Mediterranean Plants for Texas

The gnarled scrub savannahs that coat hills in and around Austin invariably draw comparison to Mediterranean terrains and flora. Like Greece, southern France, and North Africa, central Texas lies mostly over limestone bedrock and usually enjoys mild, well-watered winters, followed by hot, dry summers. Many excellent garden plants from the rugged Mediterranean garigue seem at home nestled here among local oaks and junipers.

However, it’s prudent to be aware of things that set this region apart. Unlike Tuscany or California, which have true Mediterranean climates, with cool springs and little or no summer rain, central Texas passes rapidly from its brief, erratic winter to a torrid summer. And although droughts are frequent, thunder-storms may arrive at almost any moment.

This reality limits success with plants like hardy lavenders, which struggle with fungal and bacterial diseases if dampened in hot weather. When clients show me romantic pictures of lavender-covered hills in France, 1 suggest more reliable alternatives: Russian sages (Perovskia spp.) as flowering perennials or tender, floriferous fern-leaf lavenders (Lavandula multifida) for summer bedding.

Other aromatic Mediterraneans seem to thrive under Texas conditions, enduring an occasional monsoon without complaint while affording versatile greenery for sunny, arid sites where deer limit plant choices. Silver germanders (Teucrium fruticans), Jerusalem sages (Phlomis cvs.), conehead thymes (Thymbra capitata), Turkish spurges (Euphorbia rigida), green and gray lavender cottons (Santolina spp.), dusty millers (Centaurea cineraria), hybrid wormwoods (Artemisia ‘Powis Castle’), and an Israeli cross of Salvia fruticosa and S. officinalis called ‘Newe Yaar’ all succeed with little care if set out during cool fall or winter weather.

Icons of the Mediterranean landscape—figs, pomegranates, lavender trees (Vitex agnus-castus), stone pines (Pinus pined), and Italian cypresses (Cupressus sempervirens)— prove successful here if not planted on compacted soils. Although severe winters place olives and date palms at risk, elegant half-hardy evergreens, like dwarf myrtle (Myrtus communis ‘Compacta’), hybrid bay laurel (Laurus azorica x ‘Saratoga’), and the compact laurus-tinus (Viburnum titius ‘Spring Bouquet’), seem to perform beautifully. The bushy Mediterranean fan palm and its silver-leaved variant from the Atlas Mountains, Chamaerops humilis v. cerifera, grow as thriftily as the indigenous bluebonnets.

From midwinter through spring, persistent cool-season bulbs, like white and blue flags (Iris albicans), bloom in older gardens. Fall-flowering sternbergias, feathery fennels, Sicilian oreganos, perennial arugulas (Eruca sylvatica), and self-seeding opium poppies, cornflowers, larkspurs, toadflaxes, and sweet peas (Lathyrus odoratus ‘Cupani’) have adopted this region as their own, too. They ask only for spaces in the sun and in return fill gardens with the colors and aromas of Mediterranean shores. 

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