Stars on the Prairie, Stars in the Hills

It didn’t twinkle, but this delightful blue star caught my eye nonetheless. I’d seen the flower in the past, and recognized it as Amsonia tabernaemontana, a member of the Apocynaceae, or dogbane family.

The plant’s genus name honors 18th century Virginia physician Dr. Charles Amson, while its interesting specific epithet (tabernaemontana) recalls Jakob Theodor von Bergzabern (1525-1590), who Latinized his name as Tabernaemontanus, or ‘mountain tavern.’  Also a physician, botanist, and herbalist, Tabernaemontanus has been considered the father of German botany.

The native range of the blue star which bears his name lies well beyond Texas; it can be found as far north as Illinois, and as far east as North and South Carolina. Looking beyond my single star, I found plants bearing its extraordinary multi-colored buds, as well as a few scattered plants covered in blooms.

As I was admiring the flowers, an older man stopped his truck on the road and called to me. “You think those flowers are pretty? Go on down the road a couple of miles to where they’ve burned the prairie, and you’ll see hundreds of them.”

He wasn’t wrong. In the past, I’d witnessed the emergence of thousands of spider lilies after a prescribed burn, but I wasn’t prepared for acres of blue stars, on both sides of the road.

In places, the contrast between the scorched land and the resurgent flowers was breathtaking.

Blue star nectar attracts ruby-throated hummingbirds, carpenter bees, and hummingbird moths, but on that day it was the least skippers (Ancyloxypha numitor) that fluttered by the dozens through the flowers.

The blue stars I found on the coastal prairie aren’t the only Amsonia species in Texas. Amsonia ciliata, sometimes known as fringed bluestar, thrives in dry, open woods or chalky hills; these were photographed between Medina and Vanderpool along Farm-to-Market road 337. The distinctively narrow leaves, as well as slightly shorter and more rounded petals, make identifying the species relatively easy.

Like Amsonia tabernaemontana, the fringed bluestar seems to draw clouds of butterflies. Here, a Gulf fritillary (Agraulis vanillae) spreads its long, narrow wings over one of our prettiest Texas wildflowers: the perfect way to spend a spring afternoon.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

The Butterfly that Didn’t Fly

When I spotted this lovely, pinkish spiderwort blooming along a roadside outside Palacios last Sunday, I had to stop for a closer look.

Most spiderworts I’d seen that day had been purple, like this impressive clump of prairie spiderwort (Tradescantia occidentalis). At more than two feet tall, it was larger than anything I’d seen outside a garden, and definitely eye-catching.

While admiring the pink spiderwort, I noticed that the stem held two blooms, not one. As I circled the plant, trying to focus on both flowers, I found myself seeing them them as one creature: a sweet, pink butterfly far more willing to pose than most of the fluttery ones that tease me with their flight.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

Some Friends for the Big Green Guy

The Big Green Guy ~ photo by Steven Schwartzman

This little marvel munching away on a gaura leaf, clearly unwilling to interrupt his meal in order to tidy up for the camera, has been tentatively identified as the larva of a white-lined sphinx moth (Hyles lineata): the same moth I featured recently on The Task at Hand.

The first time I saw the creature, I dissolved into giggles and immediately dubbed him the Big Green Guy. His vulnerable chubbiness, his tiny, multi-purpose feet, his air of concentration, his apparent lack of embarassment at being revealed as a messy eater: all evoked a response of absurd protectiveness.

Unable to help myself, I emailed his image to friends. Despite mixed reviews, everyone recognized it as a caterpillar, although some less sensitive souls deemed it ‘just’ a caterpillar. “Yes,” I said. “It is a caterpillar. But it’s not just any caterpillar. It’s an Alice in Wonderland, ‘Let me look you in the eye and ask you some questions’ caterpillar.”

Eventually, I purchased and hung a print of the creature on my wall. A neighbor said, “You might as well have mounted a collection of cockroaches.” I considered her judgment unnecessarily harsh, and said so. “To each her own,” she said.

Over the months, I began to wonder why I never had found a caterpillar. I saw monarchs being raised here and there, and occasionally a friend would find a chrysalis hanging from a lawn chair or a shrub, but caterpillars of any sort evaded me.

Then, in late October of this year, I noticed yellow tape along a roadside, attached somewhat casually to stakes. Suspecting that someone might have marked a milkweed patch, I stopped to explore. When I did, I not only found milkweed plants, I found a group of monarch larvae happily feeding: as plump and adorable as the Big Green Guy.

This one appeared to be sampling a stem.

A second was making short work of what seemed to be an especially tasty plant. At the time, I didn’t notice what appears to be an empty chrysalis nearby.

Focused on eating as much milkweed as they could, as quickly as possible, the group clearly wasn’t interested in posing, but they provided a wonderful hour’s entertainment.

In a recent post on his Learn Fun Facts blog, Edmark M. Law offered this quotation from Charles Dickens’s 1850 novel, David Copperfield:

Indifference to all the actions and passions of mankind was not supposed to be such a distinguished quality at that time, I think.
Yet I have known it very fashionable indeed. I have seen it displayed with such success that I have encountered some fine ladies and gentlemen who might as well have been born caterpillars.

Dickens might have sought a different analogy, had he met the Big Green Guy and his friends.

Comments always are welcome.