Among the Leaf Litter

Target Species: Spring Coralroot Orchid (Corallorhiza wisteriana)

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Spring Coralroot

I’ve always had a thing for myco-heterotrophs.  Those rebels of the plant world that decide that they don’t need the one thing that students of biology most associate with plants: chlorophyll.  Chlorophyll is that green pigment that we all learn about in biology class.  It gives leaves their characteristic green color and it is instrumental in the process of photosynthesis, where plants utilize sunlight, carbon dioxide, and water to create glucose, which provides energy for the plant.  Less commonly taught is the story of the myco-heterotroph: a plant that does not undergo photosynthesis, and as such does not contain chlorophyll.

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Spring Coralroot

How then does the myco-heterotroph obtain its energy?  It is, in fact a parasite, obtaining its food and nutrients from the mycorrhizal fungi of plant roots.  These fungi form complex relationships with plants in which they bolster the plants ability to absorb water and nutrients, and in turn receive glucose and other carbohydrates from the plant.  Many orchids are myco-heterotrophs, most notably in our area are those of the genera Corallorhiza and Hexalectris.  The Spring Coralroot (Corallorhiza wisteriana) is one such example.  Ironically, the orchids themselves depend on mycorrhizal fungi for their own survival.

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Spring Coralroot

The Spring Coralroot is the most widespread member of the genus Corallorhiza.  It occurs throughout most of the United States and parts of Mexico.  Here it occurs in a variety of habitats with a common factor: dense, undisturbed leaf litter that is conducive to the formation of large populations of mycorrhizal fungi.  Coralroots and other similar orchids were long described as saprophytic, obtaining their nutrients from decaying organic matter, however recent studies have identified their parasitic nature.  Corallorhiza wisteriana is likely one of the more common orchids in East Texas, however I had never been fortunate enough to see one in bloom, despite having spent considerable time in seemingly suitable habitat.  It is entirely possible that I have walked passed many without knowing.  These diminutive orchids are nearly impossible to see against the leaf litter.  Fortunately, I had some help in checking this species off my 2017 list.  My botanist friend Sonnia Hill found a large population on her property a few years ago.  She read about my list and was kind enough to offer her assistance.  After periodically checking on the progress of the orchids, we arranged a date for Carolina and I to visit and attempt to capture their beauty on film – or more appropriately compact flash card.

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Spring Coralroot

Sonnia’s property is in a unique area, combining elements of three Texas ecoregions: the Pineywoods, Post Oak Savannah, and Blackland Prairie.  Her ranch is home to a rich and interesting flora beyond the lovely coralroots.  Though it was still early for most things to be blooming, she did point out several Carolina Violets (Viola villosa) near the orchids.  I had yet to photograph this species and delighted in the opportunity.

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Corolina Violet

En route between our house and Sonnia’s property we crossed a high ridge just north of Jacksonville.  This ridge rises a few hundred feet from the valley below.  The top of this ridge provides what is perhaps the most expansive view of East Texas.  Along the ridge the Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) was in full, spectacular bloom.  I couldn’t resist stopping to capture its brilliance against the blue afternoon sky.

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Eastern Redbud

Though not rich in number of species, this trip was rich in the quality of those species observed, scenery, and camaraderie between friends with shared interests.  As we journeyed home I hoped that the splashes of pink from the redbuds lining the roadway were a sign of good things to come.

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Gem of the Pinewoods

Target Species: Texas Trailing Phlox (Phlox nivalis ssp. texensis)

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The Federally Endangered Texas Trailing Phlox (Phlox nivalis ssp. texensis)

The day broke to a bleak, gray scene.  Dense clouds blotted the sun and a gentle spring rain had begun to fall.  It was not exactly the scene I was hoping to wake to, as I was planning to stop to look for one of my 2017 targets on the way down to visit my parents in Houston.  But it was hard to be disappointed.  Despite the problems they pose to photography, these are my favorite kind of spring days.  Warm and gray, they gift a cool, nourishing rain to the earth – one that the plants will no doubt make good use of in the days to come.  Despite the dreary conditions, we were not deterred.  Carolina and I packed up and began heading south.  The further south we traveled the lighter the sky became until slivers of sun began to filter through the gray.

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To me, including this beautiful little phlox in my 2017 biodiversity goals was a no brainer.  Though I had seen the plant before, I had never seen it in bloom.  Phlox nivalis is primarily a species of the Eastern Gulf Coastal Plain, where it can be relatively common in some areas.  The disjunct population in Texas, however is anything but.  Recognized as a subspecies of the broader ranging Phlox nivalis, Texas Trailing Phlox occurs in only three counties, where it is known from only a couple of sites.  Here it can be found on deep sands in longleaf pine savannahs and certain open longleaf pine-hardwood forests.  It is evergreen and fire-dependent.  Though the above ground portion of the plant may be scorched by a passing fire, the plants thrive from the flames’ affect on opening the understory and providing rich nutrients to the soil.  This plant is so rare and its habitat in such peril that it has been listed as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

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Texas Trailing Phlox Flower Detail

We stopped first at one of the very few remaining extant natural populations.  I did not know what to expect in terms of phenology for this species, other than accounts that I read claiming they bloom primarily in March and April.  With everything being so early this year, I was 50/50 as to whether or not there might be a few blooms. We had reached the population, which is located within the Big Thicket National Preserve.  Though the leaves are distinctive, when not in bloom the plants themselves can be very difficult to detect.  We spent several minutes scouring the area to no avail, until I finally caught sight of a few bright pink blooms.  After regaining my composure I excitedly began photographing them, a task made difficult by the fluctuating light conditions and sporadic wind gusts.  In all I counted 6 plants in the area, only 2 of which were in bloom.  Another was in early bud.

After admiring the natural population, we set out to explore an area within the National Preserve where the phlox had been reintroduced.  By now it had began to rain again, and the air was filled with the fresh, rejuvenating scent of the woods on a wet spring day.  The reintroduction site was large.  It consisted of at least a couple of acres, where we counted hundreds of plants.  Though only a few were in flower, I left feeling very satisfied that the efforts by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service and other conservation groups was paying off, helping to save this Endangered Species from the brink.

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Texas Trailing Phlox.  Note the needle-like evergreen leaves.

Texas Trailing Phlox is only a small part of these interesting communities.  We observed many other natural wonders during our afternoon in the Big Thicket, including Texas Woodsorrel (Oxalis texana) which occurs in sandy woodlands primarily in Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas, with a rare, disjunct populations in Alabama and Florida.  The bright yellow flowers of Oxalis texana are very large compared to other woodsorrels, and are decorated with red lines near the center of the corolla.

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Texas Woodsorrel

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Texas Woodsorrel

A habit I am trying to break myself of is my tendency to pass over the most common botanical subjects.  Take Rose Mock Vervain (Glandularia canadensis) for example.  In the spring it is one of the most abundant wildflowers along forest roadways in East Texas.  I suppose that for this reason I take it for granted and never really took the opportunity to photograph it.  However this day I could not ignore the many clumps scattered about recently burned patches within the longleaf pine savannahs.  Here they literally seems to be rising from the ashes.

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Rose Mock Vervain

While exploring an open spot within the forest that I thought might harbor some interesting flora, I heard my wife excitedly call out for me to come to her, quick.  As usual her keen eyes found an incredible sight.  A mating pair of Pipevine Swallowtails (Battus philenor) in one of the patches of Glandularia.  Rightfully thinking that this find would be hard to top, we decided to call it a day and continue our trip south to spend some time with family.  Yet I must confess, that as soon as the longleaf pines disappeared in my rearview mirror, I was already contemplating the next species on my list.

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Copulating Pipevine Swallowtails

Beauty in the Barrens

Target Species: Texas Saxifrage (Micranthes texana)

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Texas Saxifrage

Some reading this may wonder why I chose to include this tiny, not particularly showy flower on my 2017 species list.  I have always been fascinated with rare, unique ecological communities and the flora and fauna that reside in them.  The Texas Saxifrage grows in some particularly unique communities.  It tends to prefer places with harsh soil conditions that create an environment where most plants would struggle to survive.  By utilizing these habitats it helps avoid competition from other plant species that would try to monopolize its resources.  In the Pineywoods of East Texas it has been recorded in two particularly interesting communities: Catahoula Barrens and Weches Glades.

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Texas Saxifrage

I set out to find this species alone.  And while I missed Carolina’s company, I treasure alone time in nature.  It is far and away the best way for me to clear my head and put things in perspective.  On a warm, mostly sunny February day I set out to an extensive Catahoula Barren less than an hour from home.  Catahoula Barrens were probably never abundant on the landscape.  They occur on coarse, shallow soils over the Catahoula formation.  These soils are acidic, and often high in aluminum content.  Taken together these conditions are not favorable for tree growth.  That is not to say, however, that trees do not occur here.  Widely scattered Longleaf Pines, and Bluejack and Blackjack Oaks can be found as stunted, gnarled versions of their counterparts elsewhere.  An old growth Longleaf Pine here, for example, may be little more than 10 inches across and thirty feet tall.

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Typical Catahoula Barren.  I captured this image in July, 2016.

Catahoula Barrens are home to a rich, diverse flora that is not observed anywhere else in East Texas.  Many of these species are globally rare, and others are rare in the state.  Typical species include Nuttall’s Rayless Goldenrod (Bigelowia nuttallii), Yellow Hedge-Hyssop (Gratiola flava), Least Daisy (Chaetopappa asteroids), San Saba Pinweed (Lechea san-sabeana), Maryland Milkwort (Polygala mariana), Smooth Phacelia (Phacelia glabra), Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia caespitosa), Sunbright (Phemeranthus parviflorus) and Blazing Star (Liatris mucronata).  Rare species found here include Texas Sunnybells (Schoenolirion wrightii), Navasota Fox Glove (Agalinis navasotensis), Gulf Blazing Star (Liatris tenuis), and Texas Saxifrage.

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Texas Saxifrage

I had visited this Catahoula Boulder many times in the past, but never so early in the year.  I worried that these miniscule plants would be elusive, however it didn’t take me long to find them among the dried grasses and fallen oak leaves.  Though tiny, I find the flowers of Micranthes texana to be quite beautiful.  Their tiny size, however makes photographing them a real challenge.  The slightest breeze makes focusing on the anthers, a standard practice of wildflower photography, almost impossible.

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Texas Saxifrage

After spending some time with this remarkable plant, I set out to see what else might be blooming in the barrens.  As one might expect so early in the year, blooms were sparse, however I was able to locate a few other wildflowers in the area.  I observed several Carolina Anemone (Anemone caroliniana) blooms on the barren’s margins.

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Carolina Anemone

Yellow Hedge-Hyssop is endemic to eastern Texas and extreme western Louisiana.  This tiny plant is scarcely 3 inches tall, and if it weren’t for its propensity to grow on exposed Catahoula boulders, it would be all but invisible.

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Yellow Hedge-Hyssop

After spending the afternoon in the barren I ventured over to the adjacent longleaf pine savannah.  Here I sat and watched a colony of Texas Leafcutter Ants (Atta texana) busily tending to their maze of subterranean tunnels and chambers, and harvesting bits of leaves by the thousands.  They do not actually consume the leaves, but rather store them in an underground chamber to cultivate a fungus that will feed the colony.  I have always been fascinated with these invertebrates, and usually try my luck at photographing them every year.  It is a challenge, but the results can be extremely rewarding.

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Texas Leafcutter Ant

With another 2017 target under my belt, I left the woods to return to civilization, if only to plan and ponder my next opportunity to escape it.

 

 

Fun in the Sun

Target Species: Woolly Sunbonnets (Chaptalia tomentosa)

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Woolly Sunbonnets in a Wetland Pine Savannah

Spring came early this year, with many wildflowers blooming as much as three weeks earlier than in an average year.  It has made planning botanical outings to find species on my 2017 target list a challenge.  Fortunately I had some help with Chaptalia tomentosa, the first species that I would check off the list.  Someone on a Facebook group I moderate (Texas Flora) posted an image of one looking for help identifying it.

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County Level Distribution of Chaptalia tomentosa from http://www.bonap.org

Woolly sunbonnets is a species of the coastal plain, ranging from North Carolina to extreme eastern Texas.  It occurs in herbaceous seeps and wetland savannahs where highly acidic soil remains perpetually saturated.  These communities are typically associated with longleaf pine uplands.  In East Texas longleaf pine typically occurs on sands of moderate depth.  Rainfall quickly percolates through the coarse sand, however if, on its journey through the soil, it encounters a dense clay layer, it will sit or gently flow, as clays are much more difficult to pass through.  Where these clay layers meet the surface, the water may pool or seep out forming a unique vegetative community.  The movement of water through these areas leaches essential nutrients and organic material tends to accumulate over time.  These harsh, damp habitats are home to interesting species including a variety of carnivorous plants and orchids.

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Woolly Sunbonnet

I have spent considerable time exploring wetland pine savannahs and forested seeps in East Texas, but never in the early spring.  Spurred by the image posted on Facebook my wife, Carolina, and I visited some locations of specimen records and other areas that I knew had suitable habitat.  I am lucky to have such a great adventuring companion.  Carolina not only makes for great company, she also has excellent eyes and spots my targets more frequently than I do.

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Woolly Sunbonnets

Also known as the Pineland Daisy, Chaptalia tomentosa is a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae).  The white blooms open midday under warm, bright conditions.  This is an adaptation shared by many plants in order to maximize exposure to potential pollinators.  At night and on cool days when most pollinators are not active, the flowers close in order to protect the pollen and the plants’ sexual structures.  We were lucky to find many open flowers on our outing, and mostly cloudy skies made for ideal photographic conditions.

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Woolly Sunbonnets

Chaptalia tomentosa was not the only species active in the bog.  Fresh spring pitchers of the Pale Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia alata) were beginning to emerge and the unmistakable red rosettes of sundews (Drosera spp.) covered the ground.  One particularly quirky plant, the Small Butterwort (Pinguicula pumila) was blooming alongside the sunbonnets.  This tiny carnivorous plant has concave leaves lined with hairs coated in sticky enzymes.  When an unsuspecting ant or other small invertebrate comes into contact with the enzymes they find themselves stuck as the leaf envelopes them like a hot dog bun.

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Small Butterwort

White Bog Violets (Viola lanceolata) were also blooming.  This attractive little flowers are common in areas with saturated soil.

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White Bog Violet

While walking through one of the wetland pine savannahs Carolina called out that she had spotted a frog.  Sure enough, at least 50 feet away was a Green Tree Frog (Hyla cinerea).  Resting on the bleak winter vegetation, it stuck out like a sore thumb.

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Green Tree Frog

After an eventful day photographing vernal bog flora Carolina and I ventured to the adjacent longleaf pine uplands to enjoy the sun’s final rays and the day’s retreat into night.  There is something about a high quality longleaf pine forest and its associated seepage communities that provide me with a feeling of wonder and excitement that is sought after yet elusive for so many.  As the light faded away we returned home, content in a day spent in some of our state’s most biodiverse habitats.

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Longleaf Pine Savannah