Breaking the winter fast

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Blanco crab apple at Selah Bamberger Ranch

It’s been a curiously cold winter here in Texas, while elsewhere in the country has been inundated by unrelenting snow storms.  Still the first Spring trees are beginning to flower and the crab apples have been blooming for almost three weeks despite the weather alternating between freezing temperatures as low as 28F and highs near the 80’s.  Here the Blanco crabapple (Malus ioensis var. texana), an endemic species of the Texas Hill Country, is blooming next to a tributary of Miller Creek on the Bamberger ranch.  This splendid tree is a member of the Rosaceae family and, as it’s genus (Malus) suggests related to the domesticated apple.  The characters that place this plant in the Rosaceae family are best seen in its flowers.  The blooms are actinomorphic, meaning they are radially symmetrical.  They have five petals, as can be seen in the adjacent close up, and five sepals.  The flowers have both male and female parts, making them hermaphroditic, and many stamens arranged in whorls.  Three stigma and styles (slightly greenish structures at the center of the flower) are evident in this photograph

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Close up of the Crab apple flower by Abe Halbreich

disappearing into the top of the ovary that will ultimately become the apple once the flowers have been pollinated.  The base of the flower, calyx (sepals), corolla (petals) and androecium (filaments of the stamens) essentially fuse to form a hypanthium enclosing the ovary.  According to the Ladybird Johnson site, this species is particularly important to a variety of native bees.  Naturally the bitter fruit that appear later in the summer are food for a variety of animals.  As a harbinger of spring and warmer weather it brightens the dry, cold landscape and it’s bright fresh blooms easily draw the eye against the brown palette of the grasses and olive green cedars.

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Lake Madrone at the Bamberger Ranch in February 2014

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A member of the Pedaliaceae that is also known as Ram’s Horn for it’s fantastic seed pods.

return to the natives

 

Can’t tell you how pleased I am that this plant, which has popped up in the greenbelt behiind the fence, is a native rather than an exotic or invasive. According to Enquist, this is an occasional plant of roadsides and wastes., common only in Mason County. The seeds apparently attach themselves to bypassing animals, thus spreading and propagating the species. Apparently the seed pods were used for food by various native tribes of the Southwest, as well as plant fibers which were used for weaving. The plant has a rather strong unpleasant odor, which means that the photograph is more pleasant than the taking of the photograph.  Ajilvsgi recommends it for the xeriscape garden, if there is room. It blooms from June to September, usually only a few flowers at a time.

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The diversity of the ‘star’ flowers – Asteraceae

Black foot daisy (Melapodium leucanthum) – Tribe Heliantheae

Firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella) – Tribe Helenieae

A humble daisy is the characteristic member of this cosmopolitan group.  You can imagine that a plant family with members spread across the globe might well have species occupying a range of niches.  The vast diversity is taxonomically captured by dividing the family up into sub families and tribes.

The tribes that you might be the most familiar with are the Heliantheae and Helenieae (the classic daisy form), the Cynareae (artichokes and thistles)

Texas thistle (Cirsium texanum)

, Astereae (which has Golden rod and the fleabanes as members)

Prairie fleabane (Erigeron modestus) – Tribe Asteraeae

and the ubiquitous Chicorieae (dandelions and chicory).

Colorado dandelion

While most asters (or composites) are herbaceous perennial, biennials or annuals there are also shrubs and vines.  The complexity of this group extends to its taxonomy and you may see frequent name changes.  In fact you might see the family referred to as Compositae!  This name is in reference to the classic head inflorescence of the family.The flowers (disc florets) are typically collected together and surrounded by what are termed ray florets.  You might be tempted to call them petals but they are in fact a different type of flower to the others on the head.  In the image to the left you can see (from outside to center)the large yellow ray florets, the  yellow stigmas (female parts) of individual flowers and the brown anthers (male parts) in the center disc florets.

The curiously square bracts of Nerve- ray (Tetragonotheca texana – Tribe Heliantheae)

Below the inflorescence are bracts that you might mistake for sepals (if you viewed the whole daisy as a flower).  The bracts of different species are quite different and might even be sticky or spiky!

Brownish bracts of Navajo tea ( Thelesperma simplicifolium – Tribe Heliantheae)

Helianthus maximiliani

Ratibida columnaris

Here we have a classic example in the case of the sunflower – Maximilian sunflower to be exact (Helianthus maximiliani – Tribe Heliantheae).  A variation on this capitulum inflorescence is Ratibida columnifera (also in tribe Heliantheae) where the platform of tiny flowers are proud of the bronze or yellow ray florets.

The multiple inflorescences of Poverty weed

Of course Nature never obeys our taxonomic rules so there are other members of the family that do not have the classic daisy flower.  Poverty weed (Baccharis neglecta – Tribe Astereae), for instance, does not conform to the usual idea of a “daisy”.  A tall shrub, it grows well in disturbed areas and is very difficult to remove!  In fall it becomes very attractive covered with multiple inflorescences.  It’s overall silvery appearance earns it a place in the landscape.  Come spring I will be wondering how to get rid of it again!

Blue mist flower (Eupatorium coelestinum – Tribe Eupatorieae)

You can see that the inflorescence of poverty weed lacks the ray florets common in other tribes.

They are also much reduced or absent in the Eupatorieae.  Blue mist flower (seen here with friend) (Eupatorium coelestinum) is a beautiful summer flowering example of this tribe.  There is a wealth of hardy Asteraceae species that can be utilized for different effects in the landscape.  They are a global family well worth exploring.

Contrasts in Texture

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We might be very familiar with the red poppy (Papaver rhoeas), a European native Imagecommon in disturbed areas, or even the yellow Californian poppy (Escholzia californica), native to the USA.  But we might not be so quick to recognize the prickly body of the White Prickly poppy (Argemone albiflora).Image  This Texas native is a survivor, preferring to grow in disturbed and nutrient poor conditions.  It can be seen on the roadside in many southern states and has a rose-pink variant in Southern Texas.  An annual or biennial, it has delicate paper white flowers beloved by bees and butterflies but shunned by deer and cows.  Probably because it is very prickly and toxic.  It produces copius quantities of seeds and would possibly be a good candidate for restoration in very disturbed sites where people would not necessarily pass to close by.  Given it’s deep root system I wonder if it would also be a candidate for phytoremediation?

Hidden Jewels

The delicacy of Texas plants frequently surprises me.  One of my personal favorites that I look for each spring is the Pearl milkweed vine, or netted milkweed vine (Matelea reticulata) that is endemic to Texas.

Seen here with the White leaf leather flower (Clematis glaucophylla), this small green flower with brown-red speckles has a center that is pearl colored.  What is even more surprising is the comparitively enormous pod that appears.  This type of seed pod is not uncommon in the family that this vine belongs to -Asclepidaceae.

This vine that twines 15-20 ft up trees and over shrubs is not very obvious until the eye-catching spots of silver appear.  It is interesting to imagine it as one of several over an arch or along a fence.  Where could you imagine using it?