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Purple Martins Have Arrived At The Raincatcher’s Garden

Deirdre starts this utube video saying “so these are the gourds where we’d really like to have a Purple Martin Colony.” She then explains the preparation and that we have been waiting two whole years for Purple Martins. No more waiting!

As of the beginning of May 2017, Purple Martins have landed at The Raincatcher’s Garden.

Purple Martin Close Up

Looking for friendly neighbors? Put up a Purple Martin house. It’s comparable to a miniature neighborhood in your backyard and Purple Martins chirp pleasantly and  perform aerial acrobatics to snap up flying insects.  Unfortunately, Mosquitoes only comprise as low as 3% of their diet.

At the end of the breeding season they gather in big flocks and make their way to South America.

Next year, we should see some of the same Purple Martins again!

Purple Martins At Home!

Video and Pictures by Starla Willis

If you are having trouble watching our Purple Martin Utube video, please click here.

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

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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.

Noah’s Ark WaterGardens

Themed gardens are very popular now.  Gardening magazines feature articles on “Growing Your Own Salsa Garden” (tomatoes, cilantro, peppers, onions), a Marian or Biblical Garden concentrating on those plants found in the bible, and moonlight gardens featuring white/light colored plants that glow in a full moon and flowers that bloom at night.

Even a pond could have a veritable Noah’s Ark of water plants– and with Noah saving the animals during the 40 days and 40 nights of rain and flooding, what theme could be more appropriate for a water garden.   The DemonstrationGarden’s small pond contains at least two of these “Noah’s Ark” plants that are readily available in area nurseries.

Parrot Feather in Demonstration Garden Pond

So come on board the Ark and try a few of these animal themed water plants in your pond:

Horsetail Rush: This 2-3 foot spiked plant was used by Native Americans as a scouring agent as its stiff stems contain silica.  There is also a pretty variegated variety called Zebra Bulrush that has white stripes along the green spikes.  It grows to about 2-5 feet.  Both of these plants are very easy to grow and will tolerate some shade as well as full sun.

Lizard’s Tail:  The bright green foliage of this plant has fragrant, 4-6 inch spikes of fragrant white flowers that look like a lizard’s tail.  It grows well in shade and flowers in the spring.

Cardinal Flower:  A favorite of hummingbirds, its bright red flowers appear in the summer on 2-3 foot tall plants.  It prefers full sun.

Parrot's FeatherParrot’s Feather:  This beautiful feathered plant is a must for water gardens, especially those in part shade or even full sun.  Its appearance softens a pond and it provides oxygen for fish that also use its long trailing stems to hide or lay their eggs.  It can be grown in submerged pots or left to trail on top of the water.  The Demonstration Garden has a nice stand of parrot’s feather growing in its pond.    In the evening, the plant closes up and a drop of water sparkles on the end of the feathered fronds.

Chameleon Plant: Heart shaped leaves of crimson, green, yellow and cream decorate this showy plant that can be grown barely submerged in a pond.

Lousiana Iris “Black Game Cock”: Its velvety black-violet flowers with a gold crest in the center are a beautiful addition to a full sun pond.

Canna “Bengal Tiger”:  With showy large yellow and green striped leaves and large bright orange flowers, this tropical canna thrives in full sun.    

        Frog's Bit, Dallas Garden BuzzFrogbit:  This small floating plant looks similar to a miniature water lily, though it gets its name from how it resembles the chin of a frog in water.  Tiny cup shaped white flowers appear in July and August.  Be careful though, this plant can be aggressive and easily cover a pond.  Keep it thinned!!

Cattail, Dallas Garden Buzz

Cattail:  There are many species of cattails growing wild throughout the US.  Some may grow up to 6-8 feet tall.  Often the Dwarf Cattail, with a maximum height of 3 feet, is used in ponds as a background plant.  Cattails require full sun to grow well and since they spread by rapidly by creeping root stalks and seeds, it is best to grow them in containers.

Finally, during those forty days and forty nights of rain, what plant would Noah have found very useful (and which is found at our DemonstrationGarden)?   An Umbrella Palm, of course.

Umbrella Plant, Dallas Garden BuzzThis readily available plant grows 3-4 feet tall in full or partial sun.  With its long strap-like leaves that form an umbrella shape, it would probably be most appreciated by Noah and his family.

Do you have a favorite water garden “Noah’s Ark” plant to add to this list?  Let us know.


Pictures from our garden by Ann and thanks to Tamu Aquatic Plant ID  for Parrot’s Feather, Frogbit, and Cattail.

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