crystalline light streams
splashing, shattering, spreading
across cloud-banked skies
In the process of exploring East Texas, I’ve become intrigued by the number of plants in the region that bear ‘Carolina’ in their name. Carolina larkspur; Carolina buckthorn; Carolina elephant’s foot; Carolina crane’s-bill: I’ve seen and photographed them all.
One of the most delightful Carolina namesakes is the Carolina lily (Lilium michauxii), the official state wildflower of North Carolina. Found in the oak-pine woodlands and forests of deep east Texas, it’s an uncommon Texas native, and uncommonly beautiful.
The plant bears one to six blooms at the top of each stem. Its six tepals (three petals and three sepals) are strongly reflexed, or bent backward; six slender filaments with brown anthers protrude from the center of the flower, as does a long style with a three-lobed stigma.
While similar to the Turk’s Cap lily (Lilium superbum), there’s quite a difference in size. Carolina lily usually is two to three feet tall, while the Turk’s Cap lily is much taller, and bears more than twice as many flowers.
Named by fellow botanist and explorer Jean Louis Marie Poiret (1755-1834) for French botanist Andre Michaux, who traveled widely in the southeastern United States, the lily did some traveling of its own, expanding its range all the way to Texas. Finding it at the Watson Rare Plant Preserve was an unexpected treat.
It’s an old saying, and a familiar experience. “I couldn’t see the forest for the trees,” someone declares, and everyone smiles knowingly. We’ve all been there.
On the other hand, the opposite can be equally true. At first glance the pineywoods of east Texas — crowded, dim if not dark, deeply unfamiliar — can seem impenetrable: a pile of sticks leaning against a wall of green. Even the Big Thicket’s name seems off-putting. People who’ve never picked dewberries or read the journals of early Texas settlers still have a vague understanding of thickets. They’re difficult to pass through, possibly dangerous, and best avoided.
But thickets can be more than obstacles on the way to somewhere else, and the Big Thicket offers proof. Step inside the forest, and it’s easy to see the trees in a new way.
Look more closely, and enchanting details begin to emerge.
Here and there, young longleafs bide their time, developing their root systems. For periods as long as several years, they resemble clumps of grass: their buds protected beneath a bundle of needles. Should fire sweep through, the needles may burn but the bud will remain protected and virtually immune to fire.
When the root collar (a transitional zone between the roots and the trunk of a tree) becomes about an inch in diameter, the longleaf begins to grow. A single white tip called a ‘candle’ emerges from the protective sheath of needles, new needles develop, and, in time, bark begins to form.
Rapid growth allows the seedling’s growing tip to rise above potential fires, and after a year or two the bark has thickened enough to withstand most fires. No branches form during this so-called ‘bottlebrush’ stage, when all of the tree’s energy is focused on ‘up’ rather than ‘out.’
After passing through the bottlebrush stage and the aptly-named candelabra stage so obvious in my photo of dawn in the Big Thicket, the longleaf moves on to maturity.
In time, cones will fall and seeds will disperse, preparing the way for more trees. But more than fallen needles are there to receive the cones. In the Big Thicket, pine trees of various sorts coexist with everything from cacti to ferns, and any fallen cone becomes an invitation to further exploration.