If you've been on one of my nature walks, read very many of the articles I've written for newspapers or even followed this blog much at all, you know my paternal grandmother was a major influence on my love of nature. (See The First Naturalist I Ever Knew)
The distinct smell that accompanies open areas of white sand found in the middle of Longleaf Pines, often called "sugar sand" by locals, still brings memories of my grandmother flooding back. The sense of smell is profoundly connected to memory, as the olfactory nerve is located very close to both the amygdala and the hippocampus. These areas of the brain are associated with emotional memory and memory, respectively, and having the major sensory nerve for smelling so close is the reason we often associate certain smells with specific moments in our lives. While visiting the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, it would be something I saw, not smelled, that would bring this sweet lady back to mind, once again.
Rounding the corner along one of the many pathways at the Wildflower Center, I saw the bright red flowers of a familiar plant and, as though a switch had been flipped in my mind, an almost involuntary smile widened across my face. There before me was a plant I haven't seen in quite some time; a plant that had been a fixture in my grandmother's yard in the Cedar Creek community outside of Bishopville, SC (the Cedar Creek in Lee County, not Richland County). Halfway across the country, here in Austin; however, I was near the area where the plant was originally discovered and described.
I stood there admiring Turk's Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii), remembering Ma-Ma calling it Bleeding Heart. She adored her Bleeding Heart and I remember the insects and hummingbirds working the flowers during the summer. Known by a laundry list of common names, including Texas Mallow, Wax Mallow, Mexican Apple and Manzanilla, this beautiful native owes its variety name to Scottish naturalist Thomas Drummond. He spent much of his career studying the Edward's Plateau area of Texas, and it was there he found this unique-looking flower. Though the native range extends from Texas to the Carolinas, it was in the Edwards Plateau where this member of the Mallow family was first described by Drummond.
The Turk's Cap flowers never fully open, folding and overlapping each other to give it the "turban-like" appearance. As most of you know, most flowers open their petals to reveal their reproductive organs to encourage pollination, be it by wind or by animal. Since the petals of this flower never fully open, it sends a stamen column high above the petals. The attraction of a large amount of pollen from such a small flower, the taste of a little nectar and the bright red flower contrasting against the beautiful green of the plant mean the Turk's Cap is a pollinator favorite. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds are highly attracted to this plant, making it a welcome addition to any yard.
If you're in the native range of this plant, there is a high likelihood you, too, could have success with it in your landscape. It can handle shade and full sunlight and takes to nearly any soil type, from the high lime clays of the hill country of Texas to the nutrient-poor sandhills of South Carolina. It can be readily started from seeds, from cuttings or from root division. There is one going in my yard right here in central Texas and I smile remembering... Well, I just smile remembering.