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Category Archives: Wildlife Habitat

A Trip to Sanderson, Texas

Sanderson, West Texas—a beauty and a danger all its own.  Let’s take a walk through a dry stream bed on a large ranch located in the Trans-Pecos region of Texas.

It’s dry now but with heavy rains there are flash floods that race through the stream bed causing the water to quickly rise.   My nephew, Daniel, witnessed one such flash flood and cautioned, “Aunt Ann, if you had to get across you would be killed.”

Ranch property in Sanderson, Texas

In spite of the rugged conditions, unusual desert plants courageously endure. The wildflower, Apache Plume, provides a bit of softness. To see Apache Plume in bloom, click here.

Apache Plume

Texas Sotol finds it’s niche in solid rock.

Green Sotol

And even honey bees find a place to start a hive.

Bee hive in rock above a stream bed

Creosote bush, one of the most drought tolerant plants in North America, survives and even thrives in the region’s adversity. To cope with lack of water, the leaves drop off and the bush can live for two years without a drop of rain.  Creosote leaves have a pungent, oily smell. The oil has been used for centuries to create hand salve. And of course, dry hands and West Texas go hand in hand!

Cresosote Bush

Sanderson was designated the “Cactus Capital of Texas” by the state legislature in 1999 for its abundance and variety of desert dwelling plants such as the claret cup, horse crippler, fish hook, barrel and prickly pear cactus.

Prickly Pear Cactus

Goodbye for now to a land of diverse plants and topography. This Sanderson sunset punctuated by faded Sotol spikes ushers in the night.

Sanderson at sunset


Ann Lamb

Sex 101

How do you tell the “boys” from the “girls?”  In Monarch butterflies, that is.

The male Monarch butterflies have a scent gland on their lower hindwing that produce pheromones used to attract females:

Above: Male Monarch Butterfly

Above: Male Monarch Butterfly

The females on the other hand have wider veins giving them a somewhat darker appearance:

Above: Female Monarch Butterfly

Above: Female Monarch Butterfly

Our own Dallas County Master Gardener Janet D. Smith, a much requested speaker on such topics as “Sex in the Garden” and pollinators, says the following:  “I couldn’t remember if the black spot indicated if it is a male or female until I realized that it is normally the male of the species who has round things on the lower half of the body.  The darker veins on the female also remind me of eyeliner which for most of my life was only seen on women.”

Janet always gets a laugh from the audience after she tells her way of remembering how to sex Monarch butterflies— and you probably won’t forget how to tell the difference either.



Note: Both pictures courtesy of Janet D. Smith

Read the rest of this entry

A Monarch Pit Stop


The first semi-cool days around October bring the annual Monarch butterfly migration through Dallas.   Some of the Monarchs, coming from the northern states, follow a corridor through Dallas as they continue on their trip to their wintering grounds in the highlands of Mexico.  These travelers need all the “fuel”/nectar they can get for their long journey.  Even an urban backyard can provide a respite for them.

Picture by Janet D. Smith

Picture by Janet D. Smith

One of the Monarch’s favorite nectar plants is frostweed, Verbesina virginica . It is such an exceptional nectar plant, drawing in not only Monarchs but also Pipevine Butterflies and Great Purple Hairstreaks, that it has been selected as monitoring plant by Monarch Watch.  Dale Clark, local butterfly rancher and founder of the Dallas County Lepidopterists’ Society, says that he has seen Monarch butterflies literally drop out of the sky when they see a patch of frostweed.

Frostweed, a perennial, is a member of the sunflower family.  It will grow in sun but prefers shade or part shade.  It requires very little water.  Because it can grow up to six feet tall, it is best to use it in the back of a border and in a more natural, rather than formal, landscape.  It has large green leaves on a straight, winged stem.  Native Americans would sometimes roll the leaves and smoke them like tobacco.  It blooms in late September through October in Dallas, making it a perfect nectar plant for the migrating Monarchs.  The blooms are large composites, dirty white, and (at least to me) rather drab, but obviously Monarchs, bees, and small wasps see beyond superficial beauty and flock to it in droves.  Even a small group of frostweed plants may be covered with four or five Monarch butterflies on each flower.  It is a sight to behold!!


Picture by Larry Waisanen

Picture by Larry Waisanen

Like many plants, especially our native plants, frostweed has several common names. Karen H. Clary in Texas Parks and Wildlife magazine’s October 2012 issue says:  “Frostweed has other names, including iceplant, white crownbeard, Indian tobacco and squawweed.  Native Americans- including the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Mikasuki Seminole- used the leaves to treat fever, chills and body aches, and they used the roots as a purgative to treat indigestion.  Mat t Turner, in Remarkable Plants of Texas, attributes the name “squawweed” to a specific use for women.  Turner notes that the Kickapoo, as late as the 1970’s, were still using hot decoctions of the plant for near-term and post-partum issues, such as cleansing the womb and stanching excessive bleeding.”

Frostweed gets its most commonly used name from the fact that with the first freeze, its stem splits and sap oozes out of the winged stem.   The sap freezes into fantastic ribbons forming mini-ice sculptures.  The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower center says that “the ice crystals formed on the stems of this and other plant species have been given many names – among them: ice ribbons, ice flowers, ice fringes, ice fingers, ice filaments, ice leaves, frost flowers, frost ribbons, frost freaks, frost beards, frost castles (Forrest M. Mims III, crystallofolia (coined by Bob Harms at The University of Texas), rabbit ice and rabbit butter.”

Frostweed after Frost!

Frostweed after Frost!

There is one important fact to remember if you plant frostweed in your garden.  Not only is the “frost” part of its name representative of one of its important characteristics, but the “weed” part is too.  Just be careful, it will reseed freely—and probably in amended soils will spread rapidly by underground rhizomes.  I have my frostweed growing at home in un-amended black gumbo clay soil under the shade of a huge cedar elm.  I am also very careful to immediately cut off any flowers that are going to seed, bag them, and put them in the trash (not the compost pile).  Doing this I have never had problems with frostweed’s being an uncontrollable “weed.”

So, think about doing your part to help the Monarch “fuel up” for their long journey to Mexico.  Frostweed is a great plant for the Monarchs—but just take some extra precautions so it doesn’t become a “weed.”



Hummer Festival 2014

I feel so lucky to have been at  The Hummer Festival 2014 in Rockport, Texas last Saturday.


My son and I attended the lecture, Hummingbird Friendly Yards, and  visited several homes in Rockport where hummingbirds like to congregate.  We saw dozens of Hummingbirds like these two females at a feeder.


Hummers don’t care what type of feeder you have purchased. Just make sure the sugar water (4parts water to 1 part sugar) is clean and the color red is on the feeder. Here’s how one homeowner added red.


There are many varieties of Hummingbirds  that buzz through  Rockport: Buff- Bellied, Rufous-tailed, Black Chinned, Caliope, Allens, Anna, Broad- Tailed, Broad- Billed and the Ruby Throated which is the most prevalent.  I would like to see Anna because we share the same name.  The male Ruby Throat has guess what…a ruby throat!


Too bad we missed the class, Photographing Hummingbirds and other Small Birds. Next year I will try to catch that and have a little bit sharper pictures.  Other interesting classes were: Smart Phone Digiscoping with a practice session, Binoculars, Scopes, and More, Endangered Hummingbirds What Can We Do to Preserve Them. you could follow the birds by boat, bus, or on foot.



More Hummingbird Info Here.

Yellow-Bellied Racers


Our progeny is not sociable.  Ana tapped on the glass of his cage, and the very young, very little, very spotted Yellow-Bellied Racer tried to bite her.

Juvenile Yellow Bellied Racer

Juvenile Yellow Bellied Racer

Ana, Judy and I were checking out Horticulture Director Roger Sanderson’s herpetarium at the Texas Discovery Gardens at Fair Park.  It’s the new home of our garden’s snake.  Correction: Ana and I were looking attentively at the slithering residents.  Judy was watching from a very respectful distance.

Anyway, there he was, the sole hatchling of 9, some say 10, snake eggs Hans discovered in June at the bottom of the garden’s compost pile.  Hans was excited. Other Gardeners shrieked like 14-year-olds at a rock concert.

Snake Eggs Found at our Garden

Snake Eggs Found at our Garden

If he makes it back to 2311 Joe Field Rd., the racer has long lost cousins to look up at the garden.  Mama Racer chose Cindy’s compost piles for her nest last summer, too.  Luckily we haven’t seen hide nor hair of her or the kids.

At the moment, our guy is about as round as your little finger, maybe 10 inches long, and covered with brown spots and blotches, much like a newbie whitetail deer.  By his third birthday, he’ll trade the spots for a solid blue-grey back and a yellow belly, thus the moniker.  Frogs, lizards, small snakes, rodents, birds, and insects are on the menu.  Racers aren’t constrictors or poisonous, but are very fast on their feet belly.  Don’t know that I’d want to get up close and personal.  When captured, Racers struggle violently and bite.  If all else fails, nasty stuff is expelled through their vents.

Nope, Racers can wind their quick way through the creek and brush without me.


More about long lost cousins click here.

Perfecting the Pond

Like mud? Try enlarging the pond in the wildlife area of the Demonstration Garden on a cool Tuesday morning.  The dirt—well mud—was flying as Jim, Michelle, Sue and friends dug out the pond and added six-inch shelves for bog plants.  After adding a thick new liner, the pond is perfect for a picture for DALLAS GARDEN BUZZ! Gardeners arranged flagstones around the pond edge to hold the liner, filled the pond with water and returned aquatic plants, and installed a new pump with a fountain head.  Whew! As Jim commented, that’s a lot of work!

Dallas County Master Gardeners: Jim, Starla, Sue, and Michele  Taking A Rest After Digging the Pond

Dallas County Master Gardeners: Jim, Starla, Sue, and Michele
Taking A Rest After Digging the Pond

Vegetable updates: Radishes and lettuce planted last week are up and growing; carrots are taking their time to sprout.  Onions and leeks planted a few weeks ago are doing well; the spring potatoes have not made an appearance yet.

Master Gardeners also worked to trim back roses and grass, pull weeds, and start rose cuttings for the May plant sale.   We had a great turnout (welcome interns!) and good productive workday in the Demonstration Garden.


If You Feed Them, They Will Come

Though the Demonstration Garden doesn’t consistently put out food in our bird feeder since DCMG volunteers are not present at the Garden every day, within a very short time after the Garden’s feeder was filled, Starla, our talented Garden Buzz photographer, captured these pictures of Red-winged Blackbirds, Sparrows, and Brown-headed Cowbirds, feasting on the seeds.

Red-winged Blackbirds are some of the most abundant birds in North America. The Red-winged’s count was estimated at 190 million in the mid-1970s. The male Red-winged Blackbird proudly displays his distinctive red shoulder patches, or “epaulets” when flying or displaying.  When resting, the black male shows a yellow wing bar.  The female Red-winged Blackbird is much drabber and has a streaked feather pattern.  Blackbirds are omnivorous and will eat both seeds and insects.  Though they tend to build their nests in fresh and saltwater marshes, in winter they can be found in fields and pastures.

Above: Female Redwing Blackbird at our Feeder

Above: Female Redwing Blackbird at our Feeder

Brown-headed Cowbirds are a species of blackbirds often found among flocks of Blackbirds and Starlings feeding on the ground.  They can be recognized by their shorter tail and thicker neck than most blackbirds.  They also have a rich brown head that sometimes looks black in poor lighting.  Females do not build nests but instead lay their eggs, sometimes as many as three dozen a year, in the nests of other birds, These foster parents will raise the cowbird chicks as their own.  However this is often at the expense of some of the parent’s natural chicks.

Above: Blackbirds, Brown Headed Cowbird, and Sparrows at The Demonstration Garden Feeder

Above: Blackbirds, Brown Headed Cowbird, and Sparrows at The Demonstration Garden Feeder

Sparrows, of course, are the most familiar of all wild birds.  They have adapted easily to the urban environment and are found throughout all of North America.  They too are omnivorous and will eat both insects and seeds.   At backyard feeders, they especially like to eat millet, corn and sunflower seeds, all of which are often found in seed mixtures.

If you are interested in learning more about birds and identifying the birds you might find at your feeder, there are many sites on the internet (the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is one) that can be used as field guides for identification and behavior.  Some sites, such as the Cornell website, even have audio recordings of bird calls so you can identify a bird just by its sound.   In winter, though birds have throughout the ages managed to survive without supplemental feed from humans, as Starla said about the number of birds that quickly came to the Garden’s feeder:  “They were super appreciative of the feast.”


Pictures by Starla

Fall Clean Up in Your Wildlife Garden-Don’t!

There’s a discussion going on in our garden.  How tidy do we want to be?Should we dead head and prune all our perennials and rake our leaves ? Maybe not, our fine feathered friends are looking for food all winter.

“If you’re not careful, you can yank the welcome mat right outfrom under all the birds, insects and small mammals your garden has been home to throughout the rest of the year.”

Debbie Roberts, Fall Clean Up in the Wildlife Garden.

Above: A view into our Wildlife Garden looking through PInk Muhly Grass. Grasses provide cover for wildlife and their seed heads provide food.

Above: A view into our Wildlife Garden looking through Pink Muhly Grass.
Grasses provide cover for wildlife and their seed heads provide food.

Less work? I am all for it. Look at some of the blog titles written on this subject:  Drop Your Rake and Look to the Skies and Fall Wildlife Garden Chores.

Above: Seedheads will be left unpruned to provide  winter food in our garden for wildlife.

Above:  Rudbeckia Seedheads

Looking for other ways to accomodate wildlife in your garden? Birds feast on Berries like Beauty Berry and Yaupon Holly in winter months.

A View of our Wildlife Habitat at The Demonstration Garden, looking North.

Yaupon Holly berries on the right, maize on the left under a bird feeder

So less work equals a more friendly wildlife garden; we can handle that!


Pictures by Starla and Ann

Another Sign of Fall

Many people associate the arrival of fall by the appearance of red, gold, and yellow leaves on trees or seeing groups of pumpkins suddenly pop up on people’s front porches.  However for those of us who have native trees/shrubs, fall also means seeing the clusters of purple berries on our American Beautyberry.

Callicarpa americana

Callicarpa americana

American Beautyberry grows best in partial sun and often used as an understory tree.  Found growing wild in East Texas thickets, this deciduous, 4-6 foot shrub or small tree has small, unspectacular greenish-white flowers in the spring, but is known for its showy clusters of purple berries in the fall.

It prefers moist soils but can be grown in the sun with supplemental watering; and it is tolerant of various soil types.  Aggie-Horticulture suggests pruning its long, arching branches back by 1/2 in the winter if a more compact shrub is desired.  Most Beautyberries have purple berry clusters; however there is a white-berried variety, C. americana var. lactea.  The Demonstration Garden grows a Mexican variety called Callicarpa acuminate ‘Texas Maroon”  which has maroon berries.

Callicarpa acuminate ‘Texas Maroon”

Callicarpa acuminate ‘Texas Maroon”

There is some controversy about whether the berries are toxic to humans.  Several sites say that unripe berries should never be eaten.  Native Americans used the roots of Beautyberry as a diuretic, the leaves for dropsy, and a tea made from the roots and berries for colic.  The leaves and roots were used in sweat baths for the treatment of malaria, rheumatism and fevers.  The leaves themselves can be rubbed on the skin as an external mosquito repellent.  Some sites however, including Aggie-Horticulture  say that jelly made from ripe Beautyberries is excellent.  However, as with many plants that are foraged from the wild, “diner beware.”

There is no controversy however that ripe Beautyberries are one of wildlife’s favorite foods.  In my own yard, I only able to enjoy seeing the ripe purple berries for about a week before the mockingbirds have eaten every berry off of my large tree.  Green Dean, who writes about foraging for wild edibles, reports that the Beautyberry is a squirrel’s version of take out.  Other birds that enjoy eating the berries are robins, catbirds, cardinals, mockingbirds, brown thrashers, and finches.

So, if you want a shrub/small tree that will provide fall color and feed the wildlife (and perhaps you too), think about planting an American Beautyberry.  You won’t be disappointed.


What Would We Do Without Turk’s Cap?

All gardeners have those tough spots where nothing seems to want to grow.  Dry shade? Morning shade followed by hot west sun? Neglected, hard to water spots? It’s enough to bring on a tension headache.

The bright apple green leaves and red furled blooms of Turk’s cap Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii are often just the right solution.  I love easy to grow plants, but this Texas native is almost beyond belief.  Shade, sun, or a little of both? Moist or just on rainfall alone?  Clay, loam, sand, or limestone soils (with good drainage)?  Insect damage? Very minimal. All North Texas gardeners have to do is cut the stems back to the ground after a hard freeze in the fall.

The blooms on Turk’s cap are so unusual.  The vermillion red flowers are twisted into a loose tube of overlapping petals, with a red stamen protruding from the center.  The flowers are said to resemble a Turkish turban, thus the name, Turk’s cap.  Butterflies and hummingbirds are drawn to the blooms.  The marble-sized fruit is edible and is enjoyed by a number of birds and animals.

Red Turk's Cap, Dallas Garden Buzz

At the Demonstration Garden, we have enjoyed a Turk’s cap with pink blooms for many years.  I hope it is the Greg Grant introduction, named after the first woman horticulture student at Texas A&M, Pam Puryear.  Her namesake has been designated a Texas Superstar by the AgriLife Extension Service.

Pink Turk's Cap

Pink Turk’s Cap

The variety name for Turk’s cap, Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii,  honors another groundbreaking botanist in Texas.  Thomas Drummond was a Scottish naturalist, born in Scotland about 1790.  In 1830, he came to America to collect plant specimens from the western and southern United States.  He arrived in Velasco, Texas, in March 1833, and collected 750 species of plants and 150 specimens of birds in the almost two years he worked in central Texas.

Although Turk’s cap will adapt to full sun (and I do have several blooming like crazy in west sun), I really think it should be ideally planted in morning sun, afternoon shade.  I have found that if Turk’s cap is in deep shade, the blooms are limited.  Although Turk’s cap is drought tolerant, the plant will wilt noticeably in full sun.  It loves heat, and is a dependable August bloomer.  The bloom season runs from May to November.

For a low maintenance light to medium-shade garden, mix Turk’s cap with southern wood fern and caladiums.


Pictures by Starla and Ann

For more perennial information see our post on Gardening With Perennials.

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