Suffering for Milkweeds

Target Species: Velvetleaf Milkweed (Asclepias tomentosa)

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Velvetleaf Milkweed

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

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

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

Asclepias tomentosa

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

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

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

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

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

Asclepias arenaria

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

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

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

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

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Velvetleaf Milkweed

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Velveatleaf Milkweed in the Post Oak Savannah

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Velveatleaf Milkweed

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Velvetleaf Milkweed

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Velvetleaf Milkweed

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Sand Milkweed

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Sand Milkweed

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Eastern Coachwhip as found

Exploring the Upper Texas Coast

Target Species: Saltmarsh False Foxglove (Agalinis maritima)

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Saltmarsh False Foxglove

The Upper Texas Coast is a naturalist’s paradise.  It is one of the country’s premier birding sites, and harbors an interesting flora and fauna including many species that are limited to coastlines and their associated habitats.  This region was historically largely a patchwork of coastal prairie, freshwater marsh, brackish marsh, and saltmarsh.  Trees and woody vegetation was primarily limited to larger river drainages.   Today the habitat has been heavily modified, however remnants of historic vegetation still remain.

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Saltmarsh False Foxglove

I had previously observed the Saltmarsh False Foxglove while passing through bands of saltmarsh leading to the beach.  For whatever reason I never stopped to photograph it, despite the fact that it was an interesting species restricted to a thin band of habitat directly adjacent to the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of North America.  Here it occurs in tidally influenced saltmarsh.

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County-level distribution of Agalinis maritima from http://www.bonap.org

This year I made a point to capture some images.  Last weekend Carolina and I took a trip to the Upper Texas Coast.  The first evening of our trip we passed through saltmarsh where I had seen it in bloom around this time last year.  I was disappointed, as I didn’t see any blooms.  I thought that I had missed my best shot at checking Agalinis maritima off my list.  The next morning, however, while revisiting the beach I saw several in bloom.  I came to the conclusion that the blooms open in the morning, and throughout the day as the relentless coastal winds hammer the marsh the blooms quickly fade and fall from the plant.  The wind made photography a challenge, but I was able to capture a few images of the Saltmarsh False Foxglove’s beautiful, bizarre-looking flower.

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Saltmarsh False Foxglove

There were many other showy plants blooming alongside my target.  One of the most striking was the Texas Bluebells (Eustoma exaltatum).  This is a wide-ranging species that seems to thrive in the coastal prairies and drier margins of the saltmarsh, though they can be found well inland in open habitats as far north as Wyoming and North Dakota.

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Texas Bluebells

The large, bright blooms of the Saltmarsh Morning Glory (Ipomoea sagittata) were also prevalent.  The blooms open in the early morning and are mostly closed by early afternoon.

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Saltmarsh Morning Glory

Plentiful rains prior to our visit resulted in an abundance of rainlilies (Cooperia spp.).  I was excited to discover that a few were the uncommon Traub’s Rainlily (Cooperia traubii), which is limited to a few coastal and near coastal counties in Texas and extreme northeastern Mexico.  It can be differentiated from the similar, more widespread Evening Rainlily (Cooperia drummondii) by it’s elongated style, which extends well beyond the anthers.  The style of the Evening Rainlily is either shorter than the anthers, even with the anthers, or barely longer.

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Traub’s Rainlily

Cooperia traubii

County-level distribution of Cooperia traubii from http://www.bonap.org.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present and rare.

The taxonomy of prickly-pears (Opuntia spp.) is a bit of a mess.  Experts offer differing opinions of how the various species and populations should be classified.  The prickly-pears of the upper Texas Coast follow this pattern.  Two species are especially contentious.  Some experts suggest that these cacti are individuals of the more widespread Opuntia lindheimeri and Opuntia stricta, while others suggest that there are two species endemic to the Upper Texas Coast: Opuntia bentonii and Opuntia anahuacensis.  If Opuntia bentonii is a valid taxon, the image below is of this species.

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Opuntia sp.

Venturing less than a mile from the coast the marsh slowly transitions from salt to brackish to fresh water.  At the margins of a handful of freshwater marshes in the Upper Texas Coast a real gem of a plant can be found: the Fewflower Milkweed (Asclepias lanceolata).  The Fewflower Milkweed is a species of the coastal plain that reaches its western limit in Southeast Texas.  Here it historically occurred in wetland pine savannahs and wet coastal prairies.  Today it exists in only a handful of populations in the Big Thicket and along the Upper Texas Coast.

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Fewflower Milkweed

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Fewflower Milkweed

Blooming in profusion within the freshwater marsh were scores of Swamp Rosemallow (Hibiscus moscheutos).  The spectacular blooms of this species open fully in the early morning, and close by the afternoon.

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Swamp Rosemallow

Every trip to the Upper Texas Coast provides unique, memorable encounters with the natural world.  There are several other species on my list that call this region home, and with any luck I’ll return soon to seek them out.

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Retreating tides and advancing clouds on the Upper Texas Coast

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Retreating tides and advancing clouds on the Upper Texas Coast