Unlike most gardeners, Sandy Fountain didn’t lose any of her many plants to the freeze back in February.
She’s been gardening in Tarrant County since 2003, but she doesn’t credit experience for her success – instead, she points to the hardiness of native plants.
Like many of the plants in her garden, Fountain is a Tarrant County native. Her half-acre of land in Lakeside contains up to 85 different species of native plants. She uses exclusively native plants to keep her garden alive, even as the Texas heat takes hold of her yard.
“A lot of people make the mistake of going to the big box stores and looking and saying, ‘Oh, that’s so pretty, this is so pretty,’ Fountain said. “They buy things, they take them home, they plant them, and then by the end of June – they’re all dead.”
Filling a yard with native plants doesn’t just help your garden survive the heat. The plants also give back to the local ecosystem. Native plants are perfectly suited to the insects and wildlife that are also native to North Texas. When native plants are abundant, it creates the perfect conditions for insects, pollinators and by extension reptiles, birds and mammals to thrive.
“With everyone planting native plants, we would have islands all over the city that at least help facilitate all these insects and different critters,” said Gordon Scruggs, who first became interested in native plants when he retired four years ago. Now he leads the North Central chapter of The Native Plant Society of Texas.
Kim Conrow is the president of The Native Plant Society of Texas, whose mission is to encourage the use of native plants through education and outreach.
“We need to support our natural areas because of the biodiversity that we have here,” Conrow said “You can’t have diverse wildlife without a diverse plant life.”
One of the key areas of biodiversity in Fort Worth is the Tandy Hills Natural Area. The 210-acre prairie overlooks downtown and has over 1,500 species of native plants.
“People need to be aware that places like this are our heritage and our history. It’s so important to the quality of our lives,” said Don Young, president of Friends of Tandy Hills. “These little patches that we have left are like little mini-museums of our past history.”
Texas spans 13 different ecoregions, each with its unique set of native plants. Plants are sometimes so tailored to their place of origin they stick to a very small part of the same ecoregion. Conrow points to a White Rosinweed plant to illustrate the point.
“It is a prairie plant that’s endemic to prairies like this, and I think it’s exclusive to 17 county areas, and that’s its whole global location – it’s that special,” Conrow said.
Battling invasive species
Even though Tandy Hills is filled with native species, it has to fight the choking invasion of species like Chinese privet. Young said his volunteers work around the clock to cut back privet to keep it from taking over the area.
“If we didn’t have our programs here to eliminate invasive species and prairie management… they would take over this prairie and shade out all of the native plants. You end up with a bunch of plants from China in Texas – it’s ridiculous,” Young said.
At the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, Dustin McBride works to propagate native species. Part of his job entails fighting against invasives that grow so dense they shade out all the surrounding native plants.
“We do have an invasive problem with privet as most of the metroplex does,” McBride said. “It’s a priority at the nature center to control non-native species and get it back to a native habitat.”
The scourge of privet supposedly stems from mundane origins. Residential gardeners used privet for privacy in their back gardens. As birds ate the plant’s berries and spread them across the south, privet became a monoculture that dominated any native plants around it.
“If you plant native plants in your yard, you don’t have to worry about being the one that you know caused a plant to escape into the wild and wreak havoc,” Fountain said.
Invasive species also pose a threat to one of Texas’ most beloved wildflowers, the bluebonnet. The aptly named bastard cabbage has small yellow flowers you can see poking out of the grass along highways in Texas.
“It’s just really sad to think that someday we may not even have bluebonnets in Texas,” Fountain said.
The key to stopping the scourge of invasive species in North Texas is education, Conrow said. If people know which species they should plant and which plants to steer clear of, it will increase demand in nurseries for native plants and push invasive species out of people’s carts.
The Native Plant Society of Texas partners with local nurseries to supply native plants specific to the region. Jim and Trish Stegall own Stegalls Nursery and Plant Farm.
“Natives are just great plants. They do well here,” Jim Stegall said.
The native plant advocates said this partnership helps with the availability of native plants, but buyer demand will move the needle and increase the availability of native plants in nurseries and chain home improvement stores.
“When the public asks for native plants, then they’ll start responding,” Conrow said.
Natives you can plant:
Winecup or Callirhoe involucrata is a drought-tolerant perennial plant that blooms from March to June. Its conspicuous blooms provide nectar for pollinators and attract butterflies. It is most easily grown from seed and should be planted in the fall.
White rosinweed or silphium albiflorum is exclusive to Texas. The plant is slow growing but long-lived. Its roots can reach up to 15 feet into the ground. It attracts birds and butterflies and blooms from May through July. It must be grown through seeds which you can order online.
American basket-flower or centaurea americana is one of Fountain’s favorite blooms. The flower is annual that blooms from May through June and has a sweet, honey scent. The plant can grow up to six feet and will attract butterflies to your garden.
Plants to avoid:
Heavenly bamboo or nandina domestica is an invasive shrub in the U.S. It originated in China and Japan and spreads through underground root sprouts and animal-dispersed seeds. It can displace native species and disrupt plant communities as it spreads.
Japanese honeysuckle or lonicera japonica is a woody vine trailing up to 80 feet. It is an evergreen to semi-evergreen giving it an advantage over native species. It kills shrubs and young trees by twisting tightly around stems and trunks, cutting off water flow to the plant.
The plant society also spreads native plants through its spring and fall sales. Members of local chapters donate plants for purchase, to spread native plants to gardens all over the metroplex. Fountain donated over 300 plants at the most recent plant sale.
If you want to plant natives in your yard, Stegall suggests using seeds. Native plants often don’t transplant well and seeding offers a cheaper and hardier alternative.
Advocates said interest in native plants in North Texas is widespread. Fort Worth naturalists participate every year in a competition through the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. Over 1,000 participants in the DFW area identified 3,060 different species of plants and animals.
The majority of members in the Friends of Tandy Hills Natural Area are in their 30s, which skews younger than it has in the past, Young said.
“We’re just like evangelists spreading the news about it and getting the word out there and hoping to pass it on and on and on,” Young said.
There are lots of resources to help landscaping newbies get started with native plants. The Native Plant Society of Texas offers a Native Landscape Certification Program. The North Central Chapter will hold its next introduction class on July 17.
For a more informal education, the Facebook group Landscaping with Texas Native Plants has over 8,000 members asking questions and providing insights about Texas Native Plants. iNaturalist lets you post pictures of plants and animals you would like to have identified.
Fountain is now a master naturalist, but she didn’t start that way. She transformed her yard one garden at a time, slowly connecting a network of roots and pollen that work together to form a self-sustaining landscape that is constantly evolving.