Lingering Autumn ~ Salt Cedars

Salt cedar in January ~ Follett’s Island, Brazoria County

Commonly known as salt cedar, several Tamarisk species (Tamarix spp.) flourish in the United States. Introduced from Eurasia in the 1800s as a means of erosion control, the tree-like shrubs became useful as windbreaks, and soon gained acceptance by horticulturalists as garden ornamentals. Filled with delicate pink flowers in spring, salt cedars occasionally take on rich, molten colors in autumn, adding considerable interest to a landscape or garden.

Unfortunately, salt cedars are aggressive: spreading into riparian areas of the American West as well as along the beaches, tidal marshes, and wetlands of coastal states. Able to survive the cold, they can be found around the Great Lakes, and even as far north as Toronto and Montreal.

Where conditions suit them they spread easily, consuming large amounts of water in the process. As they pull water from saline soils, excess salt accumulates in their leaves before being excreted through glands on the leaves’ underside: the source of the plant’s common name. Sometimes, leaves become encrusted with salt crystals before dropping to the ground. When that happens, high concentrations of salt accumulate in the soil; even two inches of salt-encrusted leaf litter beneath the trees can displace native plants, or prevent their establishment

Salt cedar leaves excreting water and salt

Despite their invasive status, and despite on-going attempts to control or eradicate them, there’s no denying the salt cedars’ attractiveness. Like other non-native plants introduced to please the eye, their presence may have resulted in some unintended consequences, but they certainly are pretty.

Salt cedar flowering in spring ~ Galveston Island


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Swept Clean ~ Restoration


By early June of this year, it was hard to remember the hurricane-ravaged beaches of Galveston’s west end. At the Kelly Hamby Nature Trail, nature had done her work; the boardwalk once again was lined with a profusion of grasses and flowers, and Hurricane Laura was only a memory.

…and then

Behind the dunes, a combination of lazy daisies and firewheel proliferated.

Along the boardwalk itself, shifting and building sands had allowed dune flowers like beach evening primrose to reestablish themselves.

One of the sand-loving flowers, the so-called ‘lazy daisy,’ is a slugabed that prefers to put off opening until mid-morning or later. That tendency is reflected in an alternate name: the Arkansas doze-daisy. Both common names are easier to remember than the flower’s scientific name, Aphanostephus skirrhobasis.

Whether over the course of several hours or on multiple days, it’s great fun to watch this daisy’s opening. Its buds hint at a red flower, but as it opens the red fades or becomes hidden, and spreading white rays reveal its brilliant yellow disc flowers.

While the lazy daisy flourishes in sandy soils behind the dunes, the Amberique bean, a member of the pea family also known as the trailing wild bean, thrives even atop the dunes, in full sunlight. The flower, about 3/4″ long, consists of a large rounded banner, a pair of slender lateral petals, and a narrow, upwardly curved keel.

Amberique bean ~ Strophostyles helvola

Pollinated by a variety of bees, especially leaf-cutters and bumblebees, the plant’s foliage hosts caterpillars of the Southern Cloudywing, the Silver-Spotted Skipper, and the Long-Tailed Skipper; seeds are consumed by a variety of birds.

As the flowers age, they become an appealing soft yellow.

Developing fruits take on the bean-like appearance that gives the plant its common name.

Two flowers, and two beans

Currently, the pretty, salmon-colored coastal pea is putting on quite a show. Recent rains have revived it, and despite being low-growing, its color is obvious all along the barrier islands. While quite common in our area, I’ve found it as far inland as Goliad and Gonzales, where sandy soils occur.

Coastal pea ~ Indigofera miniata

I’ve already featured one of my favorite dune flowers in a separate post: the obviously adaptable wedgeleaf prairie clover.

Wedgeleaf prairie clover ~ Dalea emarginata

Another plant that enjoys life on the dunes, Gulf croton extends along the Atlantic coasts of the Carolinas and Georgia to Florida and the Gulf states.  Able to withstand intense sunlight, strong winds, and sand scouring, it helps both to capture sand for new dunes and to reduce erosion of established dunes.

Gulf croton, or beach tea  ~ Croton punctatus

Perhaps the most attractive and obvious of the dune flowers are the various morning glories and primroses.

Beach morning glory ~ Ipomoea imperati
Beach evening primrose ~ Oenothera drummondii
Beach evening primrose, fading

Not every primrose prefers pure sand. The largeflower primrose and cutleaf primrose are most often found on the backside of the dunes. At first glance, they appear identical, but the cutleaf primrose is smaller. Beyond that, the indented petals of the largeflower primrose resemble a heart, and the hairs on its stem and leaves are longer and more noticeable.

Like the beach evening primrose, both of these species tend toward orange as they fade.

Largeflower evening primrose ~ Oenothera grandis
Fading largeflower evening primrose

I’ve found the cut-leaf primrose, firewheel, and lazy daisy blooming together in Galveston’s Broadway cemeteries: a testament to the island’s generally sandy soil.

Cut-leaf primrose ~ Oenothera laciniata

Along the boardwalk edges a variety of different plants emerged, including limewater brookweed. Named for the alkaline soils it prefers, the plant can be found in Nevada and Arizona as well as in Florida and Texas; it thrives in either fresh or salt water, allowing it to appear around freshwater springs in desert areas as well as in coastal marshes. The delicate flowers, only a quarter-inch across, often are tinged with pink.

Limewater brookweed ~ Samolus ebracteatus

A familiar summer-to-fall flower, the salt-marsh mallow re-emerged as one of the area’s most widespread plants. I was particularly charmed by this opportunistic plant that had chosen to grow through the boardwalk rather than alongside.

Saltmarsh mallow ~ Kosteletzkya virginica

As the recovery process continued, I was intrigued to find plants growing behind the dunes that I’d never encountered before Hurricane Laura. How the germander, bluebell, and coral bean arrived in the area is hard to say. Birds are an easy answer, but it’s also true that all three of the plants are common on the other side of Christmas Bay, in the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge. It’s entirely possible that Laura’s receding storm surge carried seeds from the refuge to the barrier island.

American germander ~ Teucrium canadense
Texas bluebell ~ Eustoma exaltatum
Coral bean ~ Erythrina herbacea

Recent rains and lowering temperatures no doubt will encourage even more flowering among the dunes. Texas’s ‘second spring’ is at hand: what it will bring awaits discovery.

(part three of three)


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Swept Clean: Resilience

Waiting for Flotsam ~ Laughing Gull
[Continued from Part I]

Once the beaches had been cleared of Hurricane Laura’s detritus, little remained but broken shells, pebbles, piled-up stacks of salt cedar, and a variety of tasty treats for shorebirds patrolling the surf.

But if the sea had taken away, it was equally willing to give back. Before long, the beach was adorned with new treasures, such as this necklace-like seed draped across the sand.

Eventually, a flotilla of mysterious and just slightly amusing bits of green life arrived on the beach, carried in on the surf. As they eased open, it was easy to imagine them conversing with one another, trying to decide if this was an acceptable place to put down roots.

In time, it became obvious that the answer was “Yes.” Smooth, succulent stems began to develop, followed by waxy leaves.

The plant was an enthusiastic grower, and eager to bloom. When its pink, star-shaped flowers finally appeared, it was easy to identify Sesuvium portulacastrum: sea purslane, or shoreline purslane. Although published by Linnaeus in 1753 under the name Portulaca portulacastrum, Linnaeus himself transferred it into the genus Sesuvium six years later, and the name has been retained.

A member of the Aizoaceae, or iceplant family, sea purslane flowers have sepals rather than petals; its flowers open and close within a single day.

In Wildflowers and Other Plants of Texas Beaches and Islands, Alfred Richardson notes the plant is one of the few species that thrive on the front side of the dunes. Because of its tendency to catch and hold sand around its leaves and stems, sea purslane serves as a critical dune stabilizer.

Another plant useful for beach and shoreline stabilization is cordgrass. Along the Texas coast, one of the most common is Spartina spartinae; the species  develops large, dense clumps that allow it to catch and hold sediment and sand. Healthy stands of Gulf cordgrass also provide nesting habitat for birds and cover for other wildlife.

Caution: cordgrass at work

As months passed and the cordgrass multiplied, drifting sand collected around it, forming small dunes that soon would be populated with ever more diverse plants.


Nature, filling in the spaces

Yet another dune stabilizer, the beach morning glory (Ipomoea imperati) soon made its appearance. A trailing evergreen vine with pretty white flowers, it occurs naturally in coastal areas. After Laura, old vines like those shown in the lower right corner of this photo served as a starting point for new growth. 

Ipomoea imperati

In some cases, bulldozed piles of salt cedar and other woody debris were left on the beach. It’s hard to say how many creatures called the piles home, but there were more than a few crabs scuttling around in the shade of the branches. The contrast between the deadwood and the increasingly rich plant life on the dunes made for an interesting — and pleasing — contrast.

But, as this island resident might have said, the best was yet to come.

A Solitary Sandpiper watches from the boardwalk for further developments
(part two of three)

Comments always are welcome.

Swept Clean: From Surge to Recovery

Swept clean by Laura ~ Kelly Hamby Nature Trail, Brazoria County, October 2020

Two years ago, on August 27, Hurricane Laura moved ashore in Cameron Parish, Louisiana; sustained winds of 150 mph (130 knots) made her the strongest hurricane to strike southwestern Louisiana since record-keeping began in 1851.

Wind damage in Texas was limited to eastern and southeastern portions of the state. Despite my concerns about a variety of favorite places in that area — the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary, the Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve, and the Big Thicket generally — a September visit to assess the damage (written about here) eased my mind.

In Galveston and Brazoria counties, water rather than wind inflicted the most damage. Within the village of Surfside Beach and along portions of Galveston and Follett’s island beaches,  storm surge and overwash obliterated the line of vegetation and resulted in a loss of elevation.

After waters receded, a 2′ to 3′ dropoff made clear the amount of sand that had washed away

Movement of the vegetative line after Laura had significant consequences for residents on the barrier islands. Since 1959, the Texas Open Beaches Act has guaranteed free public access to state-owned beaches: an area defined as extending from the line of mean low tide to the line of vegetation. Since the Open Beaches Act prohibits construction on public beaches and limits the rebuilding or remodeling of properties impacted by storms, there were issues to be resolved once Laura had departed; by definition, a few homes suddenly were located wholly or in part on public beach.

In reponse, the General Land Office issued an order declaring that for a period of two years the “landward boundary of the public beach” in Galveston and Brazoria counties would extend inland for a distance of 200 feet from the line of mean low tide. The new temporary boundaries would give the natural line of vegetation time to recover, and allow for beach stabilization prior to any enforcement actions against homeowners whose property had become part of the public beach.

Of course, when long-time residents meet new regulations, lawyers aren’t far behind, and lawsuits soon were filed. That said, I was less interested in the legal issues involved than in the General Land Office’s two-year time frame; I wondered what kind of changes would occur, and whether that was time enough for regeneration to take place.

Clearly, designers of the plan were both knowledgeable and experienced. It’s been fun to watch the land recover; so much so that I thought I’d share some of the changes of the past two years with you.


The post-storm boardwalk, sans steps

One of the nicest features of the nature trail is its boardwalk. Crossing a coastal prairie remnant before reaching the dunes, it provides for easy bird watching.

Before the storm, the prairie and dunes were rich in plant life, and the boardwalk had steps leading down to the beach. The force of Laura’s surge removed the steps, carrying them a good distance inland. Eventually they were removed, along with an assortment of trash barrels, broken salt cedars, and storm-borne flotsam: tennis shoes, two-by-fours, styrofoam coolers, and seaweed.

The boardwalk steps

A natural analogue to the steps, this huge log made clear the water’s strength. Four of us tried and failed to move it from its resting place on the sand.

Still, it made a fine subject for a bit of beachy abstraction.

Once the heavy equipment arrived — front loaders, surf rakes, dump trucks, bulldozers — it wasn’t long until the salt cedars had been removed and the sand cleaned. Without its dunes and the plant life they sustain, the beach certainly looked different, but there were smaller, more subtle beauties to be enjoyed. The time for the dunes to flower would come later.

(part one of three)

Comments always are welcome.

Celebrating with Searockets

Coastal Searocket

From neighborhood bottle rockets to the dramatic skyrockets of Independence Day fireworks shows, the sound and color of American July 4th celebrations recall the “rockets’ red glare” of our national anthem.

A different rocket — the Coastal Searocket (Cakile lanceolata) — celebrates in its own way in the sandy soils of coastal Texas.  Named for rocket-shaped pods that bear two seeds, it easily could be missed because of its low growth habits and tiny flowers.

Occuring naturally in beach dunes and coastal strands, the plant tolerates salt, drought, wind, and the inundation that comes with storm surge. Well suited for dune stabilization, it attracts a variety of bees and butterflies, and is the larval host for the Great Southern White (Ascia monuste phileta).

Like other members of the mustard family (Brassicaceae or Cruciferae), the plant’s stems and leaves are edible, either raw or cooked. That said, I doubt that many holiday parties will include a bowl of searocket next to the potato salad and coleslaw. It’s reported to be tasty, but it’s hardly traditional.


Comments always are welcome.