Thursday, March 8, 2018

Springtime in the Canyon

The first Saturday of February was nasty, no doubt about it, raining with a North wind. Jean and I were not at all surprised when hikers failed to appear.  Regardless, we went down into the canyon to witness the subtle changes. There were lots of rosettes popping up. It can be difficult to identify a plant by the clump of new leaves, but we made an educated guess at a couple and will confirm later when they bloom. Despite being a perfect spring day on March 1st, we had no hikers again. The changes from February to March were pretty significant. I took these photographs of some of our observations.

Engelmann's daisy (Engelmannia persistenia) rosette found near the steps.
When in bloom, the entire plant can create a yellow dye.
Barbara's buttons (Marshallia caespitosa) is seen popping out near the steps.

Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium augustifolium) is in the Iris family, not a grass at all. 

Lots of Dutchman's breeches (Thamnosma texana) can be seen along the trail.

Plenty of sweet smelling Agarita (Berberis trifoliolata) is all over the canyon.

An occasional Four-nerve daisy (Tetraneuris scaposa) can be seen flowering in the canyon.

Star moss is among the many mosses in the canyon from the spring rains.

Lindheimer's silktassel tree (Garrya ovata ssp. lindheimeri) is in bloom.

Missouri primrose (Enothera missouriensis) will soon have large yellow flowers.

Damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana) later will have small yellow flowers.

Golden pucoon (Lithospermum incisum) is a new one for me, but Jean is familiar with it.

The adult Twisted-leaf yucca with a slight leaf twist.

This is what a juvenile Twisted-leaf yucca looks like before the leaves twist.

Lots of Lady beetles are back!
April 7th will be the next Madrone Canyon hike, and we'd love to show you around!


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

First Hike of 2018

Jean led the first hike of the new year without me because I was down with the flu. But fortunately for the blog, a Texas Master Naturalist in-training, Lauren Kalisek, was on the hike and she took notes and photographs! Seven hikers in all joined Jean! Here's Lauren's write-up of the hike:

"Starting at the trailhead, Jean discussed the geology of the Balcones Canyonlands, how a shallow sea 100 million years ago led to the limestone and rock deposits that make up the canyon. Over the millennia the area uplifted to a plateau that was then eroded by area streams into the canyonlands we enjoy exploring today. The name "Balcones" derives from the early Spanish explorers to whom the limestone cliffs seemed to resemble balconies.

"As we walked into the canyon we were interested to see what the winter season would show. Immediately we encountered male Ashe Juniper ready to release pollen in the coming days.

Ashe Juniper (Juniperus ashei) male cones about to release pollen

"We admired Devil's shoestring (Nolina lindheimeriana), Seep muhly (Muhlenbergia reverchonii), and Blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium) along the trail. We stopped to inspect a seep that provides a steady water source impacting the area plants. 

Evidence of a seep: Seep muhly (Muhlenbergia reverchonii), Nostoc commune and moss

"The moisture in the canyon is conducive to the development of Nostoc, a type of cyanobacteria, that appears green and rubbery along the ground like seaweed in moist conditions, and that goes dormant in dry weather. Cyanobacteria are some of the most ancient lifeforms with their fossil record going back more than 2 billion years. We were able to get a close look of some Nostoc in the prairie area of the trail.

Jean holds a dried example of Nostoc commune, a cyanobacteria

"We discussed the benefits of Juniper duff as building soil and supporting vegetation in the Canyonlands. As we paused to take a look at the first Madrone we encountered on the trail, Jean explained that the trees are rare and considered endangered in Texas. They do not have root hairs so they need ideal soil conditions. This could be why they are often found growing in the midst of Ashe Juniper to share in the soil benefits around these trees. The tree bark sheds each year, starting off lightish red in the spring and darkening throughout the summer and fall. 

Small Texas Madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) growing from the duff beneath an Ashe Juniper

"We also discussed distinguishing between evergreen sumac and madrone trees as they resemble each other at first glance. We also observed Damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana) and Dutchmen's Breeches (Thamnosma texana) which appeared to thrive in the winter conditions (though not in bloom). When crushed, their leaves have a distinct aromatic smell.

"We emerged back at the trailhead with a better appreciation of the canyon in winter and a desire to come back and see how it changes throughout the coming year."

Thank you, Lauren, for writing such an interesting write-up of the hike and for all the photographs match your write-up beautifully!

The next hike is Saturday, February 3 @10 a.m. Hope to see you then!

Paula Tuttle

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Last Madrone Canyon Hike of 2017

The last guided hike of 2017 into Madrone Canyon last Saturday was superb! Four hikers joined Jean and me for a little over an hour on the mile-long trail. Some use walking sticks to negotiate the steep steps leading into the canyon.
The last hike of 2017 into Madrone Canyon.
One take-away I got from this hike was that there's a lot of confusion and ambivalence about our Hill Country cedar trees. During our hike, a conversation arose about the name, history and usefulness of the abundantly present juniper trees (Juniperus asheii). Although cedar is the common name of this species, it is not a member of the family Cedrus (old world cedar). One major difference is that cedar trees have cones and juniper trees have berries. Certainly the name cedar is ubiquitous in Texas, with so many places and things that have cedar in their name, so the name cedar for our juniper trees is here to stay. 

Jean points out a Texas madrone (Arbutus xalapensis) sapling among a motte of Ashe juniper (Juniperus ashei) trees.
Jean provided us with some history of the cedar trees in our Madrone Canyon: "We noticed mostly thick brakes of young cedars. And the few large, old-growth cedar trees show the shedding bark that Golden-cheeked warblers, an endangered species that nests only in Central Texas, need to make their nests. Although the Canyon is in the middle of their summer nesting territory and has the old-growth cedar and oak forest that they require, it is not good habitat for Golden-cheeked warblers which require large tracks of land with few edges (surrounding roads and developments) to succeed."

More from Jean on the history and usefulness of Hill Country cedar trees: "Many of the older cedar trees in the Canyon show signs of having been chopped. Between the late 1800s and early 1900s, cedar wood was in high demand. The rapidly-expanding railroad industry needed cedar logs for railroad ties. Cedar wood was used for making charcoal for heating and cooking, and houses were built on cedar piers. The Texas Hill Country was a major supplier of cedar far and wide, and we can see the many straight edges of cut branches that indicate the work of cedar choppers. Looking across the Canyon, however, it is clear that for several decades, nothing has disturbed the growth of cedar here. The abundant pollen of the male trees (which causes many folks to suffer cedar fever in the winter) has continued to fertilize the blue berries of the female trees. The birds have eaten the berries and dropped the seed, and seedlings have grown thick throughout the Canyon. In time, some of the trees will grow taller and wider, and many of the young trees will die from lack of light, opening the dense undergrowth and creating a thick layer of cedar duff (fallen leaves and decomposed branches to support seedlings of other plants. Cedar duff is a valuable element in our local forest ecosystems. Not only does it create a rich, light growing medium for Madrone seedlings, among many other species, it helps to retain water and slow erosion. The next time you walk through the Canyon, or any other cedar forest in the Hill Country, notice the thick layer of duff under the larger cedar trees and see how many seedlings of other plants are growing there. Along the trail, you are likely to see small berms of cedar duff that has accumulated during rain water run-off. These berms slow the water flow, allowing the water to sink into the soil and keeping more of the soil in place. The Madrone trees in the Canyon are most often found growing in very close proximity to cedar trees, and it is thought that Madrones may benefit from a mycorrihizal relationship with the soil fungi and the cedar trees. Though some people take a dim view of cedar in our area, these are some reasons to appreciate it."

Ashe Juniper is considered by the Wasowski’s (Native Texas Plants) to be the most important tree in the Edwards Plateau. 

One member of our hiking group commented that the flavor of the juniper berries reminded him of the taste of gin. I was curious about that, so I went to the book Remarkable Plants of Texas by Matt Warnock Turner, my go-to book for medicinal, culinary and cultural practices with Texas native plants to find out more. On page 42, it states, "The berry of the common juniper of Europe (J. communis) is one of the main flavoring ingredients of gin, which is reflected in the somewhat bitter taste of the alcohol." We have some very insightful hikers!

We hope to see you in 2018!
Paula and Jean

Monday, November 13, 2017

Madrone Canyon Hikes November 4 and 6

Last week we had two Madrone Canyon Trail hikes. On Saturday's hike, November 4th, a couple of brothers showed up at the trailhead, where Jean Love El Harim and I were waiting. One was in middle school and the other in high school. The elder brother was an entomology enthusiast and all-round naturalist. We learned so much from each other! And isn't that what it's all about?

Woolly bear caterpillar in a defensive posture
Dead Dung beetle or Scarab beetle

Our rare and beautiful native orchid, Lady's tresses, (Spiranthes cernua)
 On Monday, November 6th, a Brownie troop of 14 arrived for a scheduled hike, along with a half dozen chaperones. The girls were working on earning their hiking badge. Jean, once a Brownie herself, lead a Rainbow Hike, looking for the colors of the rainbow. The group pointed out the red of a Mexican Hat (Ratibida columnifera), the orange of Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans), the yellow of Plateau Goldeneye (Viguiera dentata), the pink of the Palafoxia (Palafoxia callosa), and the blue of the Juniper berries (Juniperus ashei).

Plateau Goldeneye (center back), Poison Ivy (foreground, upper left & right)
Hike leader Ms. Love with the Brownies
The girls were encouraged to walk carefully and quietly and use their eyes, ears, nose and hands. They also saw young and old Texas Madrones (Arbutus xalapensis), and realized several characteristics of this tree, that it has smooth skin-like bark that peels at the end of the year, that it likes to grow among Juniper trees, and that its roots are very sensitive. They made sure to walk to the far side of the path to avoid stepping on the sensitive roots.

They saw the stone trail markers that their "brothers", the Boy Scouts had made to mark parts of the trail, and they realized that they would never be lost in the Canyon, even if the trail is hard to see, because they can always orient themselves to the sound of Bee Caves Road.

They felt the rough edges of Devil's Shoestring (Nolina lindheimeriana), and skirted around the pointy tips of the Twist-Leaf Yucca (Yucca rupicola) that likes to grow right at the edge of the path.  We found some dry, black, crusty Blue-green algae (Nostoc) and the girls poured water on a piece of it in Jean's hand. By the end of the hike, it was beginning to rehydrate and turn into a rubbery greenish mass.
Witch's Butter (Nostoc) is a cyanobacteria

They smelled the musky scent of the crushed leaves of Damianita (Chrysactinia mexicana), the sweet fragrance of our rare and beautiful native orchid, Ladies tresses (Spiranthes cernua), and the wintery smell of crushed Juniper berries.

At the end of the hike, sitting on the stairs that the Boy Scouts had built, the girls shared what they had noticed and thought during the hike. One said she wanted to learn more plant names. Another noted the importance of taking care of this sensitive environment and taking care of endangered species. Congratulations, Brownies, on achieving your hiking badge!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Madrone Canyon Hike on October 7, 2017

Jean points out a Texas madrone among the Ashe junipers
Yesterday Jean and I lead four hikers down into the Madrone Canyon. It was a pleasant sunny morning, and the damp earth put a spring in our step. Wherever we saw Seep muhly (Muhlenbergia reverchonii), small clumps of curly grass resembling ball moss, we would see a flowing seep. This is referred to as an "indicator species."

At this time of year, along the roadsides, you may have noticed a willowy shrub covered with silvery-white flowers. Commonly called Poverty weed or Roosevelt weed (Baccharis neglecta) due to its hardiness to survive the Dust Bowl era. I think this deer resistant plant may be under utilized in our landscapes. The Wildflower Center's Native Plant Database offers this info:

Water Use: Low
Light Requirement: Part Shade
Soil Moisture: Dry
Soil Description: Sandy, Sandy Loam, Medium Loam, Calcareous, Saline tolerant
Conditions Comments: The species name  neglecta refers to the prevalence of this 
plant in neglected or disturbed areas. Although common, consider planting this  shrub 
for its showy profusion of silky silver/white flowers. Roosevelt  Weed is also a good  
nectar plant for many pollinators including some butterflies.  Simple to care for: Full 
sun and low water. 

I like it! and suggest a species name change do-over from neglecta to elegante!

Poverty weed (center) among Ashe juniper, Flame-leaf sumac and Plateau golden-eye.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Madrone Canyon Hike on September 2, 2017

Hurricane Harvey brought a generous amount of rain and cooler than average temperatures, making for a very pleasant hike last Saturday. Jean Love El-Harim lead the hike, and I followed behind our three enthusiastic hikers as co-leader.
The evergreen sumac (Rhus virens) was blooming.
What are they looking at? 
A wolf spider has built its web on top of the grass, poised to pounce.
 Look what we found on the trail...the skull (far right) and entire vertebrae of a snake! One hiker thought it was a string of beads.
When the Texas Madrone tree sheds its bark, branches smooth and creamy are revealed, hence the common name lady's leg.
Our next hike will be October 7, hope you can make it!

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Madrone Canyon Hike on July 1, 2017

Mountain pink (Centaurium beyrichii) 
In spite of the hot, hazy, humid weather, a mom and child showed up at the trailhead for their first guided hike on the Madrone Canyon Trail. Jean Love El Harim lead the hike, and I shadowed. The showstopper bloomers were the Mountain pinks (Centaurium beyrichii), their petite bouquets of brilliant color spattered along the trail and on limestone outcroppings. Last reported, the Missouri Primrose (Oenothera macrocarpawere putting on seed pods that look like star fruit. They have dried completely into flutter mills encapsulating the tiny seeds.

Missouri primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa) has gone to seed

Hello, my name is Paula Tuttle, and I'm excited to start leading hikes with Jean on the Madrone Canyon Trail. Jean and I are Capital Area Master Naturalists and are collaborating on a few projects together.

I'm also a docent at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, where I've become acquainted with the uncommon Texas madrone (Arbutus xalapenis Kunth) one of my favorite trees. They are rarely seen in our central Texas landscapes, more common to the mountains of west Texas, which may partly explain their mystique.

I look forward to exploring the mysteries of this beautiful native Texas tree and its unique ecosystem at our next outing on September 2nd.

I hope to meet you on the trail!