In East Texas Gardens

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Winter can be the best time to rid your garden of exotic invasive plants. Two of the more common offenders in Wood County are nandina (also called heavenly bamboo) and Chinese privet.

Nandina is a shrub that, on the surface, seems like a great garden plant, growing in sun or shade. Its evergreen foliage contrasts with big clusters of orange-red berries that persist into the winter. It was introduced from Asia in the early 1800s and is still available in the nursery trade today. So what makes it so bad? It’s an aggressive grower, out-competing native plants and disrupting the ecosystem. Additionally, those pretty berries are toxic to many animals including birds, according to the Audubon society. I confess to having some nandina in a garden at the Arboretum that was built by a friend who has passed away, so it’s been difficult for me to remove, emotionally and physically. Unfortunately it has also spread through the woods at the Arboretum, and its removal will be labor-intensive and may require the use of chemicals, since even a small portion of roots left behind will re-grow.

What should you plant instead of nandina? There are several alternatives that provide red berries in East Texas winters, especially hollies. The native yaupon holly is an evergreen species with scarlet berries, while the native possumhaw holly bears its red or yellow fruit on bare stems; be sure to buy female clones to ensure berry production. One of my favorite varieties is a weeping yaupon; this holly can be used as a focal point in your garden. Unfortunately these hollies are larger than nandina. There are other hollies of a more moderate size, such as several varieties of Chinese holly - Berries Jubilee, Dazzler or Dwarf Burford, for example – that can fill that niche. As a bonus, many of these are self-fruitful. There’s a beautiful holly outside the Mineola office of the Wood County Monitor that is just a show-stopper in the winter.

If you have the room for it, American holly is a knock-out that grows easily to 20’. The ones in my garden typically form a cluster of trunks with beautiful, mottled bark that is smooth to the touch, with berries that are bright red. I particularly enjoy watching the birds eating the fruit from these plants each January – typically robins will eat the fruit on the lower limbs, while cedar waxwings swoop in to clear the top third of the tree. In the spring, the tree seems to vibrate with the bees that visit the blooms – I can hear them across the yard. This is one holly for the wildlife garden.

The other invasive shrub that I want to eradicate from the woods at the Arboretum (and our yards) is the Chinese privet. This is another evergreen shrub, introduced here in 1852, that escaped cultivation by the 1930s. Its berries are blue and are eaten by many birds and other animals, enabling its spread by seed. The spring blooms are highly fragrant and serve as nectar sources for honeybees. Ironically, this plant disrupts the native bee population, as it has a negative impact on other bee-supporting plants. Like nandina, removal is difficult, but research by the US Forest Service in Georgia has shown that the ecosystem recovers tremendously within a few years of removal.

There are much better replacements for this invasive – my favorite is probably the native wax myrtle. It can grow a bit larger than Chinese privet, but the leaves are fragrant, the bark attractive, and the female plant sports pale blue berries in winter. Another possible substitute is Carolina laurelcherry – while this evergreen can grow to a tree, it can be trimmed to a shrub six feet high or so. Farkleberry is another larger shrub that can grow in the same spots as Chinese privet. This blueberry relative has the same bell-shaped blossoms in the spring and similar fall color; its bark is also a feature in the winter garden. 

Gardening, like life, is about choices. We should choose our landscape plants wisely and eradicate these invasive species from our East Texas gardens. 

About the author: Lin is the garden manager for the Wood County Arboretum & Botanical Gardens in Quitman, and is there each Wednesday from 9 till noon, weather permitting. She is looking for volunteers to help remove nandina and privet from the woods at the Arboretum; if you’re willing to help, please email her at txgardengal@gmail.com

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