Walden West ~ August

Climbing hempvine ~ Mikania scandens

By the time August ended, the area around Walden West had become overgrown and overrun with biting flies: so much so that swatting and sweating through the late summer heat were a considerable part of the day’s fun.

That said, there was no overlooking the climbing hempvine (Mikania scandens) that had burst into bloom since my last visit. A member of the Asteraceae, or sunflower family, its blooms lack ray florets; the clustered white to pinkish disk flowers resemble those of Common Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum).

Found in a variety of moist environments — swamps, bottomland forests, sloughs, pond margins, and ditches — the pretty white-flowered vine clambers over, under, and around anything in its way, including the occasional cattail, as it winds in a clockwise direction around supporting host plants.

Occasionally, its progress is supported not by plants but by insects: specifically, by spiders. When I noticed a bit of hempvine rising straight up into the air, it seemed odd.  Then, I saw the spider silk attached to it: a single slender strand strong enough to support the weight of the plant. Orb weavers begin their webs by establishing anchor lines, and it seemed a spider had chosen a bit of hempvine as one anchor point.

Following the silk’s path, I found its creator in her web: a Golden Silk Orb-weaver (Nephila clavipes) dining on one of the deer flies that had been annoying me.

Not far away, a colorful Spiny-backed Orb Weaver (Gasteracantha cancriformis)  lurked in its own web. About a half-inch wide, these small spiders attract notice because of their colors: in addition to orange, they may be yellow, or white with black markings. The presence of six ‘spines’ indicates that this is a female. Males are even smaller, with four or five spines.

Growing as enthusiastically as the hempvine, Annual Marsh Elder (Iva annua) already stood four or five feet tall. Also known as sumpweed, this member of the sunflower family produces copious amounts of air-borne pollen;  like all species in the genus Iva, the plant afflicts allergy sufferers throughout the fall. In August, buds still were forming; in time, greenish-white flowers would emerge.

The introduced Indian Heliotrope (Heliotropium indicum) I’d found a month earlier at Walden West still lingered: now turned from white to pale lavender.  I recently came across our native Salt Heliotrope (H. curassavicum) at Brazos Bend State Park, with several Gulf Fritillaries nectaring on its pretty white flowers, but I never saw a native species at Walden West.

I never tire of ironweed; in past years I’ve been lucky enough to come across three of Texas’s species. Here, what I believe to be Missouri Ironweed (Vernonia missurica) adds a splash of color to the late summer landscape. The common name ‘ironweed’ has been attributed to a variety of iron-like qualities in the plant, including tough stems, flowers that appear to rust as they age, and rusty colored seeds.

Ironweed flowers ‘rusting’ away

Another prolific bloomer, Turk’s Cap continued to fill the August woods with both flowers and fruit.

According to various foraging sites, the plant’s marble-sized fruits taste a bit like apples. Their seeds can be eaten raw or toasted, and the fruits also can be made into jelly, jam, or wine.

Turk’s cap fruit

Butterflies and hummingbirds favor the flowers, especially during mid-morning and mid-afternoon when their nectar is said to be sweetest. While I can’t identify this hummingbird, no matter: it was enough to manage a photo as it hovered around the plant.

Despite occasional rains, we’ve moved into another dry period, and the Walden West pond remains empty. Still, a few nearby areas contained enough moisture for saltmarsh fleabane (Pluchea odorata) to offer its pastel accents; also a member of the Asteraceae, it’s found throughout Texas, along the Gulf coast to Florida, and up the eastern seaboard.

As we move deeper into autumn, marsh fleabane will continue to bloom: certainly in October, and perhaps even into early November. With luck, coming rains will encourage it — and fill the vernal pools.

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Pleasing Prairie Combination

After weeks of steady, soaking rains, a sudden swerve into the hot and sunny weather more typical of our Gulf Coast summers encouraged a second flush of growth on the prairies, as well as the development of wildflowers not yet in full bloom.

Finding these graceful Texas bluebells (Eustoma exaltum) combined with the prickly starbursts of Hooker’s eryngo (Eryngium hookeri) was especially pleasing. The transformation of this eryngo from green to lavender or purple isn’t always predictable; it often takes place after the bluebells have faded, and in some years the color is less deeply saturated.

This year, both species seemed to glow among the grasses at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge: their lovely lavenders a cooling note in the rising mid-summer heat.

 

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.

Bud, Bloom, and Banquet

Purple leatherflower bud ~ Dudney Nature Center, League City

One of my favorite native vines, the Purple Leatherflower (Clematis pitcheri), typically climbs over and around woodland margins, road cuts, fence rows, and disturbed ground such as construction sites. While its stems can grow to a length of ten feet or more, its flowers usually are less than an inch long. Solitary and simply shaped, the sepals of the blue-to-purple flowers have recurved, slightly ruffled margins; the plant blooms from late spring through summer.

The genus name is derived from the Greek klematis: a word which designates climbing plants. The specific epithet pitcheri honors Dr. Zina Pitcher (1797-1872), a surgeon with the United States Army, Regent of the University of Michigan, and botanist in the Great Lakes region.

Purple leather flower in bloom ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Seeds begin to form even while the plant still is blooming. Held in clusters, they mature from light green to dark red or brown, with slightly hairy tails that some describe as spider-like.

The flowers are pollinated primarily by bumblebees, although other insects such as flower-feeding thrips and caterpillars of various Thyris moth species feed on the foliage. The vine is used as cover and nesting habitat by songbirds, and although no specific butterflies are associated with the plant, this Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) seems to have found it a congenial resting place. Whether it was sipping a bit of leftover nectar or pondering its next stop on the vine, I can’t say.

Painted Lady on developing C. pitcheri seed head ~ Brazos River bank, East Columbia

 

Comments always are welcome.

From Bud to Bloom

Emerging between February’s freeze and March’s bluebonnet extravaganza, wisterias brightened our landscape considerably.

This American Wisteria (Wisteria frutenscens), a Texas native with fragrant purple flowers, covered a chain-link fence in the nearby town of Dickinson. A member of the pea family, the shape of its opening buds makes clear its relationship to other early bloomers in the Fabaceae, such as Mountain Laurel and various wild indigos.

A bit farther down the road, at the Buddhist temple in Santa Fe, white wisteria covered an archway. While the native Texas species sometimes produces white flowers, I suspect this to be a form of Japanese wisteria: Wisteria floribunda. Although listed as a noxious weed in many states — the Missouri Botanical Garden has a firm “DO NOT Plant!” notice on its site — careful pruning had confined this beauty to a single area of the garden, where it was busy delighting the bees.

 

Comments always are welcome.