The Lotus Admirer

American Lotus spread across Elm Lake ~ Brazos Bend State Park

According to Greek mythology, Odysseus encountered the tribe known as the LotusEaters during his return from Troy, when a north wind drove him and his men away from Cape Malea and onto an island. After the local inhabitants invited Odysseus’s crew to join them in eating the mysterious plant — known for its ability to induce a dreamy forgetfulness — those who partook became languorous and bereft of memory. Without being dragged back to the ship and chained to their rowing-benches, they never would have returned to their duties. The incident is included in Book IX of the Odyssey:

The Lotus-eaters did not plan death for my comrades, but gave them of the lotus to taste. And whosoever of them ate of the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus had no longer any wish to bring back word or to return, but there they were fain to abide among the Lotus-eaters, feeding on the lotus, and forgetful of their homeward way.
These men, therefore, I brought back perforce to the ships, weeping, and dragged them beneath the benches and bound them fast in the hollow ships; and I bade the rest of my trusty comrades to embark with speed on the swift ships, lest perchance anyone should eat of the lotus and forget his homeward way.

When I discovered the broad expanse of lotuses filling Elm Lake, I had no desire to eat one, but I was more than willing to admire them. Their color, their form, and their height — as much as three or four feet — made me eager to forget my homeward way and linger in their company.

One of the most striking characteristics of the plant is the central, cone-like receptacle that contains ten to twenty pistils embedded in pits.

 

After the flower’s blooming is complete, the receptacles flatten and turn brown as seeds develop. Eventually the receptacle bends downward, releasing its seeds into the water; mallards, Canadian geese, and northern shovelers feed on them, while humans enjoy the empty pods as delightful accents for flower arrangements.

Unlike the mythical Lotus-Eaters, humans consume the seeds, leaves, and starchy rhizomes of the plant for nutrition rather than forgetfulness. Cooked young leaves taste very much like spinach; older leaves are useful for wrapping food. Immature seeds can be eaten raw, while older seeds can be ground into flour. The roots are stuffed, roasted, or stir-fried, and even the stamens of the flower can be dried and used to make a fragrant tea.

English designer William Morris’s advice to “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful” could apply doubly well to the lotuses in our lakes and ponds; the plants are both immensely useful and breathtakingly beautiful.

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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.

 

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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.

 

Hidden In Plain Sight

Between Medina and Vanderpool, Texas

One of the prettiest drives in the Texas hill country, State Highway 337 offers scenery everyone can enjoy. Still, like many of these roads, it has more than a good view to offer. Highway cuts reveal layer upon layer of geological history, while cracks and crevices within the rock provide a home for plant life ranging from xeric ferns to blackfoot daisies.

Sometimes I’ll stop just to have a look, since much of the plant life isn’t obvious from the vantage point of a car, even at slower speeds. There’s always something to see, but now and then I get more than I bargained for.

When a friend and I stopped at one of the roadcuts in late March, a bit of red caught my attention. Across the road, at the top of the cliff, it led my eye to another bit of red, and then another. “What is that?” my friend asked. I didn’t know, but I attached a telephoto lens to my camera for a better look at what seemed to be clumps of flowers.

What I found astonished me. The cliffs were covered with cacti, all sporting bright red blooms. Apart from photos, I’d never seen such a thing.

Claret cup cactus (Echinocereus coccineus) ~ Bandera County, Texas

Today, I’m fairly certain these are Echinocereus coccineus. A member of the family known familiarly as hedgehog cacti, this so-called claret cup is a variant of Echinocereus triglochidiatus. Characterized by sprawling clusters of stems that sometimes cover several square feet, both species can be distinguished from other hedgehog cacti by the rounded petals of their brilliant red or orange-red flowers.

Distinguishing E. coccineus and E. triglochidiatus in the field seems to be nearly impossible; the plants are similar enough that chromosomal analysis may be necessary for a firm identification.

On the other hand, location can provide a starting point, since their ranges are largely — though not completely — separate. In Lance Allred’s Enchanted Rock: A Natural and Human History, he identifies the claret cup found at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area as E. coccineus. Given Enchanted Rock’s relative proximity to the spot where these flowers were blooming — about a hundred miles — I suspect E. coccineus is the species I found.

Whichever species of Echinocereus these may be, their exuberant bloom proved once again that there’s no predicting what might be found on any given day. Beyond that, their discovery reminded me to always — but always — carry a telephoto lens. Even when hunting for pretty flowers, you never know when it might come in handy.

claret4

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