Going Solo ~ February

Longleaf pine ~ Pinus palustris

The centerpiece of the Solo Tract in east Texas’s Big Thicket is the longleaf pine. Beginning life as a grass-like bundle capable of protecting the young tree from fire, the tree dedicates its first years to below-ground root growth; during this stage, the tree sometimes is confused with bunch grasses like little bluestem.

A young longleaf pine

Eventually the trees begin to grow, entering what’s known as the ‘bottle brush’ stage: a period when the tree is most vulnerable to fire. The tree shown in today’s first photo is beginning to move out of that phase, adding needle-trimmed branches to the ‘bottle brush’ on top; eventually, development of its thick, fire resistant bark will increase its ability to withstand both natural and prescribed burns.

Longleaf pine bark showing the effects of fire

Mature trees produce two types of cones: pollen-bearing male cones and seed-bearing female cones. Both are produced in summer, grow slowly over the fall and winter, and then become active the following spring. In January, I found these purple male cones still closed.

By February, male cones littered the ground, having released their pollen to fertilize the female cones. After approximately a year and a half, the female cones mature and release their seeds into the wind. Seeds that find open, sunny patches of ground germinate; those unable to penetrate dense leaf litter may not. Using periodic, low intensity fire helps to keep longleaf forests open by burning off shade-producing plants and litter that inhibit germination; the ash which results also provides valuable soil nutrients.

An older female cone and this year’s purple male cones

Despite their small size, even the male cones open in a way we think of as typically pine cone-ish.

Closeup of an opened male cone

Among the trees and cones, basal leaves of Aletris aurea, the golden colic-root, begin to grow in early spring. Once considered a member of the lily family, the plant has been moved into the bog asphodel family (Nartheciaceae), although most sources still place it in the Liliaceae. The genus name Aletris refers to a female slave from Greek mythology. Her task was to grind grain into meal; the rough texture of colic-root flowers resembles ground meal.

Emerging leaves of the golden colic-root

In January, only dried seed pods remained, but in a few weeks long spikes of golden-yellow flowers would appear; aurea is Latin for ‘golden,’ and the source of the plant’s common name.

Golden colic-root seed pods

Given their preference for wet pine flatwoods, bogs, and seeps, it wasn’t entirely surprising to find this colic-root nestled next to another lover of wet environments: the pink sundew.

Colic-root and a pink sundew (Drosera capillaris)

Four of five North American carnivorous plants can be found in Texas: pitcher plants, sundews, butterworts, and bladderworts. Only the Venus flytrap is missing; it’s native range is limited to North Carolina, coastal South Carolina, and two counties in Florida.

Two sundew species populate East Texas: the green spoon-leaf sundew (Drosera intermedia) and the pink sundew. I’ve yet to find the spoon-leaf, but there was no missing the pink.

A dime-sized pink sundew

Sundews possess special glands which secrete droplets of sticky fluid, giving the plant its glistening appearance. Insects attracted to the plant by the drops’ nectar-like appearance and scent quickly become stuck. Once the plant senses a struggling insect, it wraps around it, allowing digestive enzymes to transform the insect into usable nutrients.

Although most pink sundews are quite small, lying flat to the ground, this little bundle of stickiness was either a number of plants clustered together, or some sort of genetic anomaly.

A pretty pile of pink

What’s certain is the fate of the little winged insect lying near the top of the pile.

Like a moth too close to a flame

This differently colored sundew also is D. capillaris. In bright sunlight the plant appears red; in lesser light, the leaves may be green with red tentacles. Sundews also produce tiny flowers, although none had bloomed in February.

At the time of my first February visit, significant rains had left many sundews buried in sand, and small piles of sand smoothed by rushing water were everywhere. The holes in the centers of the piles suggested burrowing creatures — like crawfish — were responsible.

Later that month, my suspicion was confirmed. I’d never seen a crawfish chimney built of sand, but whichever species calls the Solo tract home, it knows its business.

A crawfish’s sand castle

Nearby, what I believe to be a rusty gilled polypore (Gloeophyllum sepiarium) decorated a stump.  A wood decay fungus, G. sepiarium grows on dead conifers; its brown cap is loosely fan-shaped, with the sort of yellow-orange margin shown here.

The day held two more surprises. First came an abundance of the bog white violets highlighted in my previous post.

Bog white violet ~ Viola lanceolata

The species name lanceolata refers to the violets’ spear-shaped leaves, which can be as much as six inches long.

A host plant for fritillary larvae, the violets attract an assortment of butterflies and bees. On this day, I found what I believe to be a Juvenal’s duskywing visiting one of the flowers.

Curious about the name, I learned that a collection of duskywings — Juvenal’s, Horace’s, Mottled (E. martialis), Columbine (E. lucilius), and Persius (E. persius) — are named for Roman poets. The convention was begun by Johan Christian Fabricius, a Danish zoologist who specialized in insects. A student of Carl Linnaeus, he established the basis for modern insect classification.

Juvenal’s duskywing ~ Erynnis juvenalis

Even ants like violets. Fourteen species of carpenter ants occur in Texas; the largest, the black carpenter ant (Camponotus pennsylvanicus), is found primarily in wooded outdoor areas. Whatever its species, this ant spent a considerable amount of time on the flower: perhaps lapping up nectar left by a previous visitor.

Black carpenter ant ~ Camponotus spp.

The other surprise was finding native blueberries among the dewberries. Blueberries are grown in Texas, but I wasn’t aware that a native species exists in a handful of eastern counties. The flowers were both beautiful and plentiful; if I’m lucky, in coming weeks I’ll find at least a few berries before the birds get to them. 

Elliott’s blueberry ~ Vaccinium elliottii


Comments always are welcome.
For an introduction to this “Going Solo” series, please click here.

A Year of Going Solo

The Solo Tract 

Often described as the biological crossroads of North America, the Big Thicket Natural Preserve in east Texas offers visitors a fascinating mixture of swamps, forests, grasslands, and sandhills. Since its establishment in 1974, it’s grown to 113,000 acres; its nine units contain nine (or ten) distinct ecosystems, ranging from baygalls and cypress sloughs to pine savannah wetlands and palmetto-hardwood flats.

The Turkey Creek unit alone contains seven ecosystems; more than seventy species of trees and nearly five hundred species of herbaceous plants can be found there. A favorite attraction in the unit, the Pitcher Plant Trail, leads to one of America’s largest displays of carnivorous plants.

Also tucked into the Turkey Creek Unit is a less well-known area called the Solo Tract: a longleaf pine upland purchased from a logging company. Because longleaf pines are resistant to fire, occasional prescribed burns, combined with other forms of clearing, are helping to reestablish the area as a healthy longleaf grassland: the sort of area some describe as ‘a prairie with trees.’

The Solo Tract ~ Longleaf Pines with Little Bluestem

No trails exist in the Solo tract, but wandering is encouraged, and that’s what I intend to do in the coming year. I enjoyed witnessing changes at Walden West from month to month, but was eager for something different. The Big Thicket certainly differs from my usual haunts, so ‘going Solo’ it will be.

The first thing I learned after my January visit was how little I know about pine trees. Both longleaf pines (Pinus palustris) and loblolly pines (Pinus taeda) grow in the Solo tract, and sorting them out can be a challenge. Bark color and texture vary widely, both between and within the two species. Loblolly bark is said to be “divided by shallow fissures into wide, rectangular blocks,” while longleaf bark is described as being “fissured into irregular, somewhat wavy plates;” to my untrained eye, that’s a distinction without much of a difference.

That said, and despite the bark of mature loblolly pines being described as “topped by scaly plates or rounded ridges that are reddish-brown, gray-brown, or gray-black,” my hunch is that this one qualifies as a longleaf.

Certainly Pinus, and probably palustris

The leaves of pine trees — their needles — also help with identification. Longleaf pine needles can attain a length of fourteen inches or more, while those of  loblollies typically range from four to nine inches. The needles of both species are bundled together in groups called fascicles; longleaf bundles generally contain three needles, while the loblolly bundles may hold two, three, or four.

Despite similarities between mature longleaf and loblolly pines, juvenile trees are easy to distinguish. After longleaf seedlings sprout, they spend several years remaining close to the ground, looking much like a clump of grass.

During this time they develop a deep taproot, while clustered needles protect their buds from fire. Once they begin growing, they attain height relatively quickly, but branching doesn’t begin until they’re about ten feet tall.

Up, up and away ~ longleaf pine style

Not only do loblolly pines seed and grow in sandy soils where water is close to the surface (‘loblolly’ is an interesting early American term applied to the trees), they begin branching much earlier, and grow more quickly than the longleafs: as much as two feet per year.

A loblolly pine, branching out

Despite a late winter absence of colorful flowers, other hints of color caught my eye as I sauntered down the road shown in the top photo. Stopping to look at a relatively large branch that had fallen into the brush, I realized I’d never seen anything like the bits of purple, yellow, and lavender it contained. Eventually I learned that, despite differences in common terminology, I’d found both male and female cones.

In common with other gymnosperms, pine trees have no flower or fruit. Instead, they produce cones and seeds; the term ‘gymnosperm’ literally means ‘naked seed.’ Unlike angiosperms, or flowering plants, the seeds of pines are not encased within an ovary, and the trees are not pollinated by insects.

Instead, individual trees are monoecious, containing  both pollen-bearing male cones and female seed-bearing cones. Pollen produced by male cones (properly termed ‘microsporangiate strobili’) is carried by the wind to fertilize the immature female cones (‘megasporangiate strobili’) which eventually will produce seeds. After maturing, the female cones open and release their seed; eventually, they fall to the ground, becoming the familiar pine cones we collect.

Had a single branch not fallen from one of the tall trees lining the road, who knows how long it would have taken for me to learn these things?

Colorful and intricately patterned male cones

A tiny female cone

Thanks to previous visits to the Solo tract and other Big Thicket sites, not everything seemed so unfamiliar. In time, the purer whites of the Pepperbush and Pipewort; the tall, bright gold of the Miller’s Maid, the purple Liatris, and the delicate shine of the Yellow-eyed Grass will appear. When that happens, I’ll be there to celebrate their new season. 

Sweet pepperbush ~ Clethra alnifolia
Ten angled pipewort ~ Eriocaulon decangulare
Golden miller’s maid ~ Aletris aureaPrairie blazing star ~ Liatris pycnostachyaYellow-eyed grass ~ Xyris ambigua


Comments always are welcome.

The Forest and the Trees

A first encounter with Sandyland Sanctuary

It’s an old saying, and a familiar experience. “I couldn’t see the forest for the trees,” someone declares, and everyone smiles knowingly. We’ve all been there.

On the other hand, the opposite can be equally true. At first glance the pineywoods of east Texas — crowded, dim if not dark, deeply unfamiliar — can seem impenetrable: a pile of sticks leaning against a wall of green. Even the Big Thicket’s name seems off-putting. People who’ve never picked dewberries or read the journals of early Texas settlers still have a vague understanding of thickets. They’re difficult to pass through, possibly dangerous, and best avoided.

But thickets can be more than obstacles on the way to somewhere else, and the Big Thicket offers proof. Step inside the forest, and it’s easy to see the trees in a new way.

Longleaf pine upland forest ~ Big Thicket

Look more closely, and enchanting details begin to emerge.

Some especially appealing longleaf bark
An unidentified vine secures itself as it climbs
Shadows of neighboring shrubs play against the trees’ rough surfaces
One face of the forest peers out from among the leaves

Here and there, young longleafs bide their time, developing their root systems. For periods as long as several years, they resemble clumps of grass: their buds protected beneath a bundle of needles. Should fire sweep through, the needles may burn but the bud will remain protected and virtually immune to fire.  

Longleaf pine grass stage ~ Sandyland Sanctuary

When the root collar (a transitional zone between the roots and the trunk of a tree) becomes about an inch in diameter, the longleaf begins to grow. A single white tip called a ‘candle’ emerges from the protective sheath of needles, new needles develop, and, in time, bark begins to form.

Rapid growth allows the seedling’s growing tip to rise above potential fires, and after a year or two the bark has thickened enough to withstand most fires. No branches form during this so-called ‘bottlebrush’ stage, when all of the tree’s energy is focused on ‘up’ rather than ‘out.’

Longleaf pine bottlebrush stage ~ Sandyland Sanctuary (Sandhill Loop Trail)
Longleaf needles-in-waiting ~Sandyland Sanctuary (Sandhill Loop Trail)

After passing through the bottlebrush stage and the aptly-named candelabra stage so obvious in my photo of dawn in the Big Thicket, the longleaf moves on to maturity.

Longleaf pine showing off new needles and cones ~ Big Thicket (Solo Tract)

In time, cones will fall and seeds will disperse, preparing the way for more trees. But more than fallen needles are there to receive the cones. In the Big Thicket, pine trees of various sorts coexist with everything from cacti to ferns, and any fallen cone becomes an invitation to further exploration.

Pine cone and needles with eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) ~ Sandyland
Pine cone with ferns ~ Big Thicket (Sundew Trail)


Comments always are welcome.