Ladies on the Prairie

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Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses

Target Species: Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum).

Fingers of prairie penetrate central and eastern Texas like roots in the form of the Blackland Prairies and pockets of grasslands in the Pineywoods, Post Oak Savannah, and Edward’s Plateau.  In scattered areas within these prairies, where the soil conditions are just right, the fall air is filled with the sweet fragrance of the Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum).  From mid October through November, spirals of delicate white flowers push their way through a sea of prairie grasses and deliver their aroma to the wind.

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Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses

Commonly referred to as ladies’ tresses, the genus  Spiranthes is named in reference to the spiral arrangement of  flowers along the inflorescence.  Spiranthes orchids are a confusing group to identify, particularly those of the Spiranthes cernua complex, to which the Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses belongs.  There are, however, several ways to differentiate S. magnicamporum from the much more common and widespread S. cernua, which I will outline below.

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Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses

The first, most readily observable difference is in the habitat.  Spiranthes cernua is fairly catholic in its preference, occurring in a variety of disturbed habitats including moist roadside ditches, utility right-of-ways, fallow fields, and even residential lawns.  Spiranthes magnicamporum, however, occurs under much more specific conditions.  In Texas they generally occur in prairies with soils that are both alkaline (basic) and calcareous (composed of calcium carbonate).  They can tolerate dryer conditions, and can be found on exposed outcrops of limestone and sandstone.

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Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses

Another difference is in the fragrance.  While S. cernua has little to no odor, S. magnicamporum is intensely fragrant.  It gives off a rich scent of coumarin which can sometimes be detected before the plant is seen.  In fact, as I photographed some of these orchids from several feet away I enjoyed the pleasant aroma filling the air.

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Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses

There are some that will say that a careful examination of the seeds is required to differentiate S. cernua and S. magnicamporum.  There are, however, several morphological aspects of the plant and its flowers that are often used to identify S. magnicamporum in the field.  In general, S. magnicamporum appears more robust, with a thicker stem and slightly larger flowers.  The lateral sepals of S. magnicamporum are generally spreading, and arch above the rest of the flower, especially as the blooms age.  In S. cernua, the sepals are adpressed, held tightly against the rest of the flower.  The lip of S. magnicamporum is also slightly elongated and thickened.  The lip of S. magnicamporum also displays a faint yellow wash, in contrast with the typically pure white lip of S. cernua.  See the photo of Spiranthes cernua below for comparison.

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Spiranthes cernua taken in November 2016.

Carolina and I first looked for Spiranthes magnicamporum in a number of Weches Outcrops in East Texas.  Having no luck there, the next day we traveled to a series of sandstone outcrops in the Blackland Prairie in East-Central Texas.  Here we found them to be quite common, but only in areas where the underlying sandstone approached the surface.  It was quite a treat to see them growing directly on exposed sandstone alongside a variety of cacti and yucca.  The Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses are frost hardy, with reports of blooming as late (early?) as January.  Indeed, the night before we set out had dipped into the low 30s, yet the flowers remained fresh and fragrant.  Searching for these lovely orchids among the prairie with my wife was the perfect way to spend a brisk fall day.  As we headed back to the dense forests of the Pineywoods we marveled at prairie skyscape, painted pink and orange by the setting sun.

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Great Plains Ladies’ Tresses

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)

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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