Finding Silphium

After meeting several species of Silphium last year in gorgeous, wide-open Nebraska, I returned to Texas that fall and had my mind set on finding Silphium in the Cross Timbers and Prairies ecoregion.  I consulted various range maps, which showed many Silphium species present in North TX, then took to the backroads, driving along forgotten patches of roadside and old-field prairies, finding places where time was a bit slower and easy going – those were the places where the prairie natives seemed to be doing alright.  I found a patch of Compassplant (S. laciniatum), growing right up to the Chico gravel road edge, colonizing severely overgrazed rangeland of Vernon clay soils on erosional gully slopes.  That surprised me, as Silphiums aren’t considered pioneer species, but are thought of as mid to late successional species within the schemes of terrestrial plant succession.  After a bit of research, I found a paper from Auffendore and Wistendahl, which noted a large population of S. laciniatum in Ohio whose reproduction persistence was linked to soil slippage, an erosional type of terrestrial disturbance.  Plant succession is never really a black and white set of states after all.

Silhpiums were once the king forbs of the tall and midgrass prairies, covering some two-thirds of the North American continent from East to Midwest, Canada to Texas.  Are the isolated and lonely populations I’ve found relicts of once larger communities whose members have long since been grazed out and plowed under?  They surely have not been planted – most people think of Silphium as just another sunflower or some kind of weed after seeing the plant’s huge leaves; large, rough as sandpaper, and most unusual in shape.  In such severely altered landscapes that surround us today, can the Silphium continue to survive and cheerily brighten the late May aspect of these North Texas prairies? I have hope they can.  After all, they’ve been around for some 10,000 years and have much more claim to the land than we humans do.

This month, I found another patch of Compassplant, along with a big roadside colony of Rosinweed (S. integrifolium). The only thing I had not yet found in regards to North TX Silphiums is one in flower.  And this year I did.  My  spirits soared at the sight of it.

“What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked. . . .”Certainly, [Silphium] saw the successive funerals of the local pioneers as they retired, one by one, to their repose beneath the bluestem. . . .”Few grieved when the last buffalo left Wisconsin, and few will grieve when the last Silphium follows him to the lush prairies of never-never land.”
– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac, 1948



As a low pressure system moved out of California overnight and today, it pushed to the east.  Ahead of it, moisture-laden clouds moved swiftly over dry, rain-shadowed basins across the Desert Southwest and slogged and slowed their way through the buoyant and cooled-to-the-dew point atmosphere that over-topped many mountain peaks. Thunder rumbled and rolled down the aeons-old slopes and its echoes made music in the canyons.  Lightning struck at will, perhaps giving life somewhere to that ancient creature of the wild and long-employed steward of our natural lands: fire.  At each peak the clouds became colder and gained immense weight, and unable to progress eastward, dropped their heaviness in the form of rainy precipitation. As the drops fell, they picked up particles from the air; dust, pollen, pollution from our lives, the wonderfully unmatched aromas of Creosotebush and Juniper, along with that clean high-altitude scent that immediately transports one’s thoughts to the Sangre de Cristo Range of northern New Mexico; perhaps not far from the vertically-walled Cimarron Canyon, or the ragged, exposed igneous intrusion aptly called Tooth of Time.

But this isn’t New Mexico.

This is the high-desert, ruggedly remote country of the Mountains and Basins Province, west of the Pecos River in Far West Texas – the true West Texas. The rain is what we live for each day; it’s why we stand in our doorways and watch – like we’ve never seen it before or it’s our last time to do so – as it clatters down from fat, flat-bottomed clouds, cleans our air and rushes adrenaline through our mortally doomed systems.  It’s the key to life, and seeing that moisture in its natural form is the best motion picture of the year – nothing else comes close.


The Gifts of the Natives

In the semi-arid and arid high and low-desert climate of Far West Texas, springtime and its associated wildflowers seems to tease its way along at the speed of germination.  But, like in any deserts, showy spring forb bouquets can sometimes appear almost overnight in concert with precipitation, surprising many who think of the Texas wildflower show as only a Hill Country thing.  There’s more to showy forbs in Texas than Bluebonnets and Indian Paintbrush. Continue reading

The Real West Texas

This isn’t Lubbock or the Panhandle Plains, nor the monotonous oil-spewing region of Midland-Odessa.

This is the land that time and an ever-changing climate built in dramatic and violent fashion, and in much of this vast space, time also forgot in the same manner.  Those forces formed the region known as the Trans-Pecos, the only area in the Lone Star State that contains true mountains.  These are high-desert mountains, “sky islands” in the Basin and Range Province, and as such, are as much a part of the West as any other mountain range.  In the high elevations of the Chisos, Davis, and Guadalupe ranges, montane forests of yellow and white pine, Douglas-fir, oak, and aspen abound – relicts that survived when the fringe effects of the last ice age departed some 10,000 years ago. Continue reading

Thoughts on a cold day

It is a chilly, late fall day here in North Texas as a cold air mass from the Rocky Mountains continues its collision with warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico.  Various forms of wintry precipitation are expected over the next 24 hours, with colder than average temperatures lasting through Thanksgiving.  In short, my kind of weather. Continue reading

Why prairies matter and lawns don’t

Prairies – those critically endangered and complex ecosystems understood by few and misunderstood and destroyed by millions of people.

Lawns – those myopically obsessive (and evil) urban, suburban, and increasingly rural monoculture eyesores that displace native ecosystems at a rate between 5,000 and 385,000 acres per day* in favor of sterile, chemically-filled, artificial environments bloated with a tremendous European influence that provide no benefits over the long term; no food, no clean water, no wildlife habitat, and no foundation for preserving our once rich natural heritage.  And there’s the unbearable ubiquitousness of mowing associated with such a useless cultural practice, which creates a ridiculous amount of noise pollution, air and water pollution, and a bustling busyness that destroys many peaceful Saturday mornings.  The American lawn is the epitome of unsustainability. Continue reading

The need for new wildland fire shelters

Bill Gabbert, at Wildfire Today, wrote a post about fire shelters titled, “Hope for a better shelter”.

A company called SunSeeker Enterprises, is currently in the early stages of designing a new wildland fire shelter with much better protection than current shelters can offer.  Until then, hear and see what the company in the video below has to say about their innovations and future fire shelter.  SunSeeker Enterprises is also seeking donations to help with their development efforts, starting at $25.  Their donation page can be found in the link above. Continue reading

National Bison Day – November 2nd

The U.S. Congress, largely an inept body of self-absorbed yellow-bellied nincompoops, whose bickering antics are atrociously worse than those witnessed in a room full of 4 year old children, managed to show they have some semblance of rational, adult-like thinking by passing an important conservation bill just prior to their histrionic-filled shutdown – the bill that proclaims November 2nd as National Bison Day. Continue reading