Walden West ~ May 2

The first Turk’s Cap bloom of the season

When I visited Walden West on February 1, only a few Turk’s Cap leaves had managed to sprout. At the time, I predicted their vibrant flowers would begin appearing at the pond edges in a few weeks, and it seems my prediction was right.

On May 2, although only the single flower shown above had emerged, buds were forming everywhere. When I make my June visit, I suspect many more Turks’ Caps (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) will be shining in the woods.

American Germander

By early May, as fields of Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush began to fill the roadsides and fields, less noticeable but equally attractive flowers were emerging at Walden West.

American Germander (Teucrium canadense), a member of the mint family often found at the edges of ponds and marshes, clearly had been blooming for some time. Like Coastal Germander (T. cubense), a smaller plant with pure white flowers, American Germander flowers have a greatly reduced upper lip and a long lower lip. That long lip doesn’t mean the flower is pouting; it’s simply providing a landing pad for insect visitors.

Water Hyssop, or Herb-of-Grace

The solitary, bell-shaped flowers of Water Hyssop (Bacopa monnieri)  were new to me. According to Shinners & Mahler’s Flora of North Central Texas, the genus may carry a South American aboriginal name; the specific epithet honors Louis-Guillaume Le Monnier (1717–1799), a French natural scientist.

A mat-forming aquatic or semi-aquatic perennial, its small, white flowers sometimes are tinged with pink or blue. Also known as Herb-of-grace, the plant is a larval host for the White Peacock butterfly.

Now considered a member of the Plantain family, Water Hyssop formerly was included in the Figwort Family, and still is listed there in many sources. At Walden West, I found only a few plants, but it may be that as the summer progresses they will multiply.

Small Venus’s Looking Glass ~ Triodanis perfoliata

I’ve never found more than three or four stems of Venus’s Looking Glass in one location, but they do appear in every refuge I visit and at several locations on Galveston Island. Two were blooming at Walden West in early May; this one, and a second, shabby example that had been nearly nibbled to extinction by some insect.

Two other bits of lavender — Texas Vervain and Slender (or Rigid) Vervain also put in an appearance. Neither was abundant, but it may be that these were among the first to bloom.

Texas Vervain ~ Verbena halei
Slender vervain  ~ Verbena rigida (an introduced species)

As I looked past the vervains, a flash of white led me to a small stand of Whitetop Sedge.Their brilliant white bracts sometimes are confused with petals; they certainly are as attractive as any white flower. A somewhat showier species, Rhynchospora latifolia, is taller, with wider bracts; in Texas, it appears in the far eastern portions of the state.

Whitetop sedge ~ Rhynchospora colorata

Sedges tolerate shade, grow in a wide variety of soils, and occasionally can be found submerged in shallow waters. When they fill roadside ditches, the effect is remarkable.

Despite a relative absence of birds, increasing insect activity was obvious. This web, constructed only inches from the ground, indicated the presence of a very busy, if invisible, spider.

Say hello to the WWW ~ a Walden West Web

High above the ground, a Spiny-backed Orb Weaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis) went about her work. The six abdominal projections resembling spines give the spider its common name. It’s colors can be quite variable; I’ve seen orange spiders with black spines, white ones with red spines, and now this lovely yellow creature with black spines.

Spiny-backed orb weaver 

Conspicuous tufts of silk scattered about on this orb-weaver’s web are especially interesting.  They appear primarily on the foundation lines; it’s been suggested that the tufts make their webs more visible to birds that might otherwise destroy them.

Perhaps this bee didn’t notice those tufts of silk; he certainly didn’t notice them in time to avoid becoming entangled. While I couldn’t find the spider responsible for the web-work, the tufts do suggest a spiny-backed orb weaver had caught iself a meal.

Even dragonflies aren’t immune to capture. This one may have surprised the spider lurking below one of its wings at the bottom of the frame. If that tiny spider set out the web, it may have gotten more than it bargained for.

Come into my parlor, said the spider to the dragonfly

Other, luckier dragonflies flitted over and around the water,  including a female four-spotted pennant and the easily recognizable Halloween Pennant.

Four-spotted Pennant ~ Brachymesia gravida
Halloween Pennant ~ Celithemis eponina

While the dragonflies flitted and perched, a pretty snail paused on a convenient branch. Whatever its identity, it provides a fine model for moving through nature: slow and steady is the way to go.

 

And so the seasons went rolling on into summer, as one rambles into higher and higher grass.
Henry David Thoreau ~ Walden

 

Comments always are welcome.

Summoning Rain

Liberian rain stick and tribal masks

Across cultures, from Australia to Argentina to Mexico to Tibet, the rainstick serves as a musical instrument, a necessary adjunct to tribal ceremonies, and a means of calling up rain.  My own rainstick comes from Liberia, West Africa, where I worked for a few years. Unlike those made from dried cacti and filled with beads or seeds, mine was formed from a stalk of a different sort of plant; I’ve always assumed its sound depends on falling rice or seeds.

Some say rainsticks are magical. Whether that’s true I can’t say, but now and then I ponder my stick’s survival for nearly fifty years in the heat and humidity of both Liberia and Texas. Occasionally I turn it as I walk by, and find myself transported back the bush: hearing again the sound of approaching rain. Sometimes, if long anticipated and much needed rain is in the forecast, I turn the stick several times, hoping the magic is real.

Seamus Heaney, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet known for works exalting everyday miracles, has considered the rain stick. His poem celebrating its qualities was published in The New Republic in 1993; its words still fall on the ear as easily as the sound of coming rain.

Up-end the stick and what happens next
is a music that you never would have known
to listen for. In a cactus stalk
Downpour, sluice-rush, spillage and backwash
come flowing through. You stand there like a pipe
being played by water, you shake it again lightly
and diminuendo runs through all its scales
like a gutter stopping trickling. And now here comes
a sprinkle of drops out of the freshened leaves,
Then subtle little wets off grass and daisies;
the glitter-drizzle, almost-breaths of air.
Up-end the stick again. What happens next
is undiminished for having happened once,
twice, ten, and thousand times before.
Who cares if all the music that transpires
is the fall of grit or dry seeds through a cactus?
You are like a rich man entering heaven
through the ear of a raindrop. Listen now again.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Mornings with Monarda

Spotted beebalm with phlox ~ Medina County

Named in honor of 16th century Spanish physician, botanist, and pharmacologist Nicolas Bautista Monardes (1493-1588), native Monarda species are widespread across Texas.

Monardes himself never traveled to the New World, but Spanish captains engaged in trade with the Americas knew of his interest in plants, and kept him well-supplied with new species. Monardes established a museum in Seville to house his growing collection — the first such museum in Western Europe — and brought the plants’ therapeutic values to the attention of his colleagues.

Drought tolerant, clump-forming members of the Lamiaceae, or mint family, Monarda species thrive in sunny areas with dry soil. During a visit to the Texas hill country on May 7-9, I found colonies of both Spotted Beebalm (Monarda punctata) and Lemon Horsemint (M. citriodora) giving clear notice that late spring is turning into summer.

Spotted beebalm ~ Medina County
Lemon horsemint ~ Wilson County
Lemon horsemint with firewheels  ~ Gonzales County

 

Comments always are welcome.

Not Every Bonnet is Blue

Horticultural specialists like Jerry Patterson have spent years developing new bluebonnet colors — especially white, lavender, and maroon — but their work is based on the  natural color variations that show up from time to time in Texas fields.

Over the past decade, I’ve found at least one white and one yellow bluebonnet each year during the plant’s season, but until last weekend I never had found the nearly-mythical pink bluebonnet, and never expected to see one. Yet there it was: blooming at the edge of Farm to Market Road 532 between Moravia and Moulton.

Over time, legends developed around this rare flower, including the claim that its color reflected the blood that flowed from the Battle of the Alamo. In fact, Jerry Patterson himself once said that the only native pink bluebonnets he’d ever found grew south of San Antonio, near the river. Perhaps that’s still true for Patterson, but this gem was blooming well east of San Antonio, and nowhere near a river.

Legends aside, the flower’s presence on that mid-April morning brought to mind a favorite poem. Written by Amherst resident Robert Francis, “Bouquet” is perfectly suited to celebrate the whisper of a single pink bluebonnet nearly lost in a babble of blue.

 

One flower at a time, please,
however small the face.
Two flowers are one flower
too many, a distraction.
Three flowers in a vase begin
to be a little noisy.
Like cocktail conversation,
everybody talking.
A crowd of flowers is a crowd
of flatterers (forgive me).
One flower at a time.  I want
to hear what it is saying.
                                        “Bouquet” ~ Robert Francis

 

Comments always are welcome.

Nature’s Alchemy

Even in a post-freeze year marked by continuing drought, Texas wildflowers can put on quite a show. It’s tradition here to set aside at least one spring weekend for “going to see the flowers,” and last weekend was mine.

Many consider our fields of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush to be iconic, but they’re often rivaled by other wildflowers. The Christian City Fellowship, a large congregation between Sealy and Bellville, has allowed acres of flowers to bloom on their property; the huge patch of yellow flowers there certainly caught my eye.

After a quick U-turn, I pulled into a parking lot at the back of the church and found myself gazing at the largest colony of Nueces Coreopsis (Coreopsis neucensoides) I’ve ever seen. With its pretty red detailing and frilly ray florets, it’s an especially attractive flower, but the history of the field was equally compelling.

The church was open, so I ventured inside to ask permission to roam the property. A young man offered permission with a smile, then mentioned that the flowers had changed dramatically. In past years, the fields had been covered with bluebonnets. This year, only an occasional bluebonnet bloomed amid the coreopsis; Nature as alchemist had transformed blue into gold.

Was the change due to last year’s freeze? Had drought played a role? Whatever the reason for the change, the result was beautiful, and I lingered a good while luxuriating in the sight — until I remembered that bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush were waiting down the road.

Nueces Coreopsis

 

Comments always are welcome.