Monday, December 21, 2009

Waller Cemetery - Grimes County

There are many interesting day trips from The Woodlands Texas and nearby areas. Here is a history buff's opportunity to visit a cemetery in Grimes County, just across the county line from Montgomery.

I was out enjoying the forest and saw a sign to Waller Cemetery. Although visiting a cemetery is not the norm for me, I do enjoy enacting scenes of history in my mind. Do you? Here is a deep forest revelation unveiling evidence of local soldiers who died in the civil war and slavery. Both are part of our history in this area.

John Waller, after whom this cemetery was named, was the founder and first mayor of the city of Austin. He is buried in this cemetery, re-interred in 1926 to rejoin his children.  He adopted the declaration of Texas Independence and served in the war of independence, where he was injured.1 The county of Waller is named after him. This is a really neat place to visit and opens a lot of history deep in the heart of Texas, in our own backyard.

To get there, one must take narrow forest dirt roads and even cross a small creek by automobile on board planks. It is remote but easily accessible in dry weather.
This is one of several very old gravestones, reminding us of the life difficulties. Martha Long lived a full life of that era. She is cataloged with the other interred Texans in this cemetery.2

The cemetery is small but rich with history. I found it worthwhile to visit in my exploration of this part of Montgomery County and nearby locations. Also interred here are two African American Texans who were buried outside of the cemetery because of racial segregation.   

1 Edwin Waller, Texas State Cemetery
2 Waller Cemetery - catalog

Sunday, December 13, 2009

The urban sprawl era of Montgomery County

Montgomery County is changing day by day, via planners, via developers, via population. We have been walking through a few related topics in previous articles noted below.1 2 3  Now we take it from a different but related perspective - conservation alongside regional urbanization. A local consultant, Burditt Land and Place Consultanting in Conroe, specializes in resource management, treescaping and urban planning. Integration is their central theme. They have a design process that yields "definable and buildable" plans, molded from client goals. My discussion with a couple of  representatives of this company brings to reality much of the future of this area that I have been contemplating over the past few weeks. Pictured on the left, left to right are John Ross, CA,CF , Senior Resource Specialist and Charles Burditt, President.  Inspired by these two gentlemen, I am sure you will appreciate what I am about to say. It is intended to begin to help open visionary eyes, where our children and grandchildren may live in the future. I constantly ask myself, "will they have the quality of life that we have, enough to enjoy natural resources and living as we do today?" 

Resource management includes preservation and management of our trees and wildlife, in addition to our water and soil. On staff of Burditt are architects, landscape architects, planners, park and recreational professionals, engineers and conservation specialists. This company has completed planning projects for The Woodlands, Conroe, Magnolia, and Seabrook among others. Today, I met a long time resident of the area, who explained the past to me, why we are where we are in urbanization and resource management. We are in a boom - the "urban spread" era of our county! "Just think, in the 1980s Montgomery County had the largest timber volume of any east Texas county!" Today, the volume of wood is not only difficult to quantify, but just not in the same ball park as then. This came about from a change in tax assessment law. One should know that the influence of tax laws has affected timberlands throughout history. For example, under the Ottoman Empire, tax evaders would hide in the forest from tax collectors. Today, if you travel from Amman, Jordan to Israel, through the barren hills, you will see the outcome of that forest. The government of that empire levied a payment for each tree cut down, so that the tax evaders would not have safe haven from the government. Therefore, greed was leveraged to destroy the forest. Government can negatively or positively affect the conservation of our natural resources.

In the case here of Montgomery County, along with other counties, the assessment tax was changed to a productivity tax in the 1980's. As a direct result, overnight it became too expensive to grow and harvest timber. Long term timber investments had to be sold for other purposes. George Mitchell was one who already had a plan for his timberland. He also could not sustain timber operations with the high cost of land taxes. This tax assessment strategy was a sudden change for the long term investment process of timber production. Cattlemen got the tax advantage in the use of land. The difference in land use taxes caused the large holding companies to sell off their assets - Friendswood, Mitchell, Foster, and Champion were large holders of timberland. Real estate companies bought large amounts and sold them in smaller 100 acre or so parcels. Then the timberlands began to be used for other purposes, eventually causing today's urban sprawl. Timber remains an important resource to manage in this and adjoining counties. Even Harris County has some significant forest remaining. There is in fact a 40+ acre timber farm in northwest Harris County. In Montgomery and Grimes, there are still some significant pine stands originally planted for timber production. There are locations near Montgomery, one timber farm in the city limits of Conroe, some near Willis and some in the bottom lands of southeast Montgomery county. Today, diversity of tree species is emphasized wherever tree resources are managed. Hardwoods are often included in any stands of trees whether it be for visual purposes or for wildlife management. Certain species like the Burr Oak or Cedar Elm provide deer and other wildlife with better resources than do pines. The old timberland production process is giving way to this new vision of tree diversity and carefully planned forests or parks to provide livable forests to inhabitants of the county, as urban sprawl takes its course.

I see my grandchildren living in the forests of Montgomery County, don't you? I see them on bicycles preparing for races on the bike ways, walking along the pedestrian ways to service providers and market. I also see shuttles carrying people past stands of trees and scenic ways. I see quiet neighborhoods but fairly densely populated, even in the far reaches of the county.  I see water conservation using strategies for natural recharging of underground reservoirs and very accessible parks and green belts using the diversity of tall trees, some dense as we see in forests, others standing alone, as the planted hardwoods begin to mature. There will be remnants of the great east Texas forest, but it will not be the same. Even you and I do not see the true native forests here in The Woodlands. We are amidst the timber lands intended for logging, not exactly the native forest. Over time, the forest has been evolving, but we have few long leaf pines in it. Most of them are along the creek beds.

John Ross was quick to note that ranching has not been a factor on the forest productivity in the past few decades. Clearly the escalating arrival of people in our urban sprawl has affected the timber lands, but perhaps not as much as we might think. Now we face many opportunities to manage potential and in-place forest resources. What decline in tree population we have noticed can be mitigated somewhat with the planting of seedlings. The more we do, the better it will be for our childrens' families (and ourselves). Hopefully, the forest will be here, although in a different form in the future for the community. Charles Burditt noted some of their projects are now integrating pedestrian ways to achieve higher standards of living quality for livability. I will be following up with an article on a very interesting project his company has planned out. I can't wait to explore that for my readers.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Crazy Ants - a new imported pest

Have you heard about these new ants? They are likely to be a worse menace than Fire Ants. This South American species was imported in the port of Houston a fairly short while ago, something like 7 years ago. It has made its way to Montgomery County and probably exist very near The Woodlands by now. Like all ants, the Raspberry Crazy Ant is very social. Unlike the Fire Ant, these ants swarm and like to get into dark areas. They are in fact a menace to Fire Ants. They may eventually even displace the Fire Ant. Crazy ants run about like they are crazy and thereby their nickname. So again we have another invasive creature not meant to be here. It could affect our plants, animals and upset the balance of nature.

When someone hears they might rid them of the Fire Ant, the old saying comes to mind. "Watch out what you ask for"!  One colony can have multiple queens and number in the millions. Imagine being blanketed by ants. They move swiftly. Fortunately, they do not have stingers. However, they can bite and it hurts. The ant is potentially a threat to agriculture although there is not much information yet to substantiate the fear of this ant in agriculture. The ants can cause damage to electrical systems, especially when they occupy a major power box such as an electrical switch. They are known to short out electrical systems in computer systems and traffic signals.

Visit Texas A&M's site on this subject for more information. 

Monday, October 12, 2009

Tree Rat Nesting Season in The Woodlands

Each year in this neck of the woods, our forest rats search for a place to nest. They like to come to the homes where it is nice and cozy during the winter. If they can get in, they will nest under boards or in some quiet place in the attic. We often respond by calling our favorite pest control company. Some of us try to solve the problem ourselves. What to do?

Unfortunately many of their natural enemies are removed and relocated elsewhere. The Coyote is our best friend for controlling the rat. Owls are also a good predator but we do not have many anymore - lack of trees and space. Since rats are night creatures, their enemies are typically out hunting when the rat is out foraging - night time!

Every year, I am confronted with some sort of rat issue. Last year, they managed to get in the garage, so I had to deal with them there. They had a litter and I had to capture as many as possible. What I did not get, I ended up poisoning. That irradiated them well. They made a mess before I could get them out. To prevent them from returning, I  replaced the bottom seal of both garage doors. Yes, all it takes is a very small opening and they can squeeze through it. About two years earlier, they had found a way to get into the attic through a small opening on an eve of the house. I found that by going up into the attic, turning off all artificial lights and finding where the light was entering the attic. I filled the space with a can of spray Styrofoam and painted it. That worked well. Now we have no light entering the attic.

Last night we heard some gnawing again. This was the second night during the past week that we were awaken by some creature. I went outside and could find nothing of course. So I decided it was probably a rat. The weather and time of year are both perfect for them to be trying to get inside. I know we have Opossum outside regularly but believe this time, the problem is that rats are trying to find a way into the house or possibly are already inside. So I bought a new type of trap and baited two of them - one outside and one inside. The outside one is portable, wired to whatever is available. I screwed down the inside trap because I do not want one to grag the trap into a wall cavity.

We have found that we can endure a dying rat in the wall, but it is not the most pleasant thing in the world.  No perfume or air deodorant helps. It just stinks for about two weeks.  Ventilation is the best tool - a fan in the area with one of those heated deodorant systems. Just don't invite guests! The alternative is to cut out the wall and remove it, if you can find exactly where it is. There will be flies in the house also, so there is a possible health issue in leaving the animal to decay naturally.

Chances are you have seen one of these animals at night or in your yard, especially if you have bird feeders or feed your dogs outside. I have seen them in the trees but very seldom see them crossing the street at night. The less timid Opossum is more likely to be in the street than the rat.

A Tree Rat in the East Texas forest will forage around for almost anything to eat, especially grain, insects and fruit. The forest has an abundance of food in the summer. In the winter, especially when much of the ground is covered in water, a rat will search on higher ground or in plants.  Nearby wild rats tend to come out of the creek bottoms and go up where homes are built because it is dryer and its food tends to do the same. Closely following the food chain would be the Rat Snake and the Coyote among others. Today, the rat is finding itself at the top of the food chain, much to our demise. We kill or remove the Coyote. Many humans despise all snakes, so the snake is on the decline as well.  If we feed the birds, we feed the rat as well. If we feed the squirrels, we are feeding the rats as well. Their olfactory senses are keen. They can smell the presence of other rats, many types of chemicals and can even smell individuals of their own kind like a dog. The can even sense change by their smelling senses. The results in rats returning to the same place they were born and socializing enough to bring in other individuals to their abode. So having scat about the house provides a means to communicate among individuals.

So we conclude with some advice on removing them from the premises. I do not advocate a catch and release strategy. The next best thing is to physically kill them with a good trap. Don't use the old type of rat trap. There are newer kinds that produce more of a quick kill rather than allowing the animal to suffer for a long time. After seeing what the animals go through with poisons, I do not recommend a slow death using that strategy either. Rats are very smart. They rarely get into things they cannot get out of. A poor trap will allow a rat to be trapped with its tail or a leg. The rat will bite off a leg to free itself. They also learn by observation. When they see another rat trapped or killed by a device, they will avoid it. Two types of traps are recommended - the electrical (expensive) trap serves the best purpose. Second choice is called the Snapper. It is a strong heavy plastic trap that can be attached to wood by a screw. It's food cup can be removed to clean or put load the bait.  My portable unit is tied down with a string of wire. My permanent trap is screwed into the attic floor. Let's see how fast I can remove these creatures this year!

Good luck with yours.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Nature at its best - beautiful native plant host to a beautiful native butterfly

This Purple Passion Flower (Passiflora Incornata) is very special to me. I planted these vines years ago in The Woodlands Texas, as a native flower, just for their  beauty. Early in my married life, my wife and I planted some at our home south of Houston. The vine grows about anywhere it can attach and reach out to the sun. It thrived there also. Neighbors have come by the house here and asked, "where did you buy that flower?". My response - "I bought four plants at a nursery that no longer exists." I do recommend them in the yard and have no idea where you can buy one today. The vines will grow high into the trees and must be managed to enable the trees to get their sunlight. They are naturally part of the forest and thrive here. They will live through the winter and freely propagate by seed. This flower was hanging about six feet off the ground, hanging from a tree.

There is a huge bonus in having this plant in your backyard. It is very specialized, attracting the Gulf Fritillary (Agraulis Vanillae) butterfly. Seeing the underside of this creature in the sun is truly spectacular. This one poses for the camera about 10 feet off the ground.

You might see them in a different pose however.This one is two feet off the ground enjoying the nectar of a  Red Salvia. I have the salvia placed in two places in the back yard. I have noticed that these butterflies also enjoy the Hummingbird bush (Hamelia).

Then again, the Gulf Fritillary seems to enjoy about every blooming plant out there.

Basically, if you plant for Hummingbirds, you have the food for the butterflies. I have six species of butterflies in the backyard this year. This one is dominating in numbers right now because I have the secret weapon - its favorite host plant, the Passion Vine.

 Although happy with my own landscaping some 10 years ago, I have started transplanting more salvia to improve the feeding areas for hummingbirds and butterflies.

Knowing more about the best approach for an excellent butterfly garden, I want to expand a few beds and add such plants as Joe Pye Weed or a Pipevine. One needs both hosts and feeders available to have a mixed population in the backyard.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Drought and interesting find - Truffles in East Texas?

At first this baffled me. I was out in my lawn in The Woodlands Texas and noticed a spot where the grass was not growing. Not enough water? I asked. The location is rather high relative to the rest of the yard, so the question was pertinent considering the severe drought we had this year. So in one of the driest places in my yard, I discovered this mass growing under the ground, with just a piece peeking above the ground, like a tree root , preventing the grass from taking hold there. As you may already know, I subscribe to the practice of mulching my grass as I mow it, so there is plenty of dead material in the yard for mushrooms or  fungi to munch on. Since I have been paying attention to mushrooms this year, I readily noticed this is indeed of the Fungi group of living organisms. One sniff and I said - this is a mushroom growing underground! I wished someone would have photographed my face on that discovery!

So do mushrooms grow underground? Well, fungi do and this one appears to be a truffle. At least it is a tuber (like in potato). This is of the mushroom family and produces spores. When I posted this photo in Facebook for some of my friends to review,  one response was that I needed to go out and rent a pig. That was clever. Boars are known to have a chemical in their saliva which attracts a female in mating season. That chemical is prevalent in these tubers and there are related stories to the truffle. There is the "Festival of the Truffle and Wild Boar" in Italy where the relationship is honored as people go search for truffles.1

So is this  one of the very costly edible truffles that we import from Europe?  In that we had such a dry year, I have been told it possibly is! That makes this little thing worth at least $200 in the market. Still my family said jokingly (I think) -  "you are dead meat if you try to eat this thing. If it doesn't kill you, we will for trying." So it sits on the kitchen table, waiting for me to throw it out or try it.  It sure smells good! The large piece is one tuber. There were two babies attached to it, thus the other pieces.

As it turns out, this type of fungus probably evolved in drier climates where mushrooms were not so successful in the evolution of organisms. By keeping its spores underground and multiplying in that fashion, it is more successful in propagating than its brother, the mushroom.  So when you are digging in the earth or notice something at the surface of the ground like this, you now know what it might be. There are many varieties of tubers and some are native to Texas.

This is a companion article with more detail that I found interesting when I researched this topic - "Truffle Primer" by  Britt A. Bunyard. 

1American Chronicle,White Truffles in the Monferrato of northwest Italy

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Wasps in Southeast Texas

We find two common wasps in The Woodlands and other locations in the Southeast USA. Many of us who have lived here for decades have been stung at least one time by one of these species. We know them as the Red or Paper Wasp and the Southern Yellow jacket. The two species are quite different but both will sting when their nest is threatened. The insect is beneficial to the garden and has a positive role in the environment. It eats insects and particularly tough on caterpillars. One will typically find the Red Wasp near water.  The Yellow Jacket is found about everywhere.

Popularly known as the Red Wasp and also Paper Wasp. This nest was attached under the eave of a house in The Woodlands Texas.

Yellow Jacket nest found on a plant in the forest, near the shore of a lake in The Woodlands Texas. As you will note, the nest of a yellow jacket is similar to one of a Red Wasp. There is one notable difference. The Red Wasp covers the tube to protect its offspring, where the Yellow Jacket does not. Also, the yellow jacket nest can grow to be a huge nest where the paper Wasp will not.

Some people have an allergic reaction to the stings of these insects. They can die from one sting, so if you know someone who is allergic and they get stung, hopefully, he has medicine to combat the reaction. If not, he needs to be taken to the hospital as soon as feasible. If not allergic, the person will have a few small whelps which will go away soon. The stings are very painful, so when a child is stung, the wounds should be treated. Pain can persist for hours.

Nests can be removed from a dwelling by high pressure spray, of course at a sufficient distance to not get stung. The removal will likely require more than one application, but they will relocate with a little persistence.

1. Texas A&amp.M Agrilife Extension - Southern Yellow jacket
2. Texas A&M Agrilife Extension - Paper Wasp

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Anole - some people call them lizards

"A little Anole is just a lizard, right?", someone asks in the tour group of Woodlands residents at Mercer Botanical gardens. Well, a lizard is generic for a number of creatures. We prefer to use the generic familiar names. This one is an Anole.  This term comes from the scientific genus name "anolis". Yes, this is what people generally refer to as a "lizard" and some are even called "chameleons", which is incorrect because they do not have the facility to actually change colors. Instead, the process is comprised of using three layers of pigmentation in the Green Anole.   It is a matter of turning "on" or "off" a layer. Many of them can change apparent coloration using this method and adapt to their surroundings. This one does so also, on a minor scale. It is not as adaptive as the Green Anole which can change from full brown to a full green. 

Among these flowers, there is plenty to eat. His long tongue can reach out  a couple of inches to grab its prey, usually an insect such as a butterfly or grasshopper. This species in an invasive one, generally spreading from south Florida where it first appeared, and displacing the Green Anole through the "survival of the fittest" competitive concept.   It his called the Brown Anole and does not change apparent colors as dramatically or completely as the Green Anole does. It as been in the USA for about 120 years.

The part under its chin is called a dewlap. It is colorful and expands as a courtship tool. Anoles lay one egg every couple of months. There are hundreds of varieties all over the warm world. They thrive in warm climates.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Pokeberry Plant - a weed to some, food to others

Although it's mature (black) berries are not very attractive for enhancing the beauty of a garden, the Pokeberry (also known as Pokeweed) in Southeast Texas  produces an ornamental red berry  and red stem that is quite functional, attracting some important birds in to the garden. It's leaves are ornamental to some degree, especially if you like the look of thick large leafed vegetation or reddish stems. It grows quickly and can reach heights of up to 10 feet. Bluebirds, Cardinals, and Mockingbirds will enjoy this berry. Availability during migrating season also helps it to play a role in attracting birds to the back yard in the late summer or early fall.
The plant's leaves are food to humans, but it is very debatable whether they are harmful or not. To prepare "Poke Salad", one picks the leaves and stems when in the early  spring, when the leaves are tender and developing. They have to be boiled and the water thrown away. Some say the leaves taste like Broccoli and other say Collard Greens.2 In the East Texas forests,  this low cost food source  has been around for centuries. The Indians used it for medicine but I apparently not for food. The roots have really bad toxins. Gradually those toxins make it into the leaves of the plant. The berries are poisonous to humans.  One university professor states "Do not eat this plant. It is poisonous." 1 There are actual recipes3 for using the leaves.  I am conservative on this. Why eat a poisonous food  if you have so many other choices? If I were in dire need, I  know I can use this plant as food. Otherwise, it a no no for me and my family! 

1 Don't Eat Poke Salad
2 Preparing Poke Salad in 1939 in Marshall Texas
3History and recipe for Poke Salad

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

American Beautyberry - perfect native plant for The Woodlands

This is a plant recommended for your garden. It is a small natural East Texas Forest understory bush that produces colorful berries for birds. It's leaf is savored by deer. 1 You will see it on about any casual walk along the paths of The Woodlands or in the forest, especially near water. This photo was taken at  Mercer Arboretum. The plant is tolerant to drought, but will thrive in moist soils. It blooms and produces berries all summer into the fall.  Its berries  can be used for food as well, but it is not recommended for anything but jelly. The flowers are ornamental and add beauty to the gardens as much as the berries do. Native Americans  used this plant for medicinal purposes including malarial diseases, fevers, dysentery, and colic. 2   One of the nice qualities of this plant is that it is also considered a wildflower, propagating  by seed as well as cuttings.  It is not too tolerant of extreme cold however.

1 Texas Parks and Wildlife
2 Easy Wildflowers

Broad Banded Water Snake

The Broad Banded Water Snake is one of seven nonpoisonous water snakes found in Texas. 1 It is readily identifiable as this one (sorry for the poor quality. Will try to replace the photo later with a better one) was at Mercer Arboretum, near The Woodlands Texas. They live in trees, on the ground and in the water, searching for food. When small, they eat small fish by roaming the water with their mouth open. As they get larger, they move on to frogs and small shore creatures. This snake is harmless except it will bite like all snakes. In its mouth it excretes an anticoagulant, so a bite can take a few minutes to stop bleeding. It is not a poisonous venom. This species is sometimes considered to be a pet growing up to about 3 feet. It can be handled with care. However, it belongs to the wild and should stay there. It matures in three years and produces live babies. One will often find a banded snake within 50 feet from the shore of a lake, river or creek, or swimming in the water. Remember though that all snakes can and will swim. Not all snakes climb. Rarely does a poisonous snake climb into trees. The Banded Water Snake will oftentimes be found in limbs of trees overhanging a body of water.


Sunday, August 30, 2009

Courtship of a pair of Giant Swallowtail Butterflies

This fairytale is my own of the Southeast Texas forest. One of our prize sightings here in The Woodlands and nearby parks and forests is the Swallowtail. This particular species, the Giant Swallowtail or Papilio cresphontes, is very prevalent at this time of the year in our area, that is, if we are not spraying for mosquitoes. This story is based on an actual courtship in Mercer's Arboretum on Cypress Creek. The photographs are from an observservation on a morning in late August.  These butterflies have quite a strong courtship that lasts for hours. I recommend viewing the large version photographs by clicking on each one. Hope you enjoy this in the context of a child's fairy tale...

Once upon a time, there was a lovely seƱorita butterfly called Bella. She was named that by her father who knew that some day she would be the most beautiful and grand butterfly in the park. When she grew up, she indeed was very beautiful. Her colors were outstanding. All the boys watched her when she flew through the forest. She would sail past  trees with lightening speed to find the right flower which would give her the sweetest nectar to drink. Each time she drank her nectar, she would think, my food is just as sweet as I am, that is what my mom says. So I must act my part to be sweet as well as beautiful.
Also about the same time as she was born, there was this guy butterfly called Handsome. He learned to dance in the air and do all sorts of acrobatics in the air from his dad. He admired his dad and wanted to grow up to be just like him. Yes, he did just that. Now he is a grand butterfly, admired throughout the park for his ability to fly and for his bright colors. He knows which flowers makes him safe and which flowers make him more handsome.  You can see in these photos that he is not much different than Bella.

Both Handsome and Bella have two sets of wings and use them like two arms. They can do amazing things with their wings. They can push the back wing down so that they do cartwheels or flips in the air. Handsome does especially good with that maneuver.

One day they met in the park and instantly liked each other. In this picture, they are meeting each other. "Hey, my name is Handsome. I've seen you around here. What's up?" Bella responds, "Nothing much. I've seen you too. What's up with you?" Then Handsome did a mid-air flip in joy, because Bella seemed to like him too!  When Handsome and Bella got to know each other better, Bella liked how many things Handsome knew about safety of foods and eating correctly. She also admired his skills in flying, especially his ability to do somersaults. Handsome liked Bella's gracious style. She glides though the air like a princess. She can change direction with ease. So Handsome thought to himself. "Bella would make a great wife and mother for my children." She would be the person for him all his life. How can he get her to say yes to marriage? - he thought. She will like him if he just is himself and dedicates his energy to her and takes good care of her. Little did he know that Bella was asking the same question. She  said, "how can I get  Handsome really interested in me? I want to get to know him.  I think he would be a great father for my children."   Handsome said, "Hey Bella, you want to hang out?" Bella said, "well maybe."
So Bella flew like a jet in the sky and soared to show handsome that she was pleased that he asked.  That surprised Handsome. He could not keep up! She came back. "Why are you so slow?", she asked.

Handsome had the right answer. He said, "I do acrobats best. You soar so beautifully. I know why your mom called you "Bella". Watch this. I bet you can't do this as good as I can! So Bella watched with great admiration as Handsome turned flips in the air with the skill of a great butterfly!   

So they hung out together and got to know each other very very well. They learned about each others family, what kind of flowers each other liked the best,  what they would like for the other to do for them, and many other things.

After a while, they both decided that they had made the right choice and were ready to have a family.
They played together and enjoyed being with each other.
It was time to have baby butterflies. And soon that would happen. They would have little caterpillars. When the caterpillars left the house, they out be out in the world on their own.

Then they got married and had children. Bella laid eggs under a leaf and built a house for the eggs.

And they lived happily together forever after in the great East Texas forest system.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Mushrooms in the backyard

A mushroom in The Woodlands apparently can be one of a wide variety of species. With the arrival of the mushroom growing season (August), I am seeing several varieties and decided to "discover" some of them. With 10000 species in North America, you can imagine how high a mountain this is to climb. To tell you the absolute truth, I got a macho notion to prepare for survival in the wilderness. I may never get out of this deep hole! Humbled beyond what I thought was possible, I now would still like to identify my first mushroom species. Who knows if any of these can be eaten? I learned to be observant when I found a "simple guide" to mushrooms got me no where. Yes, I observed what they said to observe and could not zero in on a species. Then I went back to the books and researched some more. Now I find there are 22 things I have to find out to be able to identify one1, and that may not be enough, maybe just enough to get me in the ballpark! I am lowering my expectations rapidly.

After announcing to one of my life long friends that I had a way to identify mushrooms and see if they can be eaten, he wrote back this: "I tell you what, if you will not eat that mushroom, I will take back my claim that I caught one more fish than you when we went to catch perch 50 years ago. Remember? I caught 62 and you 61?" Well, I remember that outing and maybe I can claim that I won that contest now, but somehow, that is so not filling! Wish I had that offer 50 years ago. So I let him keep his claim (it was not valid but what the heck, he told it to a million people). I tossed the specimen away and just photographed it. It had no smell and looked great. I wanted to do the taste test but chickened out. My family and my friend convinced me I was on a dumb mission.

So here are several specimens. I am really amazed how beautiful and diverse these things are. They are not a plant nor an animal.
They are a fungus, in a totally separate organism kingdom that indicates a separate evolution or creation branch of life. I revert back to just appreciating their differences and their beauty.

Tomorrow or the next day, I think I will go find a field guide and see what I can do to classify these. Until then here are a few photos taken in my yard this month and in a neighbor's yard.
One thing for sure, I am not going to eat a wild mushroom anytime soon and would tell any wannabe woodsmen, don't do it without an expert who is very comfortable living off of the land.

1 Kuo, M. (2007, January). Key to major groups of mushrooms. Retrieved from the MushroomExpert.Com Web site:

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Native Grape Vines in The Woodlands, Texas

The Woodlands has an abundance of Muscadine (Mustang) grapes. If you are a Texan, you might call them the Texas Black Grape. I guess we have to name them different just because we like to call things by their color. It’s easier that way; everyone knows what you are talking about. It is not Muscatine, a European grape. The Texas Black Mustang Grape is a species that goes way back in Southeast Texas history with Native Americans. It is native to our area, because it thrives in the sun and humidity. I think everyone here appreciates that any plant that thrives in this climate should certainly at least be considered native, but this one is indeed very native, as native as Native Americans! These are found not only in Southeast Texas, but in Central Texas as well, where it is very dry, where you will find it principally in places having a lot of humidity in the mornings, such as near a riverbank. Here it thrives everywhere you put it. It especially likes to grow under the protection of a tree. That fact turns out to be a problem for us.

So the Texas Black is well known to native Texans and appreciated for its jelly primarily. Some even like it converted into a wine. In the old days, folks definitely made wine with it. If you were going to have any wine, you had to use this grape! It is not very sweet as the grapes used to make wines, but with enough sugar, one can get it there. I looked around in the Internet and found a recipe for Muscadine Wine1.

Some personal experiences with this grape took me to places I tell children not to go. Don’t smoke it! Yes, in Boy Scouts, we smoked Muscadine Grape vine, because the stems are very porous. Smoking will burn your lungs! So don’t do it! Not a good experiment for a child or for an adult. In Boy Scout Camp one year, I climbed up in a vine. Then I picked some stems just the right size and cut them for the whole gang. We were emulating cigarettes with them. When a vine reaches maturity, it will grow 3-4 feet in one year and the vine structure thickens over the years, where a child can climb into its branches.

Texas Black makes good jelly. It is best not to use the thick skin. It is bitter and just too chewy. A fine grape jelly requires that you cook, mash and filter them. I have found a jelly recipe2, but do not recall how I made my Black Jelly in the past, but I do know that it tasted very good. This recipe looks like it should do the job.

Texas Black makes a good raisin. Dried by the sun, it is chewy and full of healthy nutrients. Native Americans used raisins in the winter and as a light food in other times to carry on hunting trips.

Today, we know about the effects of certain chemicals on our digestive system and on health. This grape has antioxidants and resveratrol, purported to lower one’s risk to cancer. It also has high fiber content.

Here are some hints to identify the vine. It is very easy, especially in July and August when the berries ripen. The ground will always have the black grapes scattered and rotting and often squashed by human feet. This is not something you want to step in with your shoes and enter your home, especially if you have carpet! I am not going to suggest ways to get it out of carpet except to replace it.

Unfortunately for The Woodlands, this plant does so well, it threatens some of our trees. It gets plenty of sunshine along our pathways but has the shade of the trees while propagating. It can use the trees as a trellis. Therefore, it eventually overcomes a tree and deprives it of light.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Forest Natural Noise Pollution - the Cicada

If you live just about anywhere in Texas, you know what we have here in The Woodlands. Cicadas abound in the summertime along the Gulf Coast and into the forests. I had not noticed them so much here until last year when they seemed to be everywhere, especially on the pond near my home.

Go outside in June-August and get bombarded with sounds of insects, typically more intense in the evening. The sounds are originating from trees. Sighting a Cicada which is an insect louder than a cricket, is not easy unless you know where to look. You can follow the sound and if you look hard enough, you will see one crawling on a tree limb. When you see one, you will recognize it by its translucent wings.
One evening recently, I heard a whop on the window after dark. What was that!? I went to the patio and saw a Cicada on the ground under the window. Another one was close by on a plant. A third was also nearby. I said to myself – photo opportunity! My wife and daughter even showed interest.

My family is no stranger to a Cicada. My second eldest and his brother used to go hunting these insects and come back with trophies. There are many in Southeast Texas. It is a fun outing with the kids to capture some. I believe they are all of the same species here. They will not bite or harm a human in any way. Their wings and their song distinguish them from all other insects. Depending on the species, the song can differ. I provide a link to the species we have here singing. Go outdoors in the evening and listen. You too will hear and appreciate the song of the Cicada!

A jeweler I ran across makes earrings and other jewelry out of the wings of a Cicada. This practice is fascinating. She waits until they die and then takes the wings and embeds them in clear colored material to form beautiful pieces of jewelry. Check it out here. Let me know if you get one of these. I have not seen one personally yet, but want to see one.

Video of a Cicada singing its song :

Monday, August 10, 2009

A huge day spider - commonly seen in The Woodlands and elsewhere

Here in The Woodlands, I have seen this spider of the family Araneae several times before. It is the Black & Yellow Argiope, or Argiope aurantia. It is very big and scary to many people. Go to swampy areas in Southest Texas and you might find these in abundance. These were found on plants next to a pond in a Woodlands park. This large one is the female. Although like most species of the family, its bite is venomous but not dangerous to a human. It eats small insects captured in its web.

The small one is the male.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Red Spider of the night

In The Woodlands as in other parts of Southeast Texas, we have a multitude of spider species. By a brightly lit full moon, I observed this bright reddish orange spider that on close examination, was not really red at all. I would like to identify it but have not succeeded yet. As quickly as this little lady spun her web, she laid eggs and posed for a while this evening. The next morning it was all gone.
I went out early to see how the web did and there was nothing, so I have to assume the little guys hatched and left. The web could have existed for a couple of days or been destroyed overnight. It was watering night, but no water goes as high as the eggs were laid.

My kids call them Bambis

In The Woodlands, my children call a Texas White Tailed Deer "Bambi". "Look, Bambi's". They are not little children; they are teenagers. But it tells us the special place deer have in our society and hearts. Walt Disney made sure of that! This morning, I went to photograph a park. On the way, one doe ran across Lake Woodlands Drive. It was not so early, so I was not expecting that at 7:30AM! That woke me up. The doe disappeared quickly into the forest.

After photographing a park, I started home. On crossing the Bear Branch Creek bridge on Research Forest Drive, I spotted a beautiful buck down on the creek along with several does. Since I had the camera on this outing, with all the necessary gear, I decided to park and walk back to the creek. On doing so, as soon as I could see the area below the bridge the buck also spotted me. He ran; I hit the shutter button. Then he paused for a second, as if to satisfy a curiosity. "What was that noise?" I clicked again. He ran again. So you have the story behind these two photographs. I rarely have my cameras with me on these occasions, but this time yes!
When I used to take my daughter to the Woodlands High School, we would see deer grazing, usually on foggy mornings. Last night, we had a full moon early. I suspect that the deer wanted to feed late in the morning because it turned dark fairly early as well. Notice the ribs showing on this beautiful creature. The drought has been tough on their lives, but there is plenty of grass. Water may not be so abundant however. I noticed a few weeks ago that water was indeed much less abundant than in the past when I was on the creek. My brother, a hunter, tells me that a rack like this indicates a healthy deer. Perhaps there is a lack of protein due to the green grass it is eating. Bambi is alive and well here in The Woodlands.