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

March 9, 2014

POLYPHEMUS EXACTLY ON TIME
Exactly one year ago, in our March 10, 2013 Newsletter, a Polyphemus Moth encountered beside a dusty gravel road in the Dry Frio Valley below Juniper House was featured, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/a/polymoth.htm.

That moth, apparently a male at the end of his brief life, was tattered and faded. This week another male turned up, but he was freshly emerged and was so vividly colorful and luxurious hairy that it was a pleasure just to look at him. You can see him, photographed by my neighbor Phred on his garage door, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309po.jpg.

A study of one gorgeous section of the wing is seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309pp.jpg.

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WHAT 781 FEET MEAN
Here at Juniper House, on the southern slope of the Edwards Plateau, we're at an elevation of about 1690 feet (515m) above sea level. Uvalde, our nearest town and the county seat 35 miles to the south, is at about 909 ft (277 m). At no time of the year is that difference in elevation of 781 feet (238m) felt more keenly than at this season.

For, at our elevation there's hardly anything flowering, and the pastures and fields are wintry gray, while down in Uvalde fields and lawns are emerald green and there's plenty flowering, as the rest of this Newsletter will make clear. This week, for the first time in about half a year, I hitched a ride into town and got to look around.

In clear weather, air temperature decreases by about 5.4° Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet you rise in elevation (9.8°C per 1,000m). Therefore, the 781 ft in elevation change between here and Uvalde should make it, on the average, 4.2°F (2.3°C) cooler here than in Uvalde. That's enough to place Uvalde in USDA Plant Hardiness Zone 8b, where average annual extreme minimum temperatures range between 15 and 20°F (-9.4 to -6.7°C), while at Juniper House we're in Zone 8a, with an annual extreme minimum temperature range between 10 and 15°F (-12.2 to -9.4°C). So far this winter at Juniper House the lowest I've measured has been 14°F.

So, what does a 781 ft difference in elevation mean? The rest of this Newsletter will show, keeping in mind that at Juniper House's elevation there's not a hint of any of the goodies described below.

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MEXICAN ASH FLOWERING
In Uvalde spring has advanced exactly to the point at which the Eastern Redbuds are at their peak of flowering. Less spectacular but just as springy looking are freshly minted, glossy, yellow-green leaves of Mexican Ashes, FRAXINUS BERLANDIERIANA, growing along the banks of the little Leona River passing through Memorial Park, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309fw.jpg.

On mature trees, flowers emerge along with the leaves. A branch showing not only expanding compound leaves with three or five leaflets, but also brown, possibly frost-bitten clusters of pollen-producing anthers of male flowers, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309fx.jpg.

More robust inflorescences of female flowers with their fuzzy, brown stigmas are seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309fy.jpg.

A close-up of individual female flowers appears at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309fz.jpg.

A tree's gray, narrowly ridged bark, fairly typical of ashes, can be seen at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309fv.jpg.

In the US, Mexican Ashes occur mainly in southern Texas, in alluvial soil of stream floodplains, though it's reported spottily in Louisiana and Mississippi. The species is common in similar environments in northeastern Mexico, and Charles Sprague Sargent in his classic The Silva of North America reports it as much planted throughout Mexico, where when cared for it can reach 75 feet in height (23m), though in the US it rarely exceeds 30 feet (9m). He further states that:

For centuries it has been planted in the cities of the Mexican table-land... and their parks and plazas are often dignified by single individuals or noble avenues of this species, which no other Ash-tree surpasses in stateliness and beauty.

In contrast, the Texas Forest and Agriculture Extension Service deems the Mexican Ash a weed tree because of its short life span, susceptibility to pests and disease, and habit of constantly dropping small, dead branches.

Mexican Ash leaves are eaten by caterpillars of the various swallowtail, sulphur and orange butterflies and their substantial fruit clusters feed certain grain-eating birds. Along stream banks where they normally are found their extensive networks of roots retard bank erosion. It leafs out earlier and holds is leaves longer than many ashes, which conveys other esthetic and wildlife values as well.

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HUISACHE DAISY BESIDE US 90
Busy Highway US 90 crosses the country with endpoints in Jacksonville Beach, Florida, three blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, and Van Horn, in arid, far western Texas. In Uvalde it's called Main Street, so when a very unusual looking, ankle-high, daisy-type plant I'd never seen before turned up blossoming brightly not a leg-length from US 90's asphalt, I suspected it might be a weed who'd hitched a ride on a semi-truck from who-knows-where? You can see the plant, its slender, fuzzy leaves clustering at the base and its pretty flowering head about 1½ inches across (4cm) at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309hu.jpg.

Notice that several stems arise from the plant's base, each tipped with a flowering head or immature flower buds. Also, the stems do bear a few leaves, so the plant is not one of those daisies whose flowering heads perch atop leafless stems, or peduncles. Also see how deeply cut are the ray flowers' tips.

When noticing field marks to help with identification of plants in this family, the Composite or Daisy Family, the Asteraceae, you always need to see what the involucre looks like below the flowers. This plant's involucral bracts, or phyllaries, bear exceptionally long, soft hairs, and the phyllaries themselves are grouped in an outer and inner series -- which is very different from those of most daisy-type involucres, where the phyllaries are more numerous, are grouped in several series, and overlap one another like roof shingles. You can see this plant's involucre at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309hv.jpg.

Breaking open the flower head you find a very good field mark, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309hw.jpg.

The pineapple-like structure bearing the disc flowers is the receptacle and most receptacles of daisy-type plants are much lower, and a few are much higher and more slender. Have one looking like a pineapple really narrows down the identification possibilities. This one reminds me of sneezeweed receptacles, so when I began trying to identify our plant, first I considered possibilities in the "tribe" to which sneezeweeds belong, the Helenieae.

The last picture also shows something funny going on atop the future cypsela-type fruits. In many daisy-type plants white hairs or needle-like spines form the "pappus" atop the cypselas, but this plant's pappus is very different. I kept some disk flowers and the next day when they were dry I could see the situation better, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309hx.jpg.

Instead of hairs or spines, this species' pappus consists of semitransparent, paper-like, square-topped scales. Pappi made of such scales are very unusual, and when I saw them I knew I could identify the plant.

Our plant is the Huisache Daisy, also called Honey Daisy and Butterfly Daisy because its crushed herbage smells a little like honey. It's AMBLYOLEPIS SETIGERA, and it's not a weed that's invaded our area from some distance place on a semi-truck, but rather in the whole world it's native only to south and central Texas, and adjacent northeastern Mexico. Huisache Daisy has so many unusual features that it's the only species in its genus Amblyolepis, and it is indeed closely related to sneezeweeds, genus Helenium.

The name Huisache Daisy comes about because it so often grows among Huisache trees, a species of acacia abundant in the scrub around Uvalde. I read that sometimes the daisy forms an almost solid blanket of gold. The Flora of North America describes its habitat as roadsides and open fields, so along US 90 our plant should feel right at home. It blooms March through May, sporadically through the summer and then again in September through October.

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PRIMROSE BLOSSOMING IN THE LIBRARY'S LAWN
The most eye-catching "weed" now blossoming in many lawns in Uvalde is what's shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309oe.jpg.

Of course that plant is so pretty that the name "weed" hardly applies, yet it does commonly grow in people's grassy lawns, and I did see where certain early mowers had run right over the gorgeous volunteers, chopping them to pieces. Sometimes the mowers' blades were set so high that only the flowers were sheared off off, sparing the deeply pinnately lobed leaves, and some earlier-flowered blossoms, which tend to close up, turn pinkish and droop into the leaves once they've been pollinated, as you can see in the picture. The drooped flowers should produce fruits, which may explain why the plant persists year after year despite the mowings.

A peculiarity of the genus is that the flower's long, slender calyx lobes tend to stick together at their tips, forming a sort of flange pointed to one side, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309of.jpg.

Another close-up showing eight stamens, which is normal for this group of plants, and a curious four-lobed stigma held above the stamens and to their side on a slender style, is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309og.jpg.

Most serious wildflower sniffers will recognize this combination of flower features as characteristic of the evening primroses, genus Oenothera. However, about 145 Oenothera species are recognized as native to the Americas, so which is this?

This particular evening primrose is distinguished by the fact that it's a winter annual, which means that its seeds germinate in the fall, the plant grows through the winter, and then when warm weather comes it flowers and fruits. Many winter annuals form ground-hugging circles of leaves known as basal rosettes, which is the case with this species. Our plant remains nearly stemless -- doesn't "bolt" in warmer weather, producing tall flowering stems as in some species. The deeply lobed leaves are characteristic, as is the fact that the four-lobed stigma is held above the stamens, not down among them. But one of the best field marks for this species is the mere fact that it is adaptable enough to thrive in frequently mowed grassy lawns, year after year. Few evening primrose species can do that.

Though plants do produce short, leafy stems, often it's referred to as the Stemless Evening Primrose. In Texas sometimes they call it Texas Buttercup, but buttercups are normally thought of as completely different plants. In other places it's the Dandelion-leaved Evening Primrose. It's OENOTHERA TRILOBA, a member of the Evening Primrose Family, the Onograceae, and it occurs in the US south-central states from Kansas and Missouri south, though it appears spottily farther east, plus it extends southward into central Mexico.

Stemless Evening Primrose is a native plant that, besides in people's lawns, also occupies many kinds of dry, open areas such as prairies, floodplains, slopes, hillsides, and rocky fields.

In our area, in my opinion, its greatest contribution is that of offering spectacular splashes of color in early spring, just when springy color is needed, and just where people are likely to see it. Among the Zuni people, however, the plant is medicinal, used externally for rheumatism and swelling, plus they grind the roots for food.

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LONDON ROCKETS
In Uvalde maybe the most common rank weed of the kind you see up against the bases of warehouses, in abandoned lots and along neglected sidewalks, is the knee-high one shown gracing the very edge of a side street at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309ss.jpg.

A closer look at the flowering and fruiting branches, with tiny, yellow blossoms at the branch tip, and long, very slender fruiting capsules, with the capsules spreading away from the stem as they mature (important field mark) is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309st.jpg.

A closer look at individual flowers showing slender ovaries -- the future fruits -- erupting from the modest blossoms is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309su.jpg.

The plant's large basal leaves are deeply lobed, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309sv.jpg.

This is the London Rocket, also known as Rocket Mustard, SISYMBRIUM IRIO, a member of the Mustard Family, the Brassicaceae. It's an invasive from Eurasia and Africa now found in disturbed sites in many countries. In the US it occurs mostly in southwestern states, though it turns up spottily throughout the country. I read that the name London Rocket comes from its abundance after the Great Fire of London in 1666. The English name "rocket" derives from the Middle French roquette, and the Italian rochetta, the latter diminutive of ruca, from the Latin eruca, applied to a kind of mustard plant. The name of the salad plant Arugula, also a member of the Mustard Family, goes back to the same roots.

London Rocket's flowers, young leaves, and seeds are all edible, but they are so spicy-hot and pungent that you can't eat much.

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TEXAS NIGHTSHADE ON A CHAIN-LINK FENCE
In December we looked at the Texas Nightshade, SOLANUM TRIQUETRUM, which was both flowering and fruiting on a steep roadcut through limestone in an isolated area. Its reviewed at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/h/solanum3.htm.

At that time my impression was that the species might be specially adapted for that kind of habitat, and a late blossomer. I was surprised this week in Uvalde, then, to find it both flowering and fruiting as it entangled itself in a chain-link fence along a sidewalk. You can see its flowers at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309so.jpg.

A close-up of its banana-like anthers is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309sq.jpg.

That picture nicely shows how the anthers open with pores at their tips, not with slits along their sides like most anthers. Anther-tip pores are typical of the huge nightshade genus Solanum.

Texas Nightshade seems to be a tough plant able to thrive under a variety of conditions, and only now am I realizing how viny it can be.

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FLOWERING PRIMROSE JASMINE OVERGROWING A CHAIN-LINK FENCE
On a backstreet in Uvalde, on the same chain-link fence that had Texas Nightshade growing through it, but a little farther down the sidewalk, a viny shrub, or shrubby vine, overgrew the fence and put on a show with its brightly yellow, 1½-inch broad (4cm) flowers, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309ja.jpg.

The attractive blossoms were curiously "semi-double," meaning that there appeared to be more corolla lobes than there should be -- normally four or five on this kind of flower -- yet they weren't as numerous as, say, on a typical garden rose or marigold. You can see what that looks like at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309jb.jpg.

In that picture notice that the corolla lobes bear orangish lines serving as "nectar guides" for pollinators coming in for a landing. A side view showing the unusual way the lobes are stacked atop one another is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309jc.jpg.

This rambling shrub was woody, with stiff, straight stems that were squarish in cross-section, and the evergreen leaves were opposite (two to a stem node) and divided into three leaflets, or trifoliate, as shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309jd.jpg.

I'd never met this plant. However, with its flowers containing only two stamens each, and with its opposite leaves, I figured it was a member of the Olive Family, the Oleaceae. Doing an image search on the keywords "Oleaceae yellow trifoliate," the plant's identity came up pretty fast. It's the Primrose Jasmine, or Japanese Jasmine, JASMINUM MESNYI, which despite its Japanese name is a native of western China. However, being in the genus Jasminum, it's a "real jasmine," though not the jasmine.

Primrose Jasmine's blossoms were pleasantly fragrant but not to be compared to the tropical jasmines we've swooned over, though maybe in warmer weather they would have been stronger. On the Internet you can find pictures of the plant admirably forming high, impenetrable walls of herbage and flowers, so gardeners willing to provide support and tend the plants can create amazingly rank, pretty and fragrant barriers perfect for absorbing traffic noise and blocking views.

The FloriData.Com website describes Primrose Jasmine as "one of the best jasmines for the Deep South, especially on sandy soils. It can be disappointing in zone 8 when late spring freezes kill back the new growth. This jasmine is especially useful in the landscape because it is evergreen."

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SCRAMBLED EGGS
Back East in springtime wooded valleys I'm used to seeing a delicate and pretty wildflower called Golden Corydalis, Corydalis flava. In Uvalde nowadays a very similar but more robust plant occurs as a weed along sidewalks and in abandoned lots. You can see one flowering and fruiting and with its much dissected leaves at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309co.jpg.

A close-up of the interesting, bilaterally symmetrical flowers is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309cp.jpg.

Leaves, flowers and fruits are all similar to the East's Golden Corydalis, except that everything is larger and tougher. Our sidewalk plant also is a corydalis, CORYDALIS CURVISILIQUA, and despite its weediness it's a native American plant, occurring in the south-central US from Kansas through Oklahoma and Texas into northern Mexico. Its common names include Scrambled Eggs, Large-bracted Corydalis, Golden Smoke, Curvepod Fumewort, and Curvepod. Why the name Scrambled Eggs, I don't know.

Scrambled Eggs is described as living in bottomlands, prairies, plains, foothills, mesas, ditches, railroad embankments, and washes in loose, often sandy, dry soil.

The Flora of North America assigns the genus Corydalis to the Fumitory Family, the Fumariaceae, but some experts place it in the Poppy Family, the Papaveraceae. Whichever family it occupies, also in that family you find the famous wildflower known as Dutchmans-breeches.

An important field mark for Corydalis species is the long "spur" or slender baglike structure projecting backwards from the flower's mouth, clearly visible in our flower close-up.

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SNOWFLAKES FLOWERING
In Uvalde but not here higher up, the Snowflakes, LEUCOJUM AESTIVUM, are flowering in people's front yards, shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309le.jpg.

In that picture, notice how the flower stalks, or pedicels, of each blossom are longer than the leaf-like blade, or spathe, from which they emerge, and that several flowers arise from each spathe, not just one. These features help distinguish this from other Leucojum species which also are called snowflakes. A flower close-up showing other distinctive features is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309lf.jpg.

The green spots are shared with certain other species, but not the added combination of several flowers arising from each spathe, and the petal-like "tepals" being of nearly the same length, instead of the flower being a little lopsided. If you see similar clusters of flowers bearing green spots but the blossoms' tepals are of obviously different lengths, probably you have a Snowdrop, genus Galanthus. The names Snowflake and Snowdrop, at least in garden catalogs, normally are applied to different plants.

A peep inside a Snowflake blossom showing six stamens with long, yellowish, pollen-producing anthers surrounding a slender, pale but green-spotted style is at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309lg.jpg.

Snowflakes emerge from underground bulbs and belong to the Amaryllis Family, the Amaryllidaceae. They are native to central and southern Europe, from the Pyrenees to Romania and western Russia, but have been introduced and "gone wild" in many places, including along North America's eastern cost.

The species has given rise to several cultivars, including the large-flowered 'Gravetye Giant' and the robust ‘Podpolozje.'

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GEORGE WASHINGTON'S FRUGALITY
My friend Ron visited Mount Vernon, George Washington's home in northern Virginia, and was impressed by the gardens. In one garden a plaque bore words Washington had written to his farm manager, and Ron liked the sentiment so much that he snapped the picture shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/14/140309gw.jpg.

"...it is miserable for a farmer to be obliged to buy his Seeds; to exchange Seeds may, in some cases, be useful; but to buy them after the first year is disreputable," the quotation goes.

What resonates with Ron and me isn't that we want people to save garden seeds from one year to the next, though sometimes we do exactly that. What's appealing about the quotation is that it encourages two currently-out-of-fashion principles.

First, "frugality" is implied by the saving of seeds; second, "self discipline" is needed to harvest the seed at the right time, store them properly, and sow them in their proper season. In other words, Washington is applying to gardening two basic themes running throughout Nature, and that's something to think about.

For, frugality is the restrained use of resources, and nothing is more frugal than Nature, which recycles everything, but wastes nothing. Similarly, self discipline is voluntary submission to rules understood as good in the long term, and nothing maintains self discipline more rigidly than Nature. For instance, if organisms depart from these principles, as when rabbits overpopulate, Nature quickly self-regulates with disease, famine and/or increased predation. Nowhere in Nature is waste and unrestrained self indulgence tolerated for long.

Thus you have two homey notions that considered by themselves might seem unimaginative and arid, yet they serve as the basis of voluptuously bounteous, polychromatic gardens filled with scintillating fragrances and tastes, and unforeseen textures and forms, all leading to savory, wholesome meals.

In Washington's words, frugality and self-discipline are being evoked in the context of creating a healthy and beautiful garden, just as a lush symphony might be structured around simple but elegant melodies played on violin and cello.

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FEATURED ESSAYS FROM THE PAST:

"'Weed'" from the November 17, 2002 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/021117.htm

"Little Maya Villages" from the October 20, 2008 Newsletter, at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/p/081020.htm

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Best wishes to all Newsletter readers,

Jim

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