JIM CONRAD'S
NATURALIST NEWSLETTER
Issued from the valley of the Dry Frio River on the
southern slope of the Edwards Plateau, northern
Uvalde County, southwestern Texas, USA

April 14, 2013

FERAL HOGS
In an open bottomland woods along the little Dry Frio River just south of here I spooked some black hogs rooting beneath the live oaks. That's them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130414pg.jpg.

Feral hogs are a big deal here, though you seldom see them in broad daylight like this. Mostly they're nocturnal; our wildlife camera strapped to a tree has photographed them walking down trails at night. Often you find spots where they've rooted up car-sized or even house-sized areas, and sometimes those spots are so gravelly or packed with cobblestones that you wonder how any animal with a fleshy nose could turn up the soil like that. Some wildlife experts say that, after the deer, feral hogs are our second-most abundant large, free-living animal.

The Texas Department of Agriculture estimates that Texas is home to nearly 2.6 million feral hogs; the Texas AgriLife Extension Service estimates that statewide annual economic damage caused by feral hogs is 500 million dollars. It's worth noting that North America's ecosystems did not evolve with wild swine rooting up the soil.

Feral hogs are swine that either at one time were released or got away and now are "wild," or, more commonly, they're the descendents of such hogs. But when you see feral hogs in the wild they're so edgy and streamlined looking, and usually colored black, that it's hard to believe they're just wild farm hogs or their descendents. Sometimes feral hogs are called Razorbacks.

At least around here several large ranches in the area have imported Russian Boars for commercial hunting, and the boars have mated with our feral hogs. That's possible because Russian Boars and feral hogs are the same species. The European Wild Boar, SUS SCROFA, of which the black to dark gray Russian Boar is a race, is the ancestor of the domestic pig, from which our feral hogs derive. In fact, pure-breed Russian Boars have virtually disappeared due to interbreeding with domestic hogs.

But, in our area, the issue is even more interesting. That's because here in southwestern Texas it's also possible to see pig-like Javelinas, also known as Collared Peccaries. A map showing the Javelina's distribution in the US -- demonstrating that in southern Uvalde County with its scrubby, semi-desert vegetation more than ten Javelinas or peccaries per square mile can be expected-- is at http://www.javelinahunter.com/images/bigpigmap.jpg.

Javelinas are streamlined, darkish critters known to the scientific world as Pecari tajacu. With that name you see that not only are they a different species, but also they belong to a different genus. In fact, they're also members of an entirely different family -- not in the Pig Family, the Suidae. They belong to the Tayassuidae, which means that Javelinas can't really be called pigs. The Tayassuidae is the Peccary Family, so javelinas or peccaries aren't pigs, they're their own thing: They're peccaries.

So, how do we know that our picture shows a feral hog and not a javelina? Anyone familiar with both recognizes the difference immediately. The Javelina's body sharpens into a funnel-shaped head with little detectable neck. Also, javelinas are smaller than hogs, bear unnoticeable tails, have only one dew claw on the hind foot, a scent gland near the base of their tail, a grizzled-grayish coat with a white band of hair around the shoulder or "collar," and are more social than hogs.

The insets at the top of our hog picture clearly show that these animals have distinct tails. At a distance, the amateur naturalist can look for that tail. Javelinas tails are just little nubs.

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RED SATYRS
For a couple of weeks a butterfly not noticed last fall has appeared, the one shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130414sz.jpg.

A view of one with open wings is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130414sy.jpg.

Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario immediately pegged that as a satyr -- a member of the subfamily Satyrinae in the enormous Brushfooted Butterfly Family, the Nymphalidae -- but she needed at least a minute or two to figure out that it was the Red Satyr, MEGISTO RUBRICATA.

These are smallish butterflies that will lead a camera-ready naturalist on a merry chase up and down an arroyo (dry streambed). For a good twenty minutes the one in the photograph would land on a cobblestone and wait until I was about ready to snap his picture, then fly a few feet away, and the whole process would be repeated, again and again. However, I thought that chasing a pretty butterfly is a relatively innocent and agreeable way to spend one's minutes, was not biosphere-degrading or morally corrupt in any way, plus it was good exercise, so I kept at it and eventually was rewarded with pictures.

I'm glad to add the Red Satyr to our "Butterflies of Uvalde County" page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/uvalde/ not only because it's good to see any butterfly at this time of year, but also because this is a species most North American butterfly fanciers never see unless they visit the arid south-central US. Red Satyrs live in open mesquite, juniper and oak-pine woodlands from Guatemala through Mexico, into the US in central Arizona in the west to south-central Kansas in the east. The species' caterpillars feed on grass species, so they must feel welcome here were so many prairie patches occur.

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SWEET ACACIA
Nowadays one of the prettiest and most welcome features of the spring landscape is the yellow-orange-flowering little tree shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130414ac.jpg.

The tree's orange color is produced by innumerable spherical, half-inch wide (13mm) flowering heads, some of which are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130414ad.jpg.

A flowering head broken apart to show individual flowers displaying brownish calyxes, and greenish-yellow corollas from which arise dense tufts of yellowish stamens is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130414ab.jpg.

In that picture, notice the ring of brown scales clustered beneath the point from which flowers arise. Below we'll see how the scales are helpful in this tree's identification.

The tree's tiny, expanding, twice-compound leaves with spines arising at their bases are seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130414ae.jpg.

And whitish spines on a young branch are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130414af.jpg.

With such flowers in such flower heads, and with such twice-compound leaves, and such slender spines at the bases of the leaves' petioles, you might guess that this is a member of the Mimosa Subfamily of the enormous Bean Family, and you might even remember that in that subfamily when you have flowers from which more than ten stamens emerge -- as is the case here -- you have an acacia. But, which acacia? Though recently the genus Acacia has been split into several genera, traditionally about 1300 Acacia species have been recognized. Our pictures show a tree traditionally thought of as an Acacia, but which now belongs to a different genus. Though most traditional Acacia species are Australian, about ten are listed for Texas.

In our area we have two traditional Acacia species producing yellow-orange flower heads on spiny twigs, and with twice-compound leaves. If you see their fruit pods, or legumes, they're easy to distinguish, but without fruits -- as is the case here -- it can be challenging.

However, one species, the Whitethorn Acacia, Acacia constricta, tends to be smallish and shrubbily many-branched from the base, while the one in our picture, the Sweet Acacia, also known as Prickly Acacia and Huisache, ACACIA FARNESIANA, is larger, and more likely to have a single definite trunk. As our picture shows, Sweet Acacia's branches tend to grow outward, creating a flat-topped, widely arching tree.

If you have a young, flowering individual, though, whose growth form still isn't obvious, you can still distinguish the Whitethorn Acacia from the Sweet. Remember those brown scales at the top of the flower-head stem, or peduncle. On Whitethorn Acacias the scales attach midway up the peduncle, while in Sweet Acacias the scales arise at the top, as we saw in our pictures. That is a sweet field mark to remember.

With insights gained from genetic sequencing, in 2005 the vast traditional genus Acacia was split into five genera, so now our Sweet Acacia no longer belongs to the genus Acacia. Now it's Vachellia farnesiana, though many web pages and field guides still list it as Acacia farnesiana.

Whatever technical name you use, Sweet Acacias are not only pretty but also very interesting and useful trees. You may want to read about the species' enormous distribution area in the Old World as well as the New, and its fame as a source for some of the best perfumery, on our Sweet Acacia Page at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/acacia-f.htm.

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LIVE OAKS LOSING/ADDING LEAVES
Texas Live Oaks are abundant here -- in most places "the other species" if a tree isn't an Ashe Juniper -- and right now they're doing something worth noting. You can see what at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130414qv.jpg.

Those fuzzy, yellow items dangling from the twigs are catkins of male flowers, but that's normal for oaks. What few other deciduous trees do but all of our live oaks are doing is issuing new leaves while many of last season's leaves are just now falling. With our live oaks, it's as is fall and spring were crammed into a few days in spring. In the picture, the two large leaves toward the top are last season's, while all the smaller leaves are just now emerging from buds.

In many towns, including San Antonio to our east, live oaks are often the main street tree, and this is the time of year when falling leaves must be dealt with. Many property owners now find outside their doors what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130414qw.jpg.

The shiny leaves are live oak leaves, and the dark brown, wormylike items are discarded catkins of male flowers, also from the live oaks. Sometimes a little rain creates considerable dams of live-oak leaves and catkins.

On leafing-out live oaks male catkins are hard to overlook, but unless you know what you're looking for you may not find female flowers, which will mature into the future acorns. They're tiny, greenish things in the axils of expanding new leaves toward the tips of new branches, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130414qu.jpg.

In that picture the green, vertical column at the left is a leaf petiole, so you can see how small the female flowers are. Oak female flowers bear no corolla or stamens. The three in the picture consist only of cuplike calyxes beneath spherical ovaries. Atop each ovary arise three styles, each with a sticky stigmatic area where pollen is supposed to land and germinate.

*****

PRAIRIE VERBENA FLOWERING
Probably the most conspicuously flowering spring wildflower along roads and trails, growing as a weed in my garden as well as in prairie patches on wooded hillsides and in the grasslands, is the ten-inch high (25cm), tough-stemmed-but-not-quite-woody, perennial herb with much-dissected, hairy leaves shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130414vb.jpg.

This is a variable plant occurring over a large distribution area in the central and southern US, into Mexico. Some taxonomists break it into several species but others say that it's just one that's very variable. Most wildflower books treat it the latter way, giving its binomial as GLANDULARIA BIPINNATIFIDA. However, it's impossible to say which common name such books might apply to it, since there are many. Among the most commonly encountered are Mock Vervain, Mock Verbena, Dakota Mock Vervain, Wright's Verbena, Prairie Verbena, Wright's Prairie Verbena and Moradilla. I'm calling it Prairie Verbena.

In the above names the terms "Verbena" and "Vervain" in everyday language are basically interchangeable. Technically they're applicable only to members of the genus Verbena. At one time our Prairie Verbena was assigned to that genus, so that's why so many of its names contain the words Verbena or Vervain, though often qualified as "mock." "Real" Verbenas tend to produce smaller flowers arranged in spike-type flower heads, in contrast to our Prairie Verbena's large flowers in flat-topped clusters.

Medicinally, Vervain species are thought of as relaxants -- of muscles, nerves and spirit. On the Internet I find Prairie Verbena referred to as a "Blessed Verbena" by an herbalist who uses verbena as a "...simple relaxant nervine and antispasmodic, mostly combined with Skullcap." Verbenas mellow out certain people to the point of being a mind-altering drug. You might be interested in looking over a long page of such comments at http://bearmedicineherbals.com/a-touchstone-the-blessed-verbena.html.

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RAIN LILIES FLOWERING
It rained a bit last week, so early this week the Rain Lilies were up, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130414zq.jpg.

At first I thought this was the same species that flowered en masse after a big rain last September, but gradually I began noticing little differences. This spring's plants seemed a bit larger than last September's and they tended to grew several feet apart while the ones last year were more likely to grow close together. This spring's plants occur mostly in grassy spots on lower, rocky slopes of limestone hills, while last year's plants occurred on the valley floor, often in disturbed soil.

So, here we have two Rain Lily species to deal with. Last September's Rain Lily was Zephyranthes chlorosolen, which you can review at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/rainlily.htm.

The Rain Lily flowering now is the closely related ZEPHYRANTHES DRUMMONDII.

Besides being larger in nearly every respect, this spring's Zephyranthes drummondii displays field marks that separate it from the smaller Z. chlorosolen, and you can see them at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130414zp.jpg.

There I've broken open a blossom. At the corolla tube's base, the slender item leaning out of the open tube is the ovary neck, or style, at the top of which is a three-parted stigma. The inset at the picture's upper right shows the stigma with its three stigma lobes looking like white, vertically held, thick fingers. The yellow gob at the very top of the stigma is a bunch of pollen left by a pollinator, not part of the stigma. Thing is, the smaller Rain Lily's style is relatively much longer, extending to the tube's opening. Also, the smaller Rain Lily's stigma is not three-lobed, but rather "capitate," or like a balled fist.

In your own wildflower book, if you look up our currently blooming Rain Lily, Z. drummondii, the older name, Cooperia pedunculata, may be used. It may also go by any of several common names, such as Texas Rainlily, Hill Country Rainlily, Evening Rain Lily, Prairie Lily, Thunder Lily and more. Rain lilies are currently placed in the Lily Family, though in the past sometimes they resided in the Amaryllis Family.

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PENNSYLVANIA PELLITORY
In mid February when the garden was fallow a certain non-flowering herb caught my attention because it formed very dense, dark green, soft-hairy, carpetlike patches here and there on abandoned beds and hills. You can see my fingers at that time nudging into its downy-feeling herbage at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130414pp.jpg.

As days began warming, the same herb appeared in many of my potted plants, needing to be pulled out. You can see a healthy specimen flowering in a pot of Aloe vera at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130414pq.jpg.

A close-up of its tiny flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130414pr.jpg.

In that picture the flower at the top, right shows an ovary surrounded by white, baglike anthers full of immature pollen. The shiny, curved, ribbonlike items at the flower's edge are incurved filaments, the stamens' "stems." This is a bisexual flower -- a flower with both male and female parts -- which becomes noteworthy when you know what plant this is, and what family it belongs to.

At first I thought the plant was Artillery Weed, Pilea microphylla, which has a knack for invading greenhouses and -- like our current fuzzy plant -- rooting in potted plants and seedbeds where it shouldn't be. Back in my student days we called Pilea microphylla Greenhouse Weed, and everyone knew what we were talking about. However, Pilea leaves are hairless, or "glabrous," while our present plant is abundantly hairy.

Our hairy plant is the Pennsylvania Pellitory, PARIETARIA PENSYLVANICA, a member of the Nettle Family, the Urticaceae, which is also the family my Greenhouse Weed belonged to, which explains the similarities. Most species in the Nettle Family bear unisexual flowers, so that's why our picture of a bisexual blossom is noteworthy. In fact, in the Pellitory genus Parietaria, flowers can be bisexual, all male or all female. In Parietaria flower clusters, blossoms nearest the stem are usually bisexual and male, while those farthest from the stem are typically female.

I had expected such a weedy and aggressive plant to be Eurasian but it turns out to be native American, found throughout most of the continent but most commonly in the central US states, and into Mexico. The online Flora of North America describes its habitat as "Dry ledges, talus slopes, waste and shaded places, primarily in neutral to basic soils, and reported from margins of hot springs in northernmost locations." Maybe its adaptations for "margins of hot springs" equip it for pots overwintering in people's homes.

Once I knew what it was, I harvested a handful of leaves and ate them raw, for another name of Pennsylvania Pellitory is Cucumber Weed. And it's true that the leaves have a decidedly cucumbery taste. The leaves are perfectly edible, but a bit fuzzy, and when young and most desirable for eating they're too small to make it worthwhile harvesting for cooked greens. Therefore, unless the revolution had come and you're starving, Pellitory is more for being eaten for the novelty of its unexpected cucumber taste than as a wild delicacy.

In the online Flora Medicinal Indígena de México, Pennsylvania Pellitory is called Hierba del Rayo, or "Lightning Herb." When lightning strikes nearby, frightens you so that you get chills, fevers, headache and maybe nosebleeds, this is the herb you grind into a pulp and form into a poultice that's applied to your head and kept there overnight by a rag tied around the head. The dried poultice is removed the next day, and the lightning's malignant influence is banished.

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FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Pig Feed, Quelite & Magic," from the September 14, 2007 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/070914.htm

"Pignut Teaching," from the April 8, 2012 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/120408.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/.

Visit Jim's backyard nature site at http://www.backyardnature.net