Spring in the Hill Country

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Giant Spiderwort on a granite outcrop

Three springs ago I was lucky enough to marry the love of my life.  Before and since Carolina and I have shared many adventures in the natural world.  It seemed fitting that we spend our anniversary in these wild places we love so much, so we decided to take a trip to the Texas Hill Country.  It had been years since I spent any time exploring this treasure trove of natural wonders, and Carolina had only previously passed through.  We looked forward to a trip full of searching for rocks, gems, wildflowers, and other wild things.

The rugged Texas Hill Country is part of the Edward’s Plateau, an extensive uplift in central Texas comprised of marine deposit that are 100 million years old or more.  The region is primarily comprised of limestone, however extensive granite outcrops are present in areas.  The variety of substrates harbors an incredible array of plant and animal species, many of which are found nowhere else in the world.  Perhaps no other part of the state is as uniquely Texan as the Hill Country.  The following blog post is a long one that highlights its natural beauty.

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Spring in the Texas Hill Country

We covered a lot of ground during our trip, trying to see as much as we possibly could.  Recent rains had swollen the clear streams of the region.  While hiking we came across this tributary of the Colorado River, which I suspect is normally fairly tame.  We enjoyed a swim in the cool, clear waters below the fall.

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A Hill Country Waterfall

The wild’s of the Hill Country are full of beautiful sights, like this gnarled live oak growing from the top of a massive granite boulder.

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A gnarled live oak takes hold on a granite outcrop

The Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis) is certainly the most iconic of all Texas wildflowers.  While I can’t deny their beauty, I am usually reluctant to photograph bluebonnets, as they have been so extensively planted that it’s hard to know when one has encountered a truly wild population.  I found this large population in a clearing in an open oak/mesquite savannah far from any roads or developed areas, and am fairly certain it is a native population.

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Texas Bluebonnets

We were lucky that a number of cacti had begun to bloom during our trip.  I posted about the Claret Cup Cactus (Echinocereus coccineus) in my previous blog.  I also mentioned the Lace Cactus (Echinocereus reichenbachii).  The latter deserves mention again here, as we found many in bloom while we were driving back roads in pursuit of Topaz and Celestite.  While we did not find the precious stones, we were rewarded with the brilliant blooms of this spectacular cactus.  The largest, most impressive individuals and groups were on private land well behind fences, however we did find several beautiful individuals within camera range.

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A Lace Cactus clings to a granite outcrop

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Lace Cactus

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Lace Cactus

We also found a few Heyder’s Pincushion Cactuses (Mammillaria heyderi), which I had recently photographed in South Texas.

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Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus

Perhaps one of the most spectacular wildflower displays came from the Giant Spiderwort (Tradescantia gigantea) which seemed to thrive on granite and limestone alike.

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Giant Spiderwort

We observed a number of Penstemon species.  The most common and widespread was the Prairie Penstemon (Penstemon cobaea).  It was a treat to see such large, healthy populations of this species, as it is rare in the Pineywoods.

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Prairie Penstemon

We even found a few Prairie Penstemons with a striking lavender wash.

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Prairie Penstemon

We also found the much less common Guadalupe Penstemon, which is endemic to the Texas Hill Country.

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Guadalupe Penstemon

Penstemon guadalupensis

County level distribution for Penstemon guadalupensis from http://www.bonap.org.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present but rare.

The most spectacular of the Penstemons, however, was the Hill Country Penstemon (Penstemon triflorus), another Edward’s Plateau endemic.

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Hill Country Penstemon

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Hill Country Penstemon

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Hill Country Penstemon

Penstemon triflorus

County-level distribution for Penstemon triflorus from http://www.bonap.org.

The Fringed Bluestar (Amsonia ciliata) was fairly difficult to spot among the grasslands and oak savannahs, despite its bright blue blooms.

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Fringed Bluestar

The Green Milkweed Vine (Matelea reticulata) is native to Texas and northeastern Mexico.  It is easy to see where it gets one of its alternate common names: The Pearl Milkweed Vine.

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Green Milkweed Vine

After spending a couple of nights camping we visited our good friends Scott Wahlberg and Ashley Tubbs in Kerrville.  Scott and I are known for our absurd conversations and hypothetical scenarios.  We are lucky that we have such tolerant women to put up with our shenanigans.  After spending the night at their place, they showed us a beautiful series of canyons that had eroded into the limestone hills.  The Endangered Golden-Cheeked Warbler (Setophaga chrysoparia) serenaded us as we explored its domain.

In addition to being rich in endemics, the Texas Hill Country is home to many species typical of the central or Eastern United States that are disjunct from the main portion of their range.  These species generally exist in these cool, moist canyons and are relicts of cooler, wetter times.  Scott has found Western Slimy Salamanders (Plethodon albagula) here.  Luckily I had seen them in the Hill Country before, as we were unable to find any this trip.  We did, however, see several Eastern Red Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis) in bloom.

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Eastern Red Columbine

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Eastern Red Columbine

We observed several False Day Flowers (Tinantia anomala) in bloom.  These bizarre blooms reminded me of some alien creature.

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False Day Flower

We also found another uncommon endemic growing in these canyons: The Scarlet Clematis (Clematis texensis).

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Scarlet Clematis

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County-level distribution for Clematis texensis.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present but rare.

The Texas Madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) is a typical tree of the slopes grading into these canyons.  We were lucky to find a few in bloom.

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Texas Madrone

With all of the wildflowers in bloom, the pollinators were out in force as well.  Perhaps the most beautiful, and definitely the most cooperative were the many Juniper Hairstreaks (Callophrys gryneus) that we observed.

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Juniper Hairstreak

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Juniper Hairstreak

As is so often the case for me, as the trip came to an end I was hit with a feeling of sadness.  But it’s hard to be too sad when I was returning to the Pineywoods, where so many interesting species were awaiting me.

 

 

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Cure-All

Target Species: Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima)

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Yellowroot

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

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

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

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

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Yellowroot Panicles

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

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East Texas Waterfall.  Photographed in July, 2016.

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

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Yellowroot Flowers

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

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

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Yellowroot Flower detail

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

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Typical Yellowroot habitat along a clear, springfed stream.

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

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Arrowhead

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

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