Christmas in November

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Soapwort Gentian

Target Species: Soapwort Gentian (Gentiana saponaria)

One of our country’s more enigmatic plant genera is Gentiana.  Spring may be more often associated with wildflower blooming, but many of the brightly colored species of this genus bloom in the fall, and in the case of Gentiana saponaria in Texas, into the winter.  The genus is also unusual in that many of its flowers do not open, remaining forever in a bud-like state, despite having fully developed sexual organs hidden within the closed petals.

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Soapwort Gentian

Gentiana saponaria is one of a suite of species that reach the southwestern extent of their range in extreme Eastern Texas.  In Texas it is very rare, probably occurring in five or less populations.  While elsewhere within its range it might occur in prairie remnants and moist woodlands, in East Texas they seem to be confined to a few mature forested seeps nestled within longleaf pine savannahs.  Associated species include Pinus palustrisMagnolia virginianaNyssa bifloraAcer rubrumPlatanthera ciliarisVeratrum virginicumEutrichium fistulosumOsmundastrum cinnamomeum, and more.

County-level distribution of Gentiana saponaria.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present and rare.

Soapwort Gentian has been on my radar for several years now.  Very few pictures from Texas exist, and I suspect that reflects that very few people have seen this plant in Texas.  Being at the periphery of its range, suitable habitat in East Texas is likely at a premium.  Despite their preferred habitat appearing to be relatively common in Deep East Texas, this plant persists at only a handful of sites.  It is likely that there are other factors influencing its distribution that we don’t fully understand.

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Soapwort Gentian

The perpetually closed nature of this gentian’s blooms has always intrigued me.  It is likely pollinated primarily by bumble bees and large beetles, which are strong enough to push their way through the closed petal lobes.  It may also, however, be pollinated by tiny beetles that are small enough to work their way between the tiny gaps at the tip of the blooms.  Throughout its range the flowers of Gentiana saponaria vary from white to electric blue to purple.  In Texas, the buds are lime green as the develop, and as the flower matures it turns sky blue.  Then, as it fades, it gradually turns to deep purple and ultimately tan before it withers.  My friend and author of Wild Orchids of Texas, Joe Liggio likened the blooms to a cluster of Christmas lights, a fitting description if you ask me.

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Soapwort Gentian

The genus Gentiana has long history of utilization for its medicinal properties.  The root has a multitude of purported uses including as an remedy for snakebite, digestive issues, and a variety of other ailments.  Compounds from the roots have proven to be anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and beneficial for the treatment of liver disease.

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Soapwort Gentian

To see this plant, I communicated with some contacts with the National Forests and Grasslands of Texas.  They pointed us in the right direction, and the first weekend of November Carolina, our friend Scott and I set out to look for them.  We found dozens of plants scattered along the upper reaches of a baygall within a fairly extensive rolling longleaf pine savannah.  The baygall is partially fed by a small springfed stream.  The plants were growing along the banks of the stream and in the drier portions of the baygall.

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Soapwort Gentian

After spending some time at this site, we explored some other baygalls in the area.  After striking in several areas, we found a handful of plants at what we suspect is a new location for this species in Texas.  I sent the information to the Forest Service, and they confirmed that it had not been previously documented in that area.

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Soapwort Gentian

An added bonus of searching for wildflowers in autumn is the fall foliage, set ablaze by the annual process where leaves break down chlorophyll to reveal their other brightly colored pigments.  Though it was still early in the season, that day we admired the changing colors of elms, maples and hickories.  Perhaps most striking were the fronds of Cinnamon Fern within the baygalls, that looked more like flickering flames than once lush Pteridophytes.  Though there are a few more species that may bloom into December, photographing Gentiana saponaria essentially brings a close to the East Texas wildflower season, and I can definitively say that I went out on a high note.

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Autumn in the Baygall

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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.

August and September Recap

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Sacred Datura

Between August 1 and September 30 I was able to cross 5 more species off my list, 3 of which came from another trip to the Davis Mountains:

Mountain Adder’s Mouth (Malaxis macrostachya)

Wood’s Jewel Scarab (Chrysina woodii)

Mountain Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi)

Gulf Blazing Star (Liatris tenuis)

Barbed Rattlesnake Root (Prenanthes barbata)

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Although we spent most of our time during our August trip to West Texas in the Davis Mountains, we camped the last night on the shore of Lake Balmorhea.  I found the Sacred Datura (Datura wrightii) pictured above right at daybreak as I explored the area around our tent.  The flowers of the Sacred Datura are primarily pollinated by large sphinx moths.  As a result they open in the late evening and close in the early morning.  Sacred Datura has a long history of significance for the people of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. It is well known for its potentially lethal toxicity. However it has also been used extensively for medicinal purposes. The plant was also used by many native tribes in religious ceremonies, often to induce visions.due to its hallucinogenic properties. Unfortunately, the potency of its toxins resulted in the death of many of its users.

On the drive home we stopped at a few rock outcrops to help break up the drive and stretch our legs.  It was at one of these outcrops that we spotted the Cory’s Dutchman Pipe (Aristolochia coryi).  In the U.S., this bizarre plant can only be found in central and western Texas.

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Cory’s Dutchman Pipe

Back in East Texas, my friend James Childress and I went looking for some late summer wildflowers.  Two of my favorites are the Yellow Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris) and the Carolina Lily (Lilium michauxii).  Both species are uncommon in East Texas.  P. ciliaris occurs in herbaceous seeps, baygall margins, and occasionally wet ditches and prairie remnants.  L. michauxii primarily occurs on the upper slopes of rich mesic ravines, often near the transition zone between slope and upland.

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Yellow Fringed Orchid

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Carolina Lily

While hunting for wildflowers James spotted a most interesting creature.  The Giant Ichneumon (Megarhyssa macrurus) is a large parasitic wasp with extremely long ovipositors.  They use these ovipositors to probe tunnels created by the larvae of horntail wasps.  Horntails bore into the wood of dead and dying trees.  The female ichneumon seeks out these larvae and with her ovipositor and lays her eggs on or in them.  Her own larvae then parasitize the horntail larvae.  The young ichmeumons will feed only on the horntails, killing them in the process.  They will then pupate and emerge as adults from the tunnel that their host created for them.

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Giant Ichneumon

In late August Hurricane Harvey passed through East Texas and dumped unprecedented amounts of rain on the region.  Following the storm, James and I went looking for reptiles and amphibians, hoping that they would be active following the prolonged period of moisture.

We found a number of Southern Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix), the most attractive of which is pictured below.

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Southern Copperhead

Among the amphibians observed was this enormous Gulf Coast Toad (Incilius nebulifer).

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Gulf Coast Toad

The prolonged rainfall brought out scores of Hurter’s Spadefoots (Scaphiopus hurteri).  These interesting frogs can be extremely abundant in certain areas, but require specific habitat conditions.  These conditions typically consist of areas with deep, undisturbed sand where they can burrow and aestivate during the hottest and driest part of the summer.  This species emerges only after heavy rains, where they may breed by the thousands in small ephemeral wetlands that may be little more than a puddle.  The tadpole stage for these spadefoots is among the shortest of any frog, requiring as little as two weeks to go from an egg to a froglet capable of leaving the water.  This short larval stage is an adaptation to allow them to breed in areas were the presence of water is a limiting factor, and allows them to breed in areas that other species are not capable of utilizing, effectively eliminating the competition.

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Hurter’s Spadefoot

September is perhaps the best time to visit Catahoula Barrens.  Wildflowers such as Texas Blazing Star (Liatris mucronata) and Nuttall’s Rayless Goldenrod (Bigelowia nuttallii) bloom in mass.  Downy Lobelia (Lobelia puberula) is fairly common in wetter areas along the margins of the barrens.

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Downy Lobelia

Small-flowered Fameflower (Phemeranthus parviflorus) occurs sporadically in Catahoula Barrens.  The flowers of this interesting succulent open in late afternoon.

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Small-flowered Fameflower

I leave you with this final shot of a Catahoula Barren.  I captured this shot at dusk and tried to highlight the rich diversity of colors that can be found in these incredible landscapes.

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Catahoula Barren

A Fall Rarity

Target Species: Barbed Rattlesnake Root (Prenanthes barbata)

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Barbed Rattlesnake Root

In late summer and early fall the nodding blooms of the Barbed Rattlesnake Root (Prenanthes barbata) unfurl.  It is a member Asteraceae, commonly referred to as the composite or sunflower family.  The genus Prenanthes earned the common name rattlesnake roots from their early use as a treatment for venomous snake bites.  This treatment involved consuming the plants’ milky white sap, a bitter substance produced by the plants to deter predators, and applying a poulstice of the plants’ leaves directly to the wound.  Rattlesnake root has served other medicinal purposes for native tribes and early settlers, including use a treatment for dysentery and diarrhea.  Perhaps most interestingly, some believed that smearing the juice of rattlesnake roots on one’s hands would make them invulnerable to venomous snakes.  I found this quote from William Byrd of early colonial Virginia about a closely related member of the genus Prenanthes:

…the rattlesnake has an utter antipathy to this plant, in-so-much that if you smear your hand with the juice of it, you may handle the viper safely. Thus much can I say of my own experience, that once in July, when these snakes are in their greatest vigor, I besmear’ed a dog’s nose with the powder of this root and made him trample on a large snake several times, which however, was so far from biting him that it perfectly sicken’d at the dog’s approach and turn’d its head from him with the utmost aversion.”

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Barbed Rattlesnake Root

In East Texas Barbed Rattlesnake Root occurs in rich mesic forested slopes and moist flatwoods.  Elsewhere in its range it may occur in dry mesic sandy uplands, prairie remnants, and the margins of barrens and glades.  In general it is found on calcareous soils (those which are rich in calcium carbonate).  It is rare throughout its range, and in Texas it seems to have declined dramatically in recent decades as a result of habitat loss and land use conversion.  In Texas it is often found with other rare and declining species like Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) and the Kentucky Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium kentuckiense).

Nabalus barbatus

County level distribution of Prenanthes barbata.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present and rare.

Prenanthes barbata is a striking plant.  It may reach heights of 5 to 6 feet and a single plant may contain dozens of flowers.  We found them at a few locations in East Texas growing on steep slopes grading into small to mid-sized streams.

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Barbed Rattlesnake Root

Prenanths barbata is one of East Texas’s many interesting fall-blooming plants.  Over the coming weeks I hope to document more of these species before winter all but halts flowering activities until spring comes again, to revive the botanical world.

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.

 

South Texas Part II: Into the Thornscrub

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Common Pauraque

Beyond the South Texas coastal dunes, marshes, and prairies lies a unique, biodiverse community dominated by a variety of shrubs and small trees.  Variably referred to as South Texas brush country, mezquital, and Tamaulipan thornscrub, this semi-arid, subtropical community occurs in South Texas and the Mexican states of Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, and Coahuila.  It is home to plants and animals found nowhere else on earth, and in South Texas, marks the northern extent of several Latin American species that just barely enter the United States.

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Tamaulipan Thornscrub with blooming Lady Finger Alicoche alongside Strawberry Pitaya.

The Tamaulipan thornscrub in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas is one of the United State’s premier birding locations.  My parents and I have made a number of birding trips here in the past, drawn in by the promise of catching a glimpse of one of these South Texas specialties.  During this trip the birding was fairly slow, but we did see many of the typical Rio Grande Valley species including Plain Chachalacas (Ortalis vetula), White-tipped Doves (Leptotila verreauxi), Green Jays (Cyanocorax yncas), Long-billed Thrashers (Toxostoma longirostre), Altamira Orioles (Icterus gularis), and Olive Sparrows (Arremonops rufivirgatus).  Unfortunately these species did not present me with any good photo ops.  I did luck out, however, when we found another Valley specialist, the Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis) roosting alongside a trail.  These members of the nightjar family are nocturnal and rely on their camouflage to roost on the ground during the day.  It was nearly invisible among the dried leaves and sticks littering the earth.  I utilized the dense natural debris to create the window effect seen on the photo at the start of this blog entry.

Many mammal species also reach the northern extent of their range in deep South Texas.  Unfortunately many of them are now gone.  The last Jaguar (Panthera onca) in Texas was killed in the Tamaulipan thornscrub in the 1940’s.  There are some that still hold onto hope that there may be a few Jaguarundi left in the Rio Grande Valley.  Though there have been no verified sightings in many years, there have been unverified reports.  Ocelots (Leopardus pardalis) are still hanging on in the brush country, though they are now rare, and protected under the Endangered Species Act.  In our explorations of the thornscrub we observed a number of mammals including White-tailed Deer (Odocoileus virginianus) and Collared Peccaries a.k.a. Javelinas (Tayassu tajacu).  The only mammal I was able to photograph was the little Eastern Cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) pictured below.

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Eastern Cottontail

There are many reptile and amphibians whose United States distribution is also limited to the Rio Grande Valley.  Being an amphibian enthusiast, I was disappointed that we missed the heavy rains that brought out such rarities as the Mexican Burrowing Toad (Rhinophrynus dorsalis) and White-lipped Frog (Leptodactylus fragilis) by just a couple of days.  These species are explosive breeders that emerge to breed after heavy rains.  I did spend some time looking for the beautiful Speckled Racer (Drymobius margaritiferus), a primarily Latin American species that is known from only a couple of sites in South Texas.  I struck out on the snakes, but was able to photograph a couple of the areas conspicuous lizards: the Texas Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus olivaceus) and the Rose-bellied Lizard (Sceloporus variabilis).

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Texas Spiny Lizard

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Rose-bellied Lizard

The Rio Grande Valley is also world famous for its butterflies.  While we observed many species, the only one I obtained a decent photo of was the Common Mestra (Mestra amymone).

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Common Mestra

The Tamaulipan thornscrub is named for the typically thorny shrubs and small trees that dominate the community.  Typical species of this community include Mesquite (Prosopis gladulosa), Chaparro (Ziziphus obtusifolia),  Whitebrush (Aloysia gratissima), Texas Paloverde (Parkinsonia texana), Texas goatbush (Castela erecta), Saffron Plum (Sideroxylon celastrinum), Blackbrush Acacia (Vachellia rigidula), Corona de Cristo (Koeberlina spinosa), Guayacan (Guaiacum angustifolium), and Ebano (Ebenopsis ebano).  These shrubs form often impenetrable thickets.  On some sites, particularly as one moves further west in the Rio Grand Valley the shrubs may become more scattered, forming dense clumps with areas of exposed gravel and caliche.  It was in areas such as this where we observed the rare Baretta (Helietta parvifolia).

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Texas Paloverde

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Texas Paloverde

Occasionally growing in the crooks of mature Ebano, a real botanical treasure can be found.  The epiphytic bromeliad Tillandsia baileyi, commonly known as Bailey’s Ball Moss barely enters the United States in South Texas, where it is rare.  It is much more striking than other members of its genus, which includes the familiar Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides).

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Bailey’s Ball Moss

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Bailey’s Ball Moss

A conspicuous component of the South Texas brush country is the Anacahuita or Mexican Olive (Cordia boissieri).  Its bright blooms illuminate the native brushlands, and it is a popular native ornamental in South Texas.  The tree was reportedly utilized by native cultures and Spanish settlers to make jellies and dyes.  The leaves can be brewed in a tea that may help with rheumatism and various ailments of the lungs.

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Anacahuita

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Anacahuita

Many invertebrates can be found utilizing Anacahuita leaves and flowers.  The Wild Olive Tortoise Beetle (Physonota alutacea) is found exclusively on these small trees.

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Wild Olive Tortoise Beetle

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Wild Olive Tortoise Beetle

Many pollinators also frequent the blooms.  They due so at their own risk, however, because predators lurk beneath these flowers.  We observed this crab spider (Mecaphesa sp.) awaiting an unsuspecting victim.

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Crab Spider

South Texas is also home to a variety of native lantana species.  Brushland lantana (Lantana achyranthifolia) could occasionally be found scattered about the thornscrub.

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Brushland Lantana

We also observed a couple of species of heliotrope, including the widespread Seaside Heliotrope (Heliotropium curassivicum), and the more range restricted Scorpion Tail (Heliotropium angiospermum) which occurs in South Texas and southern Florida.

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Seaside Heliotrope

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Scorpion Tail

Fiddleleaf Tobacco (Nicotiana repanda), a species of central and southern Texas, was also fairly common.

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Fiddleleaf Tobacco

Shrubby Blue Sage (Salvia ballotiflora) occurs in the U.S. only in southern and western Texas.

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Shrubby Blue Sage

Over the millennia, the meanders of the Rio Grande has slowly changed course, leaving in their wake old depressional oxbow scars.  The scars eventually filled with rainwater and runoff and developed a unique flora.  Known as Resacas these unique wetlands provide habitat for a host of rare plant and animal species.  We observed many Least Grebes (Tachybaptus domincus), another bird species whose U.S. distribution is restricted to South Texas in them.  We also observed the rare Runyon’s Water-Willow (Justicia pacifica) here.

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Runyon’s Water Willow

As one moves further west along the valley, one begins to notice more and more of a desert influence.  I observed many familiar species that I have photographed in West Texas including Snapdragon Vine (Maurandella antirrhiniflora) and Cenizo (Leucophyllum frutescens).  The latter blooms in response to rainfall and humidity.

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Snapdragon Vine

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Cenizo

I observed Purple Groundcherry (Quincula lobata) here.  These showy groundcover primarily occur in the southwestern United States.

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Purple Groundcherry

I also observed Bearded Prairie-Clover (Dalea pogonathera) here.  This member of the pea family is primarily a species of the Chihuahuan Desert.

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Bearded Dalea

South Texas is also home to a few woodsorrel species that do not have the typical “lucky clover” leaf.  Pictured here is Peonyleaf Woodsorrel (Oxalis dichondrifolia).

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Peonyleaf Woodsorrel

The open caliche hills were home to the beautiful Berlandier’s Nettlespurge (Jatropha cathartica), which is restricted to South Texas and adjacent Mexico.

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Berlandier’s Nettlespurge

The most spectacular element of the Tamaulipan thornscrub, however, were the cacti.  These famed succulents were my main target in South Texas, and I was fortunate to observe many species.  Though my next two blog posts will be dedicated to the incredible diversity of South Texas cacti, I have decided to provide a preview of things to come below.

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Lady Finger Alicoche (Echinocereus pentalophus)

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Glory of Texas (Thelocactus bicolor)

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Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus (Mammillaria heyderi)

Cure-All

Target Species: Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima)

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Yellowroot

I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to check this one off my list.  I first learned that Yellowroot occurred in Texas while looking through Geyata Ajilvsgi’s book Wildflowers of the Big Thicket.  I then saw it mentioned in a couple of scientific publications and decided to do a little research.  There are very few records from Texas, and those that exist are fairly vague as to the species’ location.  Looking at the publications I had an idea where to look, but I had no idea if the plant would be common at that location, easy to see, or when it might bloom.  I tried my best to guess the bloom time in East Texas based on the species’ phenology in other states.

A couple of weeks ago I caught a break.  While attending the Texas Black Bear Alliance meeting I was chatting with a friend that works for a large timber company who happened to be a naturalist and plant enthusiast.  He has access to hundreds of thousands of timber company lands and a penchant for exploring wild places.  I casually asked him if he has ever seen yellowroot on timber land, and he said that he had, though he hadn’t seen it in bloom.  We talked about getting out to look for it, and finally made it happen yesterday.

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County-level distribution of Xanthorhiza simplicissima from http://www.bonap.org

Yellowroot is a subshrub that primarily occurs in the southern Appalachians.  There is a disjunct population in East Texas and western Louisiana.  Here it is very rare, occurring at only a handful of sites.  It’s tiny flowers hang on drooping, branched panicles originating from the main stem.  It grows on the banks of small streams that wind through sandy, acidic soils.

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Yellowroot Panicles

My friend first took us to a site that I have visited before.  We were joined by another friend with a love for the outdoors.  We found many plants growing along the margins of a clear, spring fed stream just before it poured from a 20-foot waterfall.  Seeing it here, one wouldn’t expect it to be so rare in the state.  The sandy stream edge was lined with thousands of plants, many of them in full bloom.

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East Texas Waterfall.  Photographed in July, 2016.

Yellowroot is so-named for it’s bright yellow roots which contain berberine, an alkaloid with numerous medicinal properties.  Native Americans and settlers used Yellowroot as a die and as a cure for a variety of ailments.  Yellowroot tea was used to treat sores and other issues in the mouth and gums, congestion, allergies, stomach ulcers, upset stomachs, and indigestion.  Crushed roots were used in salves that treated sores, cuts, rashes and swelling.  Contemporary research has shown that Yellowroot has the potential to lower blood pressure and improve liver health and function.  Advocates of homeopathic remedies still utilize Yellowroot tea as a natural cure-all.

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Yellowroot Flowers

Perhaps these medicinal properties helped spell doom for Yellowroot populations in East Texas.  It is entirely possible that over collection, along with habitat loss contributed to its current scarcity.

The tiny flowers are really striking, though they require some magnification to appreciate.  We saw blooms ranging from brown to purple to greenish yellow.  We wandered along the creek for a while enjoying the warm spring air and cold, clean water.

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Yellowroot Flower detail

After leaving the falls we traveled to another site where we found Xanthorhiza simplicissima growing in great abundance.  This site is also home to a slew of other plants that are exceedingly rare in Texas, including Silky Camelia (Stewartia malacodendron) and Common Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea).

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Typical Yellowroot habitat along a clear, springfed stream.

My friend has a great knowledge of East Texas culture, history, and pre-history.  He regaled us with stories of Native Americans and recent residents.  It was fitting that while in search of a plant so important to native cultures that we would find an artifact alluding to a time long ago before East Texas was colonized by Europeans.  We found this arrowhead along one of the streams we were exploring.  Not a day goes by that I don’t long to see the East Texas that the native tribes experienced.

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Arrowhead

Before going our separate ways, my friend had one final surprise in store for us.  He took us to a relict dating even further back, to a time prior to human habitation, and possibly predating the speciation of Homo sapiens.  This ancient palm fossil lies on exposed boulder of the Catahoula formation.  It was a fine day spent in fine company.  I learned a lot, particularly about the history of the region.  I look forward to returning soon to find what other treasures this country is hiding.

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