Hark, Hark! The Larkspurs Bloom

The well-known line from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline — “Hark, hark! the lark at heaven’s gate sings” — came to mind when I encountered larkspur standing tall in an Austin County field on April 9. “Hark, hark! the larkspur at heaven’s gate blooms” seemed perfectly suited to the moment.

Although larkspurs (Delphinium carolinianum) have naturalized in nearly every area of Texas, I rarely see them. In 2019, I found a few at the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary in Hardin County, but it wasn’t until this spring that I came across more of the tall, dramatically blue flowers.

Commonly known as wild larkspur or Carolina larkspur, the plant — a member of the buttercup family — is native from Virginia to Missouri and southward to Florida and Texas. Found in an assortment of habitats, its sparsely-leaved flowering stalks typically contain six to fourteen blue-violet spurred flowers. Plants continue to grow upward after bloom, eventually reaching 18-24” tall; that height allowed these to stand above the phlox and bluebonnets surrounding them.

Each flower contains five petal-like sepals and four petals, with the upper sepal forming the long, backward projecting spur that gives the flower its common name; by the 1570s, the calyx and petals were imagined to resemble a lark’s hind claw. On the other hand, the Spanish name for the flower, Espuela de caballero, acknowleges its resemblance to a horseman’s spur.

The genus name Delphinium comes from the Greek delphis, or ‘dolphin,’ which some believe the bud resembles.

Larkspur’s dolphin-like bud
Blue larkspur and pink phlox
Blue larkspur fading to purple, with a bluebonnet background

The colors of D. carolinianum can vary, ranging from white to pale or dark blue. In 2020, I found a small group of white larkspur on an isolated road near Cost, Texas. Remarkably, when I returned to the same spot after our February freeze in 2021, I found the white flowers blooming once again.

This year, even more larkspur were blooming when I arrived. Their color has been so remarkably consistent I wondered if I might have found a subspecies. On the other hand, with no blue larkspur nearby to provide opportunities for cross-pollination, the pure white flowers may have a chance to keep multiplying.

One thing is certain. Whether blue or white, larkspur flowers are immensely attractive to native bees. The green-eyed beauty shown below, a long-horned bee tentatively identified as a member of the genus Melissodes, was doing his part to keep the larkspur colony thriving — and ready to be admired again in 2023.  

 

Comments always are welcome.

My Favorite White Delight

A just-opened White Prickly Poppy

The beauty of bluebonnet and Indian paintbrush-filled fields can’t be denied, but a more widespread if less well-publicized native flower always makes me smile. The White Prickly Poppy (Argemone albiflora) blooms for weeks across wide swaths of Texas: not always in dense colonies, but equally lovely in isolated stands. I found at least a few near every stopping point on the weekend of April 9 and 10.

I once had the pleasure of watching one of these poppy buds open; it took less time than drinking my cup of coffee. While I’ve missed that sight this year, the still-crinkled flower in the first photo recalled that experience, while spreading petals of more mature blooms glowed against a background of bluebonnets and phlox.

That said, little compares to the sight of these flowers, wind-blown and delicate above their otherwise prickly buds, stems, and leaves, shining against a blue Texas sky.

 

Comments always are welcome.

From Roadsides to Woodlands

Fleabane in a clearing near Walden West

While the Deer-pea Vetch I featured in my previous post spreads its purple glow closer to the ground, a common spring companion plant rises above it, catching the eyes of motorists passing on the road.

Philadelphia Fleabane (Erigeron philadelphicus), our most common Fleabane species, received its common name because of a presumed — though unproven — ability to repel fleas. Its thread-like ray flowers, numbering in the hundreds, are the most slender among the Erigeron species.

Common as the flower is in open areas, particularly along roadsides, it also appears in woodland clearings. Each of these photos was taken in locations where I wouldn’t have expected to find these sun-loving flowers, but it’s obvious that full sun isn’t necessary for them to bloom.

Along the Red Buckeye Trail, Brazos Bend State Park

I’ve been puzzled for some time about field guides and websites that describe Philadelphia Fleabane’s ray florets as being either pink or white. I’d never seen a hint of pink on fleabane until I found several blushing buds at Brazos Bend State Park, and remembered; when it comes to nature, ‘expect the unexpected’ is good advice.

 

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The Little Blue Slow Change Artist

Juvenile Little Blue Heron ~ Laffite’s Cove Nature Center, Galveston Island

It’s taken time, but eventually I came to understand that not every smaller, white wading bird I encountered at the edge of ponds or on the tidal flats was a Snowy Egret. In the first year of its life, the Little Blue Heron (Egretta caerulea) is white, showing no more than dusky blue or gray shadows on the tips of its feathers.

Greenish-yellow legs and feet, together with a bill that tends toward pale gray rather than black also helps with identification. The Sibley guide mentions that many immature Little Blue Herons show a short pointed plume or two on the back of their heads; I may have captured that feature in the first photo.

As the bird matures, it takes on a mottled, or piebald, appearance as white feathers are replaced.

Maturing Little Blue Heron ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

Adult birds may seem uniformly dark at a distance, but in fact their feathers present a pleasing combination of maroon and a dark slaty-blue. Their legs remain green; combined with their yellow eyes and a pale blue bill tipped with black at the base, they’re fairly easy to identify.

In the past, I sometimes confused adult Little Blue Herons with Reddish Egrets, despite their color differences; Reddish Egret feathers have been described as cinnamon and steel.

Apart from those color differences, behavior helps to distinguish the birds. The Reddish Egret is a frenetic forager: chasing fish by running back and forth, opening and shutting its wings, and stirring up sediment with its feet. The Little Blue is a sedate stalker: as elegant on the hunt as in moments of rest, and equally beautiful.

An elegant pair at the Brazoria refuge

 

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Autumn Snow

Snow-on-the-Prairie

As summer begins to ease its grip on Texas, a lovely floral ‘snow’ suggests the coming of autumn. In the western two-thirds of the state, Snow-on-the-Mountain (Euphorbia marginata) covers much of the land. In the Eastern third (and north into Oklahoma), Snow-on-the-Prairie (E. bicolor) holds sway.

Snow-on-the-Prairie can grow to a height of three or four feet, and often forms dense colonies. Its long green and white bracts, open and airy, offer a pleasing counterpoint to surrounding grasses and forbs.

The plant’s long, slender bracts sometimes are mistaken for petals, but they’re actually  modified leaves. The flowers of Snow-on-the-Prairie are quite small, and exceptionally interesting.

Plants in the genus Euphorbia possess a unique structure called a cyathium (plural, cyathia) which contains both male and female flowers, as well as small structures known as bractioles, and nectar glands. Surrounding the flowers, bractioles, and glands, small bracts called cyathophylls — which superficially resemble the petals of a flower — provide additional color.

Here, the white cyathophylls of E. bicolor add to the plant’s ‘snowy’ appearance. Since the snow is only metaphorical, the sight is entirely pleasurable; it’s possible to admire this plant on the prairie without getting frostbite.

 

Comments always are welcome.