Off With the Old, On With the New

Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis) in the process of shedding its skin

Fallen needles from longleaf pines and fresh, recently unfurled ferns were the order of the day: a pleasing palette of brown and green. When the unexpected flash of white caught my attention, I wondered if I were seeing trash: an odd experience in a place where signs of human presence usually are limited to stretches of repaired boardwalk or botanical research markers.

In fact, I had spotted trash, but of a very natural sort. A green anole, one of our most common lizards, was in the process of shedding its skin. The process, known as ‘ecdysis,’ differs from reptile to reptile. Snakes leave their skin in one piece; turtles shed the scutes that comprise their shell individually; alligators lose their large scales one at a time; but lizards, including the green anole, peel away old skin in sections.

Prior to shedding, anoles become less active and change their color to a dull brown, making the pattern along their spines easier to see.

As the shedding process progresses, anoles need moisture to keep the dead skin from drying too quickly and adhering to their bodies. Areas like the tips of the toes can be especially problematic. If that skin fails to shed along with that on the rest of the foot, the remaining skin may shrink, causing constricted blood flow and toe loss. For this anole, the same humidity that I found annoying was a real benefit.

Most anoles stop eating while they shed, or cut back on their diet substantially. But the process takes energy, and a little snack never hurts; for the anole, the snack closest at hand is its own skin.

Filled with vitamins and minerals, the shed skin helps to reactivate the digestive system, provides nutrients, and also reduces the possibility that bits of leftover skin might alert a predator to the anole’s presence.

I thought at first that this one was using its mouth solely as a handy tool for skin removal, but I soon realized that those bits of skin weren’t being allowed to fall into the ferns or onto the ground.

While I watched, the creature tugged, nibbled, and gnawed its way through nearly all the skin on its body, leaving only its tail and toes to be tended to.

By the time it had finished consuming the last large bits of skin, it was ready to move deeper into the ferns: presumably to finish cleaning its tail and toes before the Saturday night social began.


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Big Thicket, Little Thicket


One of the most fascinating aspects of the area of Texas known as the Big Thicket is the manner in which longleaf pines, multiple species of ferns, carnivorous plants, and sun-loving wildflowers mix and mingle together, forming a marvelous backdrop for the variety of native orchids also found there.

Above, a grass pink orchid (Calopogon tuberosus) contrasts with the trunk of an enormous long-leaf pine (Pinus palustris).  

Here, a grass pink is framed by ferns. While I’ve not yet learned to identify the several Big Thicket fern species with certainty, I believe these to be common bracken ferns (Pteridium aquilinum).

Finally, these beauties are framed within a cluster of branches that appear to have been burned. Fire is an important tool for maintaining longleaf pine uplands and wetland pine savannas, but pitcher plants and other orchid companions also respond well to periodic fires, growing back profusely from the nutrient-enhanced soil that remains after the flames have done their work.

Here, the orchids have taken advantage of those nutrients and increased sunlight to rise up in  a little thicket of their own: a perfect metaphor for Big Thicket life.


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The Splendor of the Grass Pink

Grass pink orchid buds ~ Big Thicket

Despite its name, the native east Texas orchid known as the grass pink (Calopogon tuberosus) doesn’t live in grassy meadows. It prefers hillside seepage bogs, wet pine savannahs, or the edges of baygalls, where it grows amid sphagnum moss, an assortment of carnivorous plants, and wildflowers that include meadow beauty, pine-woods rose gentian, and ten-angle pipewort.

Neither a grass nor a member of the Pink family (Caryophyllaceae), grass pinks received their common name because of one long, narrow, grass-like leaf at the base of their stem, and their color. Calopogon comes from the Greek for ‘beautiful beard,’ a reference to the tuft of orange-yellow hairs  on the flower’s lip, while tuberosus refers to the plant’s tuberous corm.

Grass pink flowers open sequentially from bottom to top on a leafless stalk, so it’s quite common to see blooms and buds at the same time

Developing bud

Most orchid flowers have a prominent lip at their base; in contrast, the lip of the grass pink lies at the top. A modified petal, the lip is generally anvil-shaped; its cluster of bristly orange, yellow, or whitish hairs is known as a ‘pseudopollen lure.’

Resembling the pollen-bearing anthers of other flowers, the hairs trick insects into landing on the flower’s central column, where pollen sacs stick to the insect’s body before being carried to other flowers. The flower’s primary pollinators — bumblebees or leaf-cutter bees — are heavy enough to cause the hinged lip, or labellum, to swing down under their weight. If the bee already carries a load of pollen, it will contact the stigma and pollinate the plant.

Waiting for a pollinator

Grass pinks are native to much of eastern North America, occurring from Manitoba east to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland; south to Florida; west to Texas; and north to Kansas, Iowa, and Minnesota.

Listed by Illinois, Kentucky, and Maryland as endangered, they’re considered a plant of special concern in Rhode Island. While habitat loss plays a role, overly-zealous orchid collectors contribute to the problem, digging up plants for their personal pleasure.

The grass pink can be cultivated, and rather easily, but if you’d like to give it a try, purchase your plants from a reputable grower. Let the wild grass pinks live out their splendor in peace!

Grass pink and ferns


Comments always are welcome.