Gardeners have no trouble picking favorites My favorite is the one blooming, fruiting, growing well and generally making me proud right now. These three are among my favorites because they are attractive, reliable, generally care-free and underused, in my opinion.
Shantung maple (Acer truncatum) was designated as a Texas Superstar plant by Texas A&M in 2001 (one of only six trees), and while it doesn’t have the fabulous color of Japanese maples, it is a very mannerly and pretty tree. The reason they created a state natural area and much ballyhoo about the Lost Maples in Texas is that maples don’t much like Texas. They like cooler temperatures, less intense sunshine, more reliable rain and acidic soil.
This maple is unusual in that it can stand up to Texas weather and soil. It tolerates drought, heat, alkaline soil, strong winds and just about anything else we enjoy around here.
It is a perfect shade tree for small and medium yards and parkways. It grows to only 20-25 feet tall and 20 feet wide with a nice rounded shape and straight trunk.
While it does produce small yellow flowers in the spring, it doesn’t drip pollen, berries or other annoying debris. All in all, it is a well-behaved tree that demands very little from its people.
The tree is pretty all summer with healthy green leaves. The fall transformation varies widely. Color depends on whether you buy a named variety or just the regular Shantung maple, whether there is rain, what the temperature does, and so forth.
The ones on the internet are very bright and showy. Mine is generally yellow rather than red or orange or purple, but it is still a spot of color in our otherwise not particularly inspiring fall display.
The patented and named cultivars will give more vibrant colors — Fire Dragon, Mainstreet and Super Dragon. These are not easy to find, but the original species Shantung is a very satisfying tree and one that works well in home gardens in Central Texas.
While I freely admit that roses are my favorite bushes, my other favorite is the bay laurel (Laurus nobilis). Everyone who has ever hung out in a kitchen is familiar with the crispy greenish-brown leaves that appear on a spice rack as bay leaf. The plant itself is ancient and beautiful. While there are many plants that call themselves “bay” or “laurel,” this is the real deal.
One of the nice things about the bay is that it is quite agreeable to be just about any size you want it to be. You can plant it in a small pot and it will stay small; you can plant it in a large pot and trim it to look like a Christmas tree, volleyball or piglet, and it will grow happily to a slightly larger size. You can put it in the ground and it will become either a tree or a large bush. It wants to be a bush, but if you continue to trim away the lower limbs and leaves, it will look like a tree. Mine is about 15 years old, and it is maybe 18 to 20 feet tall (maybe because I’ve forgotten geometry). A row of bays will make a nice dense hedge or screen to hide unsightly areas or create “rooms” in your garden.
Bay trees are either male or female. Both have very small yellowish flowers, and the females produce tiny berries. For the most part, these parts are ignored. Many people grow bay for years without noticing the flowers.
Herbalists, on the other hand, extract essential oils from the berries and use them as scents in soap and aromatherapy and along with the leaves in alternative medicines.
In addition to its flexibility of form, the bay is an evergreen that looks nice all year. The leaves are dark green, glossy and dense on the bush. It is drought-tolerant and doesn’t need fertilizing, bugs show no interest in it, and it is generally one of the truly independent plants in my garden.
The leaves also are nice to cut and bring into the house by themselves or with flowers. As a purely ornamental plant, it would be an excellent choice, but wait, there’s more. ...
Throughout history, bay laurel has been symbolic of excellence, great achievement and having close connections with the god Apollo. Ancient Greeks and Romans “laureated” outstanding poets, athletes and rulers. The Olympics still use the laurel wreath as a symbol of superiority.
Of course, we all know about bay leaves in the kitchen. Commonly added to soups, stews and sauces that all cook a relatively long time, the bay leaf adds a subtle flavor and scent to the broth. The leaf doesn’t soften as it cooks and has sharp edges, so it is commonly removed from the dish before serving. It is possible to eat the leaves if they are finely ground. One common use of the ground leaves is in a bloody mary.
Stems can be burned for a strong smoky flavor, and pressed leaf oil can be used as a strong spice. If you have a bay bush, there is no reason to dry the leaves. Use them fresh.
Both Shantung maple and bay laurel are heirloom plants — maple from China and bay from the Mediterranean area. My favorite flower of the moment is also a very old plant. Originating in the grain fields of Turkey before the 1500s, the Byzantine gladiolus (Gladiolus byzantinus) has evolved into a beloved Southern heirloom. Unlike hybrid glads that are big and floppy, this one is petite and brilliantly colored and stands on its own feet.
Usually blooming in April, this flower is a brilliant magenta color that appears on slender arching stems with 10 to 12 buds on each. They grow 2 feet to 3 feet tall. The foliage is also attractive — slender and upright. The intensity of the color is reminiscent of some of the wildflowers that pop out in spring — a burst of brightness that shouts for attention and declares that winter is over.
Beautiful in the garden, Byzantine glads also make lovely cut flowers that are surprisingly long-lasting. The plants grow from corms and should be planted in the fall.
The real thing isn’t always easy to find. There are several bulb companies that claim to offer them, but instead you get pale impostors. The very best way to get real Byzantine glads is from a friend who is growing them. (I’m telling you now so you have time to make a new friend.) They multiply freely in the garden and need dividing every few years, so you’d really be doing your friend a favor by taking a few off their hands.
If you don’t have a friend who grows them, you can order online from Old House Gardens or Southern Bulb Company. Some local nurseries might also have the real thing, but I wouldn’t trust the cellophane packages at big-box stores.
The Byzantine gladiolus is easy to plant and grow. It is adaptable to most soils, including heavy black clay. It is self-adjusting to the proper depth.
While it prefers full sun, it will accept part shade. They show up reliably every year, and even the snails, which are chewing happily on the iris leaves nearby, don’t show any interest in them. Once the blooms are done, the foliage dies away and hides until next year.
You can plant bay laurel now, but wait to plant the trees and bulbs. You have time to scout local sources and decide where to find just exactly what you want — part of the fun of growing favorite plants of all kinds.
Judy Barrett is the author of several gardening books, including “Easy Edibles” from Texas A&M Press.