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.

 

 

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Seeking the Claret Cup

Target Species: Claret Cup Cactus (Echinocereus coccineus)

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Claret Cup Cactus and Fairy Swords

The Claret Cup Cactus (Echinocereus coccineus) is one of the few species on my list that Carolina really wanted to see.  Though she almost always accompanies me on my adventures into the natural world, and her eagle sharp vision usually spots my targets before I do, she is usually just following my lead.  Ironically, I was far more successful at spotting the bright scarlet blooms of this cactus than she was – a significant divergence from the norm.

Also known as the Scarlet Hedgehog Cactus, Echinocereus coccineus is a species of the desert southwest that reaches the eastern edge of its range in the Edward’s Plateau of central Texas.  Carolina and I were thinking about a quick getaway for our Anniversary, and settled on this beautiful region.  We camped at some of the many state parks in the area, and spent our Anniversary rock hounding and plant hunting.

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Claret Cup Cactus Flower Detail

I first saw this species over a decade ago when backpacking in the Hill Country.  It was in bloom among the limestone bluffs northwest of San Antonio.  I had an early point-and-shoot camera with me at the time, and did capture some photos, however I have since wanted to return with my current knowledge and photographic skill set.

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A Claret Cup Cactus takes root in a crevice in a large granite outcrop.

This time we found them blooming among crevices and at the base of large rocks in extensive granite outcrops.  While many species show preference for either limestone or granite, the Claret Cup seems able to thrive in both.  The cacti were often forced to share their preferred growing sites with other plant species seeking a refuge from the inhospitable conditions on the exposed granite.  Most notably was the arid country fern known as Fairy Swords (Cheilanthes lindheimeri).

The flowers of Echinocereus coccineus are unique for a couple of reasons.  Unlike most other members of the genus Echinocereus, whose flowers close at night and reopen in the morning, the flowers of E. coccineus apparently remain open 24-hours a day, lasting a few days.  And while most cacti are pollinated by insects, the Claret Cup is primarily pollinated by hummingbirds.

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Claret Cup Cactus and Fairy Swords

One day I would like to photograph the Claret Cup in the high Chisos of Big Bend National Park, however for now I was thrilled to have the chance to capture them near the eastern edge of their range.  It was a truly incredible thing to see them growing from what little soil was able to develop among a seemingly endless sea of granite.

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Claret Cup Cactus

There were other cacti among the granite as well.  I had really hoped to see a Lace Cactus (Echinocereus reichenbachii) in bloom.  After a few days of finding lots of plants and no blooms, we finally found a few blooms, some within a stone’s throw of the Claret Cups.  Looking at the spines of Lace Cactus, it is easy to see how it earned its name.

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Lace Cactus

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Lace Cactus

Fairy Swords were abundant, seemingly envigorated by recent rains.  The combination of the gray-green ferns and lichen stained boulders was truly beautiful.

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Fairy Swords

In deeper depressions within the granite outcrops where debris was able to collect and deeper soils could form species such as Texas Paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) and Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis) were able to take hold and thrive.  While both species are exceedingly abundant, and often planted along roadways throughout much of the state, it was a thrill to see them growing in their natural habitat.

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Texas Paintbrush and Texas Bluebonnets

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Texas Bluebonnets

Another common species of the granite outcrops that was also found growing alongside the Claret Cup Cactus was the Giant Spiderwort (Tradescantia gigantea).  This species really lived up to its name, reaching heights of nearly 3 feet.  This species occurs primarily in the Texas Hill Country, with a few disjunct populations in northeast Texas and parts of Louisiana.

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Giant Spiderwort

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Giant Spiderwort with Claret Cup Cactus in the background

There was more than plants among the outcrops.  We saw many animals including Rock Squirrels (Spermophilus variegatus), Crevice Spiny Lizards (Sceloporus poinsettii), and a Texas Patchnose Snake (Salvadora grahamiae), but as is often the case, I was unable to capture any of these on film.  The scenery alone was worth the trip, however.  There is something magical about these granite monoliths and the flora and fauna that eke out a living around them.  As night fell we laid on flat slab of granite, still warm from the day’s sun, and looked up at the brilliant stars.  We pondered life’s questions, big and small, and reveled in the magic of the Texas Hill Country.

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Hill Country Magic