Nature’s Mud Room

The view from the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge boardwalk

Every drought is different. One leaves the earth cracked and barren; another, less obvious to the eye, stunts growth and ruins crops.

This year, mud prevailed. As their water receded, ponds began to resemble the spring mud of my childhood and youth: sticky, clumpy goo that filled the mud rooms of our homes and clogged country roads. Avoiding it was impossible; tractors and children alike sank down into it as surely as this Brazoria refuge alligator was sinking into his diminished pond.

On the other hand, there’s more to this pond mud than unattractive slop. A closer look reveals signs of life: a few emerging leaves, and a dragonfly making do amid the goo.

Eventually, rains developed, and signs of life increased. If the ponds weren’t filled, they at least tempted some of the larger alligators to come out and have a bask at the water’s edge.

Wading birds small and large began probing the edges of the ponds and sloughs for tidbits. While Dunlins nest in Arctic regions, they’re a common visitor to our coast. The Cornell site provides some etymology and a humorous interpretation of the bird’s name:

Dunlin comes from dunling, the earliest known English name of the species… a compound of the English word dun (meaning gray-brown) and the diminutive -ling. So the name Dunlin essentially means ‘little brown job.’
Dunlin ~ Calidris alpinaWhite Ibis ~ Eudocimus albus

Where water flows, reflections shimmer. In the case of these waterside cattails, ripples accentuated the plants’ frowziness: their delicate fluff transformed into sodden lumps by days of rain.

Of course, when nature adds water, not every plant that rises from the mud is welcome. Floating Water Hyacinth (Eichhornia crassipes), an aquatic plant native to the Amazon basin and often seen at Brazos Bend State Park, is one of our most troublesome and fastest growing invasives. Able to double its population in just two weeks, it creates thick layers of vegetation which prevent light from reaching other aquatic plants and reduces dissolved oxygen in the water.

Currently, the only means of control are herbicides, shredding, and physical removal. The problems the plant presents are significant enough that it’s illegal in Texas to possess or transport it.

Water hyacinth

Along the edges of Brazos Bend’s Elm Lake, an equally pretty but perfectly acceptable native plant surrounded the remnants of a faded, mud-loving native lotus. Although smartweed flowers are only a quarter-inch across, their details reward a closer look.

American Lotus (Nelumbo lutea) and Swamp Smartweed (Persicaria hydropiperoides)

People often comment that the world looks greener after a rain, but other colors intensify, as well. On Galveston Island, a field of Spotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata) turned distinctly pink.

Not far away, what might (or might not) have been the last milkweed of the season attracted a bevy of camera-shy insects.

Whorled milkweed ~ Asclepias verticillata

And everywhere — at the water’s edge or some distance away — the rain encouraged a variety of asters into bloom. With a full dozen species listed for this area, identification can be challenging, but they’re all lovely.

Heath aster ~ Symphyotrichum ericoides
Salt marsh aster ~ Symphyotrichum divaricatum

All asters attract a variety of bees, flies, and butterflies, but Tarnished Plant Bugs (Lygus lineolaris) feed on the plants themselves.  Lime green as nymphs, they take on a bronzed appearance as they age: hence, the common name.

A widespread true bug, they adore munching on anything green, including garden produce. With the arrival of the rains and new growth, they surely were as happy as the alligators and birds freed from a world of mud.

Tarnished Plant Bug nymph ~ Lygus lineolaris


Comments always are welcome.

71 thoughts on “Nature’s Mud Room

    1. All of the cold-blooded ones have been happy recently. The alligators are sunning, the snakes prowling, and I suppose the lizards are lounging on warm rocks somewhere. It’s been a few years since we had a Christmas day sail, but this year just might bring one.

      I think smartweed’s pretty, too. The first time I saw it was in an Arkansas wildlife management area, a rather long time ago. I didn’t get such a nice photo then, but I still was very near the bottom of my learning curve.

  1. Those are all nice closeups, especially the smartweed; not everyone will appreciate how hard it is to get as close as you did and keep all the parts of such a small subject in focus.

    Two decades ago in southeast Austin I came across a pond whose surface was largely covered with water hyacinth flowers. They looked pretty but choked out everything else.

    1. I was pleased with the smartweed photo. Isolating that single stem and keeping it in focus took some time, but being able to sit on the ground made it easier.

      I have a photo of a local marina completely filled with water hyacinth. The plants had washed down from Clear Creek/Clear Lake and were headed for Galveston Bay when they took a turn and got caught up around the boats. It wasn’t long before they started to die, since they can’t tolerate even low levels of salinity. I’ve read that some areas — California, Louisiana — are especially concerned about the plant spreading because of increasing salinity in their bays and bayous.

  2. After Steve G. used mudroom in a recent post I commented that I wasn’t familiar with the term. You obviously are. It’s apparently and understandably more common in rural areas than in cities and suburbs.

    1. Even though it was called a ‘mud room,’ the one in my grandparents’ home was the place where Grandpa shed his work clothes before coming in the house — he was a coal miner, and keeping that coal dust out of the house was worse than dealing with mud. The mud room in my parents’ first house was the place for our snow boots, shovels, wet snowsuits, and the wooden box where we stacked old newspapers to bundle and sell. Remember newspaper drives? What a very, very long time ago that seems!

    1. I had heard about ‘little brown jobs,’ but didn’t realize it was a term that had some historical roots. I’ll bet you know about mud. In Iowa, spring mud was the worst; that melting snow could keep things chaotic for a good while. Has Clif had to bring out his measuring stick yet?

    1. There’s nothing more satisfying than watching the world come alive again. When ponds dry up, the birds can fly to a new spot, but the alligators are more constrained. I never thought I’d end up feeling sorry for an alligator, but this was the year.

        1. On the other hand, it’s worth remembering that they create mud holes for shelter and warmth during the winter months. Being ‘in’ the mud is less a problem for them than ‘no’ mud!

  3. A lot of very pretty blooms amidst the mud, especially the bee balm. When my relatives in Utah built their house, a mudroom was one of the “must haves” even though it’s usually pretty dry there, so I guess it’s more of a dust room.

    1. I just mentioned to Steve that the purpose of the mudroom in my grandparents’ house was as much a way to keep coal dust out of the house as to keep the mud at bay. Mud was seasonal, but Grandpa was a coal miner, so that was a year-round issue. I’ve always thought of mudrooms as a sort of residential DMZ — coming or going, it was where the inside/outside transition took place.

  4. A very nice collection of photos. I was reminded by your mud description of the sticky gumbo mud on our farm in western Illinois. It grew good crops. But, avoid it after rains. The hog wallows in the pig lot were fun to wade in up to your knees. It coated your legs and looked like black stockings.

    1. I just saw your photo — your description of the ‘black stockings’ was dead on. And speaking of Illinois/Iowa mud, one of the best stories from my mother’s youth involved spring mud and the Harlem Globetrotters. The team played their first road game in Hinckley, Illinois in 1927, and in 1932 they were to play in Melcher, Iowa: my mom’s hometown. On the way to the game, their Model A’s got stuck in the mud, and they never made the game. I read about it in a clipping from the town newpaper, but there wasn’t any mention of how long it took to get everyone unstuck.

    1. It was fun to find these basking again. During our early cold snap, the alligators seemed to disappear, seeking shelter in that same mud that seems so unattractive and problematic to humans. I always wonder about the relationships among them. I’d say that these are at least friends. The image has a companionable feel.

    1. There’s nothing like a soupçon of etymology to flavor the information about anything in nature. Another tiny detail that helped me identify the Dunlin is its bill. See how the tip is curved down a bit? That’s apparently a standard feature.

    1. The nice thing about sunbathing alligators is that you can spot them from some distance. Not only that, who wants to get up from a nap to chase a silly human just for fun?

    1. There are some interesting articles about the ways the plant’s been removed from local bodies of water, like this one about Lake Livingston. I’d bet the same techniques were used on Lake Houston. I remember hearing about a huge infestation some years ago, when flooding washed the plants into the lake from the backwaters of the San Jacinto.

  5. Apart from the alligators, I love it all! A side note — we watched “Peter Pan” with the boys and the four year old is now either freaked or enamored by crocodiles! I’m not sure he’d know the diff between the two — even I sometimes have trouble until I look closely!

    1. Your comment made me realize I didn’t have a clue about how to tell the difference. I looked it up, and found this: “Alligators are black or gray on top with a cream-colored underside, possess a U-shaped snout, and are smaller and more timid than crocodiles. Crocodiles are larger, more aggressive, are mostly green or brown, and have a snout in a V-shape.” That’s good to know, but I don’t think I’ll be flipping one to check its belly color. Beyond that, I suspect the difference between a U-shaped snout and a V-shaped is variable. I’ll just keep my distance, and assume I’m seeing an alligator — at least, down here!

    1. After spending time around the alligators, I’ve come to appreciate some of their lesser-known characteristics: like the strong maternal bonds that exist between a mama gator and her offspring. Sometimes I think they just need better press agents and fewer film-makers using them to scare us to death. (The poor sharks have been villified in the same way — think “Jaws” and “Shark Week.”) The good news is it’s possible to enjoy seeing gators without risking life and limb — especially when there are binoculars, boardwalks, and telephoto lenses available!

      1. Yep, I like the idea of binoculars and telephoto lenses when viewing those gators. Once I had a co-worker who had lived in Florida and I remember her story about taking groceries out of her car trunk, going in her house, and coming back out to find a gator in her trunk. No thank you.

  6. Those muddy patches look too much like my backyard. We have a huge maple with limbs so dense that sunlight has trouble filtering through to allow grass to grow. Consequently, every time it rains, it becomes a hog trough … and some of it manages to make its way indoors, thanks to Monkey’s paws. I’m resolving to have it fixed come Spring!

    1. Last weekend I heard a couple of people who live on Galveston Island talking about the difficulties of dealing with the sand that their dogs drag in. Different substance, same problem. Are you going to have a little tree trimming done? They recently (maybe six months ago) did that here, and it made a difference in the health of the grass and lawn covers.

    1. The water hyacinth seems to be more of a problem in the lakes, since it can get carried from one to another by fishing boats and such. As for the alligators, they’re always around, since they’re native; I imagine them as just a little happier when there’s more water — partly because more water means more creatures for them to eat!

  7. Because they don’t have that tight ruff of petals, the asters always look scraggly to me, kind of like a kids’ version of daisies. “Alligator” is the misheard “el lagarto” – Spanish for lizard, BTW. I would imagine that without ponds, they would have a hard time regulating their body temperature — sunning on the banks to warm up, but submerging in the pond to cool down. I always find it fitting that Thoth, the Egyptian god of writing (among other things) has the head of an Ibis, a wading bird. Evidently, the Nile mud is not as suitable for cuneiform tablets as Euphrates mud. Gulf Coast mud is only suitable for making a mess, but not much else. Gumbo is a particularly descriptive word for it. .

    1. The ponds (and the mud) help them to stay warm in winter, too. When the temperature drops, they enter into a state called brumation. Their metabolism slows, and they become lethargic. They’ll often stay underwater, or even burrow down into the mud. Since they can hold their breath underwater for several hours — I’ve read as much as 24! — they’ll occasionally surface and poke their nostrils above the water’s surface. I only recently learned this, and it may explain the times I’ve seen nothing but a gator nose sticking out of the water. Amazing. If they need to breathe, then they’ll slowly surface and peak their nostrils at the top of the water.

      It’s interesting that mud used to be much more a part of popular culture. I grew up listening to songs like “Mississippi Mud” — still around today with slightly revised lyrics, thanks to this crew.

  8. All of your photos are amazing, but there’s just something about cattails that grabs me. They were my favorite thing to photograph in our local Ohio fen.

    Also? Where I’m from all of that mud would be RED. Man – after a day spent playing softball (or rolly bat if we didn’t have enough people for two teams) we turned our bathtub solid red. My poor mom.

    1. I love cattails. They’re not only fun to play with, they’re been useful in so many ways. When my mom was a kid, they would soak them in kerosene (or some such) and use them as the equivalent of Tiki torches.

      I remember how astonished I was the first time I saw red soil. Growing up in Iowa, I knew nothing but black loam. It made terrific mud, too. Now I’m in the land of gumbo soil: the nemesis of gardeners throughout the area.

  9. What a range of creatures and colors you’ve presented here! The blush of beebalm is my favorite. That gooey mud you described reminded me of walking in Belgium’s muddy beach. I was unprepared for the shoe-sucking stuff of the North Sea shore.

    1. “Shoe-sucking” made me laugh. Every now and then I’ve come across that kind of mud, and it can give a good tug even to knee high boots.

      I thought that beebalm was especially pretty, with the combination of pink and light green. Many of ours have gone to seed now, but those that still had a bit of life left in them decided to extend their bloom for a time after the rains came.

    1. That little nymph was so tiny I barely saw it; the only reason I did is that I was seaching for a nice bloom to photograph. It was about as large as the head of a pin; so small that even my macro lens had a bit of a time with it. It was pretty. It reminded me of those glow-in-the-dark toys we had as kids, until people figured out the radiation that made them glow wasn’t so healthy, and they took them off the market.

  10. I always love how saturated the world looks after a rain, all the colors a bit more vibrant. It reminds me of the first time I tried on a pair of Maui Jim sunglasses. They just made the world look like a more beautiful place.

    And I really like the addition of the reflected cattail photo in this mix, with it’s slightly more abstract view.

    1. I did enjoy those cattails. I usually see them when they’re smooth and sleek, or exploding with fluff. These looked like they’d been out in the rain, like a wet dog (or me, on occasion). The vibrant-after-rain colors you mentioned is especially notable here after drought or flood. After hurricane Harvey, flood waters covered so much of our vegetation with mud. When the first rain arrived to wash it all away, it was as though we’d been given an entirely new world.

  11. What an enjoyable post. I love the close-up of the alligator and the extra details. What a shame about the invasive water hyacinth, it’s such a pretty

    1. It’s a mystery to me why so many of our invasives have such appealing colors. I suppose part of the reason is that they were brought here in the first place because of their attractiveness. Getting rid of those hyacinths is quite a chore, but their effects on waterways are terrible. I once heard someone describe them as the rabbits of the water — they just won’t stop multiplying!

  12. Mmmmm…flowers. I almost but not quite forgot what they look like as winter approaches here. Water hyacinth does occur in New England but not in our immediate locale. Hopefully it remains distant. It’s ironic that so many invasive have lovely flowers. Of course in many cases the loveliness is why someone brought them where they don’t belong.
    That’s a cute little gator.

    1. We went through quite a ‘blah’ period around here. Steve got the gorgeous autumn; there was nothing like that color here. But, once we got some rain, and the temperatures warmed, the flowers made up for it. You’re right about the color of the invasives. Our Chinese Tallow is a bully, but it sure is pretty when it turns to red, yellow, and orange.

      Alligators don’t mind mud at all, but I did feel sympathy for that little guy. For one thing, so many of the creatures gators like to eat had gone off to other places, no doubt in seach of water and food. Too bad he couldn’t call DoorDash.

    1. Late January and early February can be short on blooms, but we do have flowers in every month. In fact, pansies, snapdragons, and cyclamen are used as winter bedding plants in commercial landscaping; the garden crews start putting them in around October or so, and they can bloom for quite some time. After our serious freeze a couple of years ago, new spring flowers began to bloom after only a couple of weeks. It sure is different than what I grew up with, but it’s great fun.

    1. The asters have been going crazy around here. The little lawn asters are particularly thick — although they may meet their demise next weekend. I just saw the forecast for next Friday: sunny, breezy, and a high of 32F (low of 27F). It’s time to follow your lead and figure out where the plants are going to live for a while.

    1. Isn’t that pretty? It’s Persicaria hydropiperoides. I had given the name under the photo just above the closeup, where the plant was combined with the Lotus. We have at least seven Persicaria species in our area, but after some consultations and some time with a magnifying glass, I’m sure I got this one right. The first time I found Persicaria, it was in Arkansas, and I thought it was native only to that part of the country. Live and learn!

      1. The smartweed I learned of first is ubiquitous in my area (and backyard), Persicaria maculosa. On field trip to find Plymouth rose-gentian, I didn’t find the beautiful gentian, but white smartweed growing on the inlet shoreline, Persicaria punctata, and a big bushy smartweed that I didn’t identify. There are so many, around 2 dozen species in Massachusetts.

  13. The mud room of a house is a place for human detritus to collect. Boots, coats, umbrellas, brooms, and, occasionally a bit of actual mud.

    Nature’s mud room has plenty of mud, the remains of plants, a few signs of animal life both past and present and not a broom in sight.

    My Mother would say a clean mud room can be a thing of beauty. Which translated to: “Time to get to work.”

    When a bit of water is added to Nature’s mud room, it’s magical. Dormant seeds reach for the sky. Insects seem to appear out of thin air (or thick mud). Alligators smile more. Birds return and resume their daily chore of hunting and surviving.

    Balance is restored.

    Your really wonderful photographs catalogue a bit of the magic for those of us without a local mud room to visit. I tried to choose a favorite image but just could not. Some of the blooms are familiar, some are new.

    My sense of wonder was as replenished as the dry mud.

    Thank you.

    1. Alligators really do smile occasionally. I’d say that pair lounging at the water’s edge are smiling. And why not, with sunshine, warmth, and good company? Of course, the best news at this point may be that relatively generous rainfall has softened up even more mud below the surface of our ponds and bayous. Given the frigid weather that’s coming, a lot of alligators and turtles are going to be happy to burrow into it.

      As for those human mud rooms, I had to smile at your inclusion of an umbrella in the list of things that could appear there. I’m fairly sure no umbrella ever graced our mud rooms, but snow shovels? You bet. And brooms, of course. While I was learning to keep a mud room clean, I learned a terrific proverb, too: “A new broom sweeps clean, but an old broom knows the corners.”

  14. I had to look up what a “true bug” was. I had always thought that “bug” was a common synonym for “insect”, so everything from butterflies to katydids was a bug. But I found that, while all bugs are insects, not all insects are true bugs. Thanks for a fun read!

    1. That’s exactly what I grew up thinking: bug = insect. I finally got that straightened out when I discovered that the ‘ladybugs’ I adore aren’t bugs at all, but beetles. One thing led to another, and eventually I discovered the ‘true bugs.’

      Which reminds me of a true story. One night, some friends and I were drinking wine and writing our own epitaphs. An entomologist I knew at the time said she knew exactly what she wanted on her tombstone: “At Least I Won’t Bug You Any More.”

    1. It was quite a night. Two friends who were both married and anchors on an Austin tv station had a good one for their stone, too: “Stay Tuned. We’ll Be Right Back.” I’ve decided on “She Varnished From Our Sight.”

    1. So many of our invasives have something to recommend them: Chinese Tallow turns colors in fall, trifoliate orange has wonderfully fragrant flowers, and so on. I suppose their attractiveness is part of what brought them here in the first place. It’s too bad they have such downsides.

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