Down By the Waterside

Climbing Hempvine ~ Mikania scandens

It’s not a river that runs through the San Bernard Wildlife Refuge, but Cocklebur Slough. In drought or in flood, it’s an interesting place: a sweet tangle of growth buzzing with the sounds of insects and tiny tree frogs as well as the calling of well-hidden birds.

On September 26, the heart-shaped leaves and pretty white flowers of climbing hempvine were flourishing: even taking advantage of supple tree limbs to arc out over the water. Despite being a member of the Asteraceae, the family of sunflowers and daisies, this flower lacks the ray flowers commonly called petals; its disk flowers resemble those of plants like shrubby boneset (Ageratina havanensis).

At the water’s edge, I found my first cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis). I was surprised to find the plant in standing water, but that was due only to my own ignorance; I’ve since learned that its preferred habitat includes ditches, woodland edges, stream banks, swamps, and areas near lakes or ponds.

Cardinal flower ~ Lobelia cardinalis

Another surprise was this pair of pretty white fungi. Having associated mushrooms with rotting wood and wet lawns for most of my life, I wondered: had these grown up around the tree before it fell into the water, or had the rising waters of the slough surrounded them?

Eventually, I learned that different marine habitats also support fungal communities. Fungi can be found in ocean depths and coastal waters as well as in mangrove swamps and estuaries with low salinity levels, like Cocklebur Slough. Whether this species prefers a watery environment I can’t say, but even without certain identification, it’s possible to enjoy their unexpected presence.

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Big Bird, Helping Endangered Birds

During a visit to the Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge last fall, I was surprised to see a small plane passing repeatedly over areas of the prairie. Its color — yellow — is one I usually associate with crop dusters, but I couldn’t imagine dusting refuge prairies with herbicides. Mosquito-spraying was my next guess, but there was no one around to ask, so I went on my way.

Early yesterday morning, I happened to be in the neighborhood, and took time for a quick drive around the auto loop. While I was busy stalking a Crested Caracara on the road, a low hum in the distance made me look up. It was the same yellow airplane, and a quick change of camera settings allowed me to catch an image of it.

I had been headed out of the refuge at the time, but curiosity demanded that I turn around, go back to the refuge headquarters, and look for an answer. The visitor center has been closed for months, but eventually a ranger spotted me nosing around the outbuildings, and came to see what I was up to. Her explanation of the work being done by the plane was both fascinating and wonderful.

The plane wasn’t spraying; it was dropping fire ant bait. [NOTE: after talking with a refuge employee this morning, I learned that the product being used is called Extinguish Plus, and it’s commercially available.] Fire ants are immensely annoying to humans, but they’re lethal to hatchlings. The young woman explained that, since the bait-dropping project began, the number of other insects on the prairie has increased, and so has the number of ground-dwelling birds. I didn’t see any of the prairie chickens during my visit, but an exceptionally large covey of quail crossed in front of me on Sunday: a visible token of the project’s success.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Sleek, Silky, and Semi-Spiky

Canna glauca buds ~ Brazoria County

Water Canna (Canna glauca), sometimes known as Louisiana Canna, is native to only a few southern states: Brazoria and Matagorda counties in Texas, several Louisiana parishes, and single counties in Florida, Mississippi, and Alabama. Found primarily along the margins  of marshes, swamps, and ponds, it’s an impressive plant that can attain a height of six feet.

The genus name is rooted in the Greek word kanna, meaning reed. The specific epithet also comes from the Greek; glaukos gave rise to glauca, which refers to the grayish-blue color of the leaves. 

One of several September-blooming plants at the San Bernard Refuge ~ Brazoria County

Cannas commonly are propagated by dividing their underground rhizomes. Some gardening sites note that the rhizomes can be overwintered in the ground if the temperatures remain above 40F (or 50F, depending on the website). They’ve been described as temperamental, easily lost if not kept in perfect conditions, but these plants seem to have weathered last February’s freeze perfectly well.

The plants can be grown from seed. Once the flowers are spent, clusters of green, spiky pods that remind me of dog chew toys develop. The pods usually contain one to three large, black seeds which can be harvested after the pods become dry.

Fresh and dried Canna seed pods ~ Brazoria County

The transformation of the plant from one stage to another is remarkable and interesting to witness. In mid-September, I found buds galore still emerging; with luck, more photos of the flowers themselves will be possible before their season is ended.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Putting the Metal to the Petals

These gorgeous metallic sweat bees (tribe Augochlorini) were only two of dozens buzzing about a thick colony of smartweed (Persicaria pensylvanica) at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge on September 19.

Bees in this tribe are brilliantly colored, ranging from gold-flecked green to pure green to various shades of blue-green.  Some may be copper-colored, or even an unusual metallic-pink; all are easily noticed despite their small size.

Some sweat bees build nests in soil or, less commonly, in rotted wood.  Occasionally they act cooperatively, constructing nests that share a common entrance and that are protected by a guard bee.

The yearly life cycle of certain species is split into spring and summer phases.  In spring, they construct an underground nest and provision it for the new generation. After the young emerge, males leave the nest while the females remain, readying the nest for a second brood.

Given the number of bees swarming around the smartweed, I wondered if I might have been witnessing the emergence of a second, late summer brood. Whatever the reason for so many bees, an unexpected absence of mosquitoes allowed me to linger at the pond’s edge, appreciating these little jewels.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Autumn Snow

Snow-on-the-Prairie

As summer begins to ease its grip on Texas, a lovely floral ‘snow’ suggests the coming of autumn. In the western two-thirds of the state, Snow-on-the-Mountain (Euphorbia marginata) covers much of the land. In the Eastern third (and north into Oklahoma), Snow-on-the-Prairie (E. bicolor) holds sway.

Snow-on-the-Prairie can grow to a height of three or four feet, and often forms dense colonies. Its long green and white bracts, open and airy, offer a pleasing counterpoint to surrounding grasses and forbs.

The plant’s long, slender bracts sometimes are mistaken for petals, but they’re actually  modified leaves. The flowers of Snow-on-the-Prairie are quite small, and exceptionally interesting.

Plants in the genus Euphorbia possess a unique structure called a cyathium (plural, cyathia) which contains both male and female flowers, as well as small structures known as bractioles, and nectar glands. Surrounding the flowers, bractioles, and glands, small bracts called cyathophylls — which superficially resemble the petals of a flower — provide additional color.

Here, the white cyathophylls of E. bicolor add to the plant’s ‘snowy’ appearance. Since the snow is only metaphorical, the sight is entirely pleasurable; it’s possible to admire this plant on the prairie without getting frostbite.

 

Comments always are welcome.