Like Dipping Water With a Sieve

Mesquite trees ~ Frio County, Texas

From 1845 to 1847,  German naturalist Dr. Ferdinand Roemer traveled across Texas observing, collecting, and detailing discoveries in a journal published in 1849, after his return to Germany.  The expansive title — Texas ~ with Particular Reference to German Immigration and the Flora, Fauna, Land, and Inhabitants — is justified, as Roemer was a curious, keen-eyed, and accurate observer.

After arriving in Galveston via steamship from New Orleans and traveling up Buffalo Bayou to Houston, Roemer departed for New Braunfels. Along the way, he stopped in Gonzales and Seguin, and spent time at the historic El Capote Ranch. Eventually, he explored the area around New Braunfels in the company of Ferdinand Lindheimer, another German who already had acquired some fame as a botanist; in time, Lindheimer would become known as the Father of Texas Botany.

During their time together, Roemer and Lindheimer followed the course of the Guadalupe River for several miles below New Braunfels.  Roemer’s description of the mesquite trees he encountered during that trip came to mind when I discovered a lovely stand of mesquite in ranch country south of Devine on May 9:

A natural prairie or meadow one-fourth mile wide extends between [the Guadalupe] and a gently rising chain of hills, on which mesquite trees (Pleopyrena glandulosa Engelmann) were scattered. These mesquite trees, which spread also over a great portion of northern Mexico, give to the prairie of Western Texas much of its peculiar character…
The trunk is gnarled and now and then bent, thus making it unfit for lumber. They seldom obtain a thickness of over one to one and one-half feet in Texas, nor a height of more than twenty to thirty feet…
The foliage resembles the so-called acacia, inasmuch as it is plumeous. The individual leaves, however, are much narrower and the whole foliage is more graceful and transparent.
To find shade under a mesquite tree is like dipping water with a sieve.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For an entertaining and informative article about mesquite trees in Texas, click here.
My copy of Roemer’s journal was published by Copano Bay Press, an independent Texas press dedicated to bringing back important works of Texas history.

Hey, There, Bright Eyes!

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

As winter-weary humans begin roaming parks, cemeteries, and back roads in seach of spring wildflowers, the creatures who call those places home watch attentively. Cautious, perhaps even a little bemused, they’re keeping an eye on us, and the sense of being watched can be strong. 

Not far from the Rockport, Texas cemetery, this pied-billed grebe floated in solitude and perfect serenity at the edge of human activity. Surprised to find it there, I was even more surprised to find it willing to endure my attention. Shy and given to diving at the slightest provocation, grebes can be hard to photograph, but this one seemed willing to pose. “Hi, there, Bright Eyes,” I said as I snapped away. “I’m happy to see you.”

At the cemetery itself, another pair of bright eyes watched from a hollow limb high in a tree. Fox squirrels create two types of shelters, leaf nests (dreys) and tree dens, and often use natural cavities as dens for winter shelter or raising young. Given the apparent depth of this cavity and the obvious unwillingness of the squirrel to move as I walked closer, I suspect I’d found a mother with babies in a nest.

Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger)

Two hundred miles away and a week earlier, I found another fox squirrel watching from high in a different tree.  On the old Varner-Hogg plantation in West Columbia, this little sweetheart remained equally motionless and attentive. In a few weeks, I suspect youngsters will emerge from this hollowed limb to begin exploring the world around them.

The squirrel mama needs to be attentive, since being in a tree isn’t necessarily a defense against another plantation resident — the Texas rat snake. This one, over four feet long, is typical; the snake is among the largest in the state, reaching as much as six feet in length, and it’s known for its tree-climbing abilities.

Texas rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri )

Finding it among some flowers was appropriate, since the specific epithet lindheimeri honors German-American naturalist Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer. Better known as a botanist, Lindheimer collected the first specimen of this non-venomous snake in New Braunfels, Texas.

When I found a yellow-bellied water snake curled up at the base of a tree on this same plantation, it seemed somewhat apprehensive. But this sweet creature appeared to be more curious than fearful. Eye to bright eye, we regarded one another for a few minutes, and then went about our business. Whether the encounter delighted the snake I can’t say, but it certainly delighted me.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

Lindheimer’s Star

Lindheimer mural, New Braunfels, Texas

Political refugee, explorer, diplomat, newspaperman: all these aspects of his life help to make Ferdinand Lindheimer one of the more interesting early Texans. But it was his life as a botanist that most firmly secured his place in history.

After settling in New Braunfels, Texas, he began building his reputation as the “Father of Texas Botany” by collecting, categorizing, and sharing hundreds of plants. Taxonomic changes over the years make it hard to pin down exactly how many bear his name today, but at least thirty seems a reasonable number, and there may be more.

A mural on the west side of the Hoffman Building in New Braunfels, completed in 2001 by San Antonio artist Alex Brochon, shows Lindheimer holding a small bouquet of flowers: Lindheimera texana, or Texas yellowstar.


Lindheimer originally named the plant Lindheimeria texensis,  but referred to it affectionately as his “little asteroid.”***

In a May, 1842 letter written to George Engelmann, another German-American botanist, his association of botanical immortality with the flower becomes clear: 

Did you write my name among the stars with this little Asteroid? Did I serve botany in that way? Not by knowledge of it, but by love of this sleeping, dreaming daughter of Flora?
Epaminondas died childless, and when his friends complained to him about this, he said, “I leave two little immortal daughters, the battle of Leuctra and the battle of Montinea.” So, if I die childless, then I shall nevertheless leave a little immortal daughter, the Lindheimeria texensis.

A particularly delightful aspect of Lindheimer’s star is its ability to shine on even after its vibrant yellow petals have faded away. Its gone-to-seed structure is so pleasing, so appealing in its own right, I’ve often wished one or two had been included in Lindheimer’s mural bouquet. I’ve no doubt he loved even these dimming little asteroids.

 

 

Comments always are welcome.

***Note: Since posting, I’ve discovered that George Engelmann proposed the name Lindheimeria texana to Asa Gray, and told Lindheimer about that in March of 1842. In her book, A Life Among The Texas Flora, Minetta Altgelt Goyne ascribes the naming to Lindheimer, but that seems not to be so. More details can be found in comments to WOL and Steve Schwartzman, below.