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.

Autumn Reds

With temperatures holding at summertime levels, the autumnal colors being enjoyed elsewhere have yet to appear in my part of Texas: at least, when it comes to foliage.

Still, color can be found. The eye-catching reds of flowers, fungi, and berries may not be as obvious as a flaming maple or oak, but when seen against the dull gray of Spanish moss or on the dimness of the forest floor, they’re no less delightful.

The Turk’s Cap will linger well into December, while the berries already are being nibbled away, but for now their color counsels patience; their presence signals a turning season, and the colorful foliage yet to come.

Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) ~ San Bernard Wildlife Refuge
Carolina Buckthorn  (Frangula caroliniana) ~ Watson Rare Plant Preserve
Scarlet catchfly (Silene subciliata) ~ Big Thicket
Jack-in-the-pulpit berries (Arisaema triphyllum) ~ Big Thicket
Scarlet waxcap (Hygrocybe coccinea) ~ Watson Rare Plant Preserve

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Different Form of Cloudlessness

With Tropical Storm Nicholas wandering off to the northeast, rain turned to drizzle and the wind began to lay, but no more than a tiny patch of blue decorated our afternoon sky. Two hundred miles to the west, lovely blue after-storm skies were beginning to appear, but, in southeast Texas, clouds were the order of the day.

On the other hand, I had a different sort of cloudlessness to enjoy, having discovered this Cloudless Sulphur (Phoebis sennae) near the beach on Sunday. I almost always see this butterfly in flight, but this one had chosen to pause and sip nectar from a deeply shaded Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii), said to be one of its favorite flowers.

As autumn approaches, I sometimes see dozens of these butterflies in a single afternoon as they migrate back into the area. One of our most common butterflies, their colors range from an eye-catching lemon yellow to a darker yellow or white; in this instance, I suspect the wings may appear a bit green because of the foliage surrounding the insect.

They do make a nice substitute for an uncloudy day.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Theme and Variations

Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii)  ~ Brazoria, Texas

Because of its resemblance to a Turkish turban, this member of the mallow family usually is called Turk’s cap; some call it Drummond’s wax mallow,  red mallow, Texas mallow, Mexican apple (it has an edible fruit), or sleeping hibiscus — a name no doubt occasioned by petals that normally remain closed, rather than fully opening.

Designated a ‘Texas Superstar’ in 2011 by Texas AgriLife Research, the Turk’s cap claimed the honor without the usual testing by AgriLife Research and the Texas AgriLife Extension Service because of its long history in the state. According to Dr. Brent Pemberton, AgriLife Research horticulturist:

When it comes to climate and soils, it’s a very tough, versatile plant. It’s a native plant, and a magnet for butterflies and hummingbirds. It’s extremely drought-tolerant and will thrive in dry soils. It does very well in the shade but will take quite a bit of sun, so it’s a very versatile plant; something that is pretty well adapted all over the entire state.
It’s an old garden plant — something that’s found in old-home sites and in old gardens.

Of course, to paraphrase that famous line from The Wind in the Willows, there’s nothing half so much worth doing as simply messing about with plants. After some horticulturalists messed around with the Turk’s cap, a new variety was created.

Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii ‘Pam Puryear’
Lady Bird Johnson demonstration garden, Nacogdoches, Texas

Greg Grant, formerly with AgriLife Research and now with Stephen F. Austin Gardens in Nacogdoches, Texas, was urged to develop the pink variety by Pam Puryear, one of the first women to graduate from Texas A&M University.

Both Grant and Puryear were members of Texas Rose Rustlers, an organization dedicated to antique roses and gardening in general, when Puryear asked Grant to develop some new varieties of Turk’s cap.

After first achieving a large hybrid plant he named ‘Big Mama’ because its flowers doubled the size of those on the native Turk’s cap, Grant crossed ‘Big Mama’ with a cold-hardy plant with white flowers, and among the variations that emerged was the peachy-pink version of our more common red flower.

A typical turk’s cap ‘pinwheel’ ~ Lady Bird Johnson demonstration garden, Nacogdoches

Today, the pink version surrounds the Raiford Stripling-designed house that anchors the Lady Bird Johnson demonstration garden at the Pineywoods Native Plant Center in Nacogdoches. Associated with Stephen F. Austin State University and located near the campus, the Center was dedicated on April 8, 2000, becoming the third affiliated garden of Austin’s Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Research Center. Both Lady Bird and Dr. Robert Breunig, director of the Center at the time, attended the event.

Of course, nature enjoys messing about with flowers, too. Outside Nacogdoches, at the edge of thickly-forested land along Bonaldo Creek, I found a treat for my white-flower-loving heart.

My name for it would be M. arboreus var. drummondii ‘Lagniappe’

A number of white varieties have been bred, but this was no nursery plant. It was nature at her finest, producing her own variation on the beloved traditional flower we know as Turk’s cap.

 

Comments always are welcome.