Waiting for Beardtongue


In early April, a single striking stalk of prairie penstemon (Penstemon cobaea) rose above its companions: a few early blooms from Engelmann’s daisy, a bit of Texas flax, an errant bluebonnet. It had erupted in one of poet Kevin Cole’s hard places: the washed-out soil of a Texas roadside. Both its height — nearly two feet — and its exceptionally large flowers brought his poem “Waiting for Beardtongue” to mind; it wonderfully captures the experience of waiting for any flower — the beardtongue, and more.

Were you here with me under the tangle
of contrails, we’d wait for the beardtongue,
and I’d show you where the none-too-demure
stands will erupt in the hard places:
the sorry, washed out soil of the hillside,
road cuts, and abandoned mounds of ballast.
Although I know this stamp of land as well
as a scribe knows his vellum, I’m not
inured to the surprise and ecstasy
of waiting for beardtongue: waiting is how
we measure time here. Not by Chronos,
Kairos, A theory, B theory, or relativity —
But rather by the exquisite waiting:
first for the gray-green leaves to clasp
the limber, nimble stems, then for the stems
to bear the loads of two-lipped, chaliced lavender
flowers turning the field into a mural
of serene, puple-robed Etruscans.
In the all-too-brief two weeks when
the beardtongue blooms, I become
the great shirker of obligation,
look askance at my pressing labors,
leave be fields that should be tended
and barns that should be mended.
For this is the season of untethering
oneself from the dogged troubles of tomorrow;
this is the season of surfeit, when the plain
is aproned in the raiment of beardtongue.



Comments always are welcome.
The poem is taken from Cole’s collection titled Late Summer Plums. For more on the poet, please click here.

Broadway’s Supporting Cast

Goldenmane tickseed (Coreopsis basalis) ~ a star at the Broadway cemeteries

Each spring, some of Galveston Island’s seven Broadway cemeteries — those  allowed to remain unmowed — burst into bloom, covering their grounds with a carpet of yellow. Primarily coreopsis and Indian blanket, interspersed with white lazy daisies, it’s a sight designed to draw visitors to the spot.

For several years I’ve made it a point to visit Broadway at the height of the flowering, enjoying the color and exploring the histories behind the stones in posts like Cemetery Season.

This year, familiarity seemed to have bred indifference. Even breathless media reports of an especially good year couldn’t entice me into a visit. Then, a friend who’d never been to any of my usual haunts wanted to visit them, so we took a day to follow my path from Galveston to the Brazoria Refuge and home.

Our first stop was the Broadway cemeteries. On May 7, somewhat later in the season than I’d visited in the past, grasses had grown up amid the flowers and some species I’d never before seen were present. Clearly, the time had come for a more extended visit, with a focus on Broadway’s supporting cast rather than on the flowers that always are the stars of the show.

A first surprise was the number of spiderworts still in bloom. Accustomed to thinking of them as an early spring wildflower, it was a pleasure to see the purple and gold combination spread throughout one of the cemeteries.

Spiderwort ~ Tradescantia spp.

A diminuitive bit of pink was everywhere. The genus is familiar — the beautiful east Texas scarlet catchfly (Silene subciliata) blooms in fall — but unlike that flower, the common catchfly isn’t native; it probably was imported as a contaminant in crop seed.

Common catchfly ~ Silene galica

Despite being a native plant, scarlet spiderling has an interesting distribution across the state. Listed only for Galveston County in southeast Texas, this member of the four o’clock family (the Nyctaginaceae) ranges throughout central and far south counties as well. It may well have escaped notice in other coastal counties; the flower cluster is so tiny it was impossible for me to get a sharp image of the pea-sized bloom.

I did better with the sharpshooter (Paraulacizes spp.) feeding on the flower. Leafhoppers in the family Cicadellidae, sharpshooters use their piercing-and-sucking mouthparts to tap into and feed upon plant tissue. It’s possible this larva was the fourth instar of Paraulacizes irrorata, but that’s only a best guess.

Sharpshooter larva on scarlet spiderling ~ Boerhavia coccinea 

 Cutleaf evening primroses are another form of Broadway yellow, but as they fade, they often present interesting combinations of yellow-trimmed salmon and a pretty pinwheel shape. Winecups also will take on a pinwheel shape.

Cutleaf evening primrose ~ Oenothera laciniataWinecup ~ Callirhoe involucrata

Despite its name, you’re not likely to find a frog noshing on Texas frogfruit. It seems the flower was called fogfruit in the middle ages, when farmers gave the name to low growing plants that invaded their freshly hayed fields. Over time, the name transitioned from ‘fog’ to ‘frog.’ Why it’s sometimes called turkey tangle fogfruit I can’t say, unless wild turkeys sometimes get their feet tangled in the densely matted plants.

A member of the verbena family, frogfruit attracts butterflies to its nectar, and serves as a host plant for Phaon Crescent, White Peacock, and Common Buckeye butterflies. Its ability to tolerate both drought and flooding makes it a useful groundcover, although some gardening sites caution it should only be mowed after blooming, since it can take years for it to recover from too-early mowing. Clearly, the no-mow policy in the cemeteries has allowed it to thrive.

Texas frogfruit  ~ Phyla nodiflora

Growing grasses sometimes become impediments to spring floral photography, but this year I found the grasses themselves immensely attractive.

Rescuegrass ~ Bromus catharticus
Long-spike tridens  ~ Bidens strictus

Less colorful and less obvious than the silverleaf nightshade now in full bloom across the state, Texas nightshade is no less attractive. Found only in Texas and occasionally in Oklahoma, its red fruits help to distinguish it from the non-native Solanum nigrum, which produces black fruits.

Texas Nightshade ~ Solanum triquetrum

My favorite discovery of the day was the tiny-flowered, vining Gulf Indian breadroot, sometimes called brown-flowered psoralea. Members of the pea family, plants in the genus produce starchy, edible roots: some larger and more worth pursuing than others.

The so-called prairie turnip (Pediomelum esculentum), found in Oklahoma and northward through the plains states, has been described variously as a “delicacy,” “tolerably good eating,” or “tasteless and insipid.” Barry Kaye and D. W. Moodie have described Native Americans’ use of the food:

They eat it uncooked, or they boil it, or roast it in the embers, or dry it and crush it to powder and make soup of it. Large quantities are stored in buffalo skin bags for winter use. A sort of pudding made of the flour of the dried roots and serviceberries (Amelanchier alnifolia), after boiling together, is very palatable and a favorite dish.”

However tasty the roots, I must say that I found the appearance of this member of the Broadway cemeteries’ supporting cast delicious.

Gulf Indian breadroot ~ Pediomelum rhombifoilum


Comments always are welcome.

A Rarer Use of Yellow

Yellow Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) and friends

In the case of this Indian paintbrush, Emily Dickinson’s words ring true:

Nature rarer uses yellow
Than another hue,
Saves she all of that for sunsets,
Prodigal of blue —
Spending scarlet like a woman,
Yellow she affords
Only scantly and selectly,
Like a lover’s words.

Yellow is afforded only scantly and selectly to this species of Indian paintbrushes; the flowers usually appear in shades of red and orange. And yet, there they were: more than a dozen yellow delights scattered along a portion of highway in Lavaca County.

Still in their prime, surrounding their actual flowers with both white and yellow bracts, they were among this year’s prettiest blooms. Had I not stopped to photograph an early April bluebonnet field, I might have missed them; their presence served as a useful reminder that apparently nondescript ditches and culverts can offer up treasure.

True flowers peeking out from the bracts
Yellow and white combinations evoked lemon meringue pie
Seen from above, the flower presents a pleasing almost-symmetry
Crinkled edges of just-opening flowers matched those of developing leaves

Comments always are welcome.

Waiting for the Fog to Lift

On March 5, the fog enshrouding Goliad lifted slowly, allowing time to seek out and photograph flowers other than the white prickly poppies that first had claimed my attention. In the midst of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush, assorted yellow and pink blossoms added interest to the fields, and fog condensing into droplets added interest to the flowers.

Since cutleaf evening primrose usually blooms at night, this one probably was closing; the small yellow blooms often show a wash of pink or orange as they age. Here, the heart-shaped petals had begun to fold; the droplets on their surface suggested hobnail glass.

Cutleaf Evening Primrose ~ Oenothera laciniata

Once included with the gauras, various beeblossoms now are members of the Oenothera genus. One clue to their identity is the deeply divided four-part stigma visible here. In a bit of an understatement, the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center notes that “the genus is easily recognized, but the species are sometimes difficult, due partly to a great deal of hybridization.” That said, the leaves and stems of this one suggest Lindheimer’s beeblossom.

Lindheimer’s Beeblossom ~ Oenothera lindheimeri

Huisache daisy was named for its tendency to grow among huisache trees: a species of acacia abundant in Texas scrublands. Several unique features contributed to this plant being assigned its own genus, such as semitransparent, papery, square-topped scales that form the pappus, rather than hairs or spines. When in bloom, its domed disc flowers are especially attractive; when covered in dew, the fine hairs along its stem become visible.

Huisache Daisy ~ Amblyolepis setigera

The graceful curve of velvet weed has led to another common name: lizard-tail gaura. As the plant develops, it can become four to six feet tall, making it easy to spot in the landscape.

Velvetweed ~ Oenothera curtiflora

Like Maximilian sunflower, bush sunflower, and Illinois bundleflower, Engelmann’s daisy is one of Texas’s most recognizable perennial forbs. Named for George Engelmann, the German-American physician and botanist who helped to found the Missouri Botanic Garden, it begins to flower in early spring, and sometimes re-blooms in the fall.

Also known as cutleaf daisy because of its deeply lobed leaves, it often appears along roadsides in the company of green milkweed, phlox, and coreopsis. On the other hand, livestock, antelope, and deer find it highly palatable; over the years, foraging animals can graze it out of a pasture. Gardeners in deer-rich urban settings should be mindful that this beautiful and tasty combination might be difficult to sustain.

Engelmann’s Daisy ~ Engelmannia peristenia


Comments always are welcome.

The Awakening Prairie ~ Early March

Nash Prairie ~ early March

Vibrant bluebonnets and glowing fields of Indian paintbrush have come to define spring in Texas: so much so that anyone passing Nash Prairie while searching for early wildflowers might think it little more than an abandoned field, or an overgrown collection of weeds.

In truth, the first time I set off to visit Nash I wasn’t able to find the place, even though I’d been given directions and a map. It took a friendly neighbor — and a goat — to help me find the great swath of unbroken land I’d passed several times without recognizing it as ‘prairie.’

The story of that initial search still amuses me, and since it also provides an introduction to the history of Nash Prairie, I’ve republished it on The Task at Hand as a companion piece for this pair of posts showing a different aspect of a delightful season.

In early spring, prairie flowers often are small or low growing; even easily-spotted blooms can require a hands-and-knees approach to photography. Blue-eyed grass, a member of the Iris family, appears as early as January. Recently, its numbers have been increasing dramatically, creating a blue haze over the land that’s as pleasing as fields of bluebonnets.

Blue-eyed grass ~ Sisyrinchium spp.

By early March, beaked corn salad appears. Multiple explanations have been offered for the plant’s odd name. Some say it’s rooted in the plant’s tendency to invade wheat fields; others suggest it arose from use as a salad green. Julian Steyermark, the distinguised botanist and author of Flora of Missouri, once noted that basal rosettes of the plant “make an excellent salad, especially when prepared with olive oil and vinegar.”

Beaked Corn Salad ~ Valerianella radiata

Bluets are among our tiniest flowers. Two to six inches tall, with flowers only a quarter to a third of an inch across, they were scattered across more open portions of the prairie by early March. Initially, I assumed the white bluets were variants of H. pusilla, but their greater height and significant numbers suggested a different species; H. micrantha seems a reasonable possibility.

Tiny bluet ~ Houstonia pusilla
Southern bluet ~  Houstonia micrantha

A flower that stymied me turned out to be introduced rather than native; I found a few Caley (or singletary) peas at the edge of a service road leading into the prairie. Introduced into the United States from Mediterranean areas of Europe to serve as forage, it naturalized; now it appears in areas along roadsides and railroads, and at edges of fields — precisely where I found it.

Caley pea ~ Lathyrus hirsutus
Caley pea ~ Lathyrus hirsutus

Venus’s Looking-glasses belongs to the Campanulaceae, or bellflower family. According to a North Carolina Extension site, their common name reflects early botanical descriptions of a similar European plant (Legousia speculum) whose seeds were said to be as shiny as looking glasses. In addition to the species shown here, Triodanis lamprosperma, the Prairie Venus’s Looking-glass, also has been documented at Nash Prairie

Clasping Venus’s looking glass ~ Triodanis perfoliataSmall Venus’s looking glass ~ Triodanis perfoliata subsp. biflora

That same North Carolina site happened to have a photo of a small Venus’s Looking-glass bud. In 2019, I took a photo of a bud at the Broadway cemeteries in Galveston, but wasn’t able to identify it. The photo lingered in my files, and now it can be shown for what it is — a Venus’s Looking-glass hosting a tiny fruit fly, Dioxyna picciola.

Triodanus spp. with a very attractive fruit fly

I first found yellow star grass at the Attwater Prairie Chicken Refuge, and was pleased to encounter it again at Nash. Although widespread in the eastern half of the U.S., it doesn’t form large colonies, and usually is somewhat scattered where it appears. A member of the lily family, the plant arises from a small corm before producing flowers approximately an inch across. Rarely more than six inches tall, its vibrant color shines even in the midst of new grasses and detritus from a past season.

Online sources differ considerably when it comes to the genus name. Some say that Hypoxis refers to the plant’s sour leaves. Others suggest beaked seed capsules, or the pointed base of an inferior ovary. Since another genus name, Oxalis, refers to those plants’ bitter, sour, or acid taste, I suspect Hypoxis does the same.

On the other hand, there’s little mystery about this flower’s specific epithet. Even the most casual glance at its leaves, stems, or buds reveals a wealth of little hairs;  hirsuta is the Latin word for “rough, shaggy, hairy, bristly, or prickly.”

Yellow star grass ~ Hypoxis hirsuta
Yellow star grass turned golden in the light

When I returned to the prairie at the end of March, it occurred to me that, as the days grow longer, many plants grow taller. The yellow star grass had new yellow and gold companions, and they weren’t at all shy about being seen. But that’s the next chapter in this story of spring-into-summer.


Comments always are welcome.
To read about my first visit to the Nash Prairie, please click here.