Stars on the Prairie, Stars in the Hills

It didn’t twinkle, but this delightful blue star caught my eye nonetheless. I’d seen the flower in the past, and recognized it as Amsonia tabernaemontana, a member of the Apocynaceae, or dogbane family.

The plant’s genus name honors 18th century Virginia physician Dr. Charles Amson, while its interesting specific epithet (tabernaemontana) recalls Jakob Theodor von Bergzabern (1525-1590), who Latinized his name as Tabernaemontanus, or ‘mountain tavern.’  Also a physician, botanist, and herbalist, Tabernaemontanus has been considered the father of German botany.

The native range of the blue star which bears his name lies well beyond Texas; it can be found as far north as Illinois, and as far east as North and South Carolina. Looking beyond my single star, I found plants bearing its extraordinary multi-colored buds, as well as a few scattered plants covered in blooms.

As I was admiring the flowers, an older man stopped his truck on the road and called to me. “You think those flowers are pretty? Go on down the road a couple of miles to where they’ve burned the prairie, and you’ll see hundreds of them.”

He wasn’t wrong. In the past, I’d witnessed the emergence of thousands of spider lilies after a prescribed burn, but I wasn’t prepared for acres of blue stars, on both sides of the road.

In places, the contrast between the scorched land and the resurgent flowers was breathtaking.

Blue star nectar attracts ruby-throated hummingbirds, carpenter bees, and hummingbird moths, but on that day it was the least skippers (Ancyloxypha numitor) that fluttered by the dozens through the flowers.

The blue stars I found on the coastal prairie aren’t the only Amsonia species in Texas. Amsonia ciliata, sometimes known as fringed bluestar, thrives in dry, open woods or chalky hills; these were photographed between Medina and Vanderpool along Farm-to-Market road 337. The distinctively narrow leaves, as well as slightly shorter and more rounded petals, make identifying the species relatively easy.

Like Amsonia tabernaemontana, the fringed bluestar seems to draw clouds of butterflies. Here, a Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) spreads its long, narrow wings over one of our prettiest Texas wildflowers: the perfect way to spend a spring afternoon.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

A Fuzzy Puzzlement

One curious cattail

I suspect most people are familiar with the broadleaf cattail (Typha latifolia), a common plant of marshes, swamps, wetlands, and ordinary ditches filled with standing water.

Cattail stalks contain two sets of tiny flowers. Male flowers, located at the top, disperse after they bloom, leaving the pollinated female flowers to ripen and turn brown beneath the expanse of empty stalk; as the seeds mature, they become the familiar ‘cattail’ beloved of children, birds, and home decorators.

As winter progresses, the smooth, brown seed head becomes ragged as birds pull at the fluff and weather begins to wear it apart. But on January 5, I noticed some catttails at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge that were more than a little out of the ordinary.

I counted at least a dozen stalks with the strange protrusions: some of the holes they surrounded were rectangular, some round. They didn’t seem random, and it seemed unlikely that birds had been at work. After some searching, I found that the larvae of the shy cosmet (Limnaecia phragmitella) will feed on flowers and developing seeds of Typha spp. The BugGuide page said: “Larval presence can often be detected by quantities of down protruding from the seedheads of cattails.”

Of course, “down protruding from seedheads” could mean any number of things, and the fact that these cattails were growing both some distance off the road and in water deeper than my boots kept me from examining them more closely.

When I sent photos to Thomas Adams, botanist for the Brazoria Refuge complex, he suggested they might be similar to galls that appear after a wasp lays its eggs in the cambium of an oak tree, but he’d never seen anything like them. Neither had a half-dozen other insect or wetland plant enthusiasts I contacted.

Today, I’m no closer to knowing what was going on in that marsh than I was on January 5. One of you may take a look and say, “Well, of course. They’re an example of (insert answer here), and they’re all over the place.”  If not? They’re still intriguing, and a reminder of the mysteries that fill the natural world.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

Just As Pretty In Pink

 

The flower commonly known to Texans as Indian blanket or firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella) generally blooms in combinations of red, yellow, and orange. A close relative, the maroon blanket flower, or maroon firewheel (Gaillardia amblyodon), can cover a hillside with — what else? — lovely sweeps of purplish-red flowers. In some parts of Texas, there are yellow gaillardia, and a little beauty called sweet gaillardia, or perfume balls, often arrives with only tiny ray flowers, or none at all.

When I stopped for a better look at a patch of unfamiliar pink among the traditionally yellow and red gaillardia lining the roadside near the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, there was no denying it; nature had provided yet one more in an apparently inexhaustible supply of surprises. The little pink patch was gaillardia.

While seeds for a pinkish gaillardia cultivar now can be obtained through catalogs, none seems as attractive as these unusual flowers, provided by nature herself. Their clear, pure pink was delightful, and if I’m lucky, they’ll reappear next year. I have the spot marked.

 

Comments always are welcome.