Plants that celebrate their Mexican heritage

Posted Friday, Oct. 11, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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Some of our best landscaping stars can trace their roots back to Mexico. All of the plants you see laid out before you are actually native to our neighboring country, and each has become a wonderful part of our Texas horticultural heritage. I’d like to share a few personal feelings of each of them. They all deserve a spot somewhere in your gardens.

• Mexican plum ( Prunus mexicana). This tree may be named for Mexico, but it’s also native in much of Texas (including DFW). It’s the first tree to break buds in nature, usually in late February or the first few days of March, and it stays in flower for up to two weeks, depending on the weather. It’s one of my favorite sweet fragrances of spring, and it gives local bees a great source of nectar. (Don’t obsess — they’ll be far above your head.)

Through the summer, Mexican plum’s leaves are leathery and dark green, and in good years, you’ll get a fairly nice show of fall color. As the tree grows enough to start reproducing, you’ll even get a late-season crop of pingpong ball-sized fruit that can be used for jams and jellies.

In the winter, the plant’s bark becomes all the more obvious. It peels off in thick curls, lending a richly coarse texture to its part of the landscape.

If you need a dependable small accent tree that grows to 25 feet tall and wide, this one ought to be on your list.

• Mexican bush sage ( Salvia leucantha). Honestly, you could probably do an entire color program for a home landscape in Texas using nothing but salvias, and this one would be the one to wrap up the show. It blooms this time of year, and the migrating monarchs and other butterflies, even bees of all kinds, stop by to adore it.

Mexican bush sage grows to 3 to 4 feet tall, but you can keep it more manageable by pinching out all of its growing tips in May, forcing it to develop side branches. There is also a shorter selection called ‘Santa Barbara’ that has become fairly common in the nursery trade. You may have the chance to buy a selection called ‘Midnight’ with solid purple flowers, but my preference is the lovely contrast of purple and white.

This plant is considered to be a perennial in Texas, but it does need to be trimmed back to 3 or 4 inches after the first killing freeze, then covered with 3 or 4 inches of shredded tree leaves or other loose mulch over the winter. It will come back in North Texas following all but extreme winters. If you decide to dig and divide plants that you have already, late winter is probably the best time to do so.

• Mexican mint marigold ( Tagetes lucida). You’d hardly recognize this as being a true marigold, but it is. First, it only blooms in the fall. Second, the plants are upright, and the leaves only vaguely resemble those of the more common hot-weather annuals. Plus, you won’t see spider mites on this unheralded perennial — that’s a huge difference from its annual cousins.

Mexican mint marigold’s flowers are also favorites of migrating monarch butterflies. And the foliage is richly and wonderfully fragrant, with the aroma of tarragon with a touch of anise. It grows to 20 inches when blooming, and like Mexican bush sage, it’s a bit on the tender side in severe Texas winters, so mulches are always in order. Trim it back to 3 or 4 inches after the first hard freeze, then lay in the mulch.

• Mexican petunia ( Ruellia brittoniana). If you’re a veteran Texas gardener, I know what you’re thinking right now: “Neil’s lost control of his senses. He’s suggesting a plant that is almost as invasive as cursed bamboo!” Yes, I know this one does spread. But I have a trick that I’ve used when growing it. I make my own “edging” to keep it in bounds. I cut the bottoms out of old 5- or 7-gallon nursery pots, then I dig holes so I can sink their rims flush with the soil surface. I fill them with well-prepared garden soil, and I plant my ruellia. I guess seedlings might be a problem outside my boundaries, but I’ve never had to contend with them. Better yet, dwarf selections like Katie’s dwarf and Bonita (pink-flowering) get around all of those problems, too.

• Mexican feathergrass ( Stipa tenuissima). I didn’t really know about this grass 10 or 15 years ago, but now there’s almost as much of it in North Texas as there is Bermuda grass. Or, so it seems. It’s a lovely fine-textured grass that grows to 15 or 18 inches tall. Its leaves are medium-green, shading to tan as they dry.

I guess my only concern about using very much of this and other ornamental grasses in our landscapes is that they are rather drab for four or five months of the winter. They’re lovely landscaping accents, but (this is my opinion only — don’t write letters) too many people are using ornamental grasses to replace ground covers and even shrubs. They’re much more effective (another personal reflection, so put the pen down) as accents in color beds, especially where there are a few anchoring evergreen shrubs to fill in during those “down” winter months. Trim out the browned leaves during the winter.

Neil Sperry publishes “Gardens” magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sunday on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227.

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