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)

2017GoalsOct

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

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

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.

June Recap

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Eastern Featherbells (Stenanthium gramineum) bloom in a mature pine-hardwood forest.

June got off to a slow start, but I finished strong, checking four more species off my list:

Saltmarsh False Foxglove (Agalinis maritima)

Velvetleaf Milkweed (Asclepias tomentosa)

Correll’s False Dragonhead (Physostegia correllii)

Starry Campion (Silene stellata)

2017GoalsJune

In early June I photographed this pair of ox beetles (Strategus antaeus) with my good friend James Childress.  We have two species of ox beetles in East Texas.  Strategus antaeus is smaller, with proportionately longer, pointed horns.  Strategus antaeus is much larger, with blunt tipped horns.  S. antaeus is primarily a species of the coastal plain, with East Texas marking the southwestern limit of its range.  It occurs in open, sandy woodlands, savannahs, and prairie openings.  The large horns of the male are used in combat to with other males to win the favor of a female.

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Strategus antaeus

In mid June I visited one of my favorite vegetative communities: the herbaceous hillside seep.  This particular site is on private land that is managed by a combination of fire and mechanical clearing.  Historically these communities would have been kept free from woody vegetation through a combination of frequent lightning-ignited fires and poor, saturated soils.  These communities are home to a variety of rare and interesting species including carnivorous plants and a variety of orchids.  Pictured below are Pale Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia alata) and blooming Pinewoods Rose Gentians (Sabatia gentianoides).  I hope to highlight this community more in a future blog entry.

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Herbaceous Hillside Seep

One of the herbaceous seep’s most striking summer displays comes from the Bog Coneflower (Rudbeckia scabrifolia).  This rare plant is confined to extreme eastern Texas and western Louisiana.  Here it’s habitat has all but disappeared over the past century and a half.

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Bog Coneflowers bloom in a herbaceous hillside seep.

Similar to the herbaceous hillside seep, but occurring in areas where fire historically did not penetrate is the forested seep.  These areas are locally known as “baygalls” in reference to two typically dominant species: Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) and Tall Gallberry Holly (Ilex coriaceae).  Like the herbaceous seep, baygalls are home to many rare species.  Pictured here are the blooms of the toxic Virginia Bunchflower (Veratrum virginicum).  These handsome plants may reach a height of 7 feet.

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Virginia Bunchflower blooms in an East Texas baygall

Another impressive summer bloomer is Physostegia digitalis, one of the false dragonheads.  They can reach heights of six feet or more and bear dozens of pale pink flowers.  Like the Bog Coneflowers, they are a species endemic to the West Gulf Coastal Plain, and are limited to East Texas, western Louisiana, and extreme southwestern Arkansas.  They are quite common in East Texas, existing in open sandy woodlands and highway right-of-ways.

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Physostegia digitalis

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Physostegia digitalis

Ongoing survey efforts for the extremely rare Louisiana Pine Snake (Pituophis ruthveni) on private land produced this Northern Scarlet Snake (Cemorphora coccinea copei).  Though they may be locally common in appropriate habitat, their preferred habitat, which includes sandy longleaf pine savannahs, xeric sandhills, and similar habitats has all but disappeared.  Scarlet snakes are specially adapted for burrowing, and they spend most of their time below ground. In East Texas their greatest periods of surface activity seem to coincide with the peak season for reptile nesting. During this time they seek out their favorite prey: reptile eggs.

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Northern Scarlet Snake

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Northern Scarlet Snake

I photographed this jewel beetle (Acmaeodera sp.) as it went about unwittingly pollinating Woodland Poppymallow (Callirhoe papaver).

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Acmeodera sp.

This has been a good year for Eastern Featherbells (Stenanthium gramineum).  I prefer landscape shots that showcase their whispy blooms over detailed shots of individual flowers.  Eastern Featherbells is one of a suite of species typical of the eastern United States that reaches it southwestern limit in the Pineywoods of East Texas.  It seems to be uncommon to rare throughout most of its range.

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Eastern Featherbells in a dry-mesic forest.

A number of milkweed species bloom in the height of summer.  One of the more easily overlooked species is the Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticillata), whose tiny flower clusters hardly look like blooms from a distance.

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Whorled Milkweed

The Federally Threatened Neches River Rosemallow (Hibiscus dasycalyx) occurs in just a few East Texas Counties.  It can be differentiated from the similar Halberd-leaved Hibiscus (Hibiscus laevis) by the dense hairs on its calyces.

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Neches River Rosemallow

As the Texas summer wears on, spending time outside becomes more and more unpleasant, however some of our most interesting species are most active and easiest to see in these sweltering months.  I look forward to seeing what July has in store.