In spring, people flocking to the Texas hill country in search of bluebonnets sometimes arrive too early or too late to see the bloom at its height. In certain years, the flowers are sparse at best, and the sense of human disappointment becomes palpable.
The same is true at Lost Maples State Natural Area, where the autumn color of Bigtooth maples draws visitors from across Texas. The New England-like foliage can be spectacular, but timing is everything. The need to reserve a date for a visit because of crowds — as many as 80,000 visitors in a six-week period — complicates things, since even the most glorious display of color can be swept away by overnight winds.
Still, if the maples have lost their color, other delights remain. During my recent visit, I especially enjoyed the American sycamore (Plantanus occidentalis). A tall tree, capable of attaining heights up to a hundred feet, the sycamore often is found along creek and river banks, as well as in floodplains. The most striking feature of the tree is its bark: white in younger trees, aging into a darker gray-brown, patchy, and peeling bark that resembles camouflage in the older.
Leaves of the sycamore and Bigtooth maple are similar in shape; size is often the quickest way to distinguish them. Here, a hollow log serves to display a collection of smaller maple leaves and an especially nice example from a sycamore.
Even the smallest sycamore sapling can produces glorious leaves, as this example from the Sabinal riverbank proves.
In Can Creek, dozens of sycamore leaves bobbed and floated; in the shallow waters, a few were caught and held by the creekbed’s pebbles and rocks, and glimmered in the late afternoon light.