October 28, 2012
Last week migrating Monarch butterflies reached their peak in numbers as they passed through our part of southwestern Texas, heading for highland central Mexico. We described that passage at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/monarch.htm.
Something not mentioned then was that often among the gatherings of Monarchs at wildflower spots there were other darker butterflies who were very similar to Monarchs when viewed from the side but looked completely different from Monarchs when viewed from above. You can see this yourself. First, look at a Monarch from the side at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/uvalde/018.jpg.
Now look at this darker species from the side at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/uvalde/020.jpg.
Finally, look at this other species from above, and you'll see that it's very unlike the Monarch as seen from above, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/uvalde/016.jpg.
This "other species" is the very closely related (same genus) Queen butterfly, DANAUS GILIPPUS, commonly encountered throughout the American tropics and warmer regions from Brazil up through Central America and Mexico into the US's Deep South states from southern California to Florida. Like Monarchs, Queens are migratory, though they travel much shorter distances. Also like Monarchs, Queen caterpillars feed mostly on members of the Milkweed Family.
Our neighbor lets her critters run loose so Minnie the Cow spends a lot of time on the cabin's grassy area grazing and depositing big, soft blobs of poop. I transfer the poop to a bucket of water, for making "manure tea," which keeps my favorite plants green and robust.
However, just the greasy places left where the poop falls draw flies, and Minnie's broad sides usually are splotched with great, dark gatherings of flies by the thousands. When we sit outside for our meals, the flies buzz all about so naturally one wonders whether they are regular House Flies or something else, since they're from Minnie and not the house. I photographed one of Minnie's flies perched beside my dinner plate. The fly is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028fl.jpg.
In fly identification, wing venation is very important. Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario didn't have fly venation diagrams, so she posted our picture at BugGuide.net. In just a couple of hours John Carr, a software specialist at MIT in Massachusetts but whose hobby is bugs, had labeled it: Face Fly, also called Autumn House-Fly, MUSCA AUTUMNALIS. It's the same genus as the House Fly but a different species. It's widespread throughout most of Europe, Central Asia, also northern India, Pakistan, China, and some parts of North Africa, and was introduced into North America around the 1940s. Now it's spread through most of the US and into southern Canada.
Face Flies feed on the juices in manure, and plant sugars. On cattle and horses they feed on secretions around the eyes, mouth and nostrils, plus they feed on blood oozing from wounds such as Horse-fly bites. Most flies pestering a cow will be females because they're the ones needing most the protein in the cow's juices and blood. During the night they rest on vegetation. Face Flies do spread diseases among animals, such as eyeworm and pinkeye.
As we have our meals outside each day, we'll be checking on whether they're all the same species.
It seemed that one day the big pricklypear cactus beside the back door was getting along just fine, then the next it was absolutely crawling with hundreds of the red and dark gray-brown, ¼-inch long (6mm) bugs shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028ca.jpg.
This is a member of the True Bug insect order, the Hemiptera -- along with cicadas, aphids and leafhoppers -- so it undergoes incomplete metamorphosis. Therefore, instead of this bug's life cycle consisting of egg-larva-pupa-adult, it is egg-nymph-adult. Nymphs are like adults, except that their wings aren't developed and they're smaller. Plenty of this bug's nymphs ranged the cactus along with the grown-ups. You can see a nymph at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028cb.jpg.
In that image you can see the nymph's future wings budding behind its head.
Besides nymphs and individual adults, some adult bugs were busy making more of their numbers, as shown at shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028cc.jpg.
Volunteer bug identifier Bea in Ontario had no problems finding the name for this one. It's the Cactus Bug, HESPEROLOBOPS GELASTOPS, occurring only on pricklypear cacti (genus Opuntia), and found mostly in cactus-rich Mexico, but also in the US, inTexas cactus country. In Mexico where edible Nopal Cactus, which is a spineless pricklypear, is grown on a large scale, Cactus Bugs can be very destructive.
FLEA BEETLE ATTACK
The day after I arrived here two months ago I planted a winter garden in the five raised beds next to the cabin. Now the beds are producing all the greens and salad ingredients we can eat. You can see the beds at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028pg.jpg.
There you see, from bottom left upward, mustard greens, turnips, Japanese radishes, then in the background Chinese cabbage at the right and at the left bok choy, tat soi and cilantro. In the main garden there are other crops, such as spinach, kohlrabi, onions, lettuce, many more turnips, and even tomato vines bearing egg-sized green tomatoes.
One problem with the plants in the five raised beds is that everything in them except the cilantro is a member of the Mustard Family. In other words, I've almost created a monoculture there, and monocultures always are ecologically unstable. When you make monocultures, you're just asking for trouble.
So far there's been little problem with insects -- until this week, on the same day the Cactus Bugs appeared in such large numbers. Then, in a matter of two days, suddenly there was a population explosion of tiny black beetles that left every leaf in the picture -- except, oddly, those of the Japanese radishes -- punctured with many holes. When I put my nose up to a leaf to identify the beetle doing the damage, it helped me figure out who it was by simply disappearing from where it'd been. It had jumped away so fast that my brain couldn't register its movement. Therefore: It was a beetle that jumped like a flea, so my beds were plagued by flea beetles! You can see a couple of them, their bodies only about 3/16ths of an inch long (2mm), and some of the damage they cause to leaves, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028ph.jpg.
On the Internet it was easy enough to identify this flea beetle infesting members of the Mustard Family. It's the Crucifer Flea Beetle, PHYLLOTRETA CRUCIFERAE, the word "crucifer" deriving from the old name of the Mustard Family, the Crucifereae. Now the Mustard Family is called the Brassicaceae, so people have begun speaking of "brassicaceous" crops instead of "cruciferous" ones. Anyway, Crucifer Flea Beetles are native to Eurasia but now are spread throughout North America.
In the above photo you wonder how such tiny insects could create such large holes in the leaves. What happens is that the insects eat emerging leaves when they are tender and small. Small holes in small leaves become large holes when the leaves grow large.
The best way to avoid infestation by Crucifer Flea Beetles is to separate brassicaceous crops by plantings of members of other families -- to avoid creating a monoculture. Also, brassicaceous crops should be alternated with non-brassicaceous ones year after year. The problem is that for winter gardens the preponderance of eligible crops are brassicaceous. Once you have Crucifer Flea Beetles, they're hard to get rid of without using hard chemicals. Studies show that organic pyrethrin doesn't keep the beetles from feeding, nor does treatment of plants with kaolin, and even vacuuming them off doesn't control them.
Hopefully, colder weather will take care of them.
Scattered around Uvalde at this time of year are large, circular, irrigated fields of cabbage, which are sprayed by airplanes. I'm wondering if maybe this has something to do with my own infestation.
BOK CHOY/ PAK CHOI/ ETC.
I suspect that the main reason this week we've experienced sudden outbreaks of both Cactus Bugs and Crucifer Flea Beetles is because so far this fall it's been unusually hot -- into the upper 80s and lower 90s all week. Probably that's also the reason many of my Mustard Family plantings have "bolted" -- begun flowering when I'd much rather they use their photosynthesized carbohydrate to make succulent leaves for me to eat. You can see a bolting Bok Choy plant at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028bk.jpg.
Actually, it's kind of nice seeing the fresh, springy yellowness of these mustard flowers in October, a sort of preview of the upcoming spring. You can just feel the springiness in the flower close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028bl.jpg.
This blossom shows a typical Mustard Family blossom with its four petals forming the cross, or "crux" of "Crucifereae," the old name for the Mustard Family. And framed by those four petals are six stamens, four long and two short ones, exactly as the family requires. That 4+2 stamen configuration technically is said to be "tetradynamous."
The preponderance of members of the Mustard Family in my Texas winter garden is even more interesting when you realize that just one genus of that family produces a large percentage of cultivars -- the "coles" or mustards. It's the genus Brassica.
The Mustard Family, the Brassicaceae, contains over 330 genera and about 3,700 species, and Brassica isn't even one of the very largest genera, including only about 30 wild species. However, within that genus Brassica you find whole rainbows of species and varieties and strains that are important crops, and often are very dissimilar in appearance even when they are extremely closely related. For example, among the cultivars of Brassica napus are rutabaga, canola and rapeseed. The single species Brassica oleracea produces cabbage, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and kohlrabi. Brassica rapa gives us turnips, Chinese cabbage, and various oriental plants most of us have never heard of, but which are wonderful creations, such as rapini and komatsuna.
My bolting Bok Choy can be considered a kind of Chinese cabbage. And the world of Chinese cabbage is a large, diverse and confusing one, one in which English speaking Westerners haven't yet settled on the names and concepts of things. Some people say Bok Choy is the same as Pak Choi, and others swear they're different things. Then there are many traditional, named cultivars of Bok Choy, such as Hanakan, Mei Qing Choi, Red Tatsoi, etc. You might enjoy exploring the Bok Choy page of the Kitazawa Seed Company online catalog at http://www.kitazawaseed.com/seeds_pak_choi.html.
What a wonderful thing is this Mustard Family, and this genus Brassica, and how I'm looking forward to planting, growing and digesting as many variations on the Mustard Family and Brassica themes as I can... if I can just get my Crucifer Flea Beetles under control.
EATING PYRACNTHA FRUITS
On a cobblestone and gravel bar in the floodplain of the little Dry Frio River running behind the cabin there's a small ornamental tree whose origins are long forgotten, or never known. These days it's resplendent with heavy clusters of pea-sized, orangish-red fruits, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028py.jpg.
You'll probably recognize these as pyracantha fruits, since pyracanthas are very commonly planted in cities, often between sidewalks and the bases of buildings, where their bright fall and winter fruits add color to the landscape. About seven species of pyracantha are recognized, all native to an area extending from Southeastern Europe to Southeastern Asia. Our Dry Frio species easily is distinguished from other planted species by the dense, grayish hairiness of its leaves and stems, and by the narrowness and bluntness of its leaves. It's the Narrowleaf Firethorn or Narrowleaf Pyracantha, PYRACANTHA ANGUSTIFOLIA, native to southwestern China.
Pyracanthas as a group generally are somewhat thorny, as is ours. Narrowleaf Firethorn's thorns are worth noticing, for they display an intermediate evolutionary stage between a stem and a regular thorn. They bear leaves as if they were stems, but they're definitely sharp-pointed, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028px.jpg.
My Estonian lady-friend Malle, who is living with me in the cabin beside the Dry Frio, sometimes comez up with some surprising ideas. One of them was uttered when she saw our Narrowleaf Firethorn so heavy with fruits. "Those are good to eat," she said.
I was sure I'd read that pyracantha fruits are inedible, maybe even poisonous, and certainly when I've tasted the fruits of other pyracantha species in years past I wasn't impressed. However, this time, mostly to humor Malle, I nibbled on one, and found that it had a fair amount of pleasant tasting flesh surrounding five tiny, crunchy, black seeds. You can see a fruit with a dislodged seed at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028pz.jpg.
So, we picked a hatful and later that day enjoyed a dish of mashed-together potatoes, carrots, celery and pyracantha fruits. It was delicious, though the tiny, hard seeds made for a slightly disconcerting crunchiness. Malle, who watches what she eats, glowed with the notion that she'd found such a convenient local source of nutritional carotene.
In fact, on the Internet I found a published study asserting that the ripe fruit of Pyracantha angustifolia "... constitutes the only practical source of pro-gamma-carotene at the present time."
However, the current Wikipedia page for Pyracantha angustifolia unequivocally states that the fruits of Narrowleaf Firethorn are "astringent and bitter, making them inedible for humans, but they are a food source for birds. The leaves, fruit and seeds contain hydrogen cyanide, the source of the bitter taste."
Later we realized that Malle had confused the pyracantha with another tree, one called Astelpaju in Estonian, so Estonians do not habitually eat pyracantha fruits. However, now we do know that our Narrowleaf Pyracantha's fruits taste pretty good, have lots of carotene in them, and after you eat a handful of them you still feel pretty good!
We also eat "juniper berries" -- Ashe Juniper fruits -- in our soups, but that's another story.
Now that the fall Monarch Butterfly migration is winding down, on warm, sunny days -- of which there are plenty here -- you can still see lots of butterflies. There's still a few Monarchs, plus a scattering of Queens, always some Gulf and Variegated Fritillaries, Pipevine Swallowtails, Bordered Patches, and others... And maybe the best place to see butterflies is on the lower slopes of our wooded hills, in the Dry Frio's floodplain and along roadsides, where there's a lot of the blue-blossomed Composite wildflower shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028co.jpg.
A flower-head close-up showing the complete absence of petal-like ray flowers, but with two slender, blue style-branches emerging from each of the closely packed disk flowers, is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028cp.jpg.
Breaking open the flower head, you can see that each developing ovary, or future dry, one-seeded fruit, is topped with numerous very slender, stiff hairs or bristles, which constitute the pappus. Once the fruit is mature, the white bristles will behave like a parachute and help the fruit disseminate via the wind. Also notice that there are no papery, fingernail-like items, or paleas, separating the ovaries. These are very important field marks that help in identification. Many other similar wildflowers have different kinds of pappi, or no pappus at all, or maybe their ovaries are separated by paleas.
Folks knowing their wildflowers but not experienced in species of the US Desert Southwest may feel confident that here we're looking at the Blue Mistflower, Conoclinium coelestinum, one of eastern North America's best known and most common fall wildflowers, but it's not. A look at the deeply dissected leaves will prove that, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028cr.jpg.
Our plant is closely related -- in the same genus, Conoclinium -- but it's found mostly in arid northern Mexico, extending into the US only in southern Arizona and New Mexico and western Texas. It's CONOCLINIUM DISSECTUM, in English known by names such as Palmleaf Mistflower, Palmleaf Thoroughwort, Purple Palmleaf Mistflower, Gregg's Mistflower, and Boothill Eupatorium.
Palmleaf Mistflower looks so at home along our roadsides that you wonder what's keeping it from expanding away from its desert and semi-desert homeland. I suppose it's a matter of its being unable to compete with species adapted for rainier regions, which in turn can't survive the extremes of our summers.
Whatever the reason, Palmleaf Mistflower adds an unexpected and very pleasing aspect to our landscape here, and the Monarchs and other butterflies active at this time of year must be very thankful for it.
In grassy, thin-soiled spots with limestone rocks lying about, among widely spaced Ashe Junipers and Texas Live Oaks on the lower slopes of limestone hills, often you see hundreds of little daisies with honey-scented, yellow-eyed, white flowers arranged so neatly and perfectly that they seem planted there, seem to be horticultural creations set there by someone with an eye for orderliness. You can see a small section of a large colony of this daisy at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028ma.jpg.
These are composite blossoms, so the white "petals" are actually ray flowers and the yellow "eyes" are composed of numerous closely-packed, yellow disk flowers. All this is perfectly normal for being a daisy, a member of the huge Composite or Sunflower Family.
You start noticing peculiarities about this blossom, however, if you look at it from behind. That's what we're doing at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028mb.jpg.
Each white ray flower is interestingly notched at its tip, and colored veins ornament the flat corollas. Also, the green involucre subtending the flowers is very unusual for a composite blossom. It looks like the calyx of a flower in a non-composite plant family, like a bowl with five lobes. Composite flower involucres more normally consist of many leafy, strap-shaped items called phyllaries, which overlap one another like roof shingles.
To see really odd field marks distinguishing this genus, however, you have to break the blossom apart and look at its structure, as we've done for a photo that only someone who enjoys flower anatomy could love, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028mc.jpg.
One thing that that mangled blossom shows is that the yellow disk flowers' maturing ovaries are separated from one another by pale, fingernail-like "paleae" that are jagged or "erose" at their tops. Lots of composite blossoms have no paleae at all, and the vast majority who do have paleae that are not erose.
The second, and most outstanding distinctive feature, are those strange, cup-like things surrounding the disk flowers. They look a little like saddle stirrups with black cucumbers stuck where the foot ought to go.
To understand what we're seeing there we need to know that in this genus the green, calyx-like involucre below the flower head forms into two unlike parts consisting of the outer and the inner phyllaries. We've seen how the five outer phyllaries fuse to form a five-pointed bowl. Each inner phyllary partially wraps itself around a ray-flower ovary, forming a structure known as a perigynium. The matured fruit, known as a cypsela, falls as a unit with this perigynium.
This time last year in the Yucatan, each morning I jogged along a road that was gloriously yellow with what we called Butter Daisies. This abundant "weed" was Melampodium divaricatum, a species of the same genus we're looking at now, and one with the same basic curious flower structure, though its flowers were orange-yellow, not white with a yellow eye like our current subject. You might enjoy comparing our current flower-head's structure with that of a Butter Daisy at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/bu-daisy.htm.
Our neat little Texas wildflower is MELAMPODIUM LEUCANTHUM. In most literature its English name is given as the Black-foot Daisy, a name supposedly based on the fact that the mature fruits appear black at the "foot" of the flower head's raised, yellow "eye." Another name seems more appropriate to me, Rock Daisy, so that's what we'll call it here.
Rock Daisies are native to arid northern Mexico and much of the US southwestern aridlands, from Arizona to Colorado and Kansas, south through Oklahoma to here. The Flora of North America describes its habitat as open sites, grasslands, roadcuts, and arid or desert scrublands. Here sometimes Rock Daisies do occur along roads but mainly they're on the lower, rock-strewn slopes of our limestone hills.
Rock Daisies are exceptionally suited for rock gardens in areas where there's plenty of heat, sun and dryness.
THORN APPLE PRODUCING ITS THORNY APPLES
In our October 7th Newsletter we looked at the Thorn Apple with its spectacular white flowers, and commented on the traditional indigenous use of its seeds as a hallucinogen -- one that can be dangerous if not used right. Our Thorn Apple page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/datura-i.htm.
Nowadays the Thorn Apples are producing their spiny fruits, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028dt.jpg.
That fruit is interesting not only because of its prickles but also for its oversized, brown, papery calyx. I'm guessing that the large calyx catches in the wind and shakes the fruit when it is shedding seeds.
I believe that the fruit in the picture has been opened by an animal, probably a bird, to get at the seeds. Thorn Apple fruits open irregularly, not along defined sutures as in most fruits that split upon maturity. However, one clue that this fruit has been irregularly opened by an animal is the seed lying atop the capsule.
BUSHY BLUESTEM GRASS
On a tiny island of gravel and cobbles inches above the little Dry Seco's ankle-deep waters, nowadays a certain perennial clumpgrass is drawing attention to itself by issuing bushy, waist-high, salmon-orange inflorescences burgeoning with tiny, parachuted fruits. The inflorescences arise from shorter, summer-green blades, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028an.jpg.
The bushy tops can be fanned out to show that the inflorescence is a panicle with branches tipped by racemes, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028ap.jpg.
When the fruits are mature and ready for dispersal by wind, the long-haired spikelets break from their places and the hairs catch in the wind. You can see some spikelets ready for wind dispersal, gathered at the top of the inflorescence in the picture, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028ao.jpg.
Just by its general aspect you might recognize this as one of that important group of grasses variously referred to as broomsedges, bluestems or beardgrasses -- members of the genus Andropogon. Andropogon comprises 100120 species mainly found in the grasslands of Africa and the Americas. Five species are described in Shinners & Mahler's Flora of North Central Texas. And Andropogon species are among the most important grasses of North America's vast grassland prairies. So, which Andropogon is this?
Sometimes it's hard to distinguish Andropogon species, but this species is distinctive, not only because of how its much-bushier-than-usual inflorescence gathers so densely at the top, but also by its moist-soil habitat. The species I'm most familiar with all prefer dry soils.
This is the Bushy or Brushy Bluestem, ANDROPOGON GLOMERATUS, found from Central America up through Mexico into about the southern half of the US. It's not one of the better-known beardgrasses, but it is robust and pretty enough for good gardeners to like it when they have moist soil in full sunlight needing to be occupied by an accent plant.
On the cobblestone bars in the little Dry Frio River it's easy to find rocks like those shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/121028ch.jpg.
Because of their sharp corners it's tempting to call these flint rocks, flint being the stone from which America's indigenous folks knapped their projectile points. However, these rocks have too many "impurities" to be flint. Good flint -- rock that can be chipped into pieces possessing very sharp edges -- is glassier. Its broken surfaces shine with a waxy luster. They're "vitreous," a geologist would say. The broken faces of the rocks in my hand are too dull, and their sharp angles are not sharp enough, to be good flint.
If I had to designate what kind of rocks they are I'd call them chalcedony. Various pronunciations of "chalcedony" are accepted, but the preferred seems to be "Kal-SED-uh-nee."
The term chalcedony is a general one, a kind of catch-all term, which explains why the three rocks in the pictures can be of such different colors. Chalcedony is basically quartz, or silicon dioxide, containing small and varying amounts of other minerals, especially iron and aluminum. That accounts for the different colors. The redder rock in the picture would contain more iron, while the white one would have more aluminum. If the rocks were absolutely pure quartz, or silicon dioxide, they'd be crystalline, the crystals being hexagonal in shape, and transparent.
Some of chalcedony's various forms are bright and colorful enough to be regarded as semiprecious stones -- stones that can be polished and used for jewelry. If chalcedony is brightly red or brownish red and clear, it might be classified as carnelian or sard. If it's composed of layers of carnelian and sard, it's sardonyx or onyx. If it's bright green with red spots, it's heliotrope or bloodstone. If it's variegated or banded, it's agate. If it's agate with mosslike or treelike inclusions, it's chrysoprase. If it's variegated and mottled red, yellow and/or brown, it's jasper. And if it chips into very sharp edges and its faces display a waxy luster, it's flint.
While it's unusual to find chalcedony in these semiprecious forms, often you find chalcedony rocks clearly tending toward the semiprecious state. The reddish one in the picture, if it tried a little harder, well might qualify as carnelian or sard, but its luster is just too dull and there's little clearness to it. The blackish rock is tending toward flint, but it lacks a waxy luster and its chipped edges aren't not sharp enough.
If the rocks were even duller in luster and showing even more rounded edges -- if there were more "impurities" in them -- instead of calling the rocks chalcedony we'd call them chert. Chert is quartz, or silicon dioxide, mixed with so many other minerals that it's sort of a "mongrel rock," generally pale orange-rusty and fracturing into very dull angles.
Chalcedony is to be expected in a geological environment such as a cobblestone bar in the Dry Frio River, for the Dry Frio issues from off the Edwards Plateau, which is mainly Cretaceous limestone. That limestone was once calcium-rich mud at the bottom of a warm, shallow sea. The mud also contained silica, iron, aluminum and other minerals.
It's the nature of mud on its way to becoming stone that through the agencies of time and pressure from above, atoms of mineral elements diffused throughout the mud migrate to join together, coagulate within the mud like oil droplets suspended in water. When the mud becomes rock, these "bubbles" of mineral concentrations form different rock than what surrounds them.
Atoms of silica in this environment combine with oxygen -- the third most common element in the Universe, after hydrogen and helium -- to form silicon dioxide. If the coagulations are pure silicon dioxide, quartz crystals form. If certain small amounts of other elements are present, chalcedony may form, and if there there's a lot of other elements, chert may form.
It all makes sense, this landscape, and the things in it. It's all a great and wonderful music, if only you take the time to listen.
FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:
"Wind," from the December 29, 2008 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/081229.htm.
"Wind" from the September 9, 2010 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/100912.htm.
Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,
All previous Newsletters are archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.
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