Walden West ~ August

Climbing hempvine ~ Mikania scandens

By the time August ended, the area around Walden West had become overgrown and overrun with biting flies: so much so that swatting and sweating through the late summer heat were a considerable part of the day’s fun.

That said, there was no overlooking the climbing hempvine (Mikania scandens) that had burst into bloom since my last visit. A member of the Asteraceae, or sunflower family, its blooms lack ray florets; the clustered white to pinkish disk flowers resemble those of Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).

Found in a variety of moist environments — swamps, bottomland forests, sloughs, pond margins, and ditches — the pretty white-flowered vine clambers over, under, and around anything in its way, including the occasional cattail, as it winds in a clockwise direction around supporting host plants.

Occasionally, its progress is supported not by plants but by insects: specifically, by spiders. When I noticed a bit of hempvine rising straight up into the air, it seemed odd.  Then, I saw the spider silk attached to it: a single slender strand strong enough to support the weight of the plant. Orb weavers begin their webs by establishing anchor lines, and it seemed a spider had chosen a bit of hempvine as one anchor point.

Following the silk’s path, I found its creator in her web: a Golden Silk Orb-weaver (Nephila clavipes) dining on one of the deer flies that had been annoying me.

Not far away, a colorful Spiny-backed Orb Weaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis)  lurked in its own web. About a half-inch wide, these small spiders attract notice because of their colors: in addition to orange, they may be yellow, or white with black markings. The presence of six ‘spines’ indicates that this is a female. Males are even smaller, with four or five spines.

Growing as enthusiastically as the hempvine, Annual Marsh Elder (Iva annua) already stood four or five feet tall. Also known as sumpweed, this member of the sunflower family produces copious amounts of air-borne pollen;  like all species in the genus Iva, the plant afflicts allergy sufferers throughout the fall. In August, buds still were forming; in time, greenish-white flowers would emerge.

The introduced Indian Heliotrope (Heliotropium indicum) I’d found a month earlier at Walden West still lingered: now turned from white to pale lavender.  I recently came across our native Salt Heliotrope (H. curassavicum) at Brazos Bend State Park, with several Gulf Fritillaries nectaring on its pretty white flowers, but I never saw a native species at Walden West.

I never tire of ironweed; in past years I’ve been lucky enough to come across three of Texas’s species. Here, what I believe to be Missouri Ironweed (Vernonia missurica) adds a splash of color to the late summer landscape. The common name ‘ironweed’ has been attributed to a variety of iron-like qualities in the plant, including tough stems, flowers that appear to rust as they age, and rusty colored seeds.

Ironweed flowers ‘rusting’ away

Another prolific bloomer, Turk’s Cap continued to fill the August woods with both flowers and fruit.

According to various foraging sites, the plant’s marble-sized fruits taste a bit like apples. Their seeds can be eaten raw or toasted, and the fruits also can be made into jelly, jam, or wine.

Turk’s cap fruit

Butterflies and hummingbirds favor the flowers, especially during mid-morning and mid-afternoon when their nectar is said to be sweetest. While I can’t identify this hummingbird, no matter: it was enough to manage a photo as it hovered around the plant.

Despite occasional rains, we’ve moved into another dry period, and the Walden West pond remains empty. Still, a few nearby areas contained enough moisture for saltmarsh fleabane (Pluchea odorata) to offer its pastel accents; also a member of the Asteraceae, it’s found throughout Texas, along the Gulf coast to Florida, and up the eastern seaboard.

As we move deeper into autumn, marsh fleabane will continue to bloom: certainly in October, and perhaps even into early November. With luck, coming rains will encourage it — and fill the vernal pools.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Purple Haze

Deer-pea Vetch ~ Vicia ludoviciana

A far cry from the lead song featured on The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s 1967 debut album, this ‘purple haze’ sings a different tune: emerging in spring to cover Texas roadsides, vacant lots, pastures, and woodlands. One of our most common vetches, it seems to color the air as it spreads along mowed roadsides; spied in vacant lots or pastures, it presents pleasing piles of purple. Everywhere, it attracts a variety of hungry pollinators.

Where it mounds upon itself, as in the photo above, the form of the flowers becomes less noticeable than the pretty color. A closer look reveals their lovely details, and especially their variety.

Walden West
Vacant lot ~ Dickinson, Texas
San Bernard Wildlife Refuge
Roadside, Lake Jackson, Texas
Colorado County roadside

 

Comments always are welcome.

No Fleas, but a Cranefly

One of our most abundant spring wildflowers, Philadelphia Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus), is everywhere just now: in vacant city lots, alongside roads, and spread across the rural landscape. ‘Fleabane,’ a word rooted in Old English,  may refer to the plant’s odor (said to repel fleas), the ability of dried flowers to send fleas on their way, or the size of the plant’s seeds, which are no larger than fleas.

However accurate the common name, in a field filled with the flowers I found no fleas, but an assortment of bees, skippers, and flies were rejoicing in the nectar and pollen they offered. The surprise was this cranefly, which seemed simply to be resting on the flowers in the early morning stillness. I usually see craneflies on the sides of buildings or fluttering above sidewalks; this one had the good sense to choose a more appealing spot to spend the morning.

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Fifty Mile Difference

Hurricane Laura western eyewall damage south of Sulphur, Louisiana
Photo courtesy Houston meteorologist Jeff Lindner

Approximately fifty miles to the west-northwest of Sulphur, Louisiana lies Silsbee, Texas. Ten miles past Silsbee you’ll find the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary and, if you travel on to Kountze and Warren, you’ll enter the Big Thicket: home to an assortment of trails, the Solo tract, and the Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve.

When it became apparent that Hurricane Laura would make landfall south of Sulphur, my concern extended beyond the people living along its path. East Texas wasn’t at risk from Laura’s significant surge, but wind damage to the area’s natural treasures could be extensive. The prediction for sustained tropical force winds in East Texas worried me, and I was eager to make a trip into the area to see what damage might have occurred.

When I finally made that trip on September 6, my sense of relief increased with each passing mile. There were no topped trees, no stripped bark, no missing limbs. At the Sandyland Sanctuary, the only evidence of Laura’s winds was an occasional leaning pine. The storm had tightened at landfall, passing far enough to the east for its northeast winds to leave a mark, but little serious damage.

One of Sandyland’s out-of-plumb pines

Wandering through Sandyland, I was pleased to find several of my favorites. This delicate palafox (Palafoxia reverchonii) was one of a few still in bloom.

Somewhat uncommon, the pencil-flower (Stylosanthes biflora) often appears in sandy soils; its membership in the Fabaceae — the pea family — is hinted at by its flower.

The deeply saturated red of the Louisiana catchfly (Silene subciliata) glows in the sunlight, and finding it always is a special treat. In Wildflowers of Texas, Michael Eason writes that the flower is “rare, but can be seen in the Big Thicket National Preserve, in sandy soils” — precisely where I found it.

In my absence, the smooth and silky buds of snake cotton (Froelichia floridana) had become more cottony, and the plants themselves had grown substantially taller.

Sandyland is one place to find the rare and beautiful Winkler’s blanket flower (Gaillardia aestivalis var. winkleri). Laura’s rains seem to have encouraged this flower, and I expect its season will extend into October.

I did manage a brief stop at the Solo Tract in the Big Thicket, and was rewarded with something I’d hoped to find: a newly-emerged flower of yellow-eyed grass (Xyris ambigua).

Of course, one visit never is enough. I returned to the area this past weekend to photograph other treats: some quite unexpected. Hurricanes will come and hurricanes will go, but nature continues to produce her treasures.

Comments always are welcome.

My Love is Like a Red, Red…

 

Milkweed!  Red milkweed, that is: Asclepias rubra. Despite its common name, the flowers usually are shades of pink, giving rise to a second common name: tall pink bog milkweed. On a recent visit to the Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve, most plants appeared pink rather than red, but these isolated examples of deeply saturated color seemed to meet Singhurst and Hutchins’s description of “dull red.”

Red Milkweed grows in pitcher plant bogs, seeps, and wet pine savannas from New Jersey south to Florida and west to Texas. As much as four feet tall, its terminal umbels are easily spotted above its companion plants.

Red milkweed ~ Asclepias rubra
Tall pink bog milkweed ~ also Asclepias rubra

Like other milkweed species, A. rubra already has been busy forming its attractive follicles, or seed pods. This sleek, smooth example, nearly four inches long, may have riped and released its seeds since my visit.

Comments always are welcome.