One Perfect Spring Day

One perfect spring day, Carolina came to me and said that she wanted to go looking for dogwoods.  She had a spot in mind, near the western edge of the Pineywoods.  My response, unsurprisingly, was an eager “let’s go!”.  So we set out into the woods, and what we found was a beautiful spring paradise beyond anything I could have expected.  Seeing Flowering Dogwood, with its blossom laden branches painting the forest understory in white, is reward enough for a day’s wanderings.  But the dogwoods were just a precursor to the botanical, entomological, and mycological treasures to be discovered.

Deep in the forest we came across a gentle slope in the mesic floodplain of a small stream.  My attention was immediately captured by a sea of Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum) leaves.  Scattered Golden Groundsel (Packera obovata) blooms rose from beneath the surface, adding a splash of yellow to the forest floor.  It was a beautiful scene for certain.

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Vernal Forest

But the true treasures of this forest were revealed on closer examination.  Carolina spotted the leaves of White Trout Lily (Erythronium albidum), and Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum biflorum), scattered low to the ground.  Both species are quite rare in Texas.  Moving further upslope, I began noticing more interesting blooms, including scattered colonies of Ozark Milkvetch (Astragalus distortus), Violet Woodsorrel (Oxalis violacea), and Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis), also known as Wood Betony.

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Ozark Milkvetch

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Violet Woodsorrel

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Lousewort

On the slopes drier upper reaches I encountered a couple of species that are much more common further west, where chalky, calcium rich soils are more common.  There were several Prairie Celestials (Nemastylis geminimflora) blooming alongside Nuttall’s Death Camas, which was still in tight bud.

Though it superficially resemble a lily, and is often called the “Celestial Lily”, Nemastylis geminiflora is, in fact, a member of the Iris family.  They thrive on calcium rich soils, and as the soils of the Pineywoods are generally acidic, they are seldom encountered here.  Finding them alongside the calciphilic Toxicoscordion nuttallii, communicated to me that we were dealing with a calcareous forest, and that other interesting things were likely near.

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Prairie Celestial

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Prairie Celestial

While I was admiring some blooming thing, Caro called out that she had found what is, in my opinion, a serious contender for the most beautiful animal in the country: the Luna Moth (Actias luna).  Seeing one of these massive silkworm moths in the wild is an experience not easily forgotten, and each encounter leaves me awestruck.  This striking male had clearly just emerged from its pupa, where it overwintered hidden among the leaf litter at the base of a large shortleaf pine.

It was a male, as evidenced by its large, feathery antennae.  It was no doubt awaiting nightfall, when it would take to the air in search of a female’s pheromone trail.  The females advertise their location using these chemical cues, and males will fly all night to find them.  It seems a tragic tale, as both sexes are born without feeding mouth parts, and live only for a week or so.  Their only purpose is to find a mate so that they may parent the next generation of Luna Moths.

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Luna Moth

When I had my lens trained on a different flower, Carolina called out that she had found an interesting fungus.  And she had.  I had heard that the elusive holy grail of fungi could be found in East Texas, but in nearly two decades of wandering I had never seen one.  That all changed this day.  Caro had found a Pineywoods morel.  More specifically, a Yellow Morel (Morchella esculenta).

Morels may be THE most sought after wild edible in the country.  Though common in some areas, they seem quite scarce in East Texas.  I had long dreamed of finding and photographing one, but the possibility hadn’t crossed my mind as we set out that morning.  These mushrooms are renowned for their rich flavor, and there is no way of knowing how many thousands of pounds are harvested each year.  It is said that this harvest is not harmful to the plant, as only the above ground reproductive structure of the organism is removed.  This is true in a sense, however removing them prior to the release of spores can still impact local populations.  Due to their unique beauty and scarcity in the region, I could not bring myself to pick any, and after capturing their likeness , I left them to the forest.

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Yellow Morel

After returning from an incredible day, Caro drafted a narrative of the mushrooms’ discovery which sums up a common interaction in such situations.  I share it here, as a tribute to one perfect spring day.

Loving the idea of helping him because it means he needs me I always keep my eyes wide open to any opportunity. I have good sight, but those were hard to recognize because they look similar to the leaves on the ground. Suddenly, I could recognize them; they were those fungi that he loves. I start to talk to him, well, interrupting him from the shooting. Like any other husband in this world, he starts to sound interrupted and makes noises right before the question: what is it?! After, breaking the special connection man-plant I could explain myself, but still wife-annoyed and mumbling secret words to the universe he knelt and asked again: what is it? But this time with a resigning attitude and makes an effort to not rise the voice, so I couldn’t detect the obvious and by using husband-diplomacy; he said “what?”. It took me a moment to make him understand what I was talking about and even longer to show the respective subjects. Then, he jumped and started to claim this species was something he always wanted to see and take photos, so the mystic connection moment restarted again.
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Yellow Morels

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.

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.

April Recap

April was off to a good start.  I managed to check off five species early on, and had high hopes for the rest of the month.  Unfortunately I couldn’t keep up the momentum and was unable to find any of my targets in April’s second half.  I tried to locate Clasping Jewelflower (Streptanthus maculatus), Creeping Bluestar (Amsonia repens) and Texas Lady’s Tresses (Spiranthes brevilabris) at some historic sites with no luck.  I hoped to check some locations in northeast Texas for Tapertip Trillium (Trillium viridescens), Fire Pink (Silene virginica), and Downy Yellow Violet (Viola pubescens), but was unable to make it that way.  I doubt that I’ll get a chance to see these species this year…maybe next year!  The following are the species on my 2017 biodiversity list I was able to find and photograph in April:

Missouri Foxtail Cactus (Escobaria missouriensis)

Nuttall’s Death Camas (Toxicoscordion nuttallii)

Widow’s Cross (Sedum pulchellum)

Blue Lupine (Lupinus perennis)

Green Adder’s Mouth Orchid (Malaxis unifolia)

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The following are some interesting observations I made in April:

I’ll start this post like March’s recap, with a giant Saturniid moth.  For me, seeing this Promethea Moth (Callosamia promethea) was one of the most exciting of the year thus far.  The Promethea Moth is a species typical of the rich deciduous forests of the Eastern U.S. Though range maps show it entering extreme eastern Texas, I am aware of few records of its occurrence in the state. I certainly have never seen one.  Pictured is a female. Promethea Moths are sexually dimorphic, with males being much darker. I spent some time photographic her in all of her brilliance, and left her to continue pumping pheromones into the evening air, leaving chemical trails for males to seek her out and propagate future generations.

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Promethea Moth

In April I also found a few new populations of the uncommon Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica) on the rich deciduous slopes of the Pineywoods.

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Indian Pink

While looking for the Kentucky Lady’s Slipper we came across this attractive Three-toed Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina triunguis).  Most box turtles immediately withdraw into their shells when approached.  This individual was fairly bold and allowed us to approach for some portraits.

Box Turtles have an interesting relationship with Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum), a spring ephemeral of rich eastern forests.  These terrestrial turtles are the primary dispersal mechanism for Mayapple seeds.  Most parts of the plant are toxic, however the ripe fruits are edible.  While other animals will consume, process, and deposit the seeds; studies have shown that those that have passed through the digestive system of the box turtle have the highest rate of germination.  Indeed, the drooping fruits seem to rest at a perfect height for a hungry box turtle.

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Three-toed Box Turtle

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Mayapple taken in March 2014

While exploring the Big Thicket we came across the uncommon Piedmont Staggerbush (Lyonia mariana).  A member of the heath family (Ericaceae).

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Piedmont Staggerbush

Carolina spotted this White-eyed Vireo (Vireo griseus) dutifully incubating its eggs.

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White-eyed Vireo

The Carolina Larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) is Carolina’s favorite Texas native flower.  Every year we seek them out.  This year we found a large population in a xeric sandhill north of San Augustine.  We also observed several Prairie Milkvines (Matelea cynanchoides), another species typical of these woodlands on deep sands.

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Carolina Larkspur

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Prairie Milkvine

We also spent an afternoon in a Fleming Prairie Remnant, where I photographed the Reflexed or Topeka Coneflower (Echinacea atrorubens), and Prairie Penstemon (Penstemon cobaea), two species that are rare in the Pineywoods.

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Reflexed Coneflower

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Prairie Penstemon

I hope to focus on the unique flora and fauna of xeric sandhills and prairie remnants in future blog posts.  As the temperatures warm in May I hope that I will finally be able to check the first animal species off my list, though there are still plenty of plants to seek out, and special places to explore.

 

 

March Recap

Due to a combination of changed plans and other factors, March was not as productive in terms of 2017 biodiversity goal species as I was expecting.  I was able to check off three species:

Yellowroot (Xanthorhiza simplicissima)

Blue Curls (Phacelia congesta)

Claret Cup Cactus (Echinocereus coccineus)

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I spent most of the month of March exploring outside my home turf of the Pineywoods.  From the South Texas Plains to the Edward’s Plateau, I observed an incredible diversity of habitats and species, which are highlighted in previous blog posts.  I did however get to spend some time in the field around here.  To follow are some of March’s highlights from East Texas.

This year has been good for Luna Moths (Actias luna).  I observed several freshly emerged males.  Males utilize their feathery antennae to pick up subtle pheromone cues from females and may fly miles to find a mate.  Adult Luna Moths lack feeding mouth parts, and live on average about a week.  As adults they really are driven by a singular purpose: to breed.

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Luna Moth

March is a great time to enjoy flowering trees and shrubs in East Texas.  This year most species put on a decent show.  The Eastern Redbud (Cercis canadensis) seemed to peak in late February, however several were still in flower in early March.

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Eastern Redbud

Among my favorite spring displays is that of the Flowering Dogwood (Cornus florida).  This small tree ranges throughout much of the eastern United States.  To me it is one of the emblematic spring blooms of East Texas.  Christian accounts claim that Jesus was crucified on the wood of a dogwood tree.  Story goes that they were once tall, stately trees that Jesus, following his crucifixion, morphed to their current gnarled form – presumably so no others could ever again be crucified upon their wood. Their “flowers” now appear as crosses each spring around Easter.

In reality the white “flowers” are modified leaves called bracts. The flowers are the yellow structures at the bracts’ centers.  In the late summer the tree will bear red fruits that are cherished by wild turkeys.  I also think that their growth form only lends beauty to this already stunning species.

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Flowering Dogwood

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Flowering Dogwood

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Flowering Dogwood in the understory of a longleaf pine savannah

The Fringetrees (Chionanthus virginicus) seem to hit their peak as the dogwoods are beginning to fade.  Their wispy, whitish green blooms light up the forest edge and the understory in open woods.

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Fringetree

Dangling like little snowdrops are the blooms of the Two-winged Silverbell (Halesia diptera).  These attractive little trees are often found along streams and in moist stream bottoms.

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Two-winged Silverbell

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Two-winged Silverbell

Azaleas are a favorite of gardeners and nature lovers alike.  In East Texas the Hoary Azalea (Rhododendron canescens) reaches the southwestern extent of its range.

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Hoary Azalea

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Hoary Azalea

I couldn’t resist photographing a particularly large Sabine River Wakerobin (Trillium gracile).  This lovely trillium is endemic to rich forests in the Pineywoods of East Texas and western Louisiana.

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Sabine River Wakerobin

Another springtime favorite of mine is the Mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum).  This characteristic spring ephemeral of eastern forests can form large colonies in East Texas, often carpeting the forest floor.  The fluffy white blooms hang below the large umbrella like leaves.  Occasionally, as pictured below, the flowers may have a pink tinge to them.

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Mayapple

Though I photographed a few in February, I couldn’t resist stopping to photograph some roadside populations of Birdfoot Violets (Viola pedata) in early March.

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Birdfoot Violets

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Birdfoot Violet

Also common along roadways and dry, open woods is the Plains Wild Indigo (Baptisia bracteata).

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Plains Wild Indigo

I photographed this Yellow Star-Grass (Hypoxis hirsuta) with fresh morning dew still clinging to the bloom.

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Yellow Star-Grass

Another characteristically eastern forb that reaches its southwestern extent in East Texas is the Lousewort (Pedicularis canadensis).  Most of the flowers in Texas are yellow, however I have occasionally observed them with hints of maroon.  Lousewort is reported to provide a plethora of medical uses.  It’s roots have long been used to brew a tea that helps treat digestive and stomach problems and ulcers.  Its leaves can also reportedly be ground into a poultice that helps alleviate swelling, muscle pain, and several skin conditions.  Drinking its leaves in a tea is said to sooth sore throats, coughs, and headaches.  It is also said to act as a powerful aphrodisiac.

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Lousewort

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Lousewort

The beautiful Big Thicket Phlox (Phlox pulcherrima) is endemic to the forests of East Texas.  Like so many other species in this area of significant habitat modification by man, it is now most common along roadsides.

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Big Thicket Phlox

The Nodding Penstemon (Penstemon laxiflorus) is also common along roadsides.  It is so common that I never gave it much thought as a photographic subject, however this native has truly unique, beautiful flowers when viewed up close.

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Nodding Penstemon

During March I also made a few visits to the Big Thicket to check on a species that I checked off my list in February: The Federally Endangered Texas Trailing Phlox (Phlox nivalis ssp. texensis).  The plants were looking healthy and were still blooming mid-March.

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Texas Trailing Phlox

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Texas Trailing Phlox

Growing near the phlox I saw several Dollarleafs (Rhynchosia reniformis), a species of the coastal plain of the southeastern United States.

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I’ll close out this March recap with a beautiful scene from a longleaf pine savannah near one of the few known locations of Texas Trailing Phlox.  Here Rose Mock Vervain (Glandularia canadensis) thrives following a fire.  These showy blooms are a testament to fire’s ability to maintain and vitalize certain vegetative communities.

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With March of 2017 behind us, it’s time to move into April, where I hope to really start get going on my 2017 list of biodiversity goals.

 

Are we in East Texas or Appalachia?

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False Rue Anemone

I’m going to break my own rule again and make a post that is not about a species on my 2017 list of biodiversity goals to tell you about what may be, in my opinion, the nicest patch of forest in all of Texas.  A couple of years ago Carolina and I were fortunate enough to meet Susan and Viron through a mutual friend.  We joined them on a hike through the Sabine National Forest and it became clear that we were meant to be friends.  They shared our love for exploring wild places.  During our hike they talked about the property they owned in East Texas.  They mentioned some plants that they had on their property including bloodroot and trout lily, and naturally my ears perked up.  We parted ways with a promise to explore their land to see what other treasures it might hold.

We got our chance the next spring, and visited them at their home – a log cabin that they built themselves – nestled on a high ridge overlooking a steep, scenic slope.  As we approached the house I could already begin seeing drifts of Yellow Trout Lily (Erythronium rostratum) and clumps of Sabine River Wakerobin (Trillium gracile).  After visiting for a while we set out to explore.

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A mesic calcareous slope on private land rich in spring ephemeral forbs that are rare in Texas. Taken in March 2016

They took us down a trail that lead away from the house.  It climbed to the top of a hill covered in Mayapple (Podphyllum peltatum), and as we crested the ridge I was not prepared for the view that lay before me.  I saw a steep slope that was literally carpeted with thousands of spring ephemeral herbs that were flowering in spectacular profusion.  Thousands of Yellow Trout Lilies and Cutleaf Toothworts (Cardamine concactenata) had opened their blooms.  Both species are rare in Texas.  The scene seemed more appropriate for the slopes of the Great Smoky or Blue Ridge Mountains than East Texas.

There was also a species growing among them that I did not immediately recognize.  It turned out to be False Rue Anemone (Enemion biternatum), and I was unsure if it had been previously documented in Texas.  After returning home that evening I sent an e-mail to Jason Singhurst, the state botanist with TPWD and began doing a little research.  It turned out to be the second documented population in the state.  Having found the only other population, Jason was anxious to get out and explore the property to document this population and see what else this wonderful land might harbor.

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False Rue Anemone

He got his chance a couple of days ago on a warm, rainy spring day.  Jason and a group of excellent botanists joined me on the property, and while it rained on and off throughout the day, I could not find it in me to complain about the weather.  To me, days like this are the epitome of spring in the eastern forests.  Like me, Jason and the others could not believe their eyes.  After arriving we soon located the False Rue Anemone which was blooming by the thousands.

The mesic, calcareous slopes turned out to be far more extensive than I originally thought, stretching for acres across the property.  Perhaps the most dominant spring ephemeral forb was the Yellow Trout Lily, which had sent up hundreds of thousands of leaves.  While there were several blooms they remained closed throughout the day, as they only open under warm, bright conditions.  Fortunately I was able to photograph this species at the site the previous year.  Yellow Trout Lily is rare in Texas, known only from a few high quality mesic forests.  It is one of a few yellow-flowered in Eastern North America.  It is easily differentiated by the others by its erect flowers and tepals (combination of petals and sepals) that are not reflexed.

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Yellow Trout Lily. Taken in March 2016

Perhaps even more rare than the Yellow Trout Lily is the Cutleaf Toothwort.  It too was blooming by the thousands here.  This rare member of the mustard family (Brassicaceae) is a typical flower of eastern deciduous forests that is only known from a few locations in Texas.  It is one of the hosts for the Falcate Orangetip (Anthocharis midea).  Though we saw many of these beautiful butterflies during our visit, they were impossible to photograph as they refused to pause while bouncing from flower to flower in their quest for nectar.

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Cutleaf Toothwort. Taken in March 2016

Several flowering groups of Wild Blue Phlox (Phlox divaricata) were also present.  This showy phlox is rare in Texas, where it reaches the southwestern periphery of its range.  However it can be downright abundant in the hardwood forests of the Appalachians and eastern North America.

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Wild Blue Phlox

The rain presented several unique photographic opportunities.  The day must have been just warm enough for the Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis) to open.  We found several of this quintessential forb of the eastern deciduous forest.  I captured this photogenic plant with fresh raindrops on the petals.  Like so many of the other plants at this site, Bloodroot is rare in Texas.  Probably never particularly common, it has suffered through more than a century of habitat destruction and over-collection for its medicinal properties.

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Bloodroot

Growing among the Bloodroot were several Southern Twayblade Orchids (Listera australis).  It was the only orchid species we located during our visit, but there is certainly potential for more to be out there.

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Southern Twayblade Orchid.  Taken in March 2016

The Sabine River Wakerobin was also up in force.  This attractive trillium is endemic to the Pineywoods of East Texas and western Louisiana.

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Sabine River Wakerobin.  Taken in March 2016

The understory was also full of flowering shrubs and small trees.  Perhaps the most notable were the thickets of Red Buckeye (Aescuslus pavia).  They seemed to have all bloomed in unison, and painted the understory red with their beautiful flowers.

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Red Buckeye

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Red Buckeye

The Flowering Dogwoods (Cornus florida) were also in bloom.  To me, this plant, more than other, represents the essence of spring in East Texas and eastern North America.

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Flowering Dogwood.  Taken in March 2016

We took a break from searching for plants to admire this particularly robust Ravenel’s Stinkhorn (Phallus ravenelii) pushing up from the leaf litter.

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Ravenel’s Stinkhorn

There were many other rare plants that were not yet in flower including Indian Pink (Spigelia marilandica), Virginia Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana) and one species on my 2017 list: Starry Campion (Silene stellata).  The presence of these botanical treasures provided an added incentive to return, however in truth the only reason we need is the opportunity to spend a day in the woods with our good friends Susan and Viron.  After a long day, botanists and landowners parted ways content in seeing a bit of paradise nestled deep in the Pineywoods.

 

A Tale of Two Trillium

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Left: Texas Trillium (Trillium texanum).  Right: Bloody Butcher (Trillium recurvatum).

This post does not include any of my 2017 biodiversity targets, however I had such a good time on a recent outing looking for two species of trillium in East Texas that I couldn’t resist posting about it.  Both species are also very rare in Texas and are certainly worthy of their own treatment in my blog.

Last Thursday was Texas Independence Day.  Working for the state I get all kinds of obscure holidays off.  Even so, I decided to go into work in the morning to rack up a few hours of comp time and left a little before lunch.  I set out in pursuit of two members of one of my favorite genera.  Their populations are within a half an hour of one another, and I figured I could visit both in an afternoon, despite my tendency to lose track of time.

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Texas Trillium

Texas Trillium (Trillium texanum) is one of the pedicillate trilliums (subgenus Trillium).  Members of this group have uniformly green bracts and flowers separated from the leaf-like bract by pedicels.  It is the only member of this group in Texas.  It was formerly considered a variety of Trillium pusillum.

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

Texas Trillium is extremely rare, occurring in only a few populations in East Texas and western Louisiana, though I recently heard from a botanist friend that it had been discovered in southwest Arkansas.  While other trillium species in Texas generally occur on rich, mesic slopes, Trillium texanum occurs in forested seeps, growing from permanently saturated ground amid sphagnum moss in the shade of Sweetbay Magnolia (Magnolia virginiana) and other tree species typical of these communities.

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Texas Trillium

I found thousands of plants in my short visit, however only a small fraction of them were in bloom, with most plants only put up single bracts.  The flowers were all fresh.  As they age they will gradually turn a deep shade of pink before the petals weather away.

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Texas Trillium

Growing near the Texas Trillium were several groups of Primrose-leaved Violet (Viola primulifolia).  This tiny violet is similar to Viola lanceolata but can easily be differentiated by its leaves.  It grows in similar saturated environments.

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Primrose-leaved Violet

After spending an hour or so with the Texas Trillium I was ready to move on to the next Trillium species.  As I’m driving I frequently glance on the roadside in search of any interesting plant that might catch my eye.  While travelling between the two trillium sites I glimpsed a large patch of Carolina Vetch (Vicia caroliniana), an uncommon denizen of rich forests that barely enters Texas in the eastern part of the state.

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Carolina Vetch

Trillium recurvatum has a number of common names, including Prairie Trillium and Red Trillium.  My favorite, however, is Bloody Butcher – no doubt a reference to the deep red flowers.  Bloody Butcher is one of the sessile-flowered trilliums (subgenus Phyllantherum).  These differ from the subgenus Trillium by having variously mottled bracts and sessile flowers.  Trillium recurvatum can be easily differentiated from the other sessile-flowered trillium of Texas by its petiolate bracts.

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Bloody Butcher

Trillium recurvatum is a fairly widespread species.  It is common throughout much of its range, but rare on the periphery, which includes Texas.  In contrast to the mucky seep where I found Trillum texanum, I found Trillium recurvatum growing on a rich mesic calcareous slope with a variety of mesophytic hardwoods and calciphilic forbs.

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

The majority of the plants I observed had deep maroon flowers, but a few were pale yellow.  In the past I have also observed individuals with lemon-yellow blooms at this site.  As is often the case with these East Texas rarities, at the few sites in the state that Trillium recurvatum does occur, it can be quite abundant.  I was fortunate enough to observe hundreds of blooms.

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Bloody Butcher with pale yellow flowers

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Bloody Butcher with pale yellow flower

Once again while driving I caught sight of an irregularity on the roadside.  This time it was not a plant, but one of our most spectacular insects: the Luna Moth (Actias luna).  Luna Moths may have as many as three generations per year in East Texas with the first emerging in early spring.  The individual pictured is a male, identifiable as such by its extremely feathery antennae.  These antennae are loaded with receptors that can detect the pheromones of a female from miles away.  They are members of the giant silk moth family (Saturnidae), and are among the largest moths in North America.

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Luna Moth

I ended the evening in the floodplain of the Attoyac River admiring a particularly expansive patch of Butterweed (Packera glabella).  The light was perfect, and I tried to capture a landscape image that showcased the beauty of these early spring wildflowers.  Growing among them were Springcress (Cardamine bulbosa) and hundreds of violets.  It was the perfect ending to a perfect afternoon.

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Butterweed in the Attoyac River floodplain