Central Texas BY SCOTT OGDEN / Austin, Texas, Zone 8b
When the Rains Return
SOMEWHERE between late August and early October, a norther (cold front) will stumble south toward my garden in Austin. In the ensuing cataclysm (darkening skies, crashing thunder, dramatic electrical effects), nitrogen-enriched rains fall from the ionized atmosphere, and in a matter of hours the listless, unforgiving summer passes away, gone until next June. Some plants take their time accepting the abrupt climate shift; others leap like they’ve been given a second spring.
Early celebrants include cenizas (Leuco-phyllum spp.), twiggy, mostly gray-leaved shrubs famous as the “purple sage” of westerns. Another name, “barometer bush,” alludes to their response to thunderstorms, which is to cover themselves for days in snapdragon-style blossoms. These fall after a week or so, littering the ground in carpets of pink, lavender, or white, depending on the cultivar. Favorites include ‘Convent’, with especially silvery foliage and fuchsiapurple flowers; L. pruinosum, with grape-scented violet blossoms and metallic gray leaves; and ‘Lynn’s Legacy’, a rounded, sage-green bush that periodically disappears in clouds of lilac. These soft-stemmed shrubs offer a sort of xeric, brush-country alternative to woodland azalea aesthetics.
Rain lilies (Zephyranthes and Habranthus spp.) send up white, rose, or yellow blooms three to five days after the rains, opening like bright crocuses before their grassy foliage can fully emerge. Crimson oxblood lilies (Rhodophiala bifida), golden autumn daffodils (Sternbergia lutea; pictured), and scarlet, yellow, and ivory spider lilies (Lycoris radiata var. radiata, L. aurea, and L. xalbiflora) can be almost as fast, offering floral magnificence in less than a week. By the time the cenizas are dropping their first flowers, the sweet-scented Nassau lilies (Crinum ‘Royal White’) will be opening starry, pink-streaked blooms the size of salad plates, set atop freshly sprouted three-foot scapes. In a few gardens, the odd Mediterranean sea onion (Urginea maritima) will be sending up creamy four-foot bottlebrushes.
A small native tree that flowers in the spring, the pata de vaca, or “cow foot” (Bauhinia lunareoides), blooms again in response to the rains, with clustered white or pink flowers that smell of apple blossoms. The late-flowering subtropical Tecoma stans (yellow) and T. garrocha (orange) renew vigor with the rains, and the prickly canes of Barbados’ pride (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) lift exotic trusses of orange florets and protruding red stamens above blue-green, feathery leaves.
Salvias initiate a colorful procession that carries till frost, luxuriating as days shorten and nights cool. Lavender goblets of Crocus goulimyi and the impish blossoms of Cyclamen hederifolium grace treasured nooks. Still, the garden’s rehabilitation shows its depth in less obvious processes: tiny rain-sprouted seedlings of bluebonnets, sweet peas, poppies, and cerinthe rooting for the coming spring. H
Flame acanthus or chuparosa Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii
For gardeners in the hot, drought-prone Southwest, this plant offers a late-season reward, both from flowers and from numerous irresistibly drawn hummingbirds. Native to rugged arroyos in Texas and northern Mexico, these three-to four-foot, half-woody perennials may be grown as semideciduous shrubs or cut back each winter like perovskia, and will thrive anywhere they receive sun and good drainage. Following summer and autumn rains, shiny green foliage and masses of showy orange-red tubular blossoms cloak the twiggy branchlets, with intermittent crops of bloom appeaning until frost. Expect self-sowing, as the explosive seeds scatter to sprout in crevices between stones. Hardy in USDA Zones 7–10. Sources, page 76.
NURSERIES OF NOTE
Barton Springs Nursery 3601 Bee Caves Road Austin, TX 78746-5313 phone: 512-328-6655
Austin is blessed with many great nurseries, but for plant lovers it would be hard to imagine a better destination than Barton Springs, for the simple reason that the nursery grows and propagates a great deal of what it sells (a rarity in the present age). The well-stocked benches of four-inch material offer a unique experience, with a huge array of perennials, roses, and even occasional trees and shrubs-often difficult or expensive to come by otherwise. Plants include many natives and almost anything else fun to grow in Austin, and the selection changes continuously, so it’s worth checking frequently. Attractive pots, books, soils, and supplies are available as well, with a cheerful, knowledgeable staff.