There are many articles out there discussing Xeriscaping in general terms, but in this piece I would like to be more specific about choices for Xeriscape plants in Texas, and even more specifically, Central Texas. For someone who is thinking about changing to a more water conserving landscape it is sometimes frustrating to read information on the subject but still be none the wiser as to what the new garden will look like. It’s all good and well saying that there will be blooms and textures, but what exactly are we looking at? In this article I will pick some of my favorites and discuss why I would choose them, but be mindful that this is not a comprehensive list.
Just a quick word about trees because I’m always being asked what is a good choice for Central Texas. Of course we have the trusty Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) which does very well despite its susceptibility to oak wilt. If you are in an area that is diseased or might become diseased a better choice would be the Monterey Oak (Quercus polymorpha) which is resistent. Both are semi-evergreen, dropping leaves in the spring as new growth emerges. Prune to shape or raise the canopy in the winter – note that the insect that carries oak wilt is inactive during the hottest and coldest parts of the year so it is safest to prune at those times, but always make sure to paint the cuts you make as an extra precaution against infection. A smaller tree is the Lacey Oak (Quercus laceyi), also oak wilt resistant, with a bluish-green foliage and interesting bark texture. It is a favorite of ours and does well in shallow limestone soil which is prevalent on the Edwards Plateau.
Although the Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica) is not native to Texas it is still a great choice for a sunny landscape. The delicate blond trunk system can be a work of art in itself – redolent of the Texas Madrone (Arbutus xalapensis)- and the large bunches of summer blooms come in a variety of colors including white pink and, our favorite, red.
The Cherry Laurel (Prunus caroliniana) is an evergreen with dark green foliage and wonderful dusky bark. It can be used as an ornamental or a screen and is relatively fast-growing reaching 15-20 feet in height. But it likes a deeper, well-drained soil, so be careful not to plant it on a rock! It may become chlorotic.
The evergreen Texas Mountain Laurel (Sophora secundiflora) is slow growing and so tend to be more expensive at the nursery, but they make up for it with a delicate, grainy trunk system and fragrant purple flowers. An excellent choice. Not only is it very drought tolerant, but also deer resistant – although we all know that if a deer gets hungry enough it will eat anything!
When we think of Xeriscape plants we think of shrubs and in Central Texas, the hardier the better! When it hasn’t rained in two months and it’s 110 degrees in the shade you need a plant that will smile and say “is that all you got?”
Lantanas. The Texas Lantana (L. urticoides) just needs to be cut back in the winter to keep under control. Otherwise leave this plant alone to do its thing and it will supply year after year of yellow and orange blooms throughout the late spring and summer. I’ve seen it growing as a weed in places, but if left unattended for years it can get thorny. Trailing Lantana (L. montevidensis) is more of a ground cover and like the Texas variety needs to be cut back in the winter to get rid of freeze-damaged parts and to keep under control. It supplies white or purple blooms throughout the warmer months, and has been known to bloom all winter if it is mild enough. A wonderful choice for the lower part of a flower bed.
Salvias are from the sage family of plants and are a great choice for color in a landscape. We use Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii) a lot. It will bloom in white, red and coral and the hummingbirds love it. You can intersperse plantings or use it in groupings to form borders or hedges. It is a woody plant and does tend to get ‘leggy’, so be sure to prune it back after it blooms. We go through and snap the branches as needed, normally taking a third of the growth away to keep it nice and compact. Mexican Bush Sage (S. leucantha) – also known as “Indigo Spires” – is another favorite that can be planted toward the back of the bed. Silver-green lances will shoot up 4-5 feet topped with purple and white flowers. It is loved by butterflies and just needs to be cut down to the ground in the winter. It also needs very little water and we’ve never seen a deer eat one of these.
If you have the room why not go for an Agave? They can be stunning. The Century Agave (Agave Americana) can get 6 feet across and 10 feet high without the bloom. Watch out for the leaf tips as they will puncture you. The bloom itself can be 20-30 feet tall with a branching series of white flowers that could be a tree in its own right, but after blooming it dies. Smaller agaves to consider would be Parry’s Agave (A. parryi) and Queen Victoria’s Agave (A. Victoriae-reginae). These both only spread about one and a half feet and may be killed by severe frosts in the teens.
Daisy-types. A splash of color in the spring and summer. Some of the best are: Blackfoot Daisy (Melampodium leucanthum) which will re-seed; Copper Canyon Daisy (Tagetes lemmonii) which has a very pungent aroma, is very deer resistant, and is native to Mexico; Coreopsis (C. lanceolata) which everybody recognizes, including the butterflies; and Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia fulgida) which always reminds me of the Quiet Man. All have those wonderful circular petal blooms that are very hardy, require very little water and attract butterflies and bees like they were being paid! For an autumnal bloom consider Fall Aster (A. oblongifolium) a profuse purple and lavender flowering plant, also a source of nectar.
Agarita (Berberis trifoliate) is an excellent Xeriscape plant choice for the shadier part of the garden. It has a bluish-green holly-like foliage and red berries in the winter. But beware the spiky leaves. Plant this one toward the middle of the bed to keep it away from pedestrians … unless you don’t like them. It is also a great as a nesting place for birds. Consider also Mahonia Leatherleaf (M. trifoliate). Very similar, but as the name suggests, a different leaf texture.
Even though Esperanza (Tacoma stans) or “Yellow Bells” is deciduous and most times freezes back it still delivers robust woody growth and a profusion of yellow flowers from spring through fall. It can get up to 6 feet across and 8 tall so give it plenty of room. This is one of my personal favorites and is native to Texas.
Verbena (Verbena spp.) is more a groundcover and very hardy. It can be covered in gorgeous lavender flowers from spring until frost and the butterflies love it. It can be quite short-lived but it does re-seed, but this can lead to patchy growth over the years.
These die back in the winter, but they don’t look nasty like most other plant types would. They look stately and make a sweet sound when the wind rustles them. At the end of the winter trim them back and they will sprout forth in the spring. Purple Fountain Grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides) is not a Texas Native but does well. The burgundy foliage and plumes are eye catching and it is great choice for foundation and accent. Plant in multiples for better effect. The native Wiregrass (Nassella tenuissima) is smaller and more delicate, but no less desirable. It has an elegant, sweeping form, cream colored seed heads and is drought tolerant. The wispy pink seed heads of Gulf Muhly (Muhlenbergia capillaries) are quite ethereal and add a dash of drama in the fall. It can get a couple of feet wide and the same height, is drought tolerant and looks fantastic!
Ah, poor herbs, always the last to be mentioned, but we should never forget them. The vast majority are non-native, but they soak up the sun, require little water and, in the case of Lavender, actually dislike good soil! Consider the fact that they make wonderful companion plants. If you have any species in the garden that suffer from disease or bugs, planting Rosemary, Sage, Thyme or Oregano close by will discourage them. An added bonus, of course, is that with a couple of leaves from the Laurus nobilis your vegetable stew will taste fantastic!
Finally, any article about Xeriscape plants wouldn’t complete without a quick mention of those you should avoid! Trees like the Mulberry, Chinese Tallow and Chinaberry have shallow, destructive root systems, and in the case of Chinaberrys they fall on to your truck and dent the roof – at least that’s what happened to me. Shrubs like Photinia, Ligustrum, Nandina, Elaeagnus and Privet are water-hungry and have no place in the Xeriscape landscape. And for Heaven’s sake, never plant any Bamboo!