by Cindy Anderson,

Native Plant Society of Texas

Texas is a large, diverse state and plants that work for one region may not always be the best choice in a different region. The Native Plant Society of Texas created the N.I.C.E. Native Plant Partners program to help nurseries offer natives that are right for the local environment. Two local chapters of NPSOT, the Kerrville and Fredericksburg chapters, implement this program by choosing one native plant to promote each season – in cooperation with wholesalers, in order to assure availability – and in cooperation with participating local nurseries.

The N.I.C.E. acronym stands for “Natives Improve and Conserve Environments.” The goal of the program is to introduce people to great native plants that are available locally to use in place of non-native species.

Why native plants?

The home page of the state website, NPSOT.org, says:

• Native plants are drought tolerant, naturally conserving our precious water resources;

• Native plants provide habitat and food for birds, butterflies, bees and other wildlife;

• Native plants don’t need special pampering or fertilizing;

• Natives are natural to their eco-system;

• Natives help us maintain biological diversity.

Chile Pequin

This summer season (which began on Sunday, June 20), the Kerrville and Fredericksburg NPSOT chapters are featuring Chile Pequin (Capsicum annuum) at five local nurseries as their N.I.C.E. Plant of the Season.

Also known as Chile Petin or Bird Pepper, Chile pequin is a much sought-after perennial native hot pepper that is well behaved in the garden. It makes a delightful woodsy-looking small shrub in the semi-shade of a tree, or as a small accent plant in sunnier locations. It has beautiful small, smooth, heart-shaped leaves. It blooms continuously throughout spring, summer, and fall with small white flowers. The flowers soon produce a profusion of small, elongated, very hot edible red peppers loved by many birds -- especially our state bird, the mockingbird.

These peppers often spread from seed, but is not invasive by any means. It adapts to a wide variety of soil types (sand, loam, caliche, or limestone) and either moist or dry conditions. Plants grown in full shade will be somewhat thin, while those grown in more sun produce a thicker branching structure. It is happiest in the dappled shade beneath a tree.

As for deer-resistance, young plants are very susceptible to browsing until the red hot peppers appear. Unlike birds, who will happily eat the hottest of chile peppers, deer (and most other mammals) are quite affected by the painful effects of capsaicin (the substance that makes chile peppers hot.) So if a deer takes a bite of this hot pepper, it will not return for more.

Chile pequin is the native chile pepper from which many edible chilies have been derived. Its natural range extends from tropical America through the southernmost tip of Texas, north to Waco, east to Florida, and west to Arizona. In the Hill Country, Chile pequin is deciduous (loses its leaves in winter) and rarely reaches over two to three feet tall. It may freeze to the ground during the winter, but its dead stems can be cut back to the ground and it will come back from its roots the following spring. Further south it may be evergreen and grow up to five feet tall.

Add a few Chile pequin plants to your landscape this summer, near a window if possible, to enjoy watching the mockingbirds pick from them daily. Mass plantings of Chile pequin are spectacular. And if you’d like to add some fire to your cooking, dry some of the mature red peppers on a sheet of newspaper for a few days, then grind them up and keep in a shaker by the stove. They are very good in egg and meat dishes or can be used like crushed red pepper (though much hotter) on pizza, grilled veggies, etc.

Chile pequin has a close relative, the Chiltepin, which is even smaller and hotter. Chiltepins grow wild from Peru to the southwestern U.S. In 1997, Texas designated the Chiltepin (or Chile tepin) as the Official State Native Pepper of Texas. About the size of peppercorns, this pepper, smaller and rounder than the Chile pequin, is usually sold dried.

Picking Chile pequins and Chiltepins is more like picking berries than anything else. The stem remains on the plant while the peppers just pop off. It is actually very satisfying to pick them. Just don’t touch your eyes, and make sure to wash your hands afterward. It’s probably not a job for young children.

Where to find it

Our local N.I.C.E. nurseries have agreed to stock up on our Plant of the Season in order to have it available to the public. These independent nurseries carry only the best plants for our area, as well as high-quality soil amendments and gardening supplies.

Look for the “N.I.C.E. Plant of the Season” sign stake at these nurseries and growers in Kerrville, Fredericksburg, and Medina:

•    Natives of Texas, 4256 Medina Highway, Kerrville, (830) 896-2169;

•    Plant Haus 2, 604 Jefferson Street, Kerrville, (830) 792-4444;

•    The Gardens at The Ridge, 13439 S. Ranch Road 783 (Harper Rd.), Kerrville, (830) 896-0430;

•    Friendly Natives, 1107 N. Llano Street, Fredericksburg, (830) 997-6288;

•    Medina Garden Nursery, 13417 Tx. Highway 16, Medina, (830) 589-2771.

Our chapter website contains articles of past N.I.C.E. plants, going back as far as 2009.

Why go native?

To sustain our local ecosystem, native plants are essential, and many non-native plants are extremely detrimental. Non-natives may seed out more easily, grow faster, and use more water – proliferating and crowding out native species until the natives become extinct.

Native plants, on the other hand, have lived here for centuries (without fertilizer or pesticides); have evolved to withstand our temperature and moisture extremes and our poor soil; and have supported the local wildlife by providing food and shelter for our native animals, birds and insects.

As they are forced to compete with non-native plants for resources, the native plants become fewer and fewer until they are crowded out or eaten to extinction.

– From the Native Plant Society of Texas, Kerrville Chapter and Fredericksburg Chapter:

•    The Kerrville Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas hosts monthly programs at the Riverside Nature Center, 150 Francisco Lemos St., Kerrville, September through May. See npsot.org/kerrville for details.

•    The Fredericksburg Chapter of NPSOT meets monthly at Presbyterian Memorial Church, 601 North Milam Ave., Fredericksburg. See npsot.org/fredericksburg for details.

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Cindy Anderson is a member of the Native Plant Society of Texas (Kerrville Chapter) and the Hill Country Master Gardeners. An enthusiastic (though often frustrated) gardener, she has learned first-hand the value of native plants, and gladly shares reviews of her favorites in this quarterly seasonal column.

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