Curls of Christmas Color

Green fir and pine boughs; red holly berries; green and red yaupon and poinsettia: all display the traditional colors of Christmas. Since red and green abound in nature, plants bearing them often become part of human decorations. In east Texas, pale pitcher plants (Sarracenia alata) probably don’t adorn any dining tables, but they decorate their bogs with an interesting variation on seasonal colors.

One of four carnivorous species found in East Texas, pitcher plants prefer hillside seepage bogs in longleaf pine savannas. Named for the covered pitchers they resemble, they first collect water, then combine that water with enzymes designed to digest any curious insects which become trapped within the plant.

There’s more than water to tempt those insects to explore. Nectar droplets form from glands inside the leaf’s hood, and the brightly colored pitcher lip can be as inviting as a flower. The combination of nectar and color often lead unsuspecting insects to explore the tube, which is easy to descend but nearly impossible to escape because of downward-pointing hairs. Below the hairs, the tube is slick and covered with glands that exude digestive fluids instead of nectar; any insect that lands in that pool is about to have a very bad day.

That said, the colorful transformation of the plants is quite attractive. Some turn a uniform red, as shown in the first photo, while others remain somewhat mottled, like the single plant below.

Especially interesting is the tendency of some pitcher plants to curl as they age. In the summer of 2019, I found this one: a sweet green curve in the midst of a Big Thicket bog.

Last month, this red-and-green curl caught my eye. With luck, one day I’ll find a perfectly red version to complete my set.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Tree With the Lights In It

Loblolly and Light

After spending a few hours on the Big Thicket’s Pitcher Plant and Turkey Creek trails last Sunday,  I nearly had regained the trailhead when I looked up, searching for bits of autumn color in the still mostly green trees.

Instead of color, a vision of what I first imagined to be an enormous orb-weaver’s web stopped me in my tracks. There was no larger-than-life spider lurking, of course. There was only a loblolly pine, and the sun, and a phenomenon I’d never before seen. Despite their apparently random distribution, the pine needles had transformed the light into a beautifully circular pattern; it was nature, not my camera, that had created the effect.

At the time, I didn’t think anything at all; I only stood, and wondered at the sight. Later, I remembered a favorite passage from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and realized I’d been granted my own vision of a tree with the lights in it.

One day I was walking along Tinker Creek thinking of nothing at all and I saw the tree with the lights in it.  I saw the backyard cedar where the mourning doves roost charged and transfigured, each cell buzzing with flame.  I stood on the grass with the lights in it, grass that was wholly fire, utterly focused and utterly dreamed.  It was less like seeing than like being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance.  The lights of the fire abated, but I’m still spending the power. 
Gradually the lights went out in the cedar, the colors died, the cells unflamed and disappeared.  I was still ringing.  I had my whole life been a bell, and never knew it until at that moment I was lifted and struck.  I have since only rarely seen the tree with the lights in it.  The vision comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when the mountains open and a new light roars in spate through the crack, and the mountains slam.

 

Comments always are welcome.
NOTE: I consulted Jim Ruebush, who taught physics for years, and here’s what he had to say about the effect: ““In the fully enlarged image, the pine needles radiate out in all directions. But, the only ones that reflect brightly to the camera direction are aligned circumfully (if that is not a word, it is now) to the sun. Their surfaces act like long narrow mirrors. Needles aligned any other way don’t reflect brightly to the camera.” Or, to the human eye!

Barbara, Unbuttoned

A blooming Button in the Big Thicket’s Solo Tract

The pretty flower known as Grassleaf Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia graminifolia) occurs naturally in flatwoods, bogs, seepage slopes, wet prairies, and savannas; it’s quite common in east Texas’s Big Thicket.

All species in the genus commonly are known as Barbara’s buttons, although the identity of ‘Barbara’ is unknown. The common name first appeared in John Kunkel Small’s Flora of the Southeastern United States; published in 1933. The genus name, Marshallia, honors American botanists Humphry Marshall (1722-1801) and his nephew Moses Marshall (1758-1813), while the species epithet refers to the plant’s grasslike leaves.

Although a member of the sunflower family, the flower heads are composed only of disc florets; ray florets, often sometimes called ‘petals,’ are absent. In bloom, the flower’s compact form makes a comparison with buttons understandable; as buds, they seem even more button-like.

An interesting aspect of the flower is the way it sometimes comes into bloom: asymmetrically, if not erratically. I’m often amused by the forms it takes. Here, Barbara looks less like a button and more like a pig-tailed bud that’s cute as a button.

I caught this flower presenting a tentative wave to the world. Perhaps it felt a bit buttoned-up, and sent one of its florets to determine if it was safe to bloom.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Sipping Summer’s Sweetness

Despite the inevitable heat and humidity, August has its rewards. Here, an Eastern Tiger Swallowtail ( (Papilio glaucus) visits Sweet Pepperbush, or Summersweet (Clethra alnifolia): a deciduous shrub native to swampy woodlands, wet marshes, and stream banks.

Although found along the coast from Maine to Florida, and west into Texas, Summersweet’s native presence here is limited to a few counties in the area of the Big Thicket, where this photo was taken.

At first, I assumed I’d found a Black Swallowtail visiting the flowers, but I soon learned those butterflies have yellow spots on their bodies, while Tiger Swallowtails exhibit yellow streaks along each side of the thorax and abdomen. The existence of dark morphs like this one among the Tigers can make things even more confusing, but the sight of one is immensely enjoyable.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Note: Two readers have suggested that this little beauty actually is a Palamedes Swallowtail  (Papilio palamedes). I never had heard of that one, so I never considered it as a possibility. The Palamedes is common in Florida, so I’m interested to see what my Florida readers say. Some revision of the post may be necessary!

Three Cheers for Individuality

Not purple, but a pleatleaf nonetheless ~ Alophia drummondii

Slight variations in color, size, or shape are common enough among the flowers we enjoy, but more dramatic differences occasionally appear. Flowers typically associated with specific colors — bluebonnets, red Indian paintbrush, blue eyed grass, meadow pinks — all produce white variants from time to time, and discovering one always is fun.

Still, I was surprised to find this unusual purple pleatleaf tucked among a loose cluster of more traditionally colored flowers in east Texas’s Big Thicket. In this case, another name commonly applied to the plant — ‘propeller flower’ — seems apt.

The absence of the bold color and intricate patterning that usually mark the flower, shown in my previous post, made its membership in the iris family more obvious, and I enjoyed finding different ways to portray its beauty.

 

Comments always are welcome.