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Thursday, January 26, 2023

Cool As A Cucumber

 

Another common name for Cucumber Weed is Pennsylvania Pellitory

In the middle of our Central Texas winter, one does not normally think of plants emerging from their cold weather slumber.  But one plant starts to appears in the cooler days of late fall through early spring, and it is appropriately named Cucumber Weed (Parietaria pensylvanica).

While native throughout much of the US and into Mexico, Cucumber Weed, also called Pennsylvania Pellitory, is generally considered an urban weed.  It grows in light shade with moist to slightly dry soil, mostly in disturbed areas along the sides of buildings, in suburban yards and gardens, and in woods and thickets. In fact, its’ genus name is derived from the Latin paries which means ‘wall’, which is where the plant likes to grow, presumably due to its affinity for alkaline soils. It is a member of the nettle family, but lacks the stinging hairs of most nettles and is considered unarmed.

The typical upright habit of Cucumber Weed

Cucumber Weed is 0.5 to 1.5 feet tall, typically erect and unbranched, and has a green, 4-angled, hairy stem.  Its alternate, simple, thin green leaves are lance-shaped, up to 3.5 inches long and 0.75 inches wide with smooth margins, although they are smaller on younger plants.  

The leaves of Cucumber Weed are hairy and have smooth margins

Small clusters of bracts and flowers appear at the axils of the middle and upper leaves.  Each tiny, almost indistinct, greenish-white flower is surrounded by longer green bracts, and the bloom period lasts from April to November. Flowers can be staminate (male), pistillate (female), or perfect (male & female), and these different flowers kinds of flowers can appear together in the same cluster. Cross-pollination occurs by the wind, and the plant reproduces by reseeding itself.  It frequently forms colonies and while it is a persistent plant, it is not aggressive like most invasive species.

Cucumber Weed's tiny flowers are surrounded by long green bracts

Often considered a medicinal herb for its diuretic ability reportedly used to help flush out kidney stones, Cucumber Weed is also high in potassium and edible, although caution must be taken as a small percentage of people may be allergic to it.  The early leaves of young seedlings offer the strongest cucumber taste, while leaves from older plants seem to lose some of their flavor.  Some use the raw leaves in salads or smoothies, or steamed and mixed with pasta. In an online database of indigenous plants of Mexico, Cucumber Weed is called Hierba del Rayo or ‘Lightning Herb’, as it was said that a poultice of this plant applied to your forehead overnight would relieve the chills, fevers, headache, and nosebleed resulting from a nearby lightning strike.

Red Admiral

Care should be taken not to completely remove Cucumber Weed from your yard or garden as it also has value to several types of wildlife.  It is a host plant for the Red Admiral Butterfly, whose caterpillars eat the soft leaves and create shelters from predators by tying up leaves at the end of a shoot or by folding over a larger leaf.  

Lincoln's Sparrow

Cucumber Weed is a source of seed for Lincoln’s Sparrows during fall migration, and there is evidence that White-tailed Deer like to browse the foliage.  Try to stay cool as a cucumber and resist the temptation to pull up Cucumber Weed, as this is one ‘weed’ that is useful to humans and wildlife alike! 



Monday, December 5, 2022

Birds and Berries

 

 A flock of over wintering Cedar Waxwings

Several species of birds overwinter in Texas during the colder months of the year, since food is typically more abundant here than in the northern parts of the country.  While many types of seed can provide nourishment when insects are not available, it is the berries that draw in large flocks of American Robins (Turdus migratorius) and Cedar Waxwings (Bombycilla cedrorum). 

American Robins are fairly large songbirds that are easily identified by a dark gray head, lighter gray back, yellow bill, and a rusty orange belly.  Throughout the fall and winter months they switch their diet from worms and insects to several types of berries, and often band together to form large flocks.  Look for them roosting in trees in moist woodland areas where berry-producing trees are shrubs are common, from November through mid-April.

American Robin

Cedar Waxwings are medium-sized songbirds with a sleek, silky look.  They are identified by a pale brown head with a crest that often lies flat, a narrow black mask outlined in white, a lemon-colored belly, and soft gray wings and tail. The tail is always tipped in bright yellow, and the wings have red waxy tips but they are not always easy to see. They also congregate in large flocks and are usually heard before seen, emitting a high-pitched trill as they fly about, from November through May.  They typically eat fruits year-round, depending on what is available.

Cedar Waxwing

In central Texas, overwintering American Robins eat berries from a variety of native plants, including Escarpment Black Cherry, Roughleaf Dogwood, Flameleaf Sumac, Ashe Juniper, Yaupon, Possumhaw, and Virginia Creeper.  In winter, Cedar Waxwings have a high preference for the berries of the Ashe Juniper, but will also eat the fruits of American Mistletoe, Texas Madrone, Roughleaf Dogwood, Yaupon, Possumhaw, and Coral Honeysuckle.

Ashe Juniper

It is important to note that these birds will also eat the berries of non-native, invasive plants such as Ligustrum species, Nandina, and Japanese Honeysuckle.  Since these unwelcome plants largely spread by bird droppings that contain the seeds of these fruits, replacing them with the native alternatives listed above is a responsible way to help safeguard against that spread.

Yaupon

From time to time, these birds can become intoxicated if they eat too much fruit that has fermented. Berries and other fruits can ferment in late fall and winter when frosts and freezes occur, which concentrates the sugar in the berries. When these cold periods are followed by warmer weather it accelerates the breakdown of the sugars into sugar alcohol, at a more potent level than might normally be present.  

Possumhaw

Like humans, drunken birds show signs of irregular movement and the inability to avoid obstacles, and some immature birds even risk the chance of death through alcohol poisoning.  Recent research shows, however, that birds such as Cedar Waxwings may have some natural protection against drunkenness due to their fairly large livers (for birds), as those livers can more effectively break down the alcohol to safely remove it from their bodies.

Each year, the numbers of American Robins and Cedar Waxwings present during a central Texas winter can fluctuate wildly.  In some years, when ample rains produce berries in copious amounts, these birds will appear in large flocks. But during drought years when berries are scarce, especially on junipers, these birds are found in much lower numbers.



Sunday, October 30, 2022

The Blush of Fall


Plateau Agalinis, an Edwards Plateau endemic

Certain seasons bring to mind certain color palettes, such as the pastel-colored wildflowers of spring, or the deep orange and red leaves of fall.  But did you know that there are some native plants that bloom pink well into the months of autumn?  They include both Plateau and Prairie Agalinis (Agalinis edwardsiana and Agalinis heterophylla), Small Palafoxia (Palafoxia callosa), and Marsh Fleabane (Pluchea odorata).

Plateau Agalinis, also called Plateau False Foxglove and Plateau Gerardia, is a 1- to 3-foot tall erect, bushy plant with an airy texture that is endemic to limestone hills with thin soils on the Edwards Plateau region of Texas.  It has light green stems, narrowly linear leaves to 1.25 inches long, and pink funnel-shaped blooms from August to October, on stalks as much as 1.25 inches long.  

Plateau Agalinis, showing the long stalk

Also called Prairie False Foxglove, Prairie Agalinis looks very similar to Plateau Agalinis except that its pink funnel-shaped blooms are on short stalks up to 0.2 inches long and its leaves are slightly larger.  It blooms from June into October in grasslands and fields or in open woodlands near streams, often on more moist soils.  Both of these Agalinis species are in the Figwort Family, and are host plants for the Common Buckeye butterfly.

Prairie Agalinis, showing the short stalk

Common Buckeye adult

Common Buckeye caterpillar

Small Palafoxia or Small Palafox is a 2- to 3-foot tall upright, airy plant in the Aster Family, with sticky-hairy stems and solitary flowers on slender stalks that grows best in full sun on dry, gravelly soils.  Occurring from August to November, its half-inch wide pink blooms consist only of disk (not ray) flowers, and the narrow, linear leaves are covered in fine hairs giving it a gray-green appearance.

Small Palafoxia

Also called Sweetscent, Saltmarsh Fleabane, and Shrubby Camphorweed, Marsh Fleabane is an erect, branching plant to 3 feet tall, with simple toothed leaves, and dense, flat-topped clusters of pink flower heads from July to October.  It is in the Aster Family, and it prefers to grow at the water’s edge or in low drainage areas in moist soil.  It gets several of its common names from the sweet smell of the blooms and leaves, attracting many species of butterflies and bees.  It is also a host plant for several small moths, including the Southern Emerald.

Marsh Fleabane

Southern Emerald

As you walk the local trails, wander through the meadows, and explore the water’s edge during these weeks of cooler weather before the first frost, you just might come across the somewhat surprising pink blush of fall!




Thursday, October 20, 2022

Glorious Goldeneye

 

Plateau Goldeneye

From late September to November our roadsides, woodland edges, and meadows are brimming with the profuse yellow blooms of Plateau Goldeneye (Viguiera dentata).  Also called Toothleaf Goldeneye and Sunflower Goldeneye, this native plant is extremely drought tolerant, prefers well drained soils, and grows up to 3 feet in full sun and to 6 feet in partial shade.  It can be found throughout central and west Texas, and into New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico.

Blooms appear at the tips of long, branched stalks

Plateau Goldeneye is a bushy, much-branched plant that tends to grow in colonies.  The yellow daisy-like flowers are numerous, 1.5 inches wide, and appear at the tips of long, slender, leafless stalks.  These composite flowers have a button-like central cluster of fifty or more tiny yellow disk flowers surrounded by 10 to 14 golden yellow ray flowers with notched tips and nearly parallel veins. 

Each ray flower (petal) has a notched tip and somewhat parallel veins

The green leaves of Plateau Goldeneye are triangular with a broad base, tapering to a point, and toothed or serrated along the edges.  They can vary from 1 to 6 inches in length, and can be attached to the stem in either alternately (near the base) or oppositely (toward the tip). As fall approaches, their typical rich green color turns more of a gray-green, and the plant starts to develop flower buds around September.   

Leaves have roughly serrated or toothed edges

Throughout its growing season, Plateau Goldeneye attracts many types of pollinators, especially bees, and is one of the preferred host plants for the Bordered Patch butterfly. In fall and winter, spent flower heads provide good forage for Lesser Goldfinches and other seed-eating birds, as each flower produces numerous achenes, or small, dry single-seeded fruits that do not open to release the seed.  If left to its own devices, Plateau Goldeneye reseeds readily under favorable conditions, but it is easy to manage.

Bordered Patch

Lesser Goldfinch

The Aztec/Nahuatl people called this plant Chimalacate, and in several Mexican states infusions of Plateau Goldeneye are used as an antibacterial treatment for baby rash.  A pharmaceutical study in 2008 confirmed that a compound extracted from this plant does indeed show antifungal properties. Plateau Goldeneye is in the genus Viguiera in the Aster family, and is named in honor of the 19th century French botanist and physician Louis Guillaume Alexandre Viguier.  Regardless of this plant’s history, enjoy the glorious blooms it provides us in the fall, along the roads and trails of central Texas!




Monday, September 5, 2022

Late Summer Skimmers

The quiet waters of a pond like this make great dragonfly habitat

Dragonflies are conspicuous visitors to various bodies of water, especially in the warmer months of the year.    These visitors include members of the largest family of dragonflies, the Libellulidae, otherwise known as the skimmers. Skimmers can be large and colorful, some with distinctive wing patterns, and are often seen perching on twigs and branches.  In late summer, especially after summer rains, some locally common but not often observed species can be found around newly refilled ponds, including the Gray-waisted Skimmer (Cannaphila insularis), Needham’s Skimmer (Libellula needhami), and Slaty Skimmer (Libellula incesta).  

Found in shady or marshy ponds, typically with tall reeds or cattails, the male Gray-waisted Skimmer has greenish-blue eyes, a white face in front and metallic blue on top, and a dark brown or black thorax divided by several pale stripes.  Its abdomen is pruinose gray on the front half and black on the back half, and its wings are clear with extreme dark only at the tips.  Females and juveniles have a yellow-orange abdomen marked with dark brown or black.  Gray-waisted Skimmers are often found perching in the shade at the tips of vegetation, with their abdomen held nearly parallel to the perch.

Gray-waisted Skimmer, male

The male Needham’s Skimmer has reddish-orange eyes and face, and a thorax than is orange in front and paler or more tannish on the sides. Its abdomen is reddish-orange with a dark dorsal stripe down the length, and its orange wings are somewhat darker along the leading edge.  Females and juveniles have brown eyes and faces, a yellowish-brown thorax, and their abdomens are yellow with a dark stripe running down the middle.  Needham’s Skimmers are typically found perching low on vegetation or overhanging the water’s edge.

Needham's Skimmer, male

Most often seen around marshy forest ponds, the male Slaty Skimmer has dark eyes and a metallic blue or violet face, and both the thorax and abdomen have an overall slaty-blue pruinescence.  The wings are typically clear, but can have a pale bluish stripe along the leading edge.  Females and juveniles have red-over-gray eyes and a pale face, a cream-colored thorax with broad dark shoulder stripes, and a black abdomen with yellowish-orange markings. Females also have more prominent dark wing tips and develop a pale pruinosity at maturity.  Males perch on top of tall grasses and sticks most often in sunlit areas.

Slaty Skimmer, male

Check out your local pond or body of water before the end of September, and you just might be rewarded with a sighting of these less common, late summer skimmers!

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Beat the Heat

 

Flame Acanthus is a hot weather bloomer.

The heat of the Texas summer is enough to make everything wilt, but there are some native plant species that truly thrive in these unrelenting temperatures and drought-stricken conditions.  These plants include Turk’s Cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii), Flame Acanthus (Anisacanthus quadrifidus var. wrightii), Violet Ruellia (Ruellia nudiflora), and Western Ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii).

Turk’s Cap, also known as Drummond’s Turk’s Cap, Wax Mallow, Mexican Apple, Manzanita, and Sleeping Hibiscus, is a spreading shrub to 4 feet high, with large green leaves on upright stems.  Bright red flowers atop the stems are twisted into a whorl from which protrude red stamens.  These flowers are a natural source of nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies, and it is a host plant for the Turk’s-cap White-Skipper butterfly.  The resulting fruit is red and marble-sized, and edible for animals and humans alike. Turk’s Cap is the perfect plant to grow under trees that tend to shade out non-native turf grasses, as they form a natural cover and provide much needed color from May all the way to November.


Turk's Cap

Turk's Cap fruit

Turk's-cap White-Skipper

An airy, spreading shrub to 5 feet tall, Flame Acanthus has tender lance-shaped green leaves and tubular red flowers that open to 4 lobes and occur along terminal spikes.  Blooming in full sun from June to October, it attracts both hummingbirds and butterflies, and is also known as Hummingbird Bush, Wright’s Acanthus, and Mexican Flame.  It is the host plant for the Crimson Patch, Elada Checkerspot, and Texan Crescent butterflies. The fruit is a small, hood-shaped capsule with seeds attached to a hooked stalk that helps to eject them from the capsule when it dries and splits open.

Flame Acanthus

Flame Acanthus seed capsule

Crimson Patch

Violet Ruellia is an erect herb that is woody at the base with few branches, growing to 2 feet tall.  The dark green leaves are oval-shaped, and the trumpet-shaped violet flowers at the ends of stalks open at sunrise and fall from the plant in early afternoon, from March all the way through October. Also called Wild Petunia, it does well in sunny areas and is a host plant for the Common Buckeye butterfly.  One of its’ subspecies is a host plant for the Malachite butterfly, a south Texas species rarely seen in central Texas.

Violet Ruellia

Common Buckeye

Often stout and forming colonies 5 feet high, Western Ironweed has hairy unbranched stems, large green leaves with serrated edges, and loose clusters of bright purple blooms at the apex of each stem.  From July to the first frost, these fuzzy blooms provide nectar for various types of pollinating insects and the seeds nourish several species of birds.  Also called Baldwin’s Ironweed, it is the host plant for the Parthenice Tiger Moth.  While this species’ growth can be aggressive, it flourishes if allowed to spread in larger, open, sunny areas.

Western Ironweed

These native species can (and often should) be pruned back in winter as they can get too leggy.  They have low water needs once established, and can tolerate hot temperatures and still continue to bloom.  They are the perfect plants to beat the heat, benefit our local wildlife, and provide much needed color in your own native summer garden!






Saturday, June 25, 2022

Summertime Skimmers

The female Comanche Skimmer looks very different from the male (pictured below).

The heat of the summer is often a good time to search for dragonflies, specifically the skimmers, which comprise the largest family of dragonflies.  They are generally the most obvious, too, as they are frequently seen around ponds lakes, and streams, and perch conspicuously on twigs, bushes, and branches. 

Skimmers are often large and colorful with distinctive wing patterns, and many species of skimmers are sexually dimorphic, meaning the males and females of the same species are different in appearance.  Males frequently develop pruinescence or exhibit a frosty or dusty-looking coating when mature, while most females have little to no pruinescence at maturity.  In our area, some of the less common species include the Gray-waisted Skimmer (Cannaphila insularis), Checkered Setwing (Dythemis fugax), Needham’s Skimmer (Libellula needhami), and Comanche Skimmer (Libellula comanche).

The male Gray-waisted Skimmer has greenish-blue eyes, a face that is white in front and metallic blue on top, and a dark thorax divided by several pale stripes.  The wings are clear except for dark extreme tips, and the abdomen is black on the back half and pruinose gray or white on the front half, which gives rise to its common name.  Females and juveniles have reddish-brown over blue-gray eyes, and the abdomen is yellow or orange with brown or black in between segments.  These skimmers prefer shady, marshy ponds, lakes, and streams, particularly those with cattails or tall reeds, and are on the wing from June to September.

Gray-waisted Skimmer, male

From mid-April to mid-December, you can find Checkered Setwings, as they are widely distributed and sometimes locally abundant.  The male has bright red eyes and face, a reddish-brown thorax with obscured dark stripes, and clear wings except for a large patch of brown coloring near the base.  The abdomen is black with two pairs of pale streaks at the base of each segment, giving it a checkered black-and-white appearance. Females and juveniles are similar, but often have a paler face and a pale thorax with narrow dark stripes.  These setwings favor slow-flowing streams and rivers, ponds, and generally open areas with tall vegetation but little canopy.

Checkered Setwing, female

Male Needham’s Skimmers have reddish-orange eyes and face, thorax orange in front and paler on sides, and wings that have orange veins along the leading edge and clear along the trailing edge, giving them a somewhat bicolored appearance.  The abdomen is reddish-orange with a dark dorsal stripe down its length.  Females and juveniles have brown eyes and a pale face, yellowish thorax, and abdomen yellow throughout with the same dark dorsal stripe as the male.  On the wing from late April to early October, this skimmer prefers marshy ponds and lakes, and is often found perching low on vegetation surrounding or overhanging the water.

Needham's Skimmer, male

Comanche Skimmers can be found on the wing from May to mid-October, around springs, seeps, and sluggish areas of clear-running streams.  The male has aqua-blue eyes, a white face, and both thorax and abdomen with a uniformly blue pruinescence.  The wings are clear but for a bi-colored black and white pterostigma, a group of specialized cells in the leading edge of the wing towards the wing tip.  Females and juveniles have reddish-brown to pale blue eyes and a pale face, a cream-colored thorax with broad dark shoulder stripes, and a mostly yellow abdomen with a broad dark dorsal stripe running down the length.

Comanche Skimmer, male

Brave the heat during these hot months of the year and take a walk around a pond, stroll along a stream, or be on the lookout when on the lake, because you just might see one of these interesting summertime skimmers!