Beauty in the Barrens

Target Species: Texas Saxifrage (Micranthes texana)


Texas Saxifrage

Some reading this may wonder why I chose to include this tiny, not particularly showy flower on my 2017 species list.  I have always been fascinated with rare, unique ecological communities and the flora and fauna that reside in them.  The Texas Saxifrage grows in some particularly unique communities.  It tends to prefer places with harsh soil conditions that create an environment where most plants would struggle to survive.  By utilizing these habitats it helps avoid competition from other plant species that would try to monopolize its resources.  In the Pineywoods of East Texas it has been recorded in two particularly interesting communities: Catahoula Barrens and Weches Glades.


Texas Saxifrage

I set out to find this species alone.  And while I missed Carolina’s company, I treasure alone time in nature.  It is far and away the best way for me to clear my head and put things in perspective.  On a warm, mostly sunny February day I set out to an extensive Catahoula Barren less than an hour from home.  Catahoula Barrens were probably never abundant on the landscape.  They occur on coarse, shallow soils over the Catahoula formation.  These soils are acidic, and often high in aluminum content.  Taken together these conditions are not favorable for tree growth.  That is not to say, however, that trees do not occur here.  Widely scattered Longleaf Pines, and Bluejack and Blackjack Oaks can be found as stunted, gnarled versions of their counterparts elsewhere.  An old growth Longleaf Pine here, for example, may be little more than 10 inches across and thirty feet tall.


Typical Catahoula Barren.  I captured this image in July, 2016.

Catahoula Barrens are home to a rich, diverse flora that is not observed anywhere else in East Texas.  Many of these species are globally rare, and others are rare in the state.  Typical species include Nuttall’s Rayless Goldenrod (Bigelowia nuttallii), Yellow Hedge-Hyssop (Gratiola flava), Least Daisy (Chaetopappa asteroids), San Saba Pinweed (Lechea san-sabeana), Maryland Milkwort (Polygala mariana), Smooth Phacelia (Phacelia glabra), Barbara’s Buttons (Marshallia caespitosa), Sunbright (Phemeranthus parviflorus) and Blazing Star (Liatris mucronata).  Rare species found here include Texas Sunnybells (Schoenolirion wrightii), Navasota Fox Glove (Agalinis navasotensis), Gulf Blazing Star (Liatris tenuis), and Texas Saxifrage.


Texas Saxifrage

I had visited this Catahoula Boulder many times in the past, but never so early in the year.  I worried that these miniscule plants would be elusive, however it didn’t take me long to find them among the dried grasses and fallen oak leaves.  Though tiny, I find the flowers of Micranthes texana to be quite beautiful.  Their tiny size, however makes photographing them a real challenge.  The slightest breeze makes focusing on the anthers, a standard practice of wildflower photography, almost impossible.


Texas Saxifrage

After spending some time with this remarkable plant, I set out to see what else might be blooming in the barrens.  As one might expect so early in the year, blooms were sparse, however I was able to locate a few other wildflowers in the area.  I observed several Carolina Anemone (Anemone caroliniana) blooms on the barren’s margins.


Carolina Anemone

Yellow Hedge-Hyssop is endemic to eastern Texas and extreme western Louisiana.  This tiny plant is scarcely 3 inches tall, and if it weren’t for its propensity to grow on exposed Catahoula boulders, it would be all but invisible.


Yellow Hedge-Hyssop

After spending the afternoon in the barren I ventured over to the adjacent longleaf pine savannah.  Here I sat and watched a colony of Texas Leafcutter Ants (Atta texana) busily tending to their maze of subterranean tunnels and chambers, and harvesting bits of leaves by the thousands.  They do not actually consume the leaves, but rather store them in an underground chamber to cultivate a fungus that will feed the colony.  I have always been fascinated with these invertebrates, and usually try my luck at photographing them every year.  It is a challenge, but the results can be extremely rewarding.


Texas Leafcutter Ant

With another 2017 target under my belt, I left the woods to return to civilization, if only to plan and ponder my next opportunity to escape it.