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I confess. Early in our native gardening career, my husband and I committed an unspeakable act. I stood by while he snipped off a caterpillar-infested branch from our flame acanthus and tossed it away. As native newbies, we’d gone into defense mode—save the plant! Then I learned that we’d ditched the spiny blue larvae of crimson patch butterflies. Ever since that mistake, James and I celebrate whenever caterpillars chomp our gardens. They’re a part of our mission: Attract and nurture native fauna by planting primarily native Texas plants.
Without those caterpillars, there’d be no butterflies. While oodles of books herald butterfly gardening and how to attract the winged beauties, few focus on their lowly larvae and the plants they require to survive. That’s why three Texas naturalists—Jim Weber, Lynne M. Weber and Roland H. Wauer—compiled Native Host Plants for Texas Butterflies: A Field Guide (Texas A&M University Press, 2018). The reference book—packed with color photos of plants along with butterflies and their caterpillars—describes 101 native larval host plants. Its four sections include wildflowers, trees, shrubs and vines, and an appendix lists 23 examples of native grasses and sedges that also are important host plants.
Among the guide’s plants is Gregg’s tube-tongue, which grew as a weed in my uncle’s San Marcos yard and hosts the larvae of vesta and Texan crescents along with tiny and elada checkspots. Texas frogfruit, a ground cover with dainty white flowers, feeds phaon crescents and common buckeyes. Wafer ashes serve as nurseries to four species of swallowtails. Yellow passionvines attract Julia and zebra heliconians along with Gulf and variegated fritillaries. All grow happily in our nearly native gardens.
We don’t profess to grow only natives. Our exotics include narcissuses, bearded irises and amaryllises. Many of the bulbs predate us as gardeners. Some were gifted to us, and I bought a few pink irises for spring color. My interest in seasonal plantings inspired me to pick up The Bulb Hunter (Texas A&M University Press, 2013). Chris Wiesinger, founder of the Southern Bulb Company, and William C. Welch, a professor and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service landscape horticulturist, co-authored this fun and educational read.
In the book’s first half, Wiesinger spins his passion for hunting heirloom bulbs into an adventure story sprinkled with interesting characters, challenges, botanical tidbits and some romance. It’s even got a cliffhanger: Will Wiesinger find the elusive red “Texas tulip” that he’s sought for years?
Wiesinger and Welch provide bulb descriptions, planting advice and tips on how to group bulbs with other plants. Welch finishes the book with accounts of his two home gardens and Wiesinger’s involvement with both.
Last November, James and I turned into bulb hunters. When I learned a vacant lot in Blanco would soon be paved over, a group of us dug up as many grape hyacinth bulbs as we could. In early spring, the dime-size bulbs, which grow as natives in southeastern Europe, can “almost challenge Texas bluebonnets for color and show,” Wiesinger writes. Their purplish flowers each resemble a grape cluster, hence their common name.
On one of those hunts in the vacant lot, we found several Hill Country rain lilies, a native Texas species with white, trumpet-shaped blooms. I grabbed a trowel, and James fetched a shovel. Two hefty bulbs popped right up. With his shovel, James brought up four more.
Finally, the leggy leaves of one lone bulb remained. Determined to leave no one behind, James dug deep. When his shovel hit limestone, I suggested we give up. My husband shook his head and kept going. Then he stood up.
“Look, there’s no bulb underneath the rock,” he exclaimed. “So it has to be growing inside the rock.” Amazed but bone-chilled, I suggested we give up. “We’ve come this far,” he muttered as he struck his shovel in and out of the dirt. Soon, he leveraged the 50-pound boulder out of the ground and into our car’s back seat.
At home, James dug a generous hole in our garden for the lily-indwelled rock. Nearby, I planted the other rescued bulbs. Will they all survive and bloom? Spring can’t come soon enough.
Master gardener Sheryl Smith-Rodgers of Blanco blogs about her gardening adventures at sherylsmithrodgers.blogspot.com.