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.

Overwintering themselves in fall-mown, grassy roadside shoulders, Wooly Locoweed (Astragalus mollisimus) is one of the earliest spring flowers in the land West of the Pecos. Ranchers may curse the plant for its toxic alkaloid properties and do their shortsighted best to spray the native plant into extinction, but the Astragalus is only defending itself from herbivory, and its poison is the only way it can survive in today’s world of fragmented landscapes and fenced-in, improper grazing pressure from non-native bovines. The pollinators, who were here long before cattle, relish this early food source, and agriculture is heavily dependent on pollinators.

A classic throughout most of Texas is Prairie Verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida).  This member of the Verbena family flowers nearly throughout the year in warmer regions of the state, though it really puts on a show in the spring and summer.

A lot of the early flowers are easily missed by many people, simply due to their short stature.  Here, Tufted Milkweed (Asclepias nummularia) stays fairly hidden among last year’s warm season grass stalks.  Typically less than 6″ tall, it requires one to pay attention to detail and to actually observe discrepancies in vegetational patterns to find it.  Simply looking – scanning the horizon in a quick flit of the eyeballs for most people – will not help you locate this small plant.  Those who do take the time to do so are rewarded with the sight of this plant’s odd-shaped flowers and ability to survive in a harsh land despite its diminutive size.

Another forb that flowers nearly year round, though mostly is seen cheerily sunning its fertile ray flowers from March to October, is Chocolate Daisy (Berlandiera lyrata).  True to its name, it emits an aroma of chocolate on warm sunny days, especially in the aestival aspect of the year as its populations increase (one generally smells this species before their eyes locate it).  Like the other Berlandiera (B. betonicifolia), this one flowers and sets seed in pulses throughout the growing season, making repeat visits a requirement if one wishes to collect its Silphium-like seed.

While the above flowers are by no means an exhaustive account of the herbaceous spring art forms in this region of Texas, they do show the beauty of our native flora – the majority of which are now endangered species.  The natives have worked on their phenotypic beauty over the last several thousand years, and as such, they belong here just as much and more than other species.  And because we humans have destroyed almost all of their habitat, we have an ethical obligation to save what remains of those habitats, to restore what has been degraded, and reconstruct, to any extent possible, what has been lost.  Should we not, then we are not a moral society of any kind, and all we’ve done is enable a heavily biased playing field that favors invasive noxious species and allows novel ecosystems to take over the fragmented worldscape, changing our nation’s scenery, fire regimes, and increasing costs to all of us, especially on the taxpayer front.

Over the long haul, farther than the nearsighted lens of modern day economics can foresee, a healthy ecology matters most.  It’s the lifeblood of the planet.

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7 thoughts on “The Gifts of the Natives

  1. Thanks for those wonderful spring flowers. I haven’t been able to get out to look, but friends are telling me spring has started in our northern Illinois prairies. It can’t come too soon after our long winter!

  2. Amazing snaps, Jameson, as the Irish call them. What kind of camera did you use? The quality is outstanding and really does justice to the blooms

      • Thanks Jameson,
        What are some of threats these plants are facing. I gather there’s habitat loss; how much development is there in the Texas Hill country? I’m not familiar with the area.

        Also, what sorts of noxious and invasive weeds are threatening this ecosystem.

  3. Okay, Let me ask you this; do you know the C-values for these plants; is tall goldenrod, Canada goldenrod, <emSlolidago altissima becoming more of a problem; do these plants respond well to fire, and if so, do they respond better to spring or fall burning; what sort of management is in place in this area, is this somewhere where you’ve been working? Curious minds want to know more.

    • RTC, thanks for the comments.

      In the Hill Country, and throughout all of Texas, land fragmentation due to development is easily the number one threat faced by native plants. Add in indiscriminate herbicide use, past bad land management legacies (overgrazing and fire suppression being the big two), planting boring lawns instead of utilizing what is already there, and you have a really broken world. And it only gets worse by the day. Novel ecosystems are the new deal, and they come with nasty exotic species such as Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense), King Ranch Bluestem (Bothriochloa ischaemum), and Bermudagrass (Cynodon dactylon), to name several; all of which create monocultures or low-diversity, sterile grasslands that provide not one iota of wildlife value.

      As for the C Value thing, nobody uses that in Texas that I’m aware of. I personally don’t see the need for it when we can less complexly and more properly characterize plants as early, mid, or late successional species; especially when “restoring” (re-creating, rather) native vegetation into now novel ecosystems. That is what ecological restoration is mostly about these days.

      The coefficient of conservatism assignments may work fine for areas that are not so severely degraded in respect to:
      – native plant communities and associated plant species that still contain what are thought of as “pure prairie genetics” (though those are few and far between)
      – native soil structure and function
      – areas that still contain ecological feedback loops that do not perpetuate degradation
      – areas that aren’t threatened with novel system intrusions
      – or have not suffered severe trickle down effects of past land abuse legacies
      But overall, I see the coefficient of conservatism method as a very subjective way of assigning meaning via numbers to species. At least with early, mid, and late successional assignments, it is much more clear to see that in the field. And with specific experience in a certain ecological region, one can walk through a grassland and see the different successional stages.

      As for the fire questions you have, the plants pictured in this post are in high-desert grassland communities in the area west of the Pecos River. Fire ecology there is a much more complex and slower to see change/recovery than other areas of Texas simply due to the extreme spatial and elevational variations in precipitation from season to season and year to year. Arid and semi-arid lands fire ecology is a whole different ballgame than subhumid or humid areas.

      A good resource to find out information about fire effects on certain plants is here:
      Fire Effects Information System – http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/

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