|By Judy Hominick
ardening anywhere in Texas is challenging, but gardeners in the Coastal Bend area of South Texas face more than most when it comes to gardening. Though it would seem the long, warm growing seasons and the mild winters with infrequent freezes would make gardening a snap, the reality is different. Scorching summers with temperatures often coming close to the century mark coupled with periods of drought broken by deluges plus strong coastal winds would tempt some to throw in the trowel. Coastal Bend gardeners, though, persevere and find a way. Fortunately, home gardeners can get some great ideas of successful gardening despite Mother Nature by visiting the South Texas Botanical Gardens and Nature Center (formerly the Corpus Christi Botanical Gardens and Nature Center). The nature center encompasses 180 areas of native habitat with gardens of every type from arid to butterfly to wetlands. As an added bonus, it can also boast of its location on the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail.
Hardy roses and perennials can be found thriving in the Earth Kind Demonstrations and Trial Garden where they are grown without added fertilizer or pesticides. Maintained by the Corpus Christi Rose Society, the Rose Garden and Pavilion has more than 300 well-kept roses and 100 varieties in 12 raised beds. Even though the Rose Garden is considered a “formal” garden, that did not stop two javelinas from walking down the Rose Garden’s bridal path recently!
With more than 100 varieties, the Plumeria Garden is one of the largest public outdoor displays in the continental United States. Because plumerias are not hardy, they are moved indoors for the winter to avoid the infrequent freezes the area can receive. Orchids are another group of plants that spend all their time indoors. The Orchid House climate is controlled with fans, reverse osmosis, mist systems and a wet wall, and contains one of the largest public collections in the Southwest, with 2,000 plants.
A variety of larval and nectar plants for local native butterflies and caterpillars makes up the Butterfly Garden, which opened in 2007. A combination of blooming plants such as mistweed, clammy weed and zinnias are partnered with larval plants such as dill, pipevine and milkweed. Massive trellises hold climbing varieties of flowers — some, such as the passionvine, attract butterflies with their nectar and serve as a larval food for Gulf Fritillaries. Visitors can expect to see swallowtails, Mexican bluewings, red admirals, monarchs, sulphurs, queens and viceroys flitting about the garden.
To see lots of long-lasting blooms, visit the Hummingbird Garden and relax on a handy bench while seeing both “flying flowers” — as hummingbirds are sometimes known — and the long-lasting real flowers growing in the garden.
Hummingbirds need a nearly constant supply of nourishment in the form of nectar and, to a lesser degree, tiny insects and small spiders. A fast heartbeat, fast breathing rate and a high body temperature mean hummingbirds need to eat often — every 10 minutes or so all day. In a single day, they may consume 2/3 of their body weight.
“Our visitors adore the Hummingbird Garden not only to learn which attractor plants will create their personal backyard hummer haven, but also for its intimate mood with winding pathways, charming feeders, viewing benches and, of course, its variety of seasonal hummingbirds,” said MaryJane Crull, director of marketing.
A long-blooming flower in red, a hummingbird’s favorite color, Callistemon rigidus easily attracts the tiny birds who visit the flowers repeatedly. Both miniature bottlebrush bushes and full size trees reaching 15-20 feet high inhabit the garden. The common name, bottlebrush plant, comes from the flower’s resemblance to the common kitchen cleaning brush.
Fireman’s cap (Erythrina cristagalli), another red-flowered plant with an unusual bloom and a native of central South America, can also be found in the Hummingbird Garden.
“Fireman’s cap tree is a great showstopper in spring when it blooms and is sometimes a fall bloomer,” said Michael Womack, executive director.
The bright yellow tubular flowers of esperanza (Tecoma stans) in the Hummingbird Garden bloom continuously from spring to fall and make it very hummingbird friendly. A hummingbird, whose tongue can reach far inside the flower, easily extracts the nectar in the long, tubular blossom. Esperanza also fits perfectly in a Xeriscape garden as it will bloom no matter how dry or hot the weather. This small shrub is a Texas Super Star with 2-1/2 inch flowers and only hardy to zone 8b.
“We’ve been fortunate to find hummers consistently throughout the year with the addition of feeders being maintained year-round,” said Womack. “We add additional feeders during the fall migration in September and October to help with the additional birds that frequent the Coastal Bend, but some stick around through the winter as well.”
Gardeners in areas where hummers stay year-round can help by planting blooming plants in the cool months, too. Planting winter bloomers such as trailing purple lantana, shrimp plant and even the yellow hamelia really help with that, along with the winter feeders in case nectar is not as available when hummers do arrive, suggested Womack. “The surrounding brush provides perch areas and nesting habitats that protect them during our infrequent cold winter days and nights.”
“The Hummingbird Garden is the last formal exhibit you experience before entering the shaded Bird and Butterfly Nature Trail with vistas of Gator Lake from the Birding Tower and Palapa Grande,” said Crull.
The Bird and Butterfly Nature Trail makes up the only native forest in Corpus Christi and its labeled displays allow visitors to learn about the area’s native habitat with great views of Gator Lake. Here you can find a section of mesquite brush, which is well-adapted to the hot, semi-arid climate. Many of the woody plants have small leaves as a way to conserve water. Though perhaps not suited for a home landscape, it is interesting to see such trees as Texas ebony (Chloroleucon ebano), an important source of food and nesting for wildlife, or Iron Wood trees (Bumelia lanuginose), one of the hardest native Texas woods, which is often browsed by deer. snake eyes bush (Phaulothamnus spinescens) gets its name from the transparent fruit with a solitary seed which gives it the appearance of an eye.
Frequently seen is the Retama tree (Parkinsonia aculeate), the official tree of Corpus Christi. Enticing to both butterflies and hummingbirds because of the pretty yellow flowers with red-orange throats, the leaves and seeds are eaten by wildlife. This graceful tree with its bright green bark is drought tolerant and able to withstand saline conditions, making it perfect for the area.
The Wetland Awareness Boardwalk, 6 feet wide and 500 feet long, threads through a diverse ecosystem supporting a wide variety of wildlife plants, birds and fish and gives an up-close look at the ever changing wetlands. Water levels can go from very high to completely dry — common occurrences in south Texas.
In direct contrast to the wetlands is the nearby Arid Garden, which is perhaps most at home in this area given to long droughts. Huge blooming cacti, aloes, agaves and seasonal wildflowers are good examples for the “waterless” landscape.
There is even more to see at the Nature Center and more to come — construction for a seasonal conservatory for the butterfly garden is set to begin soon and future plans include a tropical garden area, a tree demonstration garden and a native plant garden. For more information, visit www.stxbot.org