Boerne Chapter

Pigeon-berry — NICE! plant for shady spots

After “Do deer eat it?”, probably the second-most-common question asked by Hill Country gardeners wanting to grow native plants is “What can I plant in the shade under the live oaks?”. For the answer to that, look no farther than the Operation NICE! (Natives Instead of the Common Exotics!) plant for July-August. The summer selection is pigeon-berry (Rivina humilis).

This tough little perennial makes an attractive border plant or ground cover in shady areas. It grows in low clumps with dark-green wavy-edge leaves. During much of the growing season, it supports short stalks of small pinkish-white flowers and red berries, both at the same time. In late fall, the leaves and stems turn purplish-red.

Green plant with red berries
Summer blooms of pigeon-berry. (Photo by Bill Ward)

Pigeon-berry only gets up to about one and a half feet high in our yard of dry, poor soil, but I’ve seen it almost twice that tall in the wild.

Rivina is a one-species genus of the pokeweed family, and it ranges from across the southern US to Arizona and through Central America and the Caribbean to South America. In Texas is has been collected from the Red River Valley, throughout Central and South Texas, and out to the Trans-Pecos.

The wide distribution of this species indicates it can grow in a wide variety of soil types and moisture conditions. It does fine in the limestone terrain of the Hill Country, especially in moist stream-valley woods and thickets.

Surprisingly, pigeon-berry in our yard is surviving nicely during this prolonged scorching heat wave. It is one of the few natives still blooming in our garden, and it has not had special irrigation. Our pigeon-berry is planted in shady areas, and I doubt it would survive so well in hotter sunny spots.

Plants with red berries and purple leaves
Pigeon-berry in fall color. (Photo by Bill Ward)

Pigeon-berry is commonly available in local nurseries. The Boerne Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas provides free planting and care instructions for pigeon-berry at nurseries participating in Operation NICE! (Hill Country African Violets and Nursery and Maldonado Landscape and Nursery) and at the Cibolo Nature Center.

Southwestern Native Americans supposedly used the fruit of pigeon-berry to make red dye. In Mexico, pigeon-berry leaves were used to treat wounds. There is some evidence from a study of leaf extracts that the leaves are weakly effective in reducing growth of certain bacteria.

Leaves and roots and probably the berries of pigeon-berry are poisonous to the gastrointestinal system. Perhaps that explains why deer in our subdivision seem reluctant to browse this plant most of the year. Lately, however, some of our plants have been snipped by deer, and friends in other subdivisions with over-populated deer have lost their pigeon-berry to browsers.

In our native-plant gardens, pigeon-berry is a nice companion plant to mountain sage (Salvia regla). It also looks good among cedar sage (S. roemeriana) and tropical sage (S. coccinea). Pigeon-berry can be used as a ground cover under taller plants such as American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and Mexican buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa). Pigeon-berry would be a complementary addition to any native-plant woodland garden.

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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