A Fuzzy Puzzlement

One curious cattail

I suspect most people are familiar with the broadleaf cattail (Typha latifolia), a common plant of marshes, swamps, wetlands, and ordinary ditches filled with standing water.

Cattail stalks contain two sets of tiny flowers. Male flowers, located at the top, disperse after they bloom, leaving the pollinated female flowers to ripen and turn brown beneath the expanse of empty stalk; as the seeds mature, they become the familiar ‘cattail’ beloved of children, birds, and home decorators.

As winter progresses, the smooth, brown seed head becomes ragged as birds pull at the fluff and weather begins to wear it apart. But on January 5, I noticed some catttails at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge that were more than a little out of the ordinary.

I counted at least a dozen stalks with the strange protrusions: some of the holes they surrounded were rectangular, some round. They didn’t seem random, and it seemed unlikely that birds had been at work. After some searching, I found that the larvae of the shy cosmet (Limnaecia phragmitella) will feed on flowers and developing seeds of Typha spp. The BugGuide page said: “Larval presence can often be detected by quantities of down protruding from the seedheads of cattails.”

Of course, “down protruding from seedheads” could mean any number of things, and the fact that these cattails were growing both some distance off the road and in water deeper than my boots kept me from examining them more closely.

When I sent photos to Thomas Adams, botanist for the Brazoria Refuge complex, he suggested they might be similar to galls that appear after a wasp lays its eggs in the cambium of an oak tree, but he’d never seen anything like them. Neither had a half-dozen other insect or wetland plant enthusiasts I contacted.

Today, I’m no closer to knowing what was going on in that marsh than I was on January 5. One of you may take a look and say, “Well, of course. They’re an example of (insert answer here), and they’re all over the place.”  If not? They’re still intriguing, and a reminder of the mysteries that fill the natural world.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

Beauty, Times Two

 

Week after week, I watched this pair of yellowlegs as they foraged back and forth across a shallow, grassy mudflat that developed after weeks of unusually heavy rains. I never saw them fly, and I never heard them call; they were too busy plucking indeterminate creatures from the sandy mud.

While they fed, I amused myself by trying to decide if they were greater yellowlegs (Tringa melanoleuca) or lesser yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes). There are ways for an experienced birder to distinguish between them — body size, the length of the bill, the nature of their call — but I never was certain which species I was seeing until the day something startled them. Calling to one another, they flew up and away from their buffet table.  A later comparison of yellowlegs calls convinced me they were Lesser, not Greater — but no matter which species, I found them a great delight.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

A Gaggle of Gaillardia

Gaillardia pulchella, coming and going

At the end of the road, past the observation platform, around the steel gate meant to discourage cars and up again on the berm, lies an isolated hiking path at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge. On the east side of the berm, a ditch deep enough to provide protection from the wind allows plants to bask in low winter sunlight; it’s one of the first places I look for early-blooming flowers: coastal germander, verbena, scarlet pimpernel.

Sometimes, there are surprises. On January 27, I found the ditch filled with short and somewhat scraggly Gaillardia pulchella, commonly known as firewheel or Indian blanket. The genus name honors M. Gaillard de Charentonneau, a French magistrate and patron of botany, while the specific epithet means ‘pretty.’  Twelve species of native blanketflower inhabit the United States; at least one species can be found in every state, with Gaillardia pulchella the most widespread.

Known for their months-long bloom, these tough, cold-hardy Gaillardia clearly weren’t faded holdovers from the fall. In their snug little corner of the world, spring has arrived.

A slightly damaged but still enthusiastic bud
A significantly darker bud, perhaps showing evidence of a recent cold snap
A seedhead, beginning to prepare for the next generation

 

Comments always are welcome.