Beauty In the Midst of Beastly Ice

Ice-encased Texas mountain laurel ~ Dermatophyllum secundiflorum
photo courtesy of Tahlia Sowa-Gutierrez/CBS Austin

In 1972, a long-haul trucker persuaded my parents to choose a Dallas motel over a trek across ice-covered north Texas and Oklahoma roads. In 1990, certain live-aboard sailors on Clear Lake had to be freed from their boats by chipping off the ice that surrounded them.

When the ice of 1997 arrived in southeast Texas on January 12th of that year, more than an inch collected on power lines and trees until temperatures finally began to moderate on the afternoon of the 14th. Despite the thaw, three-quarters of the area between Houston, Beaumont, and Lake Charles remained cold and dark for as much as five days. And of course during Valentine’s week in 2021, the entire state went into the deep freeze, causing immeasurable misery.

During the 1990 event, I said to one of my dockmates, “You Texans may not do snow, but you sure know how to do ice.” This week, central and north Texas had yet another turn at ‘doing ice.’ Conditions are miserable for far too many people, but moments of amusement, delight, and awe have appeared in the midst of the chaos.

I found a bit of unexpected beauty in Austinite Tahlia Sowa-Gutierrez’s photo of one of my favorite Texas plants. Native to limestone soils in central and southwest Texas, as well as to the Chisos and Davis mountains, Texas mountain laurel flowers remind many people of wisteria; wonderfully fragrant, their scent resembles that of grape Kool-Aid.

In areas north of hardiness Zone 8, flowering isn’t reliable because late freezes often damage the buds. How this week’s freeze will affect trees farther south is hard to say, but many mountain laurels survived the 2021 week-long freeze, producing both flowers and seeds in its wake. We’ll hope the same for many of our native plants —  especially the tough mountain laurel.

Mountain Laurel at the Texas Revolution Monument ~ Cost, Texas, March 26, 2022
A survivor in bloom at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge ~ May 15, 2022

Comments always are welcome.

81 thoughts on “Beauty In the Midst of Beastly Ice

    1. Once again, taxonomists made a change I wasn’t aware of. While your kōwhai and our mountain laurel both are in the pea family, Sophora secundaflora now goes by the name Dermatophyllum secundiflorum. The USDA site and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center still categorize it as S. secundaflora, but I changed the name under the photo to be more accurate.

      I did read more about your kōwhai. It has some interesting similarities to our mountain laurel, including the toxicity of the seeds and the use of the plants for dye. Both certainly are attractive.

    1. It’s a beautiful tree that’s often used in landscaping. I enjoy finding small, naturally occurring ones tucked into the rocky landscapes of our hill country; the fragrance is pronounced, and I’ll sometimes catch the scent before I see the tree. Like wisteria, when it comes into bloom it attracts bees and butterflies galore.

    1. Our mountain laurel actually does quite well in cold, so I wondered if your area might be too warm for it. As it turns out, moisture could be the limiting factor. Since the tree prefers dry, rocky soil, it requires good drainage to thrive. That said, there are some Florida extension sites that recommend it as a small landscape tree. It’s not easily transplanted, but it can be grown from seed: albeit slowly. I happen to know where I could put my hands on some seeds, if you want to give it a try.

  1. Oh, gosh! Any mention of ice brings back memories of the great ice storm of 1998, when we were without power for 11 days. Despite the destruction, there is a beauty to the ice-encrusted landscape. Hope all goes well for the people and plants and animals suffering through this ice storm.

    1. Intentional ice is nice: skating rinks, ice cubes in summertime lemonade, and so on. Ice that arrives uninvited and coats the world is a different matter. The photos of the countryside coming out of this latest storm are beautiful, but the disruptions it’s caused are as significant as those brought by a hurricane. The damaged trees certainly look as though a hurricane has rolled through, and the power loss — like that you experienced in 1998 — has been substantial. Once the ice has melted, the real work of recovery will begin.

      1. Don’t I know it! During and after the ice storm of ’98, the snapping of trees was so intense that it sounded like gunfire. The crews would no sooner get lines fixed than branches would break and bring lines down. Very sorry that Texas is going through this.

    1. It really does smell like that. A few times I’ve described it that way to someone not familiar with the tree, and watched them roll their eyes. Then, they bury their nose in the flowers. Inevitably, their response is something like, “I thought you were kidding!”

    1. We’re lucky we escaped the ice storm, despite the unpleasantness of our cold, wet weather. I’ve rarely been so ready to get back to work, let alone to begin seeing more color. It seems impossible that Mardi Gras is only three weeks away, or that next month will bring daylight saving time.

      1. Sun – sun! We have sun!…we’ll all need dark glasses it’s been so long.
        There’s a house along our dog trudge path here already decorated up.(One day I will have a complete pallet of Christmas light bulbs and leave the strings up all year long and just switch out the appropriate colors to match the seasonal holiday)
        Once again, not looking forward to that fake Daylight Savings TIme. Probably the source of discontent and problems in society – fake is fake at a time when people want authentic truth.

        1. Daylight saving time is irrelevant to me, no matter which way we’re told our clocks should move. For those of us who work by the sun, the hour doesn’t matter: it’s the increasing light that counts, and we know the bureaucrats don’t control that.

    1. I added a slight edit to your comment; you said your mountain laurel was “happy and finally died,” and I assumed you meant ‘unhappy.’ I’ve heard someone say they could have died from happiness, but I didn’t think that was the case with your tree.

      I’ve not quite figured out why the one at the Brazoria refuge has managed to keep going. It may be that the sandy soil has helped. I was surprised to see it blooming in May last year, but it may be that the various periods of cold it experienced encouraged it to put forth its flowers.

        1. Steve Schwartzman introduced me to the term he uses for such things: “think-o.” It’s like a typo, but with obvious differences. I often find use for the term!

    1. It’s a beautiful plant when in bud or bloom. The seeds are interesting; they’re bright red and round. They’ve often been used for jewelry, but they’re toxic as can be, so never should be kept around children or pets.

    1. I’d never seen that ‘other’ mountain laurel until Steve Gingold (or perhaps Eliza) posted photos of it. I do remember that it took a bit of time for us to sort out our mutual confusion; neither of us realized the other mountain laurel species existed. You’re right that the northeastern flower is gorgeous, and so interesting in the way it deals with pollinators.

  2. Hope your laurel survives the cold, Linda. It is a beautiful flower. It’s 30 outside here now (the day’s high) and is supposed to be 13 tonight. On Monday, our daytime temperature is supposed to jump up to 50. I plan to thaw. –Curt

    1. Mountain laurels don’t mind the cold. Friends in Kerrville have large ones that have survived winters on their ridge for years. The question is going to be whether this year’s buds are damaged by the ice. My hunch is that they’ll be fine — but it certainly was fun to see them encased in ice.

      We made the swing today; I started at work wearing a couple of fleece layers, and was down to sockless feet and a cotton shirt by the afternoon. On Sunday? 70F. Got to love it. Enjoy your thaw — 50 is perfectly acceptable.

      1. Good to see the warming trend, although I feel there are no guarantees. Spring and nature will not be denied, however. Eventually. Grin. Peg’s brother up near Austin went through the ice storm. The weather up there is always doing something interesting. He has had to replace two roofs due to hail damage…

        1. The good news is that relative warmth is going to linger for that area, but rain is predicted: as much as an inch. Given the on-going drought, that has to be welcome. It’s the sort of thing that won’t make cleanup easier or more pleasant, but it the long run it’s a plus.

        2. It took a minute to find it, but this William Stafford poem seems apropos:

          “It could happen any time, tornado,
          earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
          Or sunshine, love, salvation.

          It could, you know. That’s why we wake
          and look out — no guarantees
          in this life.

          But some bonuses, like morning,
          like right now, like noon,
          like evening.”

  3. That ice is amazing! And I’m glad to be looking at that from home. Colors of the mountain laurel is so vibrant. I remember in my visits to Texas and collecting seeds to see if they’d grow in California.

    1. Did the seeds grow for you? I’ve read a bit about how to start them, and it seems they can be somewhat unpredictable. They’re slow growers, too. If I planted one today, I probably never would see it bloom. Now that I know a few places to find them in nature, it’s more fun to go ‘visit’ already established trees.

  4. The mountain laurel flowers are beautiful and I like the shape of the leaves too. I can see why people say it looks like wisteria – it would be easy to get the two confused!

    1. The leaves are pretty. They’re a bit leathery, and have a bit of glossiness that adds to their attractiveness. Now that I know both plants, I can spot the difference with relative ease — wisteria is more pendulous — but the colors certainly resemble each other. Taken together, wisteria and moutain laurel almost make up for our lack of lilacs.

            1. Ah, too true! I’ve trawled the net to try to find a solution but failed utterly. I may try to build some sort of temporary netting cover but it would need to be rigid to stop little birds getting caught in it. Tricky!

  5. I’ve been feeling especially sorry for Texas of late, Linda. Ice is so treacherous! It’s one thing to be fighting snow, but at least one can walk — and drive — on it. And just thinking about having the power go out in all that cold — not to mention commerce and such grinding to a halt — makes me shudder. Be safe out there, okay? At least you’ll soon replace this misery with some warmth, won’t you?

    1. I’ve been well south of the ice and power problems; central and north Texas were much harder hit. There were communication problems in Austin that made things worse, and some Texans have learned a good lesson: if you don’t trim your trees,nature will do it for you, and perhaps take your electrical wires in the process.

      We’ve had a cold, rainy week; yesterday it stayed in the 40s and was pretty miserable. Today? The sun was out, it nearly reached 60 degrees, and I ended my work day in a cotton shirt and no socks. This weekend it’s going to be sunny and 70. Silly weather!

    1. I’ve never thought of ice like this as tragic: probably because I’ve seen buds make it through in the past. Cold-hardy plants like mountain laurel sometimes profit from colder temperatures; I’d never seen the mountain laurel at the Brazoria refuge in flower until after the 2021 state-wide freeze. I don’t know, but suspect, that it was the odd cold weather on the coast that encouraged it into bloom.

    1. The part of the state that got the ice storm looks like a category 2 hurricane rolled through. The amount of tree damage is unbelievable, especially in Austin and its surrounding counties. A half-inch of ice was common, and I’ve seen photos of measured ice as much as an inch and a half thick.

      I did learn something interesting from our forest service, though. The proper term for people who show up with their chain saws to begin dealing with the mess is ‘sawyer.’ I’ve known that as a surname all my life, but never realized that Sawyer is another of those names grounded in an occupation, like Carpenter, Wheeler, or Butler.

        1. For this event, Twitter was exceptionally useful for real-time photos and commentary. More than a few people mentioned their neighborhoods looking just that way — like a war zone — while some drew a comparison with post-hurricane landscapes.

    1. You’re right about that. Now the people in the northeast are getting hit with cold. I suppose the ‘good’ news there is that it’s going to be short-lived cold; some of the spots I checked where I know people are going to be well below zero for a couple of days, but in the 40s again relatively soon. When I think about us walking to school in twenty degree weather, I just shake my head. I don’t remember anyone thinking it unusual — although I do remember being very happy when a new policy allowing us to wear tights under our skirts, or even pants, was finally introduced.

  6. I’m glad you’re not in the power outage zone. The storm looks really destructive. Those blossoms on the mountain laurel are nothing like what we have in VA. They reminded me of Baptisia australis, which is in the pea family. Similar color and shape to the bloom, but different structure, foliage, etc. I’m trying to start some for the garden…

    1. Mountain laurel’s in the pea family, too, so the resemblance makes sense. Its buds remind me of two of our native Baptisia species — B. sphaerocarpa, which is yellow, and B. bracteata, which has cream-colored flowers. Both species are common in pastures and praries in spring, as well as along fencelines.

      You’re right that this mountain laurel differs from yours. I was greatly confused when friends in eastern areas of the country began posting photos of their mountain laurel. It took me a while to sort it all out.

  7. Ugh! It got colder than a wedge up here in the flatlands, too. Not so much Ice, just cold — too dry for ice! I had to dribble my bathroom sink as its on an outside wall and there was concern about pipes freezing. Of course, then I had to listen to it all night . . . First world problems.

    1. I recently came across that old saying about the wind, the Panhandle, and barbed wire, and thought about you. I’m glad you didn’t get ice. On the other hand, you’re so short on trees you might have fared better than the leafier parts of the state. I am glad we escaped with only cold and rain this time. I wasn’t pleased about missing a week of work, but at least I was warm.

  8. Thankfully, the ice did not make it this far south but it did get into the 30s. Sunny and in the low 60s today. Ice can transform nature into frozen art. Mountain laurels are quite hardy. You captured some of that beauty.

    1. Snow can be beautiful, but the delicacy of ice and frost are magical. Of course, there’s a point when ice flips from delicate to dangerous, and that’s what central and north Texas got. The last time I visited Lost Maples, there were mountain laurels growing everywhere. I didn’t get there last spring to see them in bloom; perhaps I can this year. Friends in that part of the state were cold, but there was minimal ice, so the mountain laurels probably did just fine.

  9. Ice storms are a bitch – but the aftermath can be beautiful. We’ve generally been lucky about not losing power, but other folks in the state – not so much.

    1. I can’t remember losing power in a winter storm in Iowa, but those were snow storms. We might have been homebound until the roads got cleared, but staying warm wasn’t an issue. When I moved to Texas, ice storms became an unhappy reality. I learned not to head up to Kansas for Thanksgiving, even if it was lovely here. Getting caught in Oklahoma ice always was a possibility.

      That said, ice can be beautiful, although small doses are preferable.

  10. Normally what you show in your last two pictures would become familiar sights in Austin beginning a few weeks from now. Now the Texas mountain laurels here may skip a year before blooming again, “thanks” to the ice storm. Or maybe we’ll get lucky and their flowers will merely be delayed a few weeks.

    1. It’s hard to say what will happen, although my Kerrville friend has seen her mountain laurels bloom only weeks after an ice storm. She says timing is everything. If ice forms quickly enough, then melts because of quickly rising temperatures, buds like these won’t be harmed. It seems as though the conditions of your storm would meet those requirements.

      The flowers I showed from the Brazoria refuge tree were especially interesting. I had walked by that tree for years without realizing it was a mountain laurel. It’s in the butterfly garden that people pass on their way to the boardwalk. When I saw it blooming a year after the 2021 freeze, it took me a minute to figure out what I was seeing, since I didn’t expect to see mountain laurels down here. My supposition is that the unusual cold activated the processes that led to the bloom a year later.

  11. Snow is one thing, but ice is quite another. It can look so very beautiful encasing all the trees and plants and glistening over the landscape, but it can do such damage and cause so many accidents. That’s something I never look forward to over winter, any form of ice storm. I hope you’re doing well out there.

    And as a side note, I always love seeing names that refer to very different looking plants in different regions. I’d not seen Texas mountain laurel before, and it looks as if it may be a different species than what we call mountain laurel over here. They’re both beautiful plants.

    1. Our mountain laurel isn’t just a different species, it’s a different genus and family. The one you’re familiar with is Kalmia latifolia, and it’s in the heath family (Ericaceae). When I first was introduced to it, I smiled at one common name: calico bush. That certainly fits; the combination of white flowers with bits of red certainly could be a calico print when it’s in full bloom.

      We’re well past the ice now, although the areas that had to endure it have a lot of cleaning up and repairing to do. I confess I prefer this morning’s 60s to last week’s upper 30s.

  12. I hope your area didn’t lose too much in the ice storm. The mountain laurel especially — -it’s so stunning, I’d hate to see it gone. We haven’t had an ice storm yet this winter (knock wood) but we’ve had them as late as April. Up north they do a number on the fruit trees. Here — anyone’s guess. I hope it’s your last of the season.

    1. We were lucky; we escaped the ice entirely. Not too far north and west, in Austin and the surrounding area, they ended up with a real mess. But now? We’re warm again — until the next cold front. We’ll see how the mountain laurels fare. They’re a tough tree, and they’re native in areas that are cold every winter. Like the bluebonnets, they thrive in those conditions, and I’m eager to see how they do this year.

      Ironically, many of our peach orchards had been lacking in chill hours in 2021. That terrible, state-wide freeze didn’t put an end to all the fruit — it just slowed things down enough that the trees didn’t set buds until after the cold was over. Sometimes, things do work out!

  13. Loved reading your post, and all the comments and replies, as well. I would vote to keep standard time, what I call solar time. I get depressed when I have to explain why a sundial doesn’t work in the summer. I’ll have to look for that Texas Mountain Laurel at Brazoria NWR… what a treat seeing that would be!

    1. You probably have missed my personal way of dealing with the time change in autumn. When we ‘fall back,’ I simply save that extra hour until I need it for some reason. Then, I haul it out, and make use of it. Most people can’t do such a thing, but it makes me laugh every year.

      The Brazoria mountain laurel was looking a little sad the when I saw it after the December freeze, but it looked as if the damage was only at the top, and there was new growth on it, so it may well survive. Whether it blooms this year is doubtful, but there’s no predicting what nature will do. There are flushes of new growth all over, now.

    1. Speaking of springing: I’m finally hearing Cardinals, Mockingbirds, and various doves on a regular basis. And from the behavior of some of my Bluejays, I’d almost suspect they’ve nested already. Probably not, but they might be building a nest. There’s a lot of to-and-fro-ing to a specific location going on.

      I hope you’re feeling better, and being able to get out and about more!

  14. Of course our mountain laurels are quite used to freezes but they flower well, well after the chance of a freeze so the blooms are not affected. I noticed the resemblance to Wisteria in your second image. I wonder if Texas Mountain Laurel is as aggressive in its growth habit as Wisteria. I was given a single sprig a few years ago and it has turned into a fine bush. That’s the positive. The negative is it sent root runners everywhere…literally.
    The flowers of your TML are lovely and the color resembles the Birdfoot Violets that I photograph every year.

    1. The mountain laurel grows as a shrub or tree, so it doesn’t’ have the vining characteristics of the wisteria. I’ve often seen wisteria climbing high into the trees, or running along fences surrounding vacant lots. Even people who have trouble discerning the scent of the mountain laurel can usually catch wisteria’s fragrance; it’s the closest thing we have to the lilacs I grew up with.

      I thought I’d seen birdfoot violet mentioned as an east Texas flower. Sure enough. If you enlarge this map enough to get the county names to appear, Hardin and Tyler counties are where the Solo tract and other favorite sites are located. Maybe I will see some myself this year: probably not at the Solo tract, but perhaps elsewhere.

          1. Yay! Looking forward to that. Almost every year ours gets nipped by a frost before the flowers open and the buds get damaged. With the warm winter we’ve had maybe there won’t be a late spring frost and they’ll flower profusely.

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