Texas Treehugger | "Rugged Beauty: Summertime Plants of the Coastal Bend" | Text by Christy Ilfrey, Photos by David A. Ilfrey, Jr.

Railroad Vine
This time of year, our weather can be harsh. Extreme heat, blustery salt spray, and (in a “normal” year) drought conditions: summer reveals the rugged beauty of the Coastal Bend. Native plants are genetically coded to thrive in local climatic conditions. They grow abundantly to provide food and shelter to birds and other wildlife. They stabilize soil and sand that is dry and would otherwise sail on the breeze. By focusing on natives, we also reinforce the natural identity of our community. This is Aransas County, Texas, y’all; it is not south Florida or the Caribbean or anyplace else. Recently we were asked to recommend plants for the Saltwater Pavilion at Rockport Beach that would survive not only our summers, but waterfront beds without irrigation or routine maintenance.

Seaoats at Sunset Over Copano Bay

Two plants immediately came to mind: Seaoats (Uniola paniculata) and Railroad Vine (Ipomoea pes-caprae). Occurring together in nature -- along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of North America, and in various locales throughout the Caribbean -- these coastal plants work harmoniously to slow dune and soil erosion. Seaoats is the quintessential beach grass, but it also supports red-winged blackbirds, sparrows, and other songbirds, in addition to beneficial insects, such as butterflies and bees. Its local natural distribution is Kleberg, Nueces, San Patricio, Aransas and Calhoun Counties. Railroad Vine is sometimes called Railroad Morning Glory. Like its neighbor Seaoats, Railroad Vine attracts butterflies and bees; planting natives feeds pollinators who in turn “feed” us by pollinating our edible crops. Railroad Vine has been observed growing locally throughout most of the Coastal Bend, as well. Both plants require very little maintenance, although Railroad Vine grows rapidly. It is best used as a groundcover or to cascade over the side of retainer walls or large planters.

Close-up of Woolly Stemodia
Another plant for creating a softer edge is Woolly Stemodia (Stemodia tomentosa). It is endemic, which means its natural distribution is here and only here. Ironically, demand for this evergreen (“ever silver”, maybe?) groundcover has been historically low in the Coastal Bend, but for the better part of two decades it has been quite popular in the Dallas-Ft. Worth and Greater Austin markets. Virtually indestructible with delicate blue to lavender blooms and citrusy fragrance, Woolly Stemodia is the perfect embodiment of the durability and elegance that define our coastal community.

Pink Gulf Muhly Grass (Muhlenbergia capillaris) is a native grass that also will endure the stresses of summer. When mature, it will stand up to 3-4 feet tall and wide. Its leaves are narrow and dark green, and its form reminds me of a fountain gurgling up and spilling over onto the soil. When planted close together, Gulf Muhly creates an emerald green backdrop for colorful perennials. However, mid-fall is its time to shine. Puffy pink to lavender blooms transform this green backdrop into a cotton candy-like superstar. Gulf Muhly is a host plant for several species of skipper butterflies and provides shelter to other coastal wildlife. It can be found locally in nature along the Coastal Bend, from Kleberg to Calhoun Counties.

Pink Gulf Muhly Grass with American Agave

Seaside Goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens) works in conjunction with Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) to support Monarch populations. While migrating monarchs rely on milkweed to complete their long northerly and southerly treks across North America, they also depend on goldenrod for food in fall. It is one of their primary sources for food. Goldenrod also provides food and shelter to other butterflies and birds. This upright perennial remains green in the early to middle growing season, and will produce golden spiky blooms late-summer into fall. Native to Aransas County, Seaside Goldenrod appears to be undocumented in contiguous counties but present in Kleberg and Kenedy, to the south, and Victoria, Matagorda and more to the north.

The remaining plants in this project – coralbean, turk’s cap, and Texas lantana -- were mentioned in my previous article: wwnrockport.com/2015/06/plants-attract-hummingbirds-planting.html.

Together, the plants of the Saltwater Pavilion at Rockport Beach cooperate to make this project an excellent demonstration of landscaping for wildlife, water conservation, and community preservation.

Christy Ilfrey and her husband David own and operate NativeDave.com. Their mission: "To make positive changes in our community by way of sustainable landscape design and consultation services, speaking engagements and writing projects. We strive to educate, entertain and empower audiences to conserve, preserve, restore and celebrate Nature."

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