BY ANITA WESTERVELT
TEXAS MASTER NATURALIST
Three native Valley plants that produce berries noted to attract warblers staying in the Rio Grande Valley during the winter are snake eyes (Phaulothamnus spinescens), cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) and coma (Sideroxylon celastrinum).
Snake eyes is a fun shrub. In the fall, it will be draped with masses of translucent berries close to the stems. Each berry contains one round black seed — hence the name of this interesting shrub.
Snake eyes is unique in another way. It is dioecious, which means the tiny, greenish male and female flowers are on separate plants. The flowers bloom spring and summer. Without a male plant nearby, the female plant will not produce berries. So, plant two or three shrubs to get the fall show. This dense shrub is good cover for several species of birds.
Snake eyes is rather rare, although native to south Texas and into Mexico. It is more likely
to be found in bushy thickets of the Valley. It can grow as tall as 10 feet or more and span 6 to 8 feet in width. It likes full sun and tolerates clay soils.
Without fruit, a snake eyes shrub can be hard to identify. The leaves are small, about 1 and 3/8 inches long. They are gray-green in appearance and somewhat shaped like fat exclamation points! The leaf shape is considered to be spatulate. The delicate soft leaves belie the sharp spines hidden on the branches.
Cedar elm has the tiniest blooms imaginable for a tree. The tree can grow to 50 to 70 feet.
Growth rate is considered moderate. The leaves are oval, grow alternate along the branches and have prominent veins and toothed edges.
The tree blooms in summer and has winter fruit. It is usually found in moist places in the Valley, on the banks of resacas, ponds or along the Arroyo Colorado in well-drained soil, although it has high drought tolerance.
Coma is a small, slight tree that can push up new trees from root sprouts, forming a comal — pronounced co-mall. It may eventually grow to 30 feet tall, but usually is much less.
Coma blooms fragrant clusters of white flowers spring, summer and fall from the leaf axil. The flowers turn into drupes — a fleshy fruit with a “stone” that usually surrounds a single seed — the drupes turn black when ripe.
The tree has long slender thorns on the side branches. A coma tree can be identified by its leaves. The center leaf vein is curved like a punctuation comma in the more mature leaves.
Other clues: the leaves feel leathery and mature leaves snap a clean break when folded.
Harlingen’s Hugh Ramsey Nature Park has examples of these three species. Free guided native plant walks are first Friday and third Saturday through May. Meet in the parking lot at 9 a.m. for a two-hour stroll. The park is at 1000 South 499, two miles south of Harlingen’s Valley International Airport or just north of the Arroyo Colorado River Bridge on Ed Carey Drive.