Nettled by Nature

Nascent Bull Nettle buds

Another name for Texas Bull-nettle (Cnidoscolus texanus) is ‘Tread Softly,’ and there’s no question that treading softly and carefully is good advice if Bull-nettle’s in the neighborhood. The inattentive or inexperienced risk discovering why the plant sometimes is called Mala Mujer, or ‘bad woman.’ Its stem, branches, leaves, and seed pods are covered in stinging hairs; when the hairs come into contact with human skin, the results can include intense pain, burning, itching, or cellulitis.

Several years ago, entranced by the sight of a field of white prickly poppies and eager to photograph them, I met my first bull-nettle by sitting on one. I don’t recommend the experience, any more than I recommend kneeling in a spot where the highway department has mowed them down, leaving invisible hairs strewn across the land.

A member of the Spurge family, bull-nettles produce several stems from a single taproot; the plant thrives even in the hottest and driest parts of the summer. Its lovely flowers, five to seven white, petal-like sepals surrounding ten or more stamens and a three-lobed pistil, bloom from early March through July across a large swath of the state.

Aransas Wildlife Refuge

Oddly, the stinging hairs don’t seems to bother the plant’s many non-human visitors. Here, a common green bottle fly (Lucilia spp.) pauses on bull-nettle flowers mixed with colorful Indian Blankets.

Willow City Loop, Fredericksburg

A Red Admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) sips nectar, heedless of the hairs.

El Capote Ranch ~ Guadalupe County

Perhaps sensing an opportunity for camouflage, this Green Lynx Spider (Peucetia viridans) holds its hairy legs next to the plant’s hairs, while it assumes its characteristic prey-catching posture and awaits its next meal.

Tres Palacios Bay

The number and variety of creatures that can be found on and around the Bull-nettles is remarkable. Just don’t get too close while admiring them!

 

Comments always are welcome.

Brookweeds Will Not Brook Being Ignored*

While I found the fully-opened flowers of the Limewater Brookweed (Samolus ebracteatus) charming enough to be featured in my previous post, I was equally taken with their plump little buds, and the interesting, vase-like form of the flower when seen from the side.

Like flowers of the dewberry or rain lily, they can be touched with a hint of pink which fades as the flower matures.

 

Comments always are welcome.
* While the construction ‘brook no’ is old and generally uncommon, it still shows up in phrases like “He would brook no criticism” or “She brooks no dissent.” It means not to allow, tolerate, or accept something.
The etymology of ‘brook’ in this sense is interesting, as this condensed passage from the LanguageHat blog demonstrates:
The Old English strong verb brúcan is historically the same as the German brauchen and has the same meaning: ‘to make use of, have the enjoyment of, enjoy.’  A specialized usage is found in the Oxford Annotated Dictionary’s second sense: “To make use of (food); in later usage, to digest, retain, or bear on the stomach.”  Citations of early usage include Thomas Raynalde (Roesslin’s Byrth of mankynde, 1540): “If she refuse or cannot brooke meat.” The first OED citation is found in Palsgrave’s 1530 “Lesclarcissement de la langue françoyse”: “He can nat brooke me of all men.”

The Day It Rained Caterpillars

Live Oak Tussock Moth ~ Orgyia detrita

Inchworms move more quickly than you might think. Intent on trying to photograph patterns on an especially tiny one trucking along a boardwalk at the San Bernard Wildlife Refuge, I assumed a twig had fallen into my hair, and brushed it off. Then, as I brushed away a second and third ‘twig,’ I realized they weren’t bits of a tree branch at all. They were caterpillars.

As the wind rose, the number of falling caterpillars increased, until the boardwalk was covered with them. In only a few hours, hundreds of them were crawling over plants, the decking — and me.

Eventually, I learned I’d encountered the Live Oak Tussock Moth (Orgyia detrita), a moth species whose life cycle coincides with the emergence of Coastal Live Oak leaves in spring. Quercus virginiana serves as their primary host plant, and emerging caterpillars may completely defoliate a tree, although wind-blown Tussock Moths may defoliate other small trees and shrubs; all of the oaks and other plants usually rebound without suffering permanent damage.

The caterpillars, named for the ‘tussocks,’ or tufts of hair on their back, are strikingly pretty. Those tufts are so striking that, when I spotted this caterpillar on Pete Hillman’s nature blog, I suspected his English caterpillar was related to the species I’d found in mid-April.

Vapourer or Rusty Tussock Moth ~ Orgyia antiqua

Indeed, it is. Known in the United Kingdom as the Vapourer, in the United States the non-native species is known as the Rusty Tussock Moth. Like our Live Oak Tussock Moth, the Vapourer feeds on a variety of broad-leaved trees and shrubs throughout woodlands, moorlands, valleys, and urban gardens from northern Scotland to the extreme southwest of Cornwall.

While the Vapourer shares the distinctive hair tufts of our Tussock Moth, its common name refers to the pheromones — the ‘vapours’ — that males follow to find females with which to mate.

The hairs of both species can be irritating to human skin, but there was nothing at all irritating about finding myself in the midst of a caterpillar ‘shower,’ or in the discovery that our native species has an equally attractive counterpart across the Atlantic.

Comments always are welcome.