A Brazos Bend Surprise

Red Buckeye  flower ~ Aesculus pavia

I’d meant to spend an early April day roaming the wildflower and prairie trails at Brazos Bend State Park, but when I asked a ranger if there might be wildflowers blooming in other areas of the park, she grinned and said, “The buckeyes still are blooming. If you walk the Red Buckeye trail, you should find them.” And so I did.

I’d never heard of Red Buckeyes, and assumed they’d be akin to most wildflowers, growing low to the ground. Eventually, I realized the clusters of red and yellow blooms rising above the lush green leaves of shrubs were the flowers I was seeking.

Aesculus pavia, commonly called red buckeye, is named for smooth, shiny seeds that ripen in the fall; some compare them to the eye of a buck. The genus name refers to a kind of oak bearing edible acorns, while the Specific epithet honors 17th century Dutch botanist Peter Paaw.

Unlike many acorns, Red Buckeye seeds are poisonous and avoided by most wildlife. Like other Aesculus species, the seeds’ toxins are capable of causing muscle weakness and paralysis. Native Americans used crushed buckeye seeds and branches to slow the movements of fish, making them easier to catch.

On the other hand, the flowers attract hummingbirds, and their relatively early bloom makes them an important food source during the birds’ migration. Other nectar feeders that visit the flowers include eastern tiger swallowtail butterflies, bumblebees, and carpenter bees.

A variety of red buckeye, Aesculus pavia var. flavescens, occurs naturally only on the limestone soils of the western Edwards Plateau. Smaller than A. pavia, its flowers are yellow; where the species appear together, hybridization may produce yellow and red flowers.

By August, this deciduous shrub will begin to lose its leaves, but next spring I’ll look forward to finding its flowers again; perhaps I’ll be lucky enough to find both red and yellow blooms.

 

Comments always are welcome.

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.

The Star-Thistle That Isn’t a Thistle

Basket-flower and beetle ~ Atascosa County

If you search the USDA site for information about the ‘American basket-flower,’ you’ll not find the attractive plant shown above, since its common name is listed there as ‘American Star Thistle.” Searching for it with a scientific name also can be problematic, since the USDA still applies Centaurea americana rather than the more current Plectocephalus americanus.

Taxonomy aside, both common names reflect aspects of this wildflower. While a member of the sunflower family, it lacks the familiar combination of ray and disc florets that make the family so recognizable. Instead, its bloom is composed solely of pink, lavender, and white disc flowers held in the basket-like phyllaries (modified leaves) that led to the plant being called a ‘Basket-flower.’

The Basket-flower’s pretty ‘basket’

On the other hand, ‘Star-thistle’ also makes sense, since basket-flowers so closely resemble various thistles. Traveling an Atascosa County road on May 9, I would have missed the basket-flowers had I not slowed for a closer look. What’s easily misinterpreted at 60 mph often suggests its true nature at 30 mph — and reveals its full beauty at a full stop.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Like Dipping Water With a Sieve

Mesquite trees ~ Frio County, Texas

From 1845 to 1847,  German naturalist Dr. Ferdinand Roemer traveled across Texas observing, collecting, and detailing discoveries in a journal published in 1849, after his return to Germany.  The expansive title — Texas ~ with Particular Reference to German Immigration and the Flora, Fauna, Land, and Inhabitants — is justified, as Roemer was a curious, keen-eyed, and accurate observer.

After arriving in Galveston via steamship from New Orleans and traveling up Buffalo Bayou to Houston, Roemer departed for New Braunfels. Along the way, he stopped in Gonzales and Seguin, and spent time at the historic El Capote Ranch. Eventually, he explored the area around New Braunfels in the company of Ferdinand Lindheimer, another German who already had acquired some fame as a botanist; in time, Lindheimer would become known as the Father of Texas Botany.

During their time together, Roemer and Lindheimer followed the course of the Guadalupe River for several miles below New Braunfels.  Roemer’s description of the mesquite trees he encountered during that trip came to mind when I discovered a lovely stand of mesquite in ranch country south of Devine on May 9:

A natural prairie or meadow one-fourth mile wide extends between [the Guadalupe] and a gently rising chain of hills, on which mesquite trees (Pleopyrena glandulosa Engelmann) were scattered. These mesquite trees, which spread also over a great portion of northern Mexico, give to the prairie of Western Texas much of its peculiar character…
The trunk is gnarled and now and then bent, thus making it unfit for lumber. They seldom obtain a thickness of over one to one and one-half feet in Texas, nor a height of more than twenty to thirty feet…
The foliage resembles the so-called acacia, inasmuch as it is plumeous. The individual leaves, however, are much narrower and the whole foliage is more graceful and transparent.
To find shade under a mesquite tree is like dipping water with a sieve.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For an entertaining and informative article about mesquite trees in Texas, click here.
My copy of Roemer’s journal was published by Copano Bay Press, an independent Texas press dedicated to bringing back important works of Texas history.