Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus drummondii)

This past weekend, the weather was so nice that my wife and I decided to take a ride in the country.  We went down a long gravel road that had a “No Exit” sign posted just to see where it would go.  The road was lovely.  It slowly snaked uphill through pastures divided by creeks that were crossed on old-fashioned wooden bridges.  As the road worked its way through this rough country, we were taken by two things; the views of Washington County from the top of the hill and the ditches full of Turk’s Cap.

With it’s whorled petals and long stamens, the flowers of the Turk’s Cap are are irristible to hummingbirds

In my opinion, Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus drummondii) is the most attractive and useful ornamental of all of the Texas natives.  This plant produces a large, woody bush that is literally covered in its characteristic red “whorled” blooms from late spring through first frost.  It is a joy to look at and a magnet for wildlife

My first Turk’s Cap plants came from the mark down rack at a local big box. When I bought them (in late July), they looked so bad that my wife thought that the $1 I paid for them was way too much.  I took those sad looking plants home and planted them along the outside fence of my potager.  Since it was July, and they were in such poor shape, I made sure that they got ample water through August.  While I lost one, the other four are still doing well three years later.

This year, my wife pointed out that fewer and fewer hummingbirds were coming to our feeders.  Our neighbors had them, but we were just not seeing them.  The missing hummingbirds bothered us both since we enjoy watching them.  One morning while weeding in the potager, I was startled by the unmistakable sound of hummingbird wings all around me.  I stopped what I was doing and was amazed to see a dozen or more hummingbirds feeding on the bright red flowers of my Turk’s Cap.  In that moment I knew why we had no hummers at our feeders; they prefer the taste of Turk’s Cap nectar to the taste of watered down sugar.  

Hummers aren’t the only thing that feed on Turk’s Cap.  My plants always have a wide variety of moths, butterflies and bumblebees flitting around them.  Plus, all of those lovely little flowers make a lot of “pulpy” seed pods that birds (especially mockingbirds) love.

The fruits and the seeds of Turk’s Cap are irresitable to a variety of wildlife

Two legged creatures can also enjoy Turk’s Cap fruits and flowers.  The raw fruit tastes a little like an apple or watermelon. You can also cook down the fruit to create a very tasty syrup that can be used to make a nice jelly.   Both the fruits and flowers can be boiled to make a good herbal tea.

If you want to try Turk’s Cap in your garden, you are no longer limited to plants with red flowers.  There is a native white variety that is available at several retailers in out area.  While pretty, the white one has not proven to be as durable or prolific for me as the red varieties.  If you like pink, then you have two great choices that have both been developed by my buddy Greg Grant. 

 

A tangle of Turk’s Cap (on the left), Cassia and Salvia coccinea in and around my potager

Greg was encouraged to create an improved variety of Turk’s Cap by one of the first female graduates of A&M (and fellow Rose Rustler), Pam Puryear.  He crossed one of our native reds with a tropical pink.  His first try yielded a large shrub with flowers that were twice as big as those of our native varieties.  Greg called this cross “Big Momma”.  “Big Momma” is a stunning plant but for me it has been hard to find.  If you find it, take cuttings (and call me) since Turk’s Cap is fairly easy to propagate. 

Greg’s second attempt produced a lovely pink flowered plant that was very similar in size and structure to our Texas native.  He named this plant in honor of the woman that encouraged him to develop it.  Pam Puryear’s Turk’s Cap has been very popular in the nursery trade.  It was also honored in 2011 with its inclusion on the list of Texas Superstars. 

If you can beat the mockingbirds to the seeds you can easily use them to grow more plants. Turk’s Cap is also easy to propagate through cuttings.

In my mind, Turk’s Cap is the ultimate bedding plant.  It is perennial south of the Red River and can be grown as annual further north.  I know of no other plant that is as adaptable or durable as this plant.  It is tolerant of a wide variety of growing conditions and even has a natural resistance to Roundup.  Turk’s Cap is that rare plant that does almost as well in the shade as it does in full sun.   It grows as well in the dense clay of the Central Texas river bottoms as it does in the thin, rocky, limestone rich soils of the Texas Hill Country or the acidic sandy soils of East Texas.  It thrives in average rainfall and it easily survives the worst droughts Texas has to offer.  Basically, all you have to do is get Turk’s Cap in the ground and it will grow for you.

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11 Responses to Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus drummondii)

  1. Willeva Weems says:

    Thanks for the Turk’s Cap promotion. My garden is also beginning to attract hummers and honey bees -a few butterflies too. I will add Turk’s Cap tomorrow! The pictures are lovely. Thanks.

    • Jay White says:

      If you like watching the hummingbirds then Turk’s Cap will definately increase the numbers of them you have in the garden. Good luck and thanks so much for the comment!

  2. Paulette Robicheaux says:

    Hi, A friend shared your blog page with me since I am in the process of starting a raised garden for my school. It is a K-4 building and I’ve created a 4X8 foot raised area for each grade level. I want to be able to start a fall garden with the kids and wondered what you might recommend. We won’t be able to begin planting until mid November.
    Thanks,
    Paulette Robicheaux

    • Jay White says:

      Thank you so much for the question. My wife is a second grade teacher and she uses a raised bed in her curriculum as well. Since we live where the winters are mild you have several options for your November garden. If you can get the plants that late, all of the brassicas do extremely well in the fall garden; broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and brussel sprouts. If you want to plant form seed, radishes are the quickest and most fail proof. However, a lot of kids don’t like them. Beets and turnips are also great choices. All lettuces and spinach will do well if planted in November. Don’t forget the carrots. They are the most cold hearty of all and kids love them. I recommend going to rareseeds.com and getting a “mixed” bag of carrot seeds that produce purple, red, white, yellow and orange carrots. This really gets the kids excited when at harvest because they never know what color they are going to to get. Some of my favorites (but generally not the kids) are greens. Collards, mustard greens and “Bright Lights” chard do well and make large structural plants that are fun to look at (especially the chard). November is also a great time to plant onions and potatoes if you have the room.

      Good luck and do not hesitate to contact me again if you have any more questions!

  3. Dan says:

    Hi, I put one in my front yard, and it was full of blooms yesterday, but today something just cut them off. Did not eat them, just cut them. I saw a beetle on the leaves yesterday, I wonder if this has happened to your plants? Did you fight the bugs?

    thanks,
    Dan

    • Jay White says:

      That is very unusual indeed. they are typically very pest free. If you can send me a picture of the damage I might be able to send to some entomologists I know and see what they have to say

  4. Kim Passini says:

    My plant was doing very well and then I noticed within a week that all of the leaves were gone. They looked great all summer, would a deer or other critter start feeding on the plant in October?

    • Jay White says:

      Very hard to say without a picture. Turk’s Cap are generally thought of as “deer resistant”. That doesn’t mean “deer proof” so there is a chance they would eat them. Typically deer only move on to the resistant plants when all of their other feed sources are depleted. That is possible because it has been dry and I have noticed acorns have not yet dropped. So, if their food is scarce, they may have turned on your plants. The good news is the plants should come back in the spring if they didn’t eat all the way down to the roots.

  5. Karen davis says:

    My big Turks Cap has developed white mildew on it!!! I have sprayed it with a fungicide, it helped but it came back!! Should I cut it down to the ground and let it start over???

    • Jay White says:

      Sorry I am just responding. I have been on vacation. Pretty sure you have powdery mildew. While it can be bothersome it shouldn’t require cutting it down. There are lots of home remedies that use milk, baking powder and dish soap that work pretty well. Please google powdery mildew control to find one that looks good for you. If you have it bad, go to your local nursery and see what they recommend for your area. There are lots of products that work well and are easy to mix in a sprayer and apply. Hope this helps

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