The Awakening Prairie ~ Late March

Nash Prairie, a pimple mound, and later spring flowers


In time, spring brings changes to Nash Prairie beyond the appearance of its first, delicate flowers. Taller and more dramatic blooms grow up among the monochromatic grasses, and the so-called ‘pimple mounds’ characteristic of many undisturbed prairies emerge as spots of eye-catching green.

Pimple mounds, scattered upraised ridges or hillocks usually one or two feet tall, are typical of prairies like Nash. Past theories ascribed their development to Indians, gophers, or ants; today, some suggest they’re modified relics of ancient rivers and bayous. Whatever their genesis, their distinct soil chemistry allows a unique set of plants to colonize the mounds. In this video from the Nash Prairie, botanist Bill Carr offers additional details about their interesting features.

In the photo above, the soft rise of a pimple mound is obvious; the greening of plants colonizing its soil help to distinguish it. A few rough-stemmed rosinweeds and coreopsis surround it, while one of two Baptisia species common on the prairie stands at attention in the foreground. 

Both the buds and flowers of the Baptisia genus reveal their relationship to other members of the pea family in Texas: particularly, Texas mountain laurel and wisteria.

Baptisia sphaerocarpa

The graceful stems of False Yellow Indigo — Baptisia sphaerocarpa — rise as much as three feet above its foliage; its pea-like flowers open from the bottom.

Mature plants become somewhat shrubby, making a striking addition to the landscape.

While False Yellow Indigo is strongly vertical, Longbract Wild Indigo, Baptisia bracteata, tends toward the horizontal. Rather than rising skyward, its branches often sag under the weight of its sometimes foot-long, creamy flower spikes. In autumn, B. bracteata is equally easy to spot on the prairie; its leaves and seed pods turn dark gray or black.

Baptisia bracteata

By late March, other bits of yellow and gold are emerging: tokens of the summer richness to come. Black-eyed Susan, usually admired for its flowers, is equally interesting in bud.

Black-eyed Susan ~ Rudbeckia hirta

Common throughout our area, the Plains Coreopsis can cover entire fields with its colorful flowers and attractive buds. Also known as Tickseed, it’s often found along roadsides.

Plains Coreopsis ~ Coreopsis Tinctoria

The smooth spirals of this emerging coneflower are especially pleasing.

Clasping-leaved coneflower ~ Dracopis amplexicaulis

Sometimes mistaken for a sunflower, the Rough-stemmed Rosinweed has been blooming sporadically for weeks in ditches around along highway Alt90. Its hairy stems and compact buds are relatively easy to spot, and it seems to be a favorite of emerging pollinators.

Rough-stemmed rosinweed ~ Silphium radula

While we tend to think of bees, flies, and butterflies as insects that profit from these early blooms, nibbled ray flowers are proof that other ‘diners’ have been enjoying the plants: katydid nymphs, small caterpillars, and young grasshoppers already are out and about.

Rough-stemmed rosinweed hosting a Ligated Furrow Bee ~ Halictus ligatus

Apart from bumblebees, which seem to adore both species of Baptisia, this small sweat bee — Halictus ligatus — is a common sight now. A native ground-nesting bee, it’s yet another sign of our annual renewal.


Comments always are welcome.
To read about my first visit to the Nash Prairie, please click here.

34 thoughts on “The Awakening Prairie ~ Late March

    1. The changes are coming so quickly now it’s difficult to keep up with them. On the days I took these photos, yellow and gold weren’t the only colors showing, but the blues, lavenders, and pinks will have to wait!

    1. It is that, Laurie. I had great fun chasing bumblebees around as they buzzed from one Baptisia plant to another, but I never managed a photo of anything but their rear ends as they nuzzled their way into the flowers. That wonderful hum they produce is the best sort of ‘spring song.’

  1. The Nash Ramblers of our childhood are long gone except for a few in antique car collections. Still present and active are you as a different kind of Nash rambler.

    It was Bill Carr who told me that the yellow-flowering Silphium in Travis County is Silphium radula and not the Silphium simpsonii that Marshall Enquist includes in Wildflowers of the Texas Hill Country. I noticed that the photographer on the Bill Carr video you linked to is Lisa Spangler, whom we also know and who lives a few miles away from us.

    Unfortunately the best site I knew in Austin for Dracopis amplexicaulis has been getting developed for a couple of years now. At least the Nash Prairie is safe for it.

    1. That Silphium simpsonii is interesting. The USDA shows it only in Florida, BONAP doesn’t list it, and it shows up in several places as S. asteriscus var. simpsonii.

      It looks like S. asteriscus might appear in Travis County, but the USDA doesn’t provide county-level information for it. What I wondered about but couldn’t determine was whether it was named for Charles Torrey Simpson, the famous Florida naturalist. I see that Enquist calls it Simpson Rosinweed. In his book, the specific epithet is capitalized, which seems odd; it might be an editing error. In any event, it’s clear that some Simpson was honored, and the taxonomists have been busy again.

      1. I don’t know at what point it became standard to use lower case even for a specific epithet corresponding to a person’s name. Marshall Enquist consistently didn’t follow that practice in 1987.

        Bill Carr lists only two Silphium species for Travis County, the other being the white-flowered Silphium albiflorum that I see occasionally but not often. Why Marshall Enquist thought we have Silphium simpsonii here, I don’t know. The Flora of North America, a site someone recently recommended highly to me, shows Silphium asteriscus var. simpsonii in five southeastern states:

        1. That’s interesting, about the capitalization. It makes sense that the guidelines could have changed, in the same way that the Chicago Manual or AP Style Guide changes; it just didn’t occur to me.

          I found that Flora of North America site only today; it was one of the few that referenced S. asteriscus var. simpsonii. I remember your photos of the white Silphium. Of course it went on my list of plants to look for.

    1. Yellow is such a cheerful color, and it shines in a landscape — especially after the relatively dull winter months. And isn’t it wonderful that sunflowers aren’t the only source of brightness?

  2. Seeing this post gives me hope for our own plains coreopsis (assuming the bee balm hasn’t taken over the wildflower bed entirely).

    That last photo looks like some alien yellow landscape – very cool!

    1. Coreopsis is so easy to grow and so tolerant of a wide range of conditions, I suspect yours will do just fine. Maybe you could get out there and suggest to your beebalm that it not be greedy if it starts taking up too much space!

      I get such a kick out of photos that show bees and such maneuvering to hold themselves steady in the midst of what surely is a tricky landscape for them. It seems it would be like trying to walk down a rocky streambed, or climb a tricky trail. They’re built for it, though.

  3. “Thar’s gold in them thar pimple mounds!”

    Or, at least pretty close to them. What a diverse group of yellow flowers you found. Some members of these are in our area or at least not too far away. I attempted to unravel the tale of Silphium simpsonii but got dizzy and gave up. What I did find is that it, along with several other appellations, is listed as a synonym for S. asteriscus.

    A Rosinweed by any other name …

    1. I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t find which Simpson the Silphium was named for. Since it’s in Florida, it seemed at least possible that Charles Torrey Simpson might have been the one honored, even though he started out as a conchologist. At least one thing was named for him: an urban hammock in Miami that was established as a preserve in 1913. I may have to place a phone call or two, just for kicks.

  4. I’m glad you’ve taken the time to introduce us in detail to this plot. I confess I’ve not given enough attention to the balance of prairie life, I offer more of the “ooo, pretty flowers” level of appreciation. The satellite photo shown by Bill Carr in his video is incredible, that’s a whole grove of the things. Very cool revelation, thanks!

    1. I well remember, and often joke about, the days when “Oooo… pretty flower!” was my response to any pleasing flower. I never would discount that response; it’s a fine starting point. But it’s been great fun learning about the flowers, and seeing my view of the landscape sharpen and enlarge over the years. I see more than I used to, and it’s especially satisfying to recognize old friends when I’m out in the field, or when they begin to reappear in a new season. Now, if only I were able to do that with the ‘little brown birds’!

  5. Gorgeous array of photos all yellow! I like that you profiled the two Baptisia plants together, similar and not. Just curious, did you know the bee, or use a source to figure it out?

    1. I was pleased to find both Baptisia species, although it wasn’t hard. They’d exploded since my bluebonnet trip, and they were common in pastures, along fencelines, and such. It is interesting that one species or another sometimes sets up shop in an area. At the Artist Boat on Galveston Island, it’s the Longbract that’s most common. I first saw it in the late fall, and the gray leaves threw me. I thought all those plants were dead.

      I thought the bee was a sweat bee when I saw it. First I used the PictureThis app to get genus and species, and then I ran that through BugGuide. PictureThis isn’t just flowers any more: you can use it with some degree of success with birds, trees, insects, and ‘weeds.’ It has a 360 degree identification funtion that allows you to take three pictures of a plant from different angles. You might photograph a tree’s leaf, bark, and bud, for example. It’s pretty cool, although it can get mightily confused with fungi!

      1. I don’t know about PictureThis app. I should check it out. I like BugGuide, but you have to know what you’re looking for, or at least I do.

        Your app information reminds me of something that happened last week. I walked out my front door for a quick spin around block to stretch my legs. There was a SUVish looking auto in front of my house and as I walked down the driveway, this friendly young woman came up and told me she really wasn’t a weirdo, she was taking pictures of my garden to id the plants. She then showed me and there were photos of European poppies and blue curls, right on her phone! We chatted a minute and I told her I would be glad to share some poppy seeds. I went in to the house, gathered up some seeds and gave them to her. She told me that all she had blooming was some cosmos and promised to come by “next week” (which is this week) with some.

        Well, I didn’t really care if she did, or not, my gardens are pretty full AND I didn’t really believe she’d come back. But I was gone on Tuesday afternoon, came home and there on my front stoop was a container with soil and scads of cosmos seedlings. My faith in humanity restored, I planted a few (remember: full garden), gave some to my SIL for her new garden area, and will share the rest with a neighbor down the street who is putting in a new garden–if she wants some.

        I think she was wrong: she’s a gardener, she’s weird.

        1. Here’s a link to information about the PictureThis app. After using it for a while, I went ahead and paid the thirty bucks for the premium, and it’s been more than worth it. When I first got it, I tried it out by photographing plants whose identity I already knew with certainty, and its accuracy was phenomenal. When it misidentifies something, I usually know that it’s wrong, and give it another whirl. As a side benefit, I figured out that I could photograph unidentified plants whose photos already were on my computer, and it does that little trick, too. Does your second cousin in Left Overshoe, Montana, have a flower she can’t identify? Take a photo, and voila! You usually can get it.

          When they added insects and trees, I was in heaven. And it does a good job with leaves and such, too. That’s how I finally got my mind right on the various Packera species.

          That’s a wonderful story about your new gardener friend. As one of my friend’s grandchildren likes to say, “People are nicer in the real world than they are online.” That’s not always true, of course, but for a twelve year old? It might well be. This sure is a nice story.

    1. They’re all lovely, even the chewed-on ones. Each flower is like a buffet — something for everyone. Maybe I should whisper a version of the old, American message in their petals: go west, young flowers! And take an extra load of spring with you!

    1. It certainly is a treasure, and for the next months, there will be one revelation after another. What’s especially interesting is the number of meanders that weave through it. Water loving plants sometimes appear, as well as the more common prairie forbs and grasses. There’s always something new!

  6. Love the delightfully oxymoronic false yellow indigo. The cone of the cone flower reminds me of the finials on some Early American furniture, and the delightfully absurd SNL “coneheads” skits

    1. I really like coneflowers, and I think they’re especially attractive when they’re in their ‘fibonacci’ phase. I’d not thought of the Coneheads, but of course there’s a resemblance; I may never look at a seedhead again without thinking of them.

      There is a blue Baptisia flower that’s been used for centuries for indigo dye. I suppose that’s why the ‘false’ got attached to the yellow. I’m not sure whether it can be used for dye, too; I should check into that.

  7. Beautiful photography! It’s interesting to read about the Baptisia – I have Baptisia australis in the garden here. Now I have a better idea of where it naturally grows.

    1. That’s the blue species I just mentioned to another reader! I’ve never seen that one, although I have seen a white species in the midwest; I found Baptisia alba at the Bur Oak Woods Nature Preserve outside Kansas City. They were blooming a little later, in May. Blue, yellow, or white, they’re all gorgeous.

    1. Thanks, Vicki. It’s been interesting to see so many species emerging at approximately the same time, even though at this point they’re quite scattered. Some of these, like the coneflowers, will spread considerably as the season goes on.

  8. I was glad to see this post and the explanation of a pimple mound alluded to in your previous post. I guess that’s one pimple that gets prettier when popped.
    So many yellows. And other colors to come. You must be quite pleased that you found this prairie and will return to it periodically.

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