Not Lost at All

Recently, the Hub and I spent time in the Hill Country area of Texas. One of the highlights of this mini road trip, and on an especially gorgeous day, we hiked at Lost Maples State Natural Area. Located about 3 hours drive from our home in Austin and located in the Edwards Plateau ecoregion, the state park showcases a “lost” isolated cluster of Uvalde Bigtooth Maples, Acer grandidentatum, recognized for their spectacular fall color. We were too early this year to enjoy the foliage fanfare, but with cooling large trees and shady under-story growth, paired with steep, rocky inclines which challenges hikers, and textured, limestone cliffs with attending pools, as well as plenty of blooming and berrying native flora, the park is stunning even without the color bonus.

The bit of red, courtesy of a young maple, is a hint of the color to come.

Golden highlights from American Sycamores provided a suggestion of autumn, but might have come from summer’s end scorching, rather than autumn’s cooling and waning light.

Mountain Laurel and Evergreen Sumac, as well as a variety of oaks, provide some, though not all, of the fresh green undergrowth.

One of the striking things to me was the beauty of the American Sycamores in the area. I saw some of the tallest, most robust that I’ve ever seen, as well as slender, graceful saplings. Topped by their yellow-to-green leaves, the white bark bisects the colorful brush; ivory lines, vertical and zig-zag, contrast in geometric form with the leafy backdrop.

It was a full day of hiking and some segments of the trails were rigorous. As always when I venture into natural areas, I enjoyed seeing many plants that I grow in my own garden thriving in their true, native habitat. Along with early (and somewhat limited) autumn red provided by Virginia Creeper and a smattering of maple leaves, and the golden-green foliage of sycamores, fall flowers were generous, providing sprinkles, and sometime splashes, of red, white, and yellow, tempered by some blues.

Fragrant MIstflower, Eupatorium havanensis
Prairie Broomweed Amphiachyris dracunculoides

Native grasses were in full sway, as well. Big Bluestem and Little Bluestem were especially lovely, having come into their burnished beauty with fluffy, toasty and creamy seed heads.

Lost Maples is notable for its good bird watching, especially during migratory periods. We heard lots of twittering, mostly of the Carolina Chickadee and Titmouse variety, as well as some invisible twittering that I couldn’t identify by sound and song. Some of the usual suspects who live in this part of the world, glorious Northern Cardinals and noisy Ravens, were common. I was thrilled to see a Western Meadowlark, Sturnella neglecta. In birder-talk, that’s a lifer for me. Cornell lists this area as non-breeding, but my Merlin app suggested Meadowlarks are rare in the park. I imagine some part of its migration, coupled with a good source of yummy insects enticed this handsome bird to the open area.

Perched on a Mountain Laurel that clearly had upper limb damage (probably from last February’s ice/snow storm), the bird had a good view of potential snacks.

Limestone rock is a fixture (pun intended) in this area, as it is throughout Central Texas. As we hiked, we passed by a number of stunning limestone outcroppings, many of which have developed travertine stalactites over the centuries as rain water has seeped through the porous limestone.

The best known rock outcropping is named Monkey Rock. Do you see it?

I especially like that King/Queen Monkey is flanked by sentinel young American Sycamores.

Throughout the day we occasionally heard scurrying in the brush, but of course, it’s always hard to see what dashes away to safety in the undergrowth when humans bumble by. This Greater Earless Lizard, Cophosaurus texanus, while well-camouflaged, was visible to us on part of the trail that was rocky. It remained mostly in place for long enough to catch a photo, and eyed me warily. The handsome critter was patient. Even though we saw the lizard, it’s obvious how well it fits into its environment and how a predator might miss this fella.

The upper part of the Sabinal River, once named Arroyo de la Soledad, courses gently through the park and is fed by smaller creeks, lending its own defining efforts to the land and rock formations. Ferns are happily growing along many of these pools.

Until this recent trip, I’d never been to Lost Maples and I’m not sure why I waited so long to visit. I’d love to see the autumn colored leaves at some point, but this is a place that I plan to see in other times of the year. It’s an place of great beauty and rich diversity in both flora and fauna.

Mega Monarch Migration

A while back I’d read that this year was good for the Monarch Butterfly, Danaus plexippus. From Canada, through the mid-west states of the United States, and now in Texas, Monarchs are on the move in healthier numbers than in recent years. I saw my first autumn Monarch back in August, earlier than normal, but I never complain when I see a butterfly, especially a Monarch. Throughout September, individuals wafted through my garden, drifting up and down in gentle butterfly fashion, alighting to nectar on whatever flower caught their fancy.

In the past week, the amount Monarchs visiting my garden has exploded to numbers I haven’t seen in years–if ever.

On blooming, mostly native Texas perennials, there are 10-20 fluttering beauties sipping the good stuff from the flowers’ offerings.

It’s been many years since I’ve seen this number of Monarchs and I’d forgotten the soft sound of many butterfly wings as they whoosh from their feeding perches: joyful for the gardener and full of promise and life for the insect.

The Monarchs are nectaring on a variety of flowers, but wings-down their favorite is Frostweed, Verbesina virginica. I’m grateful that I grow a number of these tough native plants which produce blooms that Monarchs and many other pollinators love.

Monarchs are also fond of Gregg’s Mistflower, Conoclinium greggii. This charmingly fuzzy ground cover perennial blooms throughout summer, but the height of its blooming season is September through November–just in time for the Monarchs.

Interestingly, most of my close up photos are of male Monarchs. The two black dots on the hindwings indicate a male. Also, the black segment veins on their wings are thinner than those of females.

It’s not only the Monarchs that are gracing the garden, but scads of other pollinators are out in full force like this cousin-to-the-monarch, the Queen Butterfly, Danaus gilippus.

Monarchs and Queens resemble one another in their similar coloring, adorned with black veins and white dots, but Monarchs are larger than Queens. Unlike Monarchs, which we Texans only see during spring and autumn migration, Queens are familiar in Texas gardens throughout the year because they don’t migrate. It’s common that Queens are mistaken for Monarchs, but check out this great tutorial on how to tell the difference between the two.

Monarchs are fueling for their continuing migration to Mexico for winter. Other flowers they nectar from include this native Turk’s Cap, Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii,

…and the lush blooms of the Mexican Orchid tree, Bauhinia mexicana.

To witness the results of a successful year for this beleaguered and endangered creature is heartwarming, but it also validates my decision years ago to use mostly native plants in my garden and to always plant for the benefit of pollinators and other wildlife.

A garden is at its best when supporting life.

Basket Case

This lavender, spidery beauty is an American Basket-flower, Centaurea americana.

In July 2020 I wrote this post about the single American Basket-flower growing from seeds gifted me two years before by Shoreacres (author of Lagniappe and The Task at Hand). I was thrilled when I saw the sprawling, low-to-the-ground individual nearly hidden beneath a Mexican Orchid tree. I took photos, checked on the plant from time-to-time, let it seed out and moved on to appreciate other surprises in the garden.

This past spring, I noticed some new growth that I didn’t recognize. In a rosette form with lanceolate, slightly serrated leaves, I watched several specimens for a while, then decided to pull them up, assuming they were unwanted weeds. Next door neighbor, sister-in-law (SIL), found the same in her garden, but was a wiser gardener than yours truly.

SIL left her unrecognized and unnamed plant alone and it grew tall. Then, grew even taller. Since we didn’t know what the mystery plant was, she named it ‘Audrey II ‘ from The Little Shop of Horrors. Several Audreys appeared in her front garden SIL left them alone to grow and bloom. We mused and wondered what Audrey would be when she grew up. When the first Audrey was about 6 feet tall, it flowered and we easily identified the plant: so long Audrey, hello American Basket-flower! The photo below doesn’t show the original Audrey, but another of the same species amidst tall summer sunflowers.

It’s not a great shot, but just off-center, to the right is an open Basket-flower. The plant stands nearly 6 feet tall.

No doubt these plants have come from those seeds that I haphazardly scattered in 2018, but I would have never guessed that they are Basket-flowers until they bloomed and left little question about their identity. Basket-flower literature suggests that the plants grow between 2-5 feet tall; the one I found in my garden in 2020 was about 12 inches tall. That being said, according to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center’s website, American Basket-flowers can get as tall as 6 feet–as these have done. As well, these annual wildflowers supposedly only bloom in late spring and early summer, but SIL’s bloomed in July and there have been blooms opening since that time, with more to come.

SIL left her “weeds” to see what they would become, but I yanked most of mine. Impatience is not a virtue, especially in gardening, but I missed a few and once we identified the plant, I left the ones I hadn’t pulled. In August, I finally enjoyed blooming Basket-flowers of my own. This lovely was the first Basket-flower that bloomed for me. It wasn’t as tall as the ones in SIL’s garden, only reaching about 3 feet in height.

This lanky, arched single stalk sports two open blooms at its terminal end at the left side of the photo. There are other buds forming that will bloom in the next month.

The plant stood tall until SIL’s very large and mostly dead Arizona Ash tree was pruned to a shrub. The arborists who did the work were careful, but the ash is a huge tree and a few garden inhabitants were mushed, crushed, and bent over from the traffic. This Basket-flower plant was one of them. Also, the photo was taken after a heavy rain and the water-logged plant hadn’t had a chance to dry off and stand up a bit.

Another is about to open.

American Basket-flowers are excellent pollinator plants, attracting butterflies and native bees.

Pipevine Swallowtail (Battus philenor) visiting one of my Basket-flowers.
Hairy-legged bee, Apidae enjoying crawling around another bloom.

A Basket-flower has-been, it is ready for seed production. Once the seeds develop, the pod becomes a warm, toasty color.

SIL has been diligent about collecting seeds; I’m letting my Basket-flowers seed out at will.

After my Arizona Ash is removed in November and without a tree canopy, my front garden will undergo a complete make-over; the garden will transform from shade to full-sun. I’m confident that some Basket-flower seeds will find their way into soil and bloom next season and seasons beyond. As well, the Basket-flower case has been a good reminder that it’s good gardening practice to leave alone unknown plants until they’re known: friend or foe, desired or not. With that tolerance, I’m better able to decide whether a plant or plants should be a thread in the fabric of the garden, a valuable part of the garden ecosystem.