Going Solo ~ February

Longleaf pine ~ Pinus palustris

The centerpiece of the Solo Tract in east Texas’s Big Thicket is the longleaf pine. Beginning life as a grass-like bundle capable of protecting the young tree from fire, the tree dedicates its first years to below-ground root growth; during this stage, the tree sometimes is confused with bunch grasses like little bluestem.

A young longleaf pine

Eventually the trees begin to grow, entering what’s known as the ‘bottle brush’ stage: a period when the tree is most vulnerable to fire. The tree shown in today’s first photo is beginning to move out of that phase, adding needle-trimmed branches to the ‘bottle brush’ on top; eventually, development of its thick, fire resistant bark will increase its ability to withstand both natural and prescribed burns.

Longleaf pine bark showing the effects of fire

Mature trees produce two types of cones: pollen-bearing male cones and seed-bearing female cones. Both are produced in summer, grow slowly over the fall and winter, and then become active the following spring. In January, I found these purple male cones still closed.

By February, male cones littered the ground, having released their pollen to fertilize the female cones. After approximately a year and a half, the female cones mature and release their seeds into the wind. Seeds that find open, sunny patches of ground germinate; those unable to penetrate dense leaf litter may not. Using periodic, low intensity fire helps to keep longleaf forests open by burning off shade-producing plants and litter that inhibit germination; the ash which results also provides valuable soil nutrients.

An older female cone and this year’s purple male cones

Despite their small size, even the male cones open in a way we think of as typically pine cone-ish.

Closeup of an opened male cone

Among the trees and cones, basal leaves of Aletris aurea, the golden colic-root, begin to grow in early spring. Once considered a member of the lily family, the plant has been moved into the bog asphodel family (Nartheciaceae), although most sources still place it in the Liliaceae. The genus name Aletris refers to a female slave from Greek mythology. Her task was to grind grain into meal; the rough texture of colic-root flowers resembles ground meal.

Emerging leaves of the golden colic-root

In January, only dried seed pods remained, but in a few weeks long spikes of golden-yellow flowers would appear; aurea is Latin for ‘golden,’ and the source of the plant’s common name.

Golden colic-root seed pods

Given their preference for wet pine flatwoods, bogs, and seeps, it wasn’t entirely surprising to find this colic-root nestled next to another lover of wet environments: the pink sundew.

Colic-root and a pink sundew (Drosera capillaris)

Four of five North American carnivorous plants can be found in Texas: pitcher plants, sundews, butterworts, and bladderworts. Only the Venus flytrap is missing; it’s native range is limited to North Carolina, coastal South Carolina, and two counties in Florida.

Two sundew species populate East Texas: the green spoon-leaf sundew (Drosera intermedia) and the pink sundew. I’ve yet to find the spoon-leaf, but there was no missing the pink.

A dime-sized pink sundew

Sundews possess special glands which secrete droplets of sticky fluid, giving the plant its glistening appearance. Insects attracted to the plant by the drops’ nectar-like appearance and scent quickly become stuck. Once the plant senses a struggling insect, it wraps around it, allowing digestive enzymes to transform the insect into usable nutrients.

Although most pink sundews are quite small, lying flat to the ground, this little bundle of stickiness was either a number of plants clustered together, or some sort of genetic anomaly.

A pretty pile of pink

What’s certain is the fate of the little winged insect lying near the top of the pile.

Like a moth too close to a flame

This differently colored sundew also is D. capillaris. In bright sunlight the plant appears red; in lesser light, the leaves may be green with red tentacles. Sundews also produce tiny flowers, although none had bloomed in February.

At the time of my first February visit, significant rains had left many sundews buried in sand, and small piles of sand smoothed by rushing water were everywhere. The holes in the centers of the piles suggested burrowing creatures — like crawfish — were responsible.

Later that month, my suspicion was confirmed. I’d never seen a crawfish chimney built of sand, but whichever species calls the Solo tract home, it knows its business.

A crawfish’s sand castle

Nearby, what I believe to be a rusty gilled polypore (Gloeophyllum sepiarium) decorated a stump.  A wood decay fungus, G. sepiarium grows on dead conifers; its brown cap is loosely fan-shaped, with the sort of yellow-orange margin shown here.

The day held two more surprises. First came an abundance of the bog white violets highlighted in my previous post.

Bog white violet ~ Viola lanceolata

The species name lanceolata refers to the violets’ spear-shaped leaves, which can be as much as six inches long.

A host plant for fritillary larvae, the violets attract an assortment of butterflies and bees. On this day, I found what I believe to be a Juvenal’s duskywing visiting one of the flowers.

Curious about the name, I learned that a collection of duskywings — Juvenal’s, Horace’s, Mottled (E. martialis), Columbine (E. lucilius), and Persius (E. persius) — are named for Roman poets. The convention was begun by Johan Christian Fabricius, a Danish zoologist who specialized in insects. A student of Carl Linnaeus, he established the basis for modern insect classification.

Juvenal’s duskywing ~ Erynnis juvenalis

Even ants like violets. Fourteen species of carpenter ants occur in Texas; the largest, the black carpenter ant (Camponotus pennsylvanicus), is found primarily in wooded outdoor areas. Whatever its species, this ant spent a considerable amount of time on the flower: perhaps lapping up nectar left by a previous visitor.

Black carpenter ant ~ Camponotus spp.

The other surprise was finding native blueberries among the dewberries. Blueberries are grown in Texas, but I wasn’t aware that a native species exists in a handful of eastern counties. The flowers were both beautiful and plentiful; if I’m lucky, in coming weeks I’ll find at least a few berries before the birds get to them. 

Elliott’s blueberry ~ Vaccinium elliottii


Comments always are welcome.
For an introduction to this “Going Solo” series, please click here.

55 thoughts on “Going Solo ~ February

  1. You’ve learned so much about plant life (and some other aspects of nature) in that part of east Texas. Your post bespeaks many hours of research beyond those spent observing and photographing. All that preparation justifies the appearance of this post several months after the fact.

    1. I thought — very briefly — about combining February and March, and perhaps even April and May, but since the point of this series is documenting changes in one spot over the course of a year, that approach seemed counterproductive. So, as the saying has it, better late than never. Besides: research does take time, and has its own rewards. Without it, I’d not have learned that Charles Darwin adored sundews.

  2. Was interested to see a blueberry flower. Don’t think I’ve ever seen the flower, although I’m very familiar with the berries.

    1. Even though there are some picking farms around here that grow blueberries, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the flowers, either. They’re quite different from strawberry and dewberry blossoms. I was surprised to see that this variety is offered commercially, and apparently is quite a producer.

    1. There were other examples in the area of that fungus you like, but they were growing on the sides of stumps, like little brackets. I was charmed by this example popping up in the middle of its stump. It seemed like a jewel laid out on velvet for our admiration.

  3. The white violet is a beautiful and simple flower! Great shots of it with the dusky wing and ant on the flower. Hope you get to see the blueberries; their flowers are so delicate looking. First time seeing their flowers.

    1. It’s always fun to find some insect visitor on a flower. One surprise over the years is how many ants appear on plants. Some prefer the nectar, while others collect seeds and take them back to their nests. I always divided ants into red ants, black ants, and pesky ants that show up in the house; I hardly imagined that Texas has about two hundred and fifty species of ant!

    1. In a place like the Solo tract, Georgia O’Keeffe’s advice holds true: “Take time to look.” It’s a place for wandering, meandering, and just plain messing around, because you never know what such slow-paced explorations will reveal.

  4. This post is like a master class of exploration there! So much beauty around every bend in the path with excellent photographs documenting your finds.

    1. I’m looking forward to posting future finds from this spot. It’s more florally rich than I’d imagined; there were surprises galore in the past. You’ll be interested in this: one reason efforts are being made to preserve and increase the stands of longleaf pine is that they provide habitat for the Red-cockaded Woodpecker. I do hear unfamiliar bird calls when I’m there; perhaps one day I’ll see the woodpecker.

      1. And I’m looking forward to reading your future posts! We have a few stands of White Pines at my lake but they don’t harbor anything as exotic as the Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.

    1. The size of the sundews surprised me. The largest are about an inch across but I found many that were much smaller. Hard rains do cover them with loose sand; sometimes all that’s visible is a tiny red glow.

      I just learned that another word for these blueberries is ‘Mayberry,’ especially in the southeast. I can’t help thinking that the ‘Mayberry’ town name on the Andy Griffith show came from the plant.

      1. I never heard of them being called mayberries. In the northeast we called them huckleberries. We used to go out to patches with our sand buckets belted to our waist so we could pick with both hands.

    1. It not only has adapted to its environment, it helps to shape it. It does have very specific requirements, though, which is why efforts are being made to reintroduce fire, particularly; the human urge to eliminate fire hasn’t always helped the prairies and forests.

  5. LLPs are an attractive species. I’m glad there are efforts to restore this tree throughout the south, so many creatures and habitats depend on them. I still find that violet so enchanting… what a beauty!

    1. Even though the violets show up throughout the area, their density on this visit suggests they may have profited from the previous controlled burn. I’ve seen a few other species really take off after gaining a little post-fire ash and a lot more light; this may be an example. These continued to bloom well into March, although only a few stragglers were left when I visited in April. Still, that’s a long bloom time.

  6. I am breathless from reading that post. Reeling from all the beauty and knowledge.
    The sundews. Strange plants. Many of you will know this, but let me recommend Amy Clampitt, The Sun Underfoot Among the Sundews.
    I am tempted to quote the entire poem but will restrict myself to her description of the sundews as carnivorous rubies.

    1. That poem is a gem. Thanks for introducing me to it; you can be fairly sure you’ll see it quoted in full in a future post. I did grin at ‘carnivorous rubies.’ Quite apart from its poetic aptness, it reminded me of discussions I’ve read about the nature of the plant. A few, rather primly, seem to enjoy pointing out that sundews are insectivorous rather than carnivorous. It seems a distinction without a difference from my perspective, but of course I’m neither a botanist nor an entymologist.

  7. wow! so many gorgeous photos. so much I don’t know, or didn’t know, like the sundews. but that last, the native blueberry flowers. may have to try and draw, paint, or do in glass.

    1. If you decide to give the blueberry flowers a whirl, I have a broader view of this bunch that includes more flowers, some leaves, and so on. I’d be happy to send it along; just let me know. I can’t get over the sundews; I’d love to find our other species.

    1. When I first began exploring Walden West, I was afraid I wouldn’t find enough interesting things to keep the series going. I had some of the same thoughts about the Solo tract, but surprises like the white violets reminded me that there always are going to be surprises. It’s such an unfamiliar world in some ways, but I’m enjoying getting to know it.

    1. What a neat bee! It makes sense that it would be a buzz pollinator. When I noticed the shape of the flowers, I wondered about it, but never pursued the issue. I read that it’s occasionally found in our eastern counties. In fact, there was a posting on Flickr of one from Cleveland (2020).

  8. I’ve never heard of a pink sundew, but it looks more like a water creature than a plant. And I guess everybody needs to eat, but getting trapped and eaten alive doesn’t sound like much fun. Actually, I have seen crawfish sand castles before — fascinating, aren’t they?!

    1. The sundews really are quite sticky; you can’t rearrange the ‘petals’ on one, that’s for sure. They’re harder to photograph than I thought they’d be; all that ‘dew’ reflects sunlight like crazy, so a cloudy day is better than bright sun.

      I’m so used to see crawfish towers made out of clay and such that the sandy ones were a surprise. I suppose it’s the crawfish’s version of ‘bloom where you are planted’ — except they said ‘build on the lot you’ve been given.’

  9. Wonderful post, Linda. Your observations and excellent photography provide insight to this beautiful ecosystem. Thanks for your work and sharing this with us.

    1. Now, if only I can find some of the birds I keep hearing. There’s something that seems to enjoy the tops of the pines, and there’s one harsh, somewhat rattling call that suggests a woodpecker, but I’ve not spotted one yet.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Rob. It’s a great place to wander, although I’ve learned to always have my boots in the car: occasional sloshing is necesssary! All that water’s the reason for plants like the sundews, of course. I’ve read that they need a continually moist environment, and they certainly have it here.

  10. What an interesting post. Thanks for taking the time to do the research. Your blueberry flowers look to be slimmer than the ones on my blueberry bush I had some years ago.

    The sundews are a lovely spot of colour on the woodland floor.

    1. Mountains, seashores, and expansive prairies have obvious appeal, but I’m coming to appreciate this equally complex environment. Not so very far away there are bogs filled with pitcher plants and more native orchid species; a single day that allows for visiting both forests and bogs is quite a treat.

  11. All the photos are nice, but I am particularly drawn to the bark, and the dime-sized pink sundew. Lots of information there too, I’m glad you got to finally put it all together.

    1. I remember that you enjoyed a previous image of the bark; don’t you have a ‘bark project’ in your portfolio? The sundews are fascinating. I’d thought they were rare, but they aren’t, even though they’re rather limited in their range. I remember seeing them completely covering a trail last year, or the year before. I’m hoping to find the same phenomenon this year.

  12. I had no idea that carnivorous plants lived in Texas… and in the piney woods, at that! I will have to keep an eye peeled for the sundews, fascinating little items.

    1. You’ll have to visit the sundew and pitcher plant trails in the Big Thicket. There’s a pretty pitcher plant display at the Watson rare plant preserve, too, where you can find all four carnivorous plants. I’m sure they must be in other areas,, but I’ve not ranged far enough to find them.

      It is worth remembering that the sundews enjoy consistent moisture, so they’re absent from the drier, upland areas of the piney woods; someone pointed out to me once that ‘piney woods’ is only one element of the rich environment known as the Big Thicket. I’ve gotten my mind around ‘bogs,’ but I still need to figure out ‘baygalls’ and ‘oak-gum floodplains’!

  13. What a day! All this in a day or did I read that wrong? You would have been over the moon! What amazing finds — and your research to identify them all and find all the details had to be exhausting. I was interested in the pines because we live with so many at the lake. I wonder if they all grow that way. And the plants! That gorgeous violet. The fascinating sundew. One wouldn’t like to step on that in bare feet! A terrific post!

    1. Actually, the photos are from two days: one in early February and one later in the month. That’s how I got the photos of the rain-washed crawfish mound, and the still intact one. The research did take some time, but it was far from exhausting; I really enjoy it as a complement to the finding and photographing.

      The growth pattern of the longleaf pine differs from that of other pines. Here’s a young loblolly pine. See how it’s begun branching already? The longleaf pine doesn’t branch until it’s taller.

      As for the sundews, the good news is that even if you stepped on that stickiness, you could escape. A tiny fly or ant? Not so much!

  14. Outstanding in all aspects!
    The information, the photographs, the excellent writing – simply wonderful.

    I see why you once compared some of our Green Swamp forays to your visits to the Big Thicket. Some very similar eco-systems.

    My sister’s home in northwest Florida is called “Longleaf” due to most of the 150 acres being covered by that species.

    Thank you for such an enjoyable experience today! Looking forward to more of your “Going Solo” reports!

    1. Speaking of similar ecosystems, it’s amused and interested me that the Florida Wildflower Foundation’s site often is my best source of information. That makes a certain sense. Many of the species that edge into east Texas don’t get as much attention from various Texas sites because they are so uncommon.

      With that many longleaf pines around, has your sister ever encountered the Red-cockaded Woodpecker? I finally listened to its calls on the Cornell site; if I ever heard it, I’d probably confuse it with some flitty little songbird. I’m accustomed to hearing the Red-bellied Woodpeckers that live in my area, and their vocalizations are quite different. Most of the sightings of the Red-cockaded in Texas have been in the Sam Houston National Forest or around the Sam Rayburn reservoir.

  15. A handful of surprises for you, a whole post of new discoveries for me! I hadn’t realized there were so many carnivorous plants. The sundew’s little lichee-like mound is so interesting. Those closeups are helpful. I also enjoyed seeing more of those white violets.

    1. There are around 750 species of carnivorous plants world wide. In the U.S., there are 66 species, and 36 of them live in North Carolina. Amazing. Apparently carnivorous plant lovers have the same passion for their species as succulent lovers do. Take a look at this business in Austin. Of course it’s named Carnivero!

    1. After reading your comment, I went off to do some research to see if my understanding of the place is right, but there isn’t much about it online. I remember being told that it’s been set aside primarily for research and as a kind of nursery for young longleaf pines. My impression is that there were many more growing as those grasslike bunches this time; I’ll have to explore that the next time I’m in the area and can talk to some of the rangers. Beyond that — it is a wonderful place. The variety of flowers there will begin to be revealed soon — I can’t wait!

  16. What’s the difference between longleaf pine and Slash pine ( which also has long needles – (Slash, we found when raising timber, are silk, beautiful and make lovely noises in wind, but do not fare well in East TX ice storms…hmmm wonder if the long leaf would suffer as much damage)
    What a great mud castle – you alway manage to capture images that elude my effort.
    So much lovely photos as well as info in this post

    1. The first thing that caught my attention about the slash pine is its species name: eliottii. That’s the same species name that was attached to the blueberry I pictured above. It took a while, but eventually I found this article about botanist Stephen Elliott, who lived in South Carolina. I’m sure both the tree and the berry were named after him.

      In the process, I learned that the slash pine isn’t native to Texas; it’s been introduced here by the lumber industry. There were several mentions of its higher sensitivity to ice storms; where our native longleaf does just fine, the introduced slash doesn’t always fare so well.

      They do look a lot alike. There are subtle differences in the cones, the twig diameter, the bark, and the shape of the mature trees, and I think I might be able to tell them apart if I had them in front of me, but that’s only a guess.

    1. I’ve seen a few crawfish in area ponds, so I expected to come across their chimneys eventually. The surprise was the appearance of one made of sand. It’s really interesting, and it made me wonder who has to rebuild more often: crawfish who live in sandy soil or those who live in clay or loam.

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