Another Walk On The Wild Side: Learning How to Restore Montrose’s Natural Balance
Joe Blanton stands before a shrub on Drew Street, holding one palm above a blossom. Sometimes that’s all you need, Blanton says, to tell if something you’ve planted is useful to the environment – or just a decoration that is starving the other life around it.
“Bees!” he exclaims. “Inside the flowers. If you hold your hand out, you can feel the air displacement they make with their wings. There’s nectar in these flowers.”
Blanton may be the only being as content about this as the bees themselves. A rangy man with black hair and a soft Conroe accent, Blanton is a nature educator at the Houston Arboretum, where he teaches why it’s important to plant and protect plants native to this part of Texas. Without them, he says, even the bright gardens of Montrose are deserts. They may tempt networks of butterflies, bees, and other creatures, but they offer them nothing.
This isn’t Blanton’s first nature tour through Montrose. In December, we published a story about Montrose’s little known natural world, with Blanton as the guide. That story inspired a considerable response from readers who wanted to know what they could do to sustain the wildness Blanton revealed. So one winter day a few weeks after our initial foray we joined Blanton for a second tutorial on what to look for and what to do to help keep Montrose’s hidden world alive.
Exhibit A is the esperanza bush on Drew Street, where Blanton is holding out his hand. Four feet tall and riotous with yellow flowers, the shrub is native to the area, so not only does it thrive here, the local wildlife have evolved to use its pollen, nectar, and leaves.
But why, really, is this important? Pretty much anything that doesn’t need a hard winter or a desert can make it somewhere in Houston’s climate. It stands to reason that a city that welcomes outsiders from around the country and around the world would also warm to a fascinating tangle of garden options from around the globe.
The problem, Blanton says, is that even if Houston weather permits experimentation, insects and animals are conservative. And because their habitats are shrinking at breakneck speed, personal choices such as what to plant in gardens and even how to care for pets can make a startling difference in their chances for survival.
“A more environmentally aware homeowner,” Blanton says, choosing his words carefully, “understands that our yards are not just for us, but also provide a collection of plants for our neighborhoods and for nature.”
Those bees hidden in the esperanza are a good example. Around a decade ago, when a homeowner probably planted that shrub for looks alone, European bee colonies began to collapse. Researchers have found a range of causes; among the most important is the use of pesticides and herbicides to protect food crops. “The latest generation of insecticides indiscriminately kill all insects, and they have the unintended consequence of killing bees and butterflies,” Blanton says. “Also, the use of pesticides on agricultural crops to reduce or eliminate weeds reduces the flowers that would be available to pollinating insects. That further reduces their numbers. So with the combination of insecticides plus herbicides, pollinators like bees have no choice but to go somewhere else or starve.”
Somewhere else such as, say, the esperanza bush. That is how a Montrose flowerbed can double as an environmental life raft. But not everything bright and petaled in them sustains life. Landscapers and homeowners may be partial to eye-catching new plants from South Asia, Africa, South America, or Australia, but local butterflies, bugs, bees, raccoons and other mammals sniff and walk away from them.
To the gardener, this might seem a plus. It reduces predation, and leaves the plants nice and pristine. Even the blossoms on these foreign imports live longer. Since nature designed flowers to attract pollinators, they usually wilt after the job is done. An alien flower that attracts no local pollinators won’t reproduce itself – but neither will it wither quickly. “It doesn’t produce seeds. It doesn’t progress. So it’s in a state of perpetual youth. It lasts almost as long,” Blanton says dryly, ”as a plastic flower.”
But in the garden, as in the human soul, a preoccupation with endless youth has consequences. The decimation of native pollinators means that there are fewer native plants reproducing themselves in wild places. Eliminating native plants in a garden cuts off a last resource for bees and other winged insects. It starves the caterpillars that become monarch and other butterflies. And it puts survival pressure on the songbirds that eat both insects and berries.
This doesn’t mean that gardeners should yank out all their non-natives and replace them with wild purslane. Instead, in a lesson Houstonians have learned well in other areas, the key is to diversify.
“Don’t get rid of plants. Complement what you have,” Blanton says. He pauses at one of East Montrose’s loveliest gardens, where an old-fashioned picket fence protects a trophy hibiscus with red blooms the size of bridal bouquets. Blanton looks unimpressed. “Hibiscus provide wonderful seasonal color to many yards,” he says in the slow drawl that means he is being polite. “But being tropical in origins, it doesn’t provide nectar or pollen to local insects. We have native plants that are related to tropical hibiscus, though. Try Turk’s Cap. It’s smaller, but has bright flowers, and can be planted along with the tropical hibiscus for pollinators.”
Diversifying the garden portfolio is also good for gardeners. “Many people spend a lot of time, energy, and money maintaining very restricted plant collections,” Blanton says. “They don’t realize that the more you have of one plant species, the more likely that natural pests will find it inviting to nibble, eat, and stay on that one plant.”
Azaleas, beloved but foreign to Houston, exemplify this problem. There’s nothing prettier than a wave of pink azaleas foaming up every spring. But there’s little more aggravating, at least to azalea owners, than the sight of blotchy leaves disfigured by aphids. “The knee-jerk reaction to this is, okay, I’ve got to get a chemical to treat my azaleas,” Blanton says. “But another approach is to get a species of native plant that will also feed the aphids. Turk’s Cap and American Beautyberry will do double duty to attract not just the aphids, but also the pests of the aphids, such as ladybugs and assassin beetles. These bugs don’t eat azaleas. The problem with monocultures is that they attract bugs, but not the predators of the bugs. You want both.”
For every plant in a border or bed, Blanton can think of a companion plant or a replacement. Our hedges and border shrubs, for instance: they provide privacy, punctuation, and the comforting reliability of green leaves year-round. “Typically, Houstonians like Indian Hawthorn, pittosporum, and boxwood hedges,” Blanton says. “Mexican heather is great initially for borders. It’s a perennial, has nice color, doesn’t attract any predators or pests. But all these plants are food deserts.”
Instead, he proposes, diversify or plant anew with something native that offers wildlife a snack. Rather than Mexican Heather, try Coralberry or Pigeonberry: both evergreen, both generous sources of nectar, pollen for bees and butterflies, and leaves for small urban mammals. Or get even more ambitious and plant Dwarf Barbados Cherry, an evergreen that produces tasty, berry-sized fruits that can be eaten by all urban mammals – including humans.
In upcoming months, these and similar plants will start appearing at nurseries such as Buchanan’s Native Plants and Joshua’s Native Plants. On March 14-15 and March 21-22, gardeners can also buy their Turk’s Cap and Dwarf Barbados Cherry from the Houston Arboretum at its spring sale. Blanton will be there, as he always is at the sales, answering questions from the staffers and visitors who tend to swarm around him like bees. In a perfect world, Blanton says, he wishes that every Montrose resident would visit either the Arboretum or a nursery for just one native plant to tuck into their gardens.
It’s an appealing vision, and probably easier to achieve that Blanton’s other great wish for Montrose: Rein in the cats. Strolling down Whitney Street in East Montrose, Blanton halts at a relaxed, vine-filled garden redolent with herbs, flowers, and a range of plants in pots of all sizes. A well-cared for cat sleeps on the recycling bin.
“Cats,” Blanton says grimly. “Feral, domesticated: they all are hunters.” One of the things they hunt, and hunt effectively, are songbirds. America’s songbird population has plunged 50 percent since 1950; some studies say that free roaming cats share a large responsibility for this.
“Fifty years ago you would have definitely seen more robins in Montrose,” Blanton says. “More chickadee, titmouse, mockingbird.” As cities grow denser and cat populations soar, the National Audubon Society calls for keeping cats, all cats, inside the house. Blanton agrees.
Not that Blanton has anything against cats in general. After all, he says, “There’s nothing evil about cats. Catching birds is their ecological niche.”
In a neighborhood where bees must now be traced by stirring air, he points out, cats roam on almost every corner. Like our dearth of bees and native plants, their presence is a result of human choice. And the consequences of those choices, notes Blanton, touch everything that lives. Whether by planting esperanza or keeping pets inside, he says, it now is time to make new choices, ones that restore the natural order we’ve unknowingly uprooted.
There are many resources available for those who want to restore a little natural order to Montrose, among them: the Houston Arboretum, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Foraging Texas, Native Plant Society of Texas, and Plants for Texas. As a starter, we provide below information about plants mentioned in our article, most of it taken from one or more of the mentioned resources.
Esperanza is a shaped, deciduous shrub, normally three to six feet tall in the U.S., though some Central and South American varieties can reach nine feet. It has several stems and slender, erect branches. Clusters of large, trumpet-shaped, yellow flowers are very showy against the lance-shaped, olive-green leaves. Anyone who has seen this plant in bloom can understand why one of its names is Yellow bells. It has become a popular landscaping plant, valued as much for its drought-tolerance as for its spectacular appearance. Varieties native to the southwestern U.S. and adjacent Mexico include Tecoma stans, which is shorter, more drought-tolerant, and more cold-tolerant than some of the tropical varieties sold in nurseries.
Turk’s Cap is a spreading shrub, often as broad as it is high, that grows two to three feet, but sometimes reaches as high as nine feet. Bright-red, pendant, hibiscus-like flowers never fully open, their petals overlapping to form a loose tube with the staminal column protruding, said to resemble a Turkish turban, hence the name Turk’s cap. It is especially useful in shady situations. The variety name of this plant comes from naturalist Thomas Drummond, born in Scotland around 1790. In 1830 he made a trip to America to collect specimens. He arrived at Velasco, Texas, in March 1883 to begin his collecting work and spent 21 months working the area between Galveston and the Edwards Plateau. His collections were the first made in Texas to be extensively distributed among the museums and scientific institutions of the world.
American Beautyberry is a fast growing native perennial shrub; growing five to eight feet tall and almost as wide with drooping branches. The elliptical to ovate shaped leaves have an opposite arrangement with saw-toothed margins. The stems are slender, gray to reddish brown, and four sided. In late spring to early summer, flowers of blue, violet, pink, or white are arranged in clusters on the stems between the leaves. In August or September, clusters of small purple to blue berries or drupes encircle the woody stems. Each small berry in the cluster contains two to four seeds about 1/16 inch long.
Coralberry is a spreading, arching shrub that prefers the shade of a woodland or understory, and is a good ground cover for erosion control. It has slender stems with shreddy bark and green to blue-green mature leaves that turn red in the fall. Its persistent purple-pink BB-size berries ripen in autumn, providing winter color, and they continue into spring as a contrast to the new lime green leaves. It was introduced into cultivation in 1727 and has several cultivars selected for compact growth habit, variegated leaves, or white fruit.
Pigeonberry is a perennial herb about one foot tall that grows beneath trees and shrubs. The flowers are about 1/4 inch across, white to pink, growing on the last two to three inches of the stems. The fruits are numerous, red, and almost translucent, often appearing on the lower part of the stem while the upper part is still blooming. They are a choice food for many kinds of birds. Pigeonberry is a small groundcover that provides many different colors all season long. It is unique in that it is covered with small white and pink flowers, green and red berries, and red and green foliage at the same time.
Dwarf Barbados Cherry is a small semi-evergreen perennial shrub. In sun it becomes a dense mound with glossy, dark-green foliage. The small pink and white flowers, similar to crepe myrtle, bloom spring through fall, attracting butterflies. Red, cherry-like fruit ripen November to February and attract birds. Sun is required for fruit production though it does well in shade and semi-shade or indoors, producing less flowers and no fruit. Dwarf Barbados Cherry may be sheared for hedges or ground cover and is well suited for bonsai. Non-dwarf varieties may grow to 20 feet tall.
Purslane has smooth, reddish, mostly prostrate stems and alternate leaves clustered at stem joints and ends. The yellow flowers have five regular parts and are up to six millimeters wide. Depending upon rainfall, the flowers appear at any time during the year. The flowers open singly at the center of the leaf cluster for only a few hours on sunny mornings. Seeds are formed in a tiny pod, which opens when the seeds are mature. Purslane has a taproot with fibrous secondary roots and is able to tolerate poor, compacted soils and drought. As a companion plant, Purslane provides ground cover to create a humid microclimate for nearby plants, stabilizing ground moisture. Although purslane is considered a weed in the United States, it may be eaten as a leaf vegetable. It has a slightly sour and salty taste and is eaten throughout much of Mexico, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.