A N.I.C.E. plant for summer

Pigeonberry would be a complementary addition to any native-plant woodland garden.

Texas is a large, diverse state, and plants that work for one region may not always be the best choice in a different region.

The Native Plant Society of Texas (NPSOT) created the N.I.C.E. Native Plant Partners program — formerly called Operation NICE! — to help nurseries offer natives that are right for the local environment. Two local chapters of NPSOT, the Kerrville and Fredericksburg chapters, implement this program by choosing one native plant to promote each season — in cooperation with wholesalers, in order to assure availability, and in cooperation with participating local nurseries.

Formerly known as “Natives Instead of Common Exotics,” the N.I.C.E. acronym also has been updated. It now stands for “Natives Improve and Conserve Environments.”

The program’s goals still remain the same: to introduce people to great native plants that are available locally to use in place of non-native species.

“Plants that are not native to a local region may seem suitable, but quite often they offer nothing in the way of food or habitat for key wildlife species,” said Diana Armbrust, president of the Fredericksburg chapter of NPSOT. “Native plants, on the other hand, have grown here for centuries, providing dependable sources of nectar for insects, shelter for birds and food for wildlife.”

This summer season, which began on Friday, the Kerrville and Fredericksburg NPSOT chapters are featuring pigeonberry (Rivina humilis) at six local nurseries as their N.I.C.E. Plant of the Season.

“Previously at five, we are thrilled this month to welcome Medina Garden Nursery as our sixth participating nursery,” a spokeswoman for the local chapter said.

The late Bill Ward, a geologist, writer and longtime NPSOT member from Boerne, wrote about pigeonberry in the Plant Profiles section of the state NPSOT website a few years ago. Much of the following information comes from Ward’s article.

PIGEONBERRY

Pigeonberry is a tough little perennial that makes an attractive border plant or ground cover in shady areas. It grows in low clumps with dark-green wavy-edge leaves. During much of the growing season, it supports short stalks of small pinkish-white flowers and red berries, both at the same time. In late fall, the leaves and stems turn purplish-red.

Pigeonberry grows to about 1 foot tall in the Hill Country’s dry, poor limestone soil. It loves to grow in the shade of live oaks or other trees and shrubs. In moist stream-valley woods and thickets, it may grow 2 to 3 feet tall.

It ranges from across the southern U.S. to Arizona and through Central America and the Caribbean to South America. In Texas, it has been collected from the Red River Valley, throughout Central and South Texas, and out to the Trans-Pecos. The wide distribution of this species indicates it can grow in a wide variety of soil types and moisture conditions.

Southwestern Native Americans supposedly used the fruit of pigeonberry to make red dye. In Mexico, pigeonberry leaves were used to treat wounds. There is some evidence from a study of leaf extracts that the leaves are weakly effective in reducing growth of certain bacteria.

Pigeonberry is very appealing to the eye with its pale pink blooms and scarlet fruit that it bears simultaneously. The fruits are numerous, red and almost translucent, often appearing on the lower part of the stem while the upper part is still blooming. These fruits are a favorite food for many kinds of birds.

Its leaves are 1 to 3 inches long and wavy on the edges.

This plant blooms for an especially long time, beginning as early as March and continuing until October. In the winter, it loses its leaves, and the dry stalks can be cut to the ground. It starts coming back in late winter during most years. During hot summers, without supplemental water, it may go dormant.

In a native plant garden, pigeonberry is a nice companion plant to mountain sage (Salvia regla). It also looks good among cedar sage (S. roemeriana) and tropical sage (S. coccinea).

Pigeonberry can be used as a ground cover under taller plants such as American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and Mexican buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa).

Pigeonberry would be a complementary addition to any native plant woodland garden.

Leaves, roots and probably the berries of pigeonberry are poisonous to the gastrointestinal system. Perhaps that explains why deer usually seem reluctant to browse this plant most of the year. However, in areas overly populated with deer, pigeonberry may be nibbled to death if the deer cannot find a plant more desirable.

Our local N.I.C.E. nurseries have happily agreed to stock up on our plant of the season in order to have it available to the public. These independent nurseries carry only the best plants for our area, as well as high-quality soil amendments and gardening supplies.

Joining our N.I.C.E. group of nurseries this season is Medina Garden Nursery, beloved by many of our local gardeners for its huge assortment of native and tropical plants, mostly grown on-site. Meandering through these gardens is always the highlight of a scenic day trip to Medina.

Look for the “N.I.C.E. Plant of the Season” sign stake at these nurseries and growers in Kerrville and Fredericksburg:

• Blue Oak Trading Company, 1834 Junction Highway, Kerrville, 830-315-2583

• Natives of Texas, 4256 Medina Highway, Kerrville, 830-896-2169

• Plant Haus 2, 604 Jefferson Street, Kerrville, 830-792-4444

• The Gardens at The Ridge, 13439 S. Ranch Road 783 (Harper Rd.), Kerrville, 830-896-0430

• Friendly Natives, 1107 N. Llano St, Fredericksburg, 830-997-6288

• Medina Garden Nursery, 13417 Texas Highway 16, Medina, 830-589-2771

WHY GO NATIVE? 

To sustain our local ecosystem, native plants are essential, and many non-native plants are extremely detrimental. Non-natives may seed out more easily, grow faster and use more water — proliferating and crowding out native species until the natives become extinct.

Native plants, on the other hand, have lived here for centuries (without fertilizer or pesticides); have evolved to withstand our temperature and moisture extremes and our poor soil; and have supported the local wildlife by providing food and shelter for our native animals, birds and insects. 

As they are forced to compete with non-native plants for resources, the native plants become fewer and fewer until they are crowded out or eaten to extinction.

– From the Native Plant Society of Texas, Kerrville Chapter and Fredericksburg Chapter:

The Kerrville chapter hosts monthly programs at the Riverside Nature Center, 150 Francisco Lemos St., Kerrville, September through May. See npsot.org/kerrville for details. 

The Fredericksburg chapter meets monthly at Presbyterian Memorial Church, 601 North Milam Ave., Fredericksburg. See npsot.org/fredericksburg for details.

Cindy Anderson is a member of the Native Plant Society of Texas (Kerrville Chapter) and the Hill Country Master Gardeners. An enthusiastic (though often frustrated) gardener, she has learned first-hand the value of native plants, and gladly shares reviews of her favorites in this quarterly seasonal column.

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