• jjvanm

Anita’s Blog – Overcoming Plant Envy

Updated: Apr 18

I have plenty of clumps of Mexican hat (Ratibida columnifera) which are fun and colorful additions to the landscape; they pop up seemingly anywhere – an excellent example of self-propagation. Alas, I rarely see any insects on them, although they’re described as a nectar source for bees, butterflies and other insects and granivorous birds eat the seeds, so they’re a keeper.


A volunteer stand of Mexican Hat. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Mexican Hat. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

I have a lot of other loyal summer blooming plants that do see a lot of butterfly, hummingbird and insect activity, like Turk’s cap, (Malvaviscus drummondii), Runyon’s violet wild Petunia (Ruellia nudiflora), Berlandier’s fiddlewood (Citharexylum berlandieri) and Texas frog fruit (Phyla nodiflora) – all prolific bloomers, self-seeders and continuous nectar sources.


A giant Swallowtail butterfly draws nectar at a Ruellia nudiflora. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The bane of my native gardening is my failure to grow a plant that covers much of America, except for seven of the most northwestern states. That plant is Indian blanket (Gaillardia pulchella var. australis), also known as firewheel. I’ve purchased seeds, from a reputable company, planted them at appropriate times, but have yet to see the appearance of any leaves poking up through the soil. Instructions from various Internet searches say things like: An easy-to-grow native nectar plant, great for poor soils; readily self-seeding. I always like to see that self-seeding tag on something, however, as anyone would agree, one must get the plant to grow and bloom before it can become self-propagating.


Indian Blanket, also called Firewheel. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Even the Richardson, A., King, K. 2011. Plants of Deep South Texas: A Field Guide to the Woody and Flowering Species. Texas A&M University press, College Station, page 100, says this about Indian blanket: “This is one of our showier wildflowers, an especially dependable bloomer in the coastal sands. It is commonly sold in wildflower seed mixes.” Its Valley distribution is Cameron, Hidalgo, Willacy and Starr counties. The authors are correct about it being dependable closer to the beaches. But I have to say, the states in mainland America where Indian blanket grows do not all have soils rich with coastal sands; therefore, I submit that my garden should be able to reap these bright, eye-catching orange and yellow wheels of fire.


And now, thanks to volunteering at the South Texas Border Chapter Texas Master Naturalist booth at the Rio Grande Valley Home and Garden Show last weekend, I am the proud owner of two beautiful Indian blanket plants! If you missed the three-day home show event, we sold nearly 200 native plants that chapter members potted up or otherwise propagated for the event.


Two Indian Blanket plants in the butterfly garden. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

It’s always a good idea to volunteer to help set up a booth event and to work the booth. It’s fun working as a team with other chapter members, and there’s also that incredible benefit of sharing from others’ success – especially when they donate plants you’ve been coveting, like the beautiful Indian blankets.


So, what’s so special about Indian blanket? A lot of it may be the challenge. However, there are many good reasons to have Indian blankets in a garden: They’re colorful, have a long bloom cycle – spring to fall – they’re exceptionally drought tolerant and will continue to bloom in dry, hot climates in full sun in many soil types as long as the soil is well draining.


There’s more: they are a host plant for the common buckeye and checkerspot butterflies and a rich source of nectar for adult butterflies. My two plants have their own cleared space in my butterfly garden; I’ve watered them in well and continue to check them daily to make sure they establish; they’re already pushing out more blooms! I have visions of a small colony of Indian blankets by next spring.


Another fun plant I purchased while working the TMN booth is a plant with which I have a peculiar history. One year, we brought in a couple of pickup truck loads of soil that we purchased from a company along the highway, more or less around the corner from where we live, to backfill where we’d rebuilt a portion of retaining wall. Out of that soil came more than a few new-to-the-yard plants, one in particular was cow pen daisy (Verbesina encelioides). Its claim to fame, other than being a beautiful golden-blooming plant, is that it is a host to the bordered patch butterfly and excellent nectar source for adult butterflies and other insects.



A volunteer Cow Pen Daisy plant. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Another sterling quality is that it loves disturbed areas. One thing I noticed as the plants bloomed and developed through the summer was the inordinate number of seeds they spilled. As I mowed the lawn, seeds hitched a ride on the lawnmower to other parts of the yard. Amazingly, I had plants the next year in several areas, and then none in subsequent years. And now, I have a healthy cow pen daisy plant once again with the purchased plant from our Texas Master Naturalist booth at the home show last weekend.

Insects on a Cow Pen Daisy flower. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Jumping back to those truck loads of dirt, another species that came up in force was golden wave (coreopsis tinctoria), which also disappeared after its initial year, and now, a couple of years later, it has reappeared and is nicely re-seeding itself all over the place. The coreopsis was easy to pot up and tend through the month preceding the plant sale and was one of my contributions along with Mexican hat and other species. Coreopsis is a good plant to have around. It’s a nice, spring- to summer-blooming plant useful to wildlife; it provides nectar for bees, beetles, wasps, flies, and butterflies, especially the skippers; it also attracts pollinators and provides seed for granivorous birds.


A Green Kingfisher perches behind a flourishing Coreopsis plant. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Regardless the bewildering fickleness of native plants, it’s time to start thinking about butterflies and caterpillars.


If you missed the McAllen convention center event and the chapter plant sales at our booth, there’s still an opportunity to add native plants to your landscape and get them well-established and blooming for summer. Our website has an updated link to many of the native plant growers in the Valley, including a new establishment in Edinburgh. Check out the link:

https://www.stbctmn.org/post/valley-native-plant-growers-nurseries If you know of other Valley native plant growers who would like to be included in our list, please contact the Webmaster with their name and telephone number.


The best way to help plants re-seed themselves is to allow them to remain in the garden long after their blooms have turned to seed; the fallen seeds not only produce plants in subsequent years, they help feed countless insects and other wildlife.

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