Gaura plant blooms re­sem­ble whirling but­ter­flies

Austin American-Statesman Sunday - - HOMES -

A peren­nial tough as nails yet as del­i­cate as sprigs of baby’s breath is al­ways a win­ner in the West. In the fur­nace of the Cal­i­for­nia desert, Gaura lind­heimeri has proven its met­tle against stag­ger­ing con­di­tions. Dur­ing the high heat of mid­sum­mer that ex­ceeded 110-plus de­grees Fahren­heit this year, they never pause new bloom pro­duc­tion. Their fine stems con­tinue to nod and sway with the desert wind, un­like so many oth­ers that are eas­ily bro­ken and bat­tered. Above all, they be­come a bil­lowy mass of small, fem­i­nine flow­ers that re­sem­bling a flock of whirling but­ter­flies.

This lit­tle known peren­nial species orig­i­nates in east Texas, where it’s adapted to ex­tended drought and lean soils. Gaura is a true wild­flower in its home range, where early res­i­dents seeded them into gar­dens. It be­came a com­mon sight to find white blos­soms shin­ing in the yard dur­ing the worst weather imag­in­able.

Yet Gaura didn’t come into wide­spread cul­ti­va­tion un­til the 1990s when the first hy­brid, Siskiyou Pink, was in­tro­duced to Cal­i­for­nia gar­den cen­ters. This added a vivid red tinge to the fo­liage and clear bright pink blos­soms. Although very pop­u­lar at first, it didn’t take off like it should due to re­turn of ad­e­quate rain years when no­body wor­ried about wa­ter. Then the in­evitable drought struck, and sud­denly ev­ery­one is dis­cov­er­ing what a great peren­nial this is for dry gar­dens.

It’s the open­ness of the large plant that gives it such in­cred­i­ble value in the land­scape. Con­sider Gaura sim­i­lar to or­na­men­tal grasses in char­ac­ter and den­sity, but with great flo­ral color. Use it the same way as grasses to fill gaps or spice up ne­glected hot spots.

Its long bloom­ing sea­son means this may be the only flower bloom­ing dur­ing the dog days. For that rea­son, spread them around the land­scape to en­sure you have lots of in­ter­est in this dif­fi­cult time. They’ll bloom till frost in most lo­ca­tions.

Gaura is a per­fect com­pan­ion for cac­tus and suc­cu­lents. Suc­cu­lents are rigid and vis­ually static for the most part, so lit­tle an­i­ma­tion oc­curs where they grow. Spot in a few Gaura for its whirling but­ter­flies and you have a live­lier sce­nario. Due to the trans­par­ent na­ture of the up­per flower stems, you get glimpses of suc­cu­lents through them in the gar­den for won­der­ful sur­prises.

In dry ar­eas where so many plants were lost to drought, Gaura is a re­place­ment you can count on to look great all sea­son. It’s a true chameleon for achiev­ing that abun­dant English cot­tage gar­den look with lit­tle wa­ter. How­ever, be­ware of too much wa­ter as it’s their Achilles heel, so group only with drought lovers. Slopes or well drained soils are a must.

At the end of the grow­ing sea­son or early win­ter, Tex­ans cut back their Gaura the same way we cut back dor­mant or­na­men­tal grasses. This forces all new growth the fol­low­ing sea­son for max­i­mized vigor and bloom. Fail­ure to do so makes the next year’s plant be­come floppy with too much new growth on top of the old.

When buy­ing Gaura, re­mem­ber the tap root. Start off with a quart­sized pot so you’ll get a healthy tap root. Older plants from nurs­ery stock may have a dis­torted tap root from en­coun­ter­ing the bot­tom of the pot.

Like so many na­tive wild­flow­ers through­out the West, Gaura is the most re­li­able un­der vari­able con­di­tions. Above all it is the beauty of light and move­ment that trans­forms spa­ces around the plant with whirling but­ter­flies, that never seem to land no mat­ter how still the day.

PHO­TOS BY MARY CAROL GARRITY/TRIBUNE NEWS SER­VICE

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