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June 2009 cover image loblolly pines at Sam Rayburn

Flora Fact: Turk’s Cap

The flowers of the Texas mallow attract hummingbirds and can be used for medicinal tea.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

As a kid, whenever Benito Trevino Jr. coughed too much, he knew to expect a hot concoction from his mother. “She’d brew a medicinal tea from turk’s cap flowers,” recalls the Rio Grande City native. “If she didn’t have enough flowers, then she’d add leaves.”

In the Trevino home, turk’s cap came in handy for bug bites, too. “My mother mashed the stems,” says Trevino, 62, a self-educated ethnobotanist and owner of a native-plant nursery. “Then she’d apply the mixture to the wound to relieve pain and itching.” Malvaviscus arboreus — also called Texas mallow and Drummond wax-mallow — grows wild in central, southern and eastern Texas. In landscapes, the species flourishes in shade and requires little care or water. Left alone, turk’s cap spreads both up and out, creating a lush habitat for critters. Its prolific red blooms — reminiscent of a tasseled hat called a fez — draw hummingbirds and butterflies late spring through fall. (In the Rio Grande Valley, turk’s cap blooms year around.) Birds and animals relish the fruit, filled more with seeds than pulp. Some folks cook the mini tomato lookalikes into tasty jellies and syrups.

FYI:

The common and botanical names of many Texas plants honor the work of Thomas Drummond, a Scottish naturalist who collected plant and bird specimens in Texas in 1833–34.

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