October Arbor Day?

Houston’s subtropical climate (zone 9b) means that autumn is the best time of year to plant a tree. The mild winters with few frosts permit root systems to grow while the rest of the plant remains semi-dormant.

When we moved into our new house, the front easement square was filled with an ugly fan palm. It was plopped in the very front of the square next to the street, and jutted out at an angle. Fan palms are not very endearing trees. Those big leaves are covered with vicious thorns that rip your flesh when you reach in to weed under the tree, or to groom it. Last year’s leaves hang down from the tree in a beard of thatch, which is unpleasant and messy to remove. Their open scales along the trunk can easily become apartment towers for mice. They grow very tall, so are unsuitable for urban spaces where electric wires are installed. Worst of all, this particular tree was a safety hazard as it completely blocked views of oncoming traffic when you exited the driveway.

Fan palm tree in undesirable location © Wren M. Allen

It's got to go! This fan palm was a real traffic hazard for our driveway.

So the Wrenaissance Man and I decided to replace this misfit with a better behaved and more attractive tree. Small trees that are popular in the Houston area include crepe myrtles, redbuds and savannah hollies. After some research, we chose a Mexican plum, prunus mexicana. It’s a native plant for this region, offers fragrant white flowers in the spring and wildlife food in late summer. In winter, the mature tree has peeling bark that reveals the colorful underbark and adds textural interest. It tops out at about 30 feet, so is perfect under powerlines. Its only downside is that it tends to be short-lived. The arborist’s crew showed up this morning and had the old tree out and the new one in place in about an hour.

Mexican plum tree newly planted. © Wren M. Allen

Pretty little plum tree! © Wren M. Allen

Ahh, that’s better! And a lot safer—there are quite a few joggers and dog walkers in our neighborhood. Visibility is so important when entering and exiting a driveway. Now that’s sorted, I’m feeling very enthusiastic about getting some more gardening done. Six years of apartment living had definitely made the yardwork skills and habits rusty.

* Arbor Day is the national tree-planting day here in the US. The actual day of celebration is usually the last Friday in April, with some regional variations. And, as all good Nebraskans know, Arbor Day was invented in Nebraska by a Nebraskan—J. Sterling Morton!

Por isso, odio as formigas! / This is why I despise fire ants!

Fire ant attacks and my swollen hand, © Wren M. Allen

My poor hand! Fire ants are no joke in Houston!

Last Monday (09/13), I was weeding the front easement space in preparation for a big family visit. Just as I was thinking, “Gosh, I guess the neighbor’s poisoning of his side of the space must have killed all the fire……ANTS!”, between 15 and 20 of the little red demons stung me simultaneously. The fact they sting as one, using the hive mind, makes it even worse. This is definitely one of the major disadvantages of living in Houston!

This photo is from the next day, when the swelling and allergic reaction were at their worst. I could barely pinch thumb and forefinger together at that point. Fortunately, the situation improved rapidly after that, and now, I just have a bunch of ugly, weeping, itchy scabs.

My Brazilian botanical painting friends wondered why I was so cowardly about ants when we went to the Amazon. Bom, é por isso ‘stou gritando com medo dos bichinhos!

Coming soon: Retablo for Lawndale Art Center fundraiser

Zinc retablo plate for Lawndale Art Center fundraiser

Full of possibility: Blank zinc plate for painting a retablo.

Every year, the Lawndale Art Center in Houston holds a fundraiser on the Day of the Dead, auctioning “retablos” made  and donated by local artists. They distribute blank zinc plates in late August to any artists who are interested. I dropped by on Wednesday, August 25 and got one of the last plates available.

In years past, I’ve painted whimsical, surreal animals in unusual situations: a crocodile-angel playing guitar on stage, a feline fairy godmother. I think I’m ready for a change this year, though. What do you think should be my subject?

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