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Gardeners' Dirt: Gaura - the whirling butterfly plant

By By Suzanne LaBrecque - Victoria County Master GardenerEdited by Charla Borchers Leon
July 17, 2014 at 2:17 a.m.

TOP: The gaura's loose sprays of flowers with their wispy, see-through effect add dimension between other plants in this full-sun bed and requires low maintenance and relatively little water.

YOU CAN GROW THIS

"Gaura dances in summer with wands of flowers in shades of pink to white, and this southern native welcomes heat and humidity. It can handle drought, likes good drainage and seeds around in ideal growing conditions."

SOURCE: A. KEYS. WHY GROW THAT WHEN YOU CAN GROW THIS? (2012)

'THE DIRT' MOVING TO NEW day

Starting next week, look for 'The Dirt' in the Advocate's new Sunday Home section.

Follow it to its new home July 27.

My friend, Linda, has a beautiful yard with more than 100 trees, shrubs, plants, grasses, flowers and vegetables. As we walked around her amazing yard, Linda mentioned that the gaura was her favorite flower. Her comment surprised me.

Among all these verdant, colorful and opulent plants, the gaura was an airy, white flowering plant and not especially distinguished. Since I had never heard of gaura, it was time to research why it is so endearing to Linda and other Texas gardeners.

Texas Hill Country roots

The Texas native gaura is a perennial plant that was first discovered in the Texas Hill Country in the mid-19th century by Texas botanist Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer. The Gaura lindheimeri and 47 other species of plants have been named for him. Twenty species of gaura are considered native plants and predominately found in southeast Texas, Louisiana and most of the Gulf Coast.

Description

The gaura is a sprightly, almost frolicsome, flowering plant that is tough as nails and blooms from spring through fall. It can be described as an upright, clump-forming perennial that typically grows on wiry stems that are 2- to 4-feet tall and just as wide.

Drought- and heat-tolerant

A taproot plant, it is drought- and heat-tolerant. It grows best in sandy loam, well-drained soil in full sun. According to David Rodriguez, extension horticulture agent in Bexar County, Lindheimer's gaura can survive on as little as 20 to 30 inches of water per year.

Reddish stalks; pink to white flowers

The gaura plant has red to burgundy-colored stalks and long, narrow, serrated leaves. The flowers are about 1 inch in diameter with four petals surrounding eight long, yellow stamens and grow either along the stems or on the ends of the stems.

The colors range from magenta to white depending on the species. Some bloom white and then turn pink in a single day. After blooming, the flowers drop and leave a clean stalk with angular nut-like pods holding reddish-brown seeds. The fruit starts off green then matures to a gray-brown.

The gaura's open, airy foliage makes it ideal for cottage gardens of native plants and wildflower meadows. The dwarf varieties of guara can be used in sunny beds and borders. Its loose sprays of flowers allow for a see-through effect and make it an ideal plant to fill in between other garden plants.

Nicknamed whirling butterflies

As the wind blows, the gaura sway and seem to hover like butterflies, hence its nickname whirling butterflies. Gaura may be a bit too casual looking for formal gardens, but it does mix well and provides needed fine-texture contrast for tall straight plants or large, leafy plants.

This whirling butterfly resemblance combines nicely with purple, blue or silver flowers like asters, purple coneflowers, petunias, pentas and dusty miller in flower beds or containers.

Low-maintenance care

Gaura are low-maintenance plants. To promote compact growth and more flowers, lightly water and fertilize. If grown in too much shade or moisture, the flower stems can become leggy and flop, and the taproot can be subject to root rot. Deadheading is not required but will keep the plants looking neater and encourage more blooms.

To keep the plants smaller, remove about half the height of the plant in the spring. After spring trimming, it takes two to three weeks for gaura to resume blooming. In the fall, trim the flower spikes, and in the spring, remove all dead foliage.

If conditions are favorable, gaura can self-seed and may naturalize in some areas. However, transplanting gaura in the spring is the most common and successful way to ensure summer blooms. After gaura has been established for several years, it can be divided. Its long, deep taproot can make this process difficult.

Texas native survivor

As a Texas native plant, gaura does not have many disease or insect problems. Japanese beetles, leaf spots, rust and mildews can affect them. Deer are not attracted to gaura, but these plants serve as hosts to the caterpillars of the white-lined sphinx moth.

After learning about gaura, it is easy to understand why this quiet yet nimble, almost playful plant is one of my friend, Linda's, favorite plants. It's trouble-free and adds so much to the ambience of a garden. It certainly deserves its nickname whirling butterflies, and just thinking about this plant makes me smile.

The Gardeners' Dirt is written by members of the Victoria County Master Gardener Association, an educational outreach of Texas AgriLife Extension - Victoria County. Mail your questions in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901 or vcmga@vicad.com.

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