Turk's cap essential to hummingbirds as they migrate

Published on Wednesday, 18 September 2013 22:52 - Written by By Keith Hansen Keeping It Green

Visiting the Heritage Rose Garden and IDEA Garden at the Tyler Rose Garden this week, I was struck by the shear abundance of blooms from many annuals and perennials. Not only is the floral display pleasing to the eye, but it is essential for so many insects and birds, as they prepare for winter in Northeast Texas, or fuel up for their long trip south on their migration to warmer climes.

Monarch butterflies were swarming over cleome “Senorita Rosalita,” a wonderful newer hybrid variety of an old-fashioned annual. It is marketed by Proven Winners, and it is a winner in trials and gardens across the South for its improved characteristics such as bushy, compact growth, abundant smaller flowers and sterility, which means no seedlings and continuous blooming. Here’s hoping these amazing monarchs make it to their overwintering grounds in the mountains of Central Mexico.

An essential plant for the hummingbird southern migration is Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus drummondii). This native perennial is very versatile in the garden, growing and blooming equally well in light shade or full sun. It is in the mallow family, along with hibiscus, and if you look at its flowers, you will see the long pistil with its yellow stamens attached, characteristic of mallows, sticking out of the twirled petals. Turk’s cap petals do not open flat like hibiscus, rose of Sharon and other mallow members. Rather they remain twirled and are reminiscent of a Turk’s turban, hence the common name.

Its heaviest blooming season is mid-summer through fall, and provides important feeding stations for ruby-throated hummingbirds as they fly south for the winter. Their bright red tubular flowers attract the eyes of both the hummers, butterflies and gardeners. Turk’s cap is common along the Texas coast, in areas like Rockport where they have the annual Hummingbird Celebration, and in the Rio Grande Valley near Brownsville.

Here in Northeast Texas, this drought tolerant, semi-woody perennial grows about 4 to 5 feet tall, with shoots often stretching and bending down in shadier locations.

Therefore, give it room to reach its full potential. While it can take prolonged drought, it will look and flower better with timely watering. It is best cut back to the ground in the winter.

There are a few newer varieties, including a couple introduced by Greg Grant, research associate with the Pineywoods Native Plant Center in Nacogdoches. “Pam Puryear” flowers are peachy pink. They do not fade in the sun. They look great against the apple-green foliage.

Another Grant introduction is “Big Momma,” a cross between the native and a tropical Turk’s cap, whose flowers are one-third larger than the typical Turk’s cap and grows 5 to 6 feet tall and wide. Turk’s cap, including Pam Puryear and Big Momma, will be offered at the annual Fall Conference and Plant/Bulb Sale, Oct. 12 at Harvey Convention Center.

Because of their beauty, utility, toughness and heritage, Turk’s cap was named a Texas Superstar in 2011.

Texas Superstar is a designation given by horticulturists with Texas A&M to plants with superior quality for gardeners in Texas.



This weekend the East Texas State Fair begins, and once again, Smith County Master Gardeners have set up a wonderful interactive exhibit called the Secret Garden as part of the larger AgriWorld exhibit at the fair.

Kids (and adults) follow the garden path to learn about rainwater harvesting and water conservation, as their future depends on a reliable supply of high-quality water. They’ll learn about pollination and its all-important role in producing much of the food we eat. The life cycle of butterflies, herbs, healthy soil, recycling and what happens to water when it goes down the drain are some of the other exhibits.

There’s also a display highlighting Master Gardener educational activities, and if you are feeling up to a challenge, you can play the Junior Master Gardener game, a computer game based on Jeopardy styled questions. See if you can get 100 percent correct.

Also at AgriWorld, you’ll encounter City Critters, life on the farm, bats, native fish and other wildlife the ImAGination Station for little kids, and an observation hive supplied by East Texas Beekeepers Association. There will be a lot to see for both young and old.

Keith Hansen is Smith County horticulturist with the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. His web page is http://EastTexasGardening.tamu.edu. His blog is http://agrilife.org/etg.