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.


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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.


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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.  


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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.


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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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