Ball Moss in Bloom

This nondescript and messy little bundle of plant life is ball moss: Tillandsia recurvata. Not a true moss at all, this epiphytic member of the bromeliad family commonly clings to the limbs of trees, barbed wire fencing, and utility wires.

While its own wiry roots attach the plant to a host, they don’t draw nutrients from that host; the plant isn’t a parasite. Instead, it absorbs minerals and moisture from the air through scales on its leaves called trichomes: a characteristic of another epiphyte, Spanish moss (Tillandsia usneoides).

Not everyone loves ball moss, although spiders and other insects seem to enjoy taking up residence inside its tangled leaves. If the plant’s flowers were more obvious, they might get more respect, but most people never see the tiny blooms.

Ball moss in bloom

When I found this little ball of moss in the middle of a parking lot, I noticed its buds, and wondered what would happen if I brought it home and fussed over it a bit. I’d read that the plant enjoys high humidity, so I laid it in a pot next to a prickly pear cactus, and misted it when I thought about it. In about a week, some of the buds — from 3/8″ to 1/2″ long — had opened.

I was able to see the flowers without magnification, but only at close range. Even then they were difficult to discern, so it’s no wonder people looking at the plants from a distance never glimpse the flowers.

In a day or two, the petals began to droop, and a separation appeared as the seed head began to form.

As the seed head continued to dry, the split became more obvious.

Eventually, the seed pod opened and tiny seeds began to drop, ready to be dispersed by the wind. Those that find a congenial place to land, like crevices in tree bark, will begin developing roots almost immediately, and a new plant will form. Each flower can produce up to a hundred seeds, so it’s no wonder that, once established, ball moss becomes a recognizable part of the southern landscape.

Opened pod with dangling seeds

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

Last Saturday’s ‘Something’

Evening rain lily (Cooperia drummondii, also known as Zephyranthes chlorosolen)

I’ve learned a number of lessons since beginning to roam the countryside in search of delights to photograph. Most have been of the practical sort: double-check the camera for the presence of its memory card before leaving home; always carry Benadryl; keep boots and extra water in the car; don’t put car keys in a shallow pocket.

Other lessons, less obvious, have been learned slowly, over time. After five years or so, I’ve yet to experience a single exception to a lesson best expressed as an aphorism: “There’s always something to see.” 

Last Saturday, my unexpected ‘something’ turned out to be five rain lilies. The flowers often emerge after rains, but despite a wet spring and early summer, I hadn’t yet seen one this year.

I certainly didn’t expect to find them clustered along a dry, dusty roadside during our typically hot and dry July, but there they were: one fading to pink, three somewhat nibbled and gnawed, and the one shown above still fresh, as nearly perfect as a flower could be.

I confess I sometimes talk to the flowers, and I talked to this one. “Look at you,” I said. “It’s barely past seven o’clock, and you’ve already given me my ‘something’ for the day.”

 

Comments always are welcome.
Evening rain-lily (Cooperia drummondii, or Zephyranthes chlorosolen) has been moved from the Lily family (Liliaceae) to the Amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae). The specific epithet ‘drummondii’ recognizes Thomas Drummond, an 18th century Scottish naturalist. 

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.