Living Rocks, Golf Balls, and Other Strangely Named Cacti of the Trans-Pecos.

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Living Rock Cactus

Target Species:

Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus ornatus)

Button Cactus (Epithelantha micromeris)

Lacespine Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria lasiacantha)

Living Rock Cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus)

The landscape of Big Bend is striking for its vastness; famous for its sweeping views that stretch from horizon to horizon, and seemingly beyond.  Stepping into this rugged wilderness, one is immediately hit with the harshness of this land.  Brutal conditions created by lack of rainfall and extreme temperatures.  It is easy to think that this seemingly inhospitable land  would be devoid of life, but despite its harshness it is incredibly diverse, harboring a rich flora and fauna unlike anywhere else on the planet.  And as remarkable as this vastness is, equally astounding is the beauty and variety that can be found in just one small patch of the desert floor.

Big Bend, that large peninsula of Texas that dips down into Mexico as it follow a bend in the Rio Grande, has the greatest cactus diversity in the country.  It was that diversity that brought Carolina and I to the region this October.  Specifically we were hoping to find the Living Rock Cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus) in bloom.

Big Bend is part of the Chihuahuan Desert.  It is the highest, wettest desert in North America, and the most biodiverse in the world.  The Big Bend Region includes a multitude of natural and cultural attractions, including Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Terlingua.  We planned to explore these areas in pursuit of our succulent quarries, and hoped that our pursuit would bring with it other natural wonders.

Cactus hunting is not without its hazards.  Aside from the obvious risk of an errant spine in the skin, there are other denizens of cactus country that pack a punch.  One such inhabitant is the Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus ornatus).  Yet despite this creatures fearsome reputation as a venomous marauder, it is one of the most docile snake species I have had the good fortune to encounter.

As I scoured a rock cut in search of spiny succulents, my eyes caught a familiar outline – a striking (as in attractive) Crotalus ornatus coiled at the mouth of a deep crevice in the limestone.  It was sitting, I presumed, waiting for some unsuspecting rodent to wander within its grasp.  Generally speaking, I think that the threat of rattlesnakes to your average desert-goer is greatly exaggerated, however seeing this beauty hidden away in the perfect hand or foot hold certainly reinforced the old adage “look before you step”.  The photo below depicts the animal as I found it.

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Black-tailed Rattlesnake

After spending a few moments with the black-tail I continued my search for cacti.  After a moment I heard Carolina call out that she had found something.  How she spotted them, I’ll never know, but she had found a population of the diminutive Button Cactus (Epithelantha micromeris).  This diminutive cactus seldom protrudes more than 2 inches above the rocky substrate it calls home.  It occurs primarily in Mexico, but also throughout much of West Texas, southern New Mexico, and extreme southeastern Arizona.

Though they were not in flower, I found these small, rock-like cacti to be quite photogenic.  They flower primarily in late winter and early spring.  Later in the year an elongated red fruit appears.  Caro likened the fruit to a particular part of an excited dog’s anatomy.

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Button Cactus

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Button Cactus

Nestled in a few populations along the Pecos/Brewster County line, one may find a particularly formidable looking cactus.  The Icicle Cholla (Cylindropuntia tunicata) is a wide ranging species, occurring in deserts throughout much of Latin America.  In the United States, however, it is known only from these few places in the Trans-Pecos of Texas.  Admiring the afternoon light filtering through its intimidating spines, it was easy to see how it earned its common name.

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Icicle Cactus

After a long day of travelling and exploring we finally made it to Marathon, but not before stopping at an extensive Black-tailed Prairie Dog town, where we admired their antics as the day began to fade.  We made our camp in Marathon, and I found myself deep in thought as we laid in our sleeping bags looking up at the twinkling wonder of space.  Along with the prerequisite existential questions inspired by such a vista, I pondered on the days to come, and the natural wonders that awaited us.

The next morning I spotted a remarkable creature on the stucco outside the campground’s bathrooms.  It was a male Chihuahuan Agapema (Agapema dyari).  A lovely member of the giant silkmoth family (Saturniidae).  I gently moved it to a nearby tree trunk, where I hoped it would be less obvious to the hoard of House Sparrows that were scouring the area.

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Chihuahuan Agapema

As the sun warmed the desert we broke our condensation-laden camp and set out for Big Bend National Park.  As we crossed into the park we immediately took notice of the diverse cactus community.  The most obvious were the abundant clumps of Strawberry Cactus (Echinocereus stramineus), the heavily armed Eagle’s Claw Cactus (Echinocactus horizonthalonius), and the ubiquitous prickly pears (Opuntia spp.).

Finding the smaller, more cryptic species, took a bit more work.  We found the Lacespine Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria lasiacantha) to be quite common.  Also known as the Golf Ball Cactus, this tiny succulent is quite similar to the Button Cactus.  Cacti of Texas, A Field Guide by Powell, et. al discusses some of the differences.

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Lacespine Nipple Cactus

The real reason for our trip, however, was to try to catch the Living Rock Cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus) in bloom.  This bizarre cactus is, in my opinion, one of the most spectacular plants in the country.  Hardly recognizable as a cactus, it is spineless, and consists of rough tubercles arranged in concentric rings around a center of soft fuzz.

For most of the year the dull green to gray Living Rock blends perfectly with the scattered stones that litter its limestone home, relying on camouflage rather than piercing spines for defense.  For a few short weeks in the fall, however, the limestone hills of the Trans-Pecos explode with color as thousands upon thousands of Living Rocks open their bright pink blooms to the world.

It was just such a scene that I was hoping Carolina and I would encounter in Big Bend.  We were soon to find, however, that finding these jewels of the Chihuahuan Desert in bloom would be far more difficult than we anticipated.  We spent all day scouring limestone ridges, bluffs along the Rio Grande, and flats in the low desert.  We jumped for joy when we found our first plant.  We knew we were were in the right area.  Even without their blooms, the Living Rock is a beautiful, bizarre plant and photographic subject.

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Living Rock Cactus

The desert sun is relentless, even in mid October.  Our spirits refreshed by finding our first Living Rock, we pushed on, scouring the bleached white limestone hills as the temperatures flirted with 100 degrees.  It was truly brutal, but we knew that the payoff of seeing the blooms would be well worth our suffering.  After several hours, and several hundred more Living Rocks sighted, however, the blooms did not come.  We were dismayed.  We had become proficient at spotting the near invisible cacti on the desert floor, but despite finding so many individuals in several different areas, we did not find a single bloom.  I began to think that this would not be the trip that we would see the exquisite flowers of Ariocarpus fissuratus.

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Living Rock Cactus

That night we hoped to camp in the park, but alas, all of the campgrounds were full.  We debated between staying at a primitive campsite along a backcountry road, or driving to the campground in Study Butte.  In the end we opted for the latter, and made the drive from the Rio Grande to Study Butte in the darkness, with nothing but the Common Poorwhills, Black-tailed Jackrabbits, and Western Diamondbacks to keep us company.

When we arrived at the campground, the attendant informed us that there was a party going on that would last well into the night, and recommended that we select a site on the other  side of the property.  We happily agreed.  We made camp, ate dinner, and settled in for the evening.  The “party” turned out to be a music festival that blared across the desert until after 1 am, after which the multitude of bikers attending continued to keep us awake for at least another hour.  Finally, at some point in the wee hours before dawn we drifted off.

We were awoken around 6 am to gale force wind violently shaking our tent.  The temperature had dropped by tens of degrees, and as we stepped out from behind the nylon the air met us with a chill.  I must admit, as I broke camp with powerful wind gusts and stinging dust beating down on me, I was hating life.  “Not every trip can be a success,” I reminded myself, and I tried to take solace in the incredible organisms we had thusfar encountered, and the memories we had created.  In that moment, however, it was hard to do.

We decided to spend the morning and early afternoon exploring the area, before beginning our long journey back to the Pineywoods.  The habitat at our first stop looked promising, but after a lack of blooms the previous day, I took care not to get my hopes up.  We soon saw our first Living Rock, like a star etched into the talus.  I found myself once again admiring their bizarre firm when I heard Carolina shout out in glee.  I knew.  The memory of the brutal previous night faded as I made my way to her, and saw the bright pink bloom seemingly emerging from nothing.  We did it.  It was not long before we found another, and another.

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Living Rock Cactus

The Living Rock is one of three spineless cacti in Texas.  Their lack of spines means that they must rely on camouflage to avoid predation.  They also contain foul-tasting alkaloids which likely deter would be predators.  These alkaloids, however, have made this plant popular with the Tarahumara and other early tribes and settlers.  Though they do not contain mescaline like the similarly spineless Peyote, they contain other mildly hallucinogenic compounds like hordenine, and were reportedly used as a substitute when preferable psychoactive cacti weren’t available.  Hordenine also made the Living Rock useful for a number of medicinal purposes, including a disinfectant for wounds and burns.

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Living Rock Cactus

Ariocarpus fissuratus is  endemic to the Chihuahuan Desert.  They barely enter the U.S. in West Texas.  They are incredibly tough, even for a cactus.  We found that they would grow in the harshest parts of the landscape, often where even other succulents could not survive.  They owe their success to their uncanny capacity to store water, and their ability to shrivel away to virtually nothing in times of extreme drought.  Indeed, they often times seem to be more stone than plant.  Carolina and I admired them for some time, and reluctantly bid them farewell, content with the short moment in time we were fortunate enough to spend among their fleeting blooms.

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Living Rock Cactus

There are some songs that serve to inspire us and remind of of those things in this world that are most important to us.  For me, one such song is Stubborn Love by the Lumineers, and it came up on the playlist just as the Chisos Mountains began to fade in our rearview.  I looked about the desert that stretched beyond the horizons around us, and I was filled with a sense of contentment.  It’s easy to feel sad at the end of a great trip, but I take comfort in the fact that no matter where I am, if nature is near there is some great wonder waiting to be discovered.

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Exploring the Upper Texas Coast

Target Species: Saltmarsh False Foxglove (Agalinis maritima)

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Saltmarsh False Foxglove

The Upper Texas Coast is a naturalist’s paradise.  It is one of the country’s premier birding sites, and harbors an interesting flora and fauna including many species that are limited to coastlines and their associated habitats.  This region was historically largely a patchwork of coastal prairie, freshwater marsh, brackish marsh, and saltmarsh.  Trees and woody vegetation was primarily limited to larger river drainages.   Today the habitat has been heavily modified, however remnants of historic vegetation still remain.

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Saltmarsh False Foxglove

I had previously observed the Saltmarsh False Foxglove while passing through bands of saltmarsh leading to the beach.  For whatever reason I never stopped to photograph it, despite the fact that it was an interesting species restricted to a thin band of habitat directly adjacent to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of North America.  Here it occurs in tidally influenced saltmarsh.

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County-level distribution of Agalinis maritima from http://www.bonap.org

This year I made a point to capture some images.  Last weekend Carolina and I took a trip to the Upper Texas Coast.  The first evening of our trip we passed through saltmarsh where I had seen it in bloom around this time last year.  I was disappointed, as I didn’t see any blooms.  I thought that I had missed my best shot at checking Agalinis maritima off my list.  The next morning, however, while revisiting the beach I saw several in bloom.  I came to the conclusion that the blooms open in the morning, and throughout the day as the relentless coastal winds hammer the marsh the blooms quickly fade and fall from the plant.  The wind made photography a challenge, but I was able to capture a few images of the Saltmarsh False Foxglove’s beautiful, bizarre-looking flower.

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Saltmarsh False Foxglove

There were many other showy plants blooming alongside my target.  One of the most striking was the Texas Bluebells (Eustoma exaltatum).  This is a wide-ranging species that seems to thrive in the coastal prairies and drier margins of the saltmarsh, though they can be found well inland in open habitats as far north as Wyoming and North Dakota.

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Texas Bluebells

The large, bright blooms of the Saltmarsh Morning Glory (Ipomoea sagittata) were also prevalent.  The blooms open in the early morning and are mostly closed by early afternoon.

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Saltmarsh Morning Glory

Plentiful rains prior to our visit resulted in an abundance of rainlilies (Cooperia spp.).  I was excited to discover that a few were the uncommon Traub’s Rainlily (Cooperia traubii), which is limited to a few coastal and near coastal counties in Texas and extreme northeastern Mexico.  It can be differentiated from the similar, more widespread Evening Rainlily (Cooperia drummondii) by it’s elongated style, which extends well beyond the anthers.  The style of the Evening Rainlily is either shorter than the anthers, even with the anthers, or barely longer.

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Traub’s Rainlily

Cooperia traubii

County-level distribution of Cooperia traubii from http://www.bonap.org.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present and rare.

The taxonomy of prickly-pears (Opuntia spp.) is a bit of a mess.  Experts offer differing opinions of how the various species and populations should be classified.  The prickly-pears of the upper Texas Coast follow this pattern.  Two species are especially contentious.  Some experts suggest that these cacti are individuals of the more widespread Opuntia lindheimeri and Opuntia stricta, while others suggest that there are two species endemic to the Upper Texas Coast: Opuntia bentonii and Opuntia anahuacensis.  If Opuntia bentonii is a valid taxon, the image below is of this species.

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Opuntia sp.

Venturing less than a mile from the coast the marsh slowly transitions from salt to brackish to fresh water.  At the margins of a handful of freshwater marshes in the Upper Texas Coast a real gem of a plant can be found: the Fewflower Milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata).  The Fewflower Milkweed is a species of the coastal plain that reaches its western limit in Southeast Texas.  Here it historically occurred in wetland pine savannahs and wet coastal prairies.  Today it exists in only a handful of populations in the Big Thicket and along the Upper Texas Coast.

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Fewflower Milkweed

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Fewflower Milkweed

Blooming in profusion within the freshwater marsh were scores of Swamp Rosemallow (Hibiscus moscheutos).  The spectacular blooms of this species open fully in the early morning, and close by the afternoon.

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Swamp Rosemallow

Every trip to the Upper Texas Coast provides unique, memorable encounters with the natural world.  There are several other species on my list that call this region home, and with any luck I’ll return soon to seek them out.

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Retreating tides and advancing clouds on the Upper Texas Coast

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Retreating tides and advancing clouds on the Upper Texas Coast

 

Purple People Eater

Target Species: Purple Bladderwort (Utricularia purpurea)

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Purple Bladderwort

This is one I have wanted to see for a long time.  Utricularia purpurea is an aquatic, carnivorous plant that inhabits much of the Eastern United States.  It barely enters Texas in the extreme southeast portion of the state, where it is rare.  I suspect that very few people have seen the Purple Bladderwort here, as the few known populations are not particularly easy to access.  Pursuing the photographs seen here was a true adventure, and the highlight of my 2017 quest for biodiversity thus far.

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Purple Bladderwort

The Purple Bladderwort has a peculiar distribution, not unlike that of another species on my 2017 list, the Blue Lupine.  In the case of the bladderwort I suspect that its distribution can somewhat be explained by the presence of appropriate wetlands in the Gulf and Atlantic coastal plains, and in glacially formed depressions in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions.

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County-level distribution of Utricularia purpurea from http://www.bonap.org.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present but rare.

To see this rarity, I once again called on the good people of the Nature Conservancy of Texas.  Wendy Ledbetter, Forest Project Manager, told me that U. purpurea had been reported from a series of flatwood ponds on one of the properties they protect.  It was, in fact, very close to where I photographed Streptanthus hyacinthoides a few weeks ago.  She was kind enough to take time from her busy schedule to meet me one morning and show me the areas where it had been reported.  She brought me to two spectacular flatwoods ponds.  We were unsure if any of the elusive carnivores would be in bloom, but sure enough, after minimal effort I spotted one, then another, then another.

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Purple Bladderwort

After showing me around for a couple of hours in the morning, Wendy had to leave to tend to other engagements.  I thanked her profusely, both for her time and consideration, and for the fine work that she and her colleagues at the Nature Conservancy have done to protect so much our great state’s incredible biodiversity.  After Wendy left I returned to the ponds to try to capture some unique images of this spectacular little plant.  I was trudging through water that was mostly between 1 and 3 feet deep.  To capture some of these images I had to sit, kneel, or completely submerge myself in the water, with just my hands and camera above the surface.

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Purple Bladderwort

As previously mentioned, and eluded to in the title, Utricularia purpurea is a carnivorous plant.  It contains intricate leaves that float just below the water’s surface.  These leaves are loaded with small air-filled bladders that help keep the plant afloat.  Each bladder is equipped with a small, hair-like trigger. As tiny aquatic organisms swim by and brush against the trigger, the bladders instantly open, and as the water rushes in to occupy the vacant airspace, the organisms are sucked in.  The bladder then snaps shut, trapping them inside where they are slowly digested.  In the late spring through the summer the lavender flowers emerge from the depths.  U. purpurea is one of several species of Utricularia in Texas, but it is the only one with purple blooms.  The others are all yellow.

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Purple Bladderwort.  If you look closely you can see some of the round bladders under the water.

The flatwood ponds in which I photographed the Purple Bladderwort that day were the finest I have ever seen.  These unique aquatic communities occur in clay-bottomed depressions where over the millennia water and organic material have accumulated.  Historically they were dominated by a variety of grasses and sedges, kept free from woody encroachment by regular wildfires.  In the modern era of development and fire suppression, however, high quality examples have all but disappeared.  They have persisted on this Nature Conservancy property, however, as a result of their excellent stewardship which includes frequent burns that penetrate into the ponds.  Scattered trees, mostly Swamp Tupelo (Nyssa biflora) exist on the margins, but the centers of the pond are open for acres.

Unfortunately I did not take any photos looking toward the center of the ponds, however I did capture the photo below looking back to the margins.  I found U. purpurea to be most common among the grasses and trees along the ponds’ margins.

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Flatwoods pond margin

I spent what must have been at least 15-20 minutes lying on my belly, almost completely submerged in the water in order to get a low angle on a particularly attractive grouping of Purple Bladderworts.  After finishing I began to retrace my steps out of the pond.  As I did, I noticed something that was not there on my way in.  There was an 8-9 foot alligator laying on the bottom not 20 feet from where I was laying.  I suspect that its sudden presence was a coincidence, and that it hadn’t been slowly stalking me, but none-the-less it gave my heart a good jump.  Fortunately the water was shallow and clear, giving me a clear view of the magnificent creature, otherwise I was likely to have stepped on it.  I slowly made my way around it, and it never moved.  Though somewhat difficult to see, you can make out its head and part of its back in the photo below.

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American Alligator

The Purple Bladderwort shared its ponds with its cousin, the Humped Bladderwort (Utricularia gibba).  Like Utricularia purpurea, it also relies on the bladders of its submerged leaves to obtain nutrients from animal prey.

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Humped Bladderwort

There were several other interesting aquatic species in the flatwoods ponds, but the Floatinghearts (Nymphoides aquatica) really stood out.  It is also commonly known as the Banana Plant for its banana-shaped roots.

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Floatingheart

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Floatingheart

The flatwoods ponds were surrounded by a spectacular series of xeric sandhills occurring on ancient sand deposited by rivers as they changed course over time.  I spent some time exploring these beautiful communities, where I found a number of Eastern Prickly Pears in bloom.

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Eastern Prickly Pear blooms in a xeric sandhill

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Eastern Prickly Pear blooms in a xeric sandhill

I also took a moment to photograph the Pickering’s Dawnflower (Stylisma pickeringii), another species typical of deep sands, as it bloomed among the cacti.

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Pickering’s Dawnflower

As if all of the above wasn’t enough, in the morning Wendy and I observed this Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos) up to its anti-predator high jinks.  It spread the ribs of the anterior portion of its body creating a hood-like effect similar to that of a cobra.  This behavior has earned it the colloquial name of “spreading adder”.  Occasionally it would feign a strike, but never attempted to actually bite me.  Eastern Hognose Snakes feed primarily on toads, and have specially-adapted pointed fangs that can deflate toads that fill themselves with air in an attempt to make themselves larger to avoid being swallowed.  They also contain a mild venom that likely helps subdue their prey, though it is harmless to humans.

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Eastern Hognose Snake

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Eastern Hognose Snake

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Eastern Hognose Snake

Seeing the Purple Bladderwort and exploring these incredible habitats is an experience I will never forget.  I can’t wait to return in the future to spend more time among the carnivores (large and small) of the Big Thicket.

Another Day, Another Sandhill

Target Species: Centerville Brazos Mint (Brazoria truncata var. pulcherrima)

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Centerville Brazos Mint blooms among other rare plants in a high quality xeric sandhill

My pursuit of the Centerville Brazos Mint (Brazoria truncata var. pulcherrima brought me back to the xeric sandhills, the interesting community where I recently photographed the Smooth Jewelflower.  This time, instead of heading southeast to the Big Thicket, I traveled northeast to the transition zone between the Pineywoods and the Post Oak Savannah.  Here I found a community described by Texas Parks and Wildlife as “East-Central Texas Plains Xeric Sandyland.”

The Centerville Brazos Mint is rare.  The entirety of its range is confined to Texas, and it requires very specific conditions – deep sands with an open overstory.  These communities have declined dramatically since the colonization of Texas, and today very few high quality examples remain.  Fortunately I was able to visit some that likely appear as they did before Texas was settled.  Though they may be rare, where they occur, the Centerville Brazos Mint often thrives, forming carpets of pink over the sand.

Brazoria truncata var. pulcherrima is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) that is restricted to a handful of counties in East-Central Texas.  The genus Brazoria is named for the Brazos River, where it was first collected.  There are three species, all of which are endemic to Texas.

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Centerville Brazos Mint

Where the Centerville Brazos Mint grows, other good things are sure to be found.  A suite of rare species occur in these sandhills.  Studies of these communities have found that they contain one of the highest levels of endemism in the Western Gulf Coastal Plain.  The day I visited I found another rare Texas endemic mint blooming in profusion – the Texas Sandmint (Rhododon ciliatus).

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Texas Sandmint

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Texas Sandmint

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Texas Sandmint

I arrived early, and spent most of the day exploring the sandhills.  At around 4:30 pm I began to see flashes of deep pink.  I recognized them as the blooms of the Prairie Fameflower (Phemeranthus rugospermus).  Another rare species, it occurs in the Central U.S. from Minnesota to East-Central Texas.  It has succulent leaves, an adaptation for the drought-like conditions that occur in the deep sands that it prefers.

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Prairie Fameflower

The Prairie Fameflower is so rare that it was once considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.  It remains endangered on many state lists.  Most of the flowers I saw were a brilliant deep pink.

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Prairie Fameflower

There were a few, however, that were a light, faded pink.  The flowers of Phemeranthus rugospermus open in the late afternoon, and only for a single day.

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Prairie Fameflower

Portions of the sandhill were carpeted by the low, creeping forbs Yellow Stonecrop (Sedum nuttallianum) and Drummond’s Nailwort (Paronychia drummondii).  In some areas the two were growing together.

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Yellow Stonecrop

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Drummond’s Nailwort

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Yellow Stonecrop

I also saw several Smooth Jewelflowers (Streptanthus hyacinthoides) in bloom.

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Smooth Jewelflower

Prickly Pears were abundant in the deep sands.  The individuals here key to Opuntia cespitosa per the new treatment of the Opuntia humifusa complex by Majure, et al.

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Prickly Pear

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Prickly Pear

These sandhills occur in isolated pockets within a broader band of Post Oak Savannah uplands.  These savannahs were beautiful and diverse in their own right.  Though I didn’t have time to explore them properly during this visit, it gives me something to look forward to on my next visit.

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Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) blooms in a Post Oak Savannah

 

Jewel of the Sandhills

Target Species: Smooth Jewelflower (Streptanthus hyacinthoides)

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Smooth Jewelflower

I have long admired the bizarre blooms of the Smooth Jewelflower, but had not previously sought it out.  Though it may be locally abundant, Streptanthus hyacinthoides is uncommon to rare in Texas.  A species of deep sands, it is most frequently encountered in the northern reaches of the Post Oak Savannah.  Globally it occurs from extreme southern Kansas and central Oklahoma through northeast Texas into northwestern Louisiana.  There are also a couple of disjunct populations in the Pineywoods: in the Big Thicket in Hardin and Newton Counties.

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Smooth Jewelflower

It was here that I sought them out.  In the Pineywoods they occur in xeric sandhills.  In the literature, these unique communities are variably referred to as xeric sandhills, oak-farkleberry sandylands, xeric sandylands, sandhill pine forests, etc.  Here soil conditions inhibit the growth of many species.  The deep, coarse sands here ensure that even in times of high rainfall, the water percolates down through the soil very rapidly.  As a result, xeric sandhills exist with perpetual drought-like conditions, and only drought-adapted species persist.

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Smooth Jewelflower

I was able to locate this population thanks to the help of my botanist friend Eric Keith, and Wendy Ledbetter, the Forest Program Manager of the Nature Conservancy in Texas.  Like so many more of our imperiled species, these rare jewels are protected by the Nature Conservancy.  I found them growing in a series of sandy clearings in a xeric sandhill dominated by Longleaf Pine (Pinus palustris) and Bluejack Oak (Quercus incana).

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Smooth Jewelflower

I found the strange flowers somewhat difficult to capture.  I found them strikingly beautiful in their uniqueness.  Beyond habitat preference, I could find little on the life history of this species while researching my 2017 list.  It seems that there is still much to learn about this peculiar jewel of the sandhills.

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Smooth Jewelflower

Xeric sandhills are also home to a variety of other unique and beautiful flowering plants.  Cacti and yucca, typically considered genera of the southwestern states, thrive here.  Traditionally the cactus species of this region was considered to be Opuntia humifusa, however recent work by Majure, et. al. is challenging that (More on that in a later blog post).  Using their new dichotomous key I keyed this species to Opuntia mesacantha.

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Opuntia cf. humifusa

The beautiful Carolina Larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) was also blooming in profusion.  I photographed the individual below from different angles, to see how the angle of light changed affected their color.

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Carolina Larkspur

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Carolina Larkspur

We also found the bizarre Large Clammyweed (Polanisia erosa) nearby.  I have heard the blooms described as miniature moose heads.  Large Clammyweed, like many species of xeric sandhills, is endemic to the West Gulf Coastal Plain.

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Large Clammyweed

Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) was also blooming in profusion.  This striking milkweed is common in sandy habitats throughout much of the United States.

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Butterfly Weed

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Butterfly Weed

Farkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) is a conspicuous mid and understory component in xeric sandhills.  This blueberries produce edible fruits.  Though they are much smaller and less flavorful than what you might find in your grocery store, they still make for a refreshing treat while wandering across the parched sand.

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Farkleberry

Growing tangled among some of the numerous Farkleberries we found the twining stems of the Netleaf Leather Flower (Clematis reticulatus).

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Netleaf Leather Flower

Xeric sandhills are certainly one of my favorite places to explore.  This post barely scratched the surface of the diverse flora that occurs here, and I didn’t even mention the many rare and interesting animal species that can be found in these deep sands, and I hope to revisit these special places in future blog posts.

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Cacti bloom in a xeric sandhill

 

 

Two For One at a Sandstone Outcrop

Target Species: Missouri Foxtail Cactus (Escobaria missouriensis) and Nuttall’s Death Camas (Toxicoscordion nuttallii)

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

Grimes County sits in an interesting area of Texas, especially for a naturalist.  Here three ecoregions (as defined by Texas Parks and Wildlife) converge: the Pineywoods, the Post Oak Savannah, and the Blackland Prairies.  As one might expect, it is not an abrupt and sudden change from one ecoregion to the next, so what results are certain areas that display characteristics of all three areas.  It certainly makes for an interesting plant community.

In western Grimes County a series of sandstone outcrops of the Oakville formation reach the surface.  These create a stark contrast to the surrounding landscape, resulting in rocky hillsides that exhibit a unique flora.  It was on these remarkable outcrops that I pursued my quarry.

The Missouri Foxtail Cactus (Escobaria missouriensis) is a widespread cactus occurring primarily in the Great Plains and portions of the Intermountain West.  It is a cold-hardy species, reaching as far north as northern Montana and North Dakota.  In Texas it occurs primarily along the eastern edge of the Edward’s Plateau, and outcrops and barrens in the Post Oak Savannah and Blackland Prairies.  On the sandstone outcrops we found them clinging to exposed rocks, and in areas of sandstone and shallow stand over the underlying bedrock.

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

The stems of E. missouriensis are small, inconspicuous, and difficult to see for most of the year.  They sit barely 2 inches above ground level, and in times of drought, moisture loss may pull them down to be nearly flush with the ground.  The plants remain nearly invisible for most of the year until in the late spring their brilliant blooms betray their presence.

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

The flowers are generally pale yellow and display various tinging of pinks, greens, and tans.  The flowers tend to open in the early afternoon and close at night.  When we arrived at the first outcrop at around 1 pm, the flowers were still tightly closed, but within an hour most were wide open.  The fruits ripen overwinter, and turn bright red in the spring.  Though we did not observe it, I have read that it is common to find flowering plants with fruit still attached.  Under optimal conditions the flowers may last a few days.

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

Escobaria missouriensis was formerly included in the genus Coryphantha.  Subtle differences in the seeds, flowers, and tubercles are used to differentiate the genera.

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

During our visits we saw groupings of various sizes, from single stems to pairs, to clumps of ten or so.  The day provided a wealth of photographic opportunities, and I delighted in moving from cactus to cactus to capture their likeness.

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

While exploring the most extensive outcrop I came across the fruits of another species on my 2017 list.  I actually saw a large population of Nuttall’s Death Camas (Toxicoscordion nuttallii) in March in the Pineywoods about 30 minutes from my house.  Unfortunately it was behind a fence in a pasture.  I tried to find and contact the landowners but had no luck, and was concerned that I might not get the chance to check this one off my list.  My heart admittedly sank a bit when all of the plants on the sandstone outcrop were in fruit, and appeared to have flowered weeks ago.  Then, in the shade of a Post Oak I found a single plant in bloom.

Nuttall’s Death Camas is primarily a plant of the south-central plains, occuring from Kansas to Arkansas to central Texas.  It is named for its poisonous bulb, which is said to be highly toxic to mammals.

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Nuttall’s Death Camas

There was also a wealth of other interesting plant species on the outcrops.  We observed Lesquerella gracilis, Calylophus berlandieri, Linum berlandieri, Chaetopappa asteroides, Marshallia caespitosa, Krameria lanceolata, Echinacea atrorubens, and more in bloom.  Unfortunately heavy winds made photographing them a real challenge.  Fortunately I was able to capture some acceptable images of White Milkwort (Polygala alba), Prairie Penstemon (Penstemon cobaea), and Reverchon’s False Pennyroyal (Hedeoma reverchonii).  The latter is restricted to central Texas and a handful of sites in Oklahoma and Arkansas.

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White Milkwort

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Prairie Penstemon

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Reverchon’s False Pennyroyal

There is something really special about exploring unique habitats like this.  Sites that were probably never common on the landscape.  I look forward to returning to this outcrop in the future to see what other treasures may bloom throughout the year.

Spring in the Hill Country

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Giant Spiderwort on a granite outcrop

Three springs ago I was lucky enough to marry the love of my life.  Before and since Carolina and I have shared many adventures in the natural world.  It seemed fitting that we spend our anniversary in these wild places we love so much, so we decided to take a trip to the Texas Hill Country.  It had been years since I spent any time exploring this treasure trove of natural wonders, and Carolina had only previously passed through.  We looked forward to a trip full of searching for rocks, gems, wildflowers, and other wild things.

The rugged Texas Hill Country is part of the Edward’s Plateau, an extensive uplift in central Texas comprised of marine deposit that are 100 million years old or more.  The region is primarily comprised of limestone, however extensive granite outcrops are present in areas.  The variety of substrates harbors an incredible array of plant and animal species, many of which are found nowhere else in the world.  Perhaps no other part of the state is as uniquely Texan as the Hill Country.  The following blog post is a long one that highlights its natural beauty.

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Spring in the Texas Hill Country

We covered a lot of ground during our trip, trying to see as much as we possibly could.  Recent rains had swollen the clear streams of the region.  While hiking we came across this tributary of the Colorado River, which I suspect is normally fairly tame.  We enjoyed a swim in the cool, clear waters below the fall.

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A Hill Country Waterfall

The wild’s of the Hill Country are full of beautiful sights, like this gnarled live oak growing from the top of a massive granite boulder.

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A gnarled live oak takes hold on a granite outcrop

The Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis) is certainly the most iconic of all Texas wildflowers.  While I can’t deny their beauty, I am usually reluctant to photograph bluebonnets, as they have been so extensively planted that it’s hard to know when one has encountered a truly wild population.  I found this large population in a clearing in an open oak/mesquite savannah far from any roads or developed areas, and am fairly certain it is a native population.

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Texas Bluebonnets

We were lucky that a number of cacti had begun to bloom during our trip.  I posted about the Claret Cup Cactus (Echinocereus coccineus) in my previous blog.  I also mentioned the Lace Cactus (Echinocereus reichenbachii).  The latter deserves mention again here, as we found many in bloom while we were driving back roads in pursuit of Topaz and Celestite.  While we did not find the precious stones, we were rewarded with the brilliant blooms of this spectacular cactus.  The largest, most impressive individuals and groups were on private land well behind fences, however we did find several beautiful individuals within camera range.

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A Lace Cactus clings to a granite outcrop

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Lace Cactus

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Lace Cactus

We also found a few Heyder’s Pincushion Cactuses (Mammillaria heyderi), which I had recently photographed in South Texas.

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Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus

Perhaps one of the most spectacular wildflower displays came from the Giant Spiderwort (Tradescantia gigantea) which seemed to thrive on granite and limestone alike.

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Giant Spiderwort

We observed a number of Penstemon species.  The most common and widespread was the Prairie Penstemon (Penstemon cobaea).  It was a treat to see such large, healthy populations of this species, as it is rare in the Pineywoods.

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Prairie Penstemon

We even found a few Prairie Penstemons with a striking lavender wash.

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Prairie Penstemon

We also found the much less common Guadalupe Penstemon, which is endemic to the Texas Hill Country.

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Guadalupe Penstemon

Penstemon guadalupensis

County level distribution for Penstemon guadalupensis from http://www.bonap.org.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present but rare.

The most spectacular of the Penstemons, however, was the Hill Country Penstemon (Penstemon triflorus), another Edward’s Plateau endemic.

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Hill Country Penstemon

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Hill Country Penstemon

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Hill Country Penstemon

Penstemon triflorus

County-level distribution for Penstemon triflorus from http://www.bonap.org.

The Fringed Bluestar (Amsonia ciliata) was fairly difficult to spot among the grasslands and oak savannahs, despite its bright blue blooms.

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Fringed Bluestar

The Green Milkweed Vine (Matelea reticulata) is native to Texas and northeastern Mexico.  It is easy to see where it gets one of its alternate common names: The Pearl Milkweed Vine.

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Green Milkweed Vine

After spending a couple of nights camping we visited our good friends Scott Wahlberg and Ashley Tubbs in Kerrville.  Scott and I are known for our absurd conversations and hypothetical scenarios.  We are lucky that we have such tolerant women to put up with our shenanigans.  After spending the night at their place, they showed us a beautiful series of canyons that had eroded into the limestone hills.  The Endangered Golden-Cheeked Warbler (Setophaga chrysoparia) serenaded us as we explored its domain.

In addition to being rich in endemics, the Texas Hill Country is home to many species typical of the central or Eastern United States that are disjunct from the main portion of their range.  These species generally exist in these cool, moist canyons and are relicts of cooler, wetter times.  Scott has found Western Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon albagula) here.  Luckily I had seen them in the Hill Country before, as we were unable to find any this trip.  We did, however, see several Eastern Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) in bloom.

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Eastern Red Columbine

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Eastern Red Columbine

We observed several False Day Flowers (Tinantia anomala) in bloom.  These bizarre blooms reminded me of some alien creature.

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False Day Flower

We also found another uncommon endemic growing in these canyons: The Scarlet Clematis (Clematis texensis).

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Scarlet Clematis

Clematis texensis

County-level distribution for Clematis texensis.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present but rare.

The Texas Madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) is a typical tree of the slopes grading into these canyons.  We were lucky to find a few in bloom.

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Texas Madrone

With all of the wildflowers in bloom, the pollinators were out in force as well.  Perhaps the most beautiful, and definitely the most cooperative were the many Juniper Hairstreaks (Callophrys gryneus) that we observed.

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Juniper Hairstreak

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Juniper Hairstreak

As is so often the case for me, as the trip came to an end I was hit with a feeling of sadness.  But it’s hard to be too sad when I was returning to the Pineywoods, where so many interesting species were awaiting me.