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.

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

One in the Hand, Two in Tobusch

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Tobusch Fishhook Cactus

This past weekend I spoke at the Native Plant Society of Texas Spring Symposium about photographing the biodiversity of Texas.  The symposium was in Austin, and happened to occur during the blooming period of the Federally Endangered Tobusch Fishhook Cactus (Sclerocactus brevihamatus ssp. tobuschii).  Though the cacti do not occur particularly close to Austin, it was the closest we would get for the foreseeable future, so Carolina and I decided we would stay an extra night in the Hill Country and try for the cactus the day after the symposium.

We arrive in Austin on Friday afternoon and took the day to explore the city.  While big cities are certainly not my thing, I really enjoyed visiting the Texas State Capitol building.  Plumes of Cedar Waxwings danced and buzzed among the many trees that decorated the capitol lawn and the redbuds were just coming into bloom.  Inside we marveled at the architecture and artwork, and took in the history of the place.

Saturday we rose early and made our way to the symposium.  We thoroughly enjoyed the event.  I saw some old friends and met a lot of friendly, interesting people.  The symposium was over by 3 or so, so Carolina and I took some time to explore the area.  Early spring wildflowers were just coming into bloom and Texas Spiny Lizards (Sceloporus olivaceus) were out basking on the limestone, though they did not take kindly to our approach.

In one of the many tributaries of the Colorado River we spotted a pair of Texas Map Turtles (Graptemys versa).  The Texas Map Turtle is one of a number of species of turtles endemic to central Texas.  This beautiful, fascinating species is restricted to the Colorado River basin.  The females are significantly larger than the males, and each sex has specialized head morphology to utilize different food sources.  Males feed primarily on aquatic insect larvae and other invertebrates, while adult females feed primarily on mollusks, shell and all.  We spotted the pair basking on some rocks, but the tiny male soon sank into the cool clear water.  The female allowed a slow approach as she took in the warmth of an early spring afternoon.

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Texas Map Turtle

That evening we made our way to San Antonio.  I wanted to show Carolina some of the old Spanish and German architecture of the city, and we would be closer to the cacti.  We spent some time exploring downtown, and grabbed a hotel on the outskirts of town.  The next morning we slept in.  Generally speaking, cacti flowers open midday in order to take advantage of the peak of pollinator activity.  Our destination was an hour and a half or so west of the Alamo City.  The path took us through the scenic country of the western Edwards Plateau, over oak and juniper hilltops, and down through rocky river valleys, where crystal clear water cut through limestone.

We finally arrived at a Tobusch Fishhook Cactus population that I had access to.  We began exploring.  It wasn’t long until I spotted the first cactus, and it was in bloom!  They were smaller than I had expecting, most being only a few inches across.  This cryptic species is extremely difficult to spot when not in bloom.  In late winter/early spring, however, they bloom, and their striking, albeit tiny, yellow flowers make them ever so slightly more conspicuous.

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Tobusch Fishhook Cactus

The story of the Tobusch Fishhook Cactus is an interesting one.  In the late 1970s there were only four known populations in two Texas counties.  In 1978 a flood hit and wiped out half of these populations in one fell swoop.  Fearing that S. brevihamatus ssp. tobuschii would soon be lost forever, the government afforded them protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1979, designated them a Federally Endangered Species.  At the time that it was listed it was believed to be restricted to limestone ledges and gravelly stream terraces adjacent to streams in just two Texas Counties.

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Tobusch Fishhok Cactus Flowers

Once it was listed, survey and conservation efforts were undertaken in earnest.  In the following decades several new populations were discovered, including many on protected land.  It also became evident that its habitat preferences were not as narrow as previously thought.  Today we know that it also occurs in shallow soils over slabs of limestone within clearings within a broader matrix of oak-juniper and oak-juniper-pinyon woodlands.  Many of these areas are well away from streams and their associated floodplains and terraces.

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Tobusch Fishhook Cactus

Armed with the knowledge that this diminutive cactus is doing better than previously thought, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed to downlist the Tobusch Fishhook Cactus from Endangered to Threatened in December 2016.  While this Texas endemic may be more common than initially thought, it still faces very real threats, and a number of historic populations have become extirpated, including the original populations at the time of listing.  Even in the face of these threats, today the future for this subspecies looks promising.

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Tobusch Fishhook Cactus

That day we would see many Tobusch Fishhooks, most of them in bloom.  In the sunny warmth of that spring afternoon the pollinators were out in force.  We watched as a variety of butterflies and bees bounced from flower to flower in search of the sweet nectar within.  Perhaps my favorite of these propagators were the metallic green sweat bees (Agopostemon sp.).  Their brilliant metallic sheen added the perfect compliment to the greenish yellow blooms of the cacti.

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Metallic Sweat Bee

The title of today’s blog comes from my good friend Toby Hibbitts.  Many of my friends enjoy a good pun as much as anyone should.  Last year after a friend posted a photo of the Tobusch Fishhook Cactus, Toby commented that he had always heard that “a bird in the hand is worth two in Tobusch”.  He was undoubtedly, and understandably pleased with himself.  I can only hope that this species persists for future generations of cactus lovers, naturalists, pollinators, weevils, and bad pun lovers to enjoy.

Living Rocks, Golf Balls, and Other Strangely Named Cacti of the Trans-Pecos.

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Living Rock Cactus

Target Species:

Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus ornatus)

Button Cactus (Epithelantha micromeris)

Lacespine Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria lasiacantha)

Living Rock Cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus)

The landscape of Big Bend is striking for its vastness; famous for its sweeping views that stretch from horizon to horizon, and seemingly beyond.  Stepping into this rugged wilderness, one is immediately hit with the harshness of this land.  Brutal conditions created by lack of rainfall and extreme temperatures.  It is easy to think that this seemingly inhospitable land  would be devoid of life, but despite its harshness it is incredibly diverse, harboring a rich flora and fauna unlike anywhere else on the planet.  And as remarkable as this vastness is, equally astounding is the beauty and variety that can be found in just one small patch of the desert floor.

Big Bend, that large peninsula of Texas that dips down into Mexico as it follow a bend in the Rio Grande, has the greatest cactus diversity in the country.  It was that diversity that brought Carolina and I to the region this October.  Specifically we were hoping to find the Living Rock Cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus) in bloom.

Big Bend is part of the Chihuahuan Desert.  It is the highest, wettest desert in North America, and the most biodiverse in the world.  The Big Bend Region includes a multitude of natural and cultural attractions, including Big Bend National Park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, and Terlingua.  We planned to explore these areas in pursuit of our succulent quarries, and hoped that our pursuit would bring with it other natural wonders.

Cactus hunting is not without its hazards.  Aside from the obvious risk of an errant spine in the skin, there are other denizens of cactus country that pack a punch.  One such inhabitant is the Black-tailed Rattlesnake (Crotalus ornatus).  Yet despite this creatures fearsome reputation as a venomous marauder, it is one of the most docile snake species I have had the good fortune to encounter.

As I scoured a rock cut in search of spiny succulents, my eyes caught a familiar outline – a striking (as in attractive) Crotalus ornatus coiled at the mouth of a deep crevice in the limestone.  It was sitting, I presumed, waiting for some unsuspecting rodent to wander within its grasp.  Generally speaking, I think that the threat of rattlesnakes to your average desert-goer is greatly exaggerated, however seeing this beauty hidden away in the perfect hand or foot hold certainly reinforced the old adage “look before you step”.  The photo below depicts the animal as I found it.

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Black-tailed Rattlesnake

After spending a few moments with the black-tail I continued my search for cacti.  After a moment I heard Carolina call out that she had found something.  How she spotted them, I’ll never know, but she had found a population of the diminutive Button Cactus (Epithelantha micromeris).  This diminutive cactus seldom protrudes more than 2 inches above the rocky substrate it calls home.  It occurs primarily in Mexico, but also throughout much of West Texas, southern New Mexico, and extreme southeastern Arizona.

Though they were not in flower, I found these small, rock-like cacti to be quite photogenic.  They flower primarily in late winter and early spring.  Later in the year an elongated red fruit appears.  Caro likened the fruit to a particular part of an excited dog’s anatomy.

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Button Cactus

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Button Cactus

Nestled in a few populations along the Pecos/Brewster County line, one may find a particularly formidable looking cactus.  The Icicle Cholla (Cylindropuntia tunicata) is a wide ranging species, occurring in deserts throughout much of Latin America.  In the United States, however, it is known only from these few places in the Trans-Pecos of Texas.  Admiring the afternoon light filtering through its intimidating spines, it was easy to see how it earned its common name.

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Icicle Cactus

After a long day of travelling and exploring we finally made it to Marathon, but not before stopping at an extensive Black-tailed Prairie Dog town, where we admired their antics as the day began to fade.  We made our camp in Marathon, and I found myself deep in thought as we laid in our sleeping bags looking up at the twinkling wonder of space.  Along with the prerequisite existential questions inspired by such a vista, I pondered on the days to come, and the natural wonders that awaited us.

The next morning I spotted a remarkable creature on the stucco outside the campground’s bathrooms.  It was a male Chihuahuan Agapema (Agapema dyari).  A lovely member of the giant silkmoth family (Saturniidae).  I gently moved it to a nearby tree trunk, where I hoped it would be less obvious to the hoard of House Sparrows that were scouring the area.

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Chihuahuan Agapema

As the sun warmed the desert we broke our condensation-laden camp and set out for Big Bend National Park.  As we crossed into the park we immediately took notice of the diverse cactus community.  The most obvious were the abundant clumps of Strawberry Cactus (Echinocereus stramineus), the heavily armed Eagle’s Claw Cactus (Echinocactus horizonthalonius), and the ubiquitous prickly pears (Opuntia spp.).

Finding the smaller, more cryptic species, took a bit more work.  We found the Lacespine Nipple Cactus (Mammillaria lasiacantha) to be quite common.  Also known as the Golf Ball Cactus, this tiny succulent is quite similar to the Button Cactus.  Cacti of Texas, A Field Guide by Powell, et. al discusses some of the differences.

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Lacespine Nipple Cactus

The real reason for our trip, however, was to try to catch the Living Rock Cactus (Ariocarpus fissuratus) in bloom.  This bizarre cactus is, in my opinion, one of the most spectacular plants in the country.  Hardly recognizable as a cactus, it is spineless, and consists of rough tubercles arranged in concentric rings around a center of soft fuzz.

For most of the year the dull green to gray Living Rock blends perfectly with the scattered stones that litter its limestone home, relying on camouflage rather than piercing spines for defense.  For a few short weeks in the fall, however, the limestone hills of the Trans-Pecos explode with color as thousands upon thousands of Living Rocks open their bright pink blooms to the world.

It was just such a scene that I was hoping Carolina and I would encounter in Big Bend.  We were soon to find, however, that finding these jewels of the Chihuahuan Desert in bloom would be far more difficult than we anticipated.  We spent all day scouring limestone ridges, bluffs along the Rio Grande, and flats in the low desert.  We jumped for joy when we found our first plant.  We knew we were were in the right area.  Even without their blooms, the Living Rock is a beautiful, bizarre plant and photographic subject.

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Living Rock Cactus

The desert sun is relentless, even in mid October.  Our spirits refreshed by finding our first Living Rock, we pushed on, scouring the bleached white limestone hills as the temperatures flirted with 100 degrees.  It was truly brutal, but we knew that the payoff of seeing the blooms would be well worth our suffering.  After several hours, and several hundred more Living Rocks sighted, however, the blooms did not come.  We were dismayed.  We had become proficient at spotting the near invisible cacti on the desert floor, but despite finding so many individuals in several different areas, we did not find a single bloom.  I began to think that this would not be the trip that we would see the exquisite flowers of Ariocarpus fissuratus.

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Living Rock Cactus

That night we hoped to camp in the park, but alas, all of the campgrounds were full.  We debated between staying at a primitive campsite along a backcountry road, or driving to the campground in Study Butte.  In the end we opted for the latter, and made the drive from the Rio Grande to Study Butte in the darkness, with nothing but the Common Poorwhills, Black-tailed Jackrabbits, and Western Diamondbacks to keep us company.

When we arrived at the campground, the attendant informed us that there was a party going on that would last well into the night, and recommended that we select a site on the other  side of the property.  We happily agreed.  We made camp, ate dinner, and settled in for the evening.  The “party” turned out to be a music festival that blared across the desert until after 1 am, after which the multitude of bikers attending continued to keep us awake for at least another hour.  Finally, at some point in the wee hours before dawn we drifted off.

We were awoken around 6 am to gale force wind violently shaking our tent.  The temperature had dropped by tens of degrees, and as we stepped out from behind the nylon the air met us with a chill.  I must admit, as I broke camp with powerful wind gusts and stinging dust beating down on me, I was hating life.  “Not every trip can be a success,” I reminded myself, and I tried to take solace in the incredible organisms we had thusfar encountered, and the memories we had created.  In that moment, however, it was hard to do.

We decided to spend the morning and early afternoon exploring the area, before beginning our long journey back to the Pineywoods.  The habitat at our first stop looked promising, but after a lack of blooms the previous day, I took care not to get my hopes up.  We soon saw our first Living Rock, like a star etched into the talus.  I found myself once again admiring their bizarre firm when I heard Carolina shout out in glee.  I knew.  The memory of the brutal previous night faded as I made my way to her, and saw the bright pink bloom seemingly emerging from nothing.  We did it.  It was not long before we found another, and another.

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Living Rock Cactus

The Living Rock is one of three spineless cacti in Texas.  Their lack of spines means that they must rely on camouflage to avoid predation.  They also contain foul-tasting alkaloids which likely deter would be predators.  These alkaloids, however, have made this plant popular with the Tarahumara and other early tribes and settlers.  Though they do not contain mescaline like the similarly spineless Peyote, they contain other mildly hallucinogenic compounds like hordenine, and were reportedly used as a substitute when preferable psychoactive cacti weren’t available.  Hordenine also made the Living Rock useful for a number of medicinal purposes, including a disinfectant for wounds and burns.

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Living Rock Cactus

Ariocarpus fissuratus is  endemic to the Chihuahuan Desert.  They barely enter the U.S. in West Texas.  They are incredibly tough, even for a cactus.  We found that they would grow in the harshest parts of the landscape, often where even other succulents could not survive.  They owe their success to their uncanny capacity to store water, and their ability to shrivel away to virtually nothing in times of extreme drought.  Indeed, they often times seem to be more stone than plant.  Carolina and I admired them for some time, and reluctantly bid them farewell, content with the short moment in time we were fortunate enough to spend among their fleeting blooms.

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Living Rock Cactus

There are some songs that serve to inspire us and remind of of those things in this world that are most important to us.  For me, one such song is Stubborn Love by the Lumineers, and it came up on the playlist just as the Chisos Mountains began to fade in our rearview.  I looked about the desert that stretched beyond the horizons around us, and I was filled with a sense of contentment.  It’s easy to feel sad at the end of a great trip, but I take comfort in the fact that no matter where I am, if nature is near there is some great wonder waiting to be discovered.

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.

Agalinis maritima

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

 

Purple People Eater

Target Species: Purple Bladderwort (Utricularia purpurea)

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Purple Bladderwort

This is one I have wanted to see for a long time.  Utricularia purpurea is an aquatic, carnivorous plant that inhabits much of the Eastern United States.  It barely enters Texas in the extreme southeast portion of the state, where it is rare.  I suspect that very few people have seen the Purple Bladderwort here, as the few known populations are not particularly easy to access.  Pursuing the photographs seen here was a true adventure, and the highlight of my 2017 quest for biodiversity thus far.

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Purple Bladderwort

The Purple Bladderwort has a peculiar distribution, not unlike that of another species on my 2017 list, the Blue Lupine.  In the case of the bladderwort I suspect that its distribution can somewhat be explained by the presence of appropriate wetlands in the Gulf and Atlantic coastal plains, and in glacially formed depressions in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions.

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County-level distribution of Utricularia purpurea from http://www.bonap.org.  Yellow counties indicate that the species is present but rare.

To see this rarity, I once again called on the good people of the Nature Conservancy of Texas.  Wendy Ledbetter, Forest Project Manager, told me that U. purpurea had been reported from a series of flatwood ponds on one of the properties they protect.  It was, in fact, very close to where I photographed Streptanthus hyacinthoides a few weeks ago.  She was kind enough to take time from her busy schedule to meet me one morning and show me the areas where it had been reported.  She brought me to two spectacular flatwoods ponds.  We were unsure if any of the elusive carnivores would be in bloom, but sure enough, after minimal effort I spotted one, then another, then another.

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Purple Bladderwort

After showing me around for a couple of hours in the morning, Wendy had to leave to tend to other engagements.  I thanked her profusely, both for her time and consideration, and for the fine work that she and her colleagues at the Nature Conservancy have done to protect so much our great state’s incredible biodiversity.  After Wendy left I returned to the ponds to try to capture some unique images of this spectacular little plant.  I was trudging through water that was mostly between 1 and 3 feet deep.  To capture some of these images I had to sit, kneel, or completely submerge myself in the water, with just my hands and camera above the surface.

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Purple Bladderwort

As previously mentioned, and eluded to in the title, Utricularia purpurea is a carnivorous plant.  It contains intricate leaves that float just below the water’s surface.  These leaves are loaded with small air-filled bladders that help keep the plant afloat.  Each bladder is equipped with a small, hair-like trigger. As tiny aquatic organisms swim by and brush against the trigger, the bladders instantly open, and as the water rushes in to occupy the vacant airspace, the organisms are sucked in.  The bladder then snaps shut, trapping them inside where they are slowly digested.  In the late spring through the summer the lavender flowers emerge from the depths.  U. purpurea is one of several species of Utricularia in Texas, but it is the only one with purple blooms.  The others are all yellow.

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Purple Bladderwort.  If you look closely you can see some of the round bladders under the water.

The flatwood ponds in which I photographed the Purple Bladderwort that day were the finest I have ever seen.  These unique aquatic communities occur in clay-bottomed depressions where over the millennia water and organic material have accumulated.  Historically they were dominated by a variety of grasses and sedges, kept free from woody encroachment by regular wildfires.  In the modern era of development and fire suppression, however, high quality examples have all but disappeared.  They have persisted on this Nature Conservancy property, however, as a result of their excellent stewardship which includes frequent burns that penetrate into the ponds.  Scattered trees, mostly Swamp Tupelo (Nyssa biflora) exist on the margins, but the centers of the pond are open for acres.

Unfortunately I did not take any photos looking toward the center of the ponds, however I did capture the photo below looking back to the margins.  I found U. purpurea to be most common among the grasses and trees along the ponds’ margins.

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Flatwoods pond margin

I spent what must have been at least 15-20 minutes lying on my belly, almost completely submerged in the water in order to get a low angle on a particularly attractive grouping of Purple Bladderworts.  After finishing I began to retrace my steps out of the pond.  As I did, I noticed something that was not there on my way in.  There was an 8-9 foot alligator laying on the bottom not 20 feet from where I was laying.  I suspect that its sudden presence was a coincidence, and that it hadn’t been slowly stalking me, but none-the-less it gave my heart a good jump.  Fortunately the water was shallow and clear, giving me a clear view of the magnificent creature, otherwise I was likely to have stepped on it.  I slowly made my way around it, and it never moved.  Though somewhat difficult to see, you can make out its head and part of its back in the photo below.

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American Alligator

The Purple Bladderwort shared its ponds with its cousin, the Humped Bladderwort (Utricularia gibba).  Like Utricularia purpurea, it also relies on the bladders of its submerged leaves to obtain nutrients from animal prey.

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Humped Bladderwort

There were several other interesting aquatic species in the flatwoods ponds, but the Floatinghearts (Nymphoides aquatica) really stood out.  It is also commonly known as the Banana Plant for its banana-shaped roots.

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Floatingheart

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Floatingheart

The flatwoods ponds were surrounded by a spectacular series of xeric sandhills occurring on ancient sand deposited by rivers as they changed course over time.  I spent some time exploring these beautiful communities, where I found a number of Eastern Prickly Pears in bloom.

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Eastern Prickly Pear blooms in a xeric sandhill

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Eastern Prickly Pear blooms in a xeric sandhill

I also took a moment to photograph the Pickering’s Dawnflower (Stylisma pickeringii), another species typical of deep sands, as it bloomed among the cacti.

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Pickering’s Dawnflower

As if all of the above wasn’t enough, in the morning Wendy and I observed this Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos) up to its anti-predator high jinks.  It spread the ribs of the anterior portion of its body creating a hood-like effect similar to that of a cobra.  This behavior has earned it the colloquial name of “spreading adder”.  Occasionally it would feign a strike, but never attempted to actually bite me.  Eastern Hognose Snakes feed primarily on toads, and have specially-adapted pointed fangs that can deflate toads that fill themselves with air in an attempt to make themselves larger to avoid being swallowed.  They also contain a mild venom that likely helps subdue their prey, though it is harmless to humans.

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Eastern Hognose Snake

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Eastern Hognose Snake

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Eastern Hognose Snake

Seeing the Purple Bladderwort and exploring these incredible habitats is an experience I will never forget.  I can’t wait to return in the future to spend more time among the carnivores (large and small) of the Big Thicket.

Another Day, Another Sandhill

Target Species: Centerville Brazos Mint (Brazoria truncata var. pulcherrima)

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Centerville Brazos Mint blooms among other rare plants in a high quality xeric sandhill

My pursuit of the Centerville Brazos Mint (Brazoria truncata var. pulcherrima brought me back to the xeric sandhills, the interesting community where I recently photographed the Smooth Jewelflower.  This time, instead of heading southeast to the Big Thicket, I traveled northeast to the transition zone between the Pineywoods and the Post Oak Savannah.  Here I found a community described by Texas Parks and Wildlife as “East-Central Texas Plains Xeric Sandyland.”

The Centerville Brazos Mint is rare.  The entirety of its range is confined to Texas, and it requires very specific conditions – deep sands with an open overstory.  These communities have declined dramatically since the colonization of Texas, and today very few high quality examples remain.  Fortunately I was able to visit some that likely appear as they did before Texas was settled.  Though they may be rare, where they occur, the Centerville Brazos Mint often thrives, forming carpets of pink over the sand.

Brazoria truncata var. pulcherrima is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) that is restricted to a handful of counties in East-Central Texas.  The genus Brazoria is named for the Brazos River, where it was first collected.  There are three species, all of which are endemic to Texas.

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Centerville Brazos Mint

Where the Centerville Brazos Mint grows, other good things are sure to be found.  A suite of rare species occur in these sandhills.  Studies of these communities have found that they contain one of the highest levels of endemism in the Western Gulf Coastal Plain.  The day I visited I found another rare Texas endemic mint blooming in profusion – the Texas Sandmint (Rhododon ciliatus).

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Texas Sandmint

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Texas Sandmint

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Texas Sandmint

I arrived early, and spent most of the day exploring the sandhills.  At around 4:30 pm I began to see flashes of deep pink.  I recognized them as the blooms of the Prairie Fameflower (Phemeranthus rugospermus).  Another rare species, it occurs in the Central U.S. from Minnesota to East-Central Texas.  It has succulent leaves, an adaptation for the drought-like conditions that occur in the deep sands that it prefers.

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Prairie Fameflower

The Prairie Fameflower is so rare that it was once considered for listing under the Endangered Species Act.  It remains endangered on many state lists.  Most of the flowers I saw were a brilliant deep pink.

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Prairie Fameflower

There were a few, however, that were a light, faded pink.  The flowers of Phemeranthus rugospermus open in the late afternoon, and only for a single day.

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Prairie Fameflower

Portions of the sandhill were carpeted by the low, creeping forbs Yellow Stonecrop (Sedum nuttallianum) and Drummond’s Nailwort (Paronychia drummondii).  In some areas the two were growing together.

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Yellow Stonecrop

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Drummond’s Nailwort

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Yellow Stonecrop

I also saw several Smooth Jewelflowers (Streptanthus hyacinthoides) in bloom.

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Smooth Jewelflower

Prickly Pears were abundant in the deep sands.  The individuals here key to Opuntia cespitosa per the new treatment of the Opuntia humifusa complex by Majure, et al.

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Prickly Pear

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Prickly Pear

These sandhills occur in isolated pockets within a broader band of Post Oak Savannah uplands.  These savannahs were beautiful and diverse in their own right.  Though I didn’t have time to explore them properly during this visit, it gives me something to look forward to on my next visit.

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Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) blooms in a Post Oak Savannah