Pink, Pinker, Pinkiest

Eager for spring’s bold primary colors — Bluebonnets, red Indian Paintbrush, yellow Buttercups and Butterweed — it can be easy to overlook the season’s  pastels. Pink, lavender, and white flowers are blooming, emerging, or already fading. It’s time to catch them, before they’re gone.

Ten-petal anemone ~ Anemone berlandieri
Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

For years, I found only white ten-petal anemones at the Brazoria refuge. This year, to my great delight, a large colony of pink-tinged flowers appeared. The common name for this member of the buttercup family is doubly misleading, since the plant has sepals rather than petals, and the number of sepals varies widely. Some flowers have as few as six or seven sepals, while others may have more than twenty.

Like other Anemone species, this Texas native sometimes goes by the name ‘windflower.’ As with dandelions, its seeds are spread by the wind, and many already have gone to seed.

Carolina Geranium ~ Geranium carolinianum
Follett’s Island, Brazoria County

Having been raised with big, red geraniums that spent their lives in pots, meeting the Carolina Geranium — another member of the Cranesbill family — was quite a surprise. Its flowers are only 1/4″ to 3/8″ across, and the plant itself rarely exceeds a foot in height. Where it’s allowed to flourish, it blooms prolifically, and attracts a variety of small bees, flies, and other insects.

Pink evening primrose ~ Oenothera speciosa
Vacant League City lot

When I photographed this pretty pink primrose near my home, it was the first I’d seen in this spring season. Today, small clusters of the flowers have appeared in unmown spots around town; before long, they’ll be covering fields and ditches with a lovely mixture of pink and white blooms. Given their enthusiastic spread and their ability to leave great swaths of land ‘in the pink,’ it’s easy to think of them as the ‘pinkiest’ of our spring wildflowers.

Comments always are welcome.

Beauty In the Midst of Beastly Ice

Ice-encased Texas mountain laurel ~ Dermatophyllum secundiflorum
photo courtesy of Tahlia Sowa-Gutierrez/CBS Austin

In 1972, a long-haul trucker persuaded my parents to choose a Dallas motel over a trek across ice-covered north Texas and Oklahoma roads. In 1990, certain live-aboard sailors on Clear Lake had to be freed from their boats by chipping off the ice that surrounded them.

When the ice of 1997 arrived in southeast Texas on January 12th of that year, more than an inch collected on power lines and trees until temperatures finally began to moderate on the afternoon of the 14th. Despite the thaw, three-quarters of the area between Houston, Beaumont, and Lake Charles remained cold and dark for as much as five days. And of course during Valentine’s week in 2021, the entire state went into the deep freeze, causing immeasurable misery.

During the 1990 event, I said to one of my dockmates, “You Texans may not do snow, but you sure know how to do ice.” This week, central and north Texas had yet another turn at ‘doing ice.’ Conditions are miserable for far too many people, but moments of amusement, delight, and awe have appeared in the midst of the chaos.

I found a bit of unexpected beauty in Austinite Tahlia Sowa-Gutierrez’s photo of one of my favorite Texas plants. Native to limestone soils in central and southwest Texas, as well as to the Chisos and Davis mountains, Texas mountain laurel flowers remind many people of wisteria; wonderfully fragrant, their scent resembles that of grape Kool-Aid.

In areas north of hardiness Zone 8, flowering isn’t reliable because late freezes often damage the buds. How this week’s freeze will affect trees farther south is hard to say, but many mountain laurels survived the 2021 week-long freeze, producing both flowers and seeds in its wake. We’ll hope the same for many of our native plants —  especially the tough mountain laurel.

Mountain Laurel at the Texas Revolution Monument ~ Cost, Texas, March 26, 2022
A survivor in bloom at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge ~ May 15, 2022
 

Comments always are welcome.

Investing in Gold

November, 2022

Given recent volatility in traditional markets, not to mention the goings-on in the crypto world, it probably was inevitable that purveyors of gold would make their own run at nervous investors; their advertisements are everywhere. While I don’t intend to start stashing gold coins in the closet as a hedge against inflation, I am a great fan of gold — especially the floral variety.

Year after year, the dependable Camphor Daisy (Rayjacksonia phyllocephala) brightens our coastal landscape in nearly every month, but especially from September through January. The plant is blooming now in even our most droughty areas, and its flowers are providing nourishment for a variety of insects. Just for fun, I thought I’d look through my archives to see what past years have offered.

January, 2019

Even in January, this Calligrapher Fly (Toxomerus marginatus) and a friend found flowers in bloom. This species of hoverfly benefits gardeners; it not only sips nectar, it feeds on aphids.

January, 2019

It’s not hard to spot a Spotted Cucumber Beetle (Diabrotica undecimpunctata). This one was nibbling on the plant’s ray flowers. You can see a bit of evidence at the far left.

December, 2020

Bees of every sort adore this flower. Here, an American Bumblebee (Bombus pensylvanicus) uses its long tongue to gain nourishment.

December, 2021

More than bumblebees visit the flowers. This Southern Carpenter Bee (Xylocopa micans), still out and about in December, seems to be luxuriating in the floral wealth.

October, 2018

The soldier fly family name, Stratiomyidae, was derived from the Greek word stratiotes, or ‘soldier.’  The name refers to abdominal markings that resemble military uniform hash marks. In this species, Nemotelus kansensis, the pattern is especially clear.

January, 2019

There was a time when I believed this pretty white-striped insect was a bee; in fact, it’s a Yellow-shouldered Drone Fly (Eristalis stipator), a species of hoverfly that’s often mentioned as a bee mimic. It fooled me.

October, 2018

In the past week, all of the refuges have received from a half-inch to an inch of rain. That’s enough to coax even more gold blooms into existence, and to coax at least a few gold-lovers into investing more time with them.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Incredible Lightness of Gaura

Lindheimer’s Beeblossom (Gaura lindheimeri) ~ Galveston State Park

One of the prettiest plants still blooming on the late October prairie was the Texas and Louisiana native known as Lindheimer’s Gaura, or Lindheimer’s Beeblossom. Often achieving a height of four or five feet, its loose sprays of flowers give the plant an especially airy appearance; the tendency of the flowers to sway and hover in the breeze have led to yet other names, like butterfly Gaura or whirling butterflies.

Its flowers, which open a few at a time from pinkish buds, are visited by long-tongued bees and bumblebees, as well as by butterflies.The genus name Gaura, derived from the Greek word gauros, or ‘superb,’ refers to the flowers. The specific epithet honors Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer (1801-1879), an extraordinary early Texan now known as the father of Texas botany.

The plant’s narrow, lance-shaped leaves can be tinged with red throughout the year, but autumn increases their color, making the leaves as appealing as the flowers.

In the early 2000s, taxonomic research led to Lindheimer’s Beeblossom and other Gaura species being moved into the genus Oenothera. Today, the plant is known formally as Oenothera lindheimeri, although that name has not been adopted in the horticultural industry. Both the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Missouri Botanic Gardens still list Gaura lindheimeri as a valid name. 

Frustrating as such changes can be, one indication that the change was warranted is visible even to those without access to an electron microscope or knowledge of DNA analysis.

When Lindheimer’s Gaura is compared to other Oenothera species such as the Pink Evening Primrose, the Beach Evening Primrose, and Sundrops, one obvious similarity is the flower’s stigma.

Beach evening primrose ~ Oenothera drummondii

Oenothera stigmas are divided into four branches which form the shape of an ‘X’ — easily seen in the shadow on the Beach Evening Primrose above. Whichever scientific name is used for Lindheimer’s Gaura, one thing is certain: ‘X’ marks the genus.

The X-shaped stigma of Lindheimer’s Gaura

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

The Importance of Names ~ The Flowers

The Nature Conservancy’s Love Creek Preserve near Medina

After poetic reflections on the importance of names for the natural world’s trees, birds, and rocks, it seemed fitting to end the series by considering the names of the flowers that surround us.

When I began roaming in nature, I often was confused by names given to the plants I encountered. In the photo above, the red flowers — a species of Gaillardia — were introduced to me as Indian blanket, blanketflower, firewheel, and brown-eyed Susan. On the other hand, some people called the yellow flowers blooming among the Gaillardia coneflowers; others called them brown-eyed Susans.

It’s a common problem. For two years, I assumed a friend meant a certain spring-blooming yellow wildflower when she mentioned her love of ‘buttercups.’ In fact, her ‘buttercup’ was my ‘pink evening primrose,’ a flower also known as showy evening primrose, Mexican evening primrose, pink ladies, and pink buttercup. Eventually, we sorted out our confusion: learning in the process that using the flower’s scientific name, Oenothera speciosa, could have eliminated hours of good-natured argument.

Oenothera speciosa ~ aka pink evening primrose, aka buttercup

Scientific names can be long, difficult to spell, and harder to pronounce, but the two-part naming system formalized by Carl Linnaeus serves an important purpose. His system categorizes plants by genus and species, and every two part name, like Oenothera speciosa, refers to only one plant.

Eventually, as I became more comfortable with the system, the thought of having a little fun with binomial nomenclature — those two-part names — occurred to me. When the phrase “the naming of plants” came to mind, it evoked T.S. Eliot’s wonderful poem, The Naming of Cats, and a parody was born.

If you’re not familiar with Eliot’s poem, you can hear a recording of him reading it here. If you’ve long enjoyed the poem, you’ll hear it echoing below. Whether Linnaeus would approve, I can’t say, but I’m sure that Eliot would. If nothing else, it makes the world of binominal nomenclature less intimidating, and much more fun.

The naming of plants? It really does matter.
It isn’t correct to think all are the same.
You may think at first I’m indulging in patter,
but I tell you — a plant must have four different names!
First comes the name that tells us its genus —
Gaillardia, Ilex, Solanum, or Phlox;
Clematis and Salvia,  Silphium, Quercus —
the Latin is easy, not hard as a rock.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
some for the cactus and some for the canes —
Monarda, Justicia, or even Lantana
make lovely and sensible Latinate names.
And then, every plant needs a name more particular,
a name that’s specific and quite dignified;
else how could it keep all its stems perpendicular,
spread out its anthers, or blossom with pride?
For namings of this sort, I ‘ll give you fair dozens:
lyrata, drummondii, frutescens, and more —
crispus, limosa, punctatus, texensis —
those names help describe what we’re all looking for.
Of course, there are names by which most people call plants,
like violet, hollyhock, iris, and thyme;
there’s nothing more common than sweet dandelions,
or peaches, or rhubarb for making our wine.
But above and beyond, there’s one name left over,
and that is the Name that you never will guess;
the Name that no researcher ever discovers —
which the plant itself knows, but will not confess.
When you notice a bloom in profound meditation,
its rays sweetly folded, or its leaves well-arrayed,
its mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
of the seed of a thought of a thought of its Name:
its sturdy and windblown,
sunkissed and shadowed,
deep and firm-rooted most singular Name.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For an extraordinarily useful and detailed exploration of scientific names, please click here.