The Herald of Spring

This morning my dogs and I visited our favorite leash-free nature-plenty park for a bit of exercise. We enjoyed following the paths through a winter assortment of evergreens, bare-branched deciduous woody plants, and golden-to-brown spent grasses and herbaceous plants (granted, the dogs were far more interested in animal smells while I, on the other hand, forego those risky smells and instead admired the plants). But I pulled up short when I spotted this treasure among the winter scene, tiny yellow-green blooms looking like miniature fireworks among the brown branches. I knew immediately that Elbow Bush was announcing the imminent arrival of spring ahead.


Elbow Bush, or Forestiera pubescens, is a deciduous Southwestern shrub that blooms much earlier in the year (Feb-Mar) than most other plants in the region. In fact, another of its nicknames is Spring Herald. Its blooms, which open before new leaves bud out, are important nectar sources for early-emerging butterflies and other pollinators. Later on, the female plants will produce dark-blue berries that are a favorite of wildlife.


Yet another name for Forestiera pubescens is Stretchberry. But here in our area, I know this shrub best as Elbow Bush, a name earned because the plant typically branches at right angles. It has tremendous wildlife value and makes a great understory addition, but gardeners should note that it does have a thicket-forming habit. So perhaps it might serve a naturalistic landscape best.

It won’t be long, and this plant like so many others will be covered in green foliage. Also spotted in bloom today — Mexican Plum, Agarita, and one wee little bloom on a Mountain Laurel (and all three were deliciously fragrant, too — I couldn’t help but check). Spring cometh!

Plateau Goldeneye and Other Fall Blooms

My family and I enjoy visiting Walnut Creek Park here in Austin with our dogs and friends all throughout the year. This beautiful 300-acre woodland park is busy with strolling families, determined trail runners, frolicking leash-free dogs, and trail-riding, hill-leaping, rock-jumping cyclists. The biggest draw of all is nature, with woods, grasslands, crisscrossing streams, and abundant wildlife. This fall, the park has been adorned with spectacular blooms and berries, perhaps thanks to the well-timed rains we’ve had this season and earlier in the year.

FYI, these photos were taken with my smart phone over a three-week period.


Just three weeks ago, Maximilian Sunflowers (Helianthus maximiliani) brought bright sunshine to line the trails.


While many sunflowers are annuals, Maximilian Sunflowers are perennial members of the aster family, and while they wait all year until fall to finally show their true colors, the pollinators are grateful once they do. 


Tucked into shadier areas, Calico Asters (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum) offered a subtle but happy fall presence.


Calico Asters are so named because their disk flowers offer yellow centers that age to a darker red. The plant can have both colors on display at the same time.


But the woodland areas also have their own yellow sunshine in the fall — Plateau Goldeneye (Viguiera dentata). This lovely aster is a prolific reseeder, but it is easy to manage. I have some special Goldeneyes in my backyard that were given to me by a dear woman who passed away this spring. They can reseed in my yard all they want, for each one is a memory of a wonderful environmental steward and friend.


Plateau Goldeneye is not only beautiful, it is the host plant for Cassius Blue and Bordered Patch butterflies.


Apparently some grasshoppers find it tasty, too. This photo actually is of a muncher I saw at the Wildflower Center a couple of weeks ago. It didn’t bother to stop eating while I took its picture.


Above, Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) had a determined showing at Walnut Creek Park despite the abundant presence of Plateau Goldeneye. No worries, for it knows that its seasonal blooms will outlast the yellow ones of its aster companions.


The berries of American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) gave a pleasantly shocking contrast of magenta. It’s hard to keep jogging or walking when these beautiful colors beckon you to stop. Mockingbirds would rather you keep going, however. Once you are out of the scene, they’ll get to work eating those beautiful berries.


Clusters of Prairie Flameleaf Sumac (Rhus lanceolata) berries ripen in the fall to a dark red color. These tart berries can be soaked to create a lemonade of sorts, high in Vitamin C.


A few weeks later, the berries are shriveled, and the foliage changes to vibrant fall colors, well deserving of its Flameleaf name.


Sometimes the Walnut Creek woods open up to sudden pocket meadows, giving romping dogs opportunities to bounce above the grasses, chase rabbits, and collect many seeds in their fur.


Those grasses, catching sunlight with their wispy seedheads, have their own seasonal value, for they give wildlife an important food source throughout the cooler months ahead.funnelspiderl10-19-14

Not so much a bloom, this funnel weaver spider did at least come out of its cozy hiding spot to say hello as we traveled by.


Beautiful park, worth visiting if you are in Austin. Dogs, worn out and happy. Dog points earned for the family.

Thank You, Native Plant Society of Texas!

This October I was very honored to be the 2014 recipient of the Native Plant Society of Texas‘ new Digital Media Award for my Great Stems blog. I’m so pleased that my blog has had an impact on those seeking to learn more about native Texas plants, gardening, conservation, and supporting wildlife, as well as connecting youth with nature.NPSOTaward11-2-14

When I first started on my gardening journey several years ago, I also started Great Stems, partly to document my progress and partly to keep me committed to my gardening endeavors. Early on in my experiences, I began to focus on developing my yard into a wildlife habitat, and that’s when I immersed myself into the world of native Texas plants, the foundation of our state’s biodiversity. At the same time, Great Stems underwent a journey of its own. The more I learned, the more I shared, and in time I realized that many readers were using my blog as a resource to learn more about native Texas plants. Since then, my entries are written to hopefully inspire, educate, and encourage other gardeners to plant native plants for conservation and to support wildlife, while still keeping its original sense of journey and adventure. While my posts have slowed somewhat due to my job, my wildlife garden is still going strong, as is my commitment to educating adults and kids about the role of native plants in the ecosystem.

Thank you again, NPSOT. I truly am honored, and I am equally grateful to this wonderful organization and its members for all the support and educational resources that they offer, as well as all the countless hours of hard work they do for conservation and protection of our state’s precious native plants and habitats.


Shades of Purple — Sawfly Larvae!

In one of those wow moments, one in which you had more than your smart phone to take a picture, I happened upon a wondrous sight. These little guys might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but you might just have to admit they’re still pretty cool… check out these colorful larvae:


They are by gosh purple, and while they are caterpillar-like, they are not actually caterpillars. They are the larvae of certain sawflies, which are in the Order Hymenoptera (along with ants, bees, and wasps). They were munching on Indian Mallow down near Onion Creek.


I have Indian Mallow (Abutilon fruticosum) growing wild in my backyard — I’m going to have to keep an eye on the plants for potential sawfly larvae there, too. Why? Because they are so very cool… and purple! Apparently they are not a common sight — I feel very fortunate indeed to have spotted them. Purple! Nature rocks.

It All Comes Full Circle

A few years ago, in the early stages of my wildlife garden, I planted my first Wafer Ash, or Common Hop Tree (Ptelea trifoliata). I was ecstatic about it, because I longed for Giant Swallowtail caterpillars to call it home (and dinner). These fun caterpillars are known for their characteristic bird-poop appearance, but the adult Giant Swallowtail stage is also spectacular — a gorgeous and very large yellow-and-black butterfly.

giantswallcat10-14-14This year we had to transplant that now large Wafer Ash to the opposite side of the yard, and I feared that it wouldn’t survive. But amazingly enough it did, and we have our latest batch of bird-poop caterpillars. These little guys are making me so happy, and I really do feel at the moment like the garden has come full circle — I’m right back to seeing one the favorite fauna species I planted trees for all those years ago.

giantswallcat10-18-14Wafer Ash is a small deciduous tree found in much of the eastern and southern areas of the United States and into Central America. Because it prefers part shade to shade for its light, it serves well as an understory tree. It earned its species name trifoliata for its characteristic three leaflets. Small white flowers in late spring give rise to wafer-like seeds come fall, hence one of its common names.


But Wafer Ash is not actually in the ash family at all — it’s actually part of the citrus family. In fact, lemon, orange, and other citrus trees can sometimes host these little caterpillars, too. I’ve definitely noticed that they much prefer the more tender leaves — I wonder whether the female butterfly actually selects them that way. In the wild, I can’t ever seem to find caterpillars on hop trees with bigger, darker leaves.

giantswallcatb10-18-14When these caterpillars take a rest, they are often found along the bark or branches of the tree, perhaps for camouflage or to simply avoid predators that might more easily locate them on the green leaves. As if that bird poop appearance isn’t enough to deter would-be munchers!

Soft, Silver, and Sunny: The Silverleaf Sunflower

I’m enjoying all the fall blooms in the wildlife garden right now, but ones that have me particularly happy are the cheerful Silverleaf Sunflowers (Helianthus argophyllus) that are lining our dry creek bed in the front yard. They are grandchildren of the original plant I grew in the front yard a couple of years ago.20141014-IMG_2030silvsunflA

These delightful flowers of sunshine grow easily from seed. Admittedly, the flowers also happily spread wherever their seeds catch hold (or get dropped by hungry birds). Sure, I’m seeing more seedlings each year that I grow them, but this plant is so beautiful that I see it as a plus. Wherever I’m fine with them growing, I let them stay.

Silverleaf sunflower

The fuzzy — nay, hairy — blue-green leaves are incredibly silky to the touch. Can you tell in the image just how soft those leaves are? I can’t stop petting them when I walk by. It’s easy, too, to understand how they got the name silverleaf.


The flowers and their attractive foliage are even catching the eyes of neighbors — I’ve had people drive by, roll down their window, and ask what kind of flowers they are. Now that I’ve got so many blooms, I’ve been sharing the coveted seeds, too. I do the same with our bluebonnet seedlings and seeds — bit by bit, my little-big garden is spreading beauty into our neighborhood.


I will say this about the sunflowers — they get very tall, so tall that they might flop over, as you can see in the above photo. They are well over 7 feet in my yard, in fact. They also will lose their lower leaves as they grow, and in the hot sun they might look a little pitiful until you are kind and give them water (I’m kind enough to wait for rainfall). But they perk up quickly with that touch of moisture — just don’t over-water them. Because they can drop their lower leaves, it’s probably a good idea to plant them behind a small shrub or other perennial, something with a nice contrasting red, pink, or purple bloom, I’d say, or perhaps something with a harder texture. I’ll do that next year.

Oddly enough, this plant is shown to be found in Texas, Florida, and North Carolina. What about those states in between? I wonder. In terms of wildlife value, the plant provides nutritious seeds for finches and other birds, and it is a host plant for Bordered Patch and Silvery Checkerspot butterflies.

This season, I’m also taking some of the seeds and sprinkling them around my backyard. I’m going to surround us in happy plants!

Switching to Native Grass

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassF Our backyard has been a challenge from the start, which for us was in 2008 when we began building our wildlife garden. The majority of the yard, filled with Bermuda grass, received the full effect of the Death Star (the sun) every day. Every step we took to convert our backyard to a habitat began with the removal of that Bermuda from rock-hard clay soil.

Our wildlife garden is quite well established now, but we kept putting off tackling the remaining (and still large) “lawn” of Bermuda. The reason simply was the amount of effort involved, but this year I decidedly to make the process simpler by working small areas at a time, seeding them and letting them get established while protecting them from potential encroachment from Bermuda still around.


Area normally in sun — picture taken late in the day. This photo shows the area after it rested under cardboard for several months.

Shovels, cardboard, and time were our tools. In the spring, we dug out a reasonable section of Bermuda completely by hand, taking care to get all the roots. Next, we covered the area with cardboard. Then we waited. I didn’t intend to wait for several months, but that’s what happened, and it worked out for the best. Sometime over the summer, I pulled off the cardboard to let rain soak the ground and see whether any Bermuda would reemerge. Hardly any did, thank goodness.

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassESeptember brought promise of rain for us this year, and it was a fine time to go ahead and seed the Habiturf, a mixture of Buffalo Grass, Curly Mesquite, and Blue Grama seeds. The idea of the three grasses is that diversity of acceptable species has a better chance of crowding out any weeds or Bermuda that might try to establish there, and that diversity helps provide protection from diseases or pests that might otherwise cause problems in a traditional turf lawn.

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassBFirst, we used a dirt rake and shovel to loosen up any compacted areas (necessary after months of dogs and people trampled the cardboard and soil).

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassCThen we added a light layer of compost and raked it in. The chickens did a better job of mixing it than we did. I highly recommend them as garden helpers and tools.


They would have particularly loved to find these beneficial rhinoceros beetle grubs that we found in the compost. The grubs were as big as a human thumb — you can see my husband’s thumb in the photo for comparison. But the chickens uncover enough of those grubs in the actual compost bin — the 5 or so we found during the grass process were rescued and delivered to secret places in the yard.

After mixing in the compost and rescuing giant beetle larvae, it was time for the seeds. I sprinkled them by hand — I opted for dense coverage until my husband complained about the cost of the seed. So I lightened up the coverage for the remaining portion. (Guess which section looked the best upon germination? Winner!)

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassGWe tamped the seeds into the soil simply by walking on the area. Then I watered thoroughly. The soil had to remain moist for days in order for seeds to germinate — in Texas, this could be the biggest challenge for many would-be native grass gardeners. Fortunately, we had a spell of rain to help.

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassGBTo help keep the dogs and chickens out, we created two barriers — one was chicken wire around the border, and I also laid down a sheet of light row cover, both for protection and as a way to help keep the soil moist for longer periods. FYI, the light row cover was more effective than the chicken wire at keeping the chickens out — chickens can both fly over and crawl under things quite easily. Fortunately, they were mostly interested in catching worms that were emerging from the rain, not eating the grass seed or seedlings. Mostly.

20140928-IMG_1736nativegrassHGermination was remarkably quick, thank goodness. The plentiful rain helped with that. Once the seedlings were about an inch or so long, I removed the light row cover and stopped worrying about the chickens getting in there. As the grass grows longer and fills in, I’ll share an updated picture.

I’m not looking forward to dealing with the rest of the Bermuda, but I feel better knowing the process has begun. It won’t be easy and it won’t be fun, but it will be worth it.

Good Morning, Texas Persimmon

20140821 txpersimmonb1253

I don’t remember which year we planted our first Texas Persimmon (Diospyros texana), but I estimate it’s about 7-8 feet tall now. So maybe about 4 years ago? It’s a female Persimmon, as the species has male and female trees, and only the females produce the flowers and fruit. Our little tree didn’t start producing fruit right away, of course, and when it did a couple of years ago, it started out with 2 fruit total on the entire tree. I eagerly waited for them to ripen, but one fell off and got yucky, and the other disappeared. I’m guessing squirrel or opossum. Last year, the tree produced 12 fruit total. Not many, perhaps, but a reasonable increase from the previous year — after all, it was 6 times as many! Once again, the fruit disappeared just as they began to ripen. Those wonderful wildlife, birds and mammals and whatnot, I enjoy attracting were not being fair and sharing the bounty!

20140821 txpersimmonb1252

This year, the Texas Persimmon is so loaded with fruit that it’s leaning way over. Most of the fruit are still green, but a few are changing color. In fact, when I approached this morning, one dark beauty stood out in front and caught my eye.

20140821 txpersimmonb1251Within a flash it was in my hand. MINE, you squirrels and birds! I was so astonished that I got it first that I almost didn’t know what to do with it. Well, really, there was only one option.

20140821 txpersimmonb1256

One little persimmon isn’t enough for a recipe. So, after giving it a rinse (and taking the time to get my camera), I bit into the juicy persimmon. Delicious and naturally sweet… and loaded with big seeds. Five of them, to be exact. Ah yes, I seem to recall that persimmons invite a little extra work in preparing them for cooking.

If I manage to collect enough ripe fruit before the wildlife find them, I plan to make some Texas Persimmon jelly. I’ll share the recipe when I do, of course. YUM.



Dawn in the Fall Garden

As the sun peeked up over the trees this morning, I stepped outside to take delight in the dew-covered garden. The rains this fall have brought about a colorful wave of blooms and greenery.



It might not look like it, but this area of my garden gets the worst of the summer sun, with rarely any water from me. This is why I love native Texas plants! They know how to conserve their energy in the summer heat. Then when fall rains come around, they perk up and smile (well, bloom).


In fact, it’s Texas Native Plant Week right now (October 20-26, 2013). I started the week by getting the rest of my natives planted in the ground, all purchased from the fall Wildflower Plant Sale. I’ve been adding new species to further increase the biodiversity, including Chickasaw Plum, Wild Blue Indigo, Cardinal Catchfly, Foothill Beargrass, Paleleaf Yucca, Green Sotol, Desert Honeysuckle, and others. Above, I’ve planted more Golden Groundsel, a favorite.

The rest of the week, I’ve been helping get lots of native plants to schools in the Austin area. The students are learning about natives such as Flame Acanthus, Skeletonleaf Goldeneye, Purple Coneflower, Shrubby Boneset, Engelmann’s Daisy, and many more. They are also learning about why all these plants are so important for wildlife and for Texas.


I’ve been spreading the Bluebonnet love, too. So many seedlings are cropping up this fall, far too many for my garden. I’ve given away more than a hundred little transplants already, and I’m helping others give away their excess seedlings, too. The 2nd graders I’m working with absolutely loved planting a bluebonnet garden at their school.pyramidbush10-25-13

One of my favorite native plants is Pyramid Bush (Melochia tomentosa), a sweet little shrub I purchased at the Wildflower Center last year. In the early morning, the flowers are all closed up.pyramidbush10-13

But in the warmth of the day, the blooms open, proving a touch of pink to the garden.pyramidbushb10-13

Don’t let the dainty flowers fool you — this plant is a hardy survivor, taking on the full summer sun without needing much water.evergreensumac10-25-13

Elsewhere on our property, the Evergreen Sumacs are in bloom. Berries will soon follow.


The Frostweed is tall and in full bloom, too, looking extra lovely when backlit by the morning sun.


The sun’s early morning lighting also highlighted another tall flower, a Silverleaf Sunflower.beemealybluesage10-25-13

This little honeybee was the first pollinator of the cool, early morning. First come, first served! Clever little bee… or at least a very hard worker.gulffrits10-25-13

The Gulf Fritillary caterpillars are hungrily eating up the Passionvine. We have chrysalises all over the stone on the back of the house, and more can be found on vines, trellises, and trees. I’ve been providing caterpillars to the school teams I’m working with. It’s nice to be able to share this amazing life cycle. At the rate they are going, though, my vine is going to be a skeleton before long. But that’s how the cycle goes — it will be bigger than ever next year.


Surprisingly, one caterpillar wandered all the way to the front yard before making its “J” and chrysalis. Of all things, it chose a dead little sunflower as its chrysalis spot. Lucky for it, I noticed it while planting and weeding — I almost yanked the plant away! But I left the caterpillar and the plant, and by next morning, there was the chrysalis. Do you see it in the image above?


There it is!


Way back in the backyard, a Cow-itch Vine (Cissus trifoliata) is growing, presumably planted by some bird. While I’m neutral about the vine in general, it turns out that it is the host plant for a couple of special moths found here in Texas, including the Vine Sphinx Moth and Wilson’s Wood-nymph Moth. So of course, I’m letting it stay.


Nearby, Tropical Sage (Salvia coccinea) is king of the woodland area, being allowed to reseed freely. The hummingbirds love this area.


Under other shady trees, I was pleased to see that the Yellow Passionflower (Passiflora lutea) has finally found the cedar trellis we made for it.


Not to be outdone by the natives, the veggie garden is looking great, too. Fall is so very much my favorite time to plant in Texas. We’ve had to cage a few newly seeded areas, as some nocturnal culprit has been digging into the beds a bit. Luckily, the garlic above does not find a cage an obstacle. This year’s garden includes cauliflower, broccoli, kohlrabi, garlic, shallots, snap peas, strawberries, lettuce, kale, spinach, and carrots, as well as many, many herbs. Loving it.

ghosts10-25-13   .

An error in measuring out garden fabric for one of the veggie beds proved to be a timely mistake. We turned our boo-boo into ghostly decorations. Boo! Boo! Get it?

Wonderful fall. Happy gardener.

Up Close and Native, Round 2

It’s that time again — let’s play another Guess That Native! game (for Round 1, click here). How closely do you know your southern native plants? Remember, all of these plants are native to Texas, at the very least, simply because that’s where I garden. Even if you aren’t from Texas or the South, I hope you’ll play the game — I bet you’ll know some of these plants or perhaps plants from the same family! Here we go!

buffalograss05-01-13 B. crossvine03-23-13 C.spanishred06-26-13D.evergreensumac03-23-13 E.mexolive06-26-13 F.redyucca03-23-13 G.skelleafgoldeneye06-26-13 H.blackfoot06-26-13

Ready to check the answers? Let me know how you did!