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

June  23, 2013

RED-SPOTTED TOAD
Our friend Dave had invited us to his sprawling, hilly ranch just south of here. As we were leaving it was getting dark so Dave turned on a porch light, which brought from his hiding place a warty little toad who stationed himself beneath the light where on previous nights he must have dined on bugs who'd crashed into the light and fallen to the porch floor. You can see the toad at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623td.jpg.

When you're photographing a toad you're planning to identify later from the pictures, you need to get a shot from above showing the "cranial crests." Cranial crests look like short, branching segments of slender wires inserted beneath the skin atop a toad's head just behind the eyes. The crests display different patterns from species to species. Since toad species tend to vary in terms of color and markings, sometimes noting the cranial crests is critical. If you want to know more about cranial crests, check out our American Toad page, where noting the crests was important, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/am-toad.htm.

However, this toad on Dave's porch hopped away before I could get a picture from above, plus I'd already noticed that this toad, amazingly, didn't seem to have any cranial crests at all! This was so unusual that their absence in itself constituted an important field mark.

"Herps" are reptiles and amphibians considered together, and it turns out that there's an excellent "Herps of Texas" website. Its Frog/Toad page appears at http://www.herpsoftexas.org/view/frogs.

On that page a Texas distribution map appears next to each of the 43 or so frog and toad species listed for Texas, of which nine are "true toads" of the genus Bufo. The distribution maps show that four or maybe five true toads occur in our southwestern Texas area. Of those, the one species matching our picture in every detail is the Red-spotted Toad, BUFO PUNCTATUS. Red-spotted Toads are found from southwestern Kansas to southwestern Colorado and southeastern California south through arid northern Mexico. In Texas Red-spotted Toads occupy about the western two-thirds of the state.

Besides the near or complete absence of cranial crests, another good field mark for the Red-spotted Toad is the small size and almost round shape of the toad's parotoid glands -- the "poison glands" that look like beans beneath the skin just behind the eyes. Though I read that individual Red-spotted Toads tend to be whitish where there's outcropping limestone, but light tan to red in volcanic areas, the white upper lip and body undersurface seem to be more or less constant throughout the species. And, of course, the toad's warts tend to have reddish peaks, which accounts for the red-spotted name.

Red-spotted Toads occupy rocky areas and open grasslands of arid regions, typically remaining near a water source such as a spring, stream, or pond. At Dave's I didn't see such a water source, but maybe there was at least a leaky faucet someplace.

*****

THE GROUND DOVE'S SHORT TAIL
A few weeks ago we looked at some Ground Doves basking in morning sun beneath Ashe Junipers beside the Center. The point was made that one way to distinguish Ground Doves from similar Inca Doves, who also are found here, is that Ground Doves have much shorter tails. However, our picture didn't show the Ground Doves' tails well. One afternoon this week a Ground Dove lighted on the ground outside my window, showing off his relatively short tail, so that's to be seen at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623dv.jpg.

Not only short tails distinguish Ground Doves from Inca Doves, but also Inca Doves display a striking scaled pattern over most of their bodies, while the Ground Dove's back, wings and tail lack the scaling.

*****

BARN SWALLOW NESTLINGS
We've been watching the Barn Swallow nest outside the door of the cabin in the valley where I've lived this year now. Now that nest has produced nestlings, and they're being fed. You can see them at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623bs.jpg.

It looks six nestlings occupy the nest, and that's a big brood. The parents stay busy visiting the nest and don't seem to mind me except when I get close enough to take pictures like the one above, and then they fly near peeping urgently.

More than me, the parents really dislike the neighborhood Lesser Roadrunners, who range around the cabin like free-range chickens throughout the day. Even if the roadrunners are across the road the swallows swoop near their heads, peeping loudly, and the roadrunners look genuinely fearful of the little birds.

*****

DEVIL'S SHOESTRING FLOWERING
I've taken up residence in the nature center that for the last few months we've been building on a hill maybe half a mile from the cabin I've occupied since arriving here last August. The Center sits amidst small prairie patches and woods of Ashe Juniper and Texas Live Oak. There's a high concentration of endemic plants and animals on the hill, and within a stone's toss from my sleeping window in the Center there are the noble-looking, tufted plants with tough, finely toothed leaves and flowering heads reaching 6½ feet high (2m) shown at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623nn.jpg.

Soon after my arrival last September we found this plant fruiting spectacularly at the edge of a limestone cliff atop our hill. You can see the beautiful fruits in a picture from that time at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/12/120916np.jpg.

Our plant is an endemic species found naturally only in a few counties here in southwestern Texas. It's NOLINA LINDHEIMERIANA, among whose common names are Devil's Shoestring, Ribbon Grass and Lindheimer's Beargrass.

At http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623no.jpg you can see a flower from my sleeping-window plant. It's 3/16th-inch wide and opposite each of its six tepals -- a tepal being a "petal" not clearly either the calyx or corolla -- arises a stamen. In the flower's center is an oval ovary topped with a fuzzy, three-lobed stigma.

Species in the genus Nolina produce functionally unisexual flowers, so I was surprised to see in the above blossom both well developed stamens and a plump ovary. However, on a smaller plant next to the one producing the flower in the picture, the flowers bore stamens much more developed than in the above picture, as you can see at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623nm.jpg.

Therefore, despite both blossoms bearing both male and female parts, the first one we looked at was functionally female while the second was functionally male.

Sometimes during these full-moon nights I rise from my sleeping spot on the Center's floor and look through the window at the ghostly pale flower clusters of the Devil's Shoestrings rising just a few feet away, and I feel very good, very happy to live next to such exalted beings.

*****

SOAPBERRY TREES FLOWERING
Last September we admired clusters of golden, cherry-like fruits adorning branches of Soapberry trees growing along the little Dry Frio behind the cabin. You can see the Soapberry's walnut-like leaves and soap-making fruits at that time at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/w/soapberr.htm.

Now our Soapberry trees are producing broad, 10-inch long (25cm) panicles of tiny, white flowers, which display very handsomely against the trees' early summer dark green foliage, as shown at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623sb.jpg.

A close-up showing a single ¼-inch broad (7mm) Soapberry flower with its eight stamens -- an unusual stamen number for a five-petaled blossom -- with their hairy anthers is at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623sc.jpg.

*****

LANTANAS FLOWERING
At http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623lt.jpg you see part of a sprawling, knee-high, woody-based shrub often planted in people's yards in this area, plus I find it in woods on our hills' lower slopes growing in the wild. You probably recognize it as a lantana. It's LANTANA URTICOIDES, commonly called Texas Lantana, Calico Bush, Trailing Lantana, West Indian Shrub-verbena, Bunchberry, Hierba del Cristo, and other names.

A pretty shot from above a flower cluster showing how orange flowers can reside inside an otherwise red cluster of flowers, and that the individual flowers are slightly asymmetric, is shown at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623ls.jpg.

A view of a flowering head from below shows that the corollas' tubes also are slightly curved, adding to the blossoms' asymmetry, at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623lr.jpg.

Most sources agree that Texas Lantana, a member of the Verbena Family, is native to Texas, but it's hard to find anyone stating its original native distribution. One reason that figuring that out might be hard is that, because of the shrub's beauty, it's widely planted and often escaped. Also, another species, Lantana camara, is quite similar, is planted even more widely, and apparently much more aggressively escapes into the wild worldwide. Plus, the two species hybridize, the flowers of both appear to change color as they age, and possibly the color ranges overlap.

In Shinners & Mahler's Flora of North Central Texas I read that our Texas Lantanas' leaves are normally ovate (egg-shaped) to round with margins bearing a few teeth 2-5mm high, while Lantana camera leaves may have their bases forming broad lobes that extend backwards (cordate leaves) or are triangular in shape, and have leaf margins with teeth that are only 0.5-1.5mm high. Our plant's margins bear teeth 2-5mm high, as is proper for Texas Lantanas.

*****

SKELETONPLANT
Early on a somber, overcast morning when fields and prairie patches were vast stretches of moist, dark greenness, a certain wildflower produced pale blue orbs that swayed and bobbed on light breezes, and possessed that magical quality of catching light in such a way that they seemed to produce that light from within. As the Bobwhites and Lark Sparrows called, it was a pretty thing to see... that dark green lushness with its waltzing orbs.

Up close you could see that the flower-head orbs topped stiff, branching, slender and few-leafed stems emerging above the grass, and that this year's green stems stood beside bleached skeletons of stems of previous years, exactly as you can see at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623sk.jpg.

A beautiful picture of a flowering head is shown at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623sl.jpg.

A shot of the flower head from below showing long, slender bracts, or phyllaries, growing side by side in a single series (not overlapping as in most heads) appears at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623sj.jpg.

These plants have been flowering for a few weeks, so some heads already produce cypsela-type fruits topped with white-haired "parachutes," as shown at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623si.jpg.

The flower head, composed of only ray flowers and thus lacking the usual "eye" of disk flowers, is structured like a Dandelion flower head, and the parachuted fruits also are Dandelion-like, so we know that this is a member of the Dandelion's enormous Composite or Daisy Family.

Here we have LYGODESMIA TEXANA, in English usually called the Texas Skeletonplant. Remembering how this years' shoots rise among last year's weathered-white stems, the "skeletonplant" part of the name makes sense. Also, the plant occurs mostly in Texas, extending only a little into the neighboring Mexican state of Coahuila, and a bit of New Mexico and southwestern Oklahoma, so even the Texas part of the name makes sense.

The Flora of North America describes the habitat of Texas Skeletonplant as "Rocky, calcareous, alkaline soils in oak-juniper woodlands, mesquite brushlands, open grasslands, red sandy soils, roadsides," which is exactly where it's found here.

Like the related Dandelion, Texas Skeletonplant's herbage exudes a white, milky latex when broken, and normally such milk-producing plants are used medicinally by one culture or another. The CRC Ethnobotany Desk Reference accessible by Google Books reports that the Hopi and Navaho people used Texas Skeletonplant for skin and women's ailments.

*****

PRAIRIE BLUETS
For over a month a certain small wildflower has been producing a few pale blue blossoms about ¼th inch across (6mm). Sometimes this wildflower grows in patches and the randomly spaced blossoms diffused through the grass are reminiscent of stars in the sky. You can see such an effect at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623ho.jpg.

Notice how the flowers' four corolla lobes curl back revealing hairy inner faces at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623hp.jpg.

Wildflower lovers in eastern North America will recognize these as Bluets, and assume that they're members of the genus Houstonia, of the mostly tropical Madder or Coffee Family, the Rubiaceae. That's what I thought, but I wasn't quite right. Commonly our Texas plants are indeed referred to as Bluets, but our plants are perennials with woody bases, while the East's Bluets are herbaceous annuals. As such, our Bluets are placed in a different genus.

Our woody-based perennials are STENARIA NIGRICANS, usually called Prairie Bluets, Diamondflowers, Narrowleaf Bluets, Baby's Breath, Fine-leaf Bluets, or just plain Bluets. Some wildflower books place it in the genus Hedyotis. In fact, the species has been shifted among several genera.

Prairie Bluets occur mostly in the US south-central states and sporadically farther east, into arid northeastern Mexico. The species specializes in occupying sandy or limestone-derived, dry, rocky prairies and hillsides, rocky, open woods, and roadsides. Our plants seldom grow over about a foot high but I read that in rainier areas they reach three times that, and such big plants in full flower must be awfully pretty.

*****

WILD WHITE PETUNIA
Yet another wildflower whose pale or white blossoms display grandly bobbing about in breezes sweeping across grassy fields as well as on limestone outcrops, gravel, and in thickets and open woods is the one shown with its 2-3/8ths-inch long (6cm) flowers with slightly down-curving corolla tubes at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623ru.jpg.

The flowers' distinctive size, shape, and the fact that each blossom is subtended by a leafy, scale-like "bract" sent me looking to see if in this part of Texas we had any wild petunia species (genus Ruellia) -- despite the fact that other wild petunias I've seen produced purplish flowers. And, by golly, such a plant was listed: the "Wild White Petunia," RUELLIA METZIAE, also known as Metz's Wild Petunia.

Garden petunias, genus Petunia, are members of the Nightshade/Tomato/Potato Family, but these wild petunias in the genus Ruellia belong to the mostly tropical Acanthus Family. Garden petunias bear five stamens and lack conspicuous bracts below each flower, while wild petunias have four stamens and do have bracts. You can see a longitudinal section of a Wild White Petunia's blossom at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623rv.jpg.

Notice how the corolla forms a slender tube at its base, then about 2/3rds of the length up the tube abruptly expands, then at the mouth of the tube the corolla lobes flare outward. It's also typical that the filaments of the flowers' four stamen are paired and more or less connected at their bases, and that the slender style -- in the picture leaning from the corolla and seen a little above it -- distinctly curves at its stigmatic tip.

Though Wild White Petunia is common here, it's endemic just to a bit of arid northeastern Mexico and Texas. In Texas it's centered on the Edwards Plateau of the southwestern part of the state.

*****

WILDFLOWER WITH A TROPICAL LOOK
At the edge of the new nature center's dirt parking lot where bare dirt gives way to spotty grass, Phred noticed a foot-tall herb bearing flowers that were about half an inch across (13mm), and with yellow and reddish blossoms on the same plant. The plant, whose young shoots arose from a woody base, was so well camouflaged in the grass that it was hard to see, as you can confirm at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623ga.jpg.

On hands and knees it was clear that this was something unusual, for the flowers' anatomy didn't match that of any of our usual plant families. For instance, though the flowers had petals and calyx lobes in fives, which is very normal, they bore eight stamens. And the stamens were slightly bent downward, causing the flower to have bilateral symmetry, not the usual radial. A yellow flower appears at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623gb.jpg.

The capsular fruits were three-lobed, which is a bit unusual, as shown at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623gc.jpg.

At first I was stymied, but then my hand lens picked up something else that was unusual. The plant's tiny hairs, which lay close to the plant body, were attached to the plant at their middles. They were structured like Ts with very short bottom parts. You can see two pictures of these hairs as seen through a dissecting scope at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623gd.jpg.

In that picture the top image is a side view of two hairs on the stem. Can you see how the hair at the top, right attaches to the stem at its center, while its two ends form sharp spears pointing in opposite directions? The lower image shows hairs on a leaf. Notice that the hair in the center has two pointed ends.

Botanists know such hairs as "malpighian" or "dolabriform" hairs. The word malpighian derives from the mostly tropical-American Malpighia Family of plants, the Malpighiaceae, because species in that family often are clothed with malphighian hairs.

Remembering this, it occurred to me that during recent years we've seen flowers structured like our mysterious parking-lot denizen fairly regularly in the Mexican tropics. For example, look at the Barbados Cherry blossom at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/yucatan/barbados.htm.

And the Nance at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/yucatan/nance.htm.

Both the Barbados Cherry and Nance are members of the Malpighia Family.

When I checked if any members of the Malpighia Family occur in southwestern Texas, I found a few, and from that short list it was easy to figure out that our mystery plant was GALPHIMIA ANGUSTIFOLIA, listed in wildflower books as the Narrow-leaf Goldshower or Thryallis. Mostly the species occurs in arid northern Mexico but it extends into the US in a handful of counties here in southwestern Texas.

The genus Galphimia with its 26 species occurs only in tropical and subtropical parts of the Americas. Its center of evolution -- where the most species are -- is in Mexico, and our Narrow-leaf Goldshower is the only one that extends into the US. Here its habitat is described as open, rocky or lightly wooded areas on the Edwards Plateau, which is exactly where we found it. Also it specializes in dry, thin soil atop limestone, and caliche soils, just like ours.

*****

CURLY DOCK
In my life I've eaten a great deal of Curly Dock, RUMEX CRISPUS, picking the leaves early in spring when they're tender and sweet, and cooking them briefly in a pot. All winter a rosette of pretty, eminently edible Curly Dock leaves grew next to one of my raised beds of turnip and mustard greens, but I never picked the leaves, preferring to let the plant flower and fruit, if only as thanks to the species for the many fine side dishes it's provided to my innumerable slabs of hot cornbread. There's just something transcendentally good about hot cornbread accompanied by hot heaps of cooked dock. Well, you can see what's happened to the winter rosette of Curly Dock next to my raised bed at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623rx.jpg.

The rosette is gone, and now a slender, brown item rises above leaves scattered along the stem that rose from the rosette several weeks ago. The brown item is the fruiting head. You can see some mature fruits in the palm of my hand at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623ry.jpg.

Each fruit separates into three "valves," with each valve being one of the flower's modified inner sepals. The egg-shaped bulges on some of the valves are grains or "achenes" grown into their accompanying valves. The wing-like sepals catch in the wind and help the grains disseminate.

Curly Dock is curly because its leaf margins appear as shown at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623rw.jpg.

Docks are members of the Buckwheat Family, the Polygonaceae, which normally can be identified by a neat field mark consisting of a structure called the "ocrea," or "stipular sheath." Stipules are modified leaves in some plant families normally found at the base of leaf petioles. Often stipules protect immature leaves or shoots during their most tender early moments of expansion. Our Curly Dock possesses ocreas that are very thin and cellophane-like, and which this late in the season have turned brown and become tattered, as you can see encircling the stem above each of the two leaf petioles at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/13/130623rz.jpg.

Curly Dock is native to Eurasia, but it's become a weedy invasive nearly worldwide. You just have to admire its aggressiveness and adaptability. Maybe with all the changes and extinctions coming with global warming, someday in the future more people than us few present-day weed eaters will be happy that delicious, nutritious Curly Dock grows in a nearby sidewalk crack, or next to a raised bed.

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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