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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October Recap

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A rich mesic forest dominated by American Beech and other hardwoods

October was a productive month.  I was able to photograph another six species on my biodiversity list:

Rainbow Scarab (Phanaeus vindex)

Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus ornatus)

Button Cactus (Epithelantha micromeris)

Lacespine Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria lasiacantha)

Living Rock Cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus)

Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum)

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East Texas generally experiences its first significant cold fronts in October, providing our first real relief from the sweltering summers.  These cool days are the perfect time to wander around in the woods.  This year Carolina and I spent a few days in the rich mesic American beech slopes, where we searched for rare plants and early signs of fall color.

Though not particularly rare, the American Strawberry Bush (Euonymus americanus) displays its bizarre fruits in the fall.  Also known as “Hearts-a-burstin”, the fruits of this small shrub generally resemble strawberries when closed, but are hard and inedible.  In the early fall the break open to reveal the large red seeds within.

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Fruits of the American Strawberry bush

The Tall Rattlesnake Root, or Tall Wild Lettuce (Prenanthes altissima) is very rare in Texas, known only from a few sites in Jasper and Newton Counties.  Here it is at the southwestern extent of its range.  It occurs along small streams in rich mature hardwood dominated forests.

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Tall Rattlesnake Root

Always found among the roots of its host plant, Beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana) is parasitic on the roots of American Beech.  This bizarre plant lacks chlorophyll and is entirely dependent on its host for energy.

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Beechdrops

After a long day of botanizing, I spotted the unmistakable form of a Canebrake Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) crossing the road. The sighting was remarkable, and special to me, in that it occurred on the 2nd busiest highway in my county. It had made it most of the way across two lanes of traffic, and was nearly across the shoulder when I spotted it. I quickly turned around, worried that some vehicle would come from behind and purposely put an end to this beautiful creature, an all too common occurrence here, perpetrated by the unsympathetic and uninformed. Fortunately it made it safely across the pavement, and I watched as it inched across the right-of-way toward the dense forest beyond.

This encounter also helped remind me that sometimes there are more important things than getting the shot. I’ll admit, I hoped very much to capture a spectacular image of this three and a half foot beauty. But as I tried to balance poor light, a multitude of onlookers passing by at 70 miles an hour, and issues with trespassing, I realized that not only was it futile, but completely unnecessary. Simply spending a few moments with this incredible creature was more than enough.

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Canebrake Rattlesnake

Keep Rolling

Target Species: Rainbow Scarab (Phanaeus vindex)

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Male Rainbow Scarab

Since I was a child I have had a fascination with beetles.  They are the most diverse group of animals on the planet, and come in an extraordinary array of shapes, sizes, and colors.  Some have iridescent, metallic carapaces, some have impressive weaponry like horns and toothed mandibles.  And some, like the Rainbow Scarab, have both.

The Rainbow Scarab is a dung beetle.  They feed on the refuse of mammals, and in doing so help to prevent an unsafe build up of animal feces.  Feces can be a vector for diseases, and by removing it from the earth’s surface, the Rainbow Scarab and other dung feeding beetles help to prevent the spread of feces-borne illnesses, some of which can be fatal.

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Male Rainbow Scarab

The benefits of dung beetles do not end there.  Rainbow Scarabs dig burrows below dung piles.  They then roll bits of the dung into balls and drag it below the surface.  The female then lays her eggs on the fecal matter, which will serve as nourishment for the developing larvae.  By spreading and depositing feces within the soil, the Rainbow Scarab is in effect fertilizing the landscape.

Rainbow Scarabs are broadly distributed east of the Rocky Mountains.  In East Texas they seem to prefer sandy soils, however elsewhere they have been documented in a variety of soil types.  The individuals pictured are from a longleaf pine savannah.

The strikingly beautiful Phanaeus vindex has been a favorite of mine since childhood.  I have observed and had the opportunity to photograph them on numerous occasions, however I have never been happy with the resulting images.  This year i hoped to capture some images that really showed off their brilliant iridescence.  Try as I might, I found that the age-old adage that “pictures can’t do them justice” really does apply with the Rainbow Scarab.  Their color seems to change depending on the angle of the light, and I found it impossible to capture their true brilliance, though I sure had fun trying.

For more on these fascinating creatures and the benefits they provide I strongly recommend this link:

http://entnemdept.ufl.edu/creatures/BENEFICIAL/BEETLES/Phanaeus_vindex.htm

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.

Blaze of Glory

Target Species: Gulf Blazing Star (Liatris tenuis)

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One of the Gulf Coastal Plain’s major centers of endemism occurs in the Pineywoods of East Texas and western Louisiana, and to a lesser extent southeast Oklahoma and southwest Arkansas.  Many of these species are concentrated in the xeric sandhills and longleaf pine savannahs of the region.  The Gulf Blazing Star (Liatris tenuis) is one such species.  It primarily occurs in longleaf pine savannahs, sandhills, and sandstone barrens.

Members of the genus Liatris can be difficult to differentiate.  Two similar species, Liatris squarrosa and Liatris squarrulosa can occur in similar areas.  L. tenuis is best identified by its narrow leaves, few florets per head, and short involucre.

Liatris tenuis

One possible explanation for the high levels of endemism in the longleaf pine and xeric sandhill communities is a break in the range of longleaf pine and bands of geological formations with deep sand deposits created by the Mississippi River Delta.  This has created barriers to gene flow for species with very specific habitat requirements.  This isolation has led to the evolution of different lineages, resulting in speciation over time.

Another endemic of the West Gulf Coastal Plain that can often be found growing in close proximity to Liatris tenuis is the Scarlet Catchfly (Silene subciliata).  This aptly named catchfly blooms from mid summer through most of the fall.

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Note the similarity of range between Silene subciliata and Liatris tenuis.  As mentioned before, this same pattern is shared by many of the Pineywoods’ plant species.  Silene subciliata occurs on deep sands in longleaf pine savannahs and xeric sandhills.

Silene subciliata

Both L. tenuis and S. subciliata are species of conservation concern in both Texas and Louisiana, where they are formally listed on the state’s rare plant lists.  Like so many species of the longleaf pine savannahs, their numbers of been reduced dramatically by loss of habitat and land use conversion.  Today they remain in only a handful of scattered populations.  Fortunately some of these have been protected by entities like the U.S. Forest Service, Big Thicket National Preserve, and the Nature Conservancy of Texas.

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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)

2017GoalsJuly

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