Neither a Toad, Nor Flax

Texas toadflax  ~  Nuttallanthus texanus

I first met Texas toadflax on March 23 of last year, while photographing spring wildflowers in a New Berlin, Texas cemetery.

When I discovered a group of the flowers beginning to bloom on Galveston Island’s west end a few days ago, on February 9, I thought our mild winter might have encouraged an early bloom. In fact, various sources indicate they’re right on schedule; in our area, their flowering begins in February and continues through May. Texas toadflax is one of three species of native North American toadflax; the bloom times of N. canadensis and N. floridanus vary somewhat.

The plant’s flowers, ranging from light lavender to light blue, are accompanied by a slender, downward-curved spur approximately 5-10 mm in length: longer than the flower’s  calyx. The nectar-filled spur attracts bees, flies, butterflies, and moths; the caterpillar of the common buckeye butterfly feeds on the leaves.

Toadflax, of course, is an odd and interesting name. In her book Nature’s Garden, published in 1900, Neltje Blanchan explains it this way while writing about Linaria canadensis, or blue toadflax, known today as Nuttallanthus canadensis:

Wolf, rat, mouse, sow, cow, cat, snake, dragon, dog, toad are among the many animal prefixes to the names of flowers that the English country people have given for various and often most interesting reasons.
Just as dog, used as a prefix, expresses an idea of worthlessness to them, so toad suggests a spurious plant; the toadflax being made to bear what is meant to be an odious name because, before flowering, it resembles the true flax, linum, from which the generic title is derived. 

Given the changes in customs and classifications over the years, Blanchan’s explanations can seem quaint or puzzling. What seems certain is that toads don’t lounge beneath the plant, and it never has provided fiber. It just blooms, reminding us that spring’s not as far away as we’ve imagined.

 

Comments always are welcome.

An All-Season Favorite

 

Although less common during the winter, the plant commonly known as sea ox-eye (Borrichia frutescens) can be found throughout the year on coastal salt flats, beach dunes, salt marshes, and tidal flats along the upper Texas coast, where it grows with such other typical salt marsh plants as glasswort (Salicornia virginica), saltwort (Batis maritima),  saltgrass (Distichlis spicata), and seepweed (Suaeda linearis).

Ranging from south Texas to Virginia, it’s known by a variety of English names: sea ox-eye daisy, sea marigold,  seaside tansy, and bushy seaside ox-eye.  In Spanish-speaking countries, common names often compare the flower to other species, such as beach carnation (clavelón de playa) or sea purslane (verdolaga del mar) in Puerto Rico, and coastal rosemary (romero decosta)  or marine sage (salvia marina) in Cuba.

For many people, ‘ox-eye daisy’ brings to mind Leucanthemum vulgare, a pretty white flower with a yellow center brought here from Europe and now often considered a nuisance. In his book Florida Ethnobotany, Daniel F. Austin notes that the name ‘ox-eye’ had been added to Borrichia frutescens by 1866, perhaps because of its vague resemblance to the European daisy. The genus name honors the Danish botanist Ole Borch, while the specific epithet refers to the plant’s shrub-like character.

Tolerant of both drought and standing water, the plant can bloom prolifically, with flowers approximately one inch in diameter. The grayish-green, pubescent leaves give the foliage a silvery sheen which becomes more pronounced as the plant dries and begins to set seed.

Because the plant blooms in every season, it provides both food and cover for a variety of insects, birds, and other small wildlife. Texas butterflies which enjoy its nectar include the great southern white, the Gulf fritillary,  the large orange sulphur, and the southern broken-dash. I haven’t yet seen any of those butterflies this spring, but the sea ox-eye is putting on a fresh set of blooms, and I expect it to begin receiving visitors any day.

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Little Old, A Little New

Dwarf palmetto leaf with gold yaupon ~ Artist Boat, Galveston Island

As the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, we mark the move from one year to the next with ringing bells, fireworks, and more-or-less accomplished versions of “Auld Lang Syne.” On New Year’s Day, different human conventions hold sway. We change calendars, make resolutions, and eat special foods to ensure luck or money in the coming year.

But these are human foibles. Nature hangs no calendar and watches no clock. Old and new keep comfortable company at year’s end, and at the Artist Boat on Galveston Island, I found a lovely year-end mix.

The golden yaupon shown above — probably the cultivar known as Saratoga Gold — is a new addition to the Artist Boat landscape. Several trees line the boardwalk leading to the bird observatory now, and the birds obviously enjoy the berries.

On the other side of the boardwalk, a relative of the better-known silverleaf nightshade, known as eastern black nightshade or West Indian nightshade, bloomed prolifically. Despite its common name, it’s a Texas native, with tiny flowers only a half-inch wide when fully opened.

The day I found it blooming, great clouds of bees skillfully “buzzed” the banana-like anthers, vibrating the flowers with their bodies to encourage the flowers’ pollen to fall from the anthers’ tips.

Lovely Gaillardias were everywhere, in every stage of bud, bloom, and decline.

At least two native plants in Texas carry the name Spanish needles: Bidens bipinnata, and this lovely Bidens pilosa (also known as Bidens alba). I don’t remember finding these before, and was delighted to discover a few in a corner of the preserve.When I noticed this striking seedhead forming, it took me a minute to realize it was the same Macartney rose I’d shown blooming in a previous post. As pretty as the flower is, this seemed even more striking to me: a summery, sunny glow at the turning of the year.

 

Comments always are welcome.