Will our brush plants bloom this year?

In spring, Guayacán bears purple, inch-wide flowers with prominent yellow anthers. This shrub is known as ironwood because of its tough, dense wood. (Robert Benson photo)


fter this February’s devastating winter storm, many South Texas gardeners wondered if the plants in our gardens and landscapes survived. There were some casualties, of course, but most seem to be making a comeback. As a naturalist, I wondered if the shrubs and trees of the South Texas brush made it.

The storm arrived just as the Blackbrush was beginning to bloom. The ice-encased blossoms and new leaves were pretty…until the ice melted. Then the Blackbrush trunks and limbs were left bare and gray. They are still that way at the time of this writing. Will the Blackbrush come back? Can it still bloom again this year? Only time will tell how severe the impact was on this iconic brush plant.

Two other species have been slow to recover: Huisache and Colima. Usually, Huisache blooms in February, perfuming the air for miles. Not this year. The Huisache near my pond is still a mass of red-brown twigs against the bright green of hackberries. Where are the fragrant golden-yellow puffballs of Huisache flowers? Are the trees dead?

Colima, also known as Lime Prickly-Ash, has leathery, compound leaves that smell like citrus when crushed. It is very nearly evergreen, but this February, Colima’s leaves and buds froze. It is only just now beginning to regrow. Many bird species relish the seeds of Colima. What will they eat if this shrub doesn’t produce fruit and seeds this year?

However, I have been surprised by how many shrubs and trees have come back better than ever! Plants that typically bloom in March and April have leafed out and flowered on schedule. They are so green and healthy that I think that the prolonged cold must have suppressed insects or diseases. 

Hogplum is thriving in the aftermath of the winter storm. It is deciduous and was leafless when the cold hit. But not long after, it unfurled foliage and small, disk-shaped flowers. Soon, “plums” will form and wildlife will feast. 

Texas Persimmons were among the first trees to put out leaves after the big freeze. They flowered and set abundant fruit. Persimmon fruit is sweet and juicy when ripe. Birds, including quail, turkeys and songbirds, devour the fruits. Mammals, including deer, javelinas and coyotes, depend on persimmons as a food staple in the late summer. I am glad to note that there should be plenty of persimmon fruit this year.

One of the prettiest flowering brush plants is Guayacán. It is a “stout evergreen shrub or small tree with short, irregular, knotty branches that appear as if the leaves are growing directly from the stems.” The dark green leaves, crowded together on the short branches, give the shrub the look of a conifer. However, as a flowering plant, it does not have cones. Guayacán produces flowers in April. Its blooms are purple with “noticeable yellow anthers” and fragrant. Bees love Guayacán, making it a good source of Brush Country honey. 

Although Guayacán is a minor component of the mixed brush community, its tough wood is the “hardest in Texas and, indeed, in the entire country.” It is dense and will sink in water. Guayacán makes strong tool handles, sturdy knife hilts and lasting fence posts. No wonder early settlers called it ironwood!

After the purple (and rarely white) flowers fade, Guayacán produces an unusual heart-shaped fruit with a large, bean-like, red seed. The red covering is technically an aril, and it is similar to the red, juice-filled package that wraps up a pomegranate seed. I’m sure its purpose is identical: to attract an animal to eat the red part and disperse the seed. 

The winter storm of 2021 stressed many of the plants in the South Texas Brush Country. But most are rebounding. There will be leaves, fruit and seeds on nearly all the shrubs and trees. Hopefully, it will be enough to provide sustenance to the denizens of this unique ecosystem for another year.

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