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

August 25, 2013

EARLESS LIZARD
We have a lot of lizards here. Every time you step outside Juniper House at the Center you see one or more Texas Spotted Whiptails with their narrow dark and light lines running lengthwise. Some whiptails have almost become pets, ignoring me when I go reposition the solar cooker. In the park in the valley, on trees you see Texas Spiny Lizards with their large, spiky scales. You can meet these lizards on the Frio Canyon website reptile page at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/reptiles.htm.

This week I met another species very different in appearance from those, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825lz.jpg.

This one was about six inches long (15cm) and liked to perch atop limestone boulders strewn alongside the little Dry Frio River. He wasn't very nervous about my presence, but when I got to within about four feet he'd withdraw into shadowy spaces between boulders.

With such bold crossbars on the tail and those zebra-like lines up the sides just in front of the hind legs, and the blush of goldenness on the back, this was any easy identification to make. We have the Greater Earless Lizard, COPHOSAURUS TEXANUS, found mostly in arid northern Mexico, but extending north into the US from Texas to Arizona. I read that they run with their tails raised, maybe waving their tails from side to side when slowing to a halt or when they are about to run. I didn't see that, just the shifting back and forth between sunny boulder tops and dark crevices between rocks.

I hadn't noticed the lizard's earlessness until it was mentioned. Most lizards, like birds, have at least an ear hole between the eye and shoulders of the front legs but, it's true, this lizard has no obvious ear hole there, as you can confirm at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825ly.jpg.

In that picture you can also see another interesting field mark, which is that instead of having distinct, overlapping scales, the skin looks granular, like iguana skin.

The Greater Earless Lizard is such an unusual species that it's the only species in its genus, Cophosaurus. The "Greater" part of its common name refers to a smaller earless species in another genus, Holbrookia.

The Greater Earless feeds on a variety of adult and larval insect prey.

*****

TOBACCO HORNWORM
My tomato crop this year has been disastrous. Most plants, though now up to shoulder high, haven't produced a single tomato. The reason may have been that we didn't have the right cultivar, for most tomato cultivars require a night temperature between about 59° to 68°F (15°-20°C). With night temperatures much below or above that critical range, fruiting is reduced or absent. We haven't had a night temperature of 68°F or below for months.

Therefore, I wasn't too upset to find that one of my most robust but tomatoless plants was being devoured by several hornworms, one of which is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825hw.jpg.

Despite our 2½-inch long (63mm) hornworm feeding on a tomato plant, this is a Tobacco Hornworm, MANDUCA SEXTA. Similarly plump, green, horn-butted and closely related Tomato Hornworms are common throughout most of tomato-growing North America, though in the US Southeast Tobacco Hornworm tends to be more common. In fact, I can't recall seeing a Tomato Hornworm, but in Kentucky and Mississippi I've hosted many Tobacco ones.

Notice that the white stripes on our Tobacco Hornworm are simple slashes, like a /. This is different from the white side markings on Tomato Hornworms, which are like lying-down Vs, like >>>>. One way to remember which is which is to keep in mind that the Tobacco Hornworm's white markings are straight lines like cigarettes, while the Tomato Hornworm's are Vs, for tomato vines. Also Tobacco Hornworms tend to have red spines at their rears, while Tomato Hornworms bear black ones.

Both Tobacco and Tomato Hornworms, after passing through a pupal stage in the ground, metamorphose into somewhat large, grayish-brown moths with stout, narrow wings about four inches across (10cm). The forewings are much longer than the hind ones.

While such a nice caterpillar picture stands before us it might be worthwhile to review the leg situation. Notice that immediately behind the caterpillar's head at the picture's right there are six short, sharp-pointed, white but black-banded items. Those are "thoracic legs" corresponding to the six legs of the adult. The large, green, succulent-looking appendages grasping the tomato stem are "abdominal prolegs," which are missing in the adult stage. At the rear end, below the red spine, those appendages are "anal prolegs." Prolegs aren't "real" legs -- they're not jointed like an adult insect's leg composed of coxa, trochanter, femur, tibia and tarsus. Prolegs do have their own musculature, but much of a prole's movement is a matter of hydraulics, not muscles.

The "eye" markings along the side mark air-holes called spiracles.

*****

LIVEOAK BURL
A big Texas Liveoak a couple miles up the road bears a washing-machine-size burl about 15 feet up, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825bu.jpg.

Burls are caused by stress, usually from a physical injury, or maybe a virus or fungus. Burls are like tumors in that the wood composing them grows in an uncontrolled manner. One consequence of this is that when the burl is cut across, the exposed wood grain is wildly contorted, often producing fascinating and pretty patterns. Some folks specialize in producing ornate wood products cut from burls. One reappearing motif in burl wood grain patterns is the "bird's eye," which results from buds that appeared on the growing burl and then were aborted and smothered by fast-growing wood.

The biggest burl I've seen was in a Redwood forest in northern California. That interesting and funny picture is still online at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/09/090517rx.jpg.

*****

BONESET
When I arrived here one year ago this week I was pleased to see growing behind the red cabin in which I would live most of the following year a white-flowered, shoulder-high member of the Composite or Sunflower Family busily attracting prodigious numbers of butterflies. When I sniffed it I understood why, for its eupatorium-type flower heads smelled like the richest of honeys.

Was this a member of the local flora an enlightened previous occupant of the cabin had planted, or an ornamental, maybe planted especially for butterflies, since really its flowers weren't particularly spectacular? I guessed it was a planted cultivar, else I would have heard about such a sweet-smelling native.

The cabin plant died back in the winter but sprouted in the spring, and now is even more robust and good smelling than last year, maybe because I watered it during my occupancy. And to my surprise, nowadays you can find the same species growing in the wild here, especially on the Dry Frio River's dry gravel and cobblestone bed. You can see a typically bushy wild plant at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825ee.jpg.

A close-up of clusters of flowering heads being visited by a Lyside Sulphur butterfly is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825ef.jpg.

There you can see that each head is composed of several tiny flowers crammed together inside a bowl-like structure, typical of the Composite Family. Also, all the flowers are cylindrical disc flowers, though most Composite Family genera produce heads bearing at least some petal-like ray flowers with flat corollas. Breaking open a head and removing several cylindrical disc flowers, you see what's stuck to my fingertip at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825ed.jpg.

The green bottom parts of each flower are the future cypsela-type fruits, each cypsela bearing a single seed within its non-fleshy cover. The slender, white items curving up from inside each five-lobed corolla are style branches arising from atop the ovaries.

A typical leaf with saw-toothed margins and principle veins arising near the midvein's base is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825ec.jpg.

If you pay attention to eastern North American wildflowers, probably you already recognize this plant as a member of the genus Eupatorium, species of which often are referred to as thoroughworts and bonesets. Several Eupatorium species occur as common wildflowers and weeds in eastern North America, though this far west and south, this species is our only one.

Common throughout all but the northernmost states of the eastern US, this plant goes by several names, including Lateflowering Thoroughwort, White Boneset, Late Boneset and Late-flowering Boneset. It's EUPATORIUM SEROTINUM, described as living in moist to dry situations in open areas including roadsides, so you can see that it's not too persnickety about where it lives.

And the funny thing is that back in Kentucky and Mississippi I've met this species many times, and thought I knew it very well. I just didn't know that if you water it and provide it with rich soil in a flowerbed behind a cabin in Texas, it could grow so large, produce such sweet fragrance, and attract so many butterflies.

In Virgil Vogel's American Indian Medicine partially available via Google Books, I read that, before their cultural annihilation, Alabama indigenous Americans used Lateflowering Boneset for stomach pains. Despite the "boneset" in its name, this species doesn't seem to have been used for setting bones. Though several eupatoriums are referred to as bonesets, the "real" boneset is Eupatorium perfoliatum. Moreover, though indigenous Americans used Eupatorium perfoliatum for many cures, it's uncertain whether bone-setting was one of them. The plant may have served as a cure for Dengue Fever, which makes you ache so that it feels as if your bones are breaking.

Whatever the case with setting bones, our Lateflowering Boneset is a very attractive species if only because it attracts so many butterflies, at least when it's watered and grows in rich soil. It also produces huge numbers of tiny cypsela-type fruits that small, seed-eating birds eat. And, around here there's yet another good reason why a butterfly-loving gardener might want to grow Lateflowering Boneset: Deer don't seem to eat it.

*****

SIDA
In Mexico we looked at many small herbs with yellow to orange flowers, which were members of the big Mallow or Hibiscus Family, the Malvaceae. You may recall that a good field mark for that family is that usually the flower's many stamens unite by their stems, or filaments, into a cylinder surrounding the style. Several look-alike genera fit this description, so identification can be hard work. Often fruit structure was the main distinguishing feature.

Beside a pathway through grass and weeds in the gravelly floodplain of the Dry Frio River, such a little herb turned up with flowers no bigger than fingernails, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825si.jpg.

Notice that the plant's stems lie flush with the ground naturally; my fingers aren't pressing them down. The species is described as a "procumbent perennial herb," procumbent describing such ground-hugging stems. Also notice that leaves immediately below the flowers are narrow while those arising from stems on the ground are oval shaped. But all the leaves have saw-toothed, or "dentate," margins.

A close-up of a flower showing its stamens' many pollen-releasing anthers clustered at the flower's mouth, and five long, slender style branches tipped with tiny stigmas shooting from inside the anther cluster is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825sj.jpg.

A side view of the flower showing the spreading calyx with five long-tipped sepals is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825sk.jpg.

Details leading us to the genus and species are so technical and hard to see that in this case it's just best to try to remember that a small plant with these features is a Sida, Sida being both the common and technical name. This species is SIDA ABUTIFOLIA, sometimes referred to as Spreading Sida, Prostrate Mallow or Spreading Fanpetal. Maybe five Sida species can be found in our area, but those other species don't have prostrate stems. The especially long styles issuing from the anther cluster also is a good field mark.

Spreading Sida occurs throughout the American tropics, extending into the US in southern Arizona and New Mexico, most of Texas, and southernmost Florida.

In Daniel Austin's Baboquivari Mountain Plants: Identification, Ecology, and Ethnobotany," partially available via Google Books, I read that in Mexico Spreading Sida is used medicinally to treat boils and kidney problems. (The Baboquivari Mountains lie 50 miles, or 80 km, southwest of Tucson, Arizona.)

Austin also describes Spreading Sida as a small herb hiding in grass in weedy areas, and that's exactly right.

*****

WEDELIA
It's been so long since we had a good rain that the landscape has grown straw colored and where the community's road dips into the little Dry Frio River there's no water at all. Still, a few of the most drought-resistant wildflowers still can be found flowering, though even they are beginning to look scrappy.

One wildflower still blossoming is a knee-high, densely branching, perennial subshrub, a yellow-flowered member of the Composite or Sunflower Family. I've overlooked it until now because we have so many knee-high, yellow-flowered members of the Composite Family that this one just slipped past me. They've been flowering for few weeks, so most flower heads already have faded and released their cypsela-type fruits. One with a few flowering heads that still can be found is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825ww.jpg.

Note the small heads atop long, stiff peduncles arising from between two simple leaves, and that the leaves are paired at stem nodes (opposite). The plant is scratchy with short hairs covering not only the stems and leaves but also the head's green involucre, as seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825wx.jpg.

The mature, spent heads are nearly as attention-getting as the flowers, suggesting pale, fingernail-sized little stars hovering above the plant's dense herbage. A spent head is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825wy.jpg.

Some mature heads still bear some cypsela-type fruits, and that's important because the cypselae help us identify this plant. A broken-apart fruiting head with a slender, dark brown cypsela shown a little right of center is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825wz.jpg.

Atop the cypsela the pappus consists of a tiny crown of pale, almost whitish scales on both sides of which arise much taller, slender, spine-like "awns." It's much more typical for pappi to consist of a tuft of white hairs, or just the awns, or just the crown, or no pappus at all, so bearing both a crown of scales and two long awns is unusual. Also note that the cypsela is partly surrounded by a scoop-shaped bract a bit longer than the cypsela. Many genera of composite flower heads don't produce such bracts.

These and other field marks lead us to this name: WEDELIA ACAPULCENSIS, known by several book names, including Zexmenia, Orange Zexmenia, Hairy Wedelia, Texas Creeping-oxeye, and just plain Wedelia. In Texas, botanists seem to use the binomial Wedelia texana, but the online Flora of North America asserts that that name "has not been validly published."

The Flora describes Wedelia's habitat as "Damp places in otherwise dry sites, igneous or limestone derived soils, thorn woodlands, desert scrublands," and it's true that here it gathers mostly in shady spots and the bottoms of dry erosion features.

Wedelia occurs from Costa Rica north through Mexico to Texas, where it occupies about the southwestern third of the state.

*****

MOONSEED FLOWERING
Sometimes a plant you think you know turns up in an unexpected place or somehow looking different than you expect, and you don't recognize it. That's happened to me several times with the vine shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825cc.jpg.

With those glossy, leathery-looking leaves you might think it's an escaped ivy, genus Hedera, or a kind of greenbriar, genus Smilax, but those plants produce their flowers in umbels, which means that the stems, or pedicels, of several flowers arise atop a larger stem, the peduncle, like an umbrella's stays radiating from the handle. Flowers on this plant are arranged in slender panicles, as you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825cd.jpg.

Flowers in that picture are unopened, falling off, and in general not in a good shape. One half-open blossom showing six stamens clustered within a three-parted floral envelope is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825ce.jpg.

Also unlike ivy and greenbriar, leaves and stems of this vine are softly hairy, as seen on a leaf's undersurface at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825cf.jpg.

So, it looks like our plant bore unisexual male flowers which fell off as soon as their pollen was shed. The vine is woody with no tendrils but with hairy stems and leaves, and the leaves arise one per stem node, or "alternate."

This is an unusual combination of field marks, and they lead to the Carolina Moonseed, COCCULUS CAROLINUS, a member of the small Moonseed Family, the Menispermaceae. Last September we looked at this plant, commenting on the prettiness of its juicy red fruits with their curious snail-shell-like seeds. You can see those at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/moonseed.htm.

*****

SHOWY WHITETOP
Last month we looked at the mostly tropical Whitetop Sedge, which looks like an umbrella sedge except that its spikelets and surrounding blade bases are white, which is something pretty special for the Sedge Family. You can review Whitetop Sedge on its page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/whitetop.htm.

This week I found a very closely related but smaller and less spectacular species of whitetop sedge right next to the Whitetop Sedge pictured above. You can see a foot-tall tuft of this smaller species growing on mud between cobblestones in the Dry Frio's river bed at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825rh.jpg.

A close-up of a white head is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825ri.jpg.

In that picture you see how the blade bases radiating from below the tuft of spikelets not only are not white, which they are on Whitetop Sedge, but also that they are much narrower than the flowers they subtend. On Whitetop Sedge, the blade bases are much wider than the spikelets.

This is the Showy Whitetop, RHYNCHOSPORA NIVEA, endemic to about 22 counties in Texas and a bit of Oklahoma, plus a tiny part of Coahuila State, Mexico, across the river from Texas. Its habitat is described as seeps, edges of streams and similar wet areas, all on limestone.

*****

CICADAS, DRY WIND & SYCAMORE LEAVES
One hot afternoon this week I biked into the valley to pick lima beans in the garden next to the red cabin. Someone was at the cabin, though, and I didn't want to fool with them, so I went walking along the Dry Frio instead. A gravel bar shaded by a big sycamore beckoned me, so I lay on the gravel to take a nap, and maybe I did, or almost did. Whatever the case, in an in-between, awake-or-asleep state I began noticing this: Dry wind feeling good on my skin, and rustling prettily in the leaves above me.

It was more than pretty and good feeling. Somehow the wind in leaves sounded so restful and its cooling ripples on my hot skin felt so friendly that a wave of nostalgia, or something like nostalgia, washed over me, confounding the moment with untold others that mostly took place many years ago. You know how it is when a certain odor, sound or feeling, or combination of sensations suddenly focuses you in a tender way, and takes you back. A hint of the feeling is conveyed by the picture I took above me shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130825__.jpg.

And then the cicadas started up, not the chainsaw-sounding ones like back in Kentucky and Mississippi, for cicadas here have a mellower call, but, still, their droning added more feeling, and more poignancy.

In that half-asleep state, it seemed that the three things -- hot, dry wind, rustling sounds in sycamore leaves, and cicadas calling -- were all present in the right proportion, and perfectly complementary with one another. In fact, as I lay there, in my mind the three things arranged themselves geometrically, and I began thinking of myself as suspended within the three equal corners of a crystalline pyramid.

In this transcendent state -- or maybe just as my mind wandered -- it occurred to me that the hot, dry wind, rustling sounds in sycamore leaves and cicadas calling were all just one thing that had found three ways of expressing itself. And, at the same time, it was as if the three things were movie-projectors issuing beams of light that crisscrossed in space exactly where I was, making me. And a third thought was this: That, like "Father, Son and Holy Ghost," the Wind, Leaves and Cicadas were the Physical World, Thought and Spiritual Inspiration that with their mingling ignited ME into existence.

By that time ants were crawling all over me tickling and biting, and I thought about myself being a stiff-jointed old man in mid-afternoon lying on a gravel bar daydreaming about levitating inside a crystalline pyramid, and I got tickled and sort of snorted instead of laughing, and that snort and the scratching of ant bites brought me down, brought me back, and I just got up, brushed sand and ants from my sweaty arms and legs, and biked home and wrote this before I forgot it.

For, these days I'm forgetting lots of things, forgetting when I'm not remembering.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Nostalgia, Wistfulness, or What?" from the May 11, 2006 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/060511.htm

"Pokeweed Esthetics" from the August 17, 2006 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/060817.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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