A Fifty Mile Difference

Hurricane Laura western eyewall damage south of Sulphur, Louisiana
Photo courtesy Houston meteorologist Jeff Lindner

Approximately fifty miles to the west-northwest of Sulphur, Louisiana lies Silsbee, Texas. Ten miles past Silsbee you’ll find the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary and, if you travel on to Kountze and Warren, you’ll enter the Big Thicket: home to an assortment of trails, the Solo tract, and the Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve.

When it became apparent that Hurricane Laura would make landfall south of Sulphur, my concern extended beyond the people living along its path. East Texas wasn’t at risk from Laura’s significant surge, but wind damage to the area’s natural treasures could be extensive. The prediction for sustained tropical force winds in East Texas worried me, and I was eager to make a trip into the area to see what damage might have occurred.

When I finally made that trip on September 6, my sense of relief increased with each passing mile. There were no topped trees, no stripped bark, no missing limbs. At the Sandyland Sanctuary, the only evidence of Laura’s winds was an occasional leaning pine. The storm had tightened at landfall, passing far enough to the east for its northeast winds to leave a mark, but little serious damage.

One of Sandyland’s out-of-plumb pines

Wandering through Sandyland, I was pleased to find several of my favorites. This delicate palafox (Palafoxia reverchonii) was one of a few still in bloom.

Somewhat uncommon, the pencil-flower (Stylosanthes biflora) often appears in sandy soils; its membership in the Fabaceae — the pea family — is hinted at by its flower.

The deeply saturated red of the Louisiana catchfly (Silene subciliata) glows in the sunlight, and finding it always is a special treat. In Wildflowers of Texas, Michael Eason writes that the flower is “rare, but can be seen in the Big Thicket National Preserve, in sandy soils” — precisely where I found it.

In my absence, the smooth and silky buds of snake cotton (Froelichia floridana) had become more cottony, and the plants themselves had grown substantially taller.

Sandyland is one place to find the rare and beautiful Winkler’s blanket flower (Gaillardia aestivalis var. winkleri). Laura’s rains seem to have encouraged this flower, and I expect its season will extend into October.

I did manage a brief stop at the Solo Tract in the Big Thicket, and was rewarded with something I’d hoped to find: a newly-emerged flower of yellow-eyed grass (Xyris ambigua).

Of course, one visit never is enough. I returned to the area this past weekend to photograph other treats: some quite unexpected. Hurricanes will come and hurricanes will go, but nature continues to produce her treasures.

Comments always are welcome.

80 thoughts on “A Fifty Mile Difference

    1. Having lived through a few hurricanes, I’m all too aware of the situation around Lake Charles and Cameron — and what’s being faced this week by those in the path of yet another storm. Still, in the midst of such destruction, it’s good to remember that the world does go on. One of my most vivid memories of the post-Ike period is that of hearing fish jump for the first time. I don’t know where they went during the storm, but it took them weeks to come back. When they finally did, everyone celebrated.

  1. All living organisms suffer, and die, in the cycle of natural “disasters,” whether it be a family of deer lost in a California wildfire, fish washed ashore in a flash flood, or pine trees flattened in the wake of hurricane winds. The cycle of razing and renewal is as old as the planet itself.
    Walking through a scorched forest in Yellowstone NP the spring following the devastating fires, I was amazed at how quickly the forest floor had rebounded with a virtual blanket of wildflowers in such a short time. The world does go on, and often magnificently.

    1. Anyone who’s experienced prescribed burns on the prairies or in fire-dependent woods has seen what you describe at Yellowstone. Certain ecosystems require fire to thrive, and human attempts to suppress it can have unintended consequences. It’s the same with flooding. When rivers are channelized or marshes laced with industrial canals, the results aren’t always good.

      A few years ago, I came across a pair of videos showing spring and autumn wildflowers in Hiroshima, Japan. The world does go on, even after the most extreme events.

  2. The yellow one and the catch fly especially are dazzling me.I’m glad there wasn’t significant damage. When I look at what is happening to the country environmentally and through fire/hurricane, etc., it breaks my heart.

    1. It’s interesting to me how people who live with recurring and specific natural disasters develop a kind of relationship with them. Earthquakes can be terrible, but friends who’ve lived with them for years in California are a bit more “Ho-hum” about them than I ever could be. On the other hand, people who choose to live on the Gulf coast often feel the same about hurricanes; they’re just part of the package. Personally, I’d much rather cope with a hurricane than fire: I suppose we learn to cope with whatever’s roaming our neighborhood.

      Anyway: so far so good for my part of the coast this year. A friend in Louisiana is just shaking her head: Laura passed too far west to cause her any real damage, and now Sally appears to be making land too far to the east to be a problem. I told her she’d better hope there’s not a third one in the offing!

  3. I’m glad your trip was reassuring and damage was at a minimum. With all your beautiful photos showing off Texas wildflowers it’s easy t understand how people can fall in love with wildflowers down your way. I’ve often wondered how the flowers you feature smell, how the general area where they grow smells. Beautiful looking and wonderful smelling don’t always go hand and hand in the world of flowers.

    1. We do have wonderful wildflowers, and we have at least a few throughout the year. January can be a bit bleak, but many hold through December, and by February the spring ephemerals already are making an appearance.

      Some of ours do have heady fragrance. Mountain laurel smells like grape bubblegum, and when the trees in full bloom, it really carries. There’s a goldenrod with a nice, spicy fragrance, and probably a few others I can’t remember right now. For the most part, the fragrance of flowers like bluebonnets or rain lilies isn’t obvious unless the colony is large. I still remember the first time I found a patch of rain lilies large enough to have that light, sweet smell. It was wonderful.

    1. I was pleased beyond words to find both the Silene and the Winkler’s Gaillardia in bloom: two relative rarities at once. It’s occurred to me that the catch-fly’s red is equal to that of the cardinal flower. Turks’ caps are bright, but their red just doesn’t have the ‘oomph’ of the others.

  4. Can’t find more elegant objects even in a jewelry store.
    That leaning pine in the second picture looks a little like the one on the left is saying “Don’t worry. We’re still here!” Storms and fires are natural home cleaning methods but we still fret over them and miss what is destroyed in fields and woods even temporarily. Long picture view isn’t always comforting.
    And now there’s Sally. Each day the season grows shorter. (Rumors of La Nina forming…not my favorite weather pattern)

    1. When I took a look at the graphical forecast from the NHC tonight, I couldn’t help but laugh. Two hurricanes, two storms, one depression, and two disturbances. It’s a good thing we don’t have to use graph paper and push pins these days.

      I can’t help wondering if that pine will straighten itself. This was the most dramatic tilt; the others were only half a bubble off center. It’s going to be interesting to see how long the season lingers this year. Despite my eagerness for cooler temperatures, the last thing we need is a cold front stalling over a still-warm Gulf and backing up as another Alicia. I much prefer roaming around the flowers to packing for another evacuation.

      1. That pine is probably on tilt ( until it falls) unless someone straightens it/ties it to another tree until stabilized. Depends on the soil content…sand is pretty shifty. Winds are worrisome to tree farmers – Can ruin years of growth in minutes.
        Well, there’s always a whole bunch of Audrey Hepburn movies they have re-released if the rain starts. (Now that was an era of elegance…ladies did not sweat…over hurricanes of much else Full gathered skirts and cocktails were simply window dressing for the iron will beneath. Not sure the “women power” victim-crowd today have a clue about that.) It’ll take a lot to pry us out onto the roads into traffic.
        Sally is doing the dreaded meandering dawdling. Can’t rush a lady?

    2. A certain unnamed Houston met (ok — Matt Lanza) put the names to Lou Bega’s “Mambo No. 5” —

      “A little bit of Sally in my life.
      A little bit of Paulette by my side.
      A little bit of Teddy is all I need.
      A little bit of Rene is what I see.
      A little bit of Vicky in the sun…”

      Now all we need is Wilfred all night long!

    1. Have you ever visited the Solo Tract? It’s interesting, too. There aren’t any trails, per se, but you can wander the entire parcel at will, and it’s full of interesting things. This time, it was Liatris; I think I found three species. It was thick with Barbara’s buttons, and a species of Eryngo I’d seen only once at the Watson Preserve.

  5. You’ve got some beauties here, Linda — and what a lovely assortment of colors! It’s grand hearing that Laura didn’t wreak destruction on this spot, though I know she did in other places. The tropics are really becoming active right now — it’s kind of a scary map. Be safe, my friend!

    1. I enjoyed seeing the variety of colors, too. They were so bright and cheery — they certainly looked like summer rather than fall.

      As for the storms, it seems my area will escape everything that’s currently out there. I’m grateful, believe me. A few more weeks, and we can wrap it up for the year. This Laura/Sally pair reminds me of the Katrina/Rita chaos in 2005. The similarities are striking; I hope people fare better.

    1. I suspect the important words there are “too much.” It’s not sounding good at this point, Laura was windy but fast. It looks like Sally’s going to be slow and sloggy, and capable of laying down a lot of water. Too bad we can’t send some of it to the west coast.

    1. Thank you, so much. Despite the widespread pain in the world just now, there are places and times when beauty shines through. We don’t have to give up those while coping with “the rest of it.”

    1. Of course we fit; we’re part of nature, too. Granted, we don’t always ‘know our place,’ as the saying goes, but there are a lot of people who are doing their part of preserve and restore the world that surrounds us.

        1. I was thinking about this at work yesterday, and this morning I may have had an insight. Those circle of life/food charts that we studied were made by humans. If coyotes or alligators or grizzly bears went to school, their food charts might look a little different — and have room for humans!

    1. I’ve been singing along with this since 1964. With luck, I’ll be getting around for a few more years, and getting even more photos. Thanks for the nice compliment; I’m glad you liked the flowers!

  6. Thank you, Linda, for taking us along to this lovely, unique area. I’m glad there wasn’t too much damage. Each of the flowers are lovely, but man-o-man that Louisiana catchfly is something to behold!

    1. I’d forgotten how red that catchfly can be until I saw it again. It is a stunning flower, especially for one so small; this one was about two inches across. I was interested to see a truly pink bud in the middle of the scarlet flowers. I didn’t get a good photo of it, and it wasn’t a particularly pretty bud to start with. Still, there it was. I remembered “Pam Puryear,” the cultivar of the Turk’s cap, and wondered if that whole experiment began with natural pink variations. I’ll check for more pink ones if I get back before their season is over, but if they’re around, I’m certainly going to keep the location private.

    1. The pencil flower seems to show up as individual plants; at least, there never are bunches of blooms. That does help to set off the plant, and make nice photos possible. I was surprised by how much snake cotton was around. Since my last visit, the plants had popped up everywhere, and most were exceedingly fuzzy.

  7. At the least the flowers seem to be totally relaxed about it all. I never heard about jumping fish. They must be very agitated to start jumping. I would have though they would seek shelter at the bottom of the waters and stay still. On many occasions I have seen flying fish but never jumping fish.

    1. Some fish do seek out deeper water to escape temperature extremes, but most keep moving, either to find food or escape being food for other fish. That’s one reason they jump — to escape predators. There are other reasons, though. Lack of oxygen can play a role in summer, as evaporation and heat make less oxygen available in the water. The behavior varies by species, too. Mullet jump a lot, and once one starts, it often will jump multiple times. Some don’t precisely jump, but turn over at the surface of the water, like alligator gar and drum. My favorites are schools of the tiny silver fish known as Menhaden. When they collect in the marinas and start jumping en masse, it sounds like rain.

  8. Beautiful shots, as always. Your fish jumping story reminds me of when the eye of a cat. 1 hurricane passed directly over our house in Florida. The storm passed with little damage, but we had enough flooding to submerge the yard in about a foot of water. We had a retention pond in our yard, and after the flood receded we had completely different fish in the pond than before. We had bass and no perch before the flood, but no bass and all perch after. The bass had learned to come toward the shore to be fed, but we had to repeat the training process for the new residents.

    1. What a great story. I know that fish species will appear and disappear here, particularly as salinity levels change, but I’ve never heard of such a ‘fish exchange.’ The more I think about it, the funnier it becomes. During Hurricane Harvey’s flooding, fish showed up in some very odd places, like living rooms. I couldn’t find the news report, but one fellow caught dinner in the parking lot of a Houston fast food restaurant. As I recall, he took that one home for dinner, too.

    1. One of the amazing things about fire is that the land recovers relatively quickly: not by human standards, perhaps, but in years rather than decades. Sometimes, things come out better in the end, given human mismanagement of land. Allowing fuel loads to build and build as fires are suppressed can end very badly when fire finally breaks out.

      It’s been fascinating to begin roaming wooded areas where prescribed fire is a standard management tool. Scorched bark is one sign of the fires, but so is the reemergence of the forbs that profit from the burns. The Sandyland Sanctuary is one place where fire’s used on a regular basis in order to maintain the ecosystem. If it weren’t for fire, these rare wildflowers might disappear.

    1. It’s doubly interesting that there’s a direct connection between Texas and the bay laurel. In a post about the Presidio at Goliad, I included this tidbit:

      “The chapel at Presidio La Bahía was dedicated as Nuestra Señora de Loreto — Our Lady of Loreto — in memory of a noted shrine of that name in Italy.

      It was placed in its first location on the Garcitas Creek among the laurels, or Texas sweet bay, which grows in profusion along the Texas Gulf Coast. The name of the Italian town housing the original shrine, Loreto, is rooted in the Latin word “lauretum,” meaning “laurel,” or “laurel grove.” The laurel found at the Garcitas Creek site probably was Persea borbonia var. borbonia.

      How about that?

  9. I am pleased the Sanctuary was relatively left unscathed and there were no toppled trees. The blooms are so bright and uplifting, and so varied. Stunning photography, Linda! Full kudos, and thank you for sharing!

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed the photos, Pete — and I’m even more glad that I happened to arrive when all of these flowers still were blooming. It was especially pleasing to find both the Catchfly and the Winkler’s Gaillardia in bloom. Finds like that are like nature’s reward for making the effort to explore her riches.

    1. It really is a different world, Ellen — as different as the hill country is from Brazoria and Galveston counties. That’s part of what makes roaming around so much fun; we can see different landscapes without ever leaving Texas.

  10. Reading your report about minimal damage to such an environmentally unique area has made my day better.
    Lingering over your superb photographs of diverse flora has made my frame of mind brighter.

    Thank you for sharing your experience!

    Seven decades of mostly Florida life has taught us that storms are inevitable – just as is renewal.

    1. You Floridians certainly have seen your share of storms. I went through Homestead a few months after Andrew, and the still-obvious damage was terrible. Of course, it took a couple of years for Galveston’s obvious damage to be dealt with after Ike, but that hardly was the end of the recovery process. It was hard to believe on Sunday that it was the twelfth anniversary of Ike. It truly does seem as though it was yesterday — or at least last year!

  11. a 50-mile difference is so true, and I suspected what this post would be about (dodging a hurricane).
    Have not been on line much, and on sat I saw the predicted path for sally.. so am now here (restaurant) to see where she’s heading.. and yes, it reminds me again of watching Katrina from afar.

    When emotionally charged a bit more than normal, I tend to ‘blow out’ sensitive electronics, like power windows in autos or elevator buttons. I wasn’t surprised that after the pages loaded, – and iIsaw once again the life-threatening surge’ predictions – the browser crashed, rolled over and refused to re-open!

    am almost an hour later resuming the search for info. there are emails waiting, so wp will be for another day!
    (I might return tonight just to see the reports, but tomorrow is probably the better day for that.)

    when viewing ‘laura’ – (friends in louisiana say it might be two more weeks to get power and water) i realized that b/c of early warnings, many lives were saved.. it would be so great if earthquake warnings could be days in advance – even one-day’s notice.

    we still have half of sept and all of october for the hurricane threats – it’s surely a long season for all of you in possible paths.

    1. When I saw that Sally was headed for the northern Gulf coast, I thought of you. The new moon is tomorrow, which means that the combination of spring tides with storm effects will be even worse. Everyone here is counting the days until October — as I recall, Texas has had only two hurricanes in that month, and the last was Jerry, on October 16 — but the way this year has gone, there’s no telling what next month will bring.

      In a bit of irony, a friend in Louisiana was far enough east to be minimally affected by Laura, and now she’s far enough west to escape Sally. She’s had enough storm tracking for one year.

      I haven’t yet posted photos of all the birds I found among the lotus at Brazos Bend, but I thought you’d enjoy seeing this one. Finally, I got to see the difference between a moorhen and a purple gallinule — at least, I think that’s what this one is!

      1. Yes! This is an adult Purple Gallinule – on alert. If it were here, I would suspect that it’s guarding a nest or young chicks… but it seems too late there for nesting. The chicks grow fast, and in three weeks they’re approaching ‘juvenile’ status and usually join older juveniles. Those middle children help feed the babies and work as hard or harder than their parents!
        I’m here today to see what happened w/the hurricane – looks like Alabama took the brunt… I told someone that when a hurricane slows as much as this one (and yours) that it’s like a blender going round and round over the same area but dumping rain as well…

        1. This one had FOUR chicks following it around! I have photos of them galloping through the lotus pads, but you know how hard it is to catch them in a photo. I will be posting some photos of the birds I found among the lotuses in my next post.

          Pensacola’s taking the brunt of it right now. We got a boat out of Pensacola and back to Galveston just ahead of Ivan — talk about luck.

          1. Wow! That makes me smile – re: the chicks! Yes, these gallinules have had two sets of five chicks so far. The Common Gallinules have produced one chick three or so months ago, and now two.. They are more skittish and stay far away

            Thanks also for the Hurricane update.. it’s so hard to find current info…

    1. Eclectic’s a good word for them, although the collection does have in common an affection for sandier soil. It’s been so interesting to travel only a couple of hours from home and find such a different ecosystem.

  12. Lovely flowers, Linda. And even if the hurricane had ripped through the area, nature would have repaired the damage in time. Speaking of hurricanes, Tony just shipped out to help coordinate the Coast Guard’s latest response to yet another Gulf hurricane. And they are just about to run out of names! –Curt

    1. “In time” is the operative phrase. Cue Einstein: what seems forever to us is only a tick on nature’s clock. As for names, there’s no need to worry. If Wilfred shows up (as I suspect he will), we’ll just move on to the letters of the Greek alphabet. That’s only happened once, in the ghastly 2005 season that gave us Katrina, Rita, and Wilma. I’d prefer not to have to deal with Alpha and Beta, thank you very much.

    1. It certainly was special to find these, although not entirely surprising. I’d encountered all of them previously, so knowing where to look was an advantage. Still, it’s easy to be too early or too late for wildflowers, so good timing always is something to celebrate.

  13. I worry for all you coastal folk regardless of ilk, in particularly the footless folk, the more-than-two-footed folk, the winged folk and those of the green persuasion. Hurricanes are hard on everybody.

    1. And can you believe it? We no sooner get shut of Laura and Sally than we get Tropical Storm Beta. There’s a chance we’ll have more effects from this one than Laura. Some rain would be good. A lot of rain might be problematic. There’s nothing to do but wait and see. The good news is I have plenty of supplies from Laura, so re-filling the water containers and picking up a six-pack of St. Arnold’s Summer Pils ought to do the trick.

  14. Good t;o hear nature has continued its cycle in some areas at least. After reading about the wildfires on the western coast, I’m just catching up with the hurricane path.

    Seems to me as though the whole world is getting a ‘wake-up call’.

    1. Grandma used to say that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure, and that certainly seems to apply where both fire and rain are concerned. The western states — especially California — could do better at reducing the fuel loads they’ve allowed to accumulate, and in my area, we need to take far more seriously issues related to flood mitigation. Still, fire and hurricanes have been part of these areas for millenia; we could take some lessons from the Native Americans where they’re concerned.

      What’s really funny/ironic is that we have another storm headed our way. It’s path is yet to be firmed up, but — here we go again! We’re out of names now, so “our” new storm is officially Tropical Storm Beta. They go to letters of the Greek alphabet once they names are used up.

  15. Very glad to read and see that this favorite location endured the storm with little damage and that you were able to find so many of your favorite flowers healthy still and in bloom. Winkler’s Blanket -flower is a delight.

    1. Now it’s time to get back up there and see what Beta wrought. There are some creeks and bayous that were under flood advisories, but they should be drained off by the weekend. Of course, with a good-weather weekend predicted, I have a dilemma: which way to go? Beach? Marshes? Piney woods? From what I’ve heard, no matter which direction I choose, I’d better take plenty of mosquito spray.

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