A Bit of Bluestem Beauty

Little bluestem ~ Kendall County, Texas

Accustomed to seeking out autumn color in trees, vines, and shrubs, it’s easy to forget that grasses, too, can contribute to the pleasures of autumn and early winter.

One of my favorites, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is named for the greenish-blue color its stems show off in summer. As the year progresses, blue transforms to various shades of rusty red, and prairies begin to glow with a special vibrancy beneath the rising or setting sun.

Whether found in ditches or pristine preserves, the grass is beautiful, holding its color throughout the winter for the pleasure of humans, and providing cover and seed for small mammals and birds.

Little bluestem against winged sumac (Rhus copallinum) ~ Diamond Grove Prairie, Missouri
Comments always are welcome.

 

Whooping Crane Candy

A ready-to-eat wolfberry

Carolina wolfberry (Lycium carolinianum), a low-growing plant with somewhat succulent leaves, grows from North Carolina south through Florida, then west into California and Mexico. Along the Texas coast, it thrives beautifully, thanks to a tolerance for salt, drought, and standing water.

Although a member of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, wolfberry has a four-lobed corolla rather than the five lobes common to most Solanaceae. Some sources say it blooms in April and May; other extend the bloom period from May until October. However, these photos were taken in late November, after some near-freezing temperatures, and even now, moving well into December, wolfberry is blooming and forming new fruits.

A ripening wolfberry, dusted with sand

Typically, the greatest number of fruits are available in October and November: the precise time that migrating whooping cranes begin to arrive on the Texas coast. The bulk of the cranes’ winter diet is comprised of blue crabs, but wolfberries can provide as much as one-quarter to one-half of the crane’s energy needs in early winter.

Often called Christmas berry because of its color, wolfberry also is known as whooping crane candy. Like kids at a Christmas candy bowl, the whoopers can’t seem to get enough of the treat: lucky for them it’s as nourishing as it is tasty.

Humans, too, have made use of the fruit, which is said to have a tomato-like flavor; Native Americans consumed it either raw or dried.

As the plants’ flowers begin to fade prior to the berries’ appearance, they change color, turning a light, pinkish-salmon before their petals become increasingly translucent.

Shading from lavender to a rich, deep purple, their flowers often can be found among stands of silverleaf nightshade: another member of the Solanaceae whose purple blooms linger well into fall.

While flowering, the plants provide pollen and nectar to a variety of bees, flies, and butterflies. At a time of year when winter is beginning to bring a certain dreariness to the landscape, the flowers and fruits of the wolfberry are a welcome and dependable source of color and food.

Comments always are welcome.

 

A Darker View of Nightshade

 

The pretty purple flowers and silvery leaves of a common Texas nightshade, Solanum elaeagnifolium, spread along roadsides and ditches across Texas: from coastal prairies to the hill country, to the panhandle, and beyond. 

As its flowers fade, the developing fruits take on the appearance of small green tomatoes; in time, the fruits turn yellow and become even more appealing.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a fruit to use in jam or jellies. Poisonous even in its early stages, the fruit becomes increasingly toxic as it ripens, helping to explain why birds and mammals allow it to linger on the plant well into winter.

On a dank, rainy day at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, this nightshade — already missing its leaves and skeletal in appearance — caught my eye. The dark, water-filled canal behind it seemed the perfect background for a poisonous plant; a shutter speed of 1/1600 magnified the effect.

 

Comments always are welcome.