Tag Archives: redbud

Garden shows in the Home of Happiness

I haven’t had any reason to visit Denton, home of the University of North Texas Flying Worms, since my best friend moved back to Dallas a decade ago while fleeing a hipster infestation. After reading about next April’s Redbud Festival, I think I now have reason. The show specifically states that vendor space is only open to home and garden-related services, and it may be time to bring a carnivorous plant show to the Home of Happiness. (And don’t think that I’m picking on Denton. Anything but. I still have nothing but fond memories of my time on the UNT campus, even as I’m also insanely glad that I never got my journalism degree from there. Or from anywhere else, for that matter. Talk about throwing my money into a tree mulcher.)

False Spring

Want to drive a gardener insane? Drop the poor schlub off in North Texas this time of the year and watch the reaction. Oh, sure, it may SEEM that winter is over, with ridiculously warm temperatures and only the threat of rain and the occasional tornado. Combine that with the local garden centers being overloaded with fresh new herb and vegetable seedlings, and it’s as if the earth itself is screaming “Go ahead. Put in that row of tomatoes. Everything’s fine. I promise.”

Longtimers such as myself know better. As a general rule, it’s best to wait until at least St. Patrick’s Day before planting anything that’s frost-intolerant or moving citrus from shelter, but that’s not an absolute. Two years ago, the Czarina and I moved into our new house on March 10, just in time to catch our second big snowstorm of the year, and gardening junkies still talk about the bad freeze we had in Dallas at the beginning of April 1997. As a general rule, though, any plantings by March 17 are usually safe. In fact, in this town, I recommend staying home and gardening on St. Patrick’s Day, instead of dealing with the annual city display of vomit and other bodily fluids. It’s just a bit more rational, y’know?

That doesn’t stop the newbies, the thrill-seekers, and the apprentice village idiots. “The weather’s fine. I can put in those tomatoes, and they won’t frost off.” Some are so determined, you’d think they were auditioning for the part in a slasher film. “Oh, don’t worry. Michael/Jason/Freddy’s just a myth. Now let me plant these peppers, and we’ll go have sex in that abandoned Indian burial ground turned chemical waste dump during the full moon.”

This isn’t helped by the great tempters. Longtimers know that you should wait until the local redbuds are in full bloom before risking frost-averse plantings, but it’s so, so tempting when everything else is going mad. Due to our abnormally mild winter, the daffodils and paperwhites were beaten in the early blooming sweepstakes by flowering quince, followed by magnolia, dogwood, and crabapple. However, the real harbinger of false spring is the local weed below.

Pseudo-cilantro

I’ve heard this described as “cilantro”, by people who know a lot more about local weeds than I, and it certainly superficially resembles that most beloved and detested of cooking herbs. In North Texas, our local cilantro is considered a pest because it takes over in most poor soils. Out here, the textbook illustration of “poor soil” is any photo of a lawn, so you can imagine how insane people can get about wiping it out. Me, I generally leave it alone, because it bolts, drops seed, and dies early in the year, much like most of our wildflowers, and it’s only a pain in spring.

Oh, but is it a pain. Those purple-red flowers are attractive, but the mass of the weed tends to grow quickly enough that the local city inspectors are handing out ordinance warnings two days after a fresh mowing. Mowing through a clump leaves the whole neighborhood smelling like a great Mexican restaurant (should you have wild garlic in the back yard to go with it, as many people in houses formerly frequented by big dogs, mowing makes you uncontrollably hungry for fresh pizza), but many of the individual stems stay out of range of the mower blade when the others give their lives. This means that two days later, the yard is once again scraggly and unkempt, and who has time to mow three times a week?

I should also mention another aspect that makes this weed a beautiful menace. It forms big pillowy bunches, true, but those tend to conceal road trash, bottles, chunks of wood, or anything else that couldn’t outrun its growth. Because of this, the first mowing of the season can be more exciting than mortal man can tolerate. There was that big patch, for instance, that was hiding a nearly full plastic bottle of battery acid back in 1987, and thankfully I saw a corner of said bottle before running it down. Insert your very own “Sounds like an ex of mine” joke here, because I was thinking it, too.

The real danger, though, comes from those blooms. Drive past the front yard, and see those rich flowers. Drive down the street, and watch them taking over everything. Head down the highway, and catch that scarlet flash at 70mph. After a while, it’s hard not to take it as a sign that the long winter is over and start with the weekend garden regimen. Then, when the last big freeze of the season hits, this fake cilantro, like the honey badger, doesn’t care. It’ll come back for another two months, while you whimper over the blasted black mess that used to be a sturdy heirloom tomato.

The good news to all of this? I have a mulching lawnmower. I will make fake cilantro pay for tempting me like this.

Dark Gardening: weeping redbuds

I exaggerate not a jot when I say that gardening in North Texas is the US Marines boot camp of horticulture. We’re not really in prairie, nor in desert, nor in temperate forest or plains, but we fluctuate between the three throughout the year. Rainfall fluctuates wildly from year to year, and so do temperatures and humidity. The joke “If you don’t like Texas weather, just wait a minute” is literally true through most of spring and autumn: I’ve never lived in a place where I could watch a raging thunderstorm on one side of a street while my side stayed sunny and dry before I moved here. The south wind is so unrelenting through the year that many trees gain a permanent tilt toward north, which means they’re torn to pieces when we get Arctic blasts in the winter. What we call “forests” are known throughout the rest of the planet as “bonsai”, and I can state with authority that precious few places in our world can list animal garden pests and include young alligators hiding in ponds, alligator snapping turtles digging nests in flowerbeds, and armadillos tearing up the hostas in search of ants and grubs. I won’t even start with the opossums, night herons, and Harris’s hawks: some morning commutes to the Day Job are a dinner theater version of South America in the Miocene.

In response, the native flora adapted. Not only did it adapt, but it’s well on its way to turning North Texas into a deathworld. (You try breathing without your head exploding from allergies if you don’t believe me. Thanks to the pollen count, the local air is now best described as an aerogel.) Plants have to be tough to survive here, which is why even cactus only grows in Dallas in containers or raised beds. Our Blackland Prairie clay even kills house foundations.

Under such, erm, interesting conditions, one of the most recognized and most obscured trees in the area is the redbud, Cersis canadensis. Its common name comes from the brilliant red-purple flowers it prodigiously produces in the earliest portions of spring, and the sight of a redbud blooming is justifiably seen as a sign of the end of winter in the area. Many people grow redbuds in their yards for precisely this reason, not knowing that the flowers are edible and in fact delicious if you like snow peas. (Speaking from experience, they’re a very interesting visual addition to salads, and they hold up remarkably well in stirfry.) These blooms generally disappear by the end of March, to be replaced with clusters of seedpods that also resemble snow peas. Considering that C. canadensis is in fact a member of the pea family, this shouldn’t be surprising.

After the blooms drop, though, is when the redbud gets both more invisible and more interesting. When I say “invisible,” I mean that it blends in remarkably well in standard Texas woodland areas, such as along the banks of rivers and streams. An old trope before redbuds started showing up in large numbers in cultivation was to mark a tree with a ribbon or sign while it was blooming, because it was next to impossible to spot in the middle of summer. The leaves are short and broad, evocative of ginkgo, while the branches themselves spread out to form a nearly vaporous canopy. In the winter, with the trunk’s dusty purplish bark, it nearly disappears on cloudy days or in storms. This makes it an interesting denizen in urban areas where residents can pass by it for months or even years without noticing it, until they look in the right time.

Because of its alien appearance, I’ve recommended redbuds for goth gardens in Texas for quite some time. Yes, the blooms are cheery in early spring, but the tree does remarkably well in shady areas, particularly afternoon shade in the lee of tall buildings. (When my ex-wife and I were dating, we lived in an apartment building with a huge redbud that grew right alongside the foundation, and it thrived under nothing but morning sun.) It spreads readily, and doesn’t produce obnoxious fruit in fall, thereby making it a suitable alternative to ginkgo. It’s already adapted to poor or thick soils, and I still need to find out if it’s able to fix atmospheric nitrogen for its growing requirements. And now, best of all, Eaton Farms has a new cultivar, “Pink Heartbreaker,” that grows in a weeping form.

The back space has a big maple tree that may or may not survive the summer drought, and the Czarina and I have been preparing for the eventuality of removing it within the next few years. If it goes, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone, replacing it with a redbud isn’t even a point of discussion. And yes, it’ll probably be a “Pink Heartbreaker,” just because it’ll work well with the antique roses.