Sometimes, It Is the Berries

Possumhaw ~ San Bernard Wildlife Refuge

Like other slang phrases from the 1920s — invoking such fancies as bees’ knees, or cats in pajamas — I grew up hearing my parents and their friends commend something they considered especially fine by saying, “It’s the berries.” 

The expression sounds dated today, but the colors adorning our late winter landscape truly are ‘the berries’ in every sense of the word. As leaves fall and berry-laden branches of Possumhaw (Ilex decidua) and Yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) become increasingly visible, their variety makes the wait for spring wildflowers more enjoyable.

Red predominates in both of these members of the holly family, but where eye-catching yellow and orange appear, they demand attention.

Yaupon ~ Artist Boat, Galveston Island
Possumhaw ~ Brazoria County Road 203


Comments always are welcome.

Walden West ~ April 2

By the first week of April, much of Texas was abloom with vibrantly colored bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, and coreopsis, but in the deeply shaded woods surrounding Walden West, no dramatic sweeps of color had emerged. There, more subtle changes were marking the turn of the season.

For the first time since January, the sound of birds filled the air. The clatter of woodpeckers at work and the delicate chirps of chickadees were everywhere, although only the cardinals were singing and calling. Most of the birds remained hidden, but it’s hard for a cardinal to hide; even the swing of an unfocused macro lens can catch a flash of its color.

Other bits of red roamed the woods in the form of spotless lady beetles (Cycloneda spp.) I’d never seen so many: there might have been hundreds of them flying, crawling on plants, and landing in my hair. Perhaps I’d encountered a ladybug bloom: an aggregation of insects so large it sometimes shows up on National Weather Service radar.

For the first time, the woods were filled with the froth of spittlebugs. Spittlebug nymphs — small, yellowish-green, wingless insects resembling leafhoppers — create the bubbly mass as protection from predators and harsh weather.

To create the bubbles, air is mixed with a substance secreted by the insect’s epidermal glands. As the mixture is forced out of the abdomen through the anus, the bubbles form: sometimes as many as 80 bubbles per minute. Then, the insect reaches back with its legs, pulls the bubbles forward, and surrounds itself with its own protection.

Other insects roamed the grass, like this katydid, and a tiny grasshopper nymph perched on a pink evening primrose petal.

A rise in the water table had led to even more crawfish chimneys, although, in one instance, I paused to note different moisture levels in the mud surrounding the hole.The lightest mud was entirely dry; the bit in the center still was malleable;and the darkest mud at the top left seemed quite recent.

I imagined several explanations for the phenomenon: most of them quite fanciful. Could this have been the work of a young crawfish-in-training who hadn’t quite mastered the technique?

At the edge of the pond, a number of moisture-loving plants were flowering: particularly Allium canadense, variously known as wild garlic, wild onion, Canada onion, and meadow garlic. Its combination of flowers and bulblets is unusual; while it spreads readily through offsets and bulblets, it often fails to produce viable seeds.

While not in the pond itself, a few wild iris grew along the edge of the road leading to the pond; their buds were as pleasing as the blooms.

When I photographed one of the flowers, no filters or processing techniques created the gray background. A few months earlier, the tall, slender stems behind the iris had supported a mass of tiny white asters. As the flowers aged and faded away, the stems turned to gray, providing an interesting contrast to the emerging spring flowers.

Closer to the pond, an unusually colored vetch caught my eye with its pure white accents.

In more sunlit areas, a pretty pink flower known as Lady Bird’s Centaury (Zeltnera texensis, previously Centaurium texense) had grown up. While similar in appearance to mountain pinks found on the Edwards Plateau, this centaury has a more open appearance than the bouquet-like mountain pinks. The flowers are less than a half-inch wide; their early buds are especially small and delicate.

Other new growth edging the pond included Cherokee sedge (Carex cherokeensis). An important cover plant for waterfowl, this clumping sedge does well in the sandy loam soils found in east, southeast, and north central Texas. A southern species, it also ranges through the Gulf states to Georgia and north to Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri.

Cherokee sedge

In January, I showed some of the purple leatherflower (Clematis pitcheri) seed pods dangling from trees and shrubs.

Clematis pitcheri seed pods

By April, their cycle was beginning again and their first tendrils were beginning to climb. I’d never seen their early growth; now, I’m looking forward to the appearance of the flowers.

Clematis pitcheri vine

The biggest mystery of my April visit appeared just as you see it here: a single, unidentified object I assumed to be a flower lying on a leaf that had fallen onto palmetto fronds. It was so artfully arranged, I wondered if someone had placed it there.

Looking around, I found a similar flower, caught by spider webbing and suspended in midair.

After finding more floral remains hanging from a tree that I recognized as yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), things began to fall into place.

I usually notice yaupon in the fall, when its bright red or orange berries adorn the woods, but I’d never seen it blooming until that day. Its lush display of flowers didn’t seem particularly fragrant, but they were exceedingly lovely.

Yaupon in bloom

Eventually, the rest of its blooms will fall; berries will begin to form, birds will come, and the cycle will have been completed for another year. This time, I will have seen it all.

Yaupon berries


Comments always are welcome.

Carry and Cache


There’s little question that these slightly shriveled berries were produced by the plant known as yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), a member of the holly family that’s native throughout the southeast, from Texas to coastal North Carolina.

How they came to be clustered in this hollow — part of a large, decaying tree stump — is hard to say, since there wasn’t an over-hanging yaupon branch to drop its berries into the stump. Even if there were, it seems unlikely that so many would have collected there.

It is food-gathering time, with squirrels burying pecans or collecting and drying fungi, while woodpeckers and bluejays energetically seek out and store acorns. Still, this seems a poor spot for caching food. Perhaps a younger and less experienced critter gave it a try, but decided to find a drier, more secure spot.

On the other hand, Christmas is drawing nigh. Perhaps this is only an optimistic squirrel’s version of cookies and milk. With such tempting berries in the stump, surely Santa Squirrel will pay a visit!


Comments always are welcome.