An Especially Black-Eyed Susan

As summer deepens, many plants are completing their life cycles; this Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) on the Brazos Bend State Park prairie was well along in the process when I found it on the morning of July 11.

Despite being surrounded by still-blooming companions, it not only had dried and formed seeds, it also was providing support for a tendril from an unidentified plant. The combination of brown, red, and black, as well as the intricacy of the tendril’s growth, pleased me as much as the bright yellow flowers surrounding it.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

A Sure Sign of Summer

If I’m lucky, this Prairie Gentian will be only the first of many that I’ll find this year. Its scientific name, Eustoma exaltatum, points both to its ‘large-mouthed’ appearance (Eustoma) and to its height (exaltatum).  Other common names — Catchfly Prairie Gentian, Bluebell Gentian, and Seaside Gentian — all apply to this showy, purple-to-lavender flower that occasionally appears in white.

Before its flowers appear, the plant easily is identified by grayish-green, oppositely-arranged leaves that clasp the stems. Tolerant of salt and with a preference for moist conditions, the it can be found in salt marshes, wet prairies, and coastal flats from Florida through Texas, to California and northward.

A large colony of these flowers on the west end of Galveston Island fell first to the mowers and then to the developers, but this single bloom at the side of a west end road whispered a message: “Get thee to Brazoria County. I have friends there.”

Who could ignore a message from a flower?

 

Comments always are welcome.

Bundled Flower, Bundled Seeds

The plant known as Illinois Bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) derives its common name from its densely packed, somewhat frowzy puffball-like heads. Like the so-called powderpuff plant (Mimosa strigillosa), another member of the Fabaceae (pea family) which blooms with pink, ball-shaped flowers, bundleflower foliage is sensitive, wilting temporarily to control temperature and moisture levels and folding together when touched.

A nitrogen-fixing legume with a high protein content, the plant performs a dual service, enriching soils even as it provides nutrition for the birds, deer, antelope, and rodents that favor its seeds. Quite common across a large swath of the country, it thrives in a variety of soils and growing conditions.

While its flowers aren’t exactly show-stoppers, I’ve always found its seed pods compelling. Initially sickle-shaped, they provide their own sort of bloom as they open to release their seeds, remain intact well into winter, and make a lovely addition to dried arrangements.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Flowers, with a Friend

 

More than wildflowers caught my attention on my first visit to the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge. Here and there, signs of a different form of life appeared: a pond, a working windmill, a well-trod trail snaking through the landscape.

On my second visit, I met the creatures whose presence I suspected: some of the prettiest cows I’ve seen, and some very handsome steers. Grazing, along with fire and mowing, is a useful method for restoring and preserving prairies; these cattle were doing their part to help out, munching their way through some tasty-looking grasses and forbs.

Given the number of milk-heavy cows in the herd, there surely were calves around, but most remained hidden or away from the road. Fortunately, this one had chosen an especially photogenic spot to rest. When I stopped for a closer look, it raised its head as though posing, and graciously accepted my compliments.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more on grazing as a management tool, this post by Chris Helzer, the Nature Conservancy’s Director of Science in Nebraska, is a good one. For Chris’s entertaining post on the cattle vs. bison debate, click here.

A Very Bushy Bluestem

 

While frost forms in the American midwest and trees take on dramatic colors in the northeast, changes in Texas grasses mark the season’s turning along the coastal plain.

One of our most dramatic grasses,  bushy bluestem (Andropogon glomeratus) grows both tall and full, its blue-green summer foliage becoming a rich, coppery brown as autumn ripens. Rooted in the Greek words for ‘man’ and ‘beard,’  both the genus name, as well as the less-favored common name of bushy beardgrass, refers to the long, soft hairs of its seed heads.

Native to the southeastern United States, parts of central Mexico, and the Caribbean, the plant can be found as far north as New England. Unlike other members of Andropogon, it thrives in moist soil, preferring areas such as roadside ditches, swamp margins, seasonal ponds, wet pastures, and river banks.

Generally, the full beauty of the grass emerges gradually, until its changed color and sunlit tufts of fluff dominate the surrounding landscape. But at least one plant at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge couldn’t wait, exploding into full autumn glory ahead of its companions.

 

Comments always are welcome.