March Recap

Due to a combination of changed plans and other factors, March was not as productive in terms of 2017 biodiversity goal species as I was expecting.  I was able to check off three species:

Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima)

Blue Curls (Phacelia congesta)

Claret Cup Cactus (Echinocereus coccineus)

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I spent most of the month of March exploring outside my home turf of the Pineywoods.  From the South Texas Plains to the Edward’s Plateau, I observed an incredible diversity of habitats and species, which are highlighted in previous blog posts.  I did however get to spend some time in the field around here.  To follow are some of March’s highlights from East Texas.

This year has been good for Luna Moths (Actias luna).  I observed several freshly emerged males.  Males utilize their feathery antennae to pick up subtle pheromone cues from females and may fly miles to find a mate.  Adult Luna Moths lack feeding mouth parts, and live on average about a week.  As adults they really are driven by a singular purpose: to breed.

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Luna Moth

March is a great time to enjoy flowering trees and shrubs in East Texas.  This year most species put on a decent show.  The Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) seemed to peak in late February, however several were still in flower in early March.

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Eastern Redbud

Among my favorite spring displays is that of the Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida).  This small tree ranges throughout much of the eastern United States.  To me it is one of the emblematic spring blooms of East Texas.  Christian accounts claim that Jesus was crucified on the wood of a dogwood tree.  Story goes that they were once tall, stately trees that Jesus, following his crucifixion, morphed to their current gnarled form – presumably so no others could ever again be crucified upon their wood. Their “flowers” now appear as crosses each spring around Easter.

In reality the white “flowers” are modified leaves called bracts. The flowers are the yellow structures at the bracts’ centers.  In the late summer the tree will bear red fruits that are cherished by wild turkeys.  I also think that their growth form only lends beauty to this already stunning species.

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Flowering Dogwood

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Flowering Dogwood

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Flowering Dogwood in the understory of a longleaf pine savannah

The Fringetrees (Chionanthus virginicus) seem to hit their peak as the dogwoods are beginning to fade.  Their wispy, whitish green blooms light up the forest edge and the understory in open woods.

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Fringetree

Dangling like little snowdrops are the blooms of the Two-winged Silverbell (Halesia diptera).  These attractive little trees are often found along streams and in moist stream bottoms.

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Two-winged Silverbell

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Two-winged Silverbell

Azaleas are a favorite of gardeners and nature lovers alike.  In East Texas the Hoary Azalea (Rhododendron canescens) reaches the southwestern extent of its range.

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Hoary Azalea

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Hoary Azalea

I couldn’t resist photographing a particularly large Sabine River Wakerobin (Trillium gracile).  This lovely trillium is endemic to rich forests in the Pineywoods of East Texas and western Louisiana.

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Sabine River Wakerobin

Another springtime favorite of mine is the Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum).  This characteristic spring ephemeral of eastern forests can form large colonies in East Texas, often carpeting the forest floor.  The fluffy white blooms hang below the large umbrella like leaves.  Occasionally, as pictured below, the flowers may have a pink tinge to them.

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Mayapple

Though I photographed a few in February, I couldn’t resist stopping to photograph some roadside populations of Birdfoot Violets (Viola pedata) in early March.

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Birdfoot Violets

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Birdfoot Violet

Also common along roadways and dry, open woods is the Plains Wild Indigo (Baptisia bracteata).

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Plains Wild Indigo

I photographed this Yellow Star-Grass (Hypoxis hirsuta) with fresh morning dew still clinging to the bloom.

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Yellow Star-Grass

Another characteristically eastern forb that reaches its southwestern extent in East Texas is the Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis).  Most of the flowers in Texas are yellow, however I have occasionally observed them with hints of maroon.  Lousewort is reported to provide a plethora of medical uses.  It’s roots have long been used to brew a tea that helps treat digestive and stomach problems and ulcers.  Its leaves can also reportedly be ground into a poultice that helps alleviate swelling, muscle pain, and several skin conditions.  Drinking its leaves in a tea is said to sooth sore throats, coughs, and headaches.  It is also said to act as a powerful aphrodisiac.

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Lousewort

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Lousewort

The beautiful Big Thicket Phlox (Phlox pulcherrima) is endemic to the forests of East Texas.  Like so many other species in this area of significant habitat modification by man, it is now most common along roadsides.

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Big Thicket Phlox

The Nodding Penstemon (Penstemon laxiflorus) is also common along roadsides.  It is so common that I never gave it much thought as a photographic subject, however this native has truly unique, beautiful flowers when viewed up close.

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Nodding Penstemon

During March I also made a few visits to the Big Thicket to check on a species that I checked off my list in February: The Federally Endangered Texas Trailing Phlox (Phlox nivalis ssp. texensis).  The plants were looking healthy and were still blooming mid-March.

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Texas Trailing Phlox

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Texas Trailing Phlox

Growing near the phlox I saw several Dollarleafs (Rhynchosia reniformis), a species of the coastal plain of the southeastern United States.

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I’ll close out this March recap with a beautiful scene from a longleaf pine savannah near one of the few known locations of Texas Trailing Phlox.  Here Rose Mock Vervain (Glandularia canadensis) thrives following a fire.  These showy blooms are a testament to fire’s ability to maintain and vitalize certain vegetative communities.

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With March of 2017 behind us, it’s time to move into April, where I hope to really start get going on my 2017 list of biodiversity goals.

 

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A Tale of Two Trillium

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Left: Texas Trillium (Trillium texanum).  Right: Bloody Butcher (Trillium recurvatum).

This post does not include any of my 2017 biodiversity targets, however I had such a good time on a recent outing looking for two species of trillium in East Texas that I couldn’t resist posting about it.  Both species are also very rare in Texas and are certainly worthy of their own treatment in my blog.

Last Thursday was Texas Independence Day.  Working for the state I get all kinds of obscure holidays off.  Even so, I decided to go into work in the morning to rack up a few hours of comp time and left a little before lunch.  I set out in pursuit of two members of one of my favorite genera.  Their populations are within a half an hour of one another, and I figured I could visit both in an afternoon, despite my tendency to lose track of time.

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Texas Trillium

Texas Trillium (Trillium texanum) is one of the pedicillate trilliums (subgenus Trillium).  Members of this group have uniformly green bracts and flowers separated from the leaf-like bract by pedicels.  It is the only member of this group in Texas.  It was formerly considered a variety of Trillium pusillum.

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

Texas Trillium is extremely rare, occurring in only a few populations in East Texas and western Louisiana, though I recently heard from a botanist friend that it had been discovered in southwest Arkansas.  While other trillium species in Texas generally occur on rich, mesic slopes, Trillium texanum occurs in forested seeps, growing from permanently saturated ground amid sphagnum moss in the shade of Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) and other tree species typical of these communities.

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Texas Trillium

I found thousands of plants in my short visit, however only a small fraction of them were in bloom, with most plants only put up single bracts.  The flowers were all fresh.  As they age they will gradually turn a deep shade of pink before the petals weather away.

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Texas Trillium

Growing near the Texas Trillium were several groups of Primrose-leaved Violet (Viola primulifolia).  This tiny violet is similar to Viola lanceolata but can easily be differentiated by its leaves.  It grows in similar saturated environments.

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Primrose-leaved Violet

After spending an hour or so with the Texas Trillium I was ready to move on to the next Trillium species.  As I’m driving I frequently glance on the roadside in search of any interesting plant that might catch my eye.  While travelling between the two trillium sites I glimpsed a large patch of Carolina Vetch (Vicia caroliniana), an uncommon denizen of rich forests that barely enters Texas in the eastern part of the state.

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Carolina Vetch

Trillium recurvatum has a number of common names, including Prairie Trillium and Red Trillium.  My favorite, however, is Bloody Butcher – no doubt a reference to the deep red flowers.  Bloody Butcher is one of the sessile-flowered trilliums (subgenus Phyllantherum).  These differ from the subgenus Trillium by having variously mottled bracts and sessile flowers.  Trillium recurvatum can be easily differentiated from the other sessile-flowered trillium of Texas by its petiolate bracts.

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Bloody Butcher

Trillium recurvatum is a fairly widespread species.  It is common throughout much of its range, but rare on the periphery, which includes Texas.  In contrast to the mucky seep where I found Trillum texanum, I found Trillium recurvatum growing on a rich mesic calcareous slope with a variety of mesophytic hardwoods and calciphilic forbs.

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

The majority of the plants I observed had deep maroon flowers, but a few were pale yellow.  In the past I have also observed individuals with lemon-yellow blooms at this site.  As is often the case with these East Texas rarities, at the few sites in the state that Trillium recurvatum does occur, it can be quite abundant.  I was fortunate enough to observe hundreds of blooms.

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Bloody Butcher with pale yellow flowers

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Bloody Butcher with pale yellow flower

Once again while driving I caught sight of an irregularity on the roadside.  This time it was not a plant, but one of our most spectacular insects: the Luna Moth (Actias luna).  Luna Moths may have as many as three generations per year in East Texas with the first emerging in early spring.  The individual pictured is a male, identifiable as such by its extremely feathery antennae.  These antennae are loaded with receptors that can detect the pheromones of a female from miles away.  They are members of the giant silk moth family (Saturnidae), and are among the largest moths in North America.

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Luna Moth

I ended the evening in the floodplain of the Attoyac River admiring a particularly expansive patch of Butterweed (Packera glabella).  The light was perfect, and I tried to capture a landscape image that showcased the beauty of these early spring wildflowers.  Growing among them were Springcress (Cardamine bulbosa) and hundreds of violets.  It was the perfect ending to a perfect afternoon.

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Butterweed in the Attoyac River floodplain