The Incredible Lightness of Gaura

Lindheimer’s Beeblossom (Gaura lindheimeri) ~ Galveston State Park

One of the prettiest plants still blooming on the late October prairie was the Texas and Louisiana native known as Lindheimer’s Gaura, or Lindheimer’s Beeblossom. Often achieving a height of four or five feet, its loose sprays of flowers give the plant an especially airy appearance; the tendency of the flowers to sway and hover in the breeze have led to yet other names, like butterfly Gaura or whirling butterflies.

Its flowers, which open a few at a time from pinkish buds, are visited by long-tongued bees and bumblebees, as well as by butterflies.The genus name Gaura, derived from the Greek word gauros, or ‘superb,’ refers to the flowers. The specific epithet honors Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer (1801-1879), an extraordinary early Texan now known as the father of Texas botany.

The plant’s narrow, lance-shaped leaves can be tinged with red throughout the year, but autumn increases their color, making the leaves as appealing as the flowers.

In the early 2000s, taxonomic research led to Lindheimer’s Beeblossom and other Gaura species being moved into the genus Oenothera. Today, the plant is known formally as Oenothera lindheimeri, although that name has not been adopted in the horticultural industry. Both the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the Missouri Botanic Gardens still list Gaura lindheimeri as a valid name. 

Frustrating as such changes can be, one indication that the change was warranted is visible even to those without access to an electron microscope or knowledge of DNA analysis.

When Lindheimer’s Gaura is compared to other Oenothera species such as the Pink Evening Primrose, the Beach Evening Primrose, and Sundrops, one obvious similarity is the flower’s stigma.

Beach evening primrose ~ Oenothera drummondii

Oenothera stigmas are divided into four branches which form the shape of an ‘X’ — easily seen in the shadow on the Beach Evening Primrose above. Whichever scientific name is used for Lindheimer’s Gaura, one thing is certain: ‘X’ marks the genus.

The X-shaped stigma of Lindheimer’s Gaura

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

A Salt Marsh Surprise

Galveston State Park

Receding waters during this season of drought have made many of our salt marshes more accessible. On Sunday afternoon, as I explored the flats on the bay side of Galveston State Park in search of Carolina Wolfberry (Lycium carolinianum), a favorite food of early-arriving Whooping Cranes, I noticed a flush of white rising above the familiar saltworts and seepweeds.

Making my way to the patch of fading blooms, I discovered a plant I’d never before encountered: a combination of tiny purple flowers and white bracts on plants a foot tall.

What I’d found is called Sea Lavender or Carolina Sea Lavender (Limonium carolinianum). It’s occasionally known as thrift, although it’s quite different from the Sea Thrift (Armeria maritima) that’s found on our west coast and in Europe.

In season, it produces masses of flowers that create a lavender haze above the ground. Even after its blooms fade, the long-lasting white bracts are quite attractive. Although I missed the height of its bloom this year, next summer I’ll know where to look for this lovely perennial.

That said, even a few of its tiny flowers were enough to tempt a flurry of Beach Skippers (Panoquina panoquinoides) into a visit. Closely related to the Salt Marsh Skipper, Beach Skippers are quite small — about an inch long — and can be distinguished by three small white spots on their wings. After mentioning their presence in Brazoria and Matagorda counties in spring and Aransas County in September, the Tvetens’ book, Butterflies of Houston and Southeast Texas, suggests that this skipper also might be found around Galveston Bay.

Clearly, the Tvetens’ suspicion has been confirmed.

 

Comments always are welcome.

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.

Celebrating with Searockets

Coastal Searocket

From neighborhood bottle rockets to the dramatic skyrockets of Independence Day fireworks shows, the sound and color of American July 4th celebrations recall the “rockets’ red glare” of our national anthem.

A different rocket — the Coastal Searocket (Cakile lanceolata) — celebrates in its own way in the sandy soils of coastal Texas.  Named for rocket-shaped pods that bear two seeds, it easily could be missed because of its low growth habits and tiny flowers.

Occuring naturally in beach dunes and coastal strands, the plant tolerates salt, drought, wind, and the inundation that comes with storm surge. Well suited for dune stabilization, it attracts a variety of bees and butterflies, and is the larval host for the Great Southern White (Ascia monuste phileta).

Like other members of the mustard family (Brassicaceae or Cruciferae), the plant’s stems and leaves are edible, either raw or cooked. That said, I doubt that many holiday parties will include a bowl of searocket next to the potato salad and coleslaw. It’s reported to be tasty, but it’s hardly traditional.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Four Years and Counting

In the opening scene of the popular and long-running Music Man, critics of con man Professor Harold Hill agree: he doesn’t know the territory. 

Knowing the territory can be as important for a flower seeker as for a salesman. Four years ago, when I found a substantial number of white spiderworts (Tradescantia spp.) blooming in a vacant lot, I was surprised. The following year, I returned to that bit of neighborhood territory to find an equal number of pretty white blooms, and the next year brought even more white flowers.

This year, I expected to find the flowers again, and I wasn’t disappointed. But this time, I wasn’t their only visitor. A variety of small bees, beetles, and hoverflies had gathered around them: perhaps engaged in their own process of getting to know some new territory.

 

Comments always are welcome.