the plant that flowered in December)
  • Mahonia bealei
  • Narcissus papyraceus
  • Narcissus tazetta italicus
  • Oxalis triangularis (both purple and green)
  • Podranea ricasoliana
  • rose ‘Blush Noisette’
  • rose ‘Ducher’
  • rosemary
  • Viola cornuta ‘Sorbet Coconut Duet’

rose Heritage
Late blooming update! The first bluebonnet of the year. Or is it, as AJM thinks, the last bluebonnet of the year?

December 15th, 2007
GBBD 200712: Dec 2007

Carol at May Dreams Gardens invites us to tell her what’s blooming in our gardens on the 15th of each month.

This is the special southern edition for all you who are under snow this weekend. Actually GBBD came just in the nick of time here in Austin. Our high temperatures this week have gone from the 80s to the 40s to the 80s to the 40s, eventually ending the week with two average days in the 60s. Forecast for tonight, however, is our first freeze of the season before we resume highs in the 60s. I’m not too worried. Zanthan Gardens is very close to downtown Austin which forms a heat sink. We also got some rain last night; temperatures fluctuate less sharply when the ground is moist. (Remember, the ground never freezes in Austin). The temperatures might dip to freezing for a few hours but I suspect only the tenderest plants (like the basil) will be in any danger. I’ll bring the potted plants in and cover up the strawberries in any case.

rose Heritage
I had my doubts whether or not the David Austin rose, ‘Heritage’, would last until today. It did! It opened four days ago. ‘Heritage’ has the nasty habit of dropping its petals before the flower has faded. I’m glad this one stayed opened long enough to make it to GBBD. One of the great thing about winter roses in Austin is that the flowers last several days. In the summer they typically open and wilt in the heat in the space of a few hours. All over Austin roses have been in full bloom this month, especially the heirloom rose ‘Mutabalis’.

rose Ducher
Most of the roses have buds on them which might freeze. The rose that’s been in full bloom all month is the lovely white China rose, ‘Ducher’. This is my second instance of this rose. I lost one last year to rose dieback. This one is planted on the opposite side of the the yard against the north fence. In my experience, ‘Ducher’ has always bloomed best in the winter so I moved it against the north fence where it could get plenty of winter sun. ‘Ducher’s’ flowers have a lemony rose scent. I particularly like how twiggy and full the bush is. The new foliage always has a nice red tint to it which makes it pretty even when it’s not blooming.

Helianthus annuus Goldy Honey Bear
Also new for December are two sunflowers which I planted in September to provide some fall color. This yellow one is ‘Goldy Honey Bear’ which is supposed to be 4 to 6 feet tall but which has grown only to a height of 13 inches. Remembering that sunflowers often grow in waste spaces, I planted them to hide some of the garden house construction detritus. Apparently caliche and rock forms a poorer soil than even sunflowers can handle. The entire packet of seeds produced only two flowers which look more like dandelions than sunflowers.

Helianthus annuus Moulin Rouge
I had better success with ‘Moulin Rouge’ which was planted in long-established garden loam.

Making a bid for spring before winter has even started is the first paperwhite. I’ve been watching this bud all week and if it opens more fully in today’s sunlight I will post an update photo this evening.

All the hardy annuals I planted last month–the sweet alyssum, pinks and violas–have established themselves nicely and continue to bloom. The paperwhites have sprouted up among the violas, as have a lot of larkspur seedlings. And the leaves are still falling off the trees. So this bed is a mix of seasons, which is appropriate for December in Austin.

  • Aster ericoides (fading and looking very weedy)
  • Cosmos sulphureus (some very short ones, only a foot tall)
  • Dianthus chinensis
  • Dolichos lablab (a few flowers among the ragged leaves)
  • Duranta erecta (both flowers and berries)
  • Helianthus annuus ‘Goldy Honey Bear’
  • Helianthus annuus ‘Moulin Rouge’
  • Lantana montevidensis
  • Malvaviscus arboreus
  • Lupinus texensis (first flower)
  • Lobularia maritima
  • Podranea ricasoliana (in full bloom all month, although I find the pink a bit jarring in autumn)
  • pepper, jalapeno
  • rose ‘Blush Noisette’ (fading)
  • rose ‘Ducher’ (full bloom)
  • rose ‘Heritage’ (one bloom)
  • rosemary (a few flowers now that the pecan leaves have fallen and it’s in sun again)
  • Rudbeckia fulgida (one flower)
  • Solanum jasminoides
  • Tradescantia pallida/Setcreasia (purple heart)
  • Tradescantia–unknown white
  • Viola cornuta ‘Sorbet Coconut Duet’

Duranta erecta
2007-09-15. Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day in Zanthan Gardens

September 14th, 2007
GBBD 200709: Sep 2007

Carol at May Dreams Gardens invites us to tell her what’s blooming in our gardens on the 15th of each month.


April and September are the two big months for bloom in my Austin garden. In September, hurricane rains alternating with cold fronts blowing down the plains states bring the garden back to life after summer, beginning with the oxblood lilies. If you missed the oxblood lily day here at Zanthan Gardens, look at yesterday’s post.

Rhodophiala bifida

This year we’ve had so much rain that the garden has been in high gear since March. The vines have been especially happy.

Antigonon leptopus
The coral vine has covered the fence and climbed over twenty feet into my neighbor’s cedar elm.

Four o'clock and cypress vine

Most of the four o’clocks died back in the heat of summer but the hot pink one is fighting it out with the cypress vine to see which is the most aggressive.

That honor goes to Podranea ricasoliana variously called the pink trumpet vine, Port St Johns Creeper, and desert willow vine, the latter because the flower looks similar to a the desert willow. This south African native is on the banned list in Australia. I think it should be in Texas, too. I see one flower about to open. I might have to wait until late afternoon to see if it will qualify for Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day this September.

rose Properity

The rose ‘Prosperity’ looks almost ivory in the early morning autumn sunlight. This flower is barely an inch and a half (4cm) across. In the spring the flowers have more blush pink tones. I find that roses often have more intense colors in the spring when the highs are in the 60s and 70s than in the fall when they are in the 90s. She’s the only rose which got can dieback last year that I managed to save. She used to half a dozen arching canes and now is down to one scraggly one. But she’s been blooming for the last couple of weeks so I hope she’s making a comeback.

I’m disappointed that ‘Heritage’ isn’t blooming today; she looked so lovely at the beginning of the month. Most of the other roses are flowering or trying to.

Allium tuberosum

The garlic chives are still attracting wasps, bees, and moths. The orange cosmos are beckoning to the butterflies. As is the Duranta erecta.

Nerium oleander ‘Shari D.’ in full bloom.

  • Abelia grandiflora
  • Allium tuberosum
  • Antigonon leptopus
  • Asclepias curassavica
  • asparagus fern
  • Canna–unknown red from seed
  • chili pequin–very few flowers but covered in fruit
  • Cosmos sulphureus
  • Dolichos lablab
  • Duranta erecta
  • Hibiscus syriacus
  • Ipomoea quamoclit (cypress vine)
  • Lagerstroemia indica–both the watermelon pink and the ‘Catawba’
  • Lantana ‘New Gold’
  • Lindheimer senna
  • Malvaviscus arboreus
  • Mirabilis jalapa pink
  • Oenothera speciosa (pink evening primrose)
  • Oxalis drummondii
  • Oxalis triangularis
  • Nerium oleander ‘Turner’s Shari D.’ — full, gorgeous bloom
  • Plumbago auriculata
  • Podranea ricasoliana
  • Rhaphiolepis indica–Indian hawthorn
  • rose ‘Blush Noisette–smothered by the cypress vine
  • rose ‘Ducher’
  • rose ‘New Dawn’
  • rose ‘Red Cascade’
  • Rudbeckia hirta — fading
  • Ruellia (Mexican petunia)–dependable this time of year
  • Salvia farinacea–most rotted out this summer; one little sprout has a wan flower
  • Salvia leucantha (Mexican bush sage)–everyone in Austin has huge gorgeous displays; I have one sickly one trying to escape the clutches of the cypress vine
  • Tradescantia pallida/Setcreasia (purple heart)
  • Tulbaghia violacea (society garlic) Thanks, Pam!
  • widow’s tears
  • Zephyranthes grandiflora

Early Morning Updates

One flower on the Podranea ricasoliana DID open!
Podranea ricasoliana

One rainlily (Zephyranthes grandiflora) opened. Despite all the rain this year, 2007 has not been a good year for rainlilies at Zanthan Gardens. Either they need to dry out between rains or they are still suffering from last year’s drought.
Zephyranthes grandiflora

Most surprising of all is that the Indian hawthorn is blooming.
Indian hawthorn

Indian hawthorn is a spring blooming plant. I have never seen it bloom in the fall in my garden or anywhere else. Have you?

Zanthan Gardens July 15, 2007
2007-07-15. Returning from vacation I find that the grass is about a foot high and the garden is completely overgrown. I’m so happy that the garden got along without me and my hosepipe.

July 15th, 2007
GBBD 200707: July 2007

Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day

Carol at May Dreams Gardens invites us to tell her what’s blooming in our gardens on the 15th of each month.

July 15, 2007

Got into town late last night after my three weeks in cold, rainy England. At first light this morning, I was exploring the overgrown jungle that is my garden at the moment. (Okay…actually I drenched myself in mosquito repellant and combed over the garden with a flashlight as soon as I had my bags in the door last night.) I heard that Texas had rain in my absence but Good Grief! As a result Zanthan Gardens is much more green and floriferous than usual for July. I see a lot of weeding in my future. It’s good to be home!

  • Abelia grandiflora
  • Antigonon leptopus
  • Asclepias curassavica
  • Canna ‘Bangkok Yellow
  • chili pequin
  • Commelina erecta (day flower) — the weedy perennial. I much prefer its false cousin)
  • Cosmos bipinnatus
  • Cosmos sulphureus–some new life for the summer garden
  • Duranta erecta — finally bloomed this year and looks great
  • Hibiscus syriacus
  • Lagerstroemia indica Finally! They look stunning all over Austin right now.
  • Lantana ‘New Gold’
  • Lantana montevidensis — one white flower
  • Lavandula heterophyla ‘Goodwin Creek Grey
  • Malvaviscus arboreus
  • Mirabilis jalapa pink
  • Mirabilis jalapa RHS red
  • monkey grass
  • Oenothera speciosa (evening primrose)
  • Oxalis triangularis
  • Nerium oleander ‘Turner’s Shari D.’ — full, gorgeous bloom
  • Plumbago auriculata
  • Polanisia dodecandra — still in full bloom
  • rose ‘Blush Noisette‘ — a few flowers still
  • rose ‘Heritage’
  • rose ‘Madame Alfred Carriere
  • rosemary (unusual for summer here)
  • Rudbeckia hirta — fading
  • Ruellia (Mexican petunia)
  • Sedum album (white stonecrop)
  • Tradescantia pallida (purple heart)
  • Tulbaghia violacea (society garlic) Thanks, Pam!
  • Verbena canadensis
  • Vitus agnus-castus — a couple of flowers

I’ve been keeping (rather erratic) records on what blooms in Zanthan Gardens since 1995 in the In Bloom Calendar.