Suffering for Milkweeds

Target Species: Velvetleaf Milkweed (Asclepias tomentosa)

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Velvetleaf Milkweed

Being a naturalist and outdoor enthusiast can be frustrating.  I would go so far as to say at times it can be downright miserable.  Ask any avid hunter, fisher, backpacker, hiker, etc. etc., and I’m sure they could provide a wealth of stories of unpleasant and unwelcome experiences in the natural world.  Whether it be elusive quarry, unfavorable weather conditions, disorientation, illness, or any combination, one has to have a true love for the natural world to return time and time again for this potential abuse.

To me, being a photographer can be even more frustrating.  I have passed the point in my photographic pursuit of just taking a photo.  Don’t get me wrong, I think that can be an enjoyable and worthy pursuit, but at this stage in my evolution as a photographer, I am interested in capturing unique and hopefully striking images.  To achieve this I am at the mercy of the elements, and lighting is key.  For wildflower photography I find overcast skies to produce the best light.  For most species cloudy days offer the best opportunity to capture their flowers’ true colors, and a lack of harsh shadow allows the capture of maximum detail.  While equipment and technology like sun shades and flashes can help, there is no substitute for natural light.

Before I get too far off topic, I’d like to return to my target species.  I’ve been interested in looking for Asclepias tomentosa for some time now.  It is an interesting milkweed that occurs on a variety of woodlands on deep sands.  In eastern Texas it is found primarily in the central and northern portions of the Post Oak Savannah ecoregion, where it occurs in sandy woodlands dominated primarily by scrubby oaks and hickories.  The range of this species is fascinating, exhibiting a “double disjunction” with three main populations that are separated by hundreds of miles.  The reason for this distribution remains a bit of a mystery.  An interesting paper describing this phenomenon can be found here.

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County-level distribution of Asclepias tomentosa from http://www.bonap.org

Many naturalists, myself included, take great interest in the genus Asclepias.  Milkweeds are an interesting, diverse group of plants.  They come in a wide array of shapes, sizes, and colors, and can be found in a variety of habitats.  Some are common, bordering on invasive, while others are rare.  Milkweeds are incredibly important for native pollinators, including bees, wasps, butterflies, beetles, and more.  They are perhaps most famous for being the larval food source of the Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus), and are responsible for the insect’s toxicity.

Asclepias tomentosa is quite rare in Texas.  I had a few leads, but was skeptical as to whether or not I would be able to locate it.  Fortunately I found it with relatively little trouble.  The forecast on the day I went looking called for overcast skies with a slight chance of rain.  Perfect photographic conditions, or so I thought.  When I arrived in the central Post Oak Savannah there was nary a cloud in the sky and the mid afternoon sun was beating down on me.  The sun was reflecting off exposed sand.  It was hot.  It was miserable.  I found A. tomentosa growing on a slight slope in sandy soils alongside Tetragonotheca ludoviciana in a matrix of small openings within an extensive svannah dominated by Post Oak (Quercus stellata).

Once I found the plants I set about the task of trying to photograph them.  Holding a 3-foot X 3-foot shade in one hand and my camera in the other, all with the sun beating down on me.  As I sat and knelt in the scorching sand I was immediately impaled by the thorny fruits of Krameria lanceolata and other well-adapted species.  The spines are the plants’ answer to the problem of dispersal, but to me they were literal thorns in my side.  After a short time I thought something along the lines of “forget this”, though significantly less polite.  I decided to explore the area for a while and hope for conditions to improve.

Continuing on I spotted a few particularly robust milkweeds growing in a “blowout”, where an ancient waterway deposited its sediment, resulting in a very deep pocket of pure sand.  Closer examination revealed that they were Sand Milkweeds (Asclepias arenaria).  I was thrilled, as this species was not even on my radar.  Unfortunately, these were even more exposed than the Asclepias tomentosa growing a mile or so away.  I tried to get a few photos, and ended this session on an equally flustered note.  Asclepias arenaria also has an interesting distribution, occurring primarily in the central and western Great Plains.  In Texas it can be found in scattered counties in the western 3/4 of the state, occurring on isolated pockets of deep sand.

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County-level distribution of Asclepias arenaria from http://www.bonap.org

I continued to explore for another half hour or so, finding more Asclepias arenaria, and other interesting species.  As I decided to call it quits and begin my return, I caught sight of some long black thing to my left.  It was an Eastern Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum flagellum), one of our country’s fastest snakes.  I approached to get a better look, fully expecting the wary serpent to bolt at any second.  Only it didn’t bolt.  Closer still I drew and it stayed put.  I decided to make the most of the situation, and despite the harsh light reached for my camera.  As I was watching the snake through my viewfinder and clicking away, i noticed that the light meter started shifting slowly to the left, and that the harsh shadow under the snake’s head was fading away.  I took a moment to survey my surroundings and realized that a large cloud had appeared to momentarily block out the sun.

Hurriedly I finished with the snake and rushed back to the milkweeds to take advantage of this temporary light, all the while worried I would not make it before the cloud passed.  Fortunately I did make it, and was able to capture images of both milkweed species without the harsh sun.  For all my previous frustration, I ended up achieving exactly what I had set out to do.  In the process I captured images of two species that have seldom been photographed in Texas.

To me, these frustrations are an important part of my love for the natural world.  Perhaps they remind me of its raw, unpredictable, unforgiving nature.  Perhaps they make the victories all the sweeter.  Or perhaps they serve to humble me, and allow me to relinquish control of the untamable.  More likely its a combination of these, but whatever it may be, my frustrations and triumphs in the natural world draw me back in time and time again, fueling my life-long passion for wild places.

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Velvetleaf Milkweed

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Velveatleaf Milkweed in the Post Oak Savannah

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Velveatleaf Milkweed

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Velvetleaf Milkweed

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Velvetleaf Milkweed

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Sand Milkweed

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Sand Milkweed

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Eastern Coachwhip as found

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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