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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Texas Mountain Laurel – Sophora secundiflora

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASpring is springing up quickly after our warmish winter.  The mountain laurels have been blooming for over a month now and are slowly beginning to fade.  Their bumpy seed pods, containing poisonous seeds, are appearing from the delicate purple-blue blooms that still fill the night with heady scent.  I thought it might be fun to take a closer look at these flowers since this species is a member of the Fabaceae, one of the largest and most cosmopolitan of all plant groups. Just about anywhere in the world you will find examples of the pea family.  They could be evergreen, deciduous, climbers, herbaceous plants or trees.  Specifically, Texas Mountain Laurel is a beautiful evergreen multi-trunked trees that is part of the sub-family Faboideae.  This is the group of Fabaceae that we typically recognize as “pea”. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The other two subfamilies are Mimosoidae and Caesalpiniodae.

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Half flower diagram of Texas Mountain Laurel

So what is a “classic” pea flower. It has a floral structure where the petals are arranged into banner, wings and keel.

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Stigma, style and ovary of the Texas mountain laurel

The banner is one large petal with two wing petals enclosing two keel petals.  The keel closes around the 10 stamens  and the ovary that will later develop into the pod if the flower is pollinated.  Two curious features of the flower are the widening of the filaments at the base (filaments support the anther forming the stamen) and a protrusion on the lower side of the keel petal which seem to help the petals stay closed over the stamens and stigma.

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10 stamens clustered tightly around the gynoecium

Flora vacations #1

Looking down into Cape Town from the top of Table Mountain, Lions head off to the left

Since it’s the time of year to get together with family, I thought I would post a “holiday”post about the flora of my home town – Cape Town.  The Cape Floristic region is world-renowned for its unique and fascinating flora.

Pincushion (Leucospermum conocarpodendron) framing the walk up to the mountain

Pincushion (Leucospermum conocarpodendron) framing the walk up to the mountain

Elegia capensis – Restionaceae

A Mediterranean ecosystem that is frequently compared to that of California, Australia and, of course the Mediterranean, it has its own set of unique species that are adapted to its acid soils and winter rainfall.  It is indeed so special, with 8200 species in an area 1/3 the size of Britain, that in 2004 it was declared a World Heritage Site.  One of the gems in the crown is Kirstenbosch gardens.  Situated on the back slopes of Table Mountain this garden displays many of the unique and beautiful species found in Fynbos and in other flora of South Africa.  Many of these species are popular, not only locally, but around the world and have been developed for horticulture.  As a site with multiple uses, providing access to mountain walks, acting as a music and art venue, Kirstenbosch is popular with locals and tourists alike.When walking on Table Mountain there are many extraordinary plants to see.  Families that are common in Fynbos and relatively rare globally are Proteaceae,

Mimetes hirtus

Helichrysum vestitum (Asteraceae)

and Restionaceae.  Unique genera of the Proteaceae, such as Grevillea sp., are also found in Australia.

Ubiquitous families like the daisies (Asteraceae) are well represented too.  Pictured here is an example of the group known as “Everlastings”, the ray florets of this group have a papery texture and dry very well making them popular with florists.

Disa uniflora

Herschelia graminifolia – blue disa

Even the more delicate gems of the plant world can be found here.  It is quite possible that climbing on the mountain in summer or winter you might come across members of the family Orchidaceae.    Many of the species such as Disa uniflora are well-known by enthusiasts around the world and bred with great care.

Everlastings and Leucodendron sp. on the mountains of the Cape Peninsula

The diversity of species and form is connected to the dynamic patchwork of soil, water and light conditions that are found in the mountains and plains of the region.   Trees of the temperate forests line the Kloofs, while grasses and shrubs vie for space on sandy flats, and a successional array of bulbs, forbs and shrubs are to be found all over the micro climates of the mountains.

Evidence of fire on the Cape Peninsula mountains

But all the species that are found in this dynamic landscape have to be able to cope with fire. Fire is a transformative element in the landscape patchwork and plants are able to survive by employing different strategies.  Some plants produce myriads of seeds holding them in protective structures until the fire has passed.  The fire stimulates the release of seed of these serotinous individuals and the smoke of the fire stimulates seed germination.  Another strategy is to protect the meristematic buds beneath the surface of the soil and resprout after fire., taking advantage of a nutrient rich environment with few competitors.

It is interesting that many of the remarkable species of this landscape have been developed for horticulture and utilized around the world in gardens.  In agriculture species, such as corn or the apple, have not appeared desirable at first and have been worked for centuries to obtain the suite of appealing characters that we now enjoy.  It makes me wonder what inconspicuous species lie in wait in the many different flora around the world, waiting for some creative enthusiast to spot their inherent beauty and potential.

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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Spring flowers III- Color wheel cycle

bluebonnet

There is something joyous about a field of flowers.  When nature repeats with reliability, like the appearance of the bluebonnets, it penetrates through the layers of our lives that separate us from our natural surroundings.  Not only do we reconnect to seasons through plants, but it also serves as a subtle measure of the health of the ecosystem.  Note all the news reports on wildflower predictions each year.

indian paintbrush

What is perhaps just as remarkable, but less remarked on, is the subsequent unfolding of flowers, annuals and biennials, through the spring.  The Bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) are among the first to appear with the occasional patch of Indian paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea) to highlight the colors tastefully.

bluebonnets and indian paintbrushes

scrambled eggs growing in a naive lawn

What follows is the sequential flowering of different species.  Many from the Asteraceae and while some, like scrambled eggs (Corydalis curvisiliqua) are from more obscure families like Fumariaceae.  Together they form layers in the landscape in space and time.  The casual manner in which the form and color of these species, frequently seen on roadsides, complement each other always strikes me  as rather amusing given the effort and time someone might put in to create the same, very temporary effect.  Eventually the fields of blooms give way to smaller and smaller patches until finally we arrive at the enormous sunflowers of the summer.

brown eyed susans (all yellow) together with firewheels (orange and yellos)

The ever changing mosaic of these roadside species is largely connected to environmental conditions and germination requirements.  Some seeds, like those of the bluebonnets require stratification and fall rains for the plants to germinate and begin growing well before Christmas.  Similarly, the firewheel (Gaillardia pulchella) seen here with brown eyed susans (Rudbeckia hirta) should be planted early as they require 70F to germinate and so may only appear the following spring if the weather warms up too quickly.

Missouri primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa

pink evening primrose (Oenothera speciosa)

While the annuals and biennials are tied to seasons through seed germination.  It is possible that perennials might offer more reliable color, although their flowering (timing and profuseness) is tied to weather conditions as well.

Primrose is a common name applied to members of the genus Calylophys sp.  and Oenothera sp, both found in the Onagraceae.  These species provide alternate yellows to the early daisies and occasionally delicate pink.

wine cup

The purple/blue range of the spectrum can be found in the wine cup (Callirhoe digitata).  A perennial with a deep tap-root, it has leaves close to the ground year round, but sends dramatic purple flowers up over grasses and neighbouring plants early in the spring.  A more upright form is that of Widow’s tears (Commelina erecta) which, while

Widow’s tears

low (growing about 1-3 ft tall), offers a vertical line in contrast to the Purple prairie verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida) that grows profusely with a relaxed habit that is frequently covered with butterflies.

Purple Prairie verbena

cedar sage

Hummingbirds find a food source in the bright red cedar sage (Salvia roemeriana). With it’s attractive leaf it brightens shady spots from early spring until mid summer, providing dramatic contrast to the white caliche stone and brown mulch found in forested areas.

Spring in Texas clearly offers a diverse palette of color and form.  To mimic the natural sequence and arrangement of wildflowers one must understand both germination and flowering requirements of the plants selected.  Like a puppet master it is all in the timing of seed application, watering and of course placing of both perennials and the annuals/biennials.  Can you imagine selecting 4 or 5 species to place in an area for a spring show?  Can you imagine a “meadow” effect in say a 3×3 ft area?  What are the important criteria that we can take from nature to implement in design in order to attain that effortless look of sequential color?

Flowering phases II: Spring flowering Shrubs

Yellow blooms of Agarita seen in February

Like trees, shrubs are appealing not only for their attractive flowers, but also for their permanence in the landscape and the possible offering of food in the fall.  Thus, while it is interesting to note those early bloomers, that help to wake up the landscape and our senses, paying attention to leaf shape and architecture can add a subtle dimension to landscape.   Walking around the back paths of the LBJ Wildflower center early one spring I smelt the most delightful sweet scent.  It was particularly elusive but, following my nose for a bit, I was able to trace it to the Agarita bushes.  It surprised me that such a delicate smell game from the strings of small yellow blooms  as the bush itself is incredibly robust and the leaves are uncomfortably prickly, just like a holly’s.  In fact it is known to be selected by birds for nest sites as the dense prickly foliage offers excellent protection.  As the picture indicates the ephemeral yellow blossoms result in bright red berries later in the year.

Flowers of Texas Persimmon

Diospyros texana is a wiry looking shrub.  It offers a great sculptural element to the landscape heightened by its beautiful bark.  In the spring it has delicate little bell-shaped flowers that produce fruit later in the summer.  The small fleshy fruits of this hardy tree provide food for birds and small mammals.

Fading blooms of Eve’s Necklace

Seed pods of Eve’s necklace

In the woodland, surprisingly tropical looking blooms hang overhead.  Eve’s necklace (Styphnolobium affine) offers graceful stems, delicate pink yellow blooms clustered on dangling infloresences and vibrant green compound leaves that move easily in the breeze.  While it is a very attractive, it should be notes that the black seed pods house toxic seeds.  Similarly it’s close cousin the evergreen Texas Mountain Laurel (Sophora secundiflora) has very attractive blooms that have a sweet scent, particularly evident in the evening, that give rise to silvery seed pods housing toxic red seeds.  This is a very popular landscape tree, although it is slow growing, and this year the flowering in February and March was remarkable!  This may be connected in some way with the drought/spring rain weather patterns that we experienced.Part of the delight of a Texas spring is the advent of the rains and the filling of the creeks.  Here along Bear creek, a contributor to the Edwards aquifer, we find Button bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).  This versatile shrub is particularly useful in riverine areas.  It does not mind having it’s roots regularly or partially submerged and it offers both nectar to insects and seeds to ducks and rodents.  The glossy green leaves present a third leaf type to consider, the entire leaf.

Our introduction to these species presents us with further considerations for the landscape.  We had already met the idea of host plants (with Agarita and Texas persimmon), but now we introduce the possibilities of evoking interaction through the senses, smell and sight.  Scents can be intriguing and invite exploration while different leaf shapes offer visual interest.  Can you suggest particular arrangements or collections of shrubs?  How do they meet with your selection criteria?

Flowering phases I: spring flowering trees

Moving into Fall it is hard to remember the possibilities of spring. Creating a landscape with staggered flowerings is aesthetically interesting and serves to mark the  passage of time.  Those early spring blooms cheer us as much as the watery sunbeams peeking through grey clouds, but they also have an important ecological function in providing a continuous  food source for those species that utilize pollen and nectar.  So now, as the heat of summer burns away all memories of cooler weather, lets consider some of the early spring bloomers.

The Crabapple (Malus ioensis)

seen here blooming out near Johnson city in February is perhaps one of the earliest.  Deer are very fond of this tree and so they do have to be protected from browsing.

Crabapple blooming in February

Small bitter fruits will follow in early fall.

Redbuds seen in a spring landscape

Redbud blooming in February

Texas has several native trees that are early bloomers.  Some like the redbud and Mexican plum have very obvious blooms that are enjoyed by humans and pollinators alike.

Red Admiral on a Mexican Plum Blossom

These are well-known trees for landscape and pair well together visually and in terms of flowering time.  Mexican Plum has the added attractions of plum-like fruit and fall color in later seasons, while Redbud’s offer interesting leaf shape and large pods.

Mexican Buckeye (Ungnadia speciosa) is equally attractive mid-size tree or large shrub that has early flowers

Flower of Mexican Buckeye

and very interesting seed pods later.

Fruit of Mexican Buckeye

Red buckeye, note the classic buckeye type leaf

The Mexican buckeye is not actually a true buckeye.  The Red Buckeye (which is a true buckeye) has a similar common name but belongs to a different genus and species – Aesculus pavia The images of the flowers were taken in March on a hike down to Hamilton Pool.

Not all blooms follow the traditional flower form of petals, stamens, stigma, style and ovary.  Huisache (Acacia farnesiana) combines flowers in clusters with the yellow filaments of the stamens producing the attractive color.

Huisache blooms in May

Pods 3 -4 in long soon follow.  The light green compound leaves are very attractive, however the tree is thorny and readily sheds small twigs.  Combined with the fact that a dark blue-brown color leaches from the pods when they are wet, this might not be the best tree for a patio or walkway but it is delightful set in a parkland.

Catkin and new leaves of the Spanish oak

The oaks are another group of trees with flowers that may not immediately be recognized as such.

The catkins are a collection of flowers (inflorescence) just as the yellow balls of the Huisache are.  The male and female catkins of the Spanish Oak (Quercus buckleyi) have a slight pinkish tint just like the new leaves.  The flowers on the male catkins produce pollen and then fall away while the fertilized female flowers of female catkins produce the acorns that we are familiar with.

These are a small sample of early flowering trees.  They may be selected for their flowers, or for other characteristics such as leaf shape, autumnal color, food source or animal habitat.  How would you rate selection criteria for trees?  Do you have particular features that continue to frame decisions time and time again?  How important is flowering time to you?

Ephemeral art

Cooperia pendunculata (Amaryllidaceae)

Rain in Central Texas is a remarkable event.  For the past few years we have waited for rain so long that even a sprinkle is a reason to rejoice.  Alternatively there is a downpour of such intensity that you can only stand and marvel.  Different plants deal with the dichotomy of dearth and plenty in different ways.  Some like, trees and shrubs put down deep and extensive roots to wait out the hot, dry spells.  Annuals gamble all on appearing early and letting the next generation wait for pleasant conditions inside a seed.  The rain-lily has the amazing ability to time flowering immediately after rain events, seeming to pop up anytime of year.  In reality there are two species, C. pendunculata which tends to flower in the spring and early summer, and C. drummondii whose slightly smaller flowers rise up after late summer and fall downpours.

The yellow center of the rain lily. The three inner tepals are visible, backed by the outer tepals (two of which can be seen)

After rain a green stem grows up from a subterranean bulb.  Rising between strap like leaves the pinkish colored bud opens revealing a short-lived luminescent white flower.  The center of the flower is yellow but the bud and outer tepals have a faint pink hue increasing in intensity towards the central vein of the tepal.  These fragrant flowers seem to glow briefly, often in the brown grass of a parched landscape.

A field of rain lilies is a spectacular sight for almost a week in some cases, especially if there are sequential rain events.  Once one appears in a landscape they seem to seed and spread relatively quickly and easily, especially given consistent moisture.  I love to imagine growing the bulbs beneath the sides of a gravel walk, or in spaces amongst cacti.  They are wonderful reminders of the blessings of rain and regeneration, similar to that which we enjoy in the spring.

Rain lilies growing under a live oak. They are on the side of a paved driveway and receive no supplemental water.

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.

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?