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

May 5, 2013

PINE SISKINS IN THE SOW THISTLES
Again the scrappy looking but benevolent sow thistles outside my kitchen window have hosted birds worth looking at. This time they were plain-looking birds but with an interesting story. You can see three of a flock of maybe a dozen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505ss.jpg.

At first glance, with the brown color and heavily streaked chests, I thought they were female and immature House Finches. However, then I noticed that the bills were too thin for finch bills. Also, sometimes a bird would perch just right so that a hint of yellow would show along a wing's bottom edge, as shown on one tugging at sow-thistle fuzz at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505sr.jpg.

The little streak of yellow, the deeply notched tail, and slender beak on a bird that otherwise looks like a House Finch all are good field marks for the Pine Siskin, SPINUS PINUS, which I was a little surprised to see here.

Back in the 60s in Kentucky I never saw them.My 1966 Robbins Birds of North America shows them completely absent from the US Southeast, except for the Appalachians. During the summer they nest in coniferous or mixed coniferous and deciduous forests with open canopies in Canada and mountainous western US, but during the winter nowadays they range all through forested North America searching for seeds, even entering weedy fields, scrubby thickets, and backyards, like they're doing here.

The migration pattern of Pine Siskins is described as "eruptive" -- some years you hardly see them, but in other years many turn up. In Eastern North America the general pattern is that of eruptions occurring every other year.

Pine Siskins do crave the hard little fruits produced on sow thistles. Sow thistle fruits are like those of the dandelion -- finger-shaped beneath a white-fuzz parachute that helps the fruit disseminate on the wind -- but smaller. Like dandelions, sow thistle plants are full of white, sticky, milk-like latex. As the birds poke into the plants' fruiting heads, latex sticks to their beaks and white fuzz sticks to the latex, causing many birds to fly away looking like they have white beards. The birds perch on a fence wiping their beaks back and forth across the wires, but that latex is powerful stuff and the fuzz is hard to get off. Sometimes the birds get so frustrated that they try to scratch with their feet and wipe on a wire at the same time, and almost tumble off.

It seems that every species has its handful of aggravations that we other species know very little about.

*****

ANT MIMICKER
The ant navigating among my arm's hairs caught my attention with its black-and-red abdomen. In general, ants aren't two-colored. Also, the shape wasn't quite right. Not being able to see too well and suspecting something interesting here, I snapped the picture shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505sq.jpg.

The moment that image came onto my laptop monitor I knew that my ant wasn't an ant, if for no other reason than that it had eight legs, and therefore wasn't even an insect. It's an ant-mimicking spider. A closer look at the head region -- the cephalothorax -- makes the point better at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505sp.jpg.

At first I identified the spider as Peckhamia americana, an ant-mimicking spider known to occur in Texas. However, Tim Manolis, who illustrated the new book Field Guide to the Spiders of California and the Pacific Coast States, graciously wrote saying that we have SARINDA HENTZI. He says, "The most noticeable difference between these two genera of ant-mimics involves the front legs. In Sarinda, the front legs are long and very thin and waved around to mimic antennae: In the genus Peckhamia, the front legs are short (shorter than the second pair of legs) and thick. In Peckhamia, the SECOND pair of legs are waved around like antennae." Tim adds, "Pretty amazing that these two un-related genera of jumping spiders have evolved independently to look like ants and yet use different legs to mimic the waving of antennae!"

Sarinda hentzi occurs thoughout much of the US, especially the southern states, south through Mexico and Central America.

Last December we profiled the Texas Bow-legged Bug, which was an ant mimicking bug (http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/bow-leg.htm ) and now here's another ant mimicker. If there's a lesson here, I suppose it's that you can cut down on the number of predators chasing you -- or sneak up more easily on your own prey -- if you look like an ant.

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BIG CATERPILLAR FALLEN FROM A TREE
On Wednesday night a cold front passed through producing hail that was thunderously loud on my tin roof, howling wind, but only a little much-needed rain. On Thursday morning as I biked to work, alongside the road beneath a Texas Liveoak tree, I spotted a fat, green caterpillar the length of my little finger, apparently having been knocked from the liveoak's branches by the wind, which still was strong enough to push a biker sideways if he wasn't paying attention. When I returned the larva to one of the tree's low-hanging branches, as soon as his rear legs clasped a stem he began chewing on a liveoak leaf. You can see the big caterpillar at that very moment at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505cp.jpg.

A few hours later volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario told me that it was the caterpillar of the Polyphemus Moth, and that there was every reason why it should be so, since in our recent March 10th Newsletter we commented on the number of adult Polyphemus Moths turning up around here below night-burning lights. I'd ended that entry with, "Their caterpillars feed on a large variety of plants, from pear trees to hickories, and that includes oaks such as our abundant Texas Liveoaks." You can review what our Polyphemus Moth looks like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/polymoth.htm.

So, there you go: Everything fits in place. But, still, sometimes things do go haywire, as when a little caterpillar minding his own business doing exactly what he's supposed to do gets knocked from his tree by a wind that's entirely too unruly and chilly for an early May day in Texas.

*****

CHINABERRIES IN FLOWER
Chinaberries, Melia azedarach, are invasive trees from Asia now growing wild from coast to coast in the southern US, and as such I should feel resentful that they make it hard on native plants. However, they're pretty trees, and right now in our area they're issuing joyously green herbage mingling harmoniously with big inflorescences of pale purple flowers that smell so heavenly that when I get a whiff of them I feel younger and more naive and romantic than really I ought to, so I just can't not like them.

And just look at how many Pipevine Swallowtail butterflies flit among their flowery branches even on windy days. You can see a little corner of the Chinaberry in my backyard, with hot wind from Mexico's vast Chihuahuan Desert gushing up the Dry Frio Valley causing the leaves and flower clusters elegantly and sensibly to yield to the left like any good Chinese Taoist at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505cb.jpg.

The Chinaberry's larger leaves can be either twice or thrice compound. One is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505ce.jpg.

The flowers, if you look closely, display interesting features, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505cc.jpg.

In each flower's center arises a dark purple "crown" a bit like that of a daffodil's. The surprising thing is that the crown is composed of the grown-together stems, or filaments, of the blossom's 10-12 stamens. In the above picture the stamens' cream-colored anthers are seen forming a ring at the crown's mouth, and the filaments themselves -- which usually are slender, stiff, white, matchstick-like affairs -- not only are deep purple and fused together, but produce at their tops pointed, jagged teeth. The filament tube is said to be "lacerate" at the top.

In the Temperate Zone you don't often see this kind of flower structure. However, the filament tube is characteristic of blossoms of the tropical Mahogany Family, the Meliaceae, in which is found not only the Mahogany tree but also the wonderful Spanish-Cedars we saw so many of in the Yucatan.

*****

ENGELMANN'S DAISIES BESIDE THE COMPOST BIN
According to the map on the USDA's "U.S. Drought Monitor" page, we are on the boundary between experiencing an "extreme drought" and an "exceptional drought," an exceptional drought being more extreme than an extreme one. Maybe that explains why locals tell me that normally at this time of year the Dry Frio Valley is resplendent with many kinds of blossoming wildflower, though this year mostly we have slowly greening grass, with only a few wildflowers here and there.

However, next to my compost bin, which I keep watered so the bacteria breaking down my organic matter don't get thirsty, maybe there's a hint of what the valley would be like if we were receiving our normal rainfall amounts. You can see it for yourself at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505en.jpg.

The slender leaves amidst the blossoms belong to another plant, for many species otherwise not appearing in the area cluster around that compost heap. One of the large, deeply lobed leaves of our blossoming compost plant is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505eq.jpg.

The blossoms are clearly those of the Daisy or Composite Family, the Asteraceae. According to the online Flora of North America, the Daisy Family embraces 418 genera with 2413 species, and thus is the largest, most diverse of all of North America's flowering plant families. A lot of those 2413 species are very similar to our yellow-flowered compost daisy, so once again we have to start looking for good field marks.

Right off, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505eo.jpg the flower head's green, bowl-shaped "involucre" at the flower head's bottom is unusual because the scales, or phyllaries, covering it are arranged in three series and each phyllary's tip is thick, dark green, and rounded. More typical phyllaries are sharp-pointed and not thickened at their tip, and are arranged in several series, or maybe just one, but not like this. Also, notice how the top phyllaries each subtend a yellow ray-flower.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505ep.jpg a broken-apart head reveals that the disk flowers in the blossom's "eye" are separated from one another by greenish, hairy scales known as paleae. Many Daisy Family genera don't produce paleae, so this is something important to notice.

Even more important in that picture, however, is to notice that the bottom part of each disc flower looks rather undeveloped. The bottom parts of Daisy Family disc flowers normally develop into achene-like fruits known nowadays as cypselae. No fruits seem to be forming at these disc flowers' bases. When you see such vestigial disc flower fruits you need to see if maybe the future cypselae are developing at the bottom of the ray flowers along the head's margin. In fact, that's the case with this plant. You can see a ray flower removed with its greenish, immature cypsela at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505er.jpg.

A very unusual feature of this species is that when the cypsela is mature, instead of falling alone as a sunflower "seed" might -- sunflower seeds are actually cypsela fruits -- each cypsela falls attached to the scale-like phyllary below it, as well as with two to four paleae, and even with the sterile ovaries of two to four diss flowers. I can't recall seeing anything like this in a lifetime of looking at daisy-type flowers.

These special features along with some others all help identify the compost-bin plant as Engelmann's Daisy, ENGELMANNIA PERISTENIA, a species that is so unlike other members of the Daisy Family that the genus Engelmannia is "monotypic" -- in the whole world the genus contains only this one species. The species occurs mostly in the south-central US states, but as far north as South Dakota, and into arid northern Mexico.

Around here ranchers consider the Engelmann's Daisy an "ice cream plant" for their cattle, since livestock love to eat it -- they go right for it when they see it. That's one reason why the species is missing over large areas here, but turns up along roads and people's backyards where cattle can't get to.

*****

A SPECTACULAR MILKWEED
For miles the roadside just south of here had been providing the usual handful of wildflower species able to deal with summer mowings, but then suddenly a knee-high species distracted me so with its four-inch-broad (10cm), stem-terminating globe of greenish-white blossoms that I ran off the road. The spectacular plant is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505as.jpg.

With its unusual blossoms and general growth form it's obviously a milkweed, but even at first glance you can see that it's an unusual one. For one thing, milkweeds are thought of as having opposite leaves -- two leaves at each stem node -- but the upper stem on this plant bears just one leaf per node. Not many milkweed flowers are greenish, and the corolla lobes of most don't spread as widely as these flowers' do. A close-up of a blossom is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505at.jpg.

Milkweed flowers have their own special, unmistakable structure. In the above picture notice that alternating with the broad, widely flaring, greenish corolla lobes are upward curving, purple-based, round-topped appendages of a kind found in few other flower types, but which are characteristic of milkweed flowers. These round-headed appendages are "hoods" and the five hoods considered together constitute the "crown." In most milkweed flowers a slender, fingerlike, sharp-topped thing, a "horn," emerges from a cleft in each hood, but this species is unusual in that no horns emerge from the hoods. Also typical of milkweed flowers is the stopper-shaped item in the flower's center. That's the "gynostegium" consisting of the fused stigma and anthers. If you want to brush up on milkweed flower structure, my page on it is at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_milkw.htm.

Over 140 milkweed species are recognized and many are stunning and rare. Our roadside species is often called Antelope Horns, Spider Milkweed, or Green Milkweed. It's ASCLEPIAS ASPERULA, found in much of the arid US Southwest as far north as southernmost Idaho, west to southeastern California and south through most of Texas into arid northern Mexico.

Spider Milkweed, like most milkweeds, is thought to be somewhat toxic to livestock. Milkweeds are the primary food source for Monarch caterpillars. In our area Monarchs are only migratory, but the closely related Queen Butterfly, which is resident here, also uses the Spider Milkweed, both as a food source for the caterpillar and nectar source for adults.

What a pleasure to find this impressive species along the road. It was in an irregular spot where the mower must have lifted his blades.

*****

ROCKLETTUCE FLOWERING
Despite the drought, one wildflower fairly commonly appearing in open, rocky and grassy areas on our hills' lower slopes and even along roads is a modest little perennial with leaves mostly arising from the base, but with white, yellow-eyed, dandelion-like flower heads on slender stems rising about a foot above the ground. One is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505pp.jpg.

You can see how the stiff stems shoot from lobed leaves at the base at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505pn.jpg.

This is a member of that big group, or tribe, of Daisy or Composite Family members in which the flower heads bear only ray flowers with flat, shaped corollas -- no disc flowers with cylindrical corollas in the center. Besides dandelions, others in this group with only ray flowers include lettuce, chicory and our beloved sow thistles.

A close-up of a flower head showing that the white ray corollas are yellow at their bases is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505pq.jpg.

The flower heads' individual ray flowers don't look unusual but when you look beneath a head at the overlapping, scale-like bracts, or phyllaries, forming the greenish involucre, the phyllaries turn out to be fairly unusual -- good field marks, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505pr.jpg.

They are broad and few with margins so thin or "scarious" that they're like cellophane. Even more distinctive is how the phyllaries end in sharp, dark brown tips turning purple lower down, before becoming greenish.

This plant produces fruiting heads very similar to Dandelion "puffballs," except that they're smaller and the fuzz is brownish or tan color. You can see a part of its fruiting head in which long, slender, cypsela-type fruits are topped with wind-catching fuzz parachutes at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505po.jpg.

This wildflower goes by the names of White Dandelion and Rocklettuce. It's PINAROPAPPUS ROSEUS, a genus I'd never heard of before coming here. It specializes in living in open limestone areas, roadsides, on cliffs and in open, grassy flats -- exactly as we see it here -- and is distributed from southern Arizona to Oklahoma, south through Texas and well into central Mexico's arid zones.

In Mexico, according to the online Biblioteca Digital de la Medicina Tradicional Mexicana, the Nahua people of Tlaxcala State -- who call the plant Chipuli -- traditionally daub the white latex that oozes from the plant's broken stem or leaves onto aching teeth. Also, mothers who want to break their babies from nursing smear the bitter latex on their nipples.

*****

ROCK FLAX
In fissures of barren limestone rock and very thin soil atop limestone bedrock nowadays a slender, sparsely leafed, foot-tall wildflower with yellow blossoms is flowering in places it's hard to imagine provide enough water and nutrients for the little plant to survive, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505li.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505lj.jpg you can see a blossom's five yellow petals with their minutely jagged outer edges and, exserted from the corolla center, five yellow stamens with pollen encrusted anthers, and -- hard to see -- a close cluster of five yellow just stigmas above and stamens' anthers,

If you touch the flower too roughly the whole corolla falls off as if it were hardly attached. The technical term for such loosely connected corollas is "fugacious." When a corolla does fall off, you can better see the stamens and stigmas, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505lk.jpg.

There the topmost, spherical items bristling with short hairs are the stigmas. They reside atop long styles, which unite at their bases atop a single ovary. Styles are an ovary's neck. The five hotdog-bun-shaped items below the stigmas are anthers covered with pollen grains.

Not many plant families produce flowers with one ovary topped with five styles like this, in combination with only five stamens. When such a flower is produced on a slender plant with such modest leaves as are on our plant, you should think of the Flax Family, the Linaceae. The Flax Family isn't so well known, except for its single famous member, the Flax that as school children we hear was cultivated by our pioneer ancestors.

In fact, the rock-loving plant in our picture is a real flax -- a member of the genus Linum -- though it's not the Flax that's been cultivated since ancient times for the fiber in its stem and the linseed oil in its seeds. The historical flax is Linum usitatissimum. What's growing on our local limestone rocks is the Rock Flax, LINUM RUPESTRE. The name rupestre is derived from the Latin word rupes signifying cliff or rock. Rock Flax is mainly a Mexican plant, occurring on limestone throughout arid Mexico and Guatemala, but entering the US in arid parts of Texas and a bit of New Mexico.

So, here's another very pretty wildflower that needs to be grown in rock gardens where rainfall is scarce. My picture shows a plant just beginning to flower. Later the inflorescence will be larger with more blossoms.

*****

HOREHOUND
Growing wild in the garden and the grassy area around the cabin as well as along roadsides and in disturbed places in general nowadays there's a foot-tall, bushy, perennial herb with white wooly hair thickly covering its stems and leaves, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505hh.jpg.

A close-up in which you can better see the herb's white, somewhat four-cornered stems and deeply wrinkled, opposite leaves (two leaves to a stem node) is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505hk.jpg.

The plant's 3/8ths-inch (8mm) long flowers are arranged in spherical clusters well separated from one another at stem tops, each cluster subtended by two small leaves, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505hi.jpg.

The flowers themselves are like white little dog faces, bilaterally symmetrical, with distinct upper lips and lower ones, the upper with a deep notch at the tip, the lower with three broad lobes, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505hj.jpg.

Seeing the herb's squarish stems, opposite leaves and bilaterally symmetrical flowers arranged in such clusters, you automatically think of the Mint Family, the Lamiaceae, and this certainly is a kind of mint, despite it not smelling so minty when you crush a leaf between your fingers. But, one authority states that the Mint Family embraces 236 genera and more than 7000 species -- the family's boundaries are still unclear -- so which Mint Family Member do we have here?

With all that white hair covering the plant, including inside the calyx, and with the flowers arranged as they are in clusters separated on the stem (said to be "verticillate"), and the extra information that each flower has four stamens and not two, this interesting little plant reveals itself as an herb that once was much more famous than it is now, though it's still pretty well known in some parts of the world. This is the Horehound, MARRUBIUM VULGARE, an Old World species much planted worldwide, and often escaped into the wild, as is the case here.

When I was a kid back in the 50s my mother sometimes bought me Horehound candy, which I remember as being like sweet gravel with a certain oily-menthol taste. Even back then it was regarded as an old-time sweet, and no kid would prefer it to anything else on the candy shelf. I liked it not only because I was a fat kid that liked nearly everything to eat, but because the name horehound sounded a little risqué. Actually, the name is an old one, long applied to this very plant, which for centuries has been an important presence in family gardens. The name horehound derives from the Old English harhune, the "har" meaning hoar or hoary, like white frost. So, it's sort of a funny name, "white hound," nothing risqué about it.

Horehound as been in people's gardens for so long not only because you can made horehound candy from it but because it's considered medicinal, used mainly for suppressing coughs and clearing the lungs. Boil the whole plant to make a tea for the common cold. Also it's touted as being good for a long list of other ailments, from diabetes to gallbladder problems, from loss of appetite to flatulence. Externally it's prescribed for cleaning wounds, and for a variety of other temporary and persistent skin disorders.

I gathered a handful of leaves and stems, made a tea of them and the tea was bitter exactly as you'd want a medicinal tea to be. Later I'll pull a couple of armloads and hang them to dry in preparation for this winter when sniffles and colds are going around. Already I have rafters hung with the Rabbit Tobacco we looked at last November. I figure that a tea made with both Rabbit Tobacco and Horehound might be worth trying if you're coughing and sneezing.

I'm not picking the Horehound now because those little white flowers are powerfully attractive to bees and butterflies.

Horehound is a wonderful plant, but it must be admitted that in some places it's become a serious weed, especially in Australia. It can take over rangeland because livestock don't like to eat its bitter herbage. Horehound survives in pastures and rangeland where other species are eaten to extinction.

*****

COMFREY FLOWERING
My neighbor Deborah is creating a fine garden populated with useful, pretty or otherwise interesting plants, and in one spot a dense, leafy, perennial herb about three feet tall (1m) is at its peak of flowering. A small part is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505cm.jpg.

The large, simple leaves are soft and hairy, but it's the flowers that get your attention, their pale purple, bell-like corollas dangling from one-sided inflorescences that curve like scorpion tails. A flower close-up is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130505cn.jpg.

The slender, pale items emerging from the calyxes at the top of the picture are styles exposed when corollas fell off. Styles are ovary necks at the tip of which reside tiny stigmas, which is were pollen grains germinate. The ovaries, which are the future fruits, are hidden within the hairy calyxes. Some corollas have holes in their sides. I think this is caused by "nectar robbers," where an insect such as a carpenter bee has torn through the corolla walls seeking a shortcut to the nectar, instead of entering through the narrow corolla mouths and navigating through stamens and scales to the nectar below.

This herb is Common Comfrey, SYMPHYTUM OFFICINALE, an Old World herb long honored as a powerful medicinal plant, and thus grown as a traditional garden herb throughout the ages. In everyday use among common folks it's been used for burns and minor cuts. Just mash some leaves to form a pulpy poultice and apply it to the injury. It's also been used to help bones knit and for sprains, torn ligaments, bruises, arthritis, bedsores, insect bites, nosebleeds, sunburn, and more.

"Comfrey tea" made by boiling leaves and roots for five minutes also has been prescribed for various internal ailments, but there's a controversy over whether the tea damages the liver or not. One website providing homeopathic remedies says that for "Pain in eye after a blow of an obtuse body," nothing is as good as a Comfrey tincture. One website sells a plastic tube containing 80 pellets of what it calls Symphytum officinale -- the technical name for Common Comfrey -- for $8.56, but it doesn't say what the pellets are good for, depending on "common knowledge," I suppose.

Last spring in the woods of southwestern Mississippi we found Wild Comfrey, Cynoglossum virginianum, which belongs to the same plant family, the Borage Family, or Boraginaceae, and whose leaves were similar but which produced very different flowers and fruits. You can compare Deborah's Common comfrey with a fruiting Wild Comfrey at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/12/120520cy.jpg.

Is Common Comfrey really a good medicine? On the one hand you have many generations of people who for centuries have used it and taught their children its virtues. On the other hand, the http://health-from-nature.net website claims that "Comfrey contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids that are highly toxic to the liver and can cause death. Internal use should be avoided. Toxic substances can also be absorbed through the skin, and harmful amounts may build up in the body. It should never be used on broken skin."

I suspect it's the usual situation: What's great medicine in small dosages, when overused, can be lethal.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Dieter's Garden,'" from the March 16, 2003 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/030316.htm

"A Rain in Mexico City," from the August 10, 2007 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/070810.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