Bring Your Landscape to Life with Texas Native Plants

Haeley Giambalvo, Native Plant Society of Texas
LMUD Open House presentation, October 17, 2023

The third week of October is officially recognized as Texas Native Plant Week to highlight the important role native plants play in conservation. Fall is the best time to plant native perennials so they can develop their root system over the winter and be ready to take on the following summer’s heat.

Native plants are those that have been growing here for thousands of years, on their own, in the wild, rather than being brought here by humans. They are used to our harsh climate, used to growing here without extra watering or other care from us. They are very hardy plants, great for even beginner gardeners due to their high success rate, and also beautiful with a variety of colors and textures!

When considering our ideal yard, we traditionally emphasize our needs, in terms of use and decorative value. But we’d like to encourage you to consider putting your yard to work in ways that help support our local ecosystem without sacrificing the aesthetic value.

The benefits of native plants include:

  • Increasing the biodiversity in our neighborhoods: We’ve done a good job of stripping our traditional suburban neighborhoods by replacing native plants with turf grass and a few trees and shrubs. Report shows that a neighborhood with more native yards supports 29 times more biodiversity (greater and broader variety of species) than non-native areas even when the yards look equally lush.
  • Provide habitat and food sources for wildlife: Native plants provide an important food source as well as habitat for wildlife. Starting with the smallest of insects, the depletion of native plants has a domino effect. For example: studies show there has been about a 30 percent decrease in the population of North American Butterfly and birds since the 1970s.
  • Conserve precious water resources: Native plants are used to our rain fall patterns so they don’t need as much water as some of the more traditional approaches to landscaping which is becoming increasingly important after the last couple of summers that we’ve had. A reason for this is their root structure: they have deep root systems, up to 14-feet, to access water deep down – which also helps prevent erosion and runoff.
  • Reduce Yard Maintenance: Routine fertilization and pesticide use are a common with traditional yards. Not only can native plants flourish (once established) without much care and maintenance, the use of fertilizers and pesticides is discouraged because of the negative impact these chemicals have on supporting local wildlife.

Bring your landscape to life

We traditionally try to remove all types of insects from our yard, looking at them as pests, or a nuisance. But in fact, insects provide critical human services such as pollinating our food crops and biodegrading organic material. Native plant gardeners have a mind shift change that encourage insects to eat their plants: we don’t mind holes in our plant because we know the natives can rebound.

Ninety percent of local insects can only eat plants they have co-evolved. Plants have toxins and other things that they produce to try to prevent themselves from being eaten, but local insects have evolved with them to overcome these defenses so they have a food source. Non-native plants may not necessarily be recognized as food. For example,  Monarch caterpillars (and eventually butterflies and other moth species) utilize a host plant called milkweed – it is the only plant they eat. This type of relationship, relying on a singular host plant, is common for many types of butterflies; you can attract specific butterflies to your yard by planting their specific host plants.

Birds need a huge amount of insects for their diet to feed themselves and their babies. For example, the Carolina Chickadee needs 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars to feed one clutch of babies in their nest. These birds will not go far to find these insects so they need to be readily available in local yards to survive.

Alternatives to common non-native plants commonly found in this area

Many of the plants that have come to dominate our landscapes are non-native. For example, Sago palms, Nandina shrubs, Liriope, Asiatic Jasmine ground cover are all from Asia. Bermuda grass is from Africa. While there are over 5,000 native species, only a small portion of them are readily available at local nurseries. A few suggested alternatives:

Instead of Vitex (or “Butterfly Bush”), an invasive species native to Europe and Asia, try a native Desert Willow as an ornamental tree.

Ligustrum is a popular evergreen shrub, but it’s native to Europe and Asia. Evergreen Sumac is a good native alternative that can be used as a privacy screen shrub.

Many people think that Crape Myrtle is native, but they are native to Asia. Instead, try the Texas Persimmon which is a good multi-trunk tree alternative with yellow blooms in spring and red berries in summer.

Instead of Nandina, an invasive bamboo-type plant, try Agarita for its holly-shaped, yet spikey leaves, and evergreen appeal. While a hungry deer is known to eat just about anything, it’s known to be very deer resistant.

Instead of an ornamental grass like Liriope which is native to Asia, try Inland Sea Oats which has graceful seed heads and thrives well in shady areas.

When considering which natives you want to plant, consider what you want to attract (or create a whole wildlife buffet). Include a variety so that something is blooming at every time of the year to support wildlife year-round:

  • Butterflies: nectar plants such as rock rose (pink, hibiscus type flower, 3 to 4 ft tall, full to part sun), Zexmenia (blooms from spring to fall, used like a sprawling high ground cover), Greg’s Mistflower (purple blooms, grows well in pots), and Frogfruit (full sun, ground cover)
  • Native Bees: Mealy Blue Sage (a favorite of American Bumble Bees), Buttonbrush (very large shrub, likes a wetter environment and some shade, blooms in summer), Whites Mistflower (blooms in fall, at the perfect time for when Monarchs are migrating through)
  • Hummingbirds: no need for sugar water! They love red, tubular-shaped blooms such as Turk’s Cap (part to full shade), Coral Honeysucks (a pretty vine), Flame Acanthus, and Autumn Sage.
  • Birds: American Beautyberry (eatable magenta fruit with drooping branches, favorite among mockingbirds, prefers shade), Hollies like Youpon and Possumhaw (produce red berries in winter when food is scarcer), Agarita (an evergreen, pokey shrub that provides protection with early spring yellow blooms and red berries in the winter), Chili Petin (can make a very spicy salsa with it)

Even through the increasingly extreme temperature we are having (snowstorms to longer-than-normal drought), the native plants are surviving without our care. Keep in mind that for any plant to be established, it can take several years, but generally you’ll have a better success rate with natives than non-natives. For a general rule of thumb with perennials:

First Year: Sleep

In its first year, most of the plant’s energy goes into establishing a strong root system.

Second Year: Creep

In its second year, you may see more vegetative growth, but may or may not see them flower.

Third Year: Leap

Most plants by their third year are strong enough to concentrate more energy into reproduction which leads to flowers and seeds.