A Stick-y Situation

Two paths diverged in the Nature Conservancy’s Sandyland Sanctuary; as I stood, deciding which to follow, I noticed some pretty, ruffled foliage. I didn’t recognize the plant, but I liked the way the twig lying across it had provided the third side of a natural triangle.

Then, I realized that the twig seemed to be looking at me. It wasn’t a twig at all, but an insect: a Giant Walkingstick (Megaphasma denticrus). If you enlarge the photo, you can see what I imagine to be an appraising look in its eye.

Officially the longest insect species in North America, the creatures can reach six inches or more in length; from toe to outstretched toe, this one measured about eight inches long. It may have been a female, since female walkingsticks typically are larger than the males.

Found in woods, forests, and grasslands of the Southern United States, Giant Walkingsticks are common in Texas, but can be found as far north as Indiana and Iowa. They prefer a moist environment,  and generally are found on trees or shrubs.

A wonderful example of mimicry in nature, walkingsticks closely resemble twigs of the plants where they choose to rest. When motionless, they’re far less obvious to predators; their nearly undetectable presence has led to their continued reproduction and expansion throughout the Southern United States.

Both male and female adults are wingless and slow moving. Adults tend to be greenish to reddish brown, sometimes with pale legs. Immature nymphs, though smaller, resemble adults;  they’re often green, and sometimes resemble juniper twigs.

Noturnal creatures, Giant Walkingsticks feed on leaves throughout the night. When I found this one at a relatively early hour of the morning, it may have just settled in for a post-dinner nap.

Comments always are welcome.

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.

A Beautiful — and Useful — Bean

Pink fuzzybean ~ Strophostyles umbellata

Only three species are included in the genus Strophostyles, and all three are found in Texas. Popularly known as fuzzybeans because of the texture of their seed pods, they can be difficult to distinguish from one another, particularly since their flowers are similar.

One  way is to note differences in their leaves and bracts. The amberique-bean, sometimes called the sand or trailing fuzzybean (S. helvola) and the slickseed or small-flower fuzzybean (S. leiosperma) have bracts at the base of the flowers that tend to be acute, while those of the pink, or trailing, fuzzybean (S. umbellata) are more blunt.

I found this pair of what I believe to be pink fuzzybeans near the entrance to the Big Thicket’s Solo Tract on September 6. Despite their small size, their shape and color attracted my attention. Only later did I learn that the Houma people of Louisiana made a decoction of the seeds to treat typhoid, and the Iroquois used the leaves to treat poison ivy rashes. I’m not worried about typhoid, but given my limited ability to spot poison ivy in the wild, a fuzzybean poultice might be as useful as the flower is beautiful.

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Last (Prim)rose of Summer

Mexican Primrose-willow buds

Our native Mexican Primrose-willow (Ludwigia octovalvis) is widely distributed: so much so that it’s as likely to be found in Samoa or Singapore as in the southern U.S.  Its flowers certainly recall other primrose species, while its slender leaves suggest the water-loving willows found along the banks of ponds and streams.

Primrose-willow begins flowering in June or early July and continues well into November: bearing buds, blooms, and seed capsules simultaneously. On October 31, new flowers were developing on a multitude of plants I found in wet areas of the Big Thicket, including the Watson Rare Plant Preserve.

A bud that suggests an especially prim rose

Once the flower is pollinated, its petals, style, and stamens fall away, leaving the four triangular sepals shown in the upper right of the photo below. As the plant ages and seeds develop, both sepals and stems develop a pleasing reddish color that contrasts nicely with the pretty yellow flowers.

Several Luwigia species serve as larval hosts for the Banded Sphinx Moth  (Eumorpha fasciatus) and the Primrose Flea Beetle(Altica litigata).   A variety of butterflies visit the plant, including this Gulf Fritillary that paused for a photo session alongside Village Creek near Kountze, Texas.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Orchid Named for an Insect

Crane fly (Platytipula sp.)  ~ photo by artyangel/Pixabay

One recent February day, the temperature refused to rise above 28°F, and ice still lurked in the shadows. Two days later, the temperature had risen to 50°, and the ice was gone. Two days after that, I found the first of what would become dozens of over-sized and long-legged insects lollygagging around the outside walls and window screens of my home.

For years after moving to Texas, I called them mosquito hawks, and believed their purpose in life was to eat mosquitos. Eventually, I learned the truth; they’re crane flies, and if they eat anything at all after hatching, it’s unlikely to be anything more than a bit of nectar. After emerging from their larval stage at winter’s end, their only purpose is to mate, lay eggs, and die — all within the space of a very few days. 

Some people consider crane flies a nuisance, particularly when they find their way indoors, but they don’t bite, they don’t carry disease, and they make perfectly safe play toys for cats.

Oddly enough, crane flies also have offered their common name to an orchid  I discovered deep in the east Texas woods.

Buds of the Crane-fly orchid (Tipularia discolor)

The Crane-fly Orchid (Tipularia discolor), is a perennial terrestrial orchid, and the only species of the genus Tipularia found in North America. In part because of the length of its nectar spurs, it was named for its supposed resemblance to the insect.

Scattered throughout the southeastern United States, the orchids prefer the humus-rich soils of deciduous forests or areas with acid soils, such as oak-pine forests. This group was thriving in deep shade beneath a beech tree in the Big Thicket of east Texas.

When I found the plants last August, their leaves already had disappeared, as they do prior to the orchid’s bloom. The leaf emerges in fall, then withers before flower clusters appears in mid-to-late summer. I’ve never found the oval-shaped leaves, but with luck I might find them this month; with purple undersides and purple spots on top, they should be easy to identify.

The leafless flowering stems, which bloom from the bottom up, can be as much as 20 inches tall; these were somewhat shorter, measuring an average of 12 inches. The flowers’ less than vibrant color, combined with deep shade from the trees and mottled sunlight, made photos somewhat difficult, but summer’s coming, and I may have another opportunity. 

Unfortunately, while we can count on an abundance of craneflies each spring, cranefly orchids don’t bloom every year. Perhaps, if this group is taking the year off, another will be waiting.

 

Comments always are welcome.