Miss Ima Would Be Pleased

Herbertia lahue filling the lawn at the Varner-Hogg plantation

While an assortment of wildflowers strews vibrant spring color across the Texas landscape, pastel lavenders and pinks do their own part to decorate the season.

One of my favorites, Herbertia lahue, or prairie nymph, is a small and delicate member of the iris family. The flowers appear for only two or three weeks, and each flower lasts for only one day; finding an entire colony at the Varner-Hogg plantation outside West Columbia was as lucky as it was delightful.

Originally owned by Martin Varner, a member of Stephen F. Austin‘s Old Three Hundred and a veteran of the Texas Revolution, the property’s last owner was James Stephen Hogg, the first native Texan to be elected governor. Donated to the state in 1958 by Governor Hogg’s daughter Ima, the historic site provides a view of plantation life in Texas between 1835 and 1850, the time of the plantation’s greatest productivity.

Contrary to jokes told even during her lifetime, Ima Hogg didn’t have a sister named Ura, but she was a remarkable woman and a great philanthropist. After helping to found the Houston Symphony Orchestra in 1913, she became president of its board in 1917. Elected to the Houston Board of Education in 1943, she arranged symphony concerts in public schools and worked to increase the number of music and art classes available to students.

Eventually she donated Bayou Bend, her home in the River Oaks neighborhood of Houston, to the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. The antiques-filled house and formal gardens are balanced by woodlands filled with native trees and shrubs: a testament to her conviction that the same  plants that grew wild on the plantation at the edge of Varner Creek should have a place to thrive in the heart of Houston. I doubt there are prairie nymphs at Bayou Bend, but out at the old plantation they’re doing just fine.

Herbertia lahue near the site of the old sugar mill at the Varner-Hogg plantation

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

Hey, There, Bright Eyes!

Pied-billed grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)

As winter-weary humans begin roaming parks, cemeteries, and back roads in seach of spring wildflowers, the creatures who call those places home watch attentively. Cautious, perhaps even a little bemused, they’re keeping an eye on us, and the sense of being watched can be strong. 

Not far from the Rockport, Texas cemetery, this pied-billed grebe floated in solitude and perfect serenity at the edge of human activity. Surprised to find it there, I was even more surprised to find it willing to endure my attention. Shy and given to diving at the slightest provocation, grebes can be hard to photograph, but this one seemed willing to pose. “Hi, there, Bright Eyes,” I said as I snapped away. “I’m happy to see you.”

At the cemetery itself, another pair of bright eyes watched from a hollow limb high in a tree. Fox squirrels create two types of shelters, leaf nests (dreys) and tree dens, and often use natural cavities as dens for winter shelter or raising young. Given the apparent depth of this cavity and the obvious unwillingness of the squirrel to move as I walked closer, I suspect I’d found a mother with babies in a nest.

Fox squirrel (Sciurus niger)

Two hundred miles away and a week earlier, I found another fox squirrel watching from high in a different tree.  On the old Varner-Hogg plantation in West Columbia, this little sweetheart remained equally motionless and attentive. In a few weeks, I suspect youngsters will emerge from this hollowed limb to begin exploring the world around them.

The squirrel mama needs to be attentive, since being in a tree isn’t necessarily a defense against another plantation resident — the Texas rat snake. This one, over four feet long, is typical; the snake is among the largest in the state, reaching as much as six feet in length, and it’s known for its tree-climbing abilities.

Texas rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri )

Finding it among some flowers was appropriate, since the specific epithet lindheimeri honors German-American naturalist Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer. Better known as a botanist, Lindheimer collected the first specimen of this non-venomous snake in New Braunfels, Texas.

When I found a yellow-bellied water snake curled up at the base of a tree on this same plantation, it seemed somewhat apprehensive. But this sweet creature appeared to be more curious than fearful. Eye to bright eye, we regarded one another for a few minutes, and then went about our business. Whether the encounter delighted the snake I can’t say, but it certainly delighted me.

 

Comments always are welcome.