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Field Notes: Texas

THAT ARMAGEDDON COMES TO TEXAS, not just at the end of the millennium, but every August, endows gardens here with much of their uniqueness. . . .

THAT ARMAGEDDON COMES TO TEXAS, not just at the end of the millennium, but every August, endows gardens here with much of their uniqueness. The annual brush with hellfire rules out many traditional approaches to gardening, but this is really no tragedy. The unswerving severity of climate releases Texas gardeners to love new sets of plants and to dream their own ideas of how to arrange them. For example, annual visitations of heat and drought, combined with our pitilessly alkaline soils, rule out the expansive woodland plantings so favored in the Southeast, yet our fellow southerners need not sorrow for us over our withered azaleas. Another race of shrubs of surpassing beauty, the cenizas, or Texas purple sages (Leucophyllum spp.), will fill any imagined void. These pliant-stemmed natives of the Mexican borderlands create four- to six-foot masses of soft gray green, draped intermittently through summer with pinkish, snapdragonlike blossoms. Selection and propagation of useful dwarfs and variants with sage green to frosty gray foliage, as well as white, violet, rose-purple, and lavender blooms, have increased such that Texans are blessed with a stable of cultivars so full that entire brush gardens may be conceived. A few (Leucophyllum pringlei and L. revolutum) even provide fragrance reminiscent of honey or grapes, and all cenizas bloom responsively in reaction to summer thunderstorms, a charmingly unpredictable relationship in this sun-drenched climate.

Texans who read too many national magazines might be tempted to try growing hostas, participating in the current craze for these foliage perennials. Even with lavish irrigation, however, hostas succeed here mostly as forage crops for snails, and the first summer usually educates novice gardeners about these plants' limitations. More suitable (and more glamorous) subjects for this hot climate, the peacock gingers (Kaempferia spp.) provide better-adapted, less pedestrian, but no less leafy alternatives. These exotic perennials grow naturally on the limy hills of Indochina; so far all tried in Austin have thrived on our calcareous clays. Many have foliage marked and blotched with silver and bronze like calatheas, and nearly all these dwarf gingers offer continuous displays of charming, orchidlike blossoms. A silvery selection of Kaempferia laoticum called 'Shazaam' and the shiny Cornukaempferia 'Jungle Gold' take prizes for the most brilliantly reflective foliage; both outshine any would-be competition.

Even flowering bulbs, usually foregone in this hot region, find nontraditional expression in this spring-challenged climate. Instead of crying over lost crocuses, Texas gardeners can be seduced by the summer charms of rain lilies (Zephyranthes spp.; Z. grandiflora, pictured), which send up white, pink, or golden blooms after thundershowers. Along with these diminutives, the massive amaryllis-like Crinum species can be depended on for blooms as lavish as any lily, and like the rain lilies appear repeatedly, rising from the scorched earth in response to rains. These provide for lavish plantings along paths, patios, and other spots where their exotic fragrance can be enjoyed on summer evenings. Plants, it seems, have learned to dodge the annual Armageddon, surviving heat and drought for a better day. In midwinter, the soft greens and grays of cenizas quietly reflect the low-angled sunrays, while dormant clumps of crinums, rain lilies, and peacock gingers hide under crumpled masses of tawny dried leaves, gathering strength for battle with the warm season. As such persistent flowers come to be more widely grown in Texas, the new garden millennium promises to be a happy era.