BY SCOTT OGDEN / Austin, Texas, USDA Zone 8
A Softer Touch
“Hmm, I don’t know if I like that… it’s kind of spiky!” is a frequent response to certain well-armed plants in this region. Gardeners may spend their whole lives in Texas, but still imbibe their sense of aesthetics from the fluffy English-style borders of the luxuriantly traditional South. Show them a bristling (albeit well-adapted) agave, and they shun it: too threatening, too aggressive. But, happily, there are drought-friendly plants that bring beauty and drama to gardens here without endangering softer sensibilities.
Members of the genera Hesperaloe, Nolina, and Dasylirion are sometimes collectively called fiber plants, because several have value as fiber crops. Grassy cousins of yuccas and agaves, they share adaptations to drought and poor soil and sport similarly bold evergreen foliage, but with livelier, less stiff personalities. They provide focal elements in modern landscapes, or blend seamlessly into herbaceous borders and mixed gardens, and to either situation they bring year-round interest.
Indispensable red yuccas (Hesperaloe parviflora) (left, in foreground) shower gardens with flowers for months, their tidy clumps of arching leaves sending up four-foot wands of translucent blooms. These are usually a warm coral red, but in some variants, a beautiful pale yellow; both colors attract hummingbirds. Red yuccas require at least a half day of sun, but endure both drought and poorly drained, waterlogged soils.
The samandoque, or Tampico fiber plant (H. funifera) is a larger cousin with upright rosettes of olive, fibrous-margined leaves, thin and leathery in the typical form, but thickened to triangular, almost succulent proportions in subspecies chiangii. When rosettes mature, 10-foot stalks carrying pendant, sparkling nocturnal blooms erupt in flower for several months, drawing night-flying hawkmoths. The slightly smaller, bell-flowered H. campanulata holds gardeners’ interests with branched spires of icy pink blossoms that open from dusk through the following morning.
Devil’s shoestring (Nolina lindheimeriana) is more delicate, suspending lithe spires of tiny white and chartreuse blooms over genuinely grassy clumps of foliage. The blossoms ripen to papery russet capsules over summer. In nature this gracefully weeping plant often drapes over cliffs that also harbor glistening green tussocks of the indestructible sacahuiste, or Texas bear grass (N. texana). In spring, Texas bear grass nests broadly triangular clusters of white blooms among its cordlike leaves.
On a grander scale, tree bear grasses (N. nelsonii, N. matapensis, N. longifolia, and N. sp. ‘La Siberica’) convey a palmlike appearance, slowly forming trunks topped by softly arching gray or green leaves. Among the equally large stools (Dasylirion spp.), green D. texanum and silvery-blue D. berlandieri develop generous fountains of lush weeping foliage if planted in full or part shade. The small spines on their flexible leaves present no greater offense than rose thorns. Whether in traditional borders or edgy modern installations, these fiber plants offer a lively, and approachable, effect. H
TO DO IN THE GARDEN
Show off fiber plants’ gently curving foliage and crystalline flowers by placing them where the sun will rise or set behind them. Small features–like the tiny yellowish spines edging the leaves of Dasylirion texanum (right)–will fluoresce, highlighting plants’ impressive forms. Translucent blooms of Hesperaloe and golden or chartreuse flower spikes and seed heads of Nolina and Dasylirion will come to life. To make the most of these effects, intersperse fine-textured grasses (Nassella tenuissima and Muhlenbergia dumosa are ideal) or other feathery plants that trap light.