Wandering through the Cross Timbers and Prairies: Part I

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Remnant Chalk Prairie

I must admit, the Pineywoods have always felt like a priority.  Beneath the towering trees is where I feel most at home.  It makes sense, of course, as it is my backyard.  It is where I spent my youth exploring, learning, developing as a naturalist.  But as more time passed, and I gained the means to do so, I came to realize that I didn’t have to limit myself so close to home.  In other words, what if my backyard were to get a lot bigger?

So I started branching out.  Carolina and I made occasional forays to the Edwards Plateau, to South Texas, to West Texas.  There remained one ecosystem, however, that I had left woefully unexplored – the vast prairies that dominated the northern part of the state.  I don’t mean the fingers of Blackland that reach into the Pineywoods, or the vanishing coastal prairies that I fought hard to protect years ago.  I longed to see seemingly endless expanses of prairie, with grasses and wildflowers stretching as far as the eye could see.  Places with names like “Grand Prairie”, that conjured up images of a land spectacular for its desolation, where trees would not hide the sun on its daily journey from horizon to horizon.  As is the story with so much of the state, such places have become rare.  Rare – but not lost.

So in late April Carolina and I decided to set out to explore this foreign land.  Being obsessed with our states natural history, many of the plants and communities we would encounter were already familiar to me.  We made our acquaintance over countless hours spent pouring over field guides, natural history books, inventories, and scientific papers.  But this would be my first time encountering so many of them in the flesh, so to speak.

We began our journey near the southern reaches of the Cross Timbers and Prairies, near where the Lampasas Cut Plains reach their northern extent.  Here we found remnant chalk prairies, some extensive with bare limestone outcrops and a bizarre flora that I was not accustomed to.  Perhaps the most prominent resident this time of year was the Purple Paintbrush (Castilleja purpurea).

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Purple Paintbrush

The dazzling array of color and diversity of plants on the chalk prairies was awe-inspiring.  Below the stately Prairie Penstemon (Penstemon cobaea) can be seen towering above Purple Paintbrush and Engelmann’s Sage (Salvia engelmannii).  The latter is a Texas endemic.

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Prairie View

We stayed in this special place as dusk took hold over the land and the moon shone in the skies above.

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Moon over the Prairie

We left as darkness enveloped the land and drove north into the heart of the Grand Prairie.  I had hoped that we might catch a glimpse of some crawling or slithering thing in the road in front of us, but the hour-long drive was uneventful.  We found a base of operations in a hotel in Decatur.  The next morning I rose an hour before dawn and as Caro caught some extra sleep I set out to try to capture some images in the early morning light.  Before the sun crested the horizon I captured the image below of Purple Paintbrush and Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia caespitosa) in bud.

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Purple Paintbrush

I had no pre-conceived image that I was out to capture that morning; instead I planned to let my eyes wander, and hoped that the scene might present itself.  I enjoy this sort of photography, and it takes me back to part of what hooked me on photography in the first place.  These days I seem to always have a shot in mind, or some target that I’m seeking.  Sometimes it’s enjoyable to let the image find me for a change.  And so this large group of Missouri Evening Primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa) called to me, and I photographed them as the sun crested the horizon.  This classic prairie wildflower has huge flowers, and equally impressive fruits, which I unfortunately did not photograph.

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Missouri Evening Primrose – Chasing the Sun

As the sun rose higher into the morning sky I returned to the hotel.  After breakfast, Caro and I set out to explore the Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) National Grassland.  Akin to the National Forests of East Texas, LBJ Grassland set aside parcels for multiple uses by the public.  Much of the area is suffering from the typical array of factors that result in the ecological degradation of prairies – encroachment by woody species due to a lack of cyclical disturbance such as grazing and fire – but we did find some areas where the prairie was still thriving.  It was in one such recently burned area that I caught a flash of pink.  It was a species I was very much hoping to see – the Eastern Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia).

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Eastern Shooting Star

As we explored the LBJ, we noticed several exposed limestone ridges.  It was here, I hoped, that I might find the Grooved Nipple Cactus (Coryphantha sulcata) and Beehive Cactus (Escobaria vivipara) in bloom.  While we were successful in finding both species, their fleeting flowers eluded us.  We were, however, rewarded with a fine consolation prize: several Missouri Foxtail Cacti (Escobaria missouriensis) in bloom.

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

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Missouri Foxtail Cactus

As the sun sank once more toward the horizon, we found ourselves on a high grassy ridge that overlooked a series of eroded canyons.  Here we found a large population of Nuttall’s Death Camas (Toxicoscordion nuttallii).  This species was on my 2017 list, and while I did find and photograph one individual the previous year, I found this prairie to yield a far more satisfying photographic experience.

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Nuttall’s Death Camas

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Nuttall’s Death Camas

Descending from the high ridge, we entered the fertile valley below.  Here we found interesting prairie plants like Buffalo Pea (Pediomelum cuspidatum) and Wright’s Skull Cap (Scutellaria wrightii).

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Buffalo Pea

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Buffalo Pea

As the sun retreated for the day, I returned to the ridge to capture some landscape images of the Nuttall’s Death Camas in the pink light of dusk.  It was a beautiful scene, which we breathed in under the darkening sky.

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Death Comes to the Prairie

The next morning we rose early and pushed north toward the Red River, and deeper into the Grand Prairie.  As we were admiring the gently rolling terrain andorned with a mingling of prairie and woodland, a flash of pink once again caught my eye.  It was another group of Eastern Shooting Stars!  The Eastern Shooting Star is a species of open woodlands, glades, and prairie remnants in the eastern and central U.S. It reaches the southwestern extent of its range in the prairies and woodland openings of central Texas. Elsewhere in its range the blooms may be white, but in the Cross Timbers and Prairies they are deep pink.  In the Lonestar State, the Eastern Shooting Star occurs in remnant prairies and open woodlands in a few counties in the north-central and northeastern portions of the state, with a few isolated populations in similar habitats in the Edward’s Plateau.  It is among the most photogenic flowers I have ever put my lens on.

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Eastern Shooting Star

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Eastern Shooting Star

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Eastern Shooting Star

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Eastern Shooting Star

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Eastern Shooting Star

Growing near the shoting stars were several groups of Prairie Paintbrush (Castilleja citrina).

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Prairie Paintbrush

It wasn’t long before the sun rose high once again, and we had to be setting out on our return journey to the Pineywoods.  We opted to take a series of remote county roads to get back to the main highway.  All around the birds were active.  Lark Sparrows lined the fence rows while several Upland Sandpipers worked the fields on their northward journey to their breeding grounds.  Windows down, I could hear the incessant buzzy call of the Dickcissel.  I have never seen such a dense population of these grassland songbirds spread out over such a large area.  It seemed like every 100 feet or so a male Dickcissel had staked out his territory and was singing from some shrub or dried remnant of the previous year’s vegetation.  Despite the fairly harsh light, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to capture an image of one of these prairie treasures in full song.

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Dickcissel

Standing in some of these remnant prairies, it wasn’t hard to transport myself back in time.  To a time when the Tawakani and Wichita still made their home here, and vast herds of bison and pronghorn dotted the expansive plain.  In these moments it is easy to become frustrated and depressed at what was lost.  As I looked out at the swaying grass and palette of prairie wildflowers, I chose instead to focus on what we still have and ensure that it, too, does not become a story of what once was.  To learn what you can do to help protect native prairies visit texasprairie.org.

Spring in the Pineywoods

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Kentucky Lady’s Slippers – A Gift of Spring

As I sit here typing, we are in the height of August, which has the misfortune of traditionally being our most miserable month – at least climatically speaking.  So as the dried grass crunches beneath my feet and my skin bakes under triple digit temperatures, it’s easy to escape back to a day over four months ago.

It was the last day of March.  There was a definite chill in the air as I set out into the forest.  The gray of dawn was made darker by the the canopy of beech and oak towering one hundred feet above my head.  I worried for a moment that I may not see them – my elusive botanical quarry.  But despite the dim light of the understory, the yellow egg-sized blooms of the Kentucky Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium kentuckiense) caught my eye like a beacon sent out to some wayfaring sailor, and drew me to them with a siren’s song of its enigmatic beauty.

A few days prior my friend Peter Loos had called and told me that the slippers were out early this year, a full two weeks early.  He also told me that one population, which typically has only a plant or two in flower, was displaying six perfect blooms this year.  If it weren’t for his call, I would have likely missed out on a very special experience.

The soil was cold and damp as I sat, saturated from a previous day’s rain.  It was still to early for photography, the forest too dark to properly render the color of the scene.  So I sat and waited in the company of the forest.  I admired the slippers and the ferns that grew around them.  I listen to the familiar songs of Red-eyed Vireos, Summer Tanagers and Hooded Warblers, and the distant trill of a Northern Parula.  After some time I could see hints of dappled sun in the highest leaves in the canopy.  The forest grew brighter, its colors warmed.  In this new light I could see distant azalea blooms lining the creek downslope.

I had to pay close attention to the light.  There would only be a brief moment for me to capture the image I was after.  That time when the ambient light early morning sun illuminated the forest, but before its rays penetrated the canopy, casting sun spots and uneven light on the forest floor.  Finally the moment was right, and I captured the image above.

Though the end of March may have been the height of the season, spring itself had begun nearly two months prior, when the first of the spring ephemerals pushed their way through the leaf litter.  Perhaps my favorite of these is the Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis), so named for the red sap of its roots that has long been used for a wide range of medicinal purposes.  Bloodroot is now rare in Texas, where it hold on in a few remnant patches of mature hardwood forest.

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Bloodroot – An Ode to Spring

Like the Bloodroot, the White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum) is one of our first harbingers of spring.  White Trout Lily can be found throughout the Pineywoods.  Though it is common nowhere, it is more frequently encountered in the northern and western portions of this forested ecoregion.  Elsewhere in the state it can be found in some Post Oak Savannah and Cross Timber woodlands.

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Trout Lily

It is not just the rich woods that experience a flush in early spring activity.  In mid February the wetland pine savannahs of East Texas appear bleak, their grasses turned brown by the short days and biting cold of winter.  But it is in that time that the Woolly Sunbonnet (Chaptalia tomentosa) emerges, opening its blooms in the midday sun.

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Woolly Sunbonnet

Though the forest floor may be coming to life, early spring still finds the trees leafless and dreary.  I captured the haunting scene below as a fog rolled in over the Angelina River on a cold day in mid February.

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The Angelina River looks to be a dismal place in early spring.

Even in early March the forest still seems gripped in winter.  At least from a distance…

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A rare waterfall in one of the last patches of old growth forest in East Texas.

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A small stream flows, fueled by spring rains

But closer examination shows that by early March the forest has come alive.  The scene below was captured at our friends Susan and Viron’s land.  Under their stewardship, a spectacular patch of rich mesic forest has persisted.  Here nearly all of the plants that have become exceedingly rare elsewhere in the states, still thrive.  Their forest contains colonies of Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium rostratum) that cover acres!

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Yellow Trout Lilies – Ephemeral

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Yellow Trout Lilies

Their land is also home to one of only two known populations of False Rue Anemone (Enemion biternatum) in the state.

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False Rue Anemone

Spring Beauties (Claytonia virginica) flourish here as well.  They are one of our most common spring ephemeral, but that in no way diminishes their beauty.

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Spring Beauty

One of the more unexpected denizens of early spring is the Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle (Cicindela scutellaris rugata).  Unlike most tiger beetles, which are most active during the summer, the Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle is active in the early spring, and by late May are almost impossible to find.

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Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle

This jewel-like beetle is restricted to eastern Texas, western Louisiana, and extreme southwestern Arkansas and southeastern Louisiana. Here it occurs in areas with vast expanses of bare sand such as xeric sandhills and sand “blowouts” in the Pineywoods and Post Oak Savannah.

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Wrinkled Festive Tiger Beetle

By mid-March most of the woodlands in the southern Pineywoods had begun to leaf-out.  The scene below was captured in a vast floodplain adjacent Big Sandy Creek in the Big Thicket.

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Vernal

As the freshly emerging leaves hardwoods begin to turn the slopes and floodplains green, a different explosion of color is occurring in a precious few longleaf pine savannahs in the Big Thicket.  At the few sites where it still occurs, the Federally Endangered Texas Trailing Phlox (Phlox nivalis ssp. texensis) reaches peak bloom in mid-March.

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Texas Trailing Phlox

Around the same time, a very different phlox species blooms in the shade American Beech and other hardwoods of rich forested slopes.  Though common throughout much of its range in eastern North America, Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) is rare in Texas.  The combination of pale blue blooms, feathery fern fronds and a gnarly old hornbeam created a scene that seemed like something more suited for a Tolkien novel than the Pineywoods.

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Mirkwood

While we’re on the topic of phlox, one can’t drive the backroads of the Big Thicket without admiring the recently described Texas endemic Big Thicket Phlox (Phlox pulcherrima), a member of the Phlox pilosa complex.

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Big Thicket Phlox

With March in full swing, color was coming to all of the vegetative communities of the Pineywoods.  Wright’s Lily (Schoenolirion wrightii), a rare species of glades and barrens came into bloom over deposits of Catahoula Sandstone.

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Wright’s Lily

And expansive drifts of Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides) turned the forest floor blue in this woodland in the northern Pineywoods.

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Rebirth

One afternoon, as we were exploring the longleaf pine savannahs of the Angelina National Forest, Carolina spotted a splash of yellow in the distance.  It turned out to be a small flatwoods pond decorated with the blooms of thousands of Floating Bladderworts (Utricularia radiata).  These plants are carnivorous, and I couldn’t help but think that below the surface was something akin to a minefield for the unfortunate aquatic invertebrates that dwell within.

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Floating Bladderworts – Minefield

Not all of spring’s palate is painted on the forest floor however, and a multitude of trees and shrubs put on an impressive display as they come into flower.  In the picture below White Fringetree (Chionanthus virginicus) flowers in the foreground while Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida) blooms in the distance.

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White Fringetree – Old Man of the Woods

By late March the Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum) have taken over the forest floor.  One of my favorite spring ephemerals, Mayapple is still quite easy to find in certain parts of East Texas, unlike so many other species of rich woods that have become increasingly rare.

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Mayapple – Sea of Green

The large umbrella-shaped leaves of Mayapple are actually toxic.  Only the ripe fruit is edible.  The downy white blooms hang beneath the leaves.  Non-blooming plants always sport a single leaf, while those that bloom have two.

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Mayapples

Along the bluffs lining the Angelina River, Carolina and I found a large colony of Wild Comfrey (Cynoglossum virginianum).  These wildflowers, with their downy basal leaves and tiny sky-blue blooms have become quite uncommon in Texas.  They often occur in the company of the Kentucky Lady’s Slipper, and I couldn’t help but wonder of the enigmatic orchid once called these hills home.

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Wild Comfrey Hills

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Wild Comfrey Blooms

Another uncommon species often found in the presence of the lady’s slipper is the Bigleaf Snowbell (Styrax grandifolia).  It’s easy to see how this species gets its common name, as thousands of small white blooms may dangle from its branches in early April.

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Bigleaf Snowbell

In the vast floodplain of the Neches River I spotted a large colony of Eastern Bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana), and I stood in the flood waters to photograph its delicate blooms in the evening light.

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Eastern Bluestar

Every spring I look forward to the emergence of the trilliums.  This year I found this large colony of Sabine River Wakerobin (Trillium gracile) in a rich hardwood forest in Sabine County.

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Sabine River Wakerobin

By mid-April many of the spring ephemerals have already faded, and a new cast of floral characters appears on the scene.  Clasping Milkweed (Asclepias amplexicaulis) emerges from deep sands and displays its bizarre blooms for all the pollinating world to see.

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Clasping Milkweed

Deep in the forest a very different milkweed was blooming.  By mid April the White (A.K.A Redring) Milkweed was beginning to come into flower.

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White Milkweed

The Zigzag Iris (Iris brevicaulis) can be found on the margins of wetlands in the Pineywoods.

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Zigzag Iris

Flowering Dogwood is one of the most familiar small trees of East Texas.  Lesser known are the other species of dogwood that occur here.  This spring we found several Roughleaf Dogwoods (Cornus drummondii) in bloom along a small stream in Houston County.

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Roughleaf Dogwood

The Rose Pogonia (A.K.A. Snakemouth Orchid) (Pogonia ophioglossoides) is always a crowd-pleaser.  I found several blooming in late April with my friend James Childress in a remote seep on private land.

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Rose Pogonia

One evening in April I received a call from my friend, and author of The Wild Orchids of Texas, Joe Liggio.  He told me that while returning home from a long day of botanizing, he spotted an uncommon wildflower along a remote road in Liberty County.  It was the Foxglove Penstemon (Penstemon digitalis).  Shortly after photographing the plants at Joe’s site, I found it growing in similar remoteness in Sabine County.  This penstemon has a fairly broad distribution in the eastern third of the state, occurring in scattered populations in rich, open woodlands and their margins. There is some debate as to whether it is native outside northeast Texas, while others question whether or not its native to the state at all.  The plants that Joe and I discovered were, in my opinion, unlikely candidates for escapees from cultivation.  This leads me to believe that is in fact native to East Texas.

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Foxglove Penstemon

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Foxglove Penstemon

Also in April, my friend Scott Wahlberg and I visited a site in the Big Thicket where last year I was able to track down Wild Blue Lupine (Lupinus perennis).  I went into some detail on this species in a blog post last year, so I won’t say much here, save to mention it’s striking beauty.

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Wild Blue Lupine

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Wild Blue Lupine

Another species that I pursued last year was the Green Adder’s Mouth (Malaxis unifolia).  Carolina and I found them again this year, and I photographed them to the sound of the thunder of a rapidly approaching storm.

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En-route to photograph the adder’s mouth, we spotted a striking little purple legume flowering alongside the road.  It was a patch of Sampson’s Snakeroot (Orbexilum pedunculatum), a plant I only occasionally encounter in the Pineywoods.

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Sampson’s Snankeroot

Though it’s pushing the limits of late spring and flirting with early summer, late May still has a lot to offer, botanically speaking.  One warm evening in late May, Caro and I drove out to Walker County to photograph the Bush’s Purple Coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa var. neglecta).  This puzzling population was found growing in a calcareous prairie remnant by my friend Eric Keith.  Echinacea paradoxa is a species of coneflower found in the Ozark Plateau and isolated populations in southern Oklahoma and southeast Texas. While typically yellow, E. paradoxa var. neglecta range from pale purple to deep pink.  The population here in southeast Texas is disjunct from other known populations by hundreds of miles.

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So it was that the Spring of 2018 came to a close and gave way to summer.  It was hard to say goodbye to the cool, gray days of Spring, but as a naturalist I find some joy in each of our seasons.  Soon the sun would be blaring, the cicadas would be trilling, and a whole new cast of plants and animals would make themselves known.

The Jewel of the Weches Formation

Target Species: Clasping Jewelflower (Streptanthus maculatus)

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The bad news is that I’ve fallen way behind in my blogging.  The good news, however is that the last few months have been full of incredible experiences in the natural world that I look forward to sharing.  So as we are sweltering under near record heat waves, I will share a few posts from this spring, and reminisce about cooler times.

This first post addresses the third, and unfortunately last species from my list of biodiversity goals that I have checked off this year.  In early May I photographed the spectacular Clasping Jewelflower (Streptanthus maculatus) in East Texas.  This member of the mustard family (Brassicaceae) is very rare in Texas, known from only a few sites over the Weches formation in the eastern part of the state.  Here it occurs in a few scattered populations where the iron-rich formation has been exposed.  I learned of this particular population near the Anderson/Henderson County line from my friend Trey Anderson who had found them a few years ago while performing some work in the area.  They occur on a steep exposed hill with a mix of artificial clearings and stunted forest over gravelly Weches substrate.  This soil is extremely rich in iron and it shows in the color of the hillside.

The Weches Formation is part of a broader collection of geologic formations known as the Claiborne Group.  This group also includes the Yegua, Cook Mountain, Sparta, Queen City, and Reklaw Formations.  These occur along with the Weches Formation as a matrix in a broad area that encompasses a narrow band that stretches from Cass, Marion, Harrison, Rusk, Nacogdoches, San Augustine and Sabine Counties in the east along a curve down to Webb and Zapata Counties in South Texas.  (See a map here).

I have previously written a blog post about Weches Glades, a unique vegetative community that occur at a few sites in Nacogdoches, San Augustine, and Sabine Counties.  Streptanthus maculatus once occurred here as well, and can probably still be found at a few existing sites.  Many populations have been lost, however, to land use conversion and extensive glauconite mining.  Elsewhere in its range S. maculatus occurs over similarly iron-rich deposits in eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas.

I was a bit late in seeking these jewels out this year, as most were already spent or in fruit.  The individual pictured was the only one I found in decent shape.  I’m not complaining though, for it gives me something to look forward to next year, and will afford me another visit to the unique, disappearing communities of the Weches Formation.

Hidden Wonders in the Forests of Northeast Texas

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Rich Hardwood Forest

Target Species: 

Tapertip Trillium (Trillium viridescens)

Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens)

It’s been some time since I’ve posted about one of my “Biodiversity Targets”, those species that I included on my 2017 list of biodiversity goals.  At the end of 2017, I had only tracked down around half of the species on that list, but along the way I amassed a wealth of incredible observations, adventures, and experienced more of our states biodiversity than I ever could have imagined.  So I decided that instead of creating a new list or adding to the existing list, I would work over the next couple of years to finish the list I made at the start of 2017; a list that was a bit more ambitious than I had anticipated.

In early April 2018 my pursuit of these species would take me to the far northeast corner of Texas, near the Oklahoma border in search of two species that I have long wanted to see in the state.  Joining me in this quest was my friend Scott Wahlberg.  We set out early, in the gray of a perfect spring morning.

The counties of far northeast Texas feature a mingling of habitats typical of both the Post Oak Savannah and Pineywoods.  Some communities, like the rich hardwood forests of the Sulphur River and Red River and their tributaries are unique to this part of Texas, and more similar to the forests of the Ouachita Mountains of Oklahoma and Arkansas than they are to those of the heart of the Pineywoods in Deep East Texas.  Here a sweet of species reach the southwestern limit of their range.  Among these are several species that are either absent from, or are very scarce elsewhere in the Pineywoods.  Examples of these include trees like Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum), Black Oak (Quercus velutina), Shingle Oak (Quercus imbricaria), and Nutmeg Hickory (Carya myristiciformis).  Examples also include woodlands forbs such as Fire Pink (Silene virginica), Rue Anemone (Thalictrum thalictroides), Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens), Tapertip Trillium (Trillium viridescens), and more.

The latter two were the focus of this trip.  In Texas, Trillium viridescens occurs in rich hardwood forests on steep river bluffs and in the damp alluvium of  riparian woodlands.  Here we found it growing among other interesting woodland forbs like Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), Veiny Pea (Lathyrus venosus), Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides), and White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum).

Trillium viridescens is a species of the central United States, primarily occurring in the Ozark Plateau, and the Boston and Ouachita Mountains. It barely enters Texas in northeastern portion of the state. The plants in the northern portions of its range generally have petals that grade from purple at the base to bright greenish yellow at the tips. Most Texas individuals, however, tend to be solid maroon to greenish purple.

 

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Tapertip Trillium

The sessile-flowered trilliums can be a tricky group. In Texas, three species, T. gracile, T. ludovicianum, and T. viridescens are superficially similar in many ways, however when I first saw T. viridescens in the field it was immediately clear that this species was obviously different from the other two. The T. viridescens plants we observed were much larger and more robust than any T. gracile or T. ludovicianum I had ever seen. Their faintly mottled, broadly ovate leaves were much different than the state’s other trillium species, which have narrower, more heavily mottled leaves. The petals were also much larger. There are other characteristics that can be used to differentiate T. viridescens from the other two species such as a scabrous vs glabrous scape and a number of differences in flower morphology.

Seeing Trillium viridescens in the field certainly left a lasting impression.   It was a special moment for me, as it was the last of our state’s five species of trillium that I had left to see.  Like all of our other trillium species, T. viridescens is at risk, and is likely declining from a number of factors such as climate change and land use conversion.

Viola pubescens another characteristically eastern species that barely enters Texas in the far northeastern part of the state.  It is a yellow-flowered violet that occurs through most also occurs in parts of central United States as far west as the Black Hills of western South Dakota and eastern Wyoming.  While I have seen and photographed this species in the southern Appalachians, I had long wanted to see it in Texas.

On that fine spring day, we found it in a mature riparian forest along a small order stream.  Shaded by an overstory of Silver Maple, Red Maple, Shumard Oak and Sweegtum,  we found it growing alongside a variety of other woodland herb including Podophyllum peltatum, Packera glabella, Packera obovata, Viola sororia, and Erythronium albidum.

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Downy Yellow Violet

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Downy Yellow Violet

While exploring the backgrounds of northeast Texas we spotted several large clumps of Eastern Bluestar (Amsonia tabernaemontana) growing in a remnant prairie.  Scott and I stopped a moment to photograph them, and discussed what the area must have looked like before the hand of man left it forever changed.  We also pondered the possibility that prairie species like the Southern Crawfish Frog might just still hang on here.  Though I haven’t spent much time in this part of the state, I quickly gained an appreciation of just how diverse it really is.

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While most of northeast Texas remains rural and relatively undeveloped, there is little public land, and most of these populations are on private land and vulnerable. There is still hope, however.   Through conservation efforts with and by private landowners there is hope that these lovely members of our flora remains for future generations to enjoy.

The Biodiversity of the Rio Grande Valley Part 4: The Old Man of the Thornscrub

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Our last day in the Rio Grande Valley was a memorable one.  Carolina, Erin, James, and I spent the morning admiring wintering waterfowl in a shallow Resaca.  During the heat of the afternoon we found ourselves among Lady Fingers and other spined succulents.  In the evening we took a relaxing stroll to see what sort of wildlife might emerge from the dense thornscrub.

There were multiple times during the trip when the conversation between James and I turned to the Texas Tortoise (Gopherus berlandieri).  This iconic South Texas species was high on both of our lists, but thus far the lumbering reptile had evaded us.  But as the sun sank low on our final day, there it was, meandering along a line of brush foraging on just about anything it could fit in its mouth.

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The Texas Tortoise occurs in southern Texas and northeastern Mexico.  Here it can be found in a variety of habitats including desert scrub, Tamaulipan Thornscrub, and subtropical forests, grasslands and scrublands.  They feed on a variety of foods, though seem to prefer soft vegetative matter.  They are famous for gorging themselves on prickly pears.  Though they remain common in many areas, they are listed as Threatened by the State of Texas and are protected accordingly.  They face threats from habitat loss and collection for the pet trade.

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We spent close to an hour watching the antics of our states only “true” tortoise.  Armed with super telephoto lenses, we were able to observe the ancient reptile from a distance, and its behavior didn’t seem altered by our presence.  At one point it managed to get a large branch stuck on its gular projection, and spent several minutes dragging it along until it finally was able to free itself.  It then continued foraging until finally disappearing into dense grass under a canopy of mesquite.  This special encounter was the perfect ending to an incredible trip with great company.

The Biodiversity of the Rio Grande Valley Part 3: Las Estrellas del Sur

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It was of the utmost importance that we keep our eyes firmly fixed on the ground – scanning among the stones and parched earth.  Important, because we were in the realm of the Star Cactus (Astrophytum asterias), a very rare, Federally Endangered cactus of the Tamaulipan Thornscrub.  The plants themselves are often flush with the ground, look like little more than some stone or anomaly in the soil.  Their flowers, however, announce their presence to the world in spectacular fashion.  Carolina and I had looked for the Star Cactus in 2017 during a trip with my family.  While we found several plants, we did not have the good fortune to find them in bloom.  This year, however, would be different.

This year we were visiting with our good friends James and Erin Childress.  Having developed a search image during our previous trip, I began noticing a few plants scattered about.  My attention was soon diverted, however, when James and I spotted the brilliant magenta blooms of a group of Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus.  It was in that moment, as we admired a very different cactus, that Carolina called out that she had found one in flower.  Barely able to contain my excitement, I rushed to her.  It soon become evident that we had timed this visit perfectly, as the floor of the Tamaulipan Thornscrub before me was decorated with dozens of bright yellow and orange blooms.

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Though few known populations exist, where it does occur the Star Cactus can be quite abundant.  Today most of the state’s populations are protected and some are thriving.  We would be telling a very different story, however, if it weren’t for The Nature Conservancy in Texas.  Through the acquisition of land and partnerships with private landowners, The Nature Conservancy has ensured that Astrophytum asterias will not disappear from our state’s diverse flora.  In all, the Nature Conservancy through their Las Estrellas Conservation Cooperative has been able to protect over 2,500 acres of Star Cactus habitat, providing safe refuge for thousands of individuals.

Though it is promising, these successes do not mean that the Star Cactus does not still face threats to its existence.  While speaking with Sonia Najera, Grasslands Program Manager of the Nature Conservancy in Texas, she informed me that continued development adjacent to protected land is threatening A. asterias populations that have no protection.  A. asterias is also under threat from poachers who may collect plants for its popularity in cultivation, and for its resemblance to Peyote, which is extensively collected for its psychoactive properties.

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Despite the many threats that they face, I am optimistic for the future of the Star Cactus in Texas, thanks in large part to the Nature Conservancy and dedicated professionals like Sonia.

The day we spent among Las Estrellas in bloom was really the experience of a lifetime.  We observed and photographed so many spectacular plants in bloom that it was nearly impossible trying to narrow them down to decide what to post.  Below is a small selection of favorites from an unforgettable day in the field.

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The Biodiversity of the Rio Grande Valley Part 2: The Cacti

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Peyote

Spring in the Tamaulipan Thornscrub is a beautiful, albeit deceiving thing.  When the chaparro, huisachillo, and guayacan bloom above a carpet of wildflowers, its easy to forget just what a harsh, unforgiving land this can be.  I was bleeding through my jeans when I sat a moment to rest in the shade of a mesquite tree.  I don’t think that Carolina, James, or Erin had fared much better.  Despite being early March, it was pushing 90 degrees, and the sun was beating down.  After taking a long draw from my water bottle, I got up and continued my search.  I winced as I pushed through the allthorn, and felt the tasajillo spines pierce my skin.  It’s safe to say at that point my spirits weren’t at their highest.  But then I heard the voice of my wife as she called out, “I found one, with a flower!”  In that moment, pain seemed like an insignificant consideration as I pushed through the tangle of thorns that lay between me and my succulent quarry.  I saw Carolina squatting down looking at the base of a large shrub.  There, under the shade and protection of a condalia I could see the iconic Peyote in bloom.

Despite being very un-cactus like, the Peyote may be the famous of all cacti.  Once fairly common in parts of south and west Texas, decades of over-harvest, poaching, and habitat loss of significantly reduced the populations to the point that today they are a rare sight among the thornscrub.  The reason that it has been so persecuted is the psychoactive compound mescaline contained within its flesh.

In fact, Peyote is one of the most well known psychoactive plants.  It has been utilized for centuries by native peoples for both its medicinal and hallucinogenic effects. Today Peyote is a controlled substance in the United States due to its use as a recreational drug. It is, however, legal for many native tribes to harvest and consume for ritualistic purposes.  And though it may be illegal to harvest or possess, poachers continue to devastate Peyote populations to sell them on the black market.

In the United States Peyote is known only from extreme southern and western Texas. Here it occurs in desert scrub and arid brushland, typically growing beneath dense shrubs. It is one of three spineless cacti in Texas. We were lucky enough to observe some in bloom on an extensive private ranch in the Tamaulipan Thornscrub of South Texas, with the help of our dear friends Toby Hibbits and Connor Adams.

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Peyote

In our pursuit of Peyote we observed several other species growing beneath the shelter of their nurse plants.  We seemed to catch the Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus (Mammillaria heyderi) in full bloom.  This small cactus grows low to the ground, and like many species with this growth habit, is very difficult to spot when not in bloom.  In the early spring a single plant may put on a dozen or more flowers, generally organized in a ring along the top of the cactus.  It occurs from Mexico through south and central Texas west across eastern and southern New Mexico into southern Arizona.

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Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus

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Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus

While the Heyder’s Pincushion Cactus may be difficult to spot when not in bloom, the Hair-covered Cactus (Mammillaria prolifera) is difficult to spot even when in flower.  This species is tiny, with individual stems not much larger than an egg, though they may occasionally form large clumps.  The Hair-covered Cactus is known in the United States only from Texas, where it occurs in only a handful of counties in southern and south-central Texas, most of them along the Rio Grande.

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Hair-covered Cactus

Though it is superficially similar to the Mammillaria prolifera, the Runyon’s Pincushion Cactus (Coryphantha pottsiana) is easily differentiate when in flower.  Like many species of cactus, the taxonomy for Coryphantha pottsiana is a bit cloudy.  It has variably been known as Coryphantha robertii, Mammillaria robertii, Mammillaria bella, Escobaria bella, Escobaria runyonii, and Escobaria emskoetteriana.  Some authorities still use the latter, though Coryphantha pottsiana seems to be more widely accepted.  The Runyon’s Pincushion Cactus is known from northern Mexico and a few Texas Counties along the Rio Grande, where it is generally uncommon.

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Runyon’s Pincushion Cactus

While the previous cacti are generally small, the Horse Crippler (Echinocactus texensis) can reach much larger proportions.  While most seem to be about the size of a basketball, we saw some that were easily 3 or 4 times as large.  They tend to occur in looser soil including sandy alluvium.  They are also frequently found growing in the open, away from nurse plants, though its likely that many plants get their start in the less hostile microclimate of a nurse plant.  Their impressive spines seem to be an effective deterrent against mammalian predators.

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Horse Crippler

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Horse Crippler

Among the most beautiful of all cacti are the hedgehog cacti of the genus Echinocereus, a few of which are endemic to the Tamaulipan Thornscrub of South Texas and northern Mexico.  This year our trip coincided with the peak bloom of Echinocereus fitchii, the Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus.  Though they are generally hard to find, in the right habitat they can be abundant, and we saw dozens, blazing the thornscrub with their pink blooms.  Like Coryphantha pottsiana and so many other cactus taxa, the taxonomy of Echinocereus fitchii is murky at best.  It is considered by many to be a subspecies of the more broadly distributed Echinocereus reichenbachii.  For anyone interested in the topic I strongly recommend reading “A hard-to-manage taxon: The Black Lace Cactus (Echinocereus fitchii ssp. albertii)“.  Though it discusses the Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus’s Federally Endangered cousin, it includes a good discussion on the taxonomy of E. fitchii and E. reichenbachii, including characteristics used to distinguish the two.

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Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus

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Fitch’s Hedgehog Cactus

In my opinion, the Lady Finger Cactus (Echinocereus pentalophus) is perhaps the most spectacular cactus native to the United States.  Confined to northern Mexico and extreme southern Texas, they can form huge mats under the shade of mesquite and other trees and large shrubs.  They have even been found growing upon protected ridges adjacent to the Laguna Madre.  Their bright blooms shine neon pink under the midday sun.

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Lady Finger Cactus

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Lady Finger Cactus

The bizarre Pencil Cactus (Echinocereus pentalophus) seems less a cactus and more a tangle of dried branches resting at the base of some thorny shrub.  That is, until it’s giant pink blooms open in the early spring and betray its presence to the world.  Unlike most other members of its genus, the Pencil Cactus produces a massive tuberous roots that aid in water storage.

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Pencil Cactus

The highlight our South Texas cactus hunt, however, was finding the Federally Endangered Star Cactus (Astrophytum asterias) in peak bloom, an experience which I will share in my next blog post.

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Star Cactus