|By Jan Pipher
hen the weatherman describes the monthly rainfall total as a “trace,” it’s either just an average Texas August or perhaps it might be time to start planning and planting for the possibility of drought. Drought or long periods of low rainfall is devastating to plant and animal life and continued drought such as Texans have experienced in times past, isn’t just an agricultural problem but subtly affects all areas of the economy and human livelihood. Think about your landscape and where it would really be without water. Those of you who’ve had the pleasure of mixing natives and other drought tolerant plantings in with your traditional landscape would gain an even greater appreciation for these plants for they’d likely be all that remained. Probably all Texas flower gardeners have some lantana, verbena, or yaupon holly somewhere in their yards but how about some new ideas to increase the range of drought tolerant possibilities. Narrowing down from a myriad of excellent choices, here are a few that I find to be among the toughest: zexmenia, nandina, salvia x superba, Jerusalem sage and celosia.
Keep in mind that these plants need some water to get started. I’ve had people tell me that they planted natives and they all died! Upon questioning; it turned out that since they knew natives didn’t need supplemental water, they didn’t water them at all! – not as seedlings or as transplants from a nursery. Every plant needs water to get started – some more than others, and this is how natives get their start too. This past spring I saw a tall old fashioned pink cleome (Egyptian spider flower) blooming against a stone wall where there had been a sowing of it three or four years before. Some of the seed from the original plants had been eaten by birds and insects, some of it might have rotted in the winter rains, some of it might have been ground up in the gravel of the nearby road, but one seed, with the right moisture and the right soil survived all that time until conditions proved favorable for it to get its roots down deep enough to survive, and there it stood in all its glory. And similarly, how many of you have had your naturalized cedar sage with its scarlet blooms not return one year due to a dry winter, only to have it reappear several seasons later after a nice rainy spring? So, have a watering plan for getting your plants off to a good start. If you’re scattering wildflower seeds, you’ll get a better return for your money if you scratch them into the soil and sprinkle them until their secondary leaves appear – then watch the weather as they grow and if it isn’t raining, get out the hose.
Potted nursery plants – even natives, are accustomed to being watered. If you’re planting perennials in a drought year, the ground all around the plant is going to be dry as a bone, so don’t just splash at it because it’s a native and doesn’t need water, soak the ground to simulate a good rain, let it dry out and water it again. These plants appear to grow very slowly because they’re growing below the surface of the ground more than they’re growing above ground. The roots of buffalo grass, for instance, can go down as deep as 10 ft., so that in dry weather they’re deep enough to find residual moisture, but they didn’t do that in a season. Keep your plants watered until they are established or you may find you have wasted your time, money and effort.
Zexmenia will require some water to get started but once established it’s there for the duration. This worthy perennial with rough gray-green foliage and covered with persistent yellow daisies all summer long is something of an enigma. The nursery trade has never bothered to come up with an attractive common name for it and it has been consistently by-passed by native landscapers for supposedly showier yellows like gold mound lantana, daminiata, and calylophus. Zexmenia is more upright, making a low, dense shrub which spreads quickly by root and by seed. This sun lover will tolerate some shade and has the advantage of having an exceptionally long bloom period and, with periodic shearing, always looks fresh and full of bloom in heat and drought. If the course texture of the leaves deters you, consider planting it on the perimeter of your yard or on the edge of a wooded spot for a naturalized effect.
Nandina ought to come as the surprise choice for most but if you’re a hiker, you’ve surely come across some escaped nandina in the midst of the woods far from human habitation and sprinkling systems and made the connection that this is one tough plant. Nandina, in fact, is a champ when it comes to drought, especially with light shade. This versatile shrub, a native of China, comes in all heights, from 12-inch Nana to the standard Heavenly Bamboo at 8 feet. With a smattering of white flowers in the spring, lacy bamboo-like foliage, fall color and red berries, nandina makes a good container plant, bonsai, hedge, screen, walkway border or accent for a desert garden.
Salvia x superba or meadow sage, I have to admit, is one of my all-time favorite plants. The low purple blue spires appear summer, winter, spring and fall! This is another plant that often has been passed up by landscapers, though it’s hard to imagine why. It is small – 12 inches in height, with dark green basal leaves; it’s evergreen, drought tolerant, and its habit of blooming when nothing else around it does, makes a top plant for low moisture gardening. Related plants, though generally taller in height, “Blue Hills,” “May Night” and “Snowhill” (white flowering) share many of the same characteristics but may be a little fussier where they’re planted. Start these in loose, well drained soil.
Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruiticosa) is a show stopper when in full bloom. Its buttery yellow flowers circle the 2 to 4 feet stem in bright whorls at the leaf joints. This old time garden plant comes from the Mediterranean where the climate is cool and damp during the winter and hot and dry in the summer much like most of Texas. Course, crinkly, gray-green leaves cover a spreading base 2 feet or more in diameter. After the late spring bloom the whole bloom stalk should be removed for more possible flowering later in the summer. The base can be trimmed back much the way you groom lamb’s ears. Phlomis comes in several other yellow and some lavender pinks as well. I have an unidentified lavender variety that is just as drought tolerant and blooms more frequently than our Jerusalem sage, so watch for new varieties and colors.
I’ve included celosia, a reseeding annual, with these perennials as an example of another way plants function in drought. Tropical colored celosias don’t have deep perennial root systems to carry them through dry spells, but put out plenty of seed – which, with a chance bit of moisture, can sprout and quickly mature in its effort to propagate itself.
Like the cleome mentioned above, sometimes you get some pleasant surprises when least expected from reseeding annuals. Of course, more consistent bloom is proportionate to water and fertilizer and celosias respond well with a little attention. Noted for their brilliant colors of red, pink, yellow and orange, they also come in novel shapes, such as the dense, fan-shaped blooms of “cockscomb” celosia. Plume varieties and cockscomb both make bold statements in the flower garden, good cut flowers, and excellent dried flowers noted for holding their color.
When all is said and done, don’t forget to mulch! If you’re on expensive city water or well water where there’s just enough water for your home needs and no more, get straw, pine bark or whatever’s handy, and deeply mulch the bases of all your trees, flower beds and shrubs. The hardy plants will appreciate it and there may be a special cutting or a rare plant that will survive because of the mulch’s blanket of protection from the heat and increased moisture retention in the soil.