Boerne Chapter

NICE! fall color — the understory factor

Author: Bill Ward

In the recent newsletter of the Boerne Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas, Jack Morgan wrote a good piece on how lucky we are to live in bigtooth maple country. He is so right! This fall especially, the bigtooth maples are living up to their reputation. The “best-in-years” foliage color seems to be a response to the severe drought, not only in maples, but also in many other native trees and bushes.

Landscape of a hillside of autumn colors
View from our kitchen window. Left: cedar elm; middle: flame-leaf sumac; right: bigtooth maple; background hills: red oak.

Yes, it’s a colorful fall out there. Well, perhaps not so much in my neighborhood. Many yards are pretty dull this time of year, mostly old-live-oak green and frost-bitten-grass brown. Here and there a few Texas red oaks, post oaks, and cedar elms provide some spots of color, but it’s mostly green and brown around here.

A tree surrounded by bright, yellow autumn leaves
Backyard yellow. Left: Carolina buckthorn; right: smoketree.

There are exceptions, of course, and I’m happy to say our yard is one of them. It’s not just our bigtooth maples, cedar elms, and red oaks that are giving good color. Several of our smaller native trees and bushes also have brightened up the yard for the last few weeks.

A more typical yard in this area is park-like, mostly live oaks and grass. The native bushes and small trees that used to grow under those oaks are long gone. It is these understory plants that distinguish our yard from most others in our neighborhood, and this is never more apparent than in the fall. Our autumn color is not just in the tree tops. It’s in the understory, too.

Image of tree branch with orange leaves

In the slanted sunlight of fall mornings, the view from our breakfast-room window makes us want to linger over a second cup of coffee. Lots of autumn color. Red, orange, and gold of the flame-leaf sumac, soapberry, bigtooth maple, Texas red oak, buttonbush, and pigeon berry. Bright yellow of the smoketree, Carolina buckthorn, black cherry, witch hazel, and cedar elm.

Image of a red-leafed vine against a background of green foliage
Virginia creeper.

In the front yard, we enjoy the bright yellow of the spicebush, Mexican buckeye, and Carolina buckthorn, as well as the red and gold of the bigtooth maples. The red leaves of the Virginia creeper vines add some spots of color among the live oak branches.

Image of red, autumn foliage
Front-yard bigtooth maple.

For the past six and a half years, our Boerne Chapter’s Operation NICE! (Natives Instead of Common Exotics!) has promoted using native understory trees and bushes as landscape plants. These plants not only save water, they are important in sustaining birds and other wildlife. Another virtue of many native understory plants is that they produce pretty fall foliage. The NICEst yards are the most colorful this time of year.

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About the Region

New Braunfels, the location of our Fall 2024 Symposium, straddles both the Edwards Plateau Ecoregion and the Blackland Prairie ecoregion. Interstate 35 divides the city of New Braunfels; its path through the city closely parallels the boundary of these two ecoregions, with the Edwards Plateau on the west side and the Blackland Prairies region to the east. The Edwards Plateau area is also called the Hill Country; however, this general term covers a much larger area extending farther north. Spring-fed creeks are found throughout the region; deep limestone canyons, rivers, and lakes (reservoirs) are common. Ashe juniper is perhaps the most common woody species found throughout the region. Additional woody species include various species of oak, with live oak (Quercus fusiformis) being the most common. Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis) and bald cypress (Taxodium distichum) border waterways. This area is well known for its spring wildflower displays, though they may be viewed in spring, late summer, and fall, as well. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, average annual rainfall in the Edwards Plateau ranges from 15 to 34 inches.

The Blackland Prairie extends from the Red River south to San Antonio, bordered on the west by the Edwards Plateau and the Cross Timbers, and on the east by the Post Oak Savannah. Annual rainfall averages 30 to 40 inches, with higher averages to the east. This region is dominated by prairie species. The most common grass species include little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans) in the uplands and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) in the riparian areas and drainages. Common herbaceous flowering plants include salvias, penstemons, and silphiums. This area has suffered greatly from overgrazing and agricultural use. Few intact areas remain, though many of the plants can be found along county roadsides throughout the region.

Our four host chapters (New Braunfels, Lindheimer, Guadalupe, and the Hill Country chapters) are located in one or both of the ecoregions above. However, the eastern portion of Guadalupe County also falls within the Post Oak Savanna ecoregion. Annual rainfall averages 35 to 45 inches, with higher averages to the east. A wide variety of hardwood trees are found, including several species of oaks, elms, and in the Bastrop area, loblolly pine (Pinus taeda). Grasses and forbs dominate in the open savannas, with most common grass being little bluestem. Ranching, agriculture, and fire suppression have allowed woody species to encroach on the once-open savannas.

Source: Wildflowers of Texas by Michael Eason