The Awakening Prairie ~ Early March

Nash Prairie ~ early March

Vibrant bluebonnets and glowing fields of Indian paintbrush have come to define spring in Texas: so much so that anyone passing Nash Prairie while searching for early wildflowers might think it little more than an abandoned field, or an overgrown collection of weeds.

In truth, the first time I set off to visit Nash I wasn’t able to find the place, even though I’d been given directions and a map. It took a friendly neighbor — and a goat — to help me find the great swath of unbroken land I’d passed several times without recognizing it as ‘prairie.’

The story of that initial search still amuses me, and since it also provides an introduction to the history of Nash Prairie, I’ve republished it on The Task at Hand as a companion piece for this pair of posts showing a different aspect of a delightful season.

In early spring, prairie flowers often are small or low growing; even easily-spotted blooms can require a hands-and-knees approach to photography. Blue-eyed grass, a member of the Iris family, appears as early as January. Recently, its numbers have been increasing dramatically, creating a blue haze over the land that’s as pleasing as fields of bluebonnets.

Blue-eyed grass ~ Sisyrinchium spp.

By early March, beaked corn salad appears. Multiple explanations have been offered for the plant’s odd name. Some say it’s rooted in the plant’s tendency to invade wheat fields; others suggest it arose from use as a salad green. Julian Steyermark, the distinguised botanist and author of Flora of Missouri, once noted that basal rosettes of the plant “make an excellent salad, especially when prepared with olive oil and vinegar.”

Beaked Corn Salad ~ Valerianella radiata

Bluets are among our tiniest flowers. Two to six inches tall, with flowers only a quarter to a third of an inch across, they were scattered across more open portions of the prairie by early March. Initially, I assumed the white bluets were variants of H. pusilla, but their greater height and significant numbers suggested a different species; H. micrantha seems a reasonable possibility.

Tiny bluet ~ Houstonia pusilla
Southern bluet ~  Houstonia micrantha

A flower that stymied me turned out to be introduced rather than native; I found a few Caley (or singletary) peas at the edge of a service road leading into the prairie. Introduced into the United States from Mediterranean areas of Europe to serve as forage, it naturalized; now it appears in areas along roadsides and railroads, and at edges of fields — precisely where I found it.

Caley pea ~ Lathyrus hirsutus
Caley pea ~ Lathyrus hirsutus

Venus’s Looking-glasses belongs to the Campanulaceae, or bellflower family. According to a North Carolina Extension site, their common name reflects early botanical descriptions of a similar European plant (Legousia speculum) whose seeds were said to be as shiny as looking glasses. In addition to the species shown here, Triodanis lamprosperma, the Prairie Venus’s Looking-glass, also has been documented at Nash Prairie

Clasping Venus’s looking glass ~ Triodanis perfoliataSmall Venus’s looking glass ~ Triodanis perfoliata subsp. biflora

That same North Carolina site happened to have a photo of a small Venus’s Looking-glass bud. In 2019, I took a photo of a bud at the Broadway cemeteries in Galveston, but wasn’t able to identify it. The photo lingered in my files, and now it can be shown for what it is — a Venus’s Looking-glass hosting a tiny fruit fly, Dioxyna picciola.

Triodanus spp. with a very attractive fruit fly

I first found yellow star grass at the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge, and was pleased to encounter it again at Nash. Although widespread in the eastern half of the U.S., it doesn’t form large colonies, and usually is somewhat scattered where it appears. A member of the lily family, the plant arises from a small corm before producing flowers approximately an inch across. Rarely more than six inches tall, its vibrant color shines even in the midst of new grasses and detritus from a past season.

Online sources differ considerably when it comes to the genus name. Some say that Hypoxis refers to the plant’s sour leaves. Others suggest beaked seed capsules, or the pointed base of an inferior ovary. Since another genus name, Oxalis, refers to those plants’ bitter, sour, or acid taste, I suspect Hypoxis does the same.

On the other hand, there’s little mystery about this flower’s specific epithet. Even the most casual glance at its leaves, stems, or buds reveals a wealth of little hairs;  hirsuta is the Latin word for “rough, shaggy, hairy, bristly, or prickly.”

Yellow star grass ~ Hypoxis hirsuta
Yellow star grass turned golden in the light

When I returned to the prairie at the end of March, it occurred to me that, as the days grow longer, many plants grow taller. The yellow star grass had new yellow and gold companions, and they weren’t at all shy about being seen. But that’s the next chapter in this story of spring-into-summer.


Comments always are welcome.
To read about my first visit to the Nash Prairie, please click here.

Walden West ~ February 1

Since the first day of February fell on a Tuesday, I made my second visit to the spot I’ve come to call ‘Walden West’ on January 30 and 31. Tucked between freezes, the days were sunny and mild, with sunlight emphasizing the green of emerging grasses; although the water had receded somewhat, enough remained to reflect the clear, blue sky.

At first glance, I thought a turtle was lounging in the middle of the pond, but I discovered it was only a turtle-friendly log. Perhaps one day in the future I’ll find an actual turtle there.

Many of the trees surrounding the water had lost their leaves, making the details of their trunks even more interesting. This trunk, which I take to be a Dwarf Hackberry (Celtis tenuifolia), had been split along its length, giving it a scroll-like appearance.

Nearby, a Cedar Elm (Ulmus crassifolia) still held a few leaves.  The most common elm in Texas, the tree often is found near streams, in flatwoods near rivers, or on dry limestone hills.  Its seeds ripen in fall, helping to distinguish it from other native elms.

Cedar Elm

Winged Elms (Ulmus alata) have larger leaves and seeds that mature in the spring. Its leaves also provide a bit of color, but its most distinguishing feature is the wide, corky ‘wings’ on either side of its branchlets; the specific epithet alata is from the Latin word meaning ‘winged.’

Described as a “small and slender component of the understory in the wild,” the Winged Elms at Walden West fit the description perfectly. The examples I found were relatively small:; none reached more than six or seven feet.

Winged Elm

Among the insects that feed on the foliage, wood, or plant juices of Winged Elm are caterpillars of the Question Mark butterfly and the Giant Walkingstick. If I keep an eye on the elms, I might find another walking stick in the coming year.

Winged Elm leaf and ‘wings’

In nature, change is constant, and I found quite a change when I sought out the pretty, algae-decorated tree that caught my attention in early January.

January 1

On this visit, the obvious damage wasn’t particularly deep and it was limited to one side of the trunk, but it pointed to the presence of another creature in the woods.

January 31

Since the mud surrounding the pond was covered in tracks made by white-tailed deer, it seems reasonable to assume that one of the deer visiting the water also had damaged the tree with a ‘buck rub.’

Before and during the rut, or breeding season, bucks rub trees with their antlers as a way of marking territory, working off aggression, and intimidating other bucks.

But the earliest rut in Texas occurs in the Gulf prairies and marshes: an area which happens to be home to Walden West. Since the breeding season is well over, and since buck rubs also serve to communicate a buck’s presence to other deer by scent left on trees, brush, and saplings, it’s entirely reasonable to assume the damaged bark was the result of a buck attempting to establish his territory or dominance.

Dwarf Palmettos

Scattered among the elm, hackberry, yaupon, and oak, Dwarf Palmettos (Sabal Minor) add an interesting accent to the land surrounding the pond. Slow growers and usually stemless, the leaves arise from underground stock and are especially attractive when young.

One of our most cold-hardy native palms, dwarf palmetto can be found in a variety of habitats, including maritime forests, swamps, and floodplains. Its fragrant white flowers are followed by clusters of small black fruits that are enjoyed by a variety of birds and small mammals.

The palmettos also provide a hidden-in-plain-sight napping spot for the Green Tree Frog (Dryophytes cinereus). This is the third such frog I’ve found at the San Bernard Refuge; each had chosen a palmetto blade for its spot. If you look closely at the second photo, you can see the reflection of the inch-long frog on the palmetto’s stiff and shiny leaf.

In the grasses surrounding the palmettos, a Milkweed Assassin Bug (Zelus longipes) was busy preparing its dinner. Using its long mouthparts, it had captured and immobilized its prey with a paralyzing toxin. In time, it would ingest the creature’s dissolved body fluids through those same mouthparts in the same way that we use a soda straw.

Looking upward, I found the trees hosting a variety of vines. Colorful Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) encircled many of the trunks.

Equally attractive but less bothersome Greenbrier (Smilax bona-nox) twined through trees and shrubs alike.

Its fruits, said to be favored by opossums, raccoons, squirrels, and songbirds, must be tasty; very few remained on the vines.

The most exciting discovery of the day involved Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides). Neither a moss nor a parasite, Spanish Moss is an epiphyte: a plant that absorbs nutrients and water through its leaves from the air and the rain. Like Ball Moss (Tillandsia recurvata), it’s a flowering plant, but I’d never found evidence of its flowers.

When I decided to try a backlit photo of its tangled strands, I discovered something odd. Rust-colored bits were everywhere. At first, I assumed they were insects; looking  more closely, I discovered they were seed pods.

A tangle of Spanish Moss
Opened Spanish Moss seed pod

At the edge of the woods, Early Buttercups were blooming: their waxy leaves reflecting the light.

Early Buttercup (Ranunculus fascicularis) with hoverfly

Pearl Crescent butterflies (Phyciodes tharos) seemed to find them equally attractive.

Drummond’s hedgenettle (Stachys drummondii), a member of the mint family, contributed a lavender accent.

The first Ten-petaled Anemone (Anemone berlandieri ) I’d seen this year was a bit worn around the edges, but still delightful. Named for French naturalist Jean Louis Berlandier, its common name is misleading, since the plant has no petals, only petal-like sepals, and their number can range from seven to twenty-five.

Even at the beginning of February, signs of impending spring were everywhere. Seedlings of the Cedar Elm ringed the pond.

Basal leaves of the native Dwarf Plantain (Plantago virginica) were less common, but more obvious.

And finally, shrugging off the cold, new Turk’s Cap plants (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) were thriving.

In time, their vibrant flowers will ring the edges of the pond: a sign of spring arrived.

Turk’s Cap


“Is not January the hardest month to get through?  When you have weathered that, you get into the gulf stream of winter, nearer the shore of spring.”
~ from Winter:  The Writings of Henry David Thoreau


Comments always are welcome.
For an introduction to the Walden West project, click here.


Texas Colors for a Nation’s Celebration

Texas Bluebonnet ~ Lupinus texensis

While individual reddish-pink or white bluebonnets can be found in nature, a red, white, and blue color scheme is typical for the state flower of Texas.

The top blue petal, known as the ‘banner,’ provides a way for the plant to communicate with bees seeking nectar. If the lower part of the banner is white, bees know that nectar still is available. Once a flower is fertilized, it stops producing nectar and the lower part of the banner changes to red. Since bees don’t see that color, they direct their attention to younger flowers still filled with sweetness.

Older flowers aren’t ignored, of course. Those with red markings still have plenty of pollen for  bees to gather, packing it on their hind legs in special pollen ‘baskets.’ Mixed with honey, the pollen will nourish developing larvae.

Bumblebee filling its pollen ‘baskets’

For the bees, red, white, and blue are practical rather than patriotic, but the combined colors of this Texas flower are a fitting reminder of our nation’s flag and what it stands for. This year’s bluebonnets may be gone, but our founding and our history remain, and are worthy of celebration.


Comments always are welcome.

A Little Old, A Little New

Dwarf palmetto leaf with gold yaupon ~ Artist Boat, Galveston Island

As the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, we mark the move from one year to the next with ringing bells, fireworks, and more-or-less accomplished versions of “Auld Lang Syne.” On New Year’s Day, different human conventions hold sway. We change calendars, make resolutions, and eat special foods to ensure luck or money in the coming year.

But these are human foibles. Nature hangs no calendar and watches no clock. Old and new keep comfortable company at year’s end, and at the Artist Boat on Galveston Island, I found a lovely year-end mix.

The golden yaupon shown above — probably the cultivar known as Saratoga Gold — is a new addition to the Artist Boat landscape. Several trees line the boardwalk leading to the bird observatory now, and the birds obviously enjoy the berries.

On the other side of the boardwalk, a relative of the better-known silverleaf nightshade, known as eastern black nightshade or West Indian nightshade, bloomed prolifically. Despite its common name, it’s a Texas native, with tiny flowers only a half-inch wide when fully opened.

The day I found it blooming, great clouds of bees skillfully “buzzed” the banana-like anthers, vibrating the flowers with their bodies to encourage the flowers’ pollen to fall from the anthers’ tips.

Lovely Gaillardias were everywhere, in every stage of bud, bloom, and decline.

At least two native plants in Texas carry the name Spanish needles: Bidens bipinnata, and this lovely Bidens pilosa (also known as Bidens alba). I don’t remember finding these before, and was delighted to discover a few in a corner of the preserve.When I noticed this striking seedhead forming, it took me a minute to realize it was the same Macartney rose I’d shown blooming in a previous post. As pretty as the flower is, this seemed even more striking to me: a summery, sunny glow at the turning of the year.


Comments always are welcome.

Who’s Got the Button(bush)?

Buttonbush flowers and developing seed head


The children’s game called “Button, Button, Who’s Got the Button?” isn’t complicated. One child, carrying a hidden button, appears to transfer it into the waiting hands of every other child standing or sitting in a circle. Then, everyone tries to guess who actually received the button.

The flowers of buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis ) wouldn’t do so well for the game; they’re both too large and too delicate. Still, they’re as attractive as the plant is useful. Commonly found in wet open areas, low woods, thickets, swamps, river bottoms and stream or pond edges, buttonbush can live in up to 2 feet of water. This combination of blooming flowers and developing seed head was perched at the edge of a small lake near the Watson Rare Plant Preserve in east Texas; one of my own feet was planted in the water as I took the photo.

Though tolerant of shade, buttonbush blooms most profusely in full sun. The pincushion-like flowers — actually one-inch round ball-like clusters of white blooms — provide nectar for a variety of bees, butterflies, wasps, moths, and beetles, and an assortment of birds are known to visit. Its seeds are favored by waterfowl, and some mammals feed on its twigs.

Widely distributed across the eastern half of the United States, this easy-to-grow native makes a fine addition to gardens and landscapes where moist to wet conditions prevail, although some have found it capable of adapting to drier areas. Its fruits, deep red and sometimes glossy, will last throughout the fall.

Pond Creek Wildlife Management Area ~ Northwest Arkansas


Comments always are welcome.