Longleaf pine ~ Pinus palustris
The centerpiece of the Solo Tract in east Texas’s Big Thicket is the longleaf pine. Beginning life as a grass-like bundle capable of protecting the young tree from fire, the tree dedicates its first years to below-ground root growth; during this stage, the tree sometimes is confused with bunch grasses like little bluestem.
A young longleaf pine
Eventually the trees begin to grow, entering what’s known as the ‘bottle brush’ stage: a period when the tree is most vulnerable to fire. The tree shown in today’s first photo is beginning to move out of that phase, adding needle-trimmed branches to the ‘bottle brush’ on top; eventually, development of its thick, fire resistant bark will increase its ability to withstand both natural and prescribed burns.
Longleaf pine bark showing the effects of fire
Mature trees produce two types of cones: pollen-bearing male cones and seed-bearing female cones. Both are produced in summer, grow slowly over the fall and winter, and then become active the following spring. In January, I found these purple male cones still closed.
By February, male cones littered the ground, having released their pollen to fertilize the female cones. After approximately a year and a half, the female cones mature and release their seeds into the wind. Seeds that find open, sunny patches of ground germinate; those unable to penetrate dense leaf litter may not. Using periodic, low intensity fire helps to keep longleaf forests open by burning off shade-producing plants and litter that inhibit germination; the ash which results also provides valuable soil nutrients.
An older female cone and this year’s purple male cones
Despite their small size, even the male cones open in a way we think of as typically pine cone-ish.
Closeup of an opened male cone
Among the trees and cones, basal leaves of Aletris aurea, the golden colic-root, begin to grow in early spring. Once considered a member of the lily family, the plant has been moved into the bog asphodel family (Nartheciaceae), although most sources still place it in the Liliaceae. The genus name Aletris refers to a female slave from Greek mythology. Her task was to grind grain into meal; the rough texture of colic-root flowers resembles ground meal.
Emerging leaves of the golden colic-root
In January, only dried seed pods remained, but in a few weeks long spikes of golden-yellow flowers would appear; aurea is Latin for ‘golden,’ and the source of the plant’s common name.
Golden colic-root seed pods
Given their preference for wet pine flatwoods, bogs, and seeps, it wasn’t entirely surprising to find this colic-root nestled next to another lover of wet environments: the pink sundew.
Colic-root and a pink sundew (Drosera capillaris)
Four of five North American carnivorous plants can be found in Texas: pitcher plants, sundews, butterworts, and bladderworts. Only the Venus flytrap is missing; it’s native range is limited to North Carolina, coastal South Carolina, and two counties in Florida.
Two sundew species populate East Texas: the green spoon-leaf sundew (Drosera intermedia) and the pink sundew. I’ve yet to find the spoon-leaf, but there was no missing the pink.
A dime-sized pink sundew
Sundews possess special glands which secrete droplets of sticky fluid, giving the plant its glistening appearance. Insects attracted to the plant by the drops’ nectar-like appearance and scent quickly become stuck. Once the plant senses a struggling insect, it wraps around it, allowing digestive enzymes to transform the insect into usable nutrients.
Although most pink sundews are quite small, lying flat to the ground, this little bundle of stickiness was either a number of plants clustered together, or some sort of genetic anomaly.
A pretty pile of pink
What’s certain is the fate of the little winged insect lying near the top of the pile.
Like a moth too close to a flame
This differently colored sundew also is D. capillaris. In bright sunlight the plant appears red; in lesser light, the leaves may be green with red tentacles. Sundews also produce tiny flowers, although none had bloomed in February.
At the time of my first February visit, significant rains had left many sundews buried in sand, and small piles of sand smoothed by rushing water were everywhere. The holes in the centers of the piles suggested burrowing creatures — like crawfish — were responsible.
Later that month, my suspicion was confirmed. I’d never seen a crawfish chimney built of sand, but whichever species calls the Solo tract home, it knows its business.
A crawfish’s sand castle
Nearby, what I believe to be a rusty gilled polypore (Gloeophyllum sepiarium) decorated a stump. A wood decay fungus, G. sepiarium grows on dead conifers; its brown cap is loosely fan-shaped, with the sort of yellow-orange margin shown here.
The day held two more surprises. First came an abundance of the bog white violets highlighted in my previous post.
Bog white violet ~ Viola lanceolata
The species name lanceolata refers to the violets’ spear-shaped leaves, which can be as much as six inches long.
A host plant for fritillary larvae, the violets attract an assortment of butterflies and bees. On this day, I found what I believe to be a Juvenal’s duskywing visiting one of the flowers.
Curious about the name, I learned that a collection of duskywings — Juvenal’s, Horace’s, Mottled (E. martialis), Columbine (E. lucilius), and Persius (E. persius) — are named for Roman poets. The convention was begun by Johan Christian Fabricius, a Danish zoologist who specialized in insects. A student of Carl Linnaeus, he established the basis for modern insect classification.
Juvenal’s duskywing ~ Erynnis juvenalis
Even ants like violets. Fourteen species of carpenter ants occur in Texas; the largest, the black carpenter ant (Camponotus pennsylvanicus), is found primarily in wooded outdoor areas. Whatever its species, this ant spent a considerable amount of time on the flower: perhaps lapping up nectar left by a previous visitor.
Black carpenter ant ~ Camponotus spp.
The other surprise was finding native blueberries among the dewberries. Blueberries are grown in Texas, but I wasn’t aware that a native species exists in a handful of eastern counties. The flowers were both beautiful and plentiful; if I’m lucky, in coming weeks I’ll find at least a few berries before the birds get to them.
Elliott’s blueberry ~ Vaccinium elliottii