Garden Color Despite Drought

Garden Color Despite Drought
By William Scheick
Contributing Editor

As I wrote in another article, droughts are dreaded dragons that lay waste to our prized landscapes and gardens. In Texas, droughts can show up any season, not just during blistering summers. They can’t be slain, only endured. And the havoc they wreak can last well beyond their obvious months of withering siege.

That article considered the long-term impact of drought on trees. This time, we’ll consider can-do plants that not only endure droughts but also continue to color our gardens during such harsh times. Various cacti and succulents are obvious contenders — too obvious. I also omit drought-tough xeric plants that hang on without help from us but flower only after a rainfall. Whereas, for instance, fairy duster (Calliandra eriophylla) and flame acanthus (Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii) keep their foliage throughout protracted dry spells, these resilient and beautiful Texas natives shut down blooming when moisture has been scarce for too long. Rain triggers their reflowering.

The following profiles highlight plants that defy drought and also provide color — rain or no rain. Admittedly, this is a selective list based on my observations in two counties (Travis and Gillespie), both now prone to long stretches of flora-withering dry spells, including this past winter. I am sure that you will think of other colorful drought-busters.

Drought during pre- and official spring — prime flower-time in my locales! — grinds down a gardener’s spirit. Then, almost everything we want in the garden gets off to a slow start, whereas weeds seem undeterred. That’s the case with henbit (Lamium amplexicaule), a mint-family member that actually starts to cover ground during the winter. By spring, even if atypically droughty, henbit blooms its little heart out. And its intermittently tiered foliage-whorls look much cuter than any weed should.

A funny fact about this and other related lamium species: they might be drought-indifferent weeds where we live, yet some people grow them on purpose. L. maculatum ‘Purple Dragon,’ ‘Pink Pewter,’ ‘White Nancy’ and another cultivar nicknamed “Pink Chablis” provide notable examples. Bees and chickens love lamiums, and some people eat these herbs raw or cooked. As with other minty plants, lamiums fail to interest deer. Dedicating a partially shaded garden edge to lamiums — henbit included — guarantees cute miniature flutes of pre- and early-spring color no matter the weather. Henbit particularly impresses as a foot-high groundcover gracefully blanketing (without tending) the otherwise vacant spaces between design-challenging, stocky agaves.

More conventional than henbit, evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa) beautifully populates open fields during late afternoons and early mornings with or without rain in my vicinity. While my local perennial primroses show pink (with white-haloed yellow throats) from March through May, white varieties grow wild in the northern parts of our state. The biennial yellow evening primrose (O. biennis) shows up nearby, too, when the heat of the afternoon readies their blooms for late-day display and also releases this plant’s lemony scent.

For spring blooms during the day despite drought, my never-fail flowering quince (Chaenomeles spp.) and rosemary share henbit’s February jump on spring. No matter the weather, they never disappoint native bees or me. Likewise, the fat taproot of antelope-horns milkweed (Asclepias asperula), a monarch-butterfly perennial, usually benefits enough from late-winter rains to power through early-spring drought and prop up large hemispheres of green and white flowers.

And the colorful red, orange and yellow flowers of my unwatered native lantanas (L. urticoides) join in by April or May. While I have seen these lantanas repeat-bloom shortly after a decent rainfall, I have never seen them respond to hose watering. So I do not bother anymore, and they adorn my gardens on their own well into summer despite long parched stretches.

Drought and summer often go together in Texas, where heat also steadily ratchets up. Even so, in the alkaline sandy beds of my yards, lavender sends up purplish floral spikes in late spring that easily grace early summer. When uncrowded, Lavendula stoeches (Spanish lavender) and L. heterophylla ‘Sweet’ withstand our sunlight, heat and humidity.

By mid-summer I pay my respects to such go-getters as blanket flower (Gaillardia spp.), coneflower (Echinacea spp.), false sunflower (Heliopsis spp.), tickseed (Coreopsis spp.) and yarrow (Achillea spp.). As if shrugging off tough times, their drought-indifferent beauty reigns through summer and autumn.

After having died back during the winter, my yellow bells (Tecoma stans) recover quickly and once they start blooming, their majestic sunlight-filled trumpets continue throughout the summer, even during the wretched 40-day stretch of the triple-digit heat-wave of 2017. For guaranteed results, try Texas-tough ‘Gold Star’ or ‘Sunrise.’ Many yellow-bell hybrid cultivars, particularly those crossed with tropical Tecoma species, perform unevenly in achieving height, foliage and blossoms — with the reds performing the worst, in my experience.

I also appreciate golden thryallis (Galphimia gracilis). This perennial can be more easily shaped (as needed for a setting) than yellow bells and repeats its gorgeous floral performance year after year without dying back. And add, too, that in my yard and (more generally) in the southern half of our state, this sun-loving Mexican native blooms spectacularly not only during the summer but also autumn. Once established, this bush copes with drought and requires almost no upkeep other than light pruning in late winter.

Cylindrical-leafed rose moss or sun jewel (Portulaca grandiflora) and paddle-leafed purslane (P. oleracea) head my list of resilient summer-through-autumn annuals. These portulacas include several species hailing (it is believed) primarily from Central and South America, although Texas is home to a lovely miniature with dot-size flowers (perfect for my smaller rocky settings) called kiss-me-quick (P. pilosa).

Globe amaranth or bachelor buttons (Gomphrena globosa) proves equally stunning. With clover-like floral balls in nearly iridescent colors that appeal to butterflies, bees and hummingbirds, this Central American tropical annual thrives in direct sunlight and dry, sandy locations. Once it is established, leave it alone. To play it safe, select bachelor-button varieties from gomphrena series recommended by Texas Superstars: All Around, Las Vegas, Audray, Gnome and Buddy.

If I had not witnessed it long ago, I would never have guessed that (once established) Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa; P. lanata) would bloom reliably for weeks despite being fully exposed to afternoon sunlight and denied moisture. Neglect does not matter to this minty Lamiaceae family perennial, a henbit relative with sage-like foliage and sun-golden floral whorls. In my locales their blooms persist into early autumn and their foliage easily withstands wintery spates of 18º F plus a thin glaze of ice. Jerusalem sage simply amazes!

Although autumn in Texas remains very hot, it’s potentially a prime garden season unless the drought dragon rears up. October through early December went rainless in my neighborhood last year, with predictably withering results. More happily during that drought, the flowering exceptions proved easy to spot, such as crepemyrtle (Lagerstroemia cvs.) and also antelope-horns milkweed (particularly if it underperformed during the previous spring).

I would award first prize to mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea), which soldiers on no matter what. One secret to its drought-resistance: narrow leaves restricting moisture loss during transpiration. In the course of many weeks from spring through fall, the violet-blue flowers on this sage’s many spikes open slowly and sequentially from the bottom up, with each (indeterminate) tip able to expand with still more floral buds if rain occurs. Sometimes mealycup sage can withstand nights of near freezing temperatures to add charm to a wintery Christmas Day, when once I witnessed an unlucky, non-migrating hummingbird trying desperately to extract chilled nectar from the remaining blooms.

Second prize would go to Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), which is not actually a sage but a minty Lamiaceae relative of henbit and Jerusalem sage. With very little rain, this sprawling woody perennial never gives up in its dry, sandy setting, and its long bloom cycle easily dovetails summer and fall. Bees and hummingbirds visit, while deer ignore its widespread floriferous peaks looking like lavender mist.

Beneath live-oak canopies, rangy bushes of bee- and hummingbird-pleasing Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus) also prevail brilliantly without watering from late summer well into autumn (usually up to Thanksgiving). The bright-red bleeding-heart type (var. drummondii) dominates my Travis area, although one neighbor showcases a pink-flowered variety. I have never personally seen the white-flowered type.

Drought may seem less worrisome during winter, but actually it harms the root systems of our garden plants, especially trees. Yes, metabolic enzymes related to transpiration, photosynthesis and carbohydrate production commonly slow down during winter. Root health, however, remains critically vital regardless of season. Although many perennials engage in some sort of resting period during winter, this so-called dormancy actually refers to minimal conservational activity, not suspended animation. And where winters tend to be mostly warm in Texas, our plants easily snap out of this resting stage. So, winter rainfall matters.

In the two counties informing my survey here, winter flowers prove hard to find, drought or no drought. I have seen yellow-headed four-nerve daisies (Tetraneuris scaposa) and sweet-smelling, cream-dotted, leafless winter honeysuckle (Lonicera fragrantissima) bloom beyond Christmas. And when it is somewhat protected along a sunlit (southern-exposed) foundation edge or similar micro-niche, my trailing lantana (L. montevidensis) sometimes manages to maintain purple flowers during dry winters. And, as I mentioned before, my flowering quince and rosemary shrubs blossom in February regardless of wintery drought.

For December-through-March color, however, I especially rely on evergreen foliage and bright berries (drupes). I love the winter-long fuzzy, pale-red fruits of evergreen sumac (Rhus virens) and especially value my many hollies — possumhaw, yaupon, ‘Burford’ and ‘Nellie R. Stevens.’ Much easier to manage than tire-puncturing firethorns of Pyracantha, tough-yet-pretty, toil-free hollies don’t give a hoot about drought.

Nor do chili pequins (Capsicum annuum). These gorgeous petite bushes may be the official Texas state native pepper, but in my opinion they remain underappreciated by gardeners. Although some rainfall is preferable for their best outcome, of course, long dry spells fail to mar the delicate charm of these low-care, die-to-the-ground returners. If you don’t want their fiery peppers, chili pequins can be grown in part-shade for their two-foot-high, three-foot-wide ornamental beauty alone. Over the course of winter, birds gobble down the Christmas-red drupes and leave behind undigested seed, now fully prepped for germination.

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