Going Solo ~ February

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


Comments always are welcome.
For an introduction to this “Going Solo” series, please click here.

Solo White Bog Violets

Bog white violet with pine cone

I could blame it on the bluebonnets, although Indian paintbrush and white prickly poppies surely played a role.

Despite my commitment to document changes at the Big Thicket’s Solo tract on a monthly basis, I’m well behind in posting what I’ve found during my visits; all of those glorious spring wildflowers demanded to be shown first.

While I finish reports on my visits to the Solo tract in February, March, and April, I’ll offer these gems as appetizer: a pair of white bog violets (Viola lanceolata) that by mid-February had spread by the hundreds throughout the area.

Also known as lance-leaf violet because of their long, strap-like leaves, the flowers’ range is limited by their preference for a consistently wet location: coastal plains, bogs, swamps, wet meadows, and wetland pine savannahs like those of the Solo tract. In areas where land development has led to habitat loss, the violet often is listed as threatened.

Visited by a variety of pollinators, the diminuitive flower, from only two to six inches tall, is marked with purple lines that serve as nectar guides for insects, and pretty accents for appreciative human eyes.

Comments always are welcome.

Eryngo, Too

Blueflower Eryngo ~ Eryngium integrifolium

Despite obvious similarities to the Hooker’s Eryngo currently blooming in my friend’s pasture, the Blueflower Eryngo I occasionally find in east Texas displays narrower bracts, a less-spiny apperance, and smaller, more rounded flowers. Also known as simple leaf eryngo, the plant sometimes is called  blue-flower coyote-thistle, although several other eryngos are known by the name coyote-thistle, including Eryngium vaseyi: a plant endemic to California.

Members of the carrot family, a few Eryngium species host larvae of the Eastern Black Swallowtail butterfly, but blueflower eryngo isn’t one; other members of the genus are better choices for a butterfly garden.

That said, it’s an exceptionally pretty plant that thrives in a moist environment. Found in late summer to early fall in wet pinelands, savannahs, damp woods, and bogs, it’s said to prefer the same areas as pitcher plants and grass pink orchids. In fact, that’s where I found these: in the Big Thicket area of east Texas.


Comments always are welcome.

A Beautiful — and Useful — Bean

Pink fuzzybean ~ Strophostyles umbellata

Only three species are included in the genus Strophostyles, and all three are found in Texas. Popularly known as fuzzybeans because of the texture of their seed pods, they can be difficult to distinguish from one another, particularly since their flowers are similar.

One  way is to note differences in their leaves and bracts. The amberique-bean, sometimes called the sand or trailing fuzzybean (S. helvola) and the slickseed or small-flower fuzzybean (S. leiosperma) have bracts at the base of the flowers that tend to be acute, while those of the pink, or trailing, fuzzybean (S. umbellata) are more blunt.

I found this pair of what I believe to be pink fuzzybeans near the entrance to the Big Thicket’s Solo Tract on September 6. Despite their small size, their shape and color attracted my attention. Only later did I learn that the Houma people of Louisiana made a decoction of the seeds to treat typhoid, and the Iroquois used the leaves to treat poison ivy rashes. I’m not worried about typhoid, but given my limited ability to spot poison ivy in the wild, a fuzzybean poultice might be as useful as the flower is beautiful.


Comments always are welcome.

Snug as a Spider in a Blossom

Two expressions bookmarked my childhood days. When it was time to rise after sleep, I often heard my father saying, “Good morning, Sunshine.” At night, as I was tucked into bed, my mother would say, “There. Now you’re snug as a bug in a rug.”

When I find a spider that’s tucked itself (or its eggs) into a flower or leaf, I always remember those snug bugs, and smile. In the photo above, strands of silk used by a spider to create a secure spot are just visible on either side of a Downy Lobelia flower (Lobelia puberula).

In mid-October, these relatives of the Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis) were blooming prolifically in east Texas. The genus name honors Matthias de L’Obel, a Flemish herbalist; the specific epithet, puberula, comes from a word meaning ‘downy,’ and refers to the hairs on the plant.

Downy Lobelia’s preference for a combination of sun and moisture makes its autumn appearance in low-lying areas of the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary and the Big Thicket’s Solo Tract somewhat predictable. The creative spider making use of one of the plant’s flowers was, of course, lagniappe.


Comments always are welcome.