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Anita’s Blog – Easy Successful Gardening

How can I protect my plants from winter weather?

In light of a recent prediction to expect a cold winter, two winter freeze events of note behind us, and the unusual heat and drought of the summer we’ve just had, a lot of people are looking to the experts, nursery owners, landscapers and Texas Master Naturalists for answers on how to protect their plants and gardens from brutal winter weather.

Harlingen’s native plant nurseryman Mike Heep and Port Isabel garden columnist and owner and operator of R. Lewis Landscaping, both recommend that when a freeze is predicted, deep water your trees and shrubs.

Water acts as an insulator between the soil and tree roots. And even if it doesn’t make sense to non-biologists like me, moist soil keeps the roots warmer than dry soil and that added insulation helps minimize the risk of damage. It is recommended to water a day or two before the freeze, if possible, which helps for greater water absorption. Water to the drip line, not just around the trunk of the tree or shrub.

It’s only October, hardly a time to expect freeze but it doesn’t hurt to prepare while the weather is pleasant and put you and your plants one step closer to survival. I have a nonnative herb, rue, Ruta graveolens, a perennial herb plant that I like to keep around. It is a host plant for giant swallowtail butterflies. It grows to nearly three feet tall and has somewhat slender growth. I put an ordinary wire tomato cage over it. When freeze is predicted, I throw a sheet or two over the cage-support and anchor the sheet at the ground with bricks so strong winds don’t whip the sheets away. I buy sheets at resale stores and estate sales which makes for a colorful yard until the threat of freeze passes.

Rue is a host plant for Giant Swallowtail caterpillars. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

By accident, I had a stack of Mexican fan palm, Washingtonia robusta, palm fronds piled in a section of our yard because I was too lazy to clear them away. During the weeklong freeze of 2021, that saved my Dutchman’s pipe, Aristolochia trilobata, a host plant to polydamas butterflies. Dutchman’s pipe is a tropical vine that travelled along the ground and rooted at the nodes fortuitously under the pile of palms fronds. That protected portion of rooted vine was safe. The unprotected vine growing on the fence didn’t survive the freeze.

Dutchman's pipe is a tropical vine; it did not survive a freeze. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Polydamas caterpillars use Dutchman's Pipe as a larval host. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

A Polydamas butterfly. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

If you have access to an over abundance of palm fronds, clip the tail off and save the fan portion to use for protecting ground covers and sturdy low growing plants.

There’s an easier solution and one I recommend when I’m asked how to prepare a garden for possible harsh winter weather. Instead of going to all the trouble to protect plants, plant plants that will survive any of the elements the weather may bring on. Plant native plants. One of the first things Texas Master Naturalists learn when they begin their training is that native plants are native because they have survived hundreds of years in the Valley’s diverse and sometimes harsh and extreme environment of drought, floods, heat, freeze, sun, wind, salt and snow – and occasionally, all those weather events in the same year.

Here are some of my favorite plants to promote when I give presentations and now that the weather is cooling off, it’s an ideal time to plant in the Rio Grande Valley.

Following is a look at a dozen native plants that can survive a harsh freeze and that can be planted now and through the winter.

Part 1 looks at four plants that are pretty and can bring interest and entertainment to the gardener. Check this site next week for Part 2.

Yellow Sophora, Sophora tomentosa, also called necklacepod, is a great stand-along shrub. It can grow from 3 to 6 feet tall with a nice 5 to 6-foot girth of graceful arching branches, long-blooming yellow flowers, and soft grey/green leaves that lend a pastoral effect to the landscape. This shrub can survive temperatures to 20 degrees Fahrenheit and come back from the roots if frozen to the ground. It provides nectar for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds during the day and moths and nectar insects during the night.

The unique seedpods are strings of green beads, which turn yellow and then brown when ripe (hence the name necklacepod). The seeds can remain on the plant for two years. The shrub may reseed itself below the mother plant; upstarts can easily be potted up and shared or transplanted.

Yellow Sophora seedpods. The plant also is called Necklacepod. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Turk’s Cap, Malvaviscus drummondii, might just be the perfect plant for entertainment. It is one of the few natives that will grow in shade. I planted one at the base of a mesquite tree where it gets afternoon sun. It has colonized nicely although it has a sprawling nature once it gets beyond about three feet; stems often fall over. It blooms about 11 months of the year, from late winter to early winter, seeming to rest during December.

A healthy colony of Turk's Cap around the base of a Honey Mesquite tree. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

It is recommended to cut back to about 6 inches every 2 or 3 years at the end of winter, which happened after the 2021 freeze out of necessity, because the branches died. It came back quickly. It is an absolutely excellent plant for attracting hummingbirds. Orioles don’t mess around tunneling into the bloom, they strike right at the nectar spot.

A female Hooded Oriole drinking nectar from a Turk's Cap flower. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Great Kiskadees eat the fruit, curved-bill thrashers, grossbeaks and Ani, glean insects from the shrubs. There is some butterfly activity; it is host to mallow scrub-hairstreak and Turk’s cap white-skipper butterflies and a rare-to-the-Valley Art Deco-esque moth, Eusceptis flavifrimbriata. Plant Turk’s cap where you will most likely get optimal viewing pleasure.

Eusceptis flavifrimbriata moth, an infrequent visitor to Southmost Texas. (Photo by Anita Westervelt).

Barbados cherry, Malpighia glabra, also called manzanita, is a shrub to have just for the fruit for birds.

Ripe Barbados Cherry fruits ready for the birds. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Barbados cherry has a long history of benefitting both humans and wildlife. The fruit is a powerful source of Vitamin C. Modern day additives proved to be more commercially economical and the plant is no longer in demand for mass production. But the value to wildlife remains. I never recommend eating from the wild as one never knows about someone’s unknown allergies, but it must be noted, spit the seeds out – each fruit has three small, rounded seeds with small, fluted wings that give them a triangular appearance; two are larger than the third seed. They are inedible seeds, or stones, and are yellowish with a very hard, corrugated leathery coat.

Barbados Cherry blooms. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The Rio Grande Valley is the northern most native range of Barbados cherry. As a showy hedge plant or a single shrub, the plants can grow to five or six feet tall with a two- or three-foot spread; the shrubs can handle an occasional pruning. With a very high heat tolerance, they do well in full or partial sun. The leaves remain green all year. Expect blooms in the spring and throughout the year after rain. The shrub is a host plant for some skipper butterflies. White tail deer sometimes eat the leaves and birds, raccoons and coyotes feed on the fruits. A harsh winter may cause the leaves to fall, but leaf buds will begin to appear come spring.

Hairy wedelia, Zexmenia hispida. I love my Hairy wedelia. Every year I think I’ll trim it down nearly to the earth and rescue it from the Bermuda grass that won’t abate. But I don’t and the neat little shrub dome just keeps spiking out blooms in all directions.

Messy but effective, Hairy Wedelia provides nectar for butterflies. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Mine stays at about 24 inches in height and girth, although reputed to grow to three feet or taller. My plant was not even harmed by the 2021 freeze – maybe it didn’t bloom that week, but it was one of the first to rally once the temps warmed up. Hairy wedelia attracts butterflies for nectar, especially the laviana white skippers. It is a host plant to the bordered patch butterfly.

Laviana Skipper butterfly on Hairy Wedelia flower. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

For a list of local native plant growers and nurseries, noted books about native plants, handbooks and planting guides for Rio Grande Valley plants, visit

Part 2 will finish up a look at a dozen native plants that can survive a harsh freeze and can be planted through the autumn and winter in the Rio Grande Valley. Check this site next week for Part 2, but why wait -- visit a native plant nursery today!



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