Where Soil Meets Salt

The freshwater ponds, sloughs, and prairies of the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge may be its most popular attractions, but its easily accessible mudflats hold treasures of their own.

Rich in food, they attract a variety of creatures. In the photo above, fresh tracks of feral hogs cross those of deer, coyotes, raccoons, and birds. Occasionally, leftovers from their meals lie scattered about, like this sun-bleached crab claw.

Occasionally, a living crab appears: I watched what appeared to be a juvenile land crab (Cardisoma guanhumi) for some time, perplexed and amused to see it blowing bubbles. Later, I learned the reason for the bubbles; they occur when a crab that lives both on land and in water breathes air.

All crabs have gills, located beneath the top shell, near the front. For their gills to work properly, eliminating carbon dioxide and bringing in fresh oxygen, the gills need to be wet. The crab draws in water or air with little ‘paddles’ near its front claws, extracts the essential oxygen, then pushes the water or air past its gills and out through two holes, one on each side of its mouth.

Because its gills are wet, if it’s taken in air as well as water, the exhaled breath comes out in bubbles. Our children blow bubbles for fun; the crab blows bubbles to live.

Most plants found on the flats have succulent or semi-succulent leaves. The saltwort (Batis maritima) that threads its way across the flats is a halophyte: a salt-tolerant plant that thrives in soil or waters of high salinity. I’ve yet to see its tiny white flowers; perhaps this will be the year.

Saltwort

Another interesting and quite common plant on the flats is the Annual Seepweed (Suaeda linearis). Several Suaeda species grow in Texas, but they’re relatively easy to distinguish from one another by color, growth habits, or location.

Seepweed ~ pretty in its autumn pink

Although it tolerates tidal flooding and often is found in mud, Virginia (or American) Glasswort (Salicornia depressa) obviously tolerates drier conditions.  A member of the goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae), it’s related to such garden vegetables as beets, Swiss chard, and spinach.  While it blooms in late spring, it begins to take on autumnal colors as the weather cools.

Once I tried photographing the plant with backlighting, the name ‘glasswort’ seemed particularly appropriate. In fact, the common name ‘glasswort’ first appeared in the 16th century; it described English plants whose ashes could be used for making soda-based glass.

Virginia Glasswort taking on autumn colors

Nature as ‘glassmaker’

At the edge of the flats, I found an odd little ‘something’ that I assumed I’d never seen. In fact, I had encountered the plant, but at a different time in its life cycle.

These emerging leaves and fluff-surrounded seed pods belong to a native version of a familiar garden plant known as Moss Rose (Portulaca grandiflora). I’d come across the flowers of this smaller Pink Purslane (Portulaca pilosa)  in summer, but it took some research to associate its different stages. Here, too, the fleshy leaves are obvious; the Latin name, Portulaca, or ‘little gate,’ refers to a sort of ‘lid’ on the fruit capsule.

Portulaca pilosa in bloom

Pretty in bloom and even more colorful when bearing its red, berry-like fruit, Berlandier’s Wolfberry (Lycium berlandieri) seemed surprisingly prolific this year; I found great numbers distributed along the edges of the mud flats, in washes, or in areas of dry, gravelly soil. Wolfberry flowers appeal to a wide variety of insects, and its fruit is especially important for early-arriving Whooping Cranes.

Even fading flowers of the Wolfberry are attractive

Given its fruits’ color, Wolfberry sometimes is described as Christmas berry

TheSea Ox-eye or Seaside Tansy (Borrichia frutescens ) is an easily recognized and common plant along the flats and salt marshes. A member of the Aster family, it’s remarkably salt-tolerant, as is our Firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella). A summer bloomer, it sometimes flowers even in January, and its seed heads will persist throughout the winter.

Seaside Tansy seed heads

Despite its somewhat over-the-top scientific name, the Camphor Daisy (Rayjacksonia phyllocephala) is the Crow Poison of the mud flats; however, scraggly, it can be found blooming in every month. It’s so beloved by insects it deserves its own post; when nothing else is abloom, this daisy provides pollen and nectar galore.

When I was a child heading out to play, my mother always reminded me to “stay out of the mud.” Every time I throw my mud-caked jeans and shirts into the laundry, I remember that advice and smile. Clearly, she was focused on the practical advantages of avoiding mud; I’ve come to prefer the pleasures of a muddy afternoon.

 

Comments always are welcome.

78 thoughts on “Where Soil Meets Salt

    1. It’s a different world out there on the flats. Eventually, the salt marsh mosquitos will show up, and things won’t be quite so pleasant. When the dragonflies hatch, they’ll begin eating the mosquitos, but if things go the way they usually do, the mosquitos will win. A group of coastal tribes grouped under the name Karankawa used to ward off mosquitos with a mixture of mud and alligator fat, but I think I’ll pass on that; alligator fat can be hard to come by.

        1. The Karankawa themselves might have survived if they’d had my mosquito-fighting weapons: Permethrin for my clothing, and Picaridin for me. That stuff wards off chiggers and ticks, too, and it doesn’t hurt things like camera bodies — which are just as important as my body!

            1. Well, they weren’t blameless themselves, but they actually held things together longer than I realized. By the time they’d contended with the Spaniards, Mexicans, French, and Stephen Austin’s colonists — not to mention Lafitte — they didn’t have much of a chance. There’s a fascinating and well written history of it all at this on the Texas State Historical Association page.

              It was especially interesting to see the names of the various groups that made up the Karankawa: Carancahuas, Coapites, Cocos, Cujanes, and Copanes. Now I know where the name ‘Copano Bay’ come from, not to mention ‘Carancahua Bay.’ Highway 35 crosses both between Palacios and Rockport.

            2. It’s a fascinating history. In Palacios, there used to be an accessible Karankawa nature trail. I need to see if it still can be used; another state agency moved in, and now I always find the gate closed.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the photos. There’s always something new to discover; the ‘glassy’ nature of the glasswort plant was particularly pleasing to me. If we get good rains or persistent high tides, the numbers of birds probing the mud for treats often increases; they’re fun to see, too.

  1. Beautiful floral shots of the hidden gems found in the mud flats. Worth getting dirty, I’d say!
    Are wild hogs dangerous? I’ve heard tales, but don’t know for sure, as we don’t have them here.

    1. Yes, they can be and you definitely want to avoid them. We have them in our neighborhood and they plow up yards. During Ike we had at least one run down the street and I have seen several that were hit by cars.

      1. I’ve heard about the damage being done in certain suburbs. They’re wreaking havoc at Brazoria, but so far I’ve not seen much evidence of them at San Bernard. They’re certainly abundant farther south; some of the ranchers have footage that shows amazing numbers at their deer feeders.

    2. There are other plants that will appear as the weather warms, either in the flats themselves or at their edges: silverleaf nightshade, bundleflower, camphorweed. It can be an exceptionally pretty place.

      As for wild hogs: are they dangerous? The answer’s both “yes” and “no.” Generally speaking, the hogs aren’t interested in an encounter with humans; they prefer flight to fight. I’ll see evidence of their presence — tracks, wallows, and such — but I’ve only come upon one mother with her young. I managed one photo, but before I could get another, they were gone into the brush. There’s a really good article about human/pig interactions here. It’s a well-written piece, with some useful tips and statistics.

      To be honest, the biggest danger they pose is to motorists. It’s rare to make a trip down the coast without seeing at least one dead on the side of the road. There are certain places between here and the Brazoria refuge they seem to prefer as highway crossings, and if I see one, I always look for the rest of the gang!

        1. Uh… that might be nice for endangered species, but around here, the more feral hogs we can take out, the better. No one wants anyone harmed by a collision with a feral hog, but no one grieves their death, either. The damage they’re doing is terrible. Conservative estimates put the total US population at 6 million. Females are able to reproduce when six months old, and can have two litters of six to eight (or even twelve) piglets every year. Unchecked, the hog population can triple every three years.

          And to be honest, I like animals as much as anyone, but my reading of that program brought two words to mind: ‘ill-conceived,’ and ‘boondoggle.’ I’ll allow there could be value in highly urbanized areas, but around here? The deer, gators, and hogs are going to cross where they please.

          1. I think it is to save people, not so much wildlife. Most likely, the funds will go to highly populated areas where interactions happen the most. Northeast (deer) and Colorado (elk) come to mind. There aren’t enough hunters (and you can’t hunt in the suburbs anyway) to cull the herds, and there are no natural predators anymore to do the job.

    1. Thanks, Liz. There’s far more color out in the flats and marshes than I realized in the past, and I’m not surprised that pleases you. I’m looking forward to others of the flowers reappearing, not to mention the sedges and grasses; it’s a rich environment.

    1. The diversity at the refuges is marvelous. I’ve not spent enough time at Brazos Bend to fully appreciate what’s available there, but San Bernard, Brazoria, and the Aransas Wildlife Refuge could keep a person busy and entertained for a year — or ten. I have a feeling that spring is going to be just that this year: suddenly opening up like a tightly wound spring. I have some work projects that need to be completed sooner rather than later, so I can do a little wildflower hunting when it arrives.

    1. Your plant probably is a succulent, then. I did a quick image search for ‘succulent houseplant’ and found a couple of Jade plants and this Sedum that resemble the saltwort somewhat. Maybe if you do the same image search you can find it.

      How did your plants do during the recent cold snap?

      1. Yes, a bit like this sedum but lying down more and in long “chains” much like the saltwort. Has some tinges of pink, too. Good idea, Linda; I’ll look more online for it. My Narcissus has done fine in the cold; I’ve been bringing a few smaller pots indoors at night.

        1. Even though many of the online plant ID apps are far from perfect, I sometimes use one called Picture This. It seems to have quite a large data base, and it can identify plants by leaves or stems as well as by bloom. It doesn’t confine itself to native plants, either, so it might work for you. It’s easy to use, and a nice supplemental tool.

  2. That glasswort’s interesting stuff; you did a good job revealing its translucence—and getting closeups of so many other plants and flowers. All of those things make clear that we’re still living in different worlds only 200 miles apart. I finally saw a few stray anemones today. Almost no other flowering seems to be happening here yet.

    1. The glasswort really is fascinating. It’s a lovely green when young, but when it starts to turn color, some become red, while others tend toward yellow and orange. I suspect temperature and timing have a lot to do with it, just as with leaves on a tree. The more abstract image reminded me of a Lava Lamp.

      The biggest surprise associated with this post was discovering that Gaillardia are salt-tolerant. Brazoria’s one place where they seem to thrive most of the year, and that may be one reason.

      I noticed last week that some of our Palo Verdes are starting to show a bit of that yellow-green they take on in spring. There aren’t any flowers yet, and you only can see the color with a kind of sideways glance, but it’s there.

        1. We sure did. It was fun to look back at my old photos, too. Clearly, I hadn’t yet fully accepted the value of getting on a plant’s level when shooting, as I did with the ‘glassy’ images above.

  3. Fascinating. It is like stepping into a different world. I recognise a few of the salt marsh plants from work I did in Langstone harbour, near Portsmouth, but not specifics of course. Love your macro photos of glasswort especially.

    1. It is a different world. I recognized early on that Texas offered great variety — mountains, prairies, pine forests — but it took me a while to appreciate the fact that our refuges have variety, too.

      I couldn’t understand at first how glasswort and glassmaking were associated, but it’s an interesting connection. Glasswort plants sequester the sodium absorbed from salt water into their tissues. When the plant is burned, their ashes convert the sodium into sodium carbonate (soda ash) or potassium oxide (potash) depending on the plant’s salinity.

      In glassmaking, three key ingredients are needed: formers (such as silica), fluxes, and stabilizers such as lime. Both soda ash and potash are common fluxes; they reduce the amount of energy needed to melt the formers by lowering the necessary furnace temperature. Apparently there are other sources of the necessary ingredients today, but I do wonder whether there are glassmakers who still do it the “old fashioned” way.

    1. Believe me, I laughed when I found that crab. Then, I wondered what in the world it was up to — it seemed such strange behavior. The whole experience was a good reminder that what looks strange to us may be a normal part of life to another creature. Besides: he was cute.

    1. You have the ocean and woods; we have prairies and mud flats. The variety’s pleasing, and fun to explore. In a few weeks, new flowers will be blooming, and I’m more than a little eager for it.

  4. Another fascinating post, Linda. I love how you give your readers such a deep dive into plants many of us might have just walked past without taking the time to really look.

    An L.B.J. biography was on TV recently and made me think of you and I wondered if any of the places you go to photograph nature are places that Lady Bird might have started back in her day. Decades ago we spread thousands of flower seeds with my mom’s ashes along a hiking trail and we can still see the results of that day. Texas especially must still have Lady Bird’s legacy showing up.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Jean. I’m well aware that not everyone’s as enamored of things like mud flats as I am, but I enjoy trying to show them as I see them: fascinating, and sometimes just slightly exotic places.

      Strangely enough, I’ve never been to the one place in Texas that’s the real monument to Lady Bird: the Wildflower Center in Austin that bears her name. It’s far more than a garden. It’s a center for native plant propagation, seed collection, and education, and the website is my first go-to for native plant identification.

      On the other hand, her influence is everywhere. One reason our highway department distributes thousands of pounds of seed alongside the roads, just as you did along your trail, is due in great part to Lady Bird. And I have visited her garden at the Pineywoods Native Plant Center in Nacogdoches. There’s a spot in Fredericksburg that I’ve never visited, but that’s on the list. I’d say her influence is as strong — or stronger — today than it was during her life.

  5. Strange and interesting plants! And some beautiful flowers.
    I’d heard mention of glasswort/samphire/sea pickle during the summer I spent at the site of Jamestowne, Virginia, where the British tried (unsuccessfully) to start a glass-making business in the early 1600’s. Gathering enough potash from these plants and wood ashes was part of an incredibly labor-intensive process (think about chopping down trees to keep a kiln fired non-stop for two weeks). The trains that rumble through my hometown are hauling potash sometimes, for a big window glass factory in Geneva, you’ll see little piles that leaked onto the gravel when you walk down the tracks, I think most of it was mined in Utah.
    That little crab reminds me a bit of the spittlebugs I see every summer, even if the bugs don’t create the bubbles for the same reason.
    Those mudflats are sure packed with interesting stuff!

    1. I had wondered if anyone today was still making glass the old-fashioned way. I suppose not, even at historic sites, but it makes perfect sense that the colonists would have brought the techniques with them and given it a try. I’ve never thought much about how glass is made, and had no idea where the raw materials came from, so your mention of potash mines in Utah was new and interesting.

      I grinned at your mention of track-walking, too. When I was a kid, we’d walk the tracks in my grandparents’ town to pick up chunks of coal dropped from trains; it was fun, and since furnaces still were coal fired, it was a way of feeling like we were contributing to the family. Of course, sometimes we just walked the tracks for the fun of it; trestle walking was our big thrill. Since trains kept to their schedules, it wasn’t particularly dangerous, either — apart from the possibility of a fall.

      What’s under the surface of those flats is pretty interesting, too. When there’s more water there, I’ll see various birds wading ankle deep, probing for their next meal.

      1. Yeah, we’d see how long we could walk on a rail without falling off, some people can do that effortlessly but it’s a challenge for me!
        The Virginia Company shipped over glassmakers from Germany, Poland, and eventually Italy. They had a pretty rough time of it at Jamestowne. I’m not 100% sure but think the company even ended up shipping over the appropriate kind of sand, but the project was never successful.
        There’s a tidal marsh preserve near my mom’s hometown, on Long Island, with boardwalks, and I’m always impressed by how very busy it is, always teeming with activity, I can definitely see why you so many interesting things.

  6. It looks like fascinating, rich habitat. I have no doubt that I could happily spend days on end there, losing track of time. It’s interesting that you talk about being in the mud. I recently visited my daughter in Ottawa and she mentioned that a great part of the fun of being the child of a naturalist was that she was never told not to get dirty. She raised her two kids the same way and we are doing our best to see that Lily lives that way too! I sometimes wonder how many seeds I have transplanted during a lifetime of being in the dirt!

    1. I was in the same spots yesterday, and had to laugh at the changes wrought by a couple more recent freezes. The primary colors now are brown, light brown, and sort-of-brown, with a little gray and bronze thrown in. But some of these flowers still were putting on new blooms, and in another week or two, the changes will be more obvious.

      I never had thought about humans are seed-bearers until I began visiting an area native prairie, and was reminded to always clean my boots before walking in. Those non-native seeds will hitch a ride any way they can.

      The thought of Lily in the mud really makes me smile. By the time she’s exploring on her own, she certainly will be well prepared to meet the world.

  7. Monkey seems attracted to mud, too — at least, it feels like that when I have to wipe off four feet every time he comes in from the outdoors! I’m familiar with Portulaca. Our gardening centers regularly have some on hand. It makes great hanging baskets and seems tolerant of our challenging weather conditions. Love your explanation about the crab’s bubbles!

    1. Well, the solution for Monkey’s muddy paws is obvious: teach him to stay on the sidewalks. Of course, one of his reasons for being outdoors is best served by dirt rather than cement, so there’s that.

      After my mom broken her ankle, she landed in a rehab center that had the most beautiful spread of moss rose I’ve ever seen. It stretched the whole length of the building, and I couldn’t name all the colors. I’d never thought of it as being a hanging basket plant, but of course it would do well, and be pretty, too. Any plant that’s tough as well as beautiful is my kind of plant.

      Watching that crab blow his bubbles was great fun; learning about the process was another reminder of nature’s adaptability.

    1. Steve reminded me of some glasswort photos I took several years ago. Let’s just say they were evidence that I’ve learned a thing or two! This was a fun post to put together — as much fun as finally being able to sort out some of the various ‘worts’ that make up the mudflat world.

    1. I suspect most of these plants are around the birding places you visit farther down the coast. I know the Wolfberry is plentiful at the Aransas refuge, and I’m sure the others are, too. I’m less certainly about Port Aransas and Rockport, but I’d bet on them being there: or at least related species that look much the same.

    1. It’s been a while since we’ve had enough rain to leave this area water-covered, but I suspect when that happens, there will be even more delights to enjoy: particularly birds. I’m never sure what they’re nibbling on, but it’s clear that they find it tasty!

    1. We were boat-floaters, too. A good rain meant it was time to race ‘sailboats’ made with leaves and twig masts in the gutters of the streets. I’m sure a little mud was involved in that, too.

  8. I daresay your mom wouldn’t have been quite so anti-mud if you’d been the one who washed your clothes. Those Wolfberries remind me of the silver nightshade berries.

    1. To be honest, my mom wasn’t fond of dirt in any form; that’s one reason she never did much gardening.

      As for laundry, I was forbidden to be around the washing machine as a child. I grew up in a time of open tubs of hot water and putting clothes through wringers. I wasn’t allowed to do laundry until we got an automatic washing machine, and I couldn’t hang clothes on the lines until I grew tall enough to reach them.

    1. There’s a reason you thought of the nightshades. The wolfberry’s a member of the nightshade family: the Solanaceae. The refuge not only is filled with wolfberry, in season the pretty silverleaf nightshade is everywhere, and Texas nightshade, which has a small white flower and a red fruit, pops up in the butterfly garden.

      I learned from Robert,up above, that the Jamestown settlers attempted glassmaking using the glasswort. Obviously, they would have been familiar with the techniques from their home country. I suspect Corning et. al. are happy there’s an easier way to do it now!

  9. Oh, wow… This is a delight! It’s so much like what we see here in the marshes of the Lowcountry.
    I’m sure we have some of the same plants, too. Or relatives.

    I had to laugh about your mom telling you not to get into the mud. Mud draws kids like magnets draw nails. If you came home clean, you probably didn’t have much fun, did you? I love to feel the squish of pluff mud between my toes!

    The only thing missing in this post is the fiddler crabs.

    1. I can’t remember seeing a fiddler crab, so I looked them up, and learned they’re quite common in our salt marshes. I often see the blue crab, but their shells and claws tend to be quite colorful: at least, when I find them. Given the size of that bleached claw in the photo above, I wonder if it might have come from a fiddler crab. It’s not only long, it seems longer to me than the blue crab claws. I’ll bet some crab expert would know. I’ll have to nose around and see what I can find.

      I’d never heard the words ‘pluff mud.’ The venerable Charleston City Magazine got me up to speed: this was just one of the articles I found. I chuckled at this: “Pluff mud has a vacuum-induced sucking power that would make James Dyson envious. You can’t really call yourself a Charlestonian until you have sacrificed a shoe or two to its gooey, vise-like clutch.” I’m not sure our mud could best that kind of sucking power, but I sure enough have had a few times when I thought even my muck boots were going to get pulled off.

      One thing’s for sure. There’s nothing like a day spent just mucking around!

      1. That gentleman was right about one thing: You either go “Ewwwwwww” or “Ahhhhhhhhh” at the smell of pluff mud. Guess which type I am. LOL

    1. Isn’t he a cutie? I’m thinking now that the claw bleaching in the sun might have belonged to a fiddler crab, but I have a hard time identifying live crabs, let alone their disassembled body parts!

      Marshes and mud flats are so interesting. There’s a lot I don’t understand about their soils and such, but they’re certainly fun to explore.

  10. Simply outstanding photographs!

    One nice thing about the mud flats. You have no choice but to slow down! Once we do that, our chances of observing new and wonderful things vastly increases.

    Two good things came of my childhood exuberance to be in the mud. I learned my Mother was not totally against having the “right kind” of fun. Secondly, I learned the life lesson that if you want to get dirty you have to learn to do the laundry. (Okay, so at the time I thought that was a “bad” thing and it only became a “good” thing when we could pass it along to our children.)

    1. It’s been great fun learning about these salt-friendly plants. I read that saltwort and glasswort both sequester salt in their cells, shedding their leaves as the salt content increases. Looking at my photo of the saltwort ‘chain,’ I wondered if the yellowing leaves might be ones that have become salt-saturated, and are on the decline. Maybe a taste test is in order.

      As for odd — and great — associations, your comment about needing to do the laundry if you want to get dirty brought back an old favorite: it’s true as can be, as long as the hell-raising is fun, and kind.

  11. How fascinating these sea succulents look. I’m a very beginner succulent grower, but seeing them react to cooler weather with redness has been interesting.

    Very cool to learn about how crabs use their gills. Such an amazing process.

    1. You have your very own Salicornia species, that can be found in your area, and its red is even more vibrant. As for the fun little crab, it’s just one more example of the way increased knowledge leads to increased interest. Even the smallest creatures are wonderfully made (as a certain book points out).

  12. Do you often see any sort of shore birds among the mudflats? I could see that as a popular area for some. I love these posts for all the educational details.

    1. I do see them, but they come and go, depending on several factors: the presence and depth of water, for example. If there’s no water, the wading birds go elsewhere. If there’s several inches of water, and the soil’s really soft, different species show up. I see killdeer quite often, and what I think are plovers. Sometimes there are tiny little birds: sanderlings, maybe? I’ve never seen herons or egrets there, but they may be around, since there are crabs and crawfish.

    1. I thought about you when I read about glasswort being used for glassmaking in the past. I had this sudden image of one of your pieces highlighting the glasswort. Getting those gradations of color would be a challenge, I’m sure. Still, it would be a striking piece. For that matter, the variety of shapes among those plants would make them great subjects for watercolors or acrylics, too. When the weather turns, it would make a great en plein air afternoon!

  13. I was going to remark about the wolfberry resembling nightshade but I saw that Tom beat me to it. A relative of the noble tomato. We have a few nightshades here in the yard but they are poisonous so we just admire the red berries.
    Years ago I took part in a nature photography forum, Tom and Steve also were there, and there was one woman who called herself CaspeCodFish. She loved photographing glasswort and would don a bathing suit to lay in the water’s edge and photograph the plants.
    You covered a lot of subjects…both beautifully and in depth…maybe enough to rival your Walden West posts.

    1. I’ve noticed that nothing seems to eat the berries of our silver-leafed nightshade. They’re a pretty yellow, and look as though they ought to be tasty, but they’ll linger throughout the winter, drying on the vine, so to speak.

      I know someone who takes the most wonderful photos of shore birds using the same technique: lying in the water and shooting from the bird’s level. It’s impressive, but not for me. Mud, I can handle, or just plain dirt, and I’ll wade through pretty much anything, but I’m not willing to put my camera or lenses at risk. The old klutz factor comes into play at some point.

      I wondered about including so many photos, and in fact left some out, but I think sometimes it’s hard to get a sense of a place with only one or two photos — especially when most people don’t have any context. We all understand ‘winter’ or ‘wildflower.’ ‘Mudflat’ is a little different.

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