Friday, June 29, 2018

Canyon life, past and present

Two families came out for our June hike. In fact, a few were the youngest hikers we've had this year. All ages, shapes and sizes can hike the Madrone Canyon Trail!

At the beginning of each hike, Jean explains the history of the canyon: "Over the past hundreds of millions of years, this area has been alternately under and above the sea. Many different layers of sediments were laid down, creating different kinds of sedimentary rock. Ocean and salt marsh organisms created hard layers of sedimentary limestone and fossils." And fossils, like this bivalve mollusk, have been found in the canyon, the former shells of an ancient sea creature.
This hiker found a bivalve mollusk fossil which he put back where he found it, in keeping with good trail etiquette.

Here, a different kind of shell, the eggshell of a bird, possibly the Bewick's wren (pronounced Buick) often seen in our canyon. Chicks have an "egg tooth" used to exit the shell, making a nice clean opening from which to emerge. That's how we know this bird egg didn't fall from the nest.
Happy hiker found a bird's eggshell!
Oftentimes, hikers will find bones of animals, like these vertebrae, pieces of a mammal spine. Can you guess what all three of the hikers' finds have in common: seashell fossil, eggshell, and bones? Hint: All three contain this mineral. You'll find the answer at the end!

Finally, flowers! Berlandier's sundrops, Square-bud primrose and Sundrops are all common names for Calylophus berlandieri

Here's another primrose, where you can see the bud, flower, leaves and fruit (seed pod) of the Bigfruit evening-primrose, Missouri evening-primrose or Fluttermill, all common names for Oenothera macrocarpa.  

Flower buds were on the stalks of Devil's shoestring or Ribbon grass, both common names for Nolina lindheimeriana. 

The common name of this plant is Lady Bird's centaury, (Centaurium texense).  It is in the Gentian family of plants and similar to another centaury often seen on our limestone canyon walls called Mountain pink (Centaurium beyrichii).

The answer to the above question is: calcium carbonate. Congratulations, if you guessed correctly!

Due to the July 4th holiday weekend, we will not lead a hike on the first Saturday of July. The same goes for August, no hike planned, just because it's so hot! But you're always welcomed to hike the canyon on your own.  Jean and I will be back for a hike on Saturday, September 1, 2018 at 10 am.

Keep cool!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Madrone Canyon in May

The first Saturday in May was a perfect spring morning for our hike on the Madrone Canyon Trail. Four cheery hikers showed up.
Speaking of cheery, before our hike, our group was greeted in the parking lot by a Mockingbird melodiously singing from a treetop and exuberantly fluttering into the air, attracting attention to himself.

Some plants had buds about to open.

Twisted-leaf yucca (Yucca rupicola)
Devil's shoestring (Nolina lindheimeriana)
We found two different species of primrose blooming.

Square-bud primrose (Calylophus berlandieri)

Taking a closer look at Missouri primrose going to seed
Seed pods of Missouri primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa)

Lindheimer's silktassel (Garrya ovata ssp. lindheimeri)
were also setting fruit.
Engelmann's sage (Salvia engelmannii)
We saw many white flowering plants in the canyon, like these:

Barbara's buttons (Marshallia caepitosa) 

White milkwort (Polygala alba)

 and more wildlife...
Texas spiny lizard (Sceloporus olivaceus)

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Blustery weather for the April Hike

Daisy Girl Scout Troop 42420 from Eanes Elementary showed up for the first Saturday of the month hike of Madrone Canyon Trail, despite the cold and wind. In fact, there were so many girls and chaperones that Jean and I split into two groups. Once we got down into the canyon, below the steps and out of the wind, we could concentrate on looking for new blooming plants.
As you may know, the Texas Bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis) is the state flower. Each inflorescence is made up of many blue flowers with white patches. Sometimes you'll see the patches are reddish. Studies have shown that the white patch turns red due to the age of the flower, thus the viability of the pollen in it. The bees will avoid the flowers with the reddish patch and go to the ones that are white containing the viable pollen, conserving energy and achieving pollination--a win-win!

Descending the stairs into the canyon to get out of the cold wind, we saw Prairie verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida).
At the start of the trail, we're greeted by Blackfoot daisy (Melampodium leucanthum).
Let's face it, there are lots of small yellow flowers. But if you look closely at the back of the petals of Four-nerve daisy (Tetraneuris scaposa), you see four veins.
Did you know, the orange color of the Indian paintbrush (Castilleja indivisa) are not the flowers, but bracts like a poinsettia?
We picked a Wild onion (Allium canadense) to identify it by its onion scent. 
Wright's skullcap (Scutellaria wrightii) was amply represented in the canyon.
Daisy Troop 42420 from Eanes Elementary and chaperones
Handsome Sphix moth rests on the library window.
The next Madrone Canyon Trail hike will be May 5th, Cinco de Mayo, wind, rain or shine!


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