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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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

 

 

April Recap

April was off to a good start.  I managed to check off five species early on, and had high hopes for the rest of the month.  Unfortunately I couldn’t keep up the momentum and was unable to find any of my targets in April’s second half.  I tried to locate Clasping Jewelflower (Streptanthus maculatus), Creeping Bluestar (Amsonia repens) and Texas Lady’s Tresses (Spiranthes brevilabris) at some historic sites with no luck.  I hoped to check some locations in northeast Texas for Tapertip Trillium (Trillium viridescens), Fire Pink (Silene virginica), and Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens), but was unable to make it that way.  I doubt that I’ll get a chance to see these species this year…maybe next year!  The following are the species on my 2017 biodiversity list I was able to find and photograph in April:

Missouri Foxtail Cactus (Escobaria missouriensis)

Nuttall’s Death Camas (Toxicoscordion nuttallii)

Widow’s Cross (Sedum pulchellum)

Blue Lupine (Lupinus perennis)

Green Adder’s Mouth Orchid (Malaxis unifolia)

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The following are some interesting observations I made in April:

I’ll start this post like March’s recap, with a giant Saturniid moth.  For me, seeing this Promethea Moth (Callosamia promethea) was one of the most exciting of the year thus far.  The Promethea Moth is a species typical of the rich deciduous forests of the Eastern U.S. Though range maps show it entering extreme eastern Texas, I am aware of few records of its occurrence in the state. I certainly have never seen one.  Pictured is a female. Promethea Moths are sexually dimorphic, with males being much darker. I spent some time photographic her in all of her brilliance, and left her to continue pumping pheromones into the evening air, leaving chemical trails for males to seek her out and propagate future generations.

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Promethea Moth

In April I also found a few new populations of the uncommon Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica) on the rich deciduous slopes of the Pineywoods.

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Indian Pink

While looking for the Kentucky Lady’s Slipper we came across this attractive Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis).  Most box turtles immediately withdraw into their shells when approached.  This individual was fairly bold and allowed us to approach for some portraits.

Box Turtles have an interesting relationship with Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), a spring ephemeral of rich eastern forests.  These terrestrial turtles are the primary dispersal mechanism for Mayapple seeds.  Most parts of the plant are toxic, however the ripe fruits are edible.  While other animals will consume, process, and deposit the seeds; studies have shown that those that have passed through the digestive system of the box turtle have the highest rate of germination.  Indeed, the drooping fruits seem to rest at a perfect height for a hungry box turtle.

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Three-toed Box Turtle

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Mayapple taken in March 2014

While exploring the Big Thicket we came across the uncommon Piedmont Staggerbush (Lyonia mariana).  A member of the heath family (Ericaceae).

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Piedmont Staggerbush

Carolina spotted this White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus) dutifully incubating its eggs.

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White-eyed Vireo

The Carolina Larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) is Carolina’s favorite Texas native flower.  Every year we seek them out.  This year we found a large population in a xeric sandhill north of San Augustine.  We also observed several Prairie Milkvines (Matelea cynanchoides), another species typical of these woodlands on deep sands.

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Carolina Larkspur

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Prairie Milkvine

We also spent an afternoon in a Fleming Prairie Remnant, where I photographed the Reflexed or Topeka Coneflower (Echinacea atrorubens), and Prairie Penstemon (Penstemon cobaea), two species that are rare in the Pineywoods.

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Reflexed Coneflower

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Prairie Penstemon

I hope to focus on the unique flora and fauna of xeric sandhills and prairie remnants in future blog posts.  As the temperatures warm in May I hope that I will finally be able to check the first animal species off my list, though there are still plenty of plants to seek out, and special places to explore.