Early fall in the Cross Timbers

Taking what I’ve learned from my last job, I have spent the last couple weeks collecting native plant seed, and I have been surprised by what I’ve found.  That great prairie diversity* is out there, often hidden among the nasty non-native invasive Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense), and along near forgotten backroads of the county; roads that show the ecological devastation of the past and present, and roads that could lead to hope as future barrels of native seed are trucked to a new home – those worn out sandy loams waiting to be given one more chance to make its last stand, accompanied by the plants it evolved with for millennia.
*According to Shinners and Mahler’s, the North Central Texas region contains almost half of all the plant species found in Texas (46%).

To date, I have gathered some 54 species of native plants, and that number could easily double or triple, as there are still the collection seasons of spring and summer next year.

photo 1 (7)
A lone Eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii) plant on a roadside dominated by Johnsongrass (its panicles are visible in the background). Eryngo resembles a thistle, but it is not a true thistle. Rather, this plant is a close relative of Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium), both of which are members of the Carrot family.  Eryngo is an indicator of extreme soil disturbance and/or severe overgrazing.  It is a late summer/early fall annual that starts out green in color, turns deep purple, and then fades to a light tan as it goes to seed.
photo 2 (7)
Native seed drying and waiting for processing. Hopefully by this time next year it will be on its way to breathe new life into the worn out sandy loam lands or add diversity to a Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) dominated rangeland.  Little Bluestem is the dominant perennial warm-season grass in the Cross Timbers of North Central Texas.

The Cross Timbers ecoregion is considered by some authorities to be the easternmost band of deciduous forest before you break out into the Broken Red Plains, a sub-region of the Great Plains.  Largely a conflagration of different ecosystems such as prairie (tallgrass and mixedgrass), woodland, oak savanna, and forest, the Cross Timbers are dominated first and foremost by Post Oak (Quercus stellata), with an understory of prairie grasses; Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), along with lesser amounts of Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), Big Bluestem (Andropogon gerardii), and other grasses.  Some of the dominant forbs (wildflowers) are Dotted Gayfeather (Liatris punctata), Maximillian Sunflower (Helianthus maximilliani), Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa), and Horsemints (Monarda species).

photo 3 (5)
In the eastern reaches of the Western Cross Timbers, you can find patches of Compassplant (Silphium laciniatum), whose yellow leaves give a striking autumnal contrast to the magenta colored flowers of Dotted Gayfeather (Liatris punctata).
photo 4 (5)
It is the time of year for Maximillian Sunflower (Helianthus maximiliani) to shine its cheery yellow color into the softening blue skies of autumn. Maximillian Sunflower is the dominant Helianthus in North Central Texas.

In some areas, the Cross Timbers are densely impenetrable closed-canopy forests of low-growing, old-growth Post and Blackjack Oaks (Quercus marilandica).  It is those types of forest conditions that inspired Washington Irving to write, in his book A Tour of the Prairies, “I shall not easily forget the mortal toil, and the vexations of flesh and spirit, that we underwent occasionally, in our wanderings through the Cross Timber. It was like struggling through forests of cast iron.”

Though Irving probably had no ecological understanding of the area he was traveling through, he did appear to have the common sense to understand that this land was not meant to be grazed year round by cattle inside a barbed wire fence: “The Cross Timber… stretches over a rough country of rolling hills, covered with scattered tracts of post-oak and black-jack; with some intervening valleys, which, at proper seasons, would afford good pasturage” (emphasis added).  If only everyone else had that same common sense in today’s misguided world of economics first, ecology second, then the abundant Honey Mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) “problem” would not be the way it is today throughout much of Texas, the southern Desert Southwest, and Northern Mexico.

There have been many variable sized patches of Crow Poison, or False Garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve), which is usually seen in the spring, though it can appear in the fall when environmental conditions are favorable.
Another plant that has shown up in abundant colonies this year is the native summer and fall annual, Slender Snake-cotton (Froelichia gracilis), which has taken advantage of reduced competition during the recent dry period of the past two months.  There is a second species of Snake-cotton that is found in the Western Cross Timbers, Field Snake-cotton (F. floridana), though it is found on sandier sites than F. gracilis.  The latter species is more common in this part of Texas.

A listing of more exhaustive Cross Timbers resources can be found here.
Two great places to see the Cross Timbers ecosystem are The Nature Conservancy’s Keystone Ancient Forest Preserve and Lake Mineral Wells State Park.


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