A Salt Marsh Surprise

Galveston State Park

Receding waters during this season of drought have made many of our salt marshes more accessible. On Sunday afternoon, as I explored the flats on the bay side of Galveston State Park in search of Carolina Wolfberry (Lycium carolinianum), a favorite food of early-arriving Whooping Cranes, I noticed a flush of white rising above the familiar saltworts and seepweeds.

Making my way to the patch of fading blooms, I discovered a plant I’d never before encountered: a combination of tiny purple flowers and white bracts on plants a foot tall.

What I’d found is called Sea Lavender or Carolina Sea Lavender (Limonium carolinianum). It’s occasionally known as thrift, although it’s quite different from the Sea Thrift (Armeria maritima) that’s found on our west coast and in Europe.

In season, it produces masses of flowers that create a lavender haze above the ground. Even after its blooms fade, the long-lasting white bracts are quite attractive. Although I missed the height of its bloom this year, next summer I’ll know where to look for this lovely perennial.

That said, even a few of its tiny flowers were enough to tempt a flurry of Beach Skippers (Panoquina panoquinoides) into a visit. Closely related to the Salt Marsh Skipper, Beach Skippers are quite small — about an inch long — and can be distinguished by three small white spots on their wings. After mentioning their presence in Brazoria and Matagorda counties in spring and Aransas County in September, the Tvetens’ book, Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas, suggests that this skipper also might be found around Galveston Bay.

Clearly, the Tvetens’ suspicion has been confirmed.


Comments always are welcome.

62 thoughts on “A Salt Marsh Surprise

  1. Yay for new things right under our noses! I look forward to seeing both the flowers (or maybe just the bracts) and the butterflies on my next visit. And did you find plentiful Wolfberry?

    1. I suspect only bracts will remain, since there was a decrease in the number of blooms even from Saturday to Sunday. On the other hand, if we get some of the predicted rain, it might bring out a few more flowers.

      The Wolfberry was more plentiful than I first thought, but both the plants and the berries were smaller than usual. That could be due to their location, and to the absence of rain. On the other hand, it’s still early, and most were orange rather than red, so in time they may grow a bit as they ripen.

    1. I was glad to be able to identify this one — not to mention being grateful that it took a good long time to sip from its flower. There were a lot of them around, but all that darting at ground level doesn’t make for an easy portrait.

    1. I read that in some areas it’s being ‘threatened’ by people who pluck it to make wreaths and such. Apparently it dries nicely, and it would be pretty in a wreath or as filler in a bouquet, but it’s slow growing, and needs to be left alone.

  2. What a lovely little purple flower. My mistflower is blooming which also creates a bluish purple haze albeit a little higher. How do you get such clear photos without the distracting background?

    1. I noticed this weekend that the mistflower is really beginning to take off. It’s one of my favorites, and it certainly pleases the pollinators. These things helped with the photo of the skipper. First, I moved around so that there was sand and gravel behind it rather than other plants. Then, I moved as close as I could get without spooking the insect — that turned out to be a couple of feet, thanks to my macro lens. Finally, I reduced the aperture as much as I could and still keep some detail. It came out better than I’d hoped.

    1. I first heard this flower called ‘thrift,’ and when I started researching it, I kept turning up your pretty pink thrift. Finally, I found the scientific name, and the differences became clear.

    1. The flowers look like little gift-wrapped presents. I’m eager to see them next year, when they’re in full bloom.It’s nice that they’re a late summer/early fall flower; they add a little color to the landscape.

      I’ve read that when butterflies emerge from their cocoons, one of the first things they do is ‘zip’ the two sides of their proboscis together so they can sip through them. And if a proboscis is damaged, they can put the pieces together again. Amazing.

    1. I try to find ways to make my little discoveries interesting for others, GP. That’s why your enjoyment of my site’s so important to me — it means I’m accomplishing my goal, to one degree or another.

    1. In a sense, they’re a last bloom of the summer season. Our autumn wildflowers are just beginning to come on now, and they’ll be blooming into and even through November. Even December can be ‘flowerful’ here, and we’re glad of it!

  3. I very much appreciate this post. I have half a shelf of books on cranes and two are on the Whooping Crane, with extensive coverage of its life style, migration, status, diet etc and I cannot find a mention of Carolina Wolfberry anywhere. I am not sure whether this represents shoddy research on the part of the authors or a lack of knowledge. If this is a favoured food source when the birds arrive from Wood Buffalo National Park where they breed, however, it’s hard to accept that no one would have known. I live and learn, Linda.

    1. I’m not sure why your sources wouldn’t have mentioned the Wolfberry, since it’s been a regular subject for research. This article and this one are typical of many which are available. It’s true that the Blue Crab is their primary food, so that may have led authors to focus their attention on the crabs. That said, the second article mentions that ” berries from the Carolina wolfberry (Lycium carolinianum) can contribute 21–52% of crane energy intake early in the wintering period.”

  4. It’s like a treasure hunt, isn’t it Linda, although you never know what the next treasure will be. The photo of the beach skipper is superb.

    1. Thanks, Curt. I chased those skippers around for a good long time, and then I remembered a bit of wisdom from Annie Dillard: “The old, classic rule for stalking is stop often n’ set frequent.” So I sat down next to the plant, and waited. It worked!

      1. Doesn’t get any wiser when it comes to seeing wildlife, Linda. Sit quietly and the whole world comes alive. It was a lesson I learned when I first started wandering in the woods when I was seven.

    1. There are some online photos of it in full bloom on the east coast, and it’s a beauty. Apparently it can begin blooming in August, so maybe I won’t have to wait a whole year to see the sight. There seem to be several skipper species still around, but the ones I saw were fluttering around in vegetation and near the ground, so photos were nearly impossible.

  5. That doesn’t look like the thrift I know — and this is just beautiful. I rather like the name sea lavender. I think there is drought all over the world this year. I’m seeing it in posts from England, from the East, from you…

    1. This turned out to be a great example of the importance of scientific names. The first name I got for this one was ‘thrift,’ but when I started looking, all I found were the flowers you probably know: much larger, and pink. It took some time to find the right name, because your thrift and these aren’t even in the same genus! I love the delicacy of these, and the skippers clearly enjoyed them.

  6. These plants can sometimes look a bit gangly in our coastal marshes and the flowers remind me of strands of purple necklaces decorating the grass. Wonderful photography!

    Thinking about what you likely went through to obtain the skipper portrait makes me dizzy. Those little butterflies are getting a stimulant from some of the nectar they sip!

    1. When I saw the distribution of the sea lavender, I knew you would have seen it. I’m looking forward to catching it in full bloom next year; I suspect your description of it as a necklace draped over the marshes is exactly right.

      I’m always amazed by the skippers. Some of them are so tiny they’re barely ‘there’ — but they’re great fun to track, and getting a photo of one always is pleasing.

  7. This is a new plant for me and a pretty one. And a “lavender haze” sounds great. It wasn’t a surprise when I looked this flower up and found it was related to the German Statice my grandmother used to grow, to use in dried arrangements. That Beach Skipper is very appealing too, a cute little creature.

    1. I saw statice mentioned in an article about the sea lavender, but even though the name seemed familiar, I didn’t look it up. Now I have, and I see the resemblance — as well as remembering it from florists’ bouquets in the past. It’s interesting that the shape of the stems in the first photo of the flowers is somewhat statice-like.

      I love the skippers; for once, the common name is based is an obvious reality — their tendency to ‘skip’ among the flowers.

    1. It was peaceful. Even though it was a weekend and plenty of people were visiting the park, most tended to cluster around observation platforms, kayak launches, and such. A desire to roam the salt flats is a touch idiosyncratic.

  8. Oh, look at his fuzzy little head — how cute!! And the blue and white flowers are pretty, too. I’ll be interested to see them in the spring when you go back to visit.

    1. Wouldn’t you love to be able to muss up that ‘hair’? It’s not easy to pet a butterfly, but I occasionally get the urge. The flowers must have been rich in nectar, because every time one of the skippers landed on one, it tended to stay for longer than a few seconds — to my great delight!

  9. I love the marshes. Great pictures with beautiful details. (Noticed a flock of ducks lifting off just before the rain this morning. We still have a few of the local bird residents, but the building noises from those apartments are really disturbing the calm. You’d think they would have come up with a nicer architecture than this “immediate occupancy” building style.)
    Ought to be a nice weekend – can’t wait to see what you discover!)

    1. Is the construction still going on, or are the residents raising the ruckus? I read that they’re either going to or already have taken down the lighthouse; I need to get over there to see what’s going on.

      Have you noticed the flocks of Black-bellied Whistling Ducks that are roaming around? I see about two dozen of them every morning around 7:30 or 8:00 if I’m at work early. They take off from somewhere north of Nasa I in Seabrook, fly across Lakewood, and head toward the Hilton. They might be picking up some of your birds on the way.

      With luck, we’ll get more rain this weekend. And then? Cool weather!

    1. Sure they do. It’s possible to prowl some territory without knee-high boots, and there’s often a significant absence of mosquitoes. That said, a little rain always is welcome, and this very morning we got an inch and a half. Tonight, other areas are getting some, including the prairies out west of town. Eventually, things balance out. Of course, ‘eventually’ can be a slippery term!

    1. Maybe next year it won’t be so windy when I spend time with it; I would have liked getting a sharper focus, but with so many blooms clustered together near the ground, with such a cluttered background, I was pleased enough. It is a pretty color. The photos I’ve seen from the east coast marshes with it in full bloom are really something; I hope we have an equal bloom next year.

  10. I also love the details of the flowers and the skipper, Linda, and wonder if the Tvetens’ suspicion has been confirmed by someone else already, or if it would be worthwhile letting them know your findings.

    1. The Tveten’s book was published in 1996, so it’s a great resource for identification, but clearly behind the times when it comes to reporting ‘finds.’ Between iNaturalist and other sites, there’s more information today. I just looked at the iNat site and found eight reports on Galveston Island, including one last November at the state park. It was interesting to see more numerous reports around Matagorda and Aransas, just as the Tvetens said. I suspect there are many more of the cuties around, but they’re so small it makes sense that there would be fewer observations of them than, say, the swallowtails or fritillaries.

    1. Isn’t that little skipper fun? I always enjoy seeing butterflies feeding, and when I can manage to capture a proboscis in action, I’m more than pleased. Beyond that, I really like the slight fuzziness on this one’s head.

  11. When the Tvetens put out the next edition of their book I hope they credit you with confirming the skipper’s presence in Galveston Bay. All lovely shots and the skipper is sweet.

    1. If the Tvetens publish another book, you can bet I’ll purchase a copy, since John died in 2009. I’m not sure about Gloria; I couldn’t find any information about her. In any event, there are iNaturalist sightings of the skipper aplenty, including several on Galveston Island. It was fun to see one other report on iNat from Galveston State Park. I don’t post to that site, but I use it a lot for information and confirmation that I might have seen what I think I saw.

      I love the photo of this skipper. ‘Sweet’ seems exactly the right word to describe it.

      1. I’v taken to using iNaturalist much the same as you although I do post in case their suggestion is off and someone will correct it. Sometime iNat can be way off so I start with that and migrate over to BugGuide to either confirm or ask for ID help.

        I guess that book would be quite the collector’s item if John contributed to it.

    1. There’s nothing like a new flower to perk things up, unless it’s a cute little skipper feeding at the flower. I’m glad I found these, since they were somewhat off-trail — near the water, to the west of observation platform 3 and the oak mott loop — and you can bet I’ll be making a beeline to the spot next year.

    1. Speaking of discoveries, I wondered why you hadn’t been posting. I’ve not gotten any notification of your blog in ages, so I just now happened to go have a look, and behold! You’ve redone things. Somehow, I got off the email list, so I’ll have to see if I can get reestablished. I can’t believe I’ve missed so much!

    2. Ah, ha! I found you, re-registered, and was able to comment perfectly well. I was sorry to learn about Curly Cat; that was unexpected and sad news. But your new format looks wonderful!

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