Zilker Neighborhood Gardens

Commentary by a National Wildlife Steward who helps Zilker neighbors establish native plant gardens

Category Archives: Native Plant Profile

Native Profile: Texas Hibiscus

Wow, I just love this plant! Texas Star Hibiscus loves sun and needs moisture. I planted this mid-June – it was a 4″ plant and now on October 18th (4 months later) it’s about 4′ high and producing lots of flowers. They are brilliant red. Typically, the flowers only last about 1 day as they are pretty fragile. But they open up and are quite impressive, as you can see below. I love this plant so much, I planted another in my backyard. During the summer, this area was watered 1-2 times a week with automatic sprinklers but now I am not watering unless things look droopy. It seems to be doing quite well.

picture of Texas hibiscus flower

Native Profile: Cenizo (Barometer Bush)

Picture of cenizoThe native of the week is cenizo (Leucophyllum candidum), which is a shrub. This plant has silvery leaves that are soft a little bit like Lamb’s Ear (non-native) but the leaves are much smaller and tougher. This plant can add silvery foliage to your yard which is a nice change from the normal green, and this plant is a perennial so you’ll have that color year-round. Cenizo as hedge

Cenizo likes almost any soil type including gravely areas or clay. It has low water requirements and can also tolerate part-shade. The coolest part of this shrub is a feature that underlies its name “barometer bush.” When we get heavy rains, the bush will push out purple flowers, thus showing an indication of the barometer. This shrub can provide nesting site and cover for birds and animals, and the flowers provide nectar for insects.

You can grow this plant into a hedge, as is depicted in one of the photos. Or, you can make it more a taller, rounder shrub amongst a collection of other plants.

Cenizo in bloom

Photographer: Wasowski, Sally and Andy

Native Profile: Chinquapin Oak

I chose to plant a chinquapin oak (Quercus muehlenbergii), native to the U.S., in my front yard. Mine looks nothing like the picture below, since I just planted it in October, 2010. But my front yard had no trees, so we had to get something going. It probably won’t provide a lot of shade for 5-10 years, but you have to start the trees off at some point.

Picture of Chinquapin Oak

This tree is deciduous and can grow up to 72 feet tall. Its leaves grow wider at the end. The acorns are about 2″ in size. It can grow in sun or part shade and can tolerate dry, rocky soils. From what I read in Garrett’s book, it loves rocky soils like in the hill country. The rockier, the better. The acorns are edible after a long process of boiling to remove the bitterness. I read from one book where they used them to make pancakes, but the task sounds arduous.

The chinquapin oak is a larval host for the Gray Hairstreak butterfly. This means that the Gray Hairstreak butterfly will lay eggs on the leaves of the chinquapin oak. When the eggs hatch into larvae, the larvae (or caterpillar) eats the leaves of the oak until they move onto the pupae stage of growth into butterflies.

This is still a great time to plant a tree or trees. It gives the trees some time to get established before the heat of summer begins. You should water your tree about 1″ a week while getting established. The chinquapin oak grows relatively fast and has few pests. Plus, it is kind of fun to say chinquapin! Remember, this becomes a very large tree, so don’t plant it under the electrical lines!

Native Profile: Agave

Today’s native plan of the week is the agave americana, also referred to as a Century Plant.


agave americana

These are beautiful green-blue cactuses who love full sun. However, they can get damaged, as you can see in the picture above, when temperatures drop too low (in my experience, under 30 degrees F). The leaves will restore themselves over time, but you’ll have to put up with ugly, burned leaves for several months. The agave above was on my property when we purchased our home, and it actually raises another important characteristic. These agaves become enormous – 6 to 12 feet high and wide! At my house we had, not 1, not 2, not 3, not 4, but 5 of these along what’s called the “hell strip” the 4 ft area between the sidewalk (if you have one) and the street – and then another 2 on the other side of the driveway. This is a very hot area which could be fantastic climate for the agave, but it is not large enough space for even 1 agave! The agave can do damage to cars parked on the street, bicyclists riding by, and anyone walking on the sidewalk. These leaves have thorns that will draw blood easily.

Row of AgavesThe agave does bloom Рand the blooming is an uncertain science. Generally people indicate they bloom after 10 years. But others say it could be 25 years. The blooms are incredible sight, as a large stalk grows skyhigh Рat a rate of about 1 foot per day! Flowers emerge on the stalk. After it is done blooming, the century plant dies. But do not fear its death because you can be assured of having many baby agaves near the site that will quickly replace your dead agave. The uncertain bloomtime is what convinced us of the need to remove these agaves in front of our house. We would have waited until they bloomed but it might have been 5-20 years. Unfortunately, they were planted without considering the golden rule:  the adult size of the plant you are planting. Thus, these agaves, only 4-5 years old, had to be removed. My husband took care of the task with a chainsaw and a shovel. He cut the limbs off first, and then we dug out the roots. The juice in these plants is like acid, so you should protect yourself fully from it. If you get the juice on your skin, it will burn and itch for many weeks. We still have one more which is also on death row because of its location near the street.

There’s an agave in bloom on the north side of Ladybird Johnson Lake between Lamar and the boat dock near the high school. [I noticed today – 2/5/2011 – that the agave flower stalk has been removed and this specimen has died, though there are others nearby, but not in bloom.] Anyone know where others are in Zilker?

The agave americana is a grand plant worthy of showing off – but let my experience with agaves provide a lesson about planting plants in an area of size that makes sense. Make sure you plant these where they have 6-12 feet of room across all ways for growth. If you do this, you, your neighbors, and your plant will all be happy.

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