Meanwhile, Back at the Refuge

Pink evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa)

Given the impossibility of being in more than one place at any given time, choices have to be made. During June, multiple trips to east Texas meant neglecting one of my favorite coastal spots: the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge. When I returned to the refuge during the Independence Day holiday, there were some surprises.

One of our earliest spring wildflowers, the pink evening primrose, continued to bloom throughout the refuge. I often see its flowers from February through April or May, but it’s much less common during June and July.  Field guides say the blooms become smaller, less frequent, and less colorful as the weather gets hotter, so our relatively cool and rainy spring may have allowed it to flourish longer than usual.

Texas Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa)

Another harbinger of spring, the Indian paintbrush, flaunted its orange-red bracts with unusual verve. It’s not unusual to see an occasional paintbrush during the summer, but the presence of multiple young plants suggested that recent favorable conditions had brought about a flush of new growth.

Prairie gentian or Texas bluebell (Eustoma exaltatum)

The Texas bluebell was well past its prime, but buds remained on plants along pond edges and among prairie grasses, suggesting that their season may linger at least a while longer. The patch of white flowers I’ve tracked over the past four years was nowhere to be seen: a reminder of the arbitrary comings and goings of native plants.

Lesser duckweed (Lemna aequinoctialis) and mosquito fern (Azolla caroliniana)

On the ponds themselves, green duckweed and red mosquito fern formed dense, colorful carpets, covering the broken reeds scattered over the water’s surface. Duckweeds, tiny, free-floating aquatic perennials about a quarter-inch across, were named for their appeal to feeding ducks and other waterfowl.

Fish enjoy them too. A note on the Missouri Botanical Garden site suggests anyone choosing to grow duckweed in a fish pond might want to “consider keeping a separate stock of plants in a fish-free pond or container, for replenishing supplies in the event the appetites of the fish outpace the supply of plants.”

Like duckweed, mosquito fern is green until excess nutrients in the water or bright sunlight turn it reddish brown.Like all ferns, it propagates through spores, but its ability to multiply by stem fragments as well makes it especially prolific and difficult to remove.

Saltmarsh morning glory (Ipomoea sagittata)

Across from Alligator Nest Pond, a colony of saltmarsh morning glories twined through the reeds and grasses. Remarkably tolerant of salt and able to thrive even in standing water, the plant’s large flowers have a wonderful, satin-like texture that belies their delicate nature. Open by sunrise, they begin to close by late morning: fading like most of us under the Texas heat. The grains of pollen scattered along this one’s petals suggest it’s already been visited: probably by a bee.

Mexican olive (Cordia boissieri )

A member of the borage family, Mexican olive isn’t a true olive, but its fruit — which looks like a small olive — is palatable to wildlife. Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds are attracted to its long-lasting flowers. It seemed likely that a flower beetle or other insect had been feeding on these, but I found the combination of white petals and browned edges attractive.

Carolina wolfberry ( Lycium carlinianum)

Speaking of feeding, the Carolina wolfberry, also called Christmas berry because of its bright red fruit, provides energy and nutrition for the endangered whooping cranes that arrive in Texas each fall. Found across mud flats and in sandy soils, it not only tolerates standing water but also resists drought, making it a dependable food source.

Beach evening primrose (Oenothera drummondii) 

This primrose, my first discovery of the day, actually lay outside the boundaries of the refuge. Bright and perky, it caught my eye along the edge of the road leading into the refuge, where it had pushed its way through a crack in the blacktop.

Descriptions of the flower usually mention that it grows in protected areas behind sand dunes. This one, miles from the nearest sand dune, was the first I’ve seen in the area. It amused me to think that it, too, might have been out exploring.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Shadow Play

Blue dasher (Pachydiplax longipennis)

 

Although written for children, Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem titled “My Shadow” would be nearly as appropriate for this dragonfly. Dragonflies may or may not recite poetry, but they’re able to cast remarkably large shadows.

 

I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head;
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.
The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow—
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,
And he sometimes gets so little that there’s none of him at all.
He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close beside me, he’s a coward you can see;
I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!
One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.
                                              

Comments always are welcome.

 

 

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.