Down By the Brazos

The Brazos in Flood ~ 2016

The longest river in Texas, the Brazos rises near the eastern boundary of Stonewall County, east and slightly south of the town of Lubbock. Flowing 840 miles across the state, it drains into the Gulf of Mexico roughly halfway between the Brazoria and San Bernard wildlife refuges.

Like any river, its course is far from straight. Communities that grew up along its banks testify to that by their names: Meeks Bend, Big Valley Bend, Horseshoe Bend.  Fort Bend, a blockhouse built to provide protection against Indian raids in the 1800s, eventually gave its name to Fort Bend County: the home of Brazos Bend State Park.

Brazos Bend provides everything that makes a park appealing: miles of trails, well-designed campgrounds, picnic spots galore, and a rich variety of plants and animals. Alligators are a primary claim to fame. Visitors often ask one another, “Have you seen any alligators today?” But there’s more to see than alligators. Here are a few sights that delighted me during a visit last Sunday.

An early arrival meant dew drops still could be found on this tiny leaf of a newly-energized grapevine (Vitis mustangensis).

Only feet from the parking lot, a diminuitive mushroom caught my eye. So tiny that the shadow on its left side was caused by mown lawn grass, it was just over an inch tall, with a half-inch wide cap.

For the inexperienced like myself, identifying mushrooms can be especially difficult. In this case, translucency offered a hint; this ice-like beauty may be a Marasmioid mushroom. My photo hardly does it justice, but you can see better examples here.

Fuzzier than the beach tea (Croton punctatus) found on our dunes, wooly Croton (Croton lindheimeri) lives up to its common name. According to Flora of North America, C. lindheimeri can be distinguished in part by the rusty/orange color on young growth, and sharp leaf tips. This plant certainly seems to fit the description.

An especially small morning glory, Ipomoea lacunosa has been described as “growing in low areas adjacent to creeks and rivers.” Proximity to the park’s 40 Acre Lake apparently suited these; their long vines twined over a substantial area. Sometimes called Whitestar, the diminuitive native blooms well into October.

Whitestar morning glory

Along a shaded trail, a Texas endemic I’d seen only once before was coming into bloom. Even smaller than the Whitestar morning glory, Texas pinkroot (Spigelia texana) is easy to miss. Other Spigelia species, like the woodland pinkroot, are more colorful, and often are used in garden plantings.

Spigelia texana at Brazos Bend
Spigelia texana bud and bloom at the San Bernard refuge

Butterflies, like this Queen nectaring at a species of Heliotrope, were common.

To my delight, native lotuses (Nelumbo lutea) still were blooming. A flower as much as twelve inches across can make it hard to include both the entire flower and a tiny damselfly in the same photo, but the pairing did bring a smile.

The most interesting find of the day involved this common garden spider, Argiope aurantia. When I first noticed it alongside the path, it didn’t seem to be doing anything other than what spiders often do: hang out in their webs awaiting prey.

Sometime later, once again passing the spider on the same path, I noticed something different. It seemed to be holding a ball of white silk unlike anything I’d seen before. Although the egg sacs of A. aurantia usually are larger, it’s possible that this was an egg sac in the making, especially since the spider clearly was ‘working’ the silk as I watched.

 
James Trager, a biologist/naturalist for the Missouri Botanical Gardens’ Shaw Nature Reserve in Gray Summit, Missouri described the process of Argiope egg sac creation in a comment on the Prairie Ecologist blog, edited here for length:

When the time comes for egg laying, the mother spider produces an uncompleted upper half of the egg sac’s papery outer layer, followed by an inverted basket of soft yellow silk, which will form a padded receptacle for the eggs.
Laid in a single mass, the eggs — held together by a slightly viscous fluid — are pushed up into the inverted basket by movements of the abdomen. Then, the layer of yellow padding around the egg mass is finished, followed by an outer, water-resistent but porous layer which protects the eggs and allows for gas exchange.
The whole process takes an hour or so.

In fact, it had been just over an hour between my sightings of this particular spider. Whether I found it creating a small egg sac may be debatable, but one thing is certain: whether coming or going along nature’s paths, the sights aren’t always the same.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Buttoning Up Summer

Grassleaf Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia graminifolia) bloom from late summer through early fall in the wet flatwoods and prairies, seeps, and bogs of east Texas’s Big Thicket. Here, the warm hues of a pitcher plant flower provide a glowing background for the emerging disk florets of this small, button-like flower.

A member of the Asteraceae, or sunflower family, the plant’s dome-shaped flower heads sway atop slender stems as much as sixteen inches tall. Like its family-mate the Basket-flower, Barbara’s Buttons have disk flowers but no rays: a characteristic that increases their resemblance to one another in shape, if not in size.

The genus name Marshallia honors Humphry Marshall (1722-1801) and his nephew Moses Marshall (1758-1813), American botanists active in and around Pennsylvania during the Colonial period. The specific epithet graminifolia refers to the plant’s grasslike leaves.

Although every species in the genus is known as Barbara’s Buttons, the identity of ‘Barbara’ remains unclear.  It seems the name first appeared in print in botanist John Kunkel Small’s 1933 book, Flora of the Southeastern United States.

Whatever the source of the flower’s common name, it’s quite attractive to late-season pollinators like butterflies, beetles, and bees, and a lovely bit of lingering color as the season begins to change.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Life’s Force

Recent rains, sufficient to leave roadway puddles and the occasional flowing ditch, have enouraged new plant growth everywhere. Crepe myrtles are reblooming, shrubs are leafing out as though it were April, and the voice of the lawnmower is heard in the land.

From our schoolyard lawns to the highway medians of Galveston, one of the most prolific bloomers just now is a native rain lily (Zephyranthes chlorosolen). Aptly described by an online acquaintance as “all those little white flowers that come out of nowhere right after it rains,” they might also be described as “those little white flowers that bloom anywhere they darned well please.”

This small group had pushed its way through the hard clay of a construction site in what I imagined to be a natural call-and-response. The rain called, the flowers responded, and everyone who’s noticed is exclaiming in delight at their sudden appearance.  

 

Comments always are welcome.

Clover and Coreids

While pretty purple Wedgeleaf Prairie Clovers were busy overspreading the warm dunes of coastal Texas, their genus-mate, Golden Prairie Clover (Dalea aurea) was standing tall in the gravelly loam of the Texas hill country.

Spreading as far north as South Dakota and a bit west into Arizona and Colorado, this warm season perennial — a member of the pea family —  prefers the sandy soils of mesas, roadsides, and shortgrass prairies. Both livestock and white-tailed deer find Golden Prairie Clover to their liking, which helps to explain why it’s often seen along roadsides, or on land free of cattle.

When I found my first group of one to two foot tall bloom stalks, they were growing alongside Texas 187, north of the Lost Maples Natural Area. The two closeups of flowers were taken on Gillespie County’s Willow City loop, where they’d established themselves in a roadside patch of gravel near a ranch gate.

When in bloom, a spiral of yellow, pea-like flowers encircles a cone-like spike; the same silky, gray hairs that cover the leaves and stem are obvious on the spike.

The flower is especially attractive to a variety of bees, but no bees hovered around these blooms. Instead, a crab spider lurked beneath a petal of the flower pictured below, and a nymph of the common cactus bug, Chelinidea vittiger, had found its way onto the stem.

Cactus bugs, also known as Cactus Coreids, are shield-shaped insects with piercing mouth parts. While adults have wings, the nymphs are wingless; both feed in groups on prickly pear cactus.

The first indications of feeding are light, circular spots on the pads which show that the insects have been at work for some time. With continued feeding, the spots become larger and coalesce, and the entire pad becomes yellowish and pitted.

Secondary invasion by fungi sometimes causes large, black spots. When the infected areas drop out, a nearly circular opening through the joint may appear, or an entire pad may drop off.

After progressing through several stages, the still-wingless nymph becomes increasingly attractive. The brown, leathery appearance of this latter stage makes the insect easily recognizable, even when it leaves its preferred prickly pear to explore the world of a Golden Dalea.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Dallying With A Dalea

A view from above

An especially pretty plant, Wedgeleaf Prairie Clover (Dalea emarginata) thrives primarily along Texas beaches and coastal dune grasslands, although it can be found inland as far north as Llano and Travis counties. Along the coast, it creeps into Louisiana, although its presence there is limited to an area between Holly Beach and Johnson’s Bayou in Cameron Parish.

The genus name — Dalea — pays tribute to Samuel Dale (1659-1739), an English botanist and physician who maintained a medical practice in Essex. The species name — emarginata — fooled me at first. I assumed it referred to wavy margins on the leaf, but in fact ’emarginate’ refers to a notch at the tip of a leaf.

 As the low-growing, long-stemmed clusters of flowers fan out across the dunes, some remain upright, displaying concentric rings of color as they develop. Others begin to nod, creating graceful arcs against the sand.

I first encountered Dalea emarginata two years ago, in the same spot where I found these flowers: the Kelly Hamby Nature Trail on Follet’s Island, a thirteen mile long, Gulf-facing barrier island in Brazoria County. On that occasion, I found one plant hosting a visitor. The tiny grasshopper amused me greatly: so much so that I decided to let him share the spotlight one more time.

 

Comments always are welcome.