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Right on Rain

Watching the weather? Seek out a cenizo, which knows what’s coming

The day’s forecast predicted rain. Over morning coffee, my husband and I discussed the possibility. Honestly, what were the chances that we’d get some? It was late August, for crying out loud.

“Hang on,” I said, setting my mug down on the kitchen counter. “I’ll go check the cenizo.”

Yeah, right, I told myself as I headed for our foyer. On tiptoes, I peeked out the front door window to get a gander of the cenizo that grows across the street.

I gasped.

“James,” I hollered. “Come see. It’s blooming!”

That meant—based on many past observations—certain rain. Soon. Skeptics may scoff, but whenever purple flowers appear on this neighborhood shrub, wet stuff happens. For most of that day, I held my breath. Would our cenizo friend be right again?

Cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens) has more than one common name: purple sage, silverleaf, Texas sage, Texas ranger, Texas silverleaf. Most names refer to an attribute of the evergreen native. For example, “cenizo” in Spanish can mean “ashen.” The shrub’s silvery or gray color comes from the dense, silvery hairs that cover its leaves. Bell-shaped flowers vary from pink, purple and, rarely, white.

As for being a sage, cenizos are not. Nor are they salvias, some of which are commonly called sages. Instead, cenizos belong to the figwort family, a group of plants that includes toadflaxes, foxgloves, penstemons and scarlet paintbrushes.

In the wild, cenizos grow in the rocky, limestone soils of northern Mexico, the Rio Grande plains, Trans-Pecos region and western Edwards Plateau. They typically grow as a 4- to 5-foot-high rounded shrub but can reach 8 feet or more. Drought tolerant and highly resistant to deer, cenizos thrive in full sun and require little attention.

Two other cenizo species occur in Texas. Big Bend silverleaf (Leucophyllum minus) grows in the rocky flats and mountains of the Trans-Pecos and Big Bend. Boquillas silverleaf (Leucophyllum candidum) grows on gravelly hills in Big Bend National Park and the Black Gap Wildlife Management Area in Brewster County.

Cenizos provide cover for wildlife and nest sites for birds. Their flowers draw bees, moths, butterflies and other pollinators. In our own native gardens, James and I have observed birds peck at the flower buds. The species is also a caterpillar host plant for calleta silkmoths and theona checkerspots. Native Americans and early settlers brewed a medicinal tea from cenizo leaves. Today herbalists use cenizo tea to ease cold symptoms.

Those many ecological benefits won cenizo an official designation but only after Thomas Adams intervened. The retired botanist and native plant enthusiast says he was aghast when he learned Texas lawmakers had declared crape myrtles as the state shrub in 1997. “A plant from China? That was blasphemy,” he said. “So I wrote my state representative at the time. To my surprise, he agreed to sponsor a bill.”

Under a tight deadline, Adams had to come up with a replacement candidate. After some thought, he nominated cenizo since it’s a pretty native he’d observed both in his travels and in commercial nurseries. House Concurrent Resolution 71 was adopted by the Texas Legislature in 2005.

“I wanted to replace the crape myrtle,” Adams says. “But it turned out that cenizo was named the state native shrub. That wasn’t the point, but I got what I wanted.”

The brief resolution lists another common name for cenizos: barometer bush. That label refers to how cenizos typically bloom after rainfall or when humidity and moisture levels in soils are high. Not long after we planted a young cenizo in our backyard, it put on a few purple blooms after half an inch of precipitation. With age, it has grown and flowers more profusely but only after rain.

Not so for our cenizo friend across the street. But that August day, I wondered, what were the chances it could be right again?

I soon found out. After supper that evening, I sat outside and watched as billowy gray clouds darkened the sky. A north wind kicked up, and thunder boomed. Finally I hurried back into our house just as a light rain started. More showers fell the next day and the following three days.

“The cenizo’s right again. It just knows,” I told James, who nodded in agreement. Of course, some may scoff. Others will believe. Whatever the consensus may be, this I know: Our neighborhood cenizo is definitely a sage when it comes to rain.