COLLEGE STATION — Gardeners, hummingbirds and butterflies have it made in the shade with Turk’s cap, the newly designated Superstar by Texas AgriLife Research.
And “made in the sun too,” as the plant tolerates full sunlight as well, said Dr. Brent Pemberton, AgriLife Research horticulturist and chair of the Texas Superstar executive board.
Though not new to Texas by any means, Turk’s cap was designated a 2011 Texas Superstar because when it comes to climate and soils, it is a very tough, versatile plant, he said.
“It’s a native plant, native to South Texas, and is a magnet for butterflies and hummingbirds,” Pemberton said. “It’s extremely drought-tolerant and will thrive in dry soils. It does very well in the shade but will take quite a bit of sun, so it is a very versatile plant; something that is pretty well adapted all over the entire state.”
To be designated a Superstar, a plant must be not just only beautiful but perform well for consumers and growers throughout Texas, Pemberton said. Superstars must also be easy to propagate, a requisite that ensures designees are not only widely available throughout Texas but reasonably priced too.
Most Superstars are selected only after extensive tests at Overton, Lubbock, San Antonio and College Station by AgriLife Research and Texas AgriLife Extension Service horticulturists.
Pemberton said they broke the rule a bit with Turk’s cap, but for good reasons.
“We haven’t had formal tests for the last couple of years like we have for most Superstar plants, but this has been a plant that has been grown all over the state, and one we’ve known of for a long time,” he said. “It’s an old garden plant; something that’s found in old-home sites, in old gardens.”
Pemberton said Turk’s cap has been a “pass-along” plant for many, many years. Because it’s easy to grow and propagate, gardeners would pass along clippings to relatives and friends down through several generations.
“You will still see some old plantings in places like Tyler and in old parts of town,” he said. “You will see a row of it out back of a house that never gets watered, totally on its own, but performing very well. It’s a tough one.”
“It’ll grow in full sun, full shade, wet soil, dry soil, alkaline soil and acid soil — it’s a pretty dang amazing plant,” said Greg Grant, formerly with AgriLife Research and now with Stephen F. Austin Gardens. “Plus, (when you learn) it attracts hummingbirds and butterflies, and has semi-edible fruit, you’d think, heck, why isn’t everyone growing it.”
Turk’s cap even shows a lot of resistance to the popular herbicide, Roundup, though it comes by it naturally and has never been genetically modified for this resistance, as cotton, corn and other crops have been, Grant said.
“It’ll show a little color change when you spray it with Roundup, but it won’t kill it,” he said. “It’s an amazingly tough plant.”
The Turk’s cap native to Texas generally has dark green leaves and cherry-red or white flowers that look like miniature Turkish turbans, hence the name. There’s also a tropical variety that has huge pink, white and red flowers, but isn’t cold tolerant. But thanks to Grant, and Pam Puryear, one of the first female graduates of Texas A&M University, gardeners today have more choices for cold-tolerant varieties.
Grant used to be a member of Texas Rose Rustlers, a gardening organization dedicated to growing roses and gardening in general. Puryear was also a Rose Rustler volunteer and asked Grant to develop new varieties of Turk’s cap.
“With her (Puryear’s) prodding, I crossed a tropical one with the more cold-hardy one, trying to make big flowers on our smaller plant. It just so happened I used a pink tropical one, because it was the only one I had at the time.”
The first result was an introduction Grant named “Big Mama,” a giant hybrid plant that grows 5 to 6 feet tall and just as wide, with flowers twice as big as native Turk’s cap blooms, he said.
Grant then crossed Big Mama back with a white-flowered, cold-hardy one and got a lot of variations, including one with pink flowers that looked like the native Turk’s cap.
“So I named the pink one ‘Pam Puryear,’ who gave me the idea to breed them,” Grant said.
Pemberton said Turk’s cap can be grown as an annual in far north Texas, while the plants become perennial in U.S. Department of Agriculture Plant Hardiness Zones 7 to 11, which in Texas corresponds approximately to areas south of the Red River.
The plant becomes progressively more “shrub-like” the further south one goes of U.S. Interstate 20, he noted.
Grown in sunnier sites, Turk’s cap leaves may become lighter green and take on a more quilted appearance, Pemberton said.
“Pests are of minimal concern in the landscape, with white flies, scale and mealy bugs occasionally encountered, but mostly only in nursery or greenhouse environments,” he said.
Spring is the best time to plant Turk’s cap.
“You can plant it in the fall too, but spring is a really good time because that way the plant can go ahead and get established before the main flowering period in the summer,” he said. “But you can basically plant it anytime.”
Pemberton said gardeners should be able to find a selection of Turk’s cap varieties at most home gardening and nursery outlets.
Texas Superstar is a registered trademark owned by Texas AgriLife Research. More information about the Texas Superstar program can be found at http://texassuperstar.com/.