Tuesday, April 24, 2012

April Wildflowers

The longer I live in Texas, the shorter the springs seem to get.  One moment the trees are bare and I'm appreciating the shapes of their branches against the blue skies of early February, noticing with alarm that the elms and ashes are already glowing in yellow-green, getting ready to flower, and, seemingly, the next moment I'm worried about keeping the back door closed between trips to the garden because the air conditioner is running and summer is here.  Already.  Again.

Luckily, for some sense of perspective, I take pictures.  Recently I uploaded a huge batch of photos onto the computer and then watched the "last import" as a slide show on super slow, ten seconds per picture, while listening to Fleetwood Mac's Over My Head on repeat on the headphones, because ever since catching a clip of that song on a late-night infomercial for the Midnight Special DVD collection, I can't get it out of my head.  Not to mention that Over My Head, the sentiments of it, of falling for a guy that's wrong for you but doing it anyway, because it sure feels nice, well, that about summarizes my feelings for the Austin summer after fifteen years of living here.  I know it's going to hurt me yet I am still hopeful that this year will be the one, the rainy summer when June is defined by thunderstorms, the tomatoes produce into July, the creeks run into August, and the Greenbelt is the seven-mile water park that it can be.  You can take me to that paradise anytime.

So, anyway, as I was watching those pictures, one at a time, all 134 of them, I realized that spring, though quick, was actually a process, not the overnight event that it felt like.  Even more amazingly, I was there.  I was hiking at the Greenbelt with Lee in late January when the red buckeyes leafed out even earlier that usual, and I was there again in February to notice the creep of green into the ground-level of the landscape, as the winter annuals and grasses emerged through the leaf layer.  I was there in March when the backyard colony of Spiderworts bloomed in purple and blue, I was out on the trail in the midst of this year's bluebonnet season, and I was back at the Greenbelt to see the green leap upward as the grasses flowered in blue and the vines and shrubs and trees leafed out.

Spiderworts (Tradescantia sp.) in the backyard

Then April arrived and, with it, the transition to summer.  Days got hot, nights got humid, and the end loomed near.  I realized that I ought to get outside into the last days of spring, to record the diversity of this year's wildflowers, before the ovens turned on.  Last April I found the best trail-side wildflower viewing at McKinney Falls State Park, where Lee and I hiked the Homestead Trail and saw many spring wildflowers.  So this April we returned to McKinney Falls, this time to check out the wildflowers along the Onion Creek Trail.

We walked counterclockwise from the parking lot by the Upper Falls.  The first section of the trail followed the floodplain of Onion Creek, where a mix of tall trees, mostly pecan, cedar elm, hackberry, and, adjacent to the creek, bald cypress and sycamore, shaded the trail.  Because of the shade, the understory was patchy, a mix of leafy, open forest floor and shade-tolerant perennials and shrubs.  The most common wildflower along that section of trail was Blue Curls.  In my thinking, Blue Curls is the shady-places wildflower of April in the Austin area, but I may be biased by so many hours spent on the Greenbelt Trail, where Blue Curls is a major player each spring.

Blue Curls (Phacelia congesta)

Blue Curls is easily recognized by its curling inflorescences of many blue, five-petal flowers accented by long, yellow-tipped stamens.  The inflorescence of Blue Curls is known as a "scorpioid cyme" – scorpioid for the curling, scorpion's-tail shape and cyme for the type of inflorescence (group of flowers) where the terminal, or end, flower blooms first.  Blue Curls (Phacelia congesta) is in the Hydrophyllaceae Family, a surprise to me given that the scorpioid cyme is a hallmark of the Boraginaceae, or Borage Family.  But my botanical instincts proved to be correct when I looked up the Hydrophyllaceae and discovered that it is one of those contested plant families that is thought to be either a subfamily of or closely related to the Boraginaceae.  Blue Curls, borage or not, is a striking wildflower that is common throughout the Hill Country, blooming blue from March to May.

A relative of Blue Curls, which also blooms blue in the spring in shady spots in central Texas, is Baby Blue Eyes.  The single flowers of Baby Blue Eyes are light blue to purple with white centers, and each of the five petals is has a rounded notch.  Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophilia phacelioides) is a winter annual that grows in shady woodlands, canyons, and streamsides, blooming March to May.

Baby Blue Eyes (Nemophilia phacelioides)

Soft-Hair Marbleseed, a Borage Family plant that also has a scorpioid cyme, was blooming in a couple of the sunnier places along the first stretch of trail.  Each flower of Soft-Hair Marbleseed (Onosmodium bejariense) is white and tubular, with a spire-like tip.  Soft-Hair Marbleseed grows in open woodlands and on roadsides in the southeastern part of the Hill Country and blooms in March and April.

Soft-Hair Marbleseed (Onosmodium bejariense)

Another of the wildflowers that I noticed along the Onion Creek section of the trail was a rare treat, the Scarlet Leatherflower.  The unique, vase-shaped pink flowers of the Scarlet Leatherflower grow on a vine with asymmetric leaves that, if not for the lobe on one side that makes each leaf asymmetric, would be heart-shaped.  Scarlet Leatherflower (Clematis texensis) is a uncommon vine that grows over cliffs and shrubs in shady areas near streams in our area.   In fact, as a Hill Country endemic, ours is the only area in the world where it grows, blooming in its striking flowers April through June.

Scarlet Leatherflower (Clematis texensis)

One of the understory shrubs, Wafer Ash, was also in bloom, nearing the end of its flowering season.  Wafer Ash (Ptelea trifoliata) grows as a shrub to small tree in shady, woodland areas in central Texas.  It is commonly found growing underneath the mix of pecan, cedar elm, hackberry, and Spanish oak trees that grow along our waterways.  Its Latin species name, trifoliata, refers to its leaves-of-three, which often lead hikers to fear that it is Poison Ivy.  The leaves of Wafer Ash can be distinguished from those of Poison Ivy by the lack of notches in the leaflets.  While Poison Ivy has notched leaflets, the three leaflets that make up a Wafer Ash leaf are smooth, non-notched ovals.  The common name of the shrub refers to the thin, wafer-like fruits (actually samaras, like those of elm trees) that form after the flowers fade in late spring.

Wafer Ash (Ptelea trifoliata)

Filling out the ground layer of the understory were colonies of False Day Flower.  When I mentioned earlier that, in March, I was there to see the green leap upward as the grasses flowered in blue what I really meant is that I was there to see the huge colonies of False Day Flower form flowering shoots and bloom.  If Blue Curls is my shady-places wildflower of April, then False Day Flower is my shady-places wildflower of March, because, though it is botanically inaccurate to say that the grasses flowered in blue, that is what it feels like in March along the streams of the Hill Country.   False Day Flower (Tinantia anomala) is a monocot, which is why it has grass-like leaves, but it is not a grass; instead it is a relative of the spiderworts that grow in my backyard.  Its flowers are blue, with two petals and three tufted upper stamens that look like two eyes and a nose.  False Day Flower is a winter annual that germinates in the fall, grows through the winter, and leaps into flower in the early spring, forming large colonies of what look like blue-flowered grasses along waterways and on moist, shaded slopes.  False Day Flower blooms from March to May.

Colony of False Day Flowers (Tinantia anomala)

False Day Flower (Tinantia anomala)

About a third of the way around the loop, the trail climbed away from Onion Creek onto higher land above the floodplain and the taller, eastern-forest trees of the bottomland gave way to live oak, mesquite, and cedar (Ashe juniper).  Along this dryer section of trail, woodland was interspersed with open fields populated by grasses, wildflowers, and cacti.

The abundant cactus in the grassy breaks was the Texas Prickly Pear, which was blooming in showy yellow flowers, some of which had orange-tinted centers.  Texas Prickly Pear (Optunia engelmannii var. linheimeri) is common in fields and pastures of central and south Texas, where it grows aggressively, forming wide and tall thickets of spiny cactus pads.  To ranchers, it is a pest, but to wildlife, it is a food source.  The flowers are especially important to native bees, but they must also be a great nectar source for a variety of insects because whenever I find a Prickly Pear in bloom and look into the flowers, I find an array of flies, bees, and beetles feverishly chomping away.  Birds and animals eat the red fruit, called tunas, that form in the late summer.  Humans can eat the tunas as well, but be forewarned that the fruit, just like the cactus pads of the Texas Prickly Pear, have tufts of miniature, barbed spines, called glochids, that are hard to see and even harder to remove from your skin once attached.  Texas Prickly Pear blooms in the spring.

Texas Prickly Pear (Optunia engelmannii var. linheimeri)

The open, sunny fields between the woodlands were filled with wildflowers, some that I've written about recently, like Prairie Verbena (Verbena bipinnatifida) and Texas Star (Lindheimera texana), some that I saw last year on the Homestead Trail, like Prairie Larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum) and Engelmann's Daisy (Engelmannia peristenia), and some that I haven't yet had the chance to document, like Standing Winecup.  Of all the wildflowers in bloom, Standing Winecup was the stand out, blooming in bright magenta with tall flowers elevated above the sea of green grasses, cacti, and shrubs.

Prickly Pear, False Day Flower, Winecup, and Indian Blanket

Standing Winecap (Callirhoe digitata) is one of the poppy mallows of our area, a relative of hibiscus and Turk's Cap.  Standing Winecap is a drought-tolerant perennial that grows in fields and open woods, preferring rocky, dry soils, and blooms from April to June.  Like other Mallow Family plants, the stamens and pistil of Standing Winecap are fused into a single column in the center of the flower, the petals of which can be reddish-purple, dark purple, or white.

Standing Winecap (Callirhoe digitata)

The flowers of Indian Blanket, red and yellow in co-centric circles like a floral bull's eye, also stood out in the green landscape.  Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella) is one of the famous and popular wildflowers of central Texas because it grows happily along our highways and in open grassy areas throughout central and western Texas.  Indian Blanket is heat- and drought-tolerant and reseeds easily, established large, dense colonies in areas with limestone soils and good drainage.  The flowers of Indian Blanket, on the plants from April through June, are important to native bees.

Indian Blanket (Gaillardia pulchella)

Brown-Eyed Susan, like Indian Blanket, is a Sunflower Family plant that also establishes large, showy colonies in open fields or woodland breaks with sandy or well-draining soil.  The ray flowers (the part of the sunflower inflorescence that looks like the petals) of Brown-Eyed Susan are yellow with a red-brown spot at the base and tend to droop downward.  The disc flowers at the center of the inflorescence are packed tightly together to form a purple-brown cone.  The flowers of Brown-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta) provide nectar for butterflies and bees, and the seeds are food for birds.  Brown-Eyed Susan is an annual to short-lived perennial that blooms April to June.

Brown-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Yarrow, a wildflower that is common throughout North America, is a perennial with ferny, lacy leaves that grows as a rosette in the early spring before producing tall flowering stalks in the spring.  Each flowering stalk holds many white clusters of flowers that bloom from March to June.  Yarrow (Achillea millefolium) is common where soils are disturbed, preferring partial shade such as at the edge of a woodland.  Yarrow flowers provide nectar to native bees.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

The blue-purple with white flowers of Mealy Sage were also starting to bloom along the trail.  Mealy Sage (Salvia farinacea) gets its name from the white-hairy sepals that cover the flowers before they bloom, giving the flower stalks a fuzzy (or mealy?) look.  Mealy Sage is a drought-tolerant perennial that prefers sunny locations with limestone soils, making it a good match for central Texas.  Mealy Sage blooms in April and May, or after summer rains, providing nectar for butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds.

Mealy Sage (Salvia farinacea)

A few huge pink-violet blooms of Texas Thistle stood on tall stems above the mass of grasses and spring wildflowers.  Texas Thistle, a drought-tolerant biennial, grows in dry fields and roadsides throughout the state.  Though often viewed as a weed, Texas Thistle (Cirsium texanum) is an important nectar source, providing food for butterflies, bees, and bumblebees, and its seeds are eaten by birds.  Texas Thistle blooms from April to July.

Texas Thistle (Cirsium texanum)

Bull Nettle is another wildflower that stands out in a crowd.  With large, hairy, lobed leaves and spiny stems, Bull Nettle (Cnidoscolus texanus) looks intimidating, as it should, given that the whole plant is covered in stinging hairs that cause a burning rash when touched.  The bright white, star-shaped flowers only make the plant more noticeable in the spring.  Bull Nettle is a common perennial that tolerates the heat and drought of central Texas, blooming into the summer.

Bull Nettle (Cnidoscolus texanus)

The last section of the trail looped back to the Upper Falls.  For Lee and me, the best part of visiting the park is walking between the falls, enjoying the huge Bald Cypress trees along the creek and scrambling across the volcanic rock on either side of the Lower Falls.  In between the falls, growing out of a rocky outcrop, I found another lovely wildflower blooming.  Greenthread, a Sunflower Family annual that is named for its narrow-leaved foliage, blooms in bright yellow from April to June.  Greenthread (Thelesperma filifolium) prefers dry, sandy or gravely soils and provides nectar for butterflies.  I think this was my best picture of the day.

Greenthread (Thelesperma filifolium)

In the canyon along Onion Creek, in between the falls, a population of Rough-Leaf Dogwood trees grows.  Dogwood trees are rare in central Texas, limited to shady bottomlands where water is year-round and taller trees, like the old Bald Cypress along Onion Creek, provide shade.  In other words, the dogwoods in Texas are a relic of a wetter time, southern outliers of trees that, in these times, are found mainly in eastern or western forests, not in the dry middle of the continent.  Yet we have a population of Rough-Leaf Dogwood (Cornus drummondii) right here at McKinney Falls, so I am always happy to see them.  I was especially pleased on this visit because the small trees were blooming.  The leaves of Rough-Leaf Dogwood are oval-shaped and rough to the touch, with wavy edges and parallel veins.  Their white flowers are cross-shaped, with four petals, and are clustered together into large inflorescences.  The Rough-Leaf Dogwoods bloom in April and May.

Rough-Leaf Dogwood (Cornus drummondii)

We ended our hike at the field across from the parking lot, where the April wildflowers had turned the open space into a sea of yellow sunflowers punctuated by the red of Indian Blanket, the blue of Texas Bluebonnet, and a few tall, white flowers.  The white flowers that stood above the rest on prickly, blue-green foliage belonged to White Prickly Poppy (Argemone albiflora), a drought-tolerant wildflower that is common in abandoned fields and roadsides in central Texas.  With its prickly growth habit and seeds that are toxic, White Prickly Poppy is regarded as weed, but its flowers are as beautiful as those of any domestic poppy and provide nectar for bees and beetles.

White Prickly Poppy (Argemone albiflora)

Spring came early this year and, with it, the sense that summer was never far behind.  Yet by mid-April, it felt like we were granted an extension, a few more weeks of the glorious, summer-up-north weather that we call spring.  I know that the real heat is just around the corner, but I also know that, counter to my instincts, this is not the time of year to think ahead.  These are the sunny days to enjoy.  But, still, I am hopeful that this will be the year that the rains continue, the year that the drought is lifted, the year that I get to write about summer wildflowers.  I know that it is foolish to place my hopes on the Texas summer.  But it sure feels nice.