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

September 22, 2013

GRUB IN A DIRTBALL
While digging out a level area for our new greenhouse I unearthed a ball of dark brown dirt looking like a chocolate bonbon. One side was falling away revealing something yellow and shiny inside so I picked it up, the side came loose, and I saw what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130922gb.jpg.

It was a grub-type insect larva, shown close-up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130922gc.jpg.

The grub seems to have been disturbed during its early stages of metamorphosing from a grub to a pupa, which then will metamorphose into an adult insect -- presumably a beetle because the grub is shaped and sized more or less like the grub of a June Bug or Japanese Beetle. The grub's skin appears loose and is developing strange folds, maybe something needing to happen for the metamorphosis.

Grubs I've run into before were white, so I thought this yellow one might be easy to identify. However, neither volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario nor I have been unable to find anything exactly like it on the Internet.

I'm guessing that this is a dung beetle grub, since the dirtball more or less looks like the balls of dung our abundant dung beetles are likely to be seen pushing around -- cow dung in the valley, deer dung here on the hill.

Beetles undergo complete metamorphosis. The dung beetle's egg is inserted into a ball of dung, a grub-type larva hatches and eats the dung the ball is made from, hollowing it out, and when the grub grows to a certain size it metamorphoses into a pupa, a strange-looking resting stage more similar to a grub than a beetle, and eventually the pupa metamorphoses into a dung beetle. The beetle exits the ball of dung, flies away, finds dung and a dung beetle of the opposite sex, and reproduces. Dung beetles, also called tumblebugs, are shown and more fully described on our page at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/tumble-b.htm.

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SAND SUNFLOWER
Last fall at the red cabin in the valley where I lived last winter a truck delivered a load of sand for building purposes and for use in loosening up our clayey garden soil. This spring a few plants germinated and took hold, which was surprising because of the dry, sterile condition of the sand. How could any herbaceous plant survive on a heap of sand during this summer's drought? The plants not only survived but thrived. I couldn't imagine what species they might be, so I began waiting for flowers. One of the much-branched plants standing five feet high (1.5m), is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130922he.jpg.

Obviously it's a member of the Composite or Sunflower Family, even looking like a real sunflower, genus Helianthus. However, there are lots of sunflower-like genera, and Helianthus itself is home to about 52 species, all North American, so this week it was time to "do the botany."

The green involucre below the flowering head is composed of triangular, sharp-pointed bracts, or phyllaries that overlap like house shingles, which is typical of Helianthus species, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130922hf.jpg.

The flowering heads are composed of dark reddish disc flowers forming the head's dark eye, while yellow ray flowers do the attention-getting service performed by petals in most flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130922hg.jpg.

With those large style branches curling out of the dark disc flowers, it's clear that the disc flowers are fertile and thus produce cypsela-type fruits, which we call "seeds" when thinking about sunflower seeds. However, if you pull off a ray flower you see that it has no style branches, and the thing at the base that would mature into a fruit is tiny, as if it's not turning into anything. You can see a "neuter" non-fruit-producing ray flower without style branches atop the non-functioning ovary at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130922hj.jpg.

All this is also exactly right for the sunflower genus Helianthus -- fertile disc flowers but infertile ray flowers. Furthermore, breaking open a head you see that the base of each disc flower is partially enveloped by a papery bract, or "palea," that's purplish and three-toothed at its top, which is very typical for sunflowers.

Finally, this plant's leaves are more or less triangular, saw-toothed margined (serrate), rough-textured on top and alternate, all perfectly permissible for sunflowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130922hi.jpg.

With all these features we're sure we have a sunflower. The following features help us figure out which sunflower it is:

The plant arises from a taproot, which I could feel by poking a finger down through the sand at its base/ there's one leaf per stem node (leaves are alternate); the disk corollas are dark reddish instead of yellow as in many species; the paleae are deeply three-toothed, and; leaves are triangular with large, evenly spaced teeth, or serrations, along their margins.

Our plant is HELIANTHUS DEBILIS, variously known as the Sand Sunflower, Beach Sunflower, Dune Sunflower, Weak Sunflower and Cucumberleaf Sunflower.

Sand Sunflower is native to the US Southeast's Coastal Plain area but has been turning up wherever it's sandy along the eastern seaboard as far north a Maine, as well as in numerous countries across the world such as South Africa, Australia, Taiwan, Slovakia, and Cuba. We're on the extreme western margin of its natural distribution area and I'm not sure if it's native here or not. I doubt it, since normally we don't have much sand here. I'm guessing that our sand was brought to Uvalde County by train or truck, probably beaches in the Houston area.

Sand Sunflower is so attractive and able to thrive in fairly sterile sand that it's sold for xeriscaping purposes. Several cultivars have been developed, including 'Italian White,' 'Flora Sun,' 'Dazzler,' 'Excelsior,' and 'Orion.'

Small seed-eating birds eat the sunflower-seed-like fruits.

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TALAYOTE FLOWERING
Last December we looked at large, pear-shaped fruits dangling conspicuously from Milkweed-Subfamily vines of Cynanchum racemosum, often known as Talayote, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/talayote.htm.

Now Talayote is producing racemes of yellowish-white flowers, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130922ch.jpg.

The flowers are very distinctively milkweed-type. Notice how between the five white-fringed, greenish corolla lobes arise five shorter, pale, three-toothed items. These constitute the corona, something seen in milkweed flowers that few other flower types have. Also, in the blossom's center, there's a complex-looking thing unlike the usual stigma, style and ovary. That's the gynostegium, consisting of a fused staminal column (grown-together stamens) and the "stylar head," which is part of the female pistil. I provide an illustrated introduction to milkweed flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/fl_milkw.htm.

Talayote's leaves are somewhat distinctive, too. They arise two to a stem node (they're "opposite"), and are more or less heart-shaped, with a flat-bottomed sinus beneath the lobes, plus often they're splattered with white latex, or "milkweed milk," as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130922cj.jpg.

*****

A SUPER-VARIABLE SPURGE
Last week we looked at the Toothed Spurge with its broad, sawtooth-margined leaves, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/euphorb2.htm.

This week I ran across another spurge species whose flowers were very similar but its leaves were extremely slender, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130922sp.jpg.

If you know your spurges and can't believe that that's a spurge, you'll become a believer when you see the flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130922sq.jpg.

Such a strange spurge should have been easy to ID, but in the end I was obliged to look at all spurge species -- all members of the genus Euphorbia -- found in this part of the world. However, after viewing many pictures I found nothing similar to it. Lately on the Internet I've met someone in San Antonio knowledgeable of south-Texas wildflowers, so I sent our pictures to him. They threw him for a loop, too, so he forwarded the pictures to Bill Carr, a well-known, book-writing expert on Texas wildflowers, who quickly pegged our plant as the "highly polymorphic EUPHORBIA CYATHOPHORA... at its skinniest and greenest." Commonly Euphorbia cyathophora is called Wild Poinsettia because normal plants genuinely look like red-topped but scrawny Poinsettias. Well, "polymorphic" means "many-shaped," and our plant is the Wild Poinsettia at its most extreme.

Actually, we've already met this species, down in the Yucatan. You can see what it normally looks like on our page at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/poinsett.htm.

Wild Poinsettia, also called Fire-on-the-Mountain, Mexican Fire Plant, Summer Poinsettia and Painted Spurge, occurs in the warmer half of the US south through eastern Mexico, and it's introduced into many countries. As with many Euphorbias, the plant's milky sap can be poisonous if ingested, and irritates eyes, mouth, and mucous membranes.

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THE TRICKY SMARTWEED LEAF-FLOWER
A tiny wildflower was rooted perilously on the Dry Frio River's dry, gravely streambed in a spot bound to be washed away during our first good rain. You can see the daring little herb at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130922pp.jpg.

A close-up of one of the yellowish, miniscule flowers is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130922po.jpg.

The little flower's calyx and corolla are merged into one "floral envelope," or perianth, so instead of having petals and sepals it's said to have "tepals." And it has six tepals, which is unusual for a dicot. It's also unusual that the flower bears only three stamens with yellow, pollen-producing anthers. Something else striking is that at the base of each leaf petiole there's a conspicuous, white, triangular-shaped stipule.

These field marks suggest a member of the Smartweed or Buckwheat Family, the Polygonaceae, but when I began looking at members of that family found in Texas absolutely nothing similar to it turned up. Happily, in the midst of my ID struggles, that's when I happened to be exchanging letters with Texas botanist Bill Carr of Austin, so I cheated and sent the picture to him.

"PHYLLANTHUS POLYGONOIDES," he shot back, a plant sometimes known as the Smartweed Leaf-flower. The genus Phyllanthus often is placed in the Euphorbia or Poinsettia Family, but lately many botanists are so struck by its peculiarities that it's been given its own family, the Leaf-flower Family, the Phyllanthaceae. The 2000 or so members of that family are mostly tropical and subtropical. The polygonoides species name is gratifying because it means "like the smartweed," and I'd been looking in the Smartweed Family, so I'm not the only one to be tricked by this herb.

Our little Smartweed Leaf-flower doesn't give a hint as to why it's called a leaf-flower. However, we've run into Phyllanthus species in Mexico where the name leaf-flower makes more sense. You can see a picture of one of them at http://www.backyardnature.net/chiapas/phyllant.htm.

In the middle picture on that page notice how flowers arise from what appears to be the midrib, or rachis, of a pinnately compound leaf. In fact, the "leaf" from which the flowers arise actually is a stem with many simple leaves, so flowers actually are arising singly in a normal way, each one emerging from where the leaf attaches to the stem. A very unusual feature of this plant family, then, is that ultimate leaf branches often look like pinnate leaves.

Our Smartweed Leaf-flower doesn't display this feature. However, as a member of a mostly tropical and subtropical family, our little herb is sort of pioneer settling on the family's outer border with the Temperate Zone, and it's often the case that species on the fringes of a group's normal distribution area display adaptive features unusual for that group.

Smartweed Leaf-flower is so small and obscure that not much is known about its medicinal properties, though Don Chus, the Tzotzil-speaking man in the picture at the above link said that his plant was used medicinally to break up kidney stones. In Indian ayurvedic medicine, various herbaceous Phyllanthus species are prescribed for jaundice, gonorrhea and diabetes as well as for making poultices for skin problems. Infusions from young shoots are used to treat chronic dysentery.

*****

KING RANCH BLUESTEM IN LATE SUMMER
In January when I was desperately looking for anything flowering I was tickled to find growing up against the sunny side of the red cabin in the valley a runty little grass actually producing flowers. It was identified as the King Ranch Bluestem, BOTHRIOCHLOA ISCHAEMUM var. SONGARICA. You can see what the grass looked like then at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/kingblue.htm.

That plant was less than ankle high, and now I see that it must have been a dwarf state imposed by January's freezing nights. Nowadays King Ranch Bluestems are issuing inflorescences standing knee high and taller, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130922kb.jpg.

Flowers of those plants, with pinkish stigmas and pale yellow anthers hanging out, are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130922cj.jpg.

On our page for this species I quote from a book calling the species "A pernicious weed crowding out native species," and now I can see that in fact it's very common along our roads and out in a large field that started out dominated by native grasses but now, after being bush-hogged for several years, is thick with King Ranch Bluestem.

A 1955 paper by Celarier & Harlan in "Oklahoma Agricultural Experiment Station Technical Bulletin 58" suggests that King Ranch Bluestem is a hybrid between the Old World species Bothriochloa intermedia and Bothriochloa ischaemum.

A 2001 publication called "Pasture and Range Plants," published by Fort Hays State University, in Hays, Kansas, when referring to the hybrid, says, "Our best information indicates this bluestem was introduced to the California Agricultural Experiment Station from Amoy, China in 1917, but was not noticed until 1937 on the King Ranch in Texas. Since this date it has gained much popularity."

Therefore, King Ranch Bluestem wasn't developed on the King Ranch, but the Ranch may have done much to popularize it and spread it throughout our area.

*****

RUSTY FLATSEDGE
In hot sunlight glaring off white limestone gravel in the dried-up bed of the little Dry Frio River, at least one plant species was able to take root and prosper. The achievement was made easier by its location right where water seeps from the gravel into a depression to form a pool, when there's water to seep and a pool to form, which here wasn't the case. Still, the plant seemed to thrive, and you can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130922cy.jpg.

With grass-like leaves arising at the stems' bases, and each otherwise leafless stem topped with broad, leaf-like inflorescence bracts, and slender flower spikelets forming such bushy inflorescences above the leaves, anyone halfway familiar with mud-loving plants recognizes this as a kind of flatsedge, sometimes known as nutsedges, umbrella-sedges or galingales -- genus Cyperus of the Sedge Family, the Cyperaceae. Papyrus is a Cyperus looking somewhat like this, though much larger, and so is Chufa, planted in gardens for their tubers. Our plant was only about six inches tall (15cm). About 600 Cyperus species are recognized, of which some 96 occur in North America, so which was this one?

A shot from the side better showing how the inflorescences of slender spikelets are subtended by leaf-like bracts is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130922cz.jpg.

A close-up of slender spikelets with anthers and styles emerging from behind green-ribbed scales with pale margins is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130922cx.jpg.

This is a common and widely distributed species, a good one to know. Commonly it's called the Rusty or Fragrant Flatsedge. It's CYPERUS ODORATUS, occurring in wet, muddy areas, including disturbed and altered sites, in much of the world's tropical and warm regions. This is one of those few species that's so adaptive and flexible that it's found in warm, moist areas nearly worldwide.

In our area no other Cyperus species produces so many very slender, densely clustered spikelets that are round in cross-section. Even in other areas with more Cyperus species the online Flora of North America assures us that Rusty Flatsedge is "... easily identified by its cylindric to subcylindric spikelets in which the corky rachilla of the mature spikelet disarticulates at the base of each scale." In other words, the slender spikelets are round in cross-section, not flattened as with most species, and within each mature spikelet the florets separate from one another when the corky "stem," or rachilla, supporting them breaks apart.

On the Internet, little enthusiasm is shown for any medicinal value the Rusty Flatsedge might have. However, back during the US Civil War a book by Francis Peyre Porcher prolixly entitled Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economical, and Agricultural, being also a Medical Botany of the Confederate States; with Practical Information on the Useful Properties of the Trees, Plants and Shrubs, published in 1863 in Richmond Virginia, assures us that Rusty Flatsedge's root has a "warm, aromatic taste, and the infusion is given in India as a stomachic." The book is partly viewable via Google Books.

Small seed-eating birds naturally are pleased to peck at the tiny grain-like fruits.

*****

SEPTEMBER FEELING
On last week's anniversary of the 9-11 attack on the Twin Towers, like a lot of people I remembered where I was when it happened. I was hermiting in the woods in southwestern Mississippi. In my September 16, 2001 Newsletter I wrote, "... on the morning of September 11 with all the news crushing about me I went to the work table next to the upper garden and was greeted by several flats of freshly germinated lettuce. The flats had been sowed just three days earlier and now there was a tender yellow-green carpet in the flats' moist soil. It was a joy to see, a confirmation of things fresh and hopeful."

I remember those lettuce seedlings and the comfort they gave me on that sad day. Also I remember the September feeling all around me -- the first loosening-up of summer's overpowering heat and humidity, leaves here and there starting to turn colors -- a sort of sad, end-of-something kind of feeling, but also a sense of new beginnings. In September, songbirds grow quiet, for now they're molting, changing their beat-up and faded summer plumage for pristine new ones as winter approaches, and maybe a long migration south. For me, then, the September feeling is rooted in those experiences.

It's interesting that I can make up the term "September feeling" and you more or less understand what I mean, even though the term isn't in any dictionary, and your own September feeling certainly is different from mine. Using an invented name, my thought-associations and feelings, in a powerful and mysterious way, are transferred with certain changes to you. When you think about it, that's almost magical.

In fact, it's been shown in memory tests that people better remember a given color if their mother language includes a word for that color. That shows that names can help us see things. It's as Nietzsche said: Most people don't really see something unless it has a name. He wrote: "Wie die Menschen gewöhnlich sind, macht ihnen erst der Name ein Ding überhaupt sichtbar."

We don't need names for everything, though. In fact, maybe with fewer names we'd have to be more intuitive and empathetic with others in order to understand what's being said with a handful of named concepts. Some names even deaden us to reality. For instance, calling something "meat" instead of part of a cow's shoulder deflects feeling we might have about causing that cow to be killed so its shoulder can be eaten.

Well, the Middle Path is right: We need names for important things like trees, yo-yos and cornbread, but maybe it's a good idea to leave more nuanced and subtle entities nameless, so our minds can effervesce our own unique concepts as occasions arise. If the world of human thought is a garden, our unique conceptions are new species in that garden, adding to the garden's diversity, stability and beauty.

Whatever the case, long live the unnamed feeling of quiet birds with winter before them, and new feathers. Long live the nameless feeling of leaves drying and yellowing on gnarly-limbed trees. And long live this very moment, no matter when it occurs, in whatever month or place, this very moment with no name.

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FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Seeing but Not Seeing, Knowing but Not Knowing" from the April 21, 2007 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/070421.htm

"Senses" from the March 7, 2010 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/100307.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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