An Ode to Longleaf

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Longleaf Pine Savannah

Before I post a May recap, I wanted to pay tribute to one of our countries most unique and biodiverse communities, the Longleaf Pine savannah.  Over the past few years I have been slowly working on a manuscript for a book about East Texas.  This post contains an excerpt of that manuscript and some photos that I intend to include in the book.

Perhaps no tree better represents the Pineywoods than the longleaf pine (Pinus palustris), both in its historic influence over the landscape and its eventual plight.  It most often made its presence known in extensive savannahs, where widely scattered individuals might have lived to be 500 years old, reaching diameters pushing four feet, and stretching well over a hundred feet toward the sky.  Once ranging across the southeast, from Virginia to East Texas, the king of the southern pines has been reduced to less than 5% of its native range, and has disappeared across the vast majority of its range in Texas.

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Longleaf Pine Savannah with Little Bluestem

Remnants of the fire-loving conifer and the habitats it defines can still be found, however.  In the northern part of its range in Texas, which includes Sabine, San Augustine, Angelina, and northern Jasper and Newton Counties, it primarily occurs in rolling uplands.  In areas that are managed with regular prescribed fires, one catch a glimpse of the great longleaf pine savannahs of the past.  These were perhaps the most biodiverse communities in the southeast; a unique area where prairie and forest mingled.

Occurring on sands of moderate depth, these sprawling forests are kept free of woody understory encroachment by regular fires.  The fire-tolerant longleaf pine thrives in the face of the flames, while most other species die out.  However, on occasion hardwoods such as blackjack oak (Quercus marilandica), Southern red oak (Quercus falcata), Post oak (Quercus stellata), sassafras (Sassafras albidum), farkleberry (Vaccineum arboreum), and sweetgum (Liquidambar styraciflua).  In the absence of fire American beautyberry (Callicarpa americana) and yaupon (Ilex vomitoria) may become invasive.

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An ancient Post Oak has survived decades of regular fires in this Longleaf Pine Savannah.

The real show, however occurs on the savannah floor, where hundreds of species of grasses and forbs complete these spectacular ecosystems.  Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is an important component in East Texas, and often occurs in the company of other grasses such as Eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides), Pineywoods dropssed (Sprobolus junceus), and wiregrass (Aristida palustris).  Brackenfern (Pteridium aquilinum) often carpets the ground and xeric (drought loving) species like Louisiana yucca (Yucca louisianensis) and Eastern prickly pear (Opuntia humifusa) take advantage of the droughty conditions created by pockets of deeper sand.  Forbs typical of this community include goat’s rue (Tephrosia virginiana and Tephrosia onobrynchoides), Carolina false vervain (Verbena carnea), Pickering’s dawnflower (Stylisma pickeringii), Carolina Larkspur (Delphinium caroliniana), Sanguine’s purple coneflower (Echinacea sanguinea), soft green eyes (Berlandiera pumila), racemed milkwort (Polygala polygama), propeller flower (Alophia drummondii), butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa), clasping milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis), pineland milkweed (Asclepias obovata), birdfoot violet (Viola pedata), and false dragonhead (Physostegia digitalis).  A number of species that are rare and declining in East Texas occur here as well, including leadplant (Amorpha canescens) and incised groovebar.  The range-restricted scarlet catchfly (Silene subciliata) is endemic to the Pineywoods of eastern Texas and western Louisiana.

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Scarlet Catchfly blooming in a Longleaf Pine Savannah

These savannahs also harbor a unique, and declining fauna.  In fact, some species are so closely tied to this community that they are unable to adapt in its absence.  Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Picoides borealis) and Louisiana Pine Snake are in such peril that they have been afforded protection under the Endangered Species Act.  Eastern Wild Turkey (Meleagris gallopavo) and Northern Bobwhite (Colinus virginiana) favor the dense, rich herbaceous layer beneath the longleafs, where bunch grasses provide ideal cover and high species diversity of grasses and forbs results in a bounty of insects.  Both species have become rare in East Texas, however efforts to reintroduce the wild turkey have been met with some success.

Other species such as the Bachman’s Sparrow (Peucaea aestivalis), Brown-headed Nuthatch (Sitta pusilla), Northern Scarlet Snake (Cemophora coccinea), and Southern Coal Skink (Plestiodon anthracinus) are on the decline.  Species such as the Eastern Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum) and Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) remain common, perhaps due to their adaptability.  The Tan Racer (Coluber constrictor etheridgei) is a race of racer that is also confined primarily to this community.  Surprisingly, even amphibians can eek out a living in these sandy environments.  Explosive breeders like the Hurter’s Spadefoot (Scaphiopus hurteri) and Mole Salamander (Ambystoma talpoideum) live the majority of their live deep underground, emerging during significant rains to breed in areas that can hold water long enough for their larvae to develop.

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Northern Scarlet Snake

The downfall of the longleaf pine savannah began with the arrival of European settlers to the region.  Longleaf lumber was of a superior quality.  Rot resistant, and straight as an arrow, it was utilized heavily for the masts of ships.  As it began to rapidly disappear, those tending to the forest’s regeneration noted that due to its unique ecology longleaf took a very long time to grow to a size suitable for harvest.  So instead of replanting them, they opted for species like loblolly (Pinus taeda) and the non-native slash pine (Pinus elliottii), that, though the quality of their wood was inferior, grew much faster and could yield a marketable stand in less time.  At the same time a culture of fire suppression was arising.  The Europeans did not see fire as a useful tool, as did the Native Americans before them, but rather as a threat to their livelihood.  As a result they took steps to eliminate fire from the landscape, and in doing so woody shrubs eventually filled in the open grass-dominated savannahs.

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Sun sets in a Longleaf Pine Savannah

 

The following are a variety of photos of the longleaf pine savannah and its flora and fauna.

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Longleaf Pine Savannah

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Longleaf Pine seedling

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Louisiana Yucca blooms in a Longleaf Pine Savannah.

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Longleaf Pine Savannah

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Slender Glass Lizard (Ophisaurus attenuatus)

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Birdfoot Violet

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Ox Beetle (Strategus antaeus)

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Eastern Lubber Grasshopper (Romalea microptera)

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Six-lined Racerunner (Aspidoscelis sexlineata)

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Southern Coal Skink

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Hurter’s Spadefoot Toad

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Soft Green Eyes

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Eastern Coachwhip

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Zebra Swallowtail (Protographium marcellus)

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Clasping Milkweed

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Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scutellaris rugata)

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Racemed Milkwort

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Sanguine’s Purple Coneflower

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Carolina Larkspur

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Eastern Gammagrass

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Leadplant

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Prairie Kingsnake (Lampropeltis calligaster)

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False Dragonhead

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Texas Red-headed Centipede (Scolopendra heros)

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Texas Dutchman’s Pipe (Aristolochia reticulata)

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Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor)

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Butterfly Weed and Bracken Fern

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Pineland Milkweed

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Carolina False Vervain

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Texas Brown Tarantula (Aphonopelma hentzi)

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Slowinski’s Corn Snake (Pantherophis slowinski)

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Eastern Fence Lizard

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Netleaf Leather Flower (Clematis reticulata)

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Propeller Flower

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

phlox-nivalis

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