Autumn Colors, Coastal Style

Carolina Wolfberry ~ Lycium carolinianum

When it comes to autumn color, trees hold pride of place. During my years in the midwest and mountain west, Sunday afternoon drives “to look at the trees” were a beloved seasonal ritual.

In parts of Texas, perfect conditions can produce equally colorful trees, but on the coastal plain autumn color is less easily seen from the road. On a recent visit to Galveston State Park, the reds, golds, lavenders, and oranges of the marshes were best encountered on foot.

Carolina wolfberry  blooms with a pretty purple flower from May through October, although it sometimes blooms even in December. Its vibrant red fruits typically ripen in October and November, when migrating whooping cranes arrive on the Texas coast. The cranes’ winter diet consists primarily of blue crabs, but wolfberries provide as much as one-quarter to one-half of the birds’ energy needs in early winter.

Carolina Wolfberry flower

Wolfberry and goldenrod blooming simultaneously provide a charming variation on autumn’s many purple and gold combinations. Seaside goldenrod thrives among the other salt-and-sand loving plants of our coastal counties, and often blooms in tandem with other goldenrod species.

Seaside goldenrod ~ Solidago sempervirens

As other flowers begin to decline, autumn goldenrods offer sustenance to a variety of insects, including bumblebees.

Even the lowly glassworts shine in autumn. Both Virginia glasswort (Salicornia depressa) and Dwarf glassroot (Salicornia bigelovii) begin life as green, low-profile members of the marsh community, but by early October their changing colors start to catch the eye.

Dwarf glasswort~ Salicornia bigelovii

The taller and many-branched dwarf glassroot often becomes especially attractive, with colors ranging from a true red to this rusty orange. Granted, it’s not as obvious as a maple or sweetgum dressed for autumn, but it decorates its marshy home perfectly well.


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Leaving and Leafing

Poison ivy ~ Toxicodendron radicans

Falling leaves, colorful leaves, leaves to rake and burn: all signal summer’s leave-taking. Here on the Texas coast, much of our seasonal color is produced not by vibrant and dramatic hardwoods, but by vines twining through the landscape.  Virginia creeper, dewberry, and poison ivy add a touch of color to the autumn palette.

On the other hand, autumn also is a time for trimming and clearing. With seasonal rains and warm temperatures often lingering into November, new growth is everywhere. Some appears green, like the leaves of this poison ivy vine growing up the trunk of a hackberry tree.

Other new growth is more colorful. Trimmed-back peppervine (Ampelopsis arborea) often fills ditches and woodland edges with its own version of autumn red.

In the midst of a local woods, this young willow oak leaf (Quercus phellos) also provides a bit of autumn color. Its elegant, starry shape would make it a perfect ornament for any Christmas tree, as well as a lovely addition to our celebration of autumn.


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Lost Maples’ Sycamores

American Sycamore on the grounds of the Lost Maples Winery

In spring, people flocking to the Texas hill country in search of bluebonnets sometimes arrive too early or too late to see the bloom at its height. In certain years, the flowers are sparse at best, and the sense of human disappointment becomes palpable.

The same is true at Lost Maples State Natural Area, where the autumn color of Bigtooth maples draws visitors from across Texas. The New England-like foliage can be spectacular, but timing is everything. The need to reserve a date for a visit because of crowds — as many as 80,000 visitors in a six-week period — complicates things, since even the most glorious display of color can be swept away by overnight winds.

Still, if the maples have lost their color, other delights remain. During my recent visit, I especially enjoyed the American sycamore (Plantanus occidentalis). A tall tree, capable of attaining heights up to a hundred feet, the sycamore often is found along creek and river banks, as well as in floodplains. The most striking feature of the tree is its bark: white in younger trees, aging into a darker gray-brown, patchy, and peeling bark that resembles camouflage in the older.

Leaves of the sycamore and Bigtooth maple are similar in shape; size is often the quickest way to distinguish them. Here, a hollow log serves to display a collection of smaller maple leaves and an especially nice example from a sycamore.

Even the smallest sycamore sapling can produces glorious leaves, as this example from the Sabinal riverbank proves.

In Can Creek, dozens of sycamore leaves bobbed and floated; in the shallow waters, a few were caught and held by the creekbed’s pebbles and rocks, and glimmered in the late afternoon light.


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The Guardian of the Gaillardia


At Lafitte’s Cove Nature Preserve on Galveston Island’s west end, I found this Snowy Egret huddled against yesterday’s wind on the far side of the pond. Nearer at hand, still-vibrant Gaillardia pulchella continued to bloom, providing a bit of autumn color as well as a pleasant framing for the bird.


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Nature’s Sanctuary


Leaves of cedar elm and Chinese tallow, combined with the bright red berries of yaupon, glow in the late, low afternoon sunlight, their panoply of color providing the backdrop for a young tree branch — perhaps American beech.

The effect is as pleasing as any stained glass window: a perfect complement to nature’s sanctuary.


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