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.
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.
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.
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.
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.