Nash Prairie ~ early March
Vibrant bluebonnets and glowing fields of Indian paintbrush have come to define spring in Texas: so much so that anyone passing Nash Prairie while searching for early wildflowers might think it little more than an abandoned field, or an overgrown collection of weeds.
In truth, the first time I set off to visit Nash I wasn’t able to find the place, even though I’d been given directions and a map. It took a friendly neighbor — and a goat — to help me find the great swath of unbroken land I’d passed several times without recognizing it as ‘prairie.’
The story of that initial search still amuses me, and since it also provides an introduction to the history of Nash Prairie, I’ve republished it on The Task at Hand as a companion piece for this pair of posts showing a different aspect of a delightful season.
In early spring, prairie flowers often are small or low growing; even easily-spotted blooms can require a hands-and-knees approach to photography. Blue-eyed grass, a member of the Iris family, appears as early as January. Recently, its numbers have been increasing dramatically, creating a blue haze over the land that’s as pleasing as fields of bluebonnets.
Blue-eyed grass ~ Sisyrinchium spp.
By early March, beaked corn salad appears. Multiple explanations have been offered for the plant’s odd name. Some say it’s rooted in the plant’s tendency to invade wheat fields; others suggest it arose from use as a salad green. Julian Steyermark, the distinguised botanist and author of Flora of Missouri, once noted that basal rosettes of the plant “make an excellent salad, especially when prepared with olive oil and vinegar.”
Beaked Corn Salad ~ Valerianella radiata
Bluets are among our tiniest flowers. Two to six inches tall, with flowers only a quarter to a third of an inch across, they were scattered across more open portions of the prairie by early March. Initially, I assumed the white bluets were variants of H. pusilla, but their greater height and significant numbers suggested a different species; H. micrantha seems a reasonable possibility.
Tiny bluet ~ Houstonia pusilla
Southern bluet ~ Houstonia micrantha
A flower that stymied me turned out to be introduced rather than native; I found a few Caley (or singletary) peas at the edge of a service road leading into the prairie. Introduced into the United States from Mediterranean areas of Europe to serve as forage, it naturalized; now it appears in areas along roadsides and railroads, and at edges of fields — precisely where I found it.
Caley pea ~ Lathyrus hirsutus
Caley pea ~ Lathyrus hirsutus
Venus’s Looking-glasses belongs to the Campanulaceae, or bellflower family. According to a North Carolina Extension site, their common name reflects early botanical descriptions of a similar European plant (Legousia speculum) whose seeds were said to be as shiny as looking glasses. In addition to the species shown here, Triodanis lamprosperma, the Prairie Venus’s Looking-glass, also has been documented at Nash Prairie
Clasping Venus’s looking glass ~ Triodanis perfoliataSmall Venus’s looking glass ~ Triodanis perfoliata subsp. biflora
That same North Carolina site happened to have a photo of a small Venus’s Looking-glass bud. In 2019, I took a photo of a bud at the Broadway cemeteries in Galveston, but wasn’t able to identify it. The photo lingered in my files, and now it can be shown for what it is — a Venus’s Looking-glass hosting a tiny fruit fly, Dioxyna picciola.
Triodanus spp. with a very attractive fruit fly
I first found yellow star grass at the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge, and was pleased to encounter it again at Nash. Although widespread in the eastern half of the U.S., it doesn’t form large colonies, and usually is somewhat scattered where it appears. A member of the lily family, the plant arises from a small corm before producing flowers approximately an inch across. Rarely more than six inches tall, its vibrant color shines even in the midst of new grasses and detritus from a past season.
Online sources differ considerably when it comes to the genus name. Some say that Hypoxis refers to the plant’s sour leaves. Others suggest beaked seed capsules, or the pointed base of an inferior ovary. Since another genus name, Oxalis, refers to those plants’ bitter, sour, or acid taste, I suspect Hypoxis does the same.
On the other hand, there’s little mystery about this flower’s specific epithet. Even the most casual glance at its leaves, stems, or buds reveals a wealth of little hairs; hirsuta is the Latin word for “rough, shaggy, hairy, bristly, or prickly.”
Yellow star grass ~ Hypoxis hirsuta
Yellow star grass turned golden in the light
When I returned to the prairie at the end of March, it occurred to me that, as the days grow longer, many plants grow taller. The yellow star grass had new yellow and gold companions, and they weren’t at all shy about being seen. But that’s the next chapter in this story of spring-into-summer.