By Eric Duran
Here at the Nature Discovery Center, we always like to encourage local residents to landscape with native plants — but especially so during these colder months of the year as we prepare for spring.
Native plants provide a better source of food for native Texas wildlife when it’s hardest to find. And year-round, native plants are less likely to cause damage to local ecosystems if they escape the garden.
This month, we’re going to have a look at three native plants that provide food for wildlife until your spring plantings have a chance to flourish. These are plants that you can easily obtain from local nurseries and place in your own home garden. And hey are plants with high value for wildlife.
One of my favorite native plants for the home garden is the Yaupon Holly, which grows into a large bush. Like most hollies, this evergreen plant produces bright red berries in the winter, and it produces them in abundance. These berries are a favorite of Cedar Waxwings, Robins and Mockingbirds. I’ve often seen large flocks of waxwings descend on Yaupon when it’s in a state of peak fruiting.
Since most plants do not bear fruit in the winter, Yaupon is an important food for many fruit-eating birds. But be aware that the berries are not edible for humans and have a mild diarrhetic effect. The leaves can be made into a tea, often called “black drink,” that has been used as a stimulant and in spiritual ceremonies by Native Americans for centuries. An everyday version of the tea is easy to prepare, and is very similar to Yerba Mate, which is another species of holly. I highly recommend it as it’s caffeinated but relatively mild. This plant also produces small white flowers in spring and summer, which attract bees and other small pollinators.
Another underappreciated native shrub is the Wax Myrtle. The berries have a long storied use in North America as a source of fragrant wax for candles and soap, usually called “bayberry.” The berries are also popular with a wide variety of birds, such as wild turkey and bobwhite quail. In our yards here in Bellaire and West U, the Wax Myrtle is more likely to feed Yellow-rumped Warblers, which migrate down to Texas to overwinter. This plant is also evergreen and like the Yaupon is tough and hardy, surviving the wide variety of conditions that keep winters and springs interesting here. The leaves are also fragrant and are used as a spice or herb in cooking, usually with meat, similar to rosemary.
Another favorite plant is the Drummond’s Turk’s Cap. To make sure you get the right species, double-check that the scientific name is Malvaviscus arboreus, as there are other varieties that are similar but non-native. This is a wonderful plant that blooms bright red flowers throughout the summer, fall and into early winter. The blooms attract hummingbirds and large butterflies. The fruit, looking very much like little red apples, usually appears in the fall and winter. They are popular with birds, possums, raccoons and a wide variety of small animals. The plant has been historically a modest source of water and vitamin C for people, as well.
These three plants are extremely valuable to wildlife and provide color and structure to any home garden in West U or Bellaire during the bleakest time of year. Gardening with native plants is a great way to attract beautiful creatures to your yard and make challenging months for them more bearable.
If you have any questions about “wildscaping” or native plant gardening, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. See you next time!
Duran is the head naturalist at the Nature Discovery Center in Bellaire.