Pavlov’s Squirrel


This sweet creature has been a fixture in my neighborhood for at least two years. During the statewide freeze of 2021, I began providing extra amounts of bird seed and peanuts for the birds, and it wasn’t long before both fox and gray squirrels took advantage of the largesse. This one, braver or hungrier than the rest, began standing its ground when I appeared, ready to be first at table if another handful of peanuts should be offered.

Over time, it began associating me with free peanuts, and came running whenever I appeared. If I was taking out the trash or getting in the car to leave, it cast baleful glances in my direction, but it always was there the next time: the very embodiment of hope. I took the next step, and started offering it a special treat; a few shelled pecans cemented our relationship.

Recently, I began noticing a different behavior. As I’d leave my apartment and walk down the sidewalk to my car, the squirrel would be waiting: sometimes in the yard, and sometimes on the sidewalk. Occasionally, it would have plunked itself directly in front of the car, where I couldn’t miss it. It didn’t surprise me at all that it would come running when I appeared, but how it seemed to know when I was going to appear seemed mysterious.

A couple of weeks ago, I figured it out. From my apartment door, I usually can see my car. As I walk to it, I use my key to open it remotely; the car responds by making that typical little ‘beep’ that’s a part of life these days. My squirrel friend had made a second association. Hearing that sound meant his nut-bearing friend was on her way, and he intended to be ready.

Of course I experimented. Walking to the car without opening it remotely meant no squirrel on the sidewalk. But if I paused at my door, clicked, and waited, it wouldn’t be long before the squirrel ran to the car, looking around in expectation. If it spotted me standing in place, it would leave its post at the car and run to me, as if to say, “Enough of the game-playing. Let’s have some pecans!”

Anyone with a pet knows the power of conditioned behavior, but watching it develop over time in this free-ranging squirrel was immensely interesting. Of course I’ve named it Pavlov, and I’ve resigned myself to sharing my pecans.


Comments always are welcome.

Things Falling Apart ~ Naturally

Limewater brookweed ~ Samolus ebracteatus 

Things Fall Apart, the 1958 novel by Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, depicts — among other things — pre-colonial life in southeastern Nigeria and the coming of Europeans during the late 19th century. Both the title and the epigraph of Achebe’s book is taken from William Butler Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming,” which famously begins:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

A sense of things falling apart, of the center no longer  holding, clearly is abroad in the land. No doubt each of us carries our own list of proofs: political, cultural, economic. That said, not all ‘falling apart’ is unnatural, and there comes a time when the center no longer should hold. I witnessed one of those time recently at the Hamby Nature Trail on Follet’s Island, part of a chain of barrier islands that lies along the upper Texas coast.

I had found one of my favorite flowers in bloom: the limewater brookweed, also known as water pimpernel (Samolus ebracteatus). A preference for the alkaline soils found in wet pinelands and prairies, swamps, marshes, and stream margins leads to its erratic distribution across the state.

Its flowers are quite small: a quarter-inch or so in diameter. In the photo above, the flowers are joined by the plant’s even tinier plump, pinkish buds, and developing fruits. Because the brookweed was well below a boardwalk that runs to the dunes, I’d spent some time attempting to get an entire flower cluster in focus when movement caught my eye.

On that perfectly still morning, I watched and caught one flower giving way to the forces of age and gravity, soundlessly falling to earth.

Falling apart ~ naturally

If the flower had fallen apart, the center still was holding: ready to produce the fruit that would help to ensure this species’ enduring presence at the back of some coastal dunes.


Comments always are welcome.

Waiting for Beardtongue


In early April, a single striking stalk of prairie penstemon (Penstemon cobaea) rose above its companions: a few early blooms from Engelmann’s daisy, a bit of Texas flax, an errant bluebonnet. It had erupted in one of poet Kevin Cole’s hard places: the washed-out soil of a Texas roadside. Both its height — nearly two feet — and its exceptionally large flowers brought his poem “Waiting for Beardtongue” to mind; it wonderfully captures the experience of waiting for any flower — the beardtongue, and more.

Were you here with me under the tangle
of contrails, we’d wait for the beardtongue,
and I’d show you where the none-too-demure
stands will erupt in the hard places:
the sorry, washed out soil of the hillside,
road cuts, and abandoned mounds of ballast.
Although I know this stamp of land as well
as a scribe knows his vellum, I’m not
inured to the surprise and ecstasy
of waiting for beardtongue: waiting is how
we measure time here. Not by Chronos,
Kairos, A theory, B theory, or relativity —
But rather by the exquisite waiting:
first for the gray-green leaves to clasp
the limber, nimble stems, then for the stems
to bear the loads of two-lipped, chaliced lavender
flowers turning the field into a mural
of serene, puple-robed Etruscans.
In the all-too-brief two weeks when
the beardtongue blooms, I become
the great shirker of obligation,
look askance at my pressing labors,
leave be fields that should be tended
and barns that should be mended.
For this is the season of untethering
oneself from the dogged troubles of tomorrow;
this is the season of surfeit, when the plain
is aproned in the raiment of beardtongue.



Comments always are welcome.
The poem is taken from Cole’s collection titled Late Summer Plums. For more on the poet, please click here.

Broadway’s Supporting Cast

Goldenmane tickseed (Coreopsis basalis) ~ a star at the Broadway cemeteries

Each spring, some of Galveston Island’s seven Broadway cemeteries — those  allowed to remain unmowed — burst into bloom, covering their grounds with a carpet of yellow. Primarily coreopsis and Indian blanket, interspersed with white lazy daisies, it’s a sight designed to draw visitors to the spot.

For several years I’ve made it a point to visit Broadway at the height of the flowering, enjoying the color and exploring the histories behind the stones in posts like Cemetery Season.

This year, familiarity seemed to have bred indifference. Even breathless media reports of an especially good year couldn’t entice me into a visit. Then, a friend who’d never been to any of my usual haunts wanted to visit them, so we took a day to follow my path from Galveston to the Brazoria Refuge and home.

Our first stop was the Broadway cemeteries. On May 7, somewhat later in the season than I’d visited in the past, grasses had grown up amid the flowers and some species I’d never before seen were present. Clearly, the time had come for a more extended visit, with a focus on Broadway’s supporting cast rather than on the flowers that always are the stars of the show.

A first surprise was the number of spiderworts still in bloom. Accustomed to thinking of them as an early spring wildflower, it was a pleasure to see the purple and gold combination spread throughout one of the cemeteries.

Spiderwort ~ Tradescantia spp.

A diminuitive bit of pink was everywhere. The genus is familiar — the beautiful east Texas scarlet catchfly (Silene subciliata) blooms in fall — but unlike that flower, the common catchfly isn’t native; it probably was imported as a contaminant in crop seed.

Common catchfly ~ Silene galica

Despite being a native plant, scarlet spiderling has an interesting distribution across the state. Listed only for Galveston County in southeast Texas, this member of the four o’clock family (the Nyctaginaceae) ranges throughout central and far south counties as well. It may well have escaped notice in other coastal counties; the flower cluster is so tiny it was impossible for me to get a sharp image of the pea-sized bloom.

I did better with the sharpshooter (Paraulacizes spp.) feeding on the flower. Leafhoppers in the family Cicadellidae, sharpshooters use their piercing-and-sucking mouthparts to tap into and feed upon plant tissue. It’s possible this larva was the fourth instar of Paraulacizes irrorata, but that’s only a best guess.

Sharpshooter larva on scarlet spiderling ~ Boerhavia coccinea 

 Cutleaf evening primroses are another form of Broadway yellow, but as they fade, they often present interesting combinations of yellow-trimmed salmon and a pretty pinwheel shape. Winecups also will take on a pinwheel shape.

Cutleaf evening primrose ~ Oenothera laciniataWinecup ~ Callirhoe involucrata

Despite its name, you’re not likely to find a frog noshing on Texas frogfruit. It seems the flower was called fogfruit in the middle ages, when farmers gave the name to low growing plants that invaded their freshly hayed fields. Over time, the name transitioned from ‘fog’ to ‘frog.’ Why it’s sometimes called turkey tangle fogfruit I can’t say, unless wild turkeys sometimes get their feet tangled in the densely matted plants.

A member of the verbena family, frogfruit attracts butterflies to its nectar, and serves as a host plant for Phaon Crescent, White Peacock, and Common Buckeye butterflies. Its ability to tolerate both drought and flooding makes it a useful groundcover, although some gardening sites caution it should only be mowed after blooming, since it can take years for it to recover from too-early mowing. Clearly, the no-mow policy in the cemeteries has allowed it to thrive.

Texas frogfruit  ~ Phyla nodiflora

Growing grasses sometimes become impediments to spring floral photography, but this year I found the grasses themselves immensely attractive.

Rescuegrass ~ Bromus catharticus
Long-spike tridens  ~ Bidens strictus

Less colorful and less obvious than the silverleaf nightshade now in full bloom across the state, Texas nightshade is no less attractive. Found only in Texas and occasionally in Oklahoma, its red fruits help to distinguish it from the non-native Solanum nigrum, which produces black fruits.

Texas Nightshade ~ Solanum triquetrum

My favorite discovery of the day was the tiny-flowered, vining Gulf Indian breadroot, sometimes called brown-flowered psoralea. Members of the pea family, plants in the genus produce starchy, edible roots: some larger and more worth pursuing than others.

The so-called prairie turnip (Pediomelum esculentum), found in Oklahoma and northward through the plains states, has been described variously as a “delicacy,” “tolerably good eating,” or “tasteless and insipid.” Barry Kaye and D. W. Moodie have described Native Americans’ use of the food:

They eat it uncooked, or they boil it, or roast it in the embers, or dry it and crush it to powder and make soup of it. Large quantities are stored in buffalo skin bags for winter use. A sort of pudding made of the flour of the dried roots and serviceberries (Amelanchier alnifolia), after boiling together, is very palatable and a favorite dish.”

However tasty the roots, I must say that I found the appearance of this member of the Broadway cemeteries’ supporting cast delicious.

Gulf Indian breadroot ~ Pediomelum rhombifoilum


Comments always are welcome.

From Bluebonnets to Bluebells


Now that the last of our bluebonnets are fading away, another beautiful native is waiting to take their place. The so-called Texas bluebell (Eustomia exaltalum) has begun to flower on the coastal prairies.  The genus name, formed from the Greek eu, or ‘beautiful,’ and stoma, or ‘mouth,’ refers to the large, upward-facing blooms which evoke handbells; the flower also is known as catchfly prairie gentian, bluebell gentian, and prairie gentian.

Because their foliage isn’t palatable to grazing animals, Texas bluebells often are found covering central Texas pastures; the cattle no doubt help to hold down competing vegetation. The cows-and-flowers connection led to a certain Texas creamery being named Blue Bell in 1930; anyone who enjoys their ice cream has a connection, however tangential, to this lovely Texas native.

Major pollinators for the plants include a variety of bees, particularly those whose long tongues enable them to reach the nectar deep within the flower. 

One of the flower’s special charms is the intricate patterns found within its cup-like ‘bell.’ Varying from bloom to bloom, they’re a special treat for those who take the time for a closer look.

Comments always are welcome.