Broadway’s Supporting Cast

Goldenmane tickseed (Coreopsis basalis) ~ a star at the Broadway cemeteries

Each spring, some of Galveston Island’s seven Broadway cemeteries — those  allowed to remain unmowed — burst into bloom, covering their grounds with a carpet of yellow. Primarily coreopsis and Indian blanket, interspersed with white lazy daisies, it’s a sight designed to draw visitors to the spot.

For several years I’ve made it a point to visit Broadway at the height of the flowering, enjoying the color and exploring the histories behind the stones in posts like Cemetery Season.

This year, familiarity seemed to have bred indifference. Even breathless media reports of an especially good year couldn’t entice me into a visit. Then, a friend who’d never been to any of my usual haunts wanted to visit them, so we took a day to follow my path from Galveston to the Brazoria Refuge and home.

Our first stop was the Broadway cemeteries. On May 7, somewhat later in the season than I’d visited in the past, grasses had grown up amid the flowers and some species I’d never before seen were present. Clearly, the time had come for a more extended visit, with a focus on Broadway’s supporting cast rather than on the flowers that always are the stars of the show.

A first surprise was the number of spiderworts still in bloom. Accustomed to thinking of them as an early spring wildflower, it was a pleasure to see the purple and gold combination spread throughout one of the cemeteries.

Spiderwort ~ Tradescantia spp.

A diminuitive bit of pink was everywhere. The genus is familiar — the beautiful east Texas scarlet catchfly (Silene subciliata) blooms in fall — but unlike that flower, the common catchfly isn’t native; it probably was imported as a contaminant in crop seed.

Common catchfly ~ Silene galica

Despite being a native plant, scarlet spiderling has an interesting distribution across the state. Listed only for Galveston County in southeast Texas, this member of the four o’clock family (the Nyctaginaceae) ranges throughout central and far south counties as well. It may well have escaped notice in other coastal counties; the flower cluster is so tiny it was impossible for me to get a sharp image of the pea-sized bloom.

I did better with the sharpshooter (Paraulacizes spp.) feeding on the flower. Leafhoppers in the family Cicadellidae, sharpshooters use their piercing-and-sucking mouthparts to tap into and feed upon plant tissue. It’s possible this larva was the fourth instar of Paraulacizes irrorata, but that’s only a best guess.

Sharpshooter larva on scarlet spiderling ~ Boerhavia coccinea 

 Cutleaf evening primroses are another form of Broadway yellow, but as they fade, they often present interesting combinations of yellow-trimmed salmon and a pretty pinwheel shape. Winecups also will take on a pinwheel shape.

Cutleaf evening primrose ~ Oenothera laciniataWinecup ~ Callirhoe involucrata

Despite its name, you’re not likely to find a frog noshing on Texas frogfruit. It seems the flower was called fogfruit in the middle ages, when farmers gave the name to low growing plants that invaded their freshly hayed fields. Over time, the name transitioned from ‘fog’ to ‘frog.’ Why it’s sometimes called turkey tangle fogfruit I can’t say, unless wild turkeys sometimes get their feet tangled in the densely matted plants.

A member of the verbena family, frogfruit attracts butterflies to its nectar, and serves as a host plant for Phaon Crescent, White Peacock, and Common Buckeye butterflies. Its ability to tolerate both drought and flooding makes it a useful groundcover, although some gardening sites caution it should only be mowed after blooming, since it can take years for it to recover from too-early mowing. Clearly, the no-mow policy in the cemeteries has allowed it to thrive.

Texas frogfruit  ~ Phyla nodiflora

Growing grasses sometimes become impediments to spring floral photography, but this year I found the grasses themselves immensely attractive.

Rescuegrass ~ Bromus catharticus
Long-spike tridens  ~ Bidens strictus

Less colorful and less obvious than the silverleaf nightshade now in full bloom across the state, Texas nightshade is no less attractive. Found only in Texas and occasionally in Oklahoma, its red fruits help to distinguish it from the non-native Solanum nigrum, which produces black fruits.

Texas Nightshade ~ Solanum triquetrum

My favorite discovery of the day was the tiny-flowered, vining Gulf Indian breadroot, sometimes called brown-flowered psoralea. Members of the pea family, plants in the genus produce starchy, edible roots: some larger and more worth pursuing than others.

The so-called prairie turnip (Pediomelum esculentum), found in Oklahoma and northward through the plains states, has been described variously as a “delicacy,” “tolerably good eating,” or “tasteless and insipid.” Barry Kaye and D. W. Moodie have described Native Americans’ use of the food:

They eat it uncooked, or they boil it, or roast it in the embers, or dry it and crush it to powder and make soup of it. Large quantities are stored in buffalo skin bags for winter use. A sort of pudding made of the flour of the dried roots and serviceberries (Amelanchier alnifolia), after boiling together, is very palatable and a favorite dish.”

However tasty the roots, I must say that I found the appearance of this member of the Broadway cemeteries’ supporting cast delicious.

Gulf Indian breadroot ~ Pediomelum rhombifoilum


Comments always are welcome.

From Bluebonnets to Bluebells


Now that the last of our bluebonnets are fading away, another beautiful native is waiting to take their place. The so-called Texas bluebell (Eustomia exaltalum) has begun to flower on the coastal prairies.  The genus name, formed from the Greek eu, or ‘beautiful,’ and stoma, or ‘mouth,’ refers to the large, upward-facing blooms which evoke handbells; the flower also is known as catchfly prairie gentian, bluebell gentian, and prairie gentian.

Because their foliage isn’t palatable to grazing animals, Texas bluebells often are found covering central Texas pastures; the cattle no doubt help to hold down competing vegetation. The cows-and-flowers connection led to a certain Texas creamery being named Blue Bell in 1930; anyone who enjoys their ice cream has a connection, however tangential, to this lovely Texas native.

Major pollinators for the plants include a variety of bees, particularly those whose long tongues enable them to reach the nectar deep within the flower. 

One of the flower’s special charms is the intricate patterns found within its cup-like ‘bell.’ Varying from bloom to bloom, they’re a special treat for those who take the time for a closer look.

Comments always are welcome.

A Rarer Use of Yellow

Yellow Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) and friends

In the case of this Indian paintbrush, Emily Dickinson’s words ring true:

Nature rarer uses yellow
Than another hue,
Saves she all of that for sunsets,
Prodigal of blue —
Spending scarlet like a woman,
Yellow she affords
Only scantly and selectly,
Like a lover’s words.

Yellow is afforded only scantly and selectly to this species of Indian paintbrushes; the flowers usually appear in shades of red and orange. And yet, there they were: more than a dozen yellow delights scattered along a portion of highway in Lavaca County.

Still in their prime, surrounding their actual flowers with both white and yellow bracts, they were among this year’s prettiest blooms. Had I not stopped to photograph an early April bluebonnet field, I might have missed them; their presence served as a useful reminder that apparently nondescript ditches and culverts can offer up treasure.

True flowers peeking out from the bracts
Yellow and white combinations evoked lemon meringue pie
Seen from above, the flower presents a pleasing almost-symmetry
Crinkled edges of just-opening flowers matched those of developing leaves

Comments always are welcome.

Going Solo ~ February

Longleaf pine ~ Pinus palustris

The centerpiece of the Solo Tract in east Texas’s Big Thicket is the longleaf pine. Beginning life as a grass-like bundle capable of protecting the young tree from fire, the tree dedicates its first years to below-ground root growth; during this stage, the tree sometimes is confused with bunch grasses like little bluestem.

A young longleaf pine

Eventually the trees begin to grow, entering what’s known as the ‘bottle brush’ stage: a period when the tree is most vulnerable to fire. The tree shown in today’s first photo is beginning to move out of that phase, adding needle-trimmed branches to the ‘bottle brush’ on top; eventually, development of its thick, fire resistant bark will increase its ability to withstand both natural and prescribed burns.

Longleaf pine bark showing the effects of fire

Mature trees produce two types of cones: pollen-bearing male cones and seed-bearing female cones. Both are produced in summer, grow slowly over the fall and winter, and then become active the following spring. In January, I found these purple male cones still closed.

By February, male cones littered the ground, having released their pollen to fertilize the female cones. After approximately a year and a half, the female cones mature and release their seeds into the wind. Seeds that find open, sunny patches of ground germinate; those unable to penetrate dense leaf litter may not. Using periodic, low intensity fire helps to keep longleaf forests open by burning off shade-producing plants and litter that inhibit germination; the ash which results also provides valuable soil nutrients.

An older female cone and this year’s purple male cones

Despite their small size, even the male cones open in a way we think of as typically pine cone-ish.

Closeup of an opened male cone

Among the trees and cones, basal leaves of Aletris aurea, the golden colic-root, begin to grow in early spring. Once considered a member of the lily family, the plant has been moved into the bog asphodel family (Nartheciaceae), although most sources still place it in the Liliaceae. The genus name Aletris refers to a female slave from Greek mythology. Her task was to grind grain into meal; the rough texture of colic-root flowers resembles ground meal.

Emerging leaves of the golden colic-root

In January, only dried seed pods remained, but in a few weeks long spikes of golden-yellow flowers would appear; aurea is Latin for ‘golden,’ and the source of the plant’s common name.

Golden colic-root seed pods

Given their preference for wet pine flatwoods, bogs, and seeps, it wasn’t entirely surprising to find this colic-root nestled next to another lover of wet environments: the pink sundew.

Colic-root and a pink sundew (Drosera capillaris)

Four of five North American carnivorous plants can be found in Texas: pitcher plants, sundews, butterworts, and bladderworts. Only the Venus flytrap is missing; it’s native range is limited to North Carolina, coastal South Carolina, and two counties in Florida.

Two sundew species populate East Texas: the green spoon-leaf sundew (Drosera intermedia) and the pink sundew. I’ve yet to find the spoon-leaf, but there was no missing the pink.

A dime-sized pink sundew

Sundews possess special glands which secrete droplets of sticky fluid, giving the plant its glistening appearance. Insects attracted to the plant by the drops’ nectar-like appearance and scent quickly become stuck. Once the plant senses a struggling insect, it wraps around it, allowing digestive enzymes to transform the insect into usable nutrients.

Although most pink sundews are quite small, lying flat to the ground, this little bundle of stickiness was either a number of plants clustered together, or some sort of genetic anomaly.

A pretty pile of pink

What’s certain is the fate of the little winged insect lying near the top of the pile.

Like a moth too close to a flame

This differently colored sundew also is D. capillaris. In bright sunlight the plant appears red; in lesser light, the leaves may be green with red tentacles. Sundews also produce tiny flowers, although none had bloomed in February.

At the time of my first February visit, significant rains had left many sundews buried in sand, and small piles of sand smoothed by rushing water were everywhere. The holes in the centers of the piles suggested burrowing creatures — like crawfish — were responsible.

Later that month, my suspicion was confirmed. I’d never seen a crawfish chimney built of sand, but whichever species calls the Solo tract home, it knows its business.

A crawfish’s sand castle

Nearby, what I believe to be a rusty gilled polypore (Gloeophyllum sepiarium) decorated a stump.  A wood decay fungus, G. sepiarium grows on dead conifers; its brown cap is loosely fan-shaped, with the sort of yellow-orange margin shown here.

The day held two more surprises. First came an abundance of the bog white violets highlighted in my previous post.

Bog white violet ~ Viola lanceolata

The species name lanceolata refers to the violets’ spear-shaped leaves, which can be as much as six inches long.

A host plant for fritillary larvae, the violets attract an assortment of butterflies and bees. On this day, I found what I believe to be a Juvenal’s duskywing visiting one of the flowers.

Curious about the name, I learned that a collection of duskywings — Juvenal’s, Horace’s, Mottled (E. martialis), Columbine (E. lucilius), and Persius (E. persius) — are named for Roman poets. The convention was begun by Johan Christian Fabricius, a Danish zoologist who specialized in insects. A student of Carl Linnaeus, he established the basis for modern insect classification.

Juvenal’s duskywing ~ Erynnis juvenalis

Even ants like violets. Fourteen species of carpenter ants occur in Texas; the largest, the black carpenter ant (Camponotus pennsylvanicus), is found primarily in wooded outdoor areas. Whatever its species, this ant spent a considerable amount of time on the flower: perhaps lapping up nectar left by a previous visitor.

Black carpenter ant ~ Camponotus spp.

The other surprise was finding native blueberries among the dewberries. Blueberries are grown in Texas, but I wasn’t aware that a native species exists in a handful of eastern counties. The flowers were both beautiful and plentiful; if I’m lucky, in coming weeks I’ll find at least a few berries before the birds get to them. 

Elliott’s blueberry ~ Vaccinium elliottii


Comments always are welcome.
For an introduction to this “Going Solo” series, please click here.

Solo White Bog Violets

Bog white violet with pine cone

I could blame it on the bluebonnets, although Indian paintbrush and white prickly poppies surely played a role.

Despite my commitment to document changes at the Big Thicket’s Solo tract on a monthly basis, I’m well behind in posting what I’ve found during my visits; all of those glorious spring wildflowers demanded to be shown first.

While I finish reports on my visits to the Solo tract in February, March, and April, I’ll offer these gems as appetizer: a pair of white bog violets (Viola lanceolata) that by mid-February had spread by the hundreds throughout the area.

Also known as lance-leaf violet because of their long, strap-like leaves, the flowers’ range is limited by their preference for a consistently wet location: coastal plains, bogs, swamps, wet meadows, and wetland pine savannahs like those of the Solo tract. In areas where land development has led to habitat loss, the violet often is listed as threatened.

Visited by a variety of pollinators, the diminuitive flower, from only two to six inches tall, is marked with purple lines that serve as nectar guides for insects, and pretty accents for appreciative human eyes.

Comments always are welcome.