I Just Flew In From the North & My Arms Are Tired…

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American Robin – photo credit H.Valey

This past weekend, the air was filled with the songs of Robins and the whistles of Cedar Wax wings.  Thousands of these birds ascended on the Austin area a few days ago.  I don’t think it’s probably a coincidence that it coincided with the polar vortex up north.  Humans dig in somewhere warm when it gets cold, birds can just fly somewhere warmer!  My hiking accomplice and I also noticed alot of Cedar Waxwings… you often see them with Robins so perhaps they decided to ditch the cold up north and join their compatriots for a Texas vacation.

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Cedar Waxwings – photo credit H. Valey

During a hike in the hill country on Sunday we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of Robins.  The song of the birds were so intense at times that I felt like we were in a rain forest. The birds were flitting from tree to tree and hopping on the ground looking for insects.  We noticed that a few we looked at seemed very tired.

This happened a couple years ago as well, when there was a particularly cold spell of weather up north.  A huge group of Robins headed in to Texas, and that time they all landed in my backyard! Well it seemed that way… see the photo below!

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Robins – photo credit H.  Valey

So in most places the Robin is the harbinger of spring, but sometimes in Austin it’s the harbinger of someone else’s winter.

With Winter Comes Cedar Fever

 

Cedar World - photo credit H. Valey

Cedar World – photo credit H. Valey

The season changes here in the Texas hill country are more subtle than in some areas of the US.  Our winters are usually marked by different things than snow and ice.  One of those mid-winter happenings is cedar allergy season, known as Cedar Fever to the locals.  Here in the Texas hill country, cedar trees are as ubiquitous as barbecue & tacos.  Almost everywhere you look you’ll find one of these trees.  Sometimes it can feel like the picture to the left… that the whole world in Austin is made of cedar trees!

When the cedar trees pollinate in December through February, they tend to wreak allergy hell on many a person.  These trees get a bad rap for a few reasons: many people are allergic to their pollen and for different reasons, many landowners find them problematic (more on that later).  However, these trees are important to our hill country eco-system. So while you’re sneezing, wiping your itchy eyes and wanting to cut down all the cedar in sight, let’s talk a little bit about what makes these trees so amazing & important.   We’ll also take a look at why they can be considered problematic.

A little backstory –

First let’s call them by their proper name. What we know as “cedar” here is actually not a a cedar tree at all, but is coniferous and is a member of the Juniper family.  They are known as Ashe Juniper trees, in recognition of US Forest Service Forester William Ashe.  He was the first to collect a sample of this tree in 1924 in Arkansas.  The scientific name is Juniperus ashei.  Ashe Junipers are evergreen, typically multi-trunked and rarely grow over 30 ft tall.

They have been here for a very long time and are native trees. In fact fossilized Ashe Juniper pollen found in Friesenhahn Cave, out near San Antonio, dates back 14 to 20 thousand years ago.  Early visitors recorded densely covered “cedar brakes” in the Balcones Canyonland area as well.

The Good

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Golden-Cheeked Warbler perched in Ashe Juniper – photo credit H. Valey

From a wildlife perspective —

Ashe Juniper has a lot of value for wildlife. Fox, ring tails, raccoons, coyotes, white-tailed deer and more than 19 species of birds forage for the berries. The shaggy bark of the mature Ashe Juniper trees is used by the endangered Golden-Cheeked Warbler, who only breeds in the Texas Hill Country and then returns to South America in the fall. Since it is ever-green, Ashe Juniper is used for cover in the winter and nesting for animals and birds in the spring. This tree is also the larval host for the Juniper Hairstreak butterfly as well.

From a Historical and Practical Perspective… 

This tree played an important role in the history of the Hill Country area. Originally, Native Americans relied on the wood of the trees.   Later, the Cedar Choppers relied on these trees for their living by chopping and selling cedar poles. The heartwood of Ashe Juniper is durable and resistant to rot, as a result they were used as fence posts, telegraph poles and railroad ties.

Today Ashe Juniper oil is used in the making of different fragrances and the wood is still used for fence posts.

Cedar As Far As You Can See - photo credit H. ValeyCedar As Far As You Can See – photo credit H. Valey

The Problematic

Just because Ashe Junipers are native, doesn’t mean that they can’t be aggressive.  Ashe Juniper will take over on over-grazed/disturbed land.  Lack of fire and competition of herbaceous plants allows the Ashe Juniper saplings to get out of check and take over.  Once the Ashe Juniper shades out the ground, then it really makes it hard for forbs and grasses to flourish, which are the plants that livestock prefer. It also out competes more preferable tree species such as the Live Oak.  There is also some proof that dense Ashe Juniper growth will deter adequate water regeneration back to the aquifers.  This is why land owners who are trying maintain grasslands for livestock find these trees problematic.

However, on the flip side, Ashe Juniper trees are evergreen, drought-tolerant and provide a great privacy screen and/or windbreak.  They can and do grow on limestone, holding together the rock and soil that would otherwise erode during our flash floods.  They can act as a nursery tree for some of smaller important under story trees such as Madrone & Rusty blackhaw viburnam.  Also of note, is that the leaf litter from the Ashe Juniper helps to create soil on top of the limestone, which anyone who has tried to dig a hole here in the Hill Country knows we need more of.

Ashe Juniper on Hwy 360 - photo credit H. Valey

Cedar Trees Holding the Limestone Cliff Together on HWY 360 – photo credit H. Valey

And Yes… there are the allergies… 

Ashe Juniper trees are dioecious, meaning that there are male plants & female plants. Female plants produce small blue juniper berries, the males produce the pollen. Ashe Juniper don’t start producing berries or pollen until they are around 10 to 20 years old. What triggers allergic reactions in so many people is the pollen that is released by the male trees.  The pollen is released into the air in huge clouds by the male trees and is carried by the wind many miles, so chopping down all the cedar in your yard will not help.  Best to see your doctor about remedies that will work for you during Cedar Fever season.  It’s all part of living in the hill country, there are a plenty of good things but yeah, admittedly,  Cedar fever isn’t so great. However, don’t blame the trees, they are just doing what they are supposed to do and what they have done for eons… propagate.

The Takeaway —

Many landowners struggle with what to do with cedar on their property. Like with almost everything in life, It depends on what you are trying to achieve. Cutting down all the Ashe Juniper is not beneficial for wildlife, but letting it take over isn’t great if you are a rancher and need to keep your grassland for livestock.  When attending a land stewardship workshop at Bamberger Ranch, known for their outstanding land stewardship in Texas,  they shared that they cut down most of the Ashe Juniper saplings, and 2nd growth trees, but groom and leave all mature Ashe Juniper Trees, cutting them into an appealing lollypop shape. This allows more sun to hit the ground and encourages the growth of more native forbs and grasses, but also allows wildlife to benefit from the trees in the ways they need to.

If you sit and pick a mature Ashe Juniper to stare at for a few minutes, you can’t help but feel a profound sense of time as you look at its worn bark and sturdy stature.  These trees are true native Texans, tough, determined and an essential part of its historical and future identity.

sources:

  1. Biology & Ecology of Ashe Juniper – F. E. Smeins and S. D.
  2. Juniperus ashei – Wikipedia
  3. Know your Natives: Ashe Juniper – Sara Galvan
  4. Dispelling Myths of Ashe Juniper – Jim & Lynne Weber
  5. Juniper Ecology – Alan McGinty
  6.  White Juniper Fungus Biology – Bill Dodd
  7. Juniper Biology & Management in Texas – Texas Agriculture Extension Service
  8. Ashe Juniper Is Really More Good Than Bad – Jan McAuliffe and Mary Dunn, NPSOT Beorne Chapter
  9. The War on Cedar – Joe Nick Patoski – Texas Monthly

Fall Showers & The Fungus Among Us

Gilled Mushrooms

Tall brittle stems – photo by H. Valey

This fall has been unusually wet for us in the Texas Hill Country.  We’re going on our 4th week of showers.  Our hot 90 + degree weather has nicely evened out in the low 80’s and the plants that didn’t get much of a chance to flourish in the summer due to our unusually dry spring are now making up for lost time.  Everything is green and pretty.  The extended moisture and warm temperatures are also bringing with them a host of interesting mushrooms almost everywhere you look.

The mushroom is much maligned.  As children we are taught to not touch them and definitely do not eat them.  There are only about 70 to 80 species of fatally poisonous mushrooms, but a lot of them look a lot like ones that aren’t poisonous, so if you are going to forage for mushrooms you have to know exactly what you are looking for.   However it isn’t going to hurt you to look for mushrooms, just don’t put them in your mouth or smell them.  Don’t let this scare you into not taking the time to appreciate them visually.  These organisms can be useful, beautiful, weird and extremely interesting.

In The Sidewalk Crack

In The Sidewalk Crack photo by H. Valey

The mushroom is the fruit of fungi.  The fungi live in soil (or in their food source: wood, leaves, etc. ).  When a mushroom sprouts up, it will then spread its spores out into the air and surrounding ground.  Most of the spores will die, but some will land in an area where there is nutrients and they will become fungi in the soil thus starting the process all over.

Some basic mushroom anatomy.  The cap is known as the pilious and the stalk, the stipe.   Mushrooms are typically either gilled or polyporous.  Most mushrooms have gills.  Polyporous mushrooms have pores or little tubes.  (see picture below).

Here are some links to more information on mushrooms:

 

Here are is a fun gallery of some of the mushrooms I’ve seen this fall. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

The Garden As A Teacher

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Sometimes I find teachers in my garden.  The garden is never the same from day to day.  It deserves a good look at least once in the morning, because what is there then may not be there when I get home in the evening.  Sometimes I tell myself, when I see a flower and want to linger on it, “You don’t have time, You can do that later.”  But almost always when I come back it is not the same. Something has changed… either the flower is completely gone, or the light is hitting it differently, or maybe its been chewed on.  What I’ve learned in the garden is this.  Every moment is unique.  Nothing is permanent, so if you see something special, honor the moment and let yourself stop and drink it in.

Caterpillar01_sig.jpgThe garden also teaches non-attachment.  One such example happened recently with Monarch caterpillars.  One day there were 2 happily munching on milkweed.  They looked like they were in their 5th instar and I was excited to see them form into chrysalis’.   The next day they were still there and I took more pictures.  Any day now I should see chrysalis’.  The day after I went out to look for them, and they were gone.  I looked all over the area the milkweed was planted.  I felt disappointment, perhaps even a bit of grief for the Monarchs.  Then I stopped and noticed that what was making me feel bad was attachment.  I had grown attached to the idea of seeing them turn into butterflies, so when the world presented me with something different I felt disappointment.  The lesson is that I can choose to feel bad, or I can accept what has happened.  I can then make wise choices in the future… like perhaps next time I find caterpillars on my milkweed I’ll put them in an enclosure while they are still vulnerable.  Or maybe I just accept that sometimes in nature things don’t go as planned.

The garden is a good place to learn mindfulness lessons with subject matter that isn’t as overwhelming as a lot of personal situations, especially impermanence and acceptance.

What has your garden taught you lately?

Adding Datura To My Butterfly Garden

Datura Bloom- photo by H. Valey

So somewhat cautiously I bought a Datura plant (Datura wrightii) and put it in the Butterfly Garden section of my backyard.  Cautiously, mainly because it is very toxic, and also it is considered a weed to some folks.  To me, the term “weed” usually means it has a spreading habit.  Having a small yard, I, unfortunately, don’t have a lot of room for plants with wanderlust.  However I was won over at the thought of hosting Sphinx Moth (AKA Hawk Moth for some) caterpillars and the big showy night blooms of the plant.  Having a moth pollinator plant seemed like a logical addition to the butterfly garden.  Also, I have a friend who is crazy about these plants, she keeps buying more of them for her yard.  So heaped with a good dose of peer pressure, I thought, “sure, I’ll give it a go”.

Datura Flower – photo by H. Valey

Datura, also known as Jimson Weed.  (There is a great story about this I’ll tell later) has greenish grey foliage and will form a mounding shape.  If its in an area where it doesn’t die back in the winter, it can get up to 4 feet tall and 4 feet wide.  So if you live somewhere with warm winters make sure you give it room.  The flowers are trumpet shaped and open up in a bloom about the size of an adult’s hand.  They bloom overnight and in the morning, but by afternoon the bloom is gone.  What grows after the bloom is a thorny seed pod, sometimes called a “devil’s apple” or “thorn apple”.  I let these stay on for awhile, because they look pretty cool, but ultimately I remove them because I don’t want Datura seeds all over my small garden!

Devils Apple – Datura seed pod

The nickname for Datura is Jimson Weed, which is a truncation of the original nickname “James Town Weed”. The story goes, that in 1676 some British soldiers  who had been sent to James Town to stop Bacon’s Rebellion, had harvested some young Datura leaves and made a salad of it for one of their meals.  They spent the next 11 days in delerium, effected by the toxicity of the plant.  Below is a description of their behaviour from a book written by Robert Beverly Jr. about the History of Virgina.

“The James-Town Weed (which resembles the Thorny Apple of Peru, and I take to be the plant so call’d) is supposed to be one of the greatest coolers in the world. This being an early plant, was gather’d very young for a boil’d salad, by some of the soldiers sent thither to quell the rebellion of Bacon (1676); and some of them ate plentifully of it, the effect of which was a very pleasant comedy, for they turned natural fools upon it for several days: one would blow up a feather in the air; another would dart straws at it with much fury; and another, stark naked, was sitting up in a corner like a monkey, grinning and making mows [grimaces] at them; a fourth would fondly kiss and paw his companions, and sneer in their faces with a countenance more antic than any in a Dutch droll. “

Robert Beverley, Jr.The History and Present State of Virginia, Book II: Of the Natural Product and Conveniencies in Its Unimprov’d State, Before the English Went Thither, 1705

Abstract Close Up Datura Petal – photo by H. Valey

Here in zone 8, this plant is a perrenial.   The native species for the Texas Hill Country region is Datura Wrightii.  Like most weeds, its not to particular about soil. It does take more water than most native Texas Hill Country plants.  It would do best in a boggy area or a place that gets regular water.

Here’s some more information on Datura:

Datura profile in the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlflower Database

Growing and caring for Datura

An account of using Datura as a drug

About Jimson Weed – Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension 

Michigan Nature Fix

Red Oaks – photo by H. Valey

I’m in west Michigan on a business trip. I’ve never been here before. I must admit I imagined the whole state to look like Detroit. It does not. Where we are is quite beautiful. I thought I’d be stuck indoors with AC air the whole week but I managed to get out for awhile last night and this morning. The Red Oaks tower to the sky, Raccoons fished among the cattails and swallows glided across the small pond.

Bandit In the Cattails- H. Valey

Cicadas whirred and bees flitted from wildflower to wildflower. It was hard to return back to my group of co-workers.

Gardening For Wildlife

28225581807_431293b5c4_oI’ve been spending a good portion of my time this spring working on my wildlife garden in my backyard.  We started out 3 years ago with just a backyard full of St. Augustine grass, now I have over 25 types of native plants in the backyard and about half the grass.  Do I have more wildlife? Yes and no… When I wasn’t out fiddling in the yard all the time I did notice that we had more lizards. When I wasn’t taking such good care of the compost bin, we had raccoon visitors nightly.  Now, not as many lizards, although that might change now that there are more shrubs growing in the yard and rock piles that I won’t be mucking about with anymore.  The compost bin has been switched out from an open frame style to a closed drum, so no more raccoon salad bar, but perhaps that’s ok. I didn’t mind the raccoons, but I never got any compost because they ate all the green bits!

42843548601_7c85524141_oI have noticed more birds, as I have more native bugs in the yard with the native plants.  I’ve noticed more wrens gleaning bugs off of our dwarf Yaupon bushes, which  is quite entertaining to watch.  Plants with berries, such as the Beauty Berry bush and Pigeon Berry bring in Mocking Birds and Doves, not that I needed more Doves, but still 🙂 We also had a Painted Bunting in the yard this year, and a Red-Breasted Grossbeak last year which is a little unusual in a suburban neighborhood.

We have more hummingbird visitors now that  I have more Salvias & Batface Cuphea planted. My milkweed is doing really well this year so I’m hoping to get some more Monarch visitors at some point as well. We definitely have more spiders… jumping spiders and wolf spiders. They are quite fun to watch.  We have more ants too, which I’m not that excited about though.

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I’ve had a lot of fun picking out the plants and planning the garden, although its taking more iteration than I ever imagined.  I really enjoy just sitting and watching the animals in the yard.  I’ll be adding a butterfly garden addition soon.  We just pulled out more grass in a sunny spot, so this fall I’ll plant some pollinator annuals. I also have some plans for a new water feature for next year to replace the utilitarian bird bath.

We don’t have a big yard.  I envy the folks with an acre or more to work with, but I’ll do the best with what I have. Now that it’s summer and over 100 degrees everyday, I’ll just wait until the fall to do some more work in the yard.  Its worth it to me to have a place to escape to, to forget all of the craziness in the world.

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Plant Resources for Texas Wildlife Gardeners:

What kind of plants and critters do you have in your backyard?