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

December 15, 2013

CHIPPING SPARROWS' WINTER PLUMAGE
At Juniper House we finally got a bird feeder up. I thought we'd be swamped with House Finches but so far there's only been a few Tufted Titmice of the Black-crested race, and some Chipping Sparrows. The titmice snatch a single seed from the feeder, then fly into the nearby liveoaks, wedge the seed between their feet, and pound at it with their modest little beaks. The sparrows are nearly as fidgety, except for one bird, who comes all through each day, often sitting like an old hen in the tray, looking around and leisurely picking a seed here and there. You can see this bird working on a seed at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215cs.jpg.

This bird's winter plumage is different from its summer one. You can see what a Chipping Sparrow looked like this June with his bright, rusty-red cap and white eye stripe, in my neighbor Phred's feeder, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/b/chipspar.htm.

Even in the summer sometimes it can be hard to distinguish our several sparrow species, nearly all of which display brown-streaked backs, with the rest of the bird mostly expressing variations on the brown and gray theme. Winter plumages often are more subdued. The Chipping Sparrows' reddish cap grows brown and curdles into irregular stripes as the white eye stripe and face darken. In this plumage, in the field, they're hard to tell from several other species.

In fact, even with our picture, I didn't feel perfectly confident about declaring this a Chipping Sparrow until I ran the picture past my old birding buddy Jarvis in North Carolina. He pointed out the dark line through the eye, an important field mark for Chipping Sparrows. Rufous-crowned Sparrows also have that, but they also display a white streak at the base of their bills, the "malar streaks," and Jarvis points out that our bird doesn't have that. Jarvis also wrote, "One might also consider a Clay-colored Sparrow but a Clay-colored has a pale lore and this bird has a dark lore. Also, the border of the face mask does not look dark enough." The lore is an area between a bird's eye and the base of its top mandible.

*****

PIPEVINE SWALLOWTAIL CHRYSALIS
At the community restroom in the valley, in a dry, well protected corner beneath the eaves on the men's side, a butterfly chrysalis was stuck to the horizontal surface by silk. Chrysalises constitute the pupal stage of butterfly metamorphosis. Remember: egg --> caterpillar --> chrysalis --> adult. You can see the chrysalis at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215ch.jpg.

Volunteer identifier Bea in Ontario recognized this as the chrysalis of a Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly, which makes sense because that's one of our most common butterfly species. A view of the same chrysalis from the side is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215ci.jpg.

Back in June we saw the Pipevine Swallowtail's spiky, orange caterpillar. It's still on display at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130602ca.jpg.

And the Pipevine Swallowtail butterfly itself appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/uvalde/019.jpg.

In fact, last January another Pipevine Swallowtail chrysalis husk turned up beneath a Sotol leaf, but it was only a husk, possibly emptied by a parasite that had eaten the pupa from the inside. That chrysalis didn't show the colors and detail seen in our present finding, though. It's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/130113cy.jpg.

I'm surprised that we have so many Pipevine Swallowtails here because so far I haven't found a pipevine plant here, and that's the only food of the Pipevine Swallowtail caterpillar.

*****

TEXAS NIGHTSHADE
Despite and partly because of our three-year drought and recent hard freezes, the landscape is somber but lovely with its brown grasslands and green, juniper-and-oak mantled hills. Even though you can be satisfied with such scenery, one welcomes any surprising splash of bright color, and that's exactly what turned up this week dangling like a cherry from a wiry little stem arcing from thin soil on a steep roadcut through limestone. You can see exactly what that looked like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215so.jpg.

At first I couldn't imagine what it might be, but then the squashed fruit expelled the small, pale, flattish seeds shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215sp.jpg.

That's just like a tiny tomato. In fact, it's exactly what you might expect in the huge genus Solanum, which is home not only to the tomato and potato, but also many frequently toxic species of nightshades. Solanum belongs to the Nightshade Family, the Solanaceae.

But, if this plant was a Solanum, it was unlike any I'd ever seen. Its semi-woody, green stems scrambled somewhat like viny greenbriar, and its larger leaves were "eared" at their bases, very un-nightshade-like, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215sr.jpg.

Also I'm accustomed to herbaceous Solanums, but this one had the woody base shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215ss.jpg.

Perplexed, I looked around in hope of finding another plant still in flower, and had the luck to find one. You can see the very distinctive blossom at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215sq.jpg.

Despite its anomalous stem and leaves, it's a nightshade, after all! With five banana-like anthers forming a nose-like assemblage like that, the style poking up from amidst the anthers, and the five-lobed corolla swooped back -- and with the fruit being so like a tomato -- it couldn't be anything other than a nightshade.

It's the Texas Nightshade, SOLANUM TRIQUETRUM, found only in Texas, a spot in Oklahoma, and arid northeastern Mexico.

Many nightshades are poisonous, though when the fruits mature sometimes they're edible. Our Texas Nightshade's fruit tasted bitter, so I wouldn't advise nibbling on them. I bet small birds relish the tomato-seed-like seeds, though. This is such an uncommon plant that not much is known about it.

It was a good find, and its cherry-red fruit was a delight to discover in our otherwise wintry landscape.

****

WHITE SAGE
If you bike northward, up Dry Frio Canyon into Real County, you gradually rise in elevation. After about three miles you come to the sign saying they'll shoot you if you pass beyond the gate. There you don't feel like you've climbed much in elevation but I've found numerous plants in that area that hadn't appeared farther south and lower in elevation, in Uvalde County. Typically those new finds at the shooting gate are species commonly occurring in the Great Plains' prairies to our north, while farther south on the Coastal Plain at Uvalde the vegetation tends to Mesquite- and Acacia-rich "scrub," or low thorn forest.

This week not far from the shooting gate, at a woods edge, several stems of a whitish, fine-leafed, slender bush leaned onto the gravel road seeking sunlight, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215ww.jpg.

The white herbage is what caught my eye. At first it seemed that the whiteness might be caused by road dust or maybe by white fungal mycelium covering the leaves. However, up close it was clear that the plant body bore a thick mantle of matted, white, cottony hairs. You can see the top and bottom surfaces of a leaf at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215wy.jpg.

Among the stems' upper leaves arose hundreds of tiny flowering heads of the type found in the Composite or Sunflower Family, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215wx.jpg.

The urn-shaped flowering heads, only about 1/8th inch high (3.5mm), were past their blossoming time, with the corollas shriveling and cypsela-type fruits developing within the involucres. You can see how the heads were arrayed on short stems, or peduncles, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215wz.jpg.

Usually when I encounter a member of the Composite Family new to me I look at details of the flowering head such as what kind of pappus arises from atop the fruit, whether scale-like paleae separate the fruits from one another, etc. However, in these tiny heads such details would be very hard to see; moreover, with the plant having such tiny flowering heads, the white wooliness, and its crushed leaves smelling bitter-spicy, and the leaves tasting like something I'd tasted before, already I thought I knew what genus this plant belonged to.

For, I've spent some time in the western US's high deserts where vast areas were covered with sagebrush of this very color, and sagebrush has clusters of tiny heads just like these, and sagebrush smells good, and has a somewhat similar odor and flavor. Sagebrush is Artemisia tridentata. The genus Artemisia is a big one, with about fifty species just in North America, so surely this was one of those 49 other Artemisia species.

Our roadside plant is widely distributed in western and central North America and northern Mexico. Covering such a large area, it's known by many names, including White Sage, Prairie Sage, Silver Wormwood, Western Mugwort, White Sagewort, Gray Sagewort, White Sagebrush, Mountain Sagewort and a host of similar names. It's ARTEMISIA LUDOVICIANA. Six subspecies are recognized for it in the US, so it's not surprising that it's very variable and occupies a broad range of habitats, from loamy soil in mountain meadows, to sandy soil in deserts and rocky slopes.

With its odor, flavor and availability you might guess that traditionally White Sage was used medicinally. In fact indigenous Americans used it for sore throats, stomach ailments, and difficulty in childbirth. Its leaves were also crushed and employed as snuff to treat sinus attacks, nosebleeds, and headaches. Tea made with White Sage was used in Mexican traditional medicine to alleviate intestinal pain. Extracts of the plant have been shown to display antifungal properties. Indigenous Americans also burned it for incense and some used it constructing their roofs and wattled walls. In cooking, it was used to flavor meat.

Because it's a tough plant with pretty herbage, Silver Sage often is grown in gardens. Several cultivars have been developed, such as 'Silver King' and 'Silver Frost.' It does best in well-drained soils in full sun. It's easily propagated by cuttings and seeds.

So, this is an important plant, though somehow until now I hadn't noticed it. But, there's a lot in life like that, just so many interesting and lovely things still to be met with.

*****

WORMWOOD
Another reason the White Sage beside the road struck me as familiar was that I have a long history with another member of the genus Artemesia, the one sometimes called Sweet Wormwood, Sweet Annie, Sweet Sagewort and other such names. It's ARTEMISIA ANNUA, a native of Eurasia but a common weed in much of the US, especially the east-central states. Back in Kentucky it was a common weed.

My interest in Sweet Wormwood arose back when nearly every year I returned from Mexico with a case of intestinal worms. I read somewhere that wormwood, genus Artemesia, was good for treating worms, thus the name. Back then we had a barnyard full of Artemesia annua, Sweet Wormwood, so I began "cleaning myself out" each time I returned home by fixing up strong teas of Sweet Wormwood. At least, I thought I was cleaning out the worms.

Now that I can research the matter, I find a 2011 paper by JF Ferreira et al stating that ethanolic extracts of Sweet Wormwood do kill trematodes, which are parasitic "flukes," but not the intestinal worms I used to get in Mexico. In fact, that article states that aqueous solutions of Sweet Wormwood -- and my "teas" were aqueous solutions -- showed no activity.

Several Artemesia species do demonstrate anti-worm properties -- are "anthelmintic" -- but Artemesia annua isn't one of them.

Last year some friends sent me some Sweet Wormwood seeds from Kentucky, I grew them, and because over the years I'd taken a fancy to Sweet Wormwood tea, I dried the plants, hung them next to Juniper House's kitchen door, and now from time to time I reach out the door, break off a sprig, steep it in boiling water awhile, and have "wormwood tea," whether it keeps me free of intestinal parasites or not. You can see my kitchen-door stash of wormwood at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215w2.jpg.

A close-up of Sweet Wormwood's tiny flower heads, somewhat similar to those of the White Sage we looked at above, appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215w3.jpg.

Tea made from Sweet Wormwood is anything but sweet. It's fairly bitter and medicinal tasting, and most people would despise it. However, in my lifestyle and with my frame of mind, sometimes it just hits the spot.

The question is whether it might be medicinal even if it doesn't keep me worm free, or might wormwood tea even be bad for me.

Some years ago it was discovered that Sweet Wormwood contains the compound artemisinin and certain flavonoids that can be effective against malaria. It's been shown that artemisinin is indeed useful against malaria, but it's still debated whether simple teas will do any good. Beyond that, you may be interested in browsing a webpage entitled "The Most Important Medicinal Herb in the World," because they're talking about Sweet Wormwood, Artemesia annua. The page can be accessed here..

On that page, besides its use against malaria, we read that in traditional Chinese medicine Sweet Wormwood is used for fevers, bleeding and for conditions of the digestive tract like flatulence and diarrhea.

I find no reports of it producing toxic effects, though it is suggested that pregnant women and people taking certain medicines avoid it. I drink it only occasionally, when I feel like something bitter and somehow "cleansing," so I'll continue my occasional brews of snippings of the stash beside the kitchen door.

*****

SALTMARSH ASTER
Despite several hard freezes during the last couple of weeks, a certain modest little foot-tall member of the Composite, Sunflower or Daisy Family still is flowering in protected spots close enough to the Dry Frio River to benefit from the water's usually-warmer-than-air temperature. You can see this wildflower rooted in a limestone outcrop beside a little waterfall, appearing in the background, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215a5.jpg.

A nearby individual better showing the plant's small size, the oversized inflorescence and the narrow leaves appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215a6.jpg.

A peep into the composite flowering head, showing yellow disk flowers with their wishbone-shaped style arms exserted, and faintly pinkish white rays, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215a7.jpg.

Looking below the head we see that the green phyllaries are slender, with the outer or lower ones being much shorter than the inner ones, and ending in sharp points, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215a8.jpg.

In the old days back in Kentucky, without hesitation I would have called this one of over 600 species of the genus Aster, and I would have known that figuring out which Aster species it was probably would be a struggle. However, during the 1990s gene sequencers split the wonderful old genus Aster into several genera with hard-to-remember, usually long names.

Happily, the Composite Family is finished in the online Flora of North America, so identification keys there direct us to the new genera and then to the species. Using features mentioned above, plus the fact that our plants were annuals -- a large percentage of asters are perennials -- and other field marks, our riverside plants reveal themselves as SYMPHYOTRICHUM SUBULATUM, often referred to as the Annual Salt-marsh Aster. Here we're far from any salt marshes, but that's how it is with common names. The species is widely distributed through the warmer and hotter parts of North, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Mexico; in the US it's mostly confined to the southern tier of states. In the old Aster days it was named Aster subulatus.

The "subulatum" and "subulatus" in the binomials relates to the adjective "subulate," which means "tapering to a point," as do the heads' sharp-pointed phyllaries as well as the leaves. These terms are based on the Latin "subula," meaning "awl."

*****

BROWNFOOT SHINING IN FROST-TIME
Back in torrid July we looked at the white-flowered, eupatorium-type wildflower called Brownfoot, Acourtia wrightii. You can see it in grass along a fencerow where it presented a handsome but not spectacular presence at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/acourti2.htm.

Now after hard freezes have converted our grasslands to dun-colored oceans, suddenly Brownfoot has become conspicuous. You see a little island of greenness amidst all the frost-killed brownness, and the greenness is topped with dazzling white fuzz, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215c2.jpg.

The white fuzz is clusters of white-parachuted fruits. And who knows how and why the plant stays so green after our freezes?

*****

BAROMETER EARTHSTAR
On the slope below Juniper House, where the power company has cut a swath of trees for their lines, on thin, moss-covered soil, the pretty little object turned up shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215at.jpg.

The spherical centerpiece, which is basically a typical puffball fungus filled with spores, is only half an inch across (15mm).

If you walk in wild places looking at the ground you've seen this kind of thing before, and probably know that it's a kind of fungus known as an earthstar. However, there are many earthstar species, so part of the fun becomes figuring out which species this is.

Most earthstars I've run into belonged to the genus Geastrum, but it turns out that this one belongs to an entirely different genus, Astraeus. It's ASTRAEUS HYGROMETRICUS, often known as the Barometer Earthstar, but also as the False Earthstar -- "false" because it's not a member of the "true earthstar genus," Geastrum. The "hygrometricus" in the binomial beans "hygrometer," or wetness-measurer, but barometers seem to be better known than hygrometers, so it's the Barometer Earthstar. The name was chosen because when the air is moist the "arms" surrounding the puffball open up, forming the star. But when the air is dry the arms close up. You can see the same earthstar pictured above after spending a day on a saucer in my dry room at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215as.jpg.

The Barometer Earthstar occurs worldwide, except in polar regions and cold temperate areas. The Wikipedia expert says that the species grows on rocks and prefers acid substrates like slate and granite, while avoiding substrates rich in lime. Our soil is very rich in lime, so maybe that's why I've only seen one here, while in many areas they appear to be very common.

The subterranean, white network of root-like mycelia -- of which the earthstar is no more than the reproductive body -- form ectomycorrhizal associations on roots of various tree species, especially oaks and pines, and especially in sandy soils. Here we have plenty of Texas Liveoaks, but our soil is very thin and clayey. Mycorrhizal associations are extremely important to the ecosystem in various ways, such as improving a tree's carbohydrate storage capacity and enhancing the plant's access to dissolved minerals; if you're unfamiliar with the matter, our mycorrhiza page is at http://www.backyardnature.net/f/mycorhza.htm.

In Asia, Barometer Earthstars are prized as good eating, but in North America the species is regarded as not toxic, but too tough and unpleasant tasting to bother with. Possibly the Asian species actually is different, or maybe people there just have different tastes.

*****

HAIRY HEXAGONIA
A dead tree trunk leaned against a living tree. It'd been leaning there long enough for a certain kind of saucer-sized shelf fungus to grow horizontally with the landscape, not tilted with the trunk. The shelf fungus was unusual because its top was covered with blackish hairs. Two of the leathery, stiff, black-topped fungi emerging from opposite sides of the leaning dead trunk are shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215he.jpg.

A close-up featuring the stiff hairs, which were up to ¼-inch tall (6mm), is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215hf.jpg.

The fungus was the kind whose spores are released below not from papery gills, but from holes in the fungus's body. You can see the holes at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215hg.jpg.

The holes tell us the fungus is a member of the Polypore Family, the Polyporaceae.

On the Internet the usual identification keys didn't help with this fungus, so apparently this was one of the more uncommon species. Finally I had to resort to browsing through hundreds of images using the Google image search function and key words such as "shelf fungus black top hairy."

However, the process worked. Our shaggy fungus is uncommon enough to have no common name. It's HEXAGONIA HYDNOIDES, which though uncommon is widely distributed, mostly reported from warm and hot regions of the Americas and tropical Africa. In the US mainly it occurs from Florida to Texas.

It's amazing how little information is available about the species. I read that the hairs eventually fall off, leaving a smooth top, but that's about it. Apparently it hasn't been studied in detail at all. Therefore, maybe our merely documenting its presence here will make a mycology researcher happy someday.

*****

BEARD LICHEN
On a dead tree limb wedged among the middle branches of a liveoak, a tuft of lichen only about 1½ inch tall (4cm) caught my eye, for it wasn't one of the common ones. Up close, the little being displayed surprising complexity and pleasing form. You can see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215li.jpg.

It's a fruticose, or "shrub-like," lichen. Noteworthy are its branched stems heavily invested with numerous sharp but not very stiff spinelike affairs of different lengths, called fibrils. Major branches are tipped with flattish knobs, one shown close up at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215lj.jpg.

At http://www.backyardnature.net/n/13/131215lk.jpg you see a  view from above the same knob showing that it's shaped like a squashed bowl, and that fibrils only arise outside the cup. Seeing the cuplike structure, we know that this is an apothecium, which means that it's a reproductive structure. Spores are ejected from microscopic structures called asci lining the apothecium's interior.

This is a species of the big, widely distributed and well known genus Usnea. Many Usnea species are known as beard lichens or old-man's-beards, because they are white or very pale and often dangle like bushy beards. It can be hard to distinguish the many Usnea species, but I'm filing this on the Internet under the name USNEA STRIGOSA because it looks like that species (as do several others), plus it's one of the more common Usnea species possibly found in our area. In books a common name often given it is Strigose Beard Lichen, but that's a made-up name based on the "strigosa" in its binomial, the word "strigose" referring to slender bristles that lean close to the plant surface, though this species' fibrils don't lean close at all.

Strigose Beard Lichen occurs worldwide, but mainly in eastern and southeastern North America.

*****

CLARITY
During recent winters in Mexico the prodigious sunlight, heat, fresh fruit, etc. were profoundly appreciated, but I did miss a certain feeling that only temperate-zone winter weather can provide. I missed the feeling of cold, sunny mornings like some experienced here this week.

On such crystal-clear mornings the sun glare is almost violent. You feel it on the sunny side of your face while iciness numbs the shadow side. The landscape similarly lies frozen in an all-or-nothing mood; trees, rocks and cliffs etched with shining gloss on their sunny sides and inky blackness on the other, with all moderation hard to see through the glare. Such visual extremism puts you on edge and makes the landscape feel all cockeyed.

You breathe in and you're reminded that inside your chest there's wet, sensitive tissue. Lungs are hot and pink, the opposite of the air's cold dryness, and when the two meet there's visceral shock and then you exhale white steam that curls upward into intensely blue, totally unconcerned sky. Primary colors and primary sensations mingle, and soon your toes and fingers start hurting from the cold, and you remember that pain is a primary feeling, too.

On such mornings I like riding the bike up the canyon. I like the sound cold gravel makes beneath the tires, decisively cracking, twanging and spinning into the grass. Gravel on cold, sunny mornings has an attitude, but it's OK, like everything else in the landscape, like the Ravens croaking from the canyon's walls, their calls exquisitely wild and otherworldly.

One reason I like all this is because something in me craves clarity, and there's nothing as clear as cold, crystalline, sunny mornings. Clutter and distractions have always disrupted my life, confused me and sometimes defeated me, but always, as soon as I could get a clear view of things, things went better. The Raven's hollow croak echoing off naked rock means a lot to me.

On a cold, sunny morning, leaving the world of rich food, mixed-up people, and the crazy things you do for society's sake, riding a bike up through the canyon is a meditation on clarity. When you look around and see rocks, trees, grassy fields, the sky, red and wrinkly hands on bicycle handlebars, steam gushing from hot, pink lungs, all visible through eyes watery from the cold you see that there's a way of dealing with all the excesses and craziness if it gets too bad.

Before long the air warms, and that feels good, as does the moistness that creeps into the air, sunlight's softening glare, and maybe the spirit rises with the song of a bird.

But that's a song for singing another time.

*****

FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"Inside a Bean-Vine Tepee" from the December 25, 2011 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/111225.htm

"A Visit to Pisté" from the September 5, 2010 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/100905.htm

*****

Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

All previous Newsletters are archived at http://www.friocanyonnature.com/n/.