Some might expect a “plant of the month” to be some exceptionally rare and boldly attractive plant. This month I wanted to focus on a groundcover that at first glance may seem quite humble in many ways, but is in fact incredibly versatile and has a unique charm of its own. I always liked Dyschoriste after growing a Florida native species prior to my move, but assumed others would never see its attractive qualities over the more flashy options. Shortly after starting at Peckerwood, I was surprised to find that one of our most reliable volunteers, Craig Jackson, shared my appreciation of the patch of Dyschoriste linearis that John has growing along the perennial border near the south entrance to the woodland garden. I then began to see that nurseries here in Texas actually carry this plant, and soon found that, when offered in our nursery, others were attracted to it and bought it, shattering my assumptions!
Snake Herb is an evergreen Texas native that is drought tolerant, cold hardy and low maintenance, with dense, weed-suppressing foliage that looks attractive year around. Dyschoriste linearis is a highly variable plant, with leaves that can be either thin and needle-like, or slightly more
broad and elliptical. John’s plant is the broad-leaf form, but the linear-leaved form seems to be more common in the nursery trade. Both are equally attractive and create a low, dense mat of 8” to 12” tall evergreen stems that gradually form a tight, tidy clump. Throughout the warmer months, purple flowers resembling smaller versions of the related Ruellia are readily visible.
Naturally growing in dry, sunny spots in sandy or gravelly open areas, this plant is amazingly tolerant of neglect following establishment, after which water should only be necessary following long dry spells. The dense mat it forms tends to be compact and tight, but occasionally an errant runner will result in a random patch or two forming a short distance away from the main plant. Some may prefer to remove any satellite clumps if you are keeping a more formal, organized landscape, but for naturalizing it is simply a matter of preference. It is in no way an aggressive spreader, so it will not become something you regret planting and removal of undesired shoots easy.
South entrance to the Woodland Garden
In addition to its xeric qualities, snake herb will also grow in fertile garden soil with regular irrigation,
provided there is excellent drainage and at least a fair portion of the day in full sun. Design ideas utilizing this plant include planting around bold foliage, like around the base of thick, succulent Agave leaves, or as a foreground layer in front of or in-between taller specimen perennials or low shrubs. I think its color and texture goes well with silver colored foliage. Gravel mulch around the plant really helps make the clump stand out compared with wood mulch or bare earth.
Don’t be put off by the common name “Snake Herb”, it does not attract snakes any better than other ground covers. In fact, I can’t readily find out why it has that common name. Other species elsewhere in the world, some of which form taller shrubs, have many cultural medicinal uses, and perhaps somewhere it has been used to treat snakebite. Quite possibly it is instead named for its long snakelike rhizomes which results in its ability to form a colony. Either way it is a valuable addition to any well-drained sunny landscape.
We currently have the needle-leaf form available in our nursery, but we are also rooting divisions of John’s elliptical-leaved form. Adam will be bringing a Florida collection of Dyschoriste oblongifolia to trial in Texas, and there are several other species native to the southern US to seek out in an attempt to broaden the palette of snake herb varieties that can be utilized for all their desirable qualities.
— Adam Black