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Anita’s Blog – Some Plants Made It; Some Didn’t

New growth Mexican Hat -- a good species to pot up for a plant sale. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Our South Texas Border Chapter Texas Master Naturalist Facebook page had an important article, “Learn to live with the ugly.” If you missed it, check it out so you don’t begin freeze-damaged yard clean up just yet and potentially cause further damage.

The article, by Adam Russell, a communication specialist for Texas A&M AgriLife, is entitled “’Learn to live with ugly’ after freeze damage. Pruning dead plant material can cause more harm through winter,” published January 22, 2024. “A hard freeze can make plants an ugly eyesore in a landscape or garden.

“Freeze damaged trees may not make it after this latest cold snap, but homeowners should give high-value plants a chance to recover before removing them. ‘Looking dead’ is not necessarily dead in many cases.

“But practice patience when it comes to freeze-damaged plants, according to a Texas A&M AgriLife expert. Michael Arnold, Ph.D., director of The Gardens at Texas A&M University and professor of landscape horticulture in the Department of Horticultural Sciences at the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Bryan-College Station, said warmer daytime temperatures may give gardeners the itch to get outside and prune back damaged leaves and clean up dead plant material following a hard freeze, but they should resist the urge.”

I agree, waiting is a difficult task, especially with temps being kinder already. Many of us have that itch to do something about the freeze and wind damaged plants. Instead of cleanup, consider an alternative that can benefit the chapter and the continuation of native species: look for upstarts to pot up for sales at our booth during the annual April Rio Grande Valley Home and Garden Show.

I had a few surprises as I went about a casual inspection of our yard. Trash collection day was an overcast, warmish morning with a light breeze. I wheeled the bin to the roadside and was greeted by old friends: London rockets. Several years ago, I’d discovered one struggling plant near our roadside mesquite tree; it was exciting because it was in time to be counted in the April City Nature Challenge.

London Rocket. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

This week, that strip of land between the road and our wall is populated with dozens of London rockets gently blowing in the breeze – which rather supports the caution:  be careful what you keep and let go to seed.

London Rocket, Sisymbrium irio, is a plant in the Brassicaceae (Mustard) family native to Eurasia that had found its way to Arizona in 1909. Considered a winter annual, it begins to grow and bloom in January, here in the Valley, dying out with the hot temperatures around May. And obviously not affected by freeze and bitter winds. Although it has invasive tendencies, it was blooming, providing nectar to tiny bugs on many of the flowerheads. If you find this plant, don’t pot it up.

Across the way, at the mailbox post, I was happy to see a full new small shrub of Mexican hat, Ratibida columnifera, with two blooms already.

Mexican Hat. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Mexican hat is a great plant to pot up for a plant sale when the new growth begins pushing up. Here are a few Mexican hat attributes:

•       Hearty re-seeder.

•       Petals are yellow, orange, yellow-tipped deep burgundy, or yellow and orange

•       Flowers attract smaller pollinators and beneficial garden insects

•       Nectar for bees, butterflies and other nectar insects

•       Lacy leaves form dense bushy area for insects to shelter

•       Ripe seeds eaten by seed-eating birds, songbirds, small mammals and Rio Grande turkeys

•       Colorful, polite, shapely small shrub like plant

•       Use as ornamental in ground near patio edge

•       Good specimen for container garden; containers may need extra watering in heat of summer


A real surprise was finding a dead scorpion’s tail, Heliotropium angiospermum. Before the brief freeze, a perfectly healthy two-foot-tall scorpion’s tail shrub, an excellent native butterfly nectar plant noted to bloom in all seasons – and generally doesn’t succumb to anything the elements throw at it – was totally black, as though it had been through a fire.

Scorpion's tail plant brutalized by freeze and wind. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The unrelenting wind while temps were below freezing was most likely its Waterloo. I’ve often noticed new scorpion’s tail plants coming up in January and even blooming at only six inches tall. It’s usually a hardy native species. Scorpion’s tail self-propagates. Tiny upstarts will soon be noticeable that can be potted up.

Another loss was two pigeon berry, Rivina humilis, volunteer plants. Pigeon berry is one of the few native plants that can thrive in full shade. Two two-foot-tall bushy plants have been hidden for a couple of years under the towering giant leaves of split-leaf philodendrons, Philodendron bipinnatifidum, that circle the base of a honey mesquite. The older pigeon berry came up behind the support of one of the hydrants and got watered whenever I’d use that hydrant. Pigeon berry looks delicate, but it’s generally a survivor. Again, hours of continual wind in temperatures just below freezing.

Remnants of a once thriving pigeon berry plant. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Pigeon berry’s bloom period is pretty much in all seasons. Hopefully it had dropped some seeds and new ones will soon appear. A good plant sale plant.

Split-leaf philodendrons, by the way, are popular for commanding attention in an outdoor landscape here. Originating in exotic-sounding places, like the rain forests of Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, apparently, they are easy to grow outdoors in tropical zones. Three mini jungles of philodendrons came with our property when we purchased it, each surrounding different honey mesquite tree trunks. We kept two of the groups because they looked like good critter sheltering areas.

The philodendrons secluding the pigeon berry plants didn’t make it either, all discolored and melted looking. Amazingly, not 50 feet away, across the driveway, the larger group of phillies, known to house a coral snake, was totally unscathed. A total conundrum, perhaps involving ley lines or other ancient mysteries.

Continuing around the yard near the dock, I was gleeful when I saw the shriveled and drooping invasive castor bean, Ricinus communis, plant. Close up, the seed pods looked ready to split open and spill the seeds.

I took the clippers to the cluster and stuck it in a box for further inspection. And that was interesting. The seed pods looked like they had sharp spikes, so I wore gloves. They did not crack open as expected when I pinched them. They were not dry and brittle. They were limp, but tough, perhaps not ready to naturally open. I had to use pliers to crack a pod open, and then ended up using wire cutters to open it. I finally wedged out a mature seed.

The seed does not resemble the shape of pinto, black, kidney nor other edible beans, as I’ve heard mention. The seed I examined was about a half inch long, flat on one surface, mottled appearing. As a matter of fact, it reminded me of one of my favorite bugs (excluding a head), the wild olive tortoise beetle, Physonota alutacea. I briefly mentioned that species in a McAllen Monitor story about beetles in 2021, which can be found at this link:

Wild Olive Tortoise Beetle on Wild Olive leaf. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

After my brief examination of the caster bean bean, I secured it and the cluster and relegated them to the trash – no good can come of one getting loose and procreating, although there are so many more unreachable plants further afield.

There’s still February to get through – hopefully without a freeze -- before we should begin tidying up our yards. Two plant species taking over yards are the sow thistles – don’t consider potting up any of these brightly green and verdant looking plants with their pretty dandelion-like yellow blooms.

These two thistles, common sow thistle, Sonchus oleraceus, and spiny sow thistle, Sonchus asper, are annuals; S. asper can bloom and go to seed all year. Both species are native to Europe and Eurasia. They have been introduced and could possibly overtake small nations. They’re easy to ignore until they’ve quickly grown to nearly four feet tall.

Below from left are two views of common sow thistle and the prickly leaves of spiny sow thistle at the far right.

These thistles do not begin life in your yard with an obvious flat-to-the-ground rosette like our Texas thistle, Cirsium texanum. They pop up upright, seemingly overnight; they are spring-leaf-green and pretty, but don’t be fooled. You would not be remiss by taking a scythe, machete or shovel blade and chopping them off near the ground – especially before they go to seed. They do not pull up. Both species exude a milky sap when the leaf or stem is cut. The stems are hollow.

The flat to the ground rosette of a Texas Thistle with upstarts of sow thistles at the edges. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

All that said, I’m hard pressed to find a sow thistle plant without one of their common pollinators on it, bees and flies -- still, sow thistles can quickly get out of hand.

Emerging plants to look for now that are good to rescue for plant sales include crucita, frostweed, passion vine, pink mint, skeleton leaf goldeneye, snapdragon vine, Turk’s cap, frogfruit, crotons, tropical sage, fiddlewood and cow pen daisies.

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