Published September 2, 2023, in the McAllen Monitor
Story and photos by Anita Westervelt, Texas Master Naturalist
Our native plants have proved their mettle during the summer’s unusually high and sustained temperatures.
If you are beginning your new plants list for when the weather cools, consider resilient plants that won’t let you down when they face demanding situations.
Some native plants can go into dormancy when conditions create intense heat, drought and nutrient shortages. Berlandier’s Fiddlewood, Citharexylum berlandieri, is a native shrub whose leaves turn orange to orange-red when stressed by extreme drought; flowers and berries may drop as the plant’s energies turn toward preservation. An important shrub for wildlife in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, it will most likely rally when favorable conditions return. It is a nectar source for bees and other insects; birds and other wildlife eat the berries and use the shrub’s dense branches for shelter and resting.
Many native plants survive as though nothing unusual is happening. Frogfruit, Phyla nodiflora, a drought tolerant groundcover, thrived in full sun, no matter how scorching the afternoon sun. Its tiny white flowers with purple centers continued to bloom and attract butterflies and insect pollinators throughout the summer, despite the hard-packed, dry soil. Frogfruit, is a larval host for the phaon crescent, buckeye and white peacock butterflies.
Some plants were lucky to have a modicum of shade. Turk’s Cap, Malvaviscus arboreus, is one of the few native plants that will grow in shade. It will colonize around the base of a honey mesquite tree. It dramatically attracts hummingbirds. It blooms nearly all year, requires no maintenance except to be cut back, nearly to the ground, every three or four years.
Turk’s cap is entertaining day and night. The fruit is eaten by birds and small mammals. Great kiskadees will launch off a tree branch, pluck a fruit, swoop back to the perch and gulp down the berry. Hooded orioles hop around the branches, even hanging upside down, catching insects, eating caterpillars and fruit and drawing nectar from the flowers. Groove-billed ani and other birds pluck insects from the leaves. Butterflies, diurnal moths and other insects are attracted to the flowers. It is a host plant for the mallow scrub-hairstreak and Turk’s cap white-skipper butterflies. Tiger moths use an enormous variety of plants as larval food, including Turk’s cap, and the plant is host to the Art Deco-esque Eusceptis flavifrimbriata, a moth whose range infrequently reaches as far north as Southmost, Texas.
The ubiquitous violet ruellia, ruellia nudiflora, is another native plant that will grow in shade and full sun. It kept producing through the heat of the summer, even thriving in the cracks of sidewalks, providing nectar for adult butterflies with its beautiful blooms. It is a larval food plant for six butterflies: common buckeye, pale-banded crescent, malachite, white peacock, banded peacock and Texan crescent. An interesting trait with ruellia, the seedpods are dehiscent – they burst open to expel their seeds, flinging them as far as they can. That said, if you have one ruellia plant, you have the potential for many more.