Plants for Tough Spaces: 9/2014 Edition

Limited area for roots to grow: check. Exposure to heat, cold and wind: check.

We had the 5th hottest June on record, July stayed hot, but then came a mild August with decent rains. After a hot flash Labor Day weekend (it’s a dry heat:-) – bringing us to 30 days >100F for 2014 – September just saw a cool front set off light rain, then sharp cooling; tonight’s almost chilly.

And wild plants responded, though we’re only 50% of our average precip, year-to-date. Photos from my hike last week –

the dry, clean dawn light bursts over Arroyo Park…
a thick stand of ocotillos from far above, near my trailhead…
rocks and cactus, other plants…the mountain still casts its shadow…

A desert city’s garden celebrity once told me something like, “native plants are often less suitable to urban areas than many non-native plants.” I may still have the e-mail.

After initial shock or “what Einstein was that parroted from?”, my reply was something like, “actually, native plants and city codes or LEED are my friends, not plants from colder, wetter places.”

I got no response.

Prickly Pear / Opuntia — (L) and Mariola / Parthenium incanum (R)…
a very common plant, but I can’t find my e-mail with its’ ID…
nice, and many new buds ready to open…
Silverleaf Nightshade / Solanum eleagnifolium
it’s the nightshade I see all over…that day, my eyes and camera missed the tiny stand of unique white flowering nightshades nearby…
Skeletonleaf Goldeneye / Viguiera stenoloba
Plume Tiquilia / Tiquilia greggii w/ some lechuguillas…
spent blooms and seed ripening….
Fluffgrass / Dasyochloa pulchella AKA Erioneuron pulchellum
a very compact, tough grass found all over our desert ecoregion…
repeat after the expert, “native plants are often less suitable to…”
Plume Tiquilia front, Mariola back, rocks and creosote bushes…
Trailing Windmills / Allionia incarnata
these appear every monsoon season, the stems crawling over everything in sight…

When I hike or mountain bike, I sometimes wonder why any of these plants live in such a limiting environment…especially when it’s too hot or cold for me. Then I remember that they do and thrive, and I’m thankful they are here.

no ID on this white flowering plant, but these are also common…
reminds me of a gaura or evening primrose…even a #pollinator…
look how close our trails are to an urban area of 2-1/2+ million people…
the sun starting to light up the high spots…
what great massings: goldeneyes and mariolas below, a limestone outcropping, lechuguillas and ocotillos on top…

By now, you may also be seeing how this wild environment is every bit as hostile to plant life as any urban setting.

Sideoats Grama / Bouteloua curtipendula
it’s the our Texas state grass…
ocotillo leaves turn without moisture, nearing the end of our monsoon season…

The monsoonal flow is forecast to return this coming week, with mid or high-80F temps, so there may be fresh green again.

uplifting…an arroyo sweeps below the mountain…

This area is under 1 mile and 500′ higher in elevation from where I live.

main trail into an ocotillo forest, where I hike and ride 3X most weeks…
my favorite morning view here…mountain shadows, sunlit ocotillos…

But #dontmovehere :-)

larger goldeneyes low, where storm runoff soaks into the sandy arroyo…

Any place’s native plants are keenly adapted to that place’s exposures and extremes. Out here, add “low water-use” to “native” or “adapted”.

Whitethorn / Acacia constricta var. paucispina
a few flowers hang on this mostly spineless variety

Is there a place you can go, and just hang out or work out in, to see similar ideas to those you can embrace?

5 Replies to “Plants for Tough Spaces: 9/2014 Edition”

  1. Great tour of your verdant (not kidding) environment. Maybe your quoted “expert” was referring to the danger natives face from overwater or too much coddling in urban gardens. We know so much more now about appropriate care of natives in gardens. A hike in our local Forest Park here in Portland will yield an abundance of plants suitable for our gardens: the Mulch Man has devoted his half of our back yard garden to them and it looks good so much more of the time than the zone-pushing, xeric choices I love. So I admire his garden in the winter!

    Thanks, it does look verdant, *now*! Good point on that “expert”, overwatering a huge issue I lose hours on. I also thought the “expert” could refer to how their favorite exotics look better since one can water the *#$ out of them to keep them going, while natives die doing that. Interesting on your natives vs. the other xeric choices in winter…a favorite thing about blogging to me is learning how others from different places see things.


  2. The local native landscape is always the best place to begin when looking for plants that will grow well without additional irrigation. But we should always remember that many of the plants actually ‘hibernate’ during the hottest part of the year so our gardens won’t look great the whole year.

    I’m so glad I got into that way of thinking soon after college. And summer dormancy hit me when I moved to the desert southwest…important to remind people of that, and not to try overwatering to compensate…but many do anyway.


  3. Somehow I got “into” this post before the photos went up and now that I’ve seen them, I’d like to make an observation and pose a question. I don’t recall seeing ocotillo occurring “naturally” in Central Texas, though in other areas of our state they are, as you’ve documented, quite common. I think they are quite striking and would love to use them here in Austin (they do well here) but are they considered “native” if they don’t grow where I am without being imported? What do we mean by “native” exactly? Native to our zone? Native to our state? Native to our county? A plant coming from China, that’s easy to label as non-native. But ocotillo? Where does that fall?

    Oops, I didn’t hit “save as draft” in time! Good question – the range maps I just looked at, show it occuring no closer to you than Langtry (under 50% of your average yearly precipitation), and near where I-10 crosses the Pecos River. That, with your accounts, makes ocotillo adapted, but not native there.

    Something else – with Texas’ size, there are places here more like humid, eastern China than Amarillo or El Paso…and more like the deserts of Afghanistan than Kerrville or Longview.

    This link on the top of my blog has more –


  4. I am in complete agreement with the idea of using native plants even when well adapted non-natives might seem showier and can be, due to their “strangeness” less prone to being attacked by pests.

    If we all use (and let’s face it – over use) similar well adapted non-natives our garden and landscape spaces totally lose their sense of location and place. Landscapes become an exteriorized analogue of shopping malls. You go inside one mall and except for the arrangement, you can accurately anticipate the contents of any other mall.

    Well-said, even the exceptions when pests can attack natives…a key is low water-use natives.

    Sense-of-place – your area’s oaks and savannah / prairie are strong features, so even a non-native understory still has some “there there”. The issue in arid Abq is how xeric natives got far more use the last 15 years, but not trees (mostly midwestern or montane), so “no there there”…

    El Paso is not as distinct as Tucson on place, but we’re years ahead on place (& tree selection, xeriscape) than Abq, which is still Generica.


  5. Ha! “It’s a dry heat, alright!”

    Yes, lots of dry air, rock and soil…and heat!

    (I accidentally posted before I put up the photos…now it’s finished)


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