Meanwhile, Back at the Refuge

Pink evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa)

Given the impossibility of being in more than one place at any given time, choices have to be made. During June, multiple trips to east Texas meant neglecting one of my favorite coastal spots: the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge. When I returned to the refuge during the Independence Day holiday, there were some surprises.

One of our earliest spring wildflowers, the pink evening primrose, continued to bloom throughout the refuge. I often see its flowers from February through April or May, but it’s much less common during June and July.  Field guides say the blooms become smaller, less frequent, and less colorful as the weather gets hotter, so our relatively cool and rainy spring may have allowed it to flourish longer than usual.

Texas Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa)

Another harbinger of spring, the Indian paintbrush, flaunted its orange-red bracts with unusual verve. It’s not unusual to see an occasional paintbrush during the summer, but the presence of multiple young plants suggested that recent favorable conditions had brought about a flush of new growth.

Prairie gentian or Texas bluebell (Eustoma exaltatum)

The Texas bluebell was well past its prime, but buds remained on plants along pond edges and among prairie grasses, suggesting that their season may linger at least a while longer. The patch of white flowers I’ve tracked over the past four years was nowhere to be seen: a reminder of the arbitrary comings and goings of native plants.

Lesser duckweed (Lemna aequinoctialis) and mosquito fern (Azolla caroliniana)

On the ponds themselves, green duckweed and red mosquito fern formed dense, colorful carpets, covering the broken reeds scattered over the water’s surface. Duckweeds, tiny, free-floating aquatic perennials about a quarter-inch across, were named for their appeal to feeding ducks and other waterfowl.

Fish enjoy them too. A note on the Missouri Botanical Garden site suggests anyone choosing to grow duckweed in a fish pond might want to “consider keeping a separate stock of plants in a fish-free pond or container, for replenishing supplies in the event the appetites of the fish outpace the supply of plants.”

Like duckweed, mosquito fern is green until excess nutrients in the water or bright sunlight turn it reddish brown.Like all ferns, it propagates through spores, but its ability to multiply by stem fragments as well makes it especially prolific and difficult to remove.

Saltmarsh morning glory (Ipomoea sagittata)

Across from Alligator Nest Pond, a colony of saltmarsh morning glories twined through the reeds and grasses. Remarkably tolerant of salt and able to thrive even in standing water, the plant’s large flowers have a wonderful, satin-like texture that belies their delicate nature. Open by sunrise, they begin to close by late morning: fading like most of us under the Texas heat. The grains of pollen scattered along this one’s petals suggest it’s already been visited: probably by a bee.

Mexican olive (Cordia boissieri )

A member of the borage family, Mexican olive isn’t a true olive, but its fruit — which looks like a small olive — is palatable to wildlife. Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds are attracted to its long-lasting flowers. It seemed likely that a flower beetle or other insect had been feeding on these, but I found the combination of white petals and browned edges attractive.

Carolina wolfberry ( Lycium carlinianum)

Speaking of feeding, the Carolina wolfberry, also called Christmas berry because of its bright red fruit, provides energy and nutrition for the endangered whooping cranes that arrive in Texas each fall. Found across mud flats and in sandy soils, it not only tolerates standing water but also resists drought, making it a dependable food source.

Beach evening primrose (Oenothera drummondii) 

This primrose, my first discovery of the day, actually lay outside the boundaries of the refuge. Bright and perky, it caught my eye along the edge of the road leading into the refuge, where it had pushed its way through a crack in the blacktop.

Descriptions of the flower usually mention that it grows in protected areas behind sand dunes. This one, miles from the nearest sand dune, was the first I’ve seen in the area. It amused me to think that it, too, might have been out exploring.

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Caterpillar and the Centipede’s Dilemma

Saltmarsh caterpillar (Estigmene acrea)

After stopping for a closer look at the lemon beebalm (Monarda citriodora) overflowing a roadside ditch, I discovered a dozen or more saltmarsh caterpillars roaming among the flowers. Most were munching on leaves or moving along stems with what passes for caterpillar haste, but one had curled itself around a grass stem and seemed to be holding on for dear life.

For the ten minutes I was in its neighborhood, it never moved. It might have been resting, or pondering a drop down into the leaf litter to begin pupating, but it reminded me of this verse from childhood:

A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, “Pray, which leg comes after which?”
It threw her mind in such a pitch
She laid bewildered in the ditch,
Considering how to run.

Even though the caterpillar lacks the numerous legs of a centipede, and despite the fact that its movement depends on muscle contraction rather than the legs it does have, it still amused me to imagine my little friend pondering the verse attributed to Katherine Craster in her 1871 volume called Pinafore Poems. Whenever I grew indecisive as a child, one parent or the other would recite the lines: a bit of cautionary advice to prevent dithering.

I assume the curled up caterpillar ceased any dithering and moved on eventually, but it pleased me that others of its kind were available for photos.

Salt marsh larvae are highly variable in color, ranging from yellow to brown or black, but whatever the color of their bodies or hairs, I find their little faces charming.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Glories of a Vacant Lot

Deer pea vetch surrounding green milkweed ~ Asclepias viridis

One of my favorite places to roam lies along a short Brazoria County road. Dead-ending at a fish camp on Hall’s Bayou, it has a ditch and a small, triangular piece of land on one side, and a small private hay meadow on the other. Sunflowers, ladies tresses orchids, a variety of milkweeds, and some lovely blue sage all have been found on the land, but it’s generally impossible to predict what I’ll find.

On April 6, I decided to visit the spot to see what might have appeared. It was a trip well worth making.

Browne’s savory ~ Clinopodium brownei

I’ve seen this pretty ground cover for years. With the help of Michael Eason’s Wildflowers of Texas, I finally identified the tiny, complex flowers.

Closeup of Browne’s savory
Lady Bird’s centaury ~ Zeltnera texensis

Once known as Centaurium texense, Lady Bird’s centaury became Zeltnera texensis after genetic analysis split the genus Centaurium and limited Centaurium to Eurasian species, placing Lady Bird’s centaury in Zeltnera.

Named after the former First Lady, the flower resembles mountain pinks, but the isolation of individual blooms helps with identification. Most guides place the flower in the rocky soil of the hill country, but Eason notes that it has spread southeast, into the Houston area.

Spring obedient plant ~ Physostegia intermedia

Three years ago, a nearby field was filled with hundreds of these flowers. Named for their stems’ willingness to remain in place once bent, they’re not so obedient when it comes to staying in place in the garden. They can spread enthusiastically, and I hope to find more as the season goes on.

Blue-eyed grass ~ Sisyrinchium angustifolium

Like the Herbertia blooming at the Varner-Hogg plantation, this lovely plant is a member of the iris family. It’s quite common, and always appealing.

Roughstem rosinweed ~ Silphium radula

Rosinweeds have been blooming for weeks, and their sunflower-like faces always appeal. I’m equally fond of their buds and seedheads, but for now, this flower will do.

Curly dock ~ Rumax crispus

An introduced plant that has naturalized nearly everywhere in the world, curly dock often is mentioned by foragers. The flowers appear in whorls encircling the stem; here, the separation of the clusters of fruits makes the pattern visible.

Carolina Geranium ~ Geranium carolinianum

With flowers only about a third of an inch wide, this common native lawn flower is easy to overlook. After identifying it, I began to see it everywhere, even in the grassy areas of the marinas in which I work.

Slim milkweed – Asclepias linearis

Surprised as I was to find both green and slim milkweed spread across the hay meadow, they clearly had been blooming for some time. A few plants had pods developing already, and a multitude of pollinators were visiting the flowers.

Bur clover, bur medick  ~ Medicago polymorpha

Another introduced plant, bur clover reminds me of a favorite member of the pea family: Vigna luteola, or hairy cowpea, the only native species of Vigna in Texas. Small-flowered, bur clover’s blooms are about a quarter-inch wide, but its vibrant yellow makes it noticeable.

Butterweed ~ Packera tampicana

This was the year I finally began to sort out the various Packera species. Some are obvious, like the prairie grounsel (Packera plattensis) I found in the hill country, but others required deep contemplation of stems and leaves, since the flowers appear quite similar. Also called yellowtop or Great Plains ragwort, this lover of disturbed ground was growing at the edges of the ditch that had been deepened and mowed.

Sand rose gentian ~ Sabatia arenicola

Smaller and differently-leaved than the meadow pinks (Sabatia campestris) that are so common here, this pretty flower prefers sandy soil, and often can be found on the inland side of dunes. Like Lady Bird’s centaury, it was new to me, and a delight to discover.

 Delta arrowhead ~ Sagittaria platyphylla

Just add water — even in an inland ditch — and the Delta arrowhead will be happy to make itself at home. One of my favorite ‘ditch diamonds,’ I’m always happy to see its unusual and pleasing flowers.

Horrid thistle ~ Cirsium horridulum

There are a number of names for this thistle, including some that sound more like a curse than a name. Still, despite the miserable, prickly, damaging thorns, the flower is entirely approachable, and on this particular afternoon the bees were everywhere: a good reminder that the flowers we find so pleasing visually also have a purpose.

As for those vacant lots? The next time you come across one, you might want to stop, and have a look.

 

Comments always are welcome.