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July 2017 Newsletter

Table of Contents

Adam’s notes from the garden

The Natural Side of Peckerwood
Plant of the month: Wright’s Yellowshow (Amoreuxia wrightii)  

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Adam’s notes from the garden

Leucophyllum zygophyllum ‘Desert Dazzler’, John Fairey’s wild selection, responding to the recent rains
It is difficult to relay via photo the monstrous proportions of Zephyranthes x ‘Cookie Cutter Moon’

It is nice to report that our typical Texas summer heat and dryness has occasionally been interrupted by at least a few drenching afternoon thunderstorms, though it is always not enough or too much! Even though I always got away with it in Florida, I’ve also learned that in Texas you cannot provide overhead water to sad looking, wilted plants in the heat of the day as the water droplets on the leaves will quickly heat to scalding temperatures that significantly damage plants. Last week I thought it was overcast and “cool” enough that I could get away with a quick drenching of the rock garden when it was convenient, but was then horrified to come back to some plants looking almost like boiled spinach. Fortunately, it was superficial and things are resprouting.

Aside from the appearance of our rain lilies, another impressive response to the rain is the mass flowering of the south Texas native tree Havardia pallens.

Havardia pallens blooms en masse following a good rainfall after a dry spell

This thorny legumous tree resembling an Acacia is something that needs to become a staple in the landscape. Though native to the dry thorn scrub areas of deep south Texas that experience mild winters, it has proven quite hardy in our neck of the woods, with no damage in the mid-teens this past winter. Through spring and early summer, it flowers on and off with white puffball flowers emitting a slight fragrance that tends to attract a variety of pollinators.

Erythrina vespertillo is an unusual Australian relative of our native coral bean, Erythrina herbacea

The real show seems to follow several weeks of dryness abruptly interrupted by a significant rainfall. Several days later, the tree is completely covered in white flowers. We have had at least three of these mass flowerings coinciding with a sudden rainfall during the summer.

John’s wild Mexican collection of Yucca thompsoniana, which rejected my pollination attempts!

One of John’s wild Mexican seed collections of Yucca thompsoniana flowered, and I finally decided to attempt to pollinate the plant. Our non-native yuccas don’t produce seeds as every region has its own species of moths that are specialized for pollinating specific yucca species. I had learned about manual pollination of yuccas, and it appeared quite simple, at least for self-fertile species, with Y. thompsoniana reportedly being among them. The process was to collect the bundles of pollen being shed from the anthers, and in the evening when the stigmas are receptive, insert the pollen into the tip of the stigma using a small tool. I was out one evening pollinating every flower that appeared to be at the perfect stage, confident I was going to yield plenty of seeds. But after a few weeks, the inflorescence died with no fruit set.

The weeping Himalayan cypress Cupressus funebris

We are already thinking of the upcoming acorn season, both from the standpoint of collecting from our oak trees to propagate and share, and more important continuing to increase our valuable collection through new acquisitions collected from the wild.

The edible fruits of Casimiroa pringlei are ripening

Some exciting trips are being planned in order to preserve the diverse genetics of some rare U.S. native oaks along with resuming John’s work in exploring Mexico’s immense oak diversity, though focusing on safer regions than the now-dangerous areas he frequented. Volunteer Craig Jackson and his son Charles have been helping enter our oak collections in the powerful database Craig created for us. When completed, we can register our collection with the American Public Garden Association’s Plant Collections Network, which identifies significant germplasm resources that actively work to conserve key plant groups. .

The Natural Side of Peckerwood

By Adam Black 

Our resident snapping turtle. Photo by Dev Lee

A garden should provide visitors with a sense of connectivity to nature, but the extent of immersion into this realm varies with the location, size, and plant assemblages. Peckerwood is best known for John Fairey’s outstanding landscape design utilizing a palate of unusual plants from around the world, many of which he personally collected in Mexico. These plantings take advantage of natural topography and existing features like the creek that flows through the garden. However, the cultivated portion of the property is only a small portion of the 40 acres owned by our foundation. Future plans hope to better manage the natural areas that dominate the western portion of the property, and developing primitive trails through this natural landscape will allow visitors access to the “wild” areas.

The sinuous charcoal grey vines of Berchemia scandens adds a sense of mystique to the dense understory.

Toward the back of the arboretum, the manicured lawn abruptly turns into a dense wall of shrubbery. Ducking through a small opening, one finds that the “wall” is really just that, a separator to the floodplain forest bordering the south shore of the creek. Light is dim due to the intertwined crowns of the yaupon overhead, this living ceiling further stitched together with the charcoal colored muscular vines of supplejack (Berchemia scandens). Its attractive dark blue fruits are a favored food of many birds.

A plume of light off in the distance illuminates the ground with an amber glow due to light reflected off the bark and heavy leaf litter under a large native sycamore, Platanus orientalis. The understory thins closer to the creek but the tree canopy grows denser. Joining the sycamores are numerous large trees with green ash trees (Fraxinus sp.), hickories (Cary asp.) American Elm (Ulmus americana) water oaks (Quercus nigra) and box elder maple (Acer negundo) being the most prevalent.

Catfish often sit motionless at the surface of our creek’s deeper stretches. Photo by Dev Lee

A noteworthy shrub represented on the property by at least one individual is Viburnum dentatum. Also known as arrowwood, this

shrub has shiny blue fruits and attractive leaves that are ridged like potato chips with jaggedly toothed margins. Though common throughout most of the eastern US in the right habitat, our location in Waller County represents the southwestern-most limit of this species’ recorded range.

In fall, goldenrod dominates the fields

Finally reaching the creek’s steep, mossy banks, the light levels are further increased. Patches of ferns (Theypteris sp.) and various sedges (Carex sp.) grow in these humid locations, and in the sunnier spots are patches of Saururus cernuus, whose long pipe cleaner-like inflorescences arch over with the tapered tip hanging limply downward, earning it the common name “lizard’s tail”.

Photographer Dev Lee captured a great portrait of a harmless yellow-bellied water snake framed with a curl in its tail along Peckerwood’s creek

Heading south from the creek, the alternating thickets and high canopy eventually thins into a more open area behind the site of the original Yucca Do Nursery location. Originally better maintained by Carl Schoenfeld and Wade Roitsch, the property remained unmanaged in the years since their relocation and our foundation’s recent purchase of the property. Numerous ornamental trees and shrubs were interspersed in this area among the existing meadow and clusters of native trees. Shortly after we started mowing the thick jungle of weeds on a regular basis in late spring 2016, it was amazing to see the amount of wildflowers whose seeds had been waiting for this opportunity to be rid of their competing vegetation. In early spring of this year, it was nice to see a reasonable number of bluebonnets whose seed banks had persisted after being blanketed for years with dewberries and ragweed.  Antelope horn milkweed appears here and there and are currently dispersing their wind-blown seeds. In fall, we can likely expect another excellent show from the many patches of goldenrod that added sulfur splashes to the mowed areas last year. With continued management, these and other prairie plants will only get better in upcoming years.

One of the oldest inhabitants of the property, a massive gnarled post oak Quercus stellata

One notable tree interspersed among this “prairie in the re-making” is a massive post oak with wonderful branching architecture and tremendous character that comes with old age, especially when fully unveiled in winter. A second rather large post oak stands proudly within eyeshot of an immense, dome-shaped colony of smooth sumac (Rhus glabra) that provides year-round interest in flower, fall color, and fruit that persists long after the leaves drop, providing wildlife with a late-season food source.

My idyllic description thus far has not mentioned the conspicuous abundance of invasive trees, shrubs and vines cohabitating with these natives. In all areas, we do indeed have the typical exotic colonizers including china berry and tallow tree.  Thickets of Chinese privet exist along the creek, joined by the occasional glossy privet tree growing from the creek bank, itself sometimes smothered in areas with Japanese honeysuckle vine. Removal of these exotics are all projects for the right volunteer groups to chip away at.

Peckerwood Garden once harbored a natural population of a special plant endemic to only a few counties in the Brazos River valley west of Houston. Texas meadow rue (Thalictrum texanum) is only known from a handful of sites within these counties that provide the right habitat. Being a diminutive ground-hugging plant, it requires moist but well-drained conditions that are naturally free of smothering vegetation. The open areas of the “hallway” lawn paralleling the creek in developed portion of the garden seemed to provide optimal areas for it until it disappeared in recent years. Fortunately, John has it preserved in other areas of the garden. Following removal of the thickets of privet in the undeveloped creek bank areas downstream, we can only hope that Thalictrum texanum can become re-established on its own, or with our assistance.

With all this plant diversity comes a myriad of animals seeking food or shelter. Of course, insect pollinators, as well as those that use certain plants as larval or adult food sources, are abundant. Though most visitors are attracted to the butterflies on our flowers, others find delight in the beautiful jet black and metallic green damselflies that flitter about along the creek. Among the many species of fish, a large resident snapping turtle has remained in the same stretch of the creek for at least a year and a half, somehow staying put despite several bouts of brisk flowing flood waters. There was reportedly a young alligator in the creek years ago, and they could still exist in the region. 

Ebony jewelwing damselflies are frequently seen fluttering around the creek bed

Both the cultivated and natural areas of Peckerwood’s property are an oasis for birds among the surrounding open agricultural areas. A variety of birds of prey can be spotted in the sky waiting to swoop down on a rodent, snake, or other bird. Hummingbirds are of course present in numbers, further encouraged to stay with the supplemental hummingbird feeders that volunteers Cherie and Frank Lee maintain. Peckerwood’s property is also an official Bluebird sanctuary, with bluebird houses stationed around the open areas, with regular nesting surveys conducted by volunteer Roger Holland. Countless other bird species stop off here during the migratory periods, and we hope bird watchers will be among the many groups of nature lovers that can enjoy Peckerwood with the gardening enthusiasts.

A fossil mammoth or mastodon sternum segment (right) are among the several ice age mammal fossils found in the creek

Mammals ranging from rodents and bats to bobcats and deer are residents of the property. Fortunately, most of these are not pests, and rarely do we see any evidence of severe deer browsing, their only problem being when a choice tree is picked to rub their antlers on. Beavers are in the creek, and occasionally a prized specimen will be gnawed on, but with so many other native trees in the area chances of this happening is minimal. Future visitors will hopefully be as lucky as volunteer Pam Romig was recently when she got to observe a river otter heading up the creek. Fortunately, our problem with feral hogs was brought to an end after better fencing methods were installed several months ago.

Though John Fairey’s legacy will always be the centerpiece of Peckerwood, it is only the beginning of what our property has to offer to those who want to experience nature. With primitive trails through the natural areas already in development, we soon will make the “wild” areas more accessible to visitors in the future. Aside from those who want to escape the concrete jungle of Houston, our own local residents of the city of Hempstead could utilize the garden as a convenient place to experience nature. As we develop our educational programs for young and old, having this balanced synthesis with cultivated and natural features in one location will prove to be integral in our missions. Support through memberships and donations are the only way to make these improvements possible.

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Plant of the month: Wright’s Yellowshow (Amoreuxia wrightii)

By Adam Black 

An elusive photo of Amoreuxia wrightii caught during the few hours of late morning when it is open

During my first year at Peckerwood, a strange plant suddenly appeared in a raised bed near John’s house. The intriguing foliage was unfamiliar to me, with each leaf bearing toothy-edged finger-like lobes jutting out in all directions. At first, the leaf looked green, but the more I focused on it, a blue hue became increasingly apparent. The point from which the lobes radiate out from is accentuated with a silvery splotch.

I noticed flower buds, but I missed blooms that quickly aged to amber. More buds, and the next day they were again crumpled vestiges of this mystery flower. Then pendulous fruits began to form, green and roughly the size and shape of a small chicken egg. This still didn’t give me any further clues as to the plant family. Finally, one day a flash of gold through the vine-covered lattice immediately got my attention, and I realized it was a flower that was actually open. I rushed over, not wanting to miss this opportunity, and there it was, a pleasantly gaudy, bright-yellow five-sepaled flower. Four of the petal-like sepals bore brush strokes of blood red at their bases, the fifth solid gold individual seemed to be the outcast, shunned in the opposite direction from the red-marked cohorts crowded on the opposite side. I realized I had seen this flower in one of my books, a photo online…somewhere, but the name still eluded me. A friend homed in on the genus – Amoreuxia – when he saw the photo I posted on Facebook.

When ready to shed seeds, the pods reveals its internal details

Later, John confirmed it was A. wrightii, one of the several species native to the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, all with similar flowers that earned the collective common name “Yellowshow”.  Wright’s Yellowshow is native to southern Texas and into Mexico. John said he has seen extensive desert flats covered with flowering plants across the border, but in Texas, it is found more infrequently. The plant currently in the garden was a descendant from the original that John received from the late noted San Antonio gardener Margaret Kane around 1985.

John’s description of the fruit left me checking the plant daily, looking forward to the green pod transitioning to a translucent thin shell “resembling a sheet of mica” as he put it. Every day I checked it remained green, then it was gone. This plant, first eluding me with the flowers, which only are open for a few hours in the late morning, was now frustrating me with the anticipated mature fruits. I then learned that Adolfo, our head gardener, also had been watching and collected the mature fruit and extracted the seeds.

Like miniature Japanese lanterns, the mature fruits bear translucent windows with the dark masses of seeds visible inside

This year, I finally saw a mature fruit, hanging like a miniature Japanese lantern with the delicate, see-through membrane unveiled by the formerly green covering that had split and shrunken back to the fruit’s three longitudinal ridges. Visible inside the three conjoined capsules were dark clusters of seed adhered to the center of the inside wall in a neat cluster.

Though easy to grow in full sun and well-drained soil, Wright’s Yellowshow will always offer the busy gardener the anticipation of one day being at the right place at the right time, to finally observe a flower in its full glory after finding many taunting remnants of flowers missed. Then you then will need to pay close attention to catch the fruits when they mature, deceptively hidden under the foliage, into their easily overlooked works of delicate art. Germinating easily from seed, it can be one of those pass-along plants that can continually offer the same challenges of timing to those who wish to catch a glimpse of the Yellowshow’s elusive beauty.

Peckerwood has many more acres to develop and grow, so I hope that as our volunteer group grows we can offer even more exciting tasks to undertake.  If you are interested, please contact Bethany and we will get you involved!!!