Ladies on the Prairie

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Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses

Target Species: Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum).

Fingers of prairie penetrate central and eastern Texas like roots in the form of the Blackland Prairies and pockets of grasslands in the Pineywoods, Post Oak Savannah, and Edward’s Plateau.  In scattered areas within these prairies, where the soil conditions are just right, the fall air is filled with the sweet fragrance of the Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum).  From mid October through November, spirals of delicate white flowers push their way through a sea of prairie grasses and deliver their aroma to the wind.

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Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses

Commonly referred to as ladies’ tresses, the genus  Spiranthes is named in reference to the spiral arrangement of  flowers along the inflorescence.  Spiranthes orchids are a confusing group to identify, particularly those of the Spiranthes cernua complex, to which the Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses belongs.  There are, however, several ways to differentiate S. magnicamporum from the much more common and widespread S. cernua, which I will outline below.

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Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses

The first, most readily observable difference is in the habitat.  Spiranthes cernua is fairly catholic in its preference, occurring in a variety of disturbed habitats including moist roadside ditches, utility right-of-ways, fallow fields, and even residential lawns.  Spiranthes magnicamporum, however, occurs under much more specific conditions.  In Texas they generally occur in prairies with soils that are both alkaline (basic) and calcareous (composed of calcium carbonate).  They can tolerate dryer conditions, and can be found on exposed outcrops of limestone and sandstone.

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Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses

Another difference is in the fragrance.  While S. cernua has little to no odor, S. magnicamporum is intensely fragrant.  It gives off a rich scent of coumarin which can sometimes be detected before the plant is seen.  In fact, as I photographed some of these orchids from several feet away I enjoyed the pleasant aroma filling the air.

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Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses

There are some that will say that a careful examination of the seeds is required to differentiate S. cernua and S. magnicamporum.  There are, however, several morphological aspects of the plant and its flowers that are often used to identify S. magnicamporum in the field.  In general, S. magnicamporum appears more robust, with a thicker stem and slightly larger flowers.  The lateral sepals of S. magnicamporum are generally spreading, and arch above the rest of the flower, especially as the blooms age.  In S. cernua, the sepals are adpressed, held tightly against the rest of the flower.  The lip of S. magnicamporum is also slightly elongated and thickened.  The lip of S. magnicamporum also displays a faint yellow wash, in contrast with the typically pure white lip of S. cernua.  See the photo of Spiranthes cernua below for comparison.

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Spiranthes cernua taken in November 2016.

Carolina and I first looked for Spiranthes magnicamporum in a number of Weches Outcrops in East Texas.  Having no luck there, the next day we traveled to a series of sandstone outcrops in the Blackland Prairie in East-Central Texas.  Here we found them to be quite common, but only in areas where the underlying sandstone approached the surface.  It was quite a treat to see them growing directly on exposed sandstone alongside a variety of cacti and yucca.  The Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses are frost hardy, with reports of blooming as late (early?) as January.  Indeed, the night before we set out had dipped into the low 30s, yet the flowers remained fresh and fragrant.  Searching for these lovely orchids among the prairie with my wife was the perfect way to spend a brisk fall day.  As we headed back to the dense forests of the Pineywoods we marveled at prairie skyscape, painted pink and orange by the setting sun.

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Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses

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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

Return to Sky Island

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

Target Species:

Mountain Adder’s Mouth (Malaxis macrostachya)

Wood’s Jewel Scarab (Chrysina woodii)

Mountain Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi)

The sky islands of West Texas have been woven into the fabric of my being.  Each trip to these high elevation oases of the desert brings with it a sense of wonder and euphoria, and a longing to return.  Since returning from our trip in July, not even a month ago, I have been desperate to get back to the high elevation grasslands, shaded canyons, and montane forests.  There is so much to see.  Such plant and animal diversity, such natural beauty.  Here among the cool mountain peaks I feel at home.

When I approached Carolina with the idea of returning to the Nature Conservancy’s Davis Mountains Preserve for another open weekend in August, it didn’t take much convincing.  We decided we would return, and this time we would be bringing our good friends James and Erin Childress with us.  So we set out in the blackness of early morning on a great pilgrimage to the Trans-Pecos.

By the time the sun rose, the towering Loblolly Pines and stately hardwoods had mostly vanished in the rearview.  As dawn broke they gave way to gnarled post oaks sprawled over verdant grasslands.  Gradually the post oak gave way to mesquite, and the grass became more and more sparse, until bare rock seemed more abundant than plantlife.  We passed over the Ozona Arch into the desert scrub of the Permian Basin, and finally after what seemed like an eternity, the foothills of the Davis Mountains came into view.

We took our time on the scenic loop, admiring the scenery in every direction, and watching for plants and wildlife along the road.  When we finally arrived at the preserve, we stepped out into the cool mountain airs and paused a moment to take it all in.  We could see Madera Canyon in the distance, as it worked its way toward the slopes of Mount Livermore, the highest peak in the Davis Mountains, and the fifth highest in Texas.

We visited a moment with our friend and local landowner Gary before venturing into the preserve.  We made camp in a flat basin among scattered Alligator Juniper and Pinyon Pine growing above a rich layer of forbs and grasses.  Among this herbaceous layer I spotted the purple flowering spikes of Lobelia fenestralis, the Fringeleaf Lobelia.  This striking sky island specialist barely enters the U.S. in extreme West Texas and one county in western New Mexico.

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Fringeleaf Lobelia

After setting up camp we journeyed into Madera Canyon.  We admired the birds as we went, watching as a Common Black Hawk flew from the crown of an Alligator Juniper, and a Montezuma Quail burst from the grasses and across the road before us.  We were serenaded by Western Kingbirds, Blue Grosbeaks, and Say’s Phoebes while the occasional hummingbird shot past like a bullet, offering little opportunity to identify it to species.

As we scoured the slopes along Madera Creek in hopes of glimpsing one of the many interesting things that dwell there, I heard Carolina call out that she had found one of my targets.  Sure enough, between the large rocks at the base of a Ponderosa Pine was a single green leaf.  My search was now narrowed and intensified, as I made my way along the steep, rocky slopes hoping to catch one of these bizarre plants in bloom.  I looked and looked, until I saw what I was searching for: the single leaf and ten-inch flowering spike of the Mountain Adder’s Mouth Orchid (Malaxis macrostachya).

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Mountain Adder’s Mouth

The Mountain’s Adder Mouth is an orchid of the montane forests of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.  In Texas it is known only from the high elevation slopes of the Davis Mountains.  Though the plant itself may reach a foot in height, the flowers themselves are tiny, and a hundred or more may decorate the raceme.  This long, narrow raceme has earned this orchid the colloquial name “Rat-tail Malaxis”.  We searched the area for more orchids to no avail, and I counted myself lucky to have found such a fine specimen.

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Mountain Adder’s Mouth

As the sun vanished behind the distant peaks we slowly began making our way back to camp.  In the fading light of dusk we spotted a brown blur moving across the road ahead.  Drawing nearer we made out the shape of a large bobcat vanishing into the grass.  We paused a moment and watched, hoping that we might catch another glimpse of this elusive feline.  Our efforts were rewarded, as it occasionally appeared between breaks in the vegetation as it silently and meticulously made its way through the dark forest of pinyon and juniper.

We arrived back at camp with little light to spare.  James and I strung a large white sheet between the branches of two trees a short distance from our site.  We then propped a small florescent bulb on my tripod and aimed it at the sheet.  Our trap had been set.

As the sheet collected our six-legged quandary we prepared a meal of dehydrated broccoli cheese soup, and settled in to watch the skies.  The heavens seemed locked in some violent battle, as tailed balls of light danced across the sky,  flying from horizon to horizon.  In truth we weren’t witnessing some celestial war, but rather the peak of a perseid meteor shower, when the constellation Perseus scatters massive particles throughout space.  When our eyes and necks could no longer take in the wonder of the skies we shut off our light trap and retired for the evening.

We rose early the next morning.  The first order of business was photographing a most spectacular creature that we had found the day before.  I was lucky enough to catch a fresh Wood’s Jewel Scarab (Chrysina woodii).  Carolina spotted the brilliant beetle as it flew about a pecan tree that had been planted at a picnic area in the foothill’s of the Davis Mountains.  As this species evolved to specialize on walnut leaves, it is not so surprising that it would also make use of Pecan, a close relative.  Anxious to arrive at the preserve, we held onto the beetle to photograph later.

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Wood’s Jewel Scarab

Now, in the beautiful early morning light we set it in our viewfinders.  I have always dreamed of finding a live Chrysina woodii.  A desire that has only been fueled after finding numerous crushed bits and pieces over the years.  C. woodii is endemic to the sky islands of West Texas, eastern New Mexico, and northern Mexico.  In Texas it has been documented in the Davis and Guadalupe Mountains.  The beetles actively feed during the day and are regularly attracted to lights by night.

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Wood’s Jewel Scarab

Chrysina woodii is also known as the Blue-legged Jewel Scarab.  It’s easy to see why, when admiring its brilliant metallic blue tarsi.  C. woodii is named for Dr. Horatio C. Wood, a pharmacologist who also published numerous papers on botany and entomology.  Wood collected a number of brilliant metallic green beetles in West Texas and gave them to his friend, George Henry Horn.  Horn was a pioneering coleopterist (entomologist specializing in beetles) active in the southwest during the late 1800s.  Horn presented the specimens at an entomological congress in 1883, and formally described Chrysina woodii in 1885.

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Wood’s Jewel Scarab

The light trap that we set the previous night was a success.  Among the flurry of moths that I was woefully under-prepared to identify, Erin spotted a creature of metallic green decorated with bright silver streaks: a Glorious Scarab (Chrysina gloriosa).  We held onto it until morning, when we opted to photograph it on the leaves of an Alligator Juniper, one of the primary food sources of the adults.  Despite the beetle’s gaudy appearance, it is incredible just how cryptic it was among the blue-green juniper leaves.

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Glorious Scarab

After breakfast and our coleopteran photo session we set back out into Madera Canyon.  Once again we paused to admire the incredible array of birds that flit about the trees, filling the mountain air with their sweet songs.  In the early morning hours the showy blooms of the Torrey’s Crag Lily (Echeandia flavescens) had opened.  By midday they will have closed, and the plants will become invisible among the sea of grass that surrounds them.

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Torrey’s Crag Lily

Along the bases of the large rocks lining Madera Creek I spotted the succulent Havard’s Stonecrop (Sedum havardii).  This species is known in the U.S. only from the Davis and Chisos Mountains of West Texas.

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Havard’s Stonecrop

Deep in Madera Canyon we turned into one of the many side canyons formed by ephemeral streams feeding Madera Creek.  We were spread out along the gradual slope when we heard Carolina call out “snake”.  I’ll admit that it took me a moment when she struggled to draw our attention to the serpent before her.  But sure enough, there, among a downed alligator juniper sat a Mottled Rock Rattlesnake (Crotalus lepidus lepidus).  The cryptic viper was nearly invisible due to its remarkable camouflage.  We all delighted in observing and photographing the beautiful reptile.  Despite its potent venom, it remained docile throughout our encounter, and would not display even the slightest bit of aggression toward us.

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Mottled Rock Rattlesnake

We bid the rattlesnake farewell, and ventured deeper into the canyon, until it flattened out into a broad high elevation basin.  The ground here was littered with small rocks.  Soon we came to realize that here some of the rocks move.  James was the first to catch movement among the pebbles, as one stone seemingly jumped out of his way.  Baffled, we looked closer, only to reveal that what looked like nothing more than one of the basin floor’s countless stones was actually a neonate Mountain Short-horned Lizard (Phrynosoma hernandesi).

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

It soon became clear that these tiny lizards were all around us, and within the span of an hour we saw more than a dozen.  Their abundance that day is likely a product of their reproductive biology.  The females give live birth to as many as 40 or more of these living stones in July and August.  The neonates are then left to fend for themselves as they scatter about the surrounding area.  It is truly remarkable just how well-camouflaged these tiny dragons are.

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

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Mountain Short-horned Lizards

Spotting the baby lizards became something of a contest.  And while I was genuinely thrilled to have seen them, I couldn’t help but hope that we might encounter an adult.  Deeper into the basin we pushed until a distant rumble drew my attention to the peaks behind us.  Behind the mountains a massive storm was building, sending broad black clouds towering to the sky.  It was fast approaching.  Deciding that we would prefer not to wait out a storm at the base of some pine or juniper we decided to retrace our steps.

The storm drew nearer and nearer still as we retreated toward the safety of my truck.  Between the cracking thunder that echoed from the canyon walls, Erin called out “a big one! A big one!”  My eyes followed her finger to the rocky earth, where it took them a moment to spot the large Mountain Horned Lizard sitting still among the stones.

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

Despite the impending deluge, we settled in to admire this incredible creature.  Thunder rang and the sky darkened as our shutters closed in rapid succession, forever freezing a moment of the lizard’s life in time.  I couldn’t help but imagine what a bizarre, frightening experience this must have been for it.  Fortunately, for a lizard photographer, at least, most horned lizards rely on their camouflage as a defense mechanism, and are prone to hunker down in an attempt to avoid being seen.

As a group, the horned lizards of the genus Phrynosoma are often referred to as “horny toads”.  A misnomer, of course, as toads are amphibians and these are very much reptilian.  Phrynosoma hernandesi is among the most widespread of the horned lizards, occurring across much of the western U.S. and Mexico and into southern Canada.  They generally occur in high elevation woodlands, prairies, and savannahs in the southern portion of their range, and grasslands and forested foothills to the north.  In Texas they are primarily restricted to the Davis and Guadalupe Mountains, with a few scattered populations in other ranges around El Paso.

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

The Mountain Short-horned Lizard is one of a number of the Phrynosoma that is able to shoot blood from the corner of its eye.  This tactic appears to primarily be utilized against canine predators.  Fortunately it did not deem us a sufficient enough threat to warrant such an attack.

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Mountain Short-horned Lizard

We spent some time in the lizard’s company, and hastily returned to the truck.  On four wheels we were able to get ahead of the storm, and after a lunch of tuna sandwiches we set out to explore the scenic loop that winds around the Davis Mountains.  We stopped a moment at the McDonald Observatory, and continued on to Fort Davis.  As we neared the small grocery store in town, the rain finally caught up with us.  It is a magical experience, rain in the desert.  The dusty earth dampens and releases its sweet, distinctive aroma to the air.  We soaked in the rain, both literally and figuratively, as we restocked some supplies and prepared to continue on the loop along the southern and western edge of the Davis Mountains.

The rain was letting up as we spotted a large Pronghorn buck and his harem of six does not far outside of Fort Davis.  We watched them as lightning descended distant clouds on the horizon.  After spending a few moments with North America’s fastest land mammal, we continued down the road where we saw a large Mule Deer Buck browsing among the cholla and desert grasses.

Scaled Quail and Roadrunners darted across the road before us as we made our way further down the scenic loop.  We stopped at the Point of Rocks Roadside Park, where James chased after a Canyon Towhee with his camera, Carolina and Erin explored the massive rock outcrop, and I prepared a dinner of macaroni and tuna.  The sun had begun to peak through the clouds, casting its rays to distant rain showers that transformed its light to a myriad of brilliant colors arching across the sky.  After dinner we returned to the loop where we found a number of Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes before returning to our campsite around 11 pm.

The next morning we broke camp and said farewell to the Davis Mountains Preserve.  Our time in this remarkable sky island, however, was not yet over.  We were off to visit Gary at his property on the other side of the range.  He lives in a remote corner of Limpia Canyon far from paved roads.  The creek that helped form the canyon was running.  Its crystal clear waters pouring over boulders among the towering Ponderosa Pines looked more a scene from Colorado than West Texas.  We would later learn from Gary that it might run only a month or two out of the year.

I had visited the forested canyon on Gary’s property last year and I couldn’t wait to show James and Erin this hidden paradise.  I hoped that we might spot some Giant Coralroot Orchids (Hexalectris grandiflora).  We had looked for them on the preserve, but only succeeded in finding spent, wilted flowering stalks.  As we followed Gary up the canyon he regaled us with stories of the “Republic of Texas“, a militia group that believed that Texas should never have become part of the United States, and took it upon themselves to secede.  There were still signs and artifacts of their presence on his land.

It wasn’t long before we spotted the first group of coralroots.  It was a cluster of fresh plants, but unfortunately the flowers were all closed and drooping, a phenomenon that is fairly common among the genus Hexalectris.  We took their presence to be a good sign and continued on.  We (more accurately Carolina) spotted several Mountain Adder’s Mouth Orchids.  They seemed to be more numerous here than in Madera Canyon.

Just as we were debating turning around, James pointed out a splash of color in the deep shade of some low hanging branches of an Emory Oak.  It was a pair of Giant Coralroots in perfect bloom.  I had grown accustomed to seeing only one or two open flowers on any given individual at a time.  One of these, however, had three that were clustered closely together.  After a long, uncomfortable photo session we bid the orchids farewell and returned down the trail as an afternoon thunderstorm, typical of the monsoon season, began to build behind the peaks surrounding the canyon.

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Giant Coralroot

Gary invited us in for snacks and alcoholic cider, an offer that was hard to turn down.  We enjoyed his company and knowledge of the area’s natural and cultural history.  After visiting a while James and I set out to photograph the wealth of scenery around Gary’s home when James spotted a peculiar pattern on a nearby boulder.  “Do you see what I see?” he asked pointing at the rock.  It took a moment, but finally I saw it – a young Mottled Rock Rattlesnake resting still and silent.  In that moment our photographic priorities changed and we set about capturing the beautiful snake.  Just as we were finishing the building clouds reached their critical mass and began releasing their moisture in the form of an afternoon downpour.

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Mottled Rock Rattlesnake

We bid our reluctant “good bye’s” to Gary and the mountains he calls home.  That night we would descend from the sky islands and make our camp in the desert scrub around Lake Balmorhea.  Here we watched a large group of Clark’s Grebes on the water, while we listened to a Pyrrhuloxia call from among the impenetrable thorn fortress of the surrounding desert.  Carolina spent the evening rock hounding in search of the elusive Marfa Agate while James and I looked for signs of life and Erin enjoyed one of her favorite books in the spectacular setting of the Chihuahuan Desert.  Carolina was lucky enough to find a few choice pieces of agate while James and I spotted a number of large Tarantula Hawks and Western Green June Beetles.  All of our attention, however, soon turned to the horizon, where the setting sun painted a rainbow on the black clouds of a distant thunderstorm.  It was a fine final chapter to an incredible Trans-Pecos adventure.

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A distant thunderstorm rages over the desert scrub near Balmorhea.

July Recap

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Cow Killer

July has been my most productive month yet.  Due in large part to a trip to the Davis Mountains I was able to check 7 species off my list:

Spider Lily (Hymenocallis occidentalis)

Texas Coralroot (Hexalectris warnockii)

Glass Mountain Coralroot (Hexalectris nitida)

Giant Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora)

Mexican Catchfly (Silene laciniata)

Glorious Scarab (Chrysina gloriosa)

Canyon Tree Frog (Hyla arenicolor)

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One of the most interesting photographic experiences of July came toward the end of the month, when a female Red Velvet Ant a.k.a. Cow Killer (Dasymutilla occidentalis) came wandering through our yard.  These large wasps have always fascinated me, and I’ve long wanted to get a good photo of one. I’ve tried a few times in the past but found them nearly impossible to photograph. They are surprisingly fast and never stop moving.  The females are flightless, while the males are winged.

Despite their ominous name, which eludes to their supposedly highly painful sting, my wife offered to help. I captured it in a cup and then led it onto a 3-foot long stick. My wife held the stick, switching hands as it paced rapidly from one end to the other. Occasionally it would stop at the edge for the briefest of moments. I ended up taking over 100 shots. I got some that were very sharp, but she was in an awkward position, and others where she was in the perfect position, but the focus wasn’t right. This one ended up being my favorite. When we finished I let her continue on its way.

Cow killers are parasites of parasites, and when we encountered her I assume she was on the hunt for a suitable host for her offspring. They seek out the larvae of Cicada Killer wasps (Sphecius speciosus), and lay their own eggs into the larvae of the Cicada Killers, which have been laid on a live, paralyzed cicada. They will also parasitize a number of other ground nesting wasps and bumblebees.

In early July I went to visit a population of Crested Coralroot (Hexalectris spicata) in the Davy Crockett National Forest.  Despite significant damage from feral hogs to the dense leaf litter at the site, I found several blooming plants.  Though most were past their prime, i found a few fresh, interesting blooms.  It’s hard to imagine a flower having a personality, but the flowers of Hexalectris spicata certainly look like they could.

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Crested Coralroot

En route to the Crested Coralroot spot I stopped along a forest road to relieve myself.  As I was doing so I spotted several Little Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes tuberosa) blooming alongside the road.  These diminutive orchids bloom in the summer in open woodlands.

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Little Ladies’ Tresses

I photographed this Bog Coneflower (Rudbeckia scabrifolia) in a herbaceous seep on private land.

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Bog Coneflower

I have been wanting to photograph Climbing Milkweed (Matelea decipiens) for a while.  I found a plant with a single cluster of blooms along a springfed stream.

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Climbing Milkweed

The striking Blue Waterleaf (Hydrolea ovata) is common in herbaceous wetlands in the eastern third of the state.

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Blue Waterleaf

Hydrolea ovata can often be found growing with Looseflower Water-Willow (Justicia lanceolata).

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Looseflower Water-Willow

Toward the end of the month I visited a high quality longleaf pine savannah on private land with my friend James.  During our visit we were fortunate to catch the rare Scarlet Catchfly (Silene subciliata) in bloom.

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Scarlet Catchfly

I’ll end my July recap with a photo of a Slimleaf Milkweed (Asclepias stenophylla) that we saw on our way back from Dallas, where we photographed Hexalectris warnockii and H. nitida in early July.  This is one of the rarer milkweeds of Texas. It is primarily a species of the Great Plains, occurring on dry, sandy prairies that have not experienced significant soil disturbance. In Texas it occurs in scattered populations from the Rolling Plains to the Blackland Prairies, where it appears to be rare and declining.

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Slimleaf Milkweed

Sky Island

Target Species:

Giant Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora)

Mexican Catchfly (Silene laciniata)

Canyon Tree Frog (Hyla arenicolor)

Glorious Scarab (Chrysina gloriosa)

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Glorious Scarab

There are those profound moments in life that help shape who we are.  Experiences that put things into perspective, and fill us with a sense of purpose and being.  Moments that bring clarity to an otherwise murky sea of questions, concerns, and uncertainty.  For me most of these moments occur when I’m in the natural world – in places where the advance of civilization and the concrete world is less evident.  These wild places are my “church”, for it is here that I seek the direction and advice that guides me, and puts me on my path.  Make no mistake, I do not hold any misconceptions that Mother Nature reciprocates my feelings toward her, but rather I take comfort in my insignificance in the grand scheme of the natural cycle.  In these moments I know that my life will be fulfilled, for I could never hope to run out of new natural wonders to discover.

One such moment occurred recently in the Davis Mountains of West Texas, when Carolina and I stood high in a narrow canyon overlooking the rain-drenched valley below.  We were soaked from head to toe, yet our spirits were not dampened as we pondered the denizens of the forests and meadows that lay below us.  On the walk up we had passed groves of massive Ponderosa Pines (Pinus ponderosa), one of the many Rocky Mountain relicts that persist in these sky islands.  Among these pines was the largest individual recorded in the state of Texas.

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High Elevation Valley with Ponderosa Pine, Texas Madrone, and a variety of oaks

Rain in West Texas is a beautiful thing.  You can literally see the world come to life as it rains.  You can smell it, hear it, feel it.  It’s a difficult sensation to describe.  Though in these sky islands, rain is not as scarce as one might think.  Sky islands are unique habitats that occur in isolated mountain ranges in the desert southwest.  Here warm air cools as it rises up the slopes and moisture accumulates.  This combines with annual monsoons that typically begin in July and last into September, soaking the mountains with nearly daily afternoon thunderstorms.  The result is annual levels of rainfall that may be 4 times greater or more than the surrounding desert.  Temperatures are significantly cooler as well.  These conditions result in the presence of several species typical of the Rocky Mountains as well as species of the desert southwest.  Couple this with the fact that West Texas and northern Mexico is a a significant center of endemism, and the importance of the Davis Mountains for biodiversity becomes clear.

We were exploring the Davis Mountains Preserve, owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy in Texas.  This 33,000 acre preserve protects the highest and most spectacular portion of the Davis Mountains.  It joins approximately 70,000 acres of additional land protected through acquisition and private landowner conservation partnerships.  The result is the protection of over 100,000 acres of sky island habitat that is critical for a number of rare and declining species and natural communities.  Here we observed an array of fascinating plant and animal species typical of these sky islands.

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A rain-drenched montane woodland with an overstory of large Ponderosa Pines and an understory of oaks and Texas Madrone

Topping out at over 8,000 feet, the Davis Mountains are the tallest, and largest mountain range confined entirely to the Lonestar State.  Though the Guadalupe Mountains are indeed taller and more extensive, we share them with New Mexico.  The Davis Mountains were the last refuge for Mexican Gray Wolves and Grizzly Bears in Texas.  Those these apex predators are gone, the Mountain Lion still roams here, and Black Bears are making a comeback.  Today, the Davis Mountains remain one of the final strongholds in Texas for a variety of plant and animal species.  Perhaps the most spectacular of which is the Giant Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora).

The rain was just beginning to let up when Carolina spotted them.  A clump of pink beacons shining against the wet rocks and grasses.  She had found the Giant Coralroot.  It is hard for me to describe the sense of wonder and excitement that overcomes me while I observe such an elusive treasure.  The clump of orchids had at least 10 stems with dozens of flowers in various stages of development, from bud to senescent blooms.  Over the next two days we would end up observing four clumps and a total of approximately 15 plants.

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Giant Coralroot

Previously the Giant Coralroot was thought to occur in the United States only in the moist pine-oak-juniper canyons of the Davis Mountains.  Though it remains restricted to Texas, it has since been discovered in the Chisos Mountains within Big Bend National Park, the White Rock Escarpment of north-central Texas, and oak-juniper woodlands of the Edward’s Plateau.  They seem to be exceedingly rare in these areas, however, and their real stronghold in the U.S. remains the Davis Mountains, where they are relatively common in high elevation forests dominated by Alligator Juniper, Pinyon and Ponderosa Pines, Texas Madrone and a variety of oaks.

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Giant Coralroot

Giant Coralroots are myco-heterotrophs, obtaining energy and nutrients from the mycorrhizal fungi of tree roots.  Unlike most plants they do not photosynthesize, and therefore do not require chlorophyll-containing leaves.  They spend most of their lives as nothing more than an underground rhizome and roots, but following the onset of the summer rains, they begin to send up stalks that may bare a dozen or more bright pink blooms.  They seem to bloom sporadically from late June to mid September, likely peaking in mid to late July in most years.

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Giant Coralroot

These spectacular orchids are easiest to find growing beneath trees and at the base of rocks where moisture and organic material accumulate, providing ideal conditions for both the plants and the fungi they depend on.  Though there is a lot of respectable competition, the combination of their beautiful blooms, interesting life history, and the spectacular places that they inhabit make this my favorite species of orchid.

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Giant Coralroot

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Giant Coralroot

Growing near the orchids was Mexican Catchfly (Silene laciniata).  This striking wildflower occurs in the mountains of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico, barely entering Texas in the mountains of the Trans-Pecos.  It’s name comes from its sticky stem, which can trap insects in order to protect the plant from predation.

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Mexican Catchfly

A number of milkweed species occur in the West Texas sky islands.  We observed Asclepias latifolia and Asclepias brachystephana in the lower elevation grasslands.  Higher up we came across Asclepias texanaAsclepias subverticillata, and Asclepias engelmanniana in bud.  The true star of the high elevation milkweeds was the Nodding Milkweed (Asclepias glaucescens).  We found one robust flowering plant growing alongside a rocky stream in a canyon shaded by Alligator Juniper and Pinyon Pine.

This large, showy milkweed is primarily a species of the mountains of Mexico.  It barely enters the United States in the sky islands of West Texas, and southern Arizona and New Mexico.  In Texas they are restricted to the Davis, Chisos, and Guadalupe Mountains.

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Nodding Milkweed

Like Asclepias glaucescens, the U.S. distribution of Threadleaf Phlox (Phlox mesoleuca) is largely restricted to the sky islands of the southwest.

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Threadleaf Phlox

In addition to species that are primarily Mexican in their distribution, the Davis Mountains provides refuge for a variety of Rocky Mountain relicts.  Purple Geranium (Geranium caespitosum), for example, occurs primarily in Ponderosa Pine savannahs and other coniferous woodlands of the Rockies from Wyoming to northern Mexico.

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Purple Geranium

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Purple Geranium

The Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia) has an even broader distribution, occuring in the formerly glaciated northern United States and Canada down through the Rocky Mountains, and into the sky islands of the southwestern United States and Canada.  It is common in the high elevations of the Davis Mountains and puts on a spectacular show during the summer monsoon.

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Harebell

One of the Davis Mountains most spectacular botanical residents is the Desert Savior (Echeveria strictiflora).  This succulent member of the stonecrop family (Crassulaceae) is primarily found on rocky canyon walls and slopes of central and northern Mexico.  In the United States it is known only from Jeff Davis, Brewster, and Presidio Counties in far West Texas.

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Desert Savior

We found several growing from rock crevices and the bases of boulders at elevations above 6000 feet.  Here they were able to take advantage of minute amounts of soil and moisture that collect over time.  In the Davis Mountains they seem to be found primarily in exposed rock outcrops and canyon walls adjacent to rocky streams.

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Desert Savior

The Desert Savior is a truly spectacular plant.  It’s stalk of waxy, fiery flowers reaches up to a foot and a half over it’s thick, grayish green succulent leaves.  Each curled stalk may bare 2 dozen or more flowers that gradually open, unfurling the stalk as they develop and fade.  Hummingbirds are likely an important pollinator of these succulents, as evidenced by their bright red coloration, somewhat tubular flowers, and the fact that their peak blooming seems to coincide with the start of hummingbird migration of late summer.

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Desert Savior

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Desert Savior

The mountains of Trans-Pecos Texas boast more species of Hexalectris orchids than anywhere else in the country.  For some time I had communicated with North Texas botanist Matt White on our shared interests.  As luck would have it, while returning to the Davis Mountains Preserve visitor center, our friend, The Nature Conservancy volunteer, and local landowner Gary was talking to a man that he introduced as Matt White.  This chance encounter led to Matt guiding us to a population of Texas Coralroots (Hexalectris warnockii) that he had stumbled across on a remote rocky ridge a few hundred meters from the preserve’s main road.  He made a comment that caught my attention – that these plants and their ancestors have likely been at this spot for hundreds of years.  And in all likelihood we were the first humans to ever see them, and the last that ever will.  I smiled at the prospect, and hoped it to be true.

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Texas Coralroot

Following a long day of exploring the Davis Mountains Preserve, we decided to spend the evening resting our legs by taking a leisurely drive along the scenic loop that surrounds the range.  I use the term resting loosely, for it seemed like every few hundred feet we were stopping to explore some new biological or geological wonder.  After a while we passed below Sawtooth Mountain.  The mountain is a prominent landmark in the area, its peak reaching nearly 7,700 feet above sea level, and rising nearly 1500 feet above the surrounding slopes.

Like the Davis Mountains Preserve, Sawtooth Mountain and its surrounding habitat is protected by the Nature Conservancy.  However the mechanisms that protect the two are quite different.  While the Davis Mountains Preserve is owned outright by the conservancy, Sawtooth Mountain remains private, and instead is protected through a conservation easement.  Conservation Easements are legally binding documents that place restrictions on land use in order to achieve certain conservation objectives.  Sawtooth is another piece of the puzzle that has led to the protection of over 100,000 acres of these sky islands.

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Grassland grades into pinyon-juniper-oak woodlands on the slopes of Sawtooth Mountain

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Sawtooth Mountain looms over an interest rock outcrop

In addition to their unique flora, the Davis Mountains supports an equally interesting faunal community, melding species of the mountainous west, the desert southwest, and those primarily Mexican in their distribution.  In a single day one can hear the call of the Stellar’s Jay alongside that of the Cactus Wren and Painted Redstart.  Rare vagrant bird species turn up here, and reptiles like the Greater Short-horned Lizard thrive in one of the few areas of suitable habitat in the state.

The monsoon rains bring with them an increase in amphibian activity.  We observed many Red-spotted Toads (Anaxyrus punctatus) during our visit.  These large, handsome amphibians occur in a variety of habitats throughout most of the southwest, down into central Mexico.

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Red-spotted Toad

One of the most memorable experiences of any trip to the Davis Mountains is hunting for Canyon Tree Frogs (Hyla arenicolor) as they sit perfectly camouflaged among boulders adjacent to pools in high elevation canyon drainages.  In Texas the Canyon Tree Frog is restricted to a handful of mountain ranges of the Trans-Pecos.  Though most are brown to gray with dark brown blotches, occasionally a striking green or green-spotted individual turns up.  Carolina spotted one such animal camouflaged among the lichen on a large boulder.

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Canyon Tree Frog

As a child, I remember being captivated with the insect community in West Texas.  My parents indulged me as I ran about the desert with a net in hand, eagerly trying to capture and identify the staggering array of flying and crawling six-legged wonders that call the Trans-Pecos home.  There are few places in the country that provide as wonderful an entomological playground as West Texas.

One of the most conspicuous members of the insect community is the Arizona Sister (Adelpha eulalia), a member of the brush-footed butterfly family (Nymphalidae).  On warm, sunny days that can be seen dancing about the canyon floor and rocky outcrops seeking moisture and areas of mineral deposits.  At some such deposits its not uncommon to see dozens of different species sharing the same space in search of essential nutrients that their nectarivorous diet does not provide.

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Arizona Sister

The Orthopterans (grasshoppers, katydids, and crickets) of the Trans-Pecos range from species of muted camouflage to those with fitting, gaudy names like the Rainbow Grasshopper.  Carolina spotted this blue-winged grasshopper (Trimerotropis sp.) resting among the pebbles in a mountain wash.  Though they initially appear to be adorned in dull, muted tones, when they jump they reveal their translucent blue hind wings and cobalt blue markings on the inside of their hindlegs.

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Blue-winged Grasshopper

It’s always a treat observing tiger beetles.  Ruthless predators, tiger beetles are lightning fast and armed with deadly mandibles.  We observed these Western Red-bellied Tiger Beetles (Cicindelidia sedecimpunctata) scurrying about rocks adjacent to a mountain stream.  This species, like so many others in the area, barely enters the U.S. in extreme western Texas and southern New Mexico and Arizona.

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Western Red-bellied Tiger Beetle

The Western Rhinoceros Beetle (Xyloryctes thestalus) is one of the largest, most abundant beetles of the Davis Mountains.  Following the onset of the monsoon they emerge in droves and seek out ash trees (Fraxinus spp.), their primary food source.

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Western Rhinoceros Beetle

The real gems of the sky islands, however, are the beetles of the genus Chrysina.  There are five species in the United States, two of which occur in Texas.  In what I suspect is a common occurrence among lifelong naturalists, I have certain species that I always admired and dreamed of one day seeing while pouring endlessly through field guides and other nature books as a kid.  One of these species was the Glorious Scarab (Chrysina gloriosa).  It is a species that looks more at home in the tropics, in places well out of reach.

I had looked for this species on many previous trips to the Davis and Chisos Mountains, and had always left having only caught glimpses of elytra discarded by some predator, or some smashed semblance of what once was a Glorious Scarab on busy roads and trails.  But on this trip, much to my delight, a lifelong dream was realized when I saw a live Chrysina gloriosa crawling on the ground on our final evening in the mountains.  I must have made some strange gleeful sound as I reached down to pick it up.  I examined it closely, taking delight in this serendipitous encounter.

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Glorious Scarab

Chrysina gloriosa is highly sought after by collectors, and it is easy to see why.  Fortunately they remain common in sky islands from Arizona to West Texas.  The beetle’s brilliant greens were impossible to capture on “film”, but that didn’t stop me from trying.  The elytra (hardened outer wings) of Chrysina gloriosa are decorated with metallic silver streaks that brilliant reflect the light.  It is believed that the bright coloration and streaked pattern help break out the outline of the Glorious Scarab when it feeds on the juniper leaves that it depends on, helping to camouflage it from would-be predators.  In all we would find five individuals that night and the following morning.  It truly was the perfect ending to a spectacular trip that was rich in biodiversity.

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Glorious Scarab

The Davis Mountains truly are one of Texas’s natural treasures.  We can take comfort knowing that the biodiversity, scenery, and cultural history will be protected for generations to come thanks to the conservation efforts of the Nature Conservancy, Texas Parks and Wildlife, and landowners with a passion for the area.  I hope to return many times in the future, in an endless attempt to document but a mere fraction of the beautiful and interesting plants and animals that call this sky island home.

Coralroots of the White Rock Escarpment

Targets Species: Texas Coralroot (Hexalectris warnockii) and Glass Mountain Coralroot (Hexalectris nitida)

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Hexalectris warnockii

Texas boasts more species of the genus Hexalectris than any other state.  Here 5 of the world’s 8 species can be found (these numbers change to 6 and 9, depending on if you believe that Hexalectris spicata var. arizonica deserves species status).  Hexalectris is a genus of myco-heterotrophic orchids that are generally found in areas with abundant shade and thick, rich leaf litter.  In Texas there are three Hexalectris hotspots.  One is the  mountains of far West Texas, another the shaded canyons and oak/juniper woodlands of the Edward’s Plateau, and the last is the White Rock Escarpment of north-central Texas.  The latter is where I sought my targets.

The diversity of Hexalectris in the White Rock Escarpment was only recently discovered, when in the late 1980’s Hexalectris warnockii was discovered at an area nature preserve.  Since that time H. nitida, and H. spicata var. arizonica have also been found.  In 2005, Hexalectris grandiflora was discovered here as well, marking the first documented occurrence in the United States outside of the Davis and Chisos Mountains of West Texas.  It has since been discovered at a few sights in the Edward’s Plateau.

What makes the White Rock Escarpment so attractive to these orchids are the deposits of Austin Chalk.  This limestone-rich formation created topography and harbors species of oak and juniper that are more typical of West and Central Texas.  It is in the leaf litter under the shade of these species that the orchids grow.  The range of these Hexalectris orchids was probably once continuous and more expansive, but climate change over several millennia has pushed them into progressively smaller patches of suitable habitat, where they now exist as relicts of a once broader population.

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Hexalectris warnockii

Hexalectris warnockii is one of Texas’s showiest orchids.  It is named for Dr. Barton Warnock, a pioneer of Texas botany.  He is best known for exploring the flora of the Trans-Pecos, where he discovered many  new species and many other species that had never been documented in the United States.  Interestingly enough, while Warnock did discover the next species to be highlighted, Hexalectris nitida, he did not discover H. warnockii, which was named in his honor.  For more information on this influential figure in Texas natural history, click here.

I had previously observed Hexalectris warnockii growing at the base of some boulders deep in a secluded canyon in the Chisos Mountains.  It was truly fascinating to find the same species growing so far apart in conditions that were at the same time different, yet similar.  Though H. warnockii has been discovered at several locations since it was initially discovered in the mountains of West Texas, it remains rare and elusive in the state.

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Hexalectris warnockii

There is some mystery as to what triggers Hexalectris orchids to bloom.  The plants spend most of their life as little more than a rhizome and set of roots, and each individual may only bloom a couple of times each decade.  While rainfall is often cited as a trigger for blooming in West Texas, this doesn’t necessarily hold true elsewhere.  In the White Rock Escarpment, for example, some years may provide an excellent bloom for one species, and a sparse bloom for others.  While H. warnockii seemed to be having a banner year this year, our guide, Gary Spicer, informed us that H. nitida seemed to be showing low numbers.

Fortunately we did find a few.  Most of the H. nitida in the Edward’s Plateau and White Rock Escarpment are cleistogamous, meaning that the flowers self-pollinate and thus never open.  Gary, who frequents the area, did say that each year he sees a few plants with an open flower or two, but unfortunately we were unable to find any during out visit.

As I mentioned before, H. nitida was discovered by Barton Warnock.  He found it while working on his PhD dissertation on the vegetation of the Glass Mountains.  H. nitida is also commonly known as the Shining Coralroot due to the reflective sheen it gives off when hit by a stray beam of sun penetrating the canopy.

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Hexalectris nitida

Hexalectris has become one of my favorite plant genera.  They are both challenging to find and breathtakingly beautiful, and I look forward to continuing to explore  Hexalectris habitat in all three of our state’s hot spots.

In the Stars

Target Species: Starry Campion (Silene stellata)

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Starry Campion

Sometimes good things happen when you least expect it.  Such was the case when I checked the Starry Campion (Silene stellata) off my 2017 biodiversity list.  The botanist for the National Forests and Grasslands in Texas informed me of a new population of the Crested Coralroot (Hexalectris spicata) in Houston County.  While I had photographed this orchid before, it is so spectacular that I could’t resist checking out this newly discovered population.  I received a vague set of directions to the site, but thought that I had it figured out, so I set out to find it.

It turns out that I had gone to the wrong spot.  I arrived to where I thought the orchids would be and found nothing.  What I did find, however was what I believe is the first vouchered population of Silene stellata in Houston County.  I was not expecting to see it here, and a subsequent search of published range maps and herbaria did not turn up any records for Houston County, so I believe this is the first.

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Starry Campion

Starry Campion occurs in scattered populations throughout most of the eastern United States.  It prefers rich mesic to dry-mesic slopes, where it typically grows in the shade of hardwoods.  In Texas it tends to prefer calcareous sites.  It is primarily pollinated by moths, and it’s large, fluffy-looking blooms open in the evening and remain open throughout the night.  They begin to close the following morning.  I found several plants scattered about the lower reaches of a rich mesic slope.

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Starry Campion

It was hard to be disappointed about not finding the coralroots when the “wrong” path led me to one of my target species – one that I have never seen in bloom.  However, after some clarification on the directions I was able to make it to the Crested Coralroots after all.  These are, in my opinion, one of the most striking orchids in the country.  They occur in scattered populations in wooded areas throughout much of Texas.  It seems that a rich, undisturbed layer of leaf-litter is a prerequisite.  They are mycoheterotrophic, obtaining nutrients and energy from fungus living within the soil.  I spent the evening photographing them, and left feeling content in having found both the expected and unexpected.

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Crested Coralroots

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Crested Coralroot

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Crested Coralroots.  Though they are brightly colored when views up close, they can be very difficult to spot from a distance.