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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.