A Darker View of Nightshade

 

The pretty purple flowers and silvery leaves of a common Texas nightshade, Solanum elaeagnifolium, spread along roadsides and ditches across Texas: from coastal prairies to the hill country, to the panhandle, and beyond. 

As its flowers fade, the developing fruits take on the appearance of small green tomatoes; in time, the fruits turn yellow and become even more appealing.

Unfortunately, this isn’t a fruit to use in jam or jellies. Poisonous even in its early stages, the fruit becomes increasingly toxic as it ripens, helping to explain why birds and mammals allow it to linger on the plant well into winter.

On a dank, rainy day at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, this nightshade — already missing its leaves and skeletal in appearance — caught my eye. The dark, water-filled canal behind it seemed the perfect background for a poisonous plant; a shutter speed of 1/1600 magnified the effect.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

A Passion For Opuntia

Texas prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii var. lindheimeri) ~ Galveston Island

The barrier islands of the Texas coast are well enough known for the beachcombing, fishing, and partying they offer. But behind the dunes, a world of flowering plants and grasses holds sway, including several species of cacti.

On my neighborhood islands — Galveston, Follett’s, and Brazos — at least three species of prickly pear can be found in addition to Opuntia engelmannii: O. humifusa (previously O. compressa), O. macrorhiza, and O. stricta, which is nearly spineless. Still, my favorite is the common Texas prickly pear.

Flowers range from a bright, clear yellow to orange, or even red. Sometimes, flowers of all three colors appear on the same plant. Many flowers combine colors and, as they age, even the brightest yellow fades toward the same delicate, peachy hue that characterizes the buds.

Yellow prickly pear flowers on Follett’s island

The petals of aging flowers sometimes seem to thin; in the right light, they can glow like paper lanterns.

A flower still blooms along the Blue Water highway at sunset

Regardless of color, prickly pear flowers contain an abundance of pollen. Bees, flies, beetles, and ants are common pollinators, with larger bees taking advantage of the easy access to pollen provided by the flowers.

Here, a bee pauses before taking the plunge, perhaps to appreciate the riches spread before it. When it comes to the prickly pear — the state plant of Texas — the bee and I are equally appreciative.

 

Comments always are welcome.
A note regarding taxonomy:  Some sites consider O. engelmannii and O. lindheimeri to be separate species. Others continue to list the Texas prickly pear as O. engelmannii var. lindheimeri. For  a comparison of the species, click here. (The site as a whole is an excellent resource.)

 

A Tisket, A Tasket…

…a just emerging basket

A basket-flower, that is. I watch for the emergence of Centaurea americana every year, and they never disappoint.

In ditches and along railroad tracks, the flowers come and go. Last year’s largest stand was mowed at precisely the wrong time and failed to bloom, but a newly-discovered colony already is forming seed, and will be a destination next spring.

This year I experienced their scent, honey-sweet and heavy in the early summer air, and longed to extend their season.

“You should grow some in a pot,” said a friend. But these flowers aren’t meant for patio life. They’re meant to be wild and uncontained, like their mature blooms.

For years, I failed to see the basket-flowers crowding fencelines and ditches during spring and early summer. Obviously, they were there. Only my attention was lacking.

 

Comments always are welcome.