Flora Fact: First Flowers
Elbow-bush and swamp privet win the race for Texas’ earliest bloomers.
By Jason Singhurst
Mother Nature directed a severe cold front at Texas in early December 2013 with more snow and ice and lower temperatures than Texans usually embrace early in winter. While driving back to Austin from an event at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Historic Site, my family and I were struck by how many deciduous post oak leaves had fallen earlier than normal and how the tallgrass Fayette Prairie remnants had already turned golden brown. Fall flora had made a dramatic halt.
Shivering, I found hope in remembering that one of my favorite signs of spring is the flowering of elbow-bush and swamp privet. The wintry, naked floral landscape would be showing its first signs of spring with these amazing shrubs flowering in just a few months.
One of 12 species of shrubs in the olive family (Oleaceae), forestiera is commonly called elbow-bush, swamp privet, stretch-berry and desert olive. These perennial shrubs are often found growing in swamps, grasslands, prairies, woodland edges and desert shrublands. Forestiera is native to North America, Central America and the West Indies.
Forestiera plants have bright yellow male and female flowers borne on separate shrubs. Forestiera flowers in February or March before the leaves emerge and produces a very sweet fragrance. The fruits are tiny, bluish to purple-black drupes, which occur in clusters on the female plants. These shrubs are thicket-forming and drought-tolerant except for the eastern swamp privet, and therefore most species are well-suited for use as a spreading background plant in a garden in sun or shade.
Forestiera plants are important food sources for many birds and small mammals. Some species of forestiera are among the most sought-after browse in southern and western Texas and tend to disappear in over-browsed areas. Livestock eat the twigs and fruit. The flowers are an important source of nectar for bees early in the growing season.
In Texas, there are five species of forestiera. Elbow-bush (Forestiera pubescens) is the most widespread member of forestiera in Texas and is often called “spring herald” because it is usually one of the first shrubs to bloom in the spring. Elbow-bush grows from North Central Texas to the Edwards Plateau and into the Trans-Pecos.
Netleaf forestiera (Forestiera reticulata) grows on dry hillsides and on ledges in limestone canyons from the Edwards Plateau west into the Trans-Pecos and south into Mexico. It is not a common shrub in Texas. The species name reticulata refers to the shiny, dark green leaves that are distinguished by prominent raised veins.
Desert olive or narrowleaf forestiera (Forestiera angustifolia) grows in the central, western and southern parts of Texas and on the Rio Grande plains in coastal shrubland areas or open woodlands on dry to well-drained limestone soils.
Upland swamp privet (Forestiera ligustrina) grows in the southern post oak savanna and Southeast Texas in the understory of oak-hickory woodlands and pine-oak forests on sandy and sandy loam soils.
Eastern swamp privet (Forestiera acuminata) is primarily restricted to swamps, oxbows and floodplain forests in eastern Texas, and along creek and river drainages near bays of the upper and middle coast. Eastern swamp privet is often shrubby but on occasion can grow as a small tree, ranging to 25 to 35 feet in height. When traveling across major river drainages such as the Sabine, Neches and Trinity rivers in East Texas, you’ll see that the eastern swamp privet shows a striking cluster of yellow flowers on the previous season’s growth before new leaves develop.
Whether you are traveling across Texas this spring or visiting one of our state parks, pay special attention to the bright yellow flowers of forestiera. Smell the strikingly sweet aroma of one of the preponderant wildlife-utilized shrubs in Texas.