A Fifty Mile Difference

Hurricane Laura western eyewall damage south of Sulphur, Louisiana
Photo courtesy Houston meteorologist Jeff Lindner

Approximately fifty miles to the west-northwest of Sulphur, Louisiana lies Silsbee, Texas. Ten miles past Silsbee you’ll find the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary and, if you travel on to Kountze and Warren, you’ll enter the Big Thicket: home to an assortment of trails, the Solo tract, and the Watson Rare Native Plant Preserve.

When it became apparent that Hurricane Laura would make landfall south of Sulphur, my concern extended beyond the people living along its path. East Texas wasn’t at risk from Laura’s significant surge, but wind damage to the area’s natural treasures could be extensive. The prediction for sustained tropical force winds in East Texas worried me, and I was eager to make a trip into the area to see what damage might have occurred.

When I finally made that trip on September 6, my sense of relief increased with each passing mile. There were no topped trees, no stripped bark, no missing limbs. At the Sandyland Sanctuary, the only evidence of Laura’s winds was an occasional leaning pine. The storm had tightened at landfall, passing far enough to the east for its northeast winds to leave a mark, but little serious damage.

One of Sandyland’s out-of-plumb pines

Wandering through Sandyland, I was pleased to find several of my favorites. This delicate palafox (Palafoxia reverchonii) was one of a few still in bloom.

Somewhat uncommon, the pencil-flower (Stylosanthes biflora) often appears in sandy soils; its membership in the Fabaceae — the pea family — is hinted at by its flower.

The deeply saturated red of the Louisiana catchfly (Silene subciliata) glows in the sunlight, and finding it always is a special treat. In Wildflowers of Texas, Michael Eason writes that the flower is “rare, but can be seen in the Big Thicket National Preserve, in sandy soils” — precisely where I found it.

In my absence, the smooth and silky buds of snake cotton (Froelichia floridana) had become more cottony, and the plants themselves had grown substantially taller.

Sandyland is one place to find the rare and beautiful Winkler’s blanket flower (Gaillardia aestivalis var. winkleri). Laura’s rains seem to have encouraged this flower, and I expect its season will extend into October.

I did manage a brief stop at the Solo Tract in the Big Thicket, and was rewarded with something I’d hoped to find: a newly-emerged flower of yellow-eyed grass (Xyris ambigua).

Of course, one visit never is enough. I returned to the area this past weekend to photograph other treats: some quite unexpected. Hurricanes will come and hurricanes will go, but nature continues to produce her treasures.

Comments always are welcome.

Cotton Country

Snake-cotton (Froelichia floridana)

 

Growing up in corn country, I’d always thought of Texas as cattle country. In truth, cotton has been nearly as important to the state, from battles waged over the product during the Civil War to the economic benefit provided by bales leaving Galveston’s wharves.

Even today, cotton fields abound — in the Panhandle, in west Texas, throughout the midcoast — and cotton has become part of the culture. To favor something is to ‘cotton’ to it. To be secure, financially or otherwise, is to be ‘in tall cotton.’ One of my customers once named his post-retirement sailboat High Cotton, and I’ve danced more times than I can count to the “Cotton-Eyed Joe”.

Recently, I met another bit of Texas cotton: snake-cotton, a member of the Amaranth family known scientifically as Froelichia floridana: a tribute to German botanist Josef Aloys Frölich. Given the plant’s preference for full sun, dry conditions, and sandy soil, its appearance at the edge of a service road at the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary wasn’t surprising.

Its tiny, conical flowers emerge in a tight spiral, but they soon swell to become shaped like a short vase with a short narrow neck. There are no petals; the orange stamens and style are contained within the neck of the ‘vase.’

Blooms become densely woolly or cottony, giving the plant one-half of its common name. Why it’s called ‘snake cotton’ is more mysterious. While it might be that snakes commonly were found in the same area as the plant, it’s just as likely that the development of the plant itself led to the name. Young plants have short, erect spikes of blooms. As the plant ages, the spike elongates, adding weight to the stem and ‘snaking’ it down toward the ground.

Whatever the source of the common name, it’s a fascinating plant that rewards a second, closer look.

 

Comments always are welcome.

The Forest and the Trees

A first encounter with Sandyland Sanctuary

It’s an old saying, and a familiar experience. “I couldn’t see the forest for the trees,” someone declares, and everyone smiles knowingly. We’ve all been there.

On the other hand, the opposite can be equally true. At first glance the pineywoods of east Texas — crowded, dim if not dark, deeply unfamiliar — can seem impenetrable: a pile of sticks leaning against a wall of green. Even the Big Thicket’s name seems off-putting. People who’ve never picked dewberries or read the journals of early Texas settlers still have a vague understanding of thickets. They’re difficult to pass through, possibly dangerous, and best avoided.

But thickets can be more than obstacles on the way to somewhere else, and the Big Thicket offers proof. Step inside the forest, and it’s easy to see the trees in a new way.

Longleaf pine upland forest ~ Big Thicket

Look more closely, and enchanting details begin to emerge.

Some especially appealing longleaf bark
An unidentified vine secures itself as it climbs
Shadows of neighboring shrubs play against the trees’ rough surfaces
One face of the forest peers out from among the leaves

Here and there, young longleafs bide their time, developing their root systems. For periods as long as several years, they resemble clumps of grass: their buds protected beneath a bundle of needles. Should fire sweep through, the needles may burn but the bud will remain protected and virtually immune to fire.  

Longleaf pine grass stage ~ Sandyland Sanctuary

When the root collar (a transitional zone between the roots and the trunk of a tree) becomes about an inch in diameter, the longleaf begins to grow. A single white tip called a ‘candle’ emerges from the protective sheath of needles, new needles develop, and, in time, bark begins to form.

Rapid growth allows the seedling’s growing tip to rise above potential fires, and after a year or two the bark has thickened enough to withstand most fires. No branches form during this so-called ‘bottlebrush’ stage, when all of the tree’s energy is focused on ‘up’ rather than ‘out.’

Longleaf pine bottlebrush stage ~ Sandyland Sanctuary (Sandhill Loop Trail)
Longleaf needles-in-waiting ~Sandyland Sanctuary (Sandhill Loop Trail)

After passing through the bottlebrush stage and the aptly-named candelabra stage so obvious in my photo of dawn in the Big Thicket, the longleaf moves on to maturity.

Longleaf pine showing off new needles and cones ~ Big Thicket (Solo Tract)

In time, cones will fall and seeds will disperse, preparing the way for more trees. But more than fallen needles are there to receive the cones. In the Big Thicket, pine trees of various sorts coexist with everything from cacti to ferns, and any fallen cone becomes an invitation to further exploration.

Pine cone and needles with eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) ~ Sandyland
Pine cone with ferns ~ Big Thicket (Sundew Trail)

 

Comments always are welcome.