2021 | Volume 38, No. 2
Light Bright INVENTIVE PHOTOGRAPHY ALLOWS US TO SEE FLOWERS THROUGH NEW EYES PAGE 26
AMAZING SEED STRATEGIES
TIME TRAVEL VIA TALLGRASS PRAIRIE
This verdant scene from a goat farm in Ohio shows Boer goats grazing on eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides), a warm season species that farm owner and agronomist Mark Scarpitti began growing to provide his flock with healthy forage during summer months. In addition to being attractive and environmentally sound, this native grass addresses a number of goat-raising and -grazing issues: According to a report in Farm and Dairy newspaper, advantages include high volume production, drought tolerance, and lower chance of worm ingestion thanks to plant height. Eastern gamagrass can grow to 6 feet, and goats prefer browsing taller plants. Who doesn’t enjoy a good snack-and-stroll? – A.M. PHOTO courtesy of Farm and Dairy Learn more about prairie grasses on pages 2, 7 and 44.
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In this close-up of eastern gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides), taken at the Wildflower Center, you’re looking at staminate spikelets. In plain speak, they’re the male version of this plant’s separate reproductive flowers; the dangling orange pieces that look like churros sans cinnamon-sugar are the flowers’ stamens. For wildlife, this perennial grass is a treat indeed: A relative of corn, eastern gamagrass is enjoyed by deer, goats and birds, and its pollen attracts butterflies while foliage supports byssus skipper (Euphyes bayensis) caterpillars. We may not readily think of grasses as blooming, but these ecologically rich plants do just as much or more than many traditional flowers. Native to the eastern half of the country, this species thrives in moist soil while helping to secure ground against erosion. – A.M. PHOTO Wildflower Center
FROM THE Interim Executive Director
Bouncing Back and Bounding Forward AS WE ROAST AWAY THIS SUMMER, it’s difficult to recall the bitter cold that engulfed our region in February during the great Texas freeze and snowstorm. But many of the gardens and landscapes around the state still tell the tale. Largely gone or severely damaged are the expanded in new directions, and conserved poorly adapted plants — non-natives such as resources for the growth period to come. And loquats, pittosporum and citrus. Some natives that is what I see before us now: growth. pushing the edge of their range, such as huiI see amazing possibilities ahead for our resache and agave, didn’t fare well either. Many search and educational programs as we conof these plants will be dearly missed (for ex- tinue to form stronger relationships with our ample, the huge, over-25-year-old huisache parent institution, The University of Texas tree in our Courtyard; see page 36 for more on at Austin. I see more guests returning for that), but their absence also opens opportuni- our fourth annual Fortlandia exhibition this ties to rethink, replant and rejuvenate. October and a new two-month Luminations Regardless of whether a plant “belongs” light experience this winter. And though it here or not, nature continuously provides us will take some years, I also envision a new with lessons in resilience in the face of change. guest entry experience coming to fruition, I reflect on that now in my role as interim which will include expanded parking. This executive director and as the Wildflower game-changing project will allow us to welCenter emerges from an intense year and a come more people into our gardens and host half that included the coronavirus pandemic more events and programs for our community. and winter storm Uri. As a member or supporter, you’ve provided What I see is a strong organization with us with the fuel we’ve needed to weather — roots growing deeper by the year, one that and, in fact, thrive during — these times, and adapts well during extreme conditions. Yes, I can’t thank you enough. we experienced difficult closures, revenue losses and staff cuts. But we hunkered down, Sincerely,
Lee Clippard Interim Executive Director
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TABLE of Contents
16 FE ATU R E S
The multifarious ways plants get their seeds into soil by Chris Helzer
A Different Light
Creative photography helps us see flowers with new eyes by Melissa Gaskill
7 PLANT PICKS Our recommendations for pocket prairies 10 BOTANY 101 How roots work to deliver what plants need 13 PULL IT OR PLANT IT A lively debate about our state plant, the prickly pear 14 FIELD GUIDE Tips for discerning between yellow
blooming Fabaceae trees
34 NEWS AND UPDATES The latest on our gardens and our work 38 THINGS WE LOVE A few of our favorite things 39 THANK YOU, CORPORATE PARTNERS
40 CAN DO Treehouses bring adventure and serenity home 44 WHEN IN ROAM Grounded in place at Katy Prairie’s
48 WILD LIFE On Black Botanists Week and the power of representation
ON THE COVER Snow on the prairie (Euphorbia bicolor) and a paper wasp (Polistes dorsalis) captured using ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence. PHOTO Michelle Wong ABOVE We have liftoff! The seeds of eastern pasqueflower (Pulsatilla patens) are designed to catch the wind. PHOTO Chris Helzer
writes about science, nature and the environment for a variety of publications, including Texas Climate News, The Revelator and Alert Diver. Her books include “A Worldwide Travel Guide to Sea Turtles” and “Pandas to Penguins: Ethical Encounters with Animals at Risk.” She lives in Austin, Texas.
Chris Helzer is
director of science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska, where he conducts research and evaluates land management and restoration work. He is founder of The Prairie Ecologist blog and author of two books: “The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States” and “Hidden Prairie: Photographing Life in One Square Meter.” He lives in Aurora, Nebraska.
Dr. Beronda L. Montgomery is a
writer, professor at Michigan State University, and science communicator. Her research focuses on how organisms (pri-
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sity, Monterey Bay. Though her first love remains botanical art, Samantha is delighted to spend most days drawing animals in the graphics department at the Dallas Zoo. marily plants) maintain a sense of self and what behaviors they should pursue to support their success. She also studies this in the context of innovative mentoring to support success among humans. She is the author of “Lessons from Plants,” published this year by Harvard University Press. Learn more at berondamontgomery.com or follow her musings on Twitter @BerondaM.
Samantha N. Peters is a science
illustrator based in Dallas. She received her bachelor’s in neurobiology from UT Austin and a graduate certificate in science illustration from California State Univer-
Joanna Wojtkowiak PLANT INFORMATION EDITOR
Jill Sell is a free-
lance journalist, essayist and poet, specializing in the environment and nature. She is a contributing writer for Gannett/USA Today and was named Best Freelance Writer in Ohio by The Press Club of Cleveland five times. Sell enjoys tending a wayward herb garden in Sagamore Hills, Ohio, and unapologetically hugging her trees.
Lady Bird Johnson and Helen Hayes INTERIM EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF COMMUNICATIONS & EXPERIENCE
DIRECTOR OF COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT
Dawn E. Hewitt
DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
Leslie D. Zachary
DIRECTOR OF FINANCE & OPERATIONS
DIRECTOR OF HORTICULTURE
Daniel Murphy is
a writer, collections curator at Idaho Botanical Garden, and founder of Awkward Botany, a plant science blog. He specializes in native and water-wise plants. As a punk rock fan and longtime zine writer, he often cheers for the underdog and particularly enjoys researching and writing about weeds.
DIRECTOR OF LAND RESOURCES
DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS
Kit Detering Jeanie Carter SECRETARY Celina Romero CHAIR
Michelle Wong is
an amateur photographer with a deep love of nature and Texas wildlife. Her UV and UVIVF photography (see the cover and pages 26 to 33) raises awareness about the importance of gardening with native plants to attract pollinators. Her explorations of Texas flora, fauna and fungi are always accompanied by her ever-faithful blue heeler, DoDo.
Wildflower (ISSN 1936-9646) is published biannually by The University of Texas at Austin Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, 4801 La Crosse Ave., Austin, TX 78739-1702. Copyright © 2021 by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. Members of the Wildflower Center receive a subscription as a benefit of membership. No part of this periodical may be reproduced without the written consent of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center. The opinions expressed herein may not necessarily reflect those held by the Wildflower Center. Please direct any inquiries or letters to 512.232.0100 or email@example.com. Materials are chosen for the printing and distribution of Wildflower magazine with respect for the environment. Wildflower is printed locally in Austin , Texas, by Capital Printing.
WILDFLOWER.ORG facebook.com/wildflowercenter @wildflowercenter @WildflowerCtr youtube.com/ WildflowerCenterAustin
PHOTOS (Chris Helzer) self-portrait, (Beronda Montgomery) Blythe White, (Michelle Wong) self-portrait
2021 | Volume 38, No. 2
Grass in Pocket Our top recommendations for pocket prairies by Amy McCullough, Michelle Bertelsen and Andrea DeLong-Amaya
WHY WE LOVE IT: Big, bold and blue-green (most seasons) or brassy (in winter), bushy
bluestem is about as visually striking as grasses get. In short, we love its color and conspicuousness. PREFERRED GARDEN ENVIRONMENT: Moist soil in sunny areas; poor drainage and
PHOTO Joseph Marcus
FAUNA FRIENDS: Grain-eating birds and small mammals consume its seeds; plus, it’s a
larval host for skipper and satyr butterflies.
BRINGS THE BLOOMS: Look for light green to muted orange flowers August through
November, followed by white cotton-candy seed fluff.
BIG MUHLY Muhlenbergia lindheimeri
WHY WE LOVE IT: Big muhly is like a foun-
tain made of plant matter; it’s blue-green leaves spray forth in a shape that is just plain fun. It grows fast, and its lacy flower spikes are icing on the botanical cake! PREFERRED GARDEN ENVIRONMENT:
Well-draining soil (deep or shallow) in sunny areas FUN FACT: A Lone Star homebody, this grass
is native only to Texas in the U.S. (and a mere 21 counties at that).
THE UNDERSTUDY: If you have space for big
grasses, also consider Indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans), which is beautiful and one of the “big four” tallgrass prairie species.
WHY WE LOVE IT: This eye-catching grass —
readily recognized by its aligned, dangling spikelets — germinates easily and is the state grass of Texas. A medium-tall species, it mixes handsomely in plantings with wildflowers. PREFERRED GARDEN ENVIRONMENT:
Dry to moist soil in sun to part shade; prefers good drainage
SIDEOATS GRAMA Bouteloua curtipendula
FAUNA FRIENDS: Birds love its ripe seeds,
and it’s a larval host for green and dotted skipper butterflies.
PLANT PERK: Like many grasses, this bunchy,
sod-forming grass is highly deer resistant. 8 | W I L DF LOW E R
TEXAS GAYFEATHER Liatris punctata var. mucronata
WHY WE LOVE IT: This drought-tolerant polli-
nator powerhouse attracts butterflies galore and adds welcome slashes of purple to your prairie color scheme. Ecologically speaking, gayfeathers’ very long roots pull nutrients up from deep within the soil, making the most of your terrain. PREFERRED GARDEN ENVIRONMENT: Dry
to medium soil in full sun
PERFECT PAIRING: Plant these in tandem
with prairie goldenrod for a simply stunning combination of warm and cool tones and a beneficial habitat to boot.
BRINGS THE BLOOMS: August through Octo-
ber (Plus, the bottlebrush seed stalks that come after look pretty snazzy in their own right.)
PRAIRIE GOLDENROD Solidago nemoralis
PHOTOS (gayfeather) Joseph Marcus, (all others) Wildflower Center
WHY WE LOVE IT: Two words: pollinator
magnet! Butterflies frequently visit prairie goldenrod’s billowy yellow flowers, and birds aren’t strangers either. Bonus: Individual plants bloom at separate times, extending the flowering period. And it’s not aggressive like tall goldenrod (S. altissima). PREFERRED GARDEN ENVIRONMENT: Sun
to shade in dry, rocky or sandy soils
FUN FACT: Goldenrods don’t cause hay fever,
even though they’re often blamed for it. The more likely culprit is ragweed, but goldenrods bloom at the same time and are much showier. Ragweed is wind pollinated, whereas goldenrod has heavy pollen that can only be transported by pollinators. BRINGS THE BLOOMS: September and October
Need more native plant info? Search our mobile-friendly Native Plants of North America database for bloom times, planting conditions and more: wildflower.org/plants-main Learn how to plant your own pocket prairie at bit.ly/pocketprairie. For more on prairie grasses, see inside the front cover and pages 2 and 44. |9
A common sunflower (Helianthus annuus) gains what it needs to thrive from parts above and below ground. PHOTO Nigel Cattlin/ Alamy
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The Life Below
The unseen and very important work of plant roots by Daniel Murphy
IT’S HARD TO GET TO KNOW THE ROOTS OF A PLANT. We can imagine them down there, working their way through the soil, but we generally don’t get to observe them up close and personal in the same way we do stems, leaves and flowers. Despite being out of sight, they are just as vital to the life of a plant as the other organs. Without them, most plants would not have the water they need for photosynthesis or the nutrients required for growth and reproduction. Plus, without strong roots, one stiff breeze could send a plant tumbling across the landscape. Upon germination, an embryonic root from the interior of the main root, a strategy known as a radicle is the first thing to emerge that helps provide protection from hard surfrom a seed. It’s the start of what will even- faces and coarse soil particles that can easily tually become an extensive root system. Pri- damage developing root tips. mary growth occurs at the tips of roots. As Apart from taking in water and minerals they elongate, they work their way through and holding a plant in place, roots can serve the soil in search of water and nutrients. A a variety of other functions. Some plants, tough layer of cells called the root cap pro- such as winecups (Callirhoe involucrata), tects the growing point and is continually re- have thick storage roots composed of starch, placed as abrasive soil particles wear it away. which help a plant survive when conditions Water and dissolved minerals are absorbed are unfavorable. In the case of biennials, such through the root’s surface (or epidermis), as American wild carrot (Daucus pusillus) a process greatly enhanced by root hairs — or standing cypress (Ipomopsis rubra), large thin, short-lived, hairlike extensions found taproots store the energy necessary to pronear the ends of roots. As the root continues duce towering flower stalks in their final year to elongate, older root hairs die off and new of growth. When the roots of bald cypress ones are formed. (Taxodium distichum) are regularly flooded, Water entering the root passes through thin the tree develops prominent buttress roots — cortex cells and a barrier called a Casparian wide extensions that grow out from the base of strip, which controls flow and filters out min- the trunk and help with support. Upright outerals that may be harmful to the plant. From growths called cypress “knees” also form on there, water and minerals enter the plant’s the roots of bald cypress. The function of these vascular system, conductive tissue made up odd structures is still up for debate. of xylem and phloem cells. The former transThe roots of grasses and other similar species port water and minerals throughout the plant, have fibrous root systems. Lacking prominent the latter carry sugars produced by leaves and taproots, they are instead composed of numerother organic materials, such as protein. ous, fine, threadlike roots, oftentimes reaching As seedlings, plants start out with a taproot. several feet deep into the soil. The massive root Some maintain this structure, developing a systems of grasses help reduce soil erosion and large, thick taproot that extends deep into the are important players in carbon sequestration soil. The roots of many other plants quickly and nutrient cycling. branch out, creating a sprawling community While the actions of roots go largely unseen, of lateral roots that remain relatively shal- we can be sure as we observe the lives of plants low. Unlike branches on a stem, which emerge above ground, they would be nothing without from exterior buds, branch roots grow out their subterranean support systems. | 11
Nature Is the Best Teacher
Learn about native plants, relax with yoga, and get gardening with on-site and online classes. WILDFLOWER.ORG/LEARN
Wear Some Positivi-tee! Lady Bird Johnson famously said, “Where flowers bloom, so does hope.” Celebrate her words and her legacy with one of our colorful T-shirts. Purchase at bonfire.com/store/ wildflowercenter 1 2 | W I L DF LOW E R
PULL IT or Plant It
Dawn E. Hewitt DIRECTOR OF COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT
Who doesn’t love a good story? Opuntia species, commonly known as prickly pear cacti, sure have one! The history of this superfood dates back millennia, rooted in Mexican culture and cuisine.
PHOTOS (prickly pear) Alan Cressler, (portraits) Joanna Wojtkowiak, (yoga) Tanya Zastrow
C U LT I
A R (O P U N
If you look closely at the Mexican flag, you might notice an eagle with a snake firmly snatched in its talons, sitting atop a blooming prickly pear. This image illustrates the legend of the god Huitzilopochtli guiding the Aztec people to the place that became known as Tenochtitlán — present day Mexico City. The name translates from Nahuatl to mean “the prickly pears growing among the rocks.” The prickly pear cactus played a central role in the diet of the region’s indigenous peoples, with evidence of it being consumed as early as 65 B.C.E. With its wealth of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and amino acids, it is no wonder prickly pear has resurged in modern cuisines and diets. It’s got history and health! The prickly pear signifies Texas’ close ties to Mexico and tribes that formed the foundation of Tex-Mex culture. So I say plant it, cultivate it, eat it and enjoy it! Now where’s my prickly pear margarita?
LONGTIME CENTER MEMBER & VOLUNTEER
When I agreed to this argument, I was looking at all the beautiful things coming back to life in my xeriscaped yard after our winter storm — plus a big ugly prickly pear stump. Prickly pears have very deep roots and are extremely hard to remove, so this one has become a literal thorn in my side. When healthy, they can easily grow out of bounds. And trying to “pop the ears off,” even with heavy gloves, has left plenty of unwelcome glochids in my hands. Speaking of glochids, another downside is that the spineless species (O. ellisiana) is not really spineless, which can be very dangerous for kids (or pets) who might not know to avoid them. (Here’s a pro tip: A thin layer of white Elmer’s glue, dried, will help pull fine prickles out of fingers.) They produce tasty treats, yes, but livestock, particularly sheep, can become habitual grazers, leading to ulcerations, indigestion and bacterial infections in mouths and gastrointestinal tracts. Finally, snails seem to love prickly pears, and I could do with fewer snails in my garden. So I say pull it — but also good luck with that!
O N TH E OTH E R H A N D . . . No hugging and caressing here. Love it from a distance and take very specific precautions when preparing nopales (paddles) and tunas (fruit). It’s worth the effort; just remember, do not pat the cactus!
This plant has a wonderful history. It needs little water and can handle lots of sun, which is great for Texas. It’s also a noteworthy food source and has been known to treat diabetes and high cholesterol.
Legume Room A quick guide to some easyto-confuse members of the pea family by Amy McCullough illustrations by Samantha N. Peters PLANTS IN THE SAME FAMILY SHARE characteristics just like human relatives do. While handy for classification, those common traits are sometimes so similar among a group with matching flowers that it’s hard to distinguish one from another. This guide to yellow-blooming members of Fabaceae (the pea or legume family) will help you sharpen your tree IDs on these perplexing Texas natives.
HUISACHE Vachellia farnesiana Multibranched tree growing 15 to 20 feet tall Yellow-orange pompom flowers, 1/2inch diameter, from January to April Lots of light-colored, paired spines to 1-1/2 inches long (The common name is from Nahuatl for “many thorns.”) Dark reddish-brown seedpods Telltale trait: Fine, feathery foliage — the smallest leaflets of this group Also see page 36. 14 | W I L DF LOW E R
HONEY MESQUITE Prosopis glandulosa Shrubby but reaching 25 to 30 feet and as wide or wider than it is tall Pale to warm yellow wand-shaped flowers from February to September Large thorns, up to 2 inches long Pods are a lighter yellowishbrown and slightly flat Look for: Longer leaflets comprising leaves that resemble those of ferns
GOLDENBALL LEAD TREE Leucaena retusa Small tree reaching 12 to 24 feet Golden globes, 1 inch in diameter, from April to October (often after rain) Leaflets that are a bit more round, giving foliage an undeniable cuteness Flat pods in a rusty shade of brown Flaky, cinnamoncolored bark on trunk Telltale trait: No thorns!
BLACKBRUSH ACACIA Vachellia rigidula Shrub from 6 to 12 feet tall or more, grows in an upand-out shape (like it’s yelling “hooray!”) Flowers are paler yellow and spike shaped, occurring in bunches March to June Bark and thorns are both pale in color and rigid (the latter up to 2 inches long) Look for: Semi-evergreen leaves that are darker and glossier than the rest of this bunch
T E R C E S R S T I YO U A W A T U O E D HI Explore a collection of unique forts by local designers in our Texas Arboretum, plus two forts downtown on the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail.
E X H I B I T I O N PA RT N E R
Free with admission — always free for members! Oct. 2, 2021 - Jan. 30, 2022
WILDFLOWER.ORG/FORTL ANDIA LEAD AND SUPPORTING SPONSORS
Carolyn and Jack Long Luci Baines Johnson and Ian Turpin
A stiff goldenrod (Oligoneuron rigidum) seed hangs delicately from a spent flower, highlighting the suspenseful phase between plant, soil and new life.
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TRAVEL AGENTS How seeds drop, fly, ride and float their way to new soils story and photos by Chris Helzer | 17
espite being literally rooted in place, many plants can be surprisingly mobile. When you stand in a prairie or woodland, all the plants around you are in a silent battle for territory. If one plant is weakened or removed from the community, others are quick to fill the newly available space. Neighboring plants may extend rhizomes or stolons (horizontal underground or aboveground stems, respectively) into such gaps and claim them by sinking down roots or raising new shoots. Alternatively, one or numerous seeds just waiting for an opportunity to germinate may occupy that space.
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Plants also need to travel beyond their immediate neighborhood. Establishing new satellite populations across the countryside helps spread risk and ensure that one event won’t eliminate a species from an entire landscape. In addition, populations of pathogens (disease-causing organisms) and insects that attack leaves, flowers and seeds tend to build up over time. Any offspring produced right next to its parent will have to deal with those accumulated challenges. It can be advantageous for a plant to send its progeny to seek fortune in new places. Rhizomes and stolons are great for short-distance moves, especially because new shoots can receive infusions of water and nutrients from their parents as they try to establish themselves. For longer-distance movements, though, most plants rely on seeds. Over eons, plants have developed incredibly diverse and fascinating strategies for helping their seeds get out of the immediate vicinity (typically packaged in fruits) to find opportunities elsewhere.
In its simplest form, a wildflower seed is a case for a plant embryo. The seed coat provides protection for the embryo, and most wildflower seeds also contain endosperm tissue, which provides nutrition (like a snack for the road). The primary role of a seed is to keep the embryo safe and alive until it can germinate and grow into a seedling. Another role of a seed (and its encompassing fruit), though, is to help that embryo travel — hopefully to a place where it can successfully germinate and survive. Seed dispersal can be categorized in several ways, but most plants employ a combination of strategies. Some plants have heavy seeds that drop straight down, while others eject them forcefully some distance. Many others take advantage of wind, water or animals to carry their seeds away. Each mode of transportation requires specialization in seed or fruit architecture. Some seeds provide resources that are attractive to animals, for example, while others devote resources to the creation of elaborate feathery appendages to catch the wind. >>
A seed from common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) rides on its pappus, or parachutelike fluff, en route to new ground and, hopefully, germination.
On these prairie violet (Viola pedatifda) seeds, it’s easy to see the fleshy elaiosomes, which contain lipids and proteins that encourage seed movement by ants.
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Plants that rely on gravity to transport their seeds often create heavy fruits or seeds that fall right below the parent plant. Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis), for example, creates dense, smooth seeds that tend to land directly beneath the pod they emerge from. The relatively big seeds of spiderworts (Tradescantia spp.) act similarly, though they are less dense and smooth than those of bundleflower. When the large, heavy fruits of osage orange (Maclura pomifera) fall from the tree, they also tend to stay where they land. Other plants can actually launch seeds into the air to send them a little farther away. That kind of ballistic seed dispersal happens when the fruit containing the seed dries out and constricts in a way that eventually forcefully expels the seed. Members of the Ceanothus genus — including New Jersey tea (C. americanus), buckbrush (C. cuneatus) and feltleaf (C. arboreus) — and violets (Viola spp.) are examples of ballistic seed dispersers. However, neither gravity nor drying fruit move seeds very far, so plants employing those strategies may have a secondary option. Violet seeds, for example, are produced with a
small fleshy appendage called an elaiosome, which is full of lipids and proteins. After being ejected from its pod, a seed might travel up to several feet away before landing. However, its elaiosome may then attract foraging ants, which carry the seed back to their nest. The ants feed the highly nutritious elaiosome to their larvae and then deposit the remainder of the seed (still intact) in the nest’s “compost pile.” There, the high nutrient levels provide a particularly favorable place for the seed to germinate and grow. Osage orange fruits don’t appear to be popular as food for wildlife, and their weight keeps them from being easily carried off. As a result, their fruits don’t often travel far from the tree. That doesn’t seem like a very effective dispersal strategy, but scientists have proposed that osage orange may have evolved with large Pleistocene mammals such as mastadons, horses, giant sloths or camels, that could have eaten and dispersed their seeds. Experiments have shown that osage orange seeds don’t survive passage through horses, but they can remain intact through elephants, so the hypothesis is at least possible. >>
TOP The seeds and remaining launch pads, if you will, of New Jersey tea (Ceanothus americanus) are indicative of the ballistic seed dispersal strategy this plant employs. BOTTOM The dense, smooth seeds of Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) fall out easily and often land right below their parent plant.
Some plants rely on wind to carry their seeds for them. Wind-dispersed seeds often have noticeable appendages that help them catch a breeze. Most of us have picked up and blown the seeds of a dandelion. Those seeds each have a feathery pappus, common among numerous other wildflowers, that allows them to float gracefully along on a light breeze. Most of these seeds travel only a short distance before they get hung up on nearby plants or fall to the ground, but a lucky few may get lifted high into the air, allowing them to ride air currents for many miles. Asters, thistles, milkweeds and many other “fluffy-seeded” plants use the wind to carry their seeds. While wind can be a great vector for longdistance transport, there are trade-offs for plants that use this strategy. If a winddispersed seed is going to travel by breeze, the seed has to be fairly lightweight. As a result, many wind-dispersed seeds are lacking a hard seed coat or a supply of endosperm. This reduces their weight but also their longevity and, thus, viability. While some seeds can germinate after many years of lying dormant, most winddispersed seeds need to germinate within a few months — or less — before their embryos die.
GO WITH THE FLOW
TOP The follicles (what we might call pods) of this common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) are a great example of dehiscent fruit, which break open to disperse seeds. BOTTOM This prairie false dandelion (Nothocalais cuspidata) seed head begs to be blown on, by wind or humans.
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Plants that grow in or near streams, ponds or other water bodies often take advantage of water as a transport mechanism. These species tend to create either fruits or seeds that can float — sometimes for many months. Marsh marigolds (Caltha spp.), water plantains (Alisma spp.) and arrowheads (Sagittaria spp.) are all examples of wetland plants with floating seeds. Texas bluebells (Eustoma exaltatum ssp. russellianum) and other members of the Eustoma genus also have seeds that float and can be carried and deposited by moving water. Employing water transport can be an efficient strategy for plants that are restricted to wet habitats because it helps ensure seeds are deposited in the kind of habitats they like best. On the other hand, if a plant is living in a small pond, the distance it can float is pretty limited. Similarly, seeds dropped from plants growing along stream banks can only float downstream. It can be advantageous for a plant growing along a pond or stream to send some of its seeds to a different pond or stream. Accordingly, many wetland plants have seeds that are buoyant, but that can also be carried by wind or animals.
HITCHIN’ A RIDE
Animals are also popular agents for moving seeds around a landscape. Transport by animal is generally accomplished in one of two ways: Plants either create seeds that can hook on to unwitting passersby or pack nutritious ingredients into their seeds (or fruits) to entice creatures to eat them. Hitchhiking seeds are well known to anyone who spends much time outside. These are the seeds we have to scrape off our clothing and pets after a hike. Most tag-along seeds have some kind of hook attached to them, which helps them adhere to anything that brushes past. Depending on the creature and how far it might travel, some hitchhiking seeds may end up miles away before they are scraped off or otherwise fall from the host. There are numerous ways seeds can adhere to animals. Some, such as beggar-ticks (Bidens spp.), have a couple of large hooks
that catch on fur or other parts of an animal. Others, like tick trefoils (Desmodium spp.) have countless tiny hooks that look and act like miniature versions of the Velcro hookand-loop fastening system. Countless other designs exist to help seeds of various species snag a passing animal. There’s a good chance you can find an example on one of your socks, pant legs or pets right now. Of course, another way to travel via animal is to be eaten and then deposited after a trip through the digestive tract. One way plants attract hungry animals is by embedding their seeds inside tasty and nutritious fruits. When an animal consumes the fruit, the seed goes with it, and hopefully survives the digestion process and comes out intact. In fact, for some seeds, a trip through an animal’s digestive system can help break down their seed coat and stimulate germination. >>
Wetland plants such as arrowheads (Sagittaria spp.) use floating seeds to spread offspring to new waterscapes.
LEFT This fruit from a prairie rose (Rosa arkansana) shows evidence of enticing hungry creatures. RIGHT Hackelia species (often called beggar’slice or stickseeds) commonly transport seeds in the fur of animals; here, a dog was the unknowing chauffeur. OPPOSITE PAGE Seeds from prairie spiderworts (Tradescantia occidentalis) tend to drop straight down. In this scene from The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies in Nebraska, one flowering plant attempts to defy the many challenges of creating progeny.
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Not all plants rely on tasty fruits to get animals to ingest their seeds. They may make the seeds themselves appetizing. The nutrition provided by a seed’s endosperm to its embryo can also nourish a hungry bird or mouse. This can be a risky strategy for plants, though. The animal only gains value from the seed if it can digest it, but if the seed is fully digested, the plant loses. Even if they lose many of their seeds to digestion, plants may still get what they need from the transaction if an animal carries some seeds away to eat in a safer location or store for later. Anything that delays ingestion means a seed might be dropped or forgotten about before it’s actually eaten. In the case of seeds stored for long periods of time, the animal that cached it might not survive long enough to consume it. The design of some seeds can help encourage animals to carry them away before eating them. For example, some sunflower seeds are encased within a shell that can take time to crack open. Rather than taking the time to open shells and eat each seed while exposed to predators on top of a tall plant, many animals prefer to take sunflower seeds to a safer place before prying the shells apart. Not all the seeds that are carried away actually get eaten,
and those few survivors have a chance to grow in a new location.
While long-distance seed dispersal plays an important role in the reproduction of plant species, it is also an incredibly risky endeavor. The chances of an individual seed surviving its trip and then landing in a place where it can successfully germinate and become established are incalculably low. The vast majority of seeds never make it. They get eaten, desiccated, consumed by fungus, or otherwise destroyed long before they have the opportunity to become seedlings. Perennial plants spread that risk over many years. They can produce a moderate number of seeds each year, and even take years off if conditions aren’t optimal for flowering and seed production. After all, a parent needs to generate only one successful offspring before it dies to continue its genetic line. Annuals and biennials, on the other hand, get a single shot at flowering and seed production before they die. Because they flower only once, at least one of their seeds has to successfully grow and produce its own seeds to ensure the survival of the family lineage. As a result,
annuals tend to produce huge numbers of seeds, especially compared to their perennial counterparts. Regardless of how many seeds are released into the world by a plant in a given year, it’s still incredible that any survive and become mature plants. Consider what needs to happen for a seed to find success: First, a seed needs to land where it can come in direct contact with the soil. In most places, the soil is pretty well covered by other plants and plant parts, living and dead. If a seed manages to find the soil, it still needs to get the right combination of light and moisture to trigger its germination before the embryo runs out of nutrients or the seed is found and consumed by an animal or fungus. Assuming it manages to germinate, the last step is to compete with any surrounding plants, most of which are probably already well established and well prepared for that fight. When you put all those hazards together, it’s a wonder that any seed ever survives and grows up to produce its own offspring. However, the fact that plants put so much energy into such a dicey investment shows how important it is. Based on the number of plants in the world today, it appears the strategy is working.
SEED BANKING AT THE CENTER Did you know the Wildflower Center has its own seed bank? This is where we store seeds collected from wild populations of native Texas species. Seeds of secure species are available to scientists for many types of research (e.g., climate change, phylogeny, restoration), while seeds of vulnerable species are stored as a hedge against extinction. We do this because pressures on native plant species change over time, and it’s not always possible to conserve plants in their natural habitats. Seeds of many wildflowers and grasses, on the other hand, remain viable for decades if processed and stored correctly. It’s an efficient and costeffective means of insuring that ecotypes of native plants are available for research and conservation. That said, it takes a dedicated team of volunteers — as well as cooperation from private landowners — to collect seeds from wild populations, process them for storage, and test their viability. Minnette Marr, curator of the Center’s seed bank, says she lets nature guide her on where and what to collect: “I can focus my efforts any given year on the species that are having a good year and banking those seeds for later use,” she says. The Center’s bank currently houses seeds from 478 native plant species. – A.M Learn more at wildflower.org/project/seedbank.
A Different Light Seeing wildflowers in a new way — thanks to pollinators and inventive photographers by Melissa Gaskill photos by Michelle Wong
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In the all-important quest for pollinators, plants really pull out the stops, producing flowers with powerful scents, dramatic colors and elaborate structures. The end goal: to entice a bee, butterfly or other insect to land and, ultimately, transfer pollen from one flower to another. Some plants evolved color patterns that are visible in the ultraviolet portion of the electromagnetic light spectrum, which humans cannot see but many insects can. With so many species of flowering plants and of insects, scientists know very little about exactly who pollinates whom, or why, but numerous studies have shown that these UV patterns strongly influence pollinator visitation to the flowers that have them. “The patterns are like little maps, showing insects where the pollen is,” says Dr. Karen Clary, the Center’s former (nowretired) director of plant conservation. “Pollinators smell a flower first, so they know it’s there, and color is the landing pad that pulls them forward. It’s intricate and beautiful how flowers have developed a system of luring pollinators.” The electromagnetic spectrum refers to the range of electromagnetic radiation, or light energy, that travels as waves and spreads out as it goes. The spectrum goes from radio waves with very long wavelengths at one end to very short wavelength X-rays and gamma rays at the other. Visible light — what humans see — occupies a tiny spot in the middle bookended by infrared and ultraviolet light. When light hits an object, the object absorbs some of the light and reflects the rest. Our brains perceive the reflected light in the wavelengths visible to us, interpreting them as red, orange, yellow, green, blue and violet. Insects can perceive a wider portion of the light spectrum and see colors based on ultraviolet light as well as blue and green (and while they can see reddish wavelengths, they don’t have photoreceptors for the color red itself). Humans can get a small taste of the insect visual world through UV photography. Michelle Wong, who took the images featured here, became interested
in this art form through her involvement with iNaturalist. The app and social network enables naturalists, citizen scientists and biologists to map and share observations of plants and animals. Thanks to an energetic dog, Wong started taking walks at night, recording observations on the app along the way. “I was seeing a ton of moths and started wondering how they find the specific flowers that they pollinate,” she says. “I started using UV reflective photos and noticed most of the native plants that attract so many pollinators have good UV reflection.” She also began following the Instagram account of California photographer Craig Burrows, who started taking photographs in 2010 based on an interest in nature, particularly insects and plants, and began practicing UV photography in 2014. Wong says she learned a lot from Burrows. “UV photography is kind of complicated. I had to do a lot of testing, and you need the right equipment.” UV photos use either reflected or induced fluorescence. (Fluorescence refers to the emission of light by an object after it absorbs light. Usually, the emitted light has a longer wavelength and lower energy than the light that was absorbed. It’s all about molecules and energy states.) Reflected UV photography uses a filter that allows UV light to pass through and blocks visible and infrared light. Ultraviolet-induced visible fluorescence (UVIVF) photography blocks UV light and allows the visible light reflected by the subject (or its fluorescence) through, which is what creates the image. A normal camera has a built-in filter that blocks most infrared and ultraviolet light, so photographs look like what our eyes see. Wong says a camera store can convert a regular camera into a UV one. She adds that it is possible to take | 27
UV reflective photos with any camera, including a smartphone, along with a UV flashlight. However, not all flashlights that claim to be UV actually are, she cautions. Clary points out that flowering plants have had 250 million years or so to finetune their pollinator attraction game. “Each plant has to find a way to lure its
own pollinator and not one that they don’t want,” she says. “Every plant uses a different system to entice a pollinator to visit the same species over and over in order to properly spread the pollen.” These photos highlight how some native wildflowers use the light spectrum to their advantage.
SNOW ON THE PRAIRIE (Euphorbia bicolor), shown on the cover and page 26, blooms from July through October. The starry structures technically are modified leaves, called bracts. Its cousin the poinsettia has bracts as well. In the UVIVF image on the cover, the centers of the flowers stand out from the rest of the plant, and its clumps of pollen shine bright white. As a strategy to help ensure reproduction, many plants welcome multiple pollinators, including wasps, bees, butterflies, beetles and flies. Moths are another common pollinator, but because they come out at night, they are guided more by olfactory cues than visual ones, according to Dr. Felicity Muth, an assistant professor in the integrative biology department at The University of Texas at Austin. Many flowers that rely on moths for pollination are pale but have a strong scent.
PLATEAU GOLDENEYE (Viguiera dentata) is a tall, bushy plant that tends to grow in colonies, putting out yellow, daisylike flowers in October and November. The UVIVF image on the right shows a classic “bull’s eye” pattern that guides bees and butterflies to the plant’s nectar. A plant uses little energy to produce nectar, making it a relatively cheap reward for pollinators, Muth says. By contrast, pollen takes a lot of energy to produce, but it also offers pollinators a bigger reward in terms of more nutrition. Plateau goldeneye also is a larval host for cassius blue (Leptotes cassius) and bordered patch (Chlosyne lacinia) butterflies. 2 8 | W I L DF LOW E R
The iconic TEXAS BLUEBONNET (Lupinus texensis) blooms from March through May and attracts bees, especially bumblebees, and butterflies. Bluebonnets also serve as the larval host for hairstreak and elfin butterflies. In the UV photo on the right, the prominent banner spots pop out in bright aqua blue, as compared to white in visible light. Blue and purple flowers tend to be pollinated by bees, says Muth, as they can see well in that range, while red flowers tend to attract hummingbirds because birds see much better in that range. The insect range of vision explains why most are not attracted to yellow porch lightbulbs the way they are to regular (i.e., white) ones. >>
Often one of the earliest bloomers of the year, ROUNDLEAF RAGWORT (Packera obovata) produces flowers from February to June and attracts bees and butterflies. In the UV image on the far right, the pollen-laden center of the flower is solid green and conspicuous. The middle image uses UVIVF and the left, visible light. “I often notice that with UV photos of flowers, people write that ‘this is what humans see and this is what bees see,’ but we don’t know the subjective experience of color,” Muth says. Besides perceiving different wavelengths of light, bees see much less clearly than people, and their vision varies at different distances, she explains. For example, a meadow of flowers likely appears as just a blur of color until a bee gets close to specific plants.
GOLDEN GROUNDSEL (Packera aurea), which blooms from March to August, attracts flies and small bees, including species of nomad, sweat and mining bees. Many families of flies are important pollinators, but scientists know less about their color vision than they do about that of bees. Caterpillars of the gem moth (Orthonama obstipata) feed on the foliage of golden groundsel. Some flowers create patterns using both absorbance and reflectance of UV light. About a quarter of angiosperm flowers use reflectance, which is highest in yellow flowers like these. In the UVIVF image on the right, pollen stands out starkly against the petals. >>
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FALSE GROMWELL (Onosmodium bejariense), a perennial, blooms from March to May and attracts butterflies, including monarchs (Danaus plexippus), and a number of species of bumblebees. In the visible light image, left, the flowers are similar in color to the plant, but the lighting in the UVIVF image on the right provides much greater contrast and helps the flowers stand out. Ultimately, standing out is the goal. It’s how a plant attracts pollinators and, with a little luck, produces the next generation.
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CENTERED: News and Updates
The latest on our gardens and our work by Amy McCullough
SATELLITE FORTS THE WILDFLOWER CENTER will unveil a new batch of custom-designed and -built forts at this year’s Fortlandia, the fourth since the exhibition’s debut in 2018. In an exciting expansion, two forts will appear along the Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail at Lady Bird Lake thanks to a new partnership with The Trail Foundation. One fort from the 2020-21 collection, named territories. and designed by Mark Odom Studio (pictured above), already opened along the trail in June. A new fort, to be created by designer Chris Levack, will also find its home along the shore in downtown Austin as part of the upcoming exhibition. In more fort relocation news, another creation
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from a previous Fortlandia, James Edward Talbot’s much-loved Fairy Pavilion (also see page 42), is among the playtime options at Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park in North Austin. The artist donated his whimsical Ashe juniper (Juniperus ashei) structure, which won the 2019-20 People’s Choice Award and sparked imaginations with its colorful, flattenedcan roof tiles. It received some upgrades from the Austin Parks and Recreation Department and is now part of an accessible playground for children of all ages and abilities. This year’s Fortlandia opens Oct. 2; find more info at wildflower.org/fortlandia.
PHOTOS (opposite page) Ben Porter, (this page) Wildflower Center
DIG THIS — AND CLIMB IT TOO! IT’S A COMMON SIGHT to find children exploring and splashing in the Luci and Ian Family Garden. Now they can add digging, climbing and balancing to their available nature play activities. Two new features, the Dirt Dig and a special addition to the Stumpery, help kids exercise their bodies and minds. The Dirt Dig, which is filled with 40% sand and 60% chocolate loam, is essentially a giant sand box under a substantial shade structure. Karen Beaty, a former horticulturist in the Family Garden, said upon installation, “It’s nice and fluffy, and I think the kids will love it.”
The Stumpery’s new play equipment, partially donated by KOMPAN, is situated near the area’s popular inverted juniper trees. The play equipment includes an upright rope spiderweb (pictured above) that Amy Galloway, horticulturist in the Family Garden, says has easily become a guest favorite. “Kids of all ages are drawn to climb it,” she says, “and I’m so impressed by the toddlers that manage to work their way up! It is an effective example of constructed nature play that safely encourages even the littlest ones to test their own abilities.”
IT’S A STORY THAT Joe Marcus, coordinator of the Center’s Native Plants of North America database, describes as “apocryphal.” Indeed, no one knows the whole truth or where the rumors started. But as Wildflower Center legend has it, the prominent huisache (Vachellia farnesiana) tree in the Courtyard (large tree pictured above) planted itself. When Marcus joined the Center’s horticulture staff in 2000, five years after the garden opened in its current location, he says the tree was already quite large. But it wasn’t planted intentionally, nor was it on site before the Center
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opened; it was just there. His best guess is that it came in with another planting and grew exuberantly due to steady irrigation in the Central Gardens. “Huisaches love water,” he attests. Sadly, this tree — which was a frequent perch for owlets that had recently fledged from their nearby nest across from the Wetland Pond — is one of the plants that did not survive February’s historic winter storm. When it didn’t leaf out or bloom this spring, the reality dawned on Center staff that it was, indeed, dead. The tree was removed in July. Its plant successor is yet to be determined.
PHOTO Theresa DiMenno
A GARDEN FOR EVERYONE THIS YEAR’S LADY BIRD DAY, which celebrates our founder every fourth Saturday in July, marked the launch of our new Access membership level. Access memberships provide access to the Center for children, families and individuals who may not otherwise be able to visit due to financial constraints. Memberships are offered at three tiered, pay-whatyou-can prices and include garden admission for up to six family members. We are pleased to implement this new opportunity to bring our gardens and our mission to more people.
PLANT SALE SUCCESS OUR FALL NATIVE PLANT SALE will continue the trend started in response to the pandemic, when we revamped its structure in order to serve guests safely. Due to positive feedback and successful sales, we will keep the new format and continue to host the next plant sale in our nursery. The Fall Native Plant Sale will remain spread over several weekends, allowing shoppers more flexibility and a mellow, spacious sales area with stock that can be replenished each week. As usual, members will enjoy exclusive benefits.
PHOTOS (top and middle) Theresa DiMenno, (Lady Bird Johnson) U.S. Navy
Once confirmed, dates and details will be posted at wildflower.org/plant-sales.
BEYOND WILDFLOWERS THE LIFE AND LEGACY of Lady Bird Johnson will be highlighted by a temporary exhibition at the LBJ Presidential Library, on display now through August 2023. “Lady Bird: Beyond the Wildflowers” will include letters, clothing, photographs and other memorabilia meant to illuminate aspects of Mrs. Johnson’s life — such as her education, family, campaign and business efforts, and role as a philanthropist — that are less familiar to many than her environmental work. For more ways to explore Mrs. Johnson’s legacy, see Things We Love on the next page.
GIFTS OF NOTE The Wildflower Center would like to acknowledge these generous gifts and their donors:
Carolyn and Jack Long: $239,000 in support of development staff acquisition
Estate of Maxine G. Templeton: $25,000 in support of the Sally Wasowski Excellence Fund for Horticulture
CENTERED: Things We Love
The tools, books and media we’re currently into by Wildflower Center Staff
Hiding in Plain Sight
Lady Bird Johnson has been a larger-thanlife figure for me, which included growing up in Mrs. Johnson’s early stomping grounds of Northeast Texas. I have read more than my fair share of biographies on this great lady and still felt there was something missing. This thoughtful new book by Julia Sweig focuses on the First Lady during the Johnson presidency. It highlights her straightforward
Interested in bringing buzz to your garden? Try a bee hotel. This book covers what one is, how bees use them, and why they’re beneficial. Plus, it provides step-by-step instructions on how to build 30 different styles. Difficulty varies from advanced woodworker to no skills necessary, so there is truly a hotel design for everyone. Try one and see who takes up residence! Tanya Zastrow Director of Programs haynes.com/en-gb/bee-hotel
In Plain Sight Don’t have time for the book or want a supplement that puts you right in the action? Listen to this compelling companion podcast narrated by Julia Sweig that uses Mrs. Johnson’s audio diary kept during the White House years to tell the story with dramatic effect. This is a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the LBJ administration filtered through the soothing voice and precise, perfect words of our founder. Lee Clippard Interim Executive Director abcaudio.com/podcasts/in-plain-sight
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I am fussy about clippers and saws; both frequently disappoint. Handsaws have either good ergonomic handles with wimpy, bendy blades or great blades with handles that cause wrist pain or result in blisters. The Silky Pocketboy is the exception. This saw has two blade angles that enable reaching into the tightest spaces. The blade has wide, deep teeth that can tackle both soft fleshy plants, such as agave, or hardwood without stripping the bark. The handle is small and comfortable, enabling all my energy to flow from my grip to the blade with control. It folds and fits snuggly into a small case, which keeps the teeth clean and, yes, allows me to carry it in my pocket. Bonus: The blade is replaceable at a good price point, relieving a pet peeve of mine about how disposable tools have become. I’ve had mine for four years and use it daily. I’m only on my second blade, which says a lot about the Pocketboy’s durability. Don’t be fooled by the size: This saw will probably replace the rest in your tool cabinet. Leslie Uppinghouse Horticulturist silkysaws.com
PHOTOS (Lady Bird Johnson book) Penguin Random House, (podcast) ABC Audio, (bee book) Haynes, (tool) Silky
style guiding President Johnson in making decisions and her very real connection to the causes of social and environmental justice. Her belief that the environment — in her words, “where we all meet” — was key to physical and mental health, equity and sustainability all comes into focus. Throughout the book, the reader is reminded that Lady Bird was a partner and balance to her husband and that she was a woman who brought her own passion and serious agenda to her position, a legacy that lives on through the Wildflower Center. Dawn E. Hewitt Director of Community Engagement juliasweig.com
CENTERED: Thank You to Our Corporate Partners
Art Seen Alliance | ArborView | Austin Wood Recycling Blü Fern | Capital Printing | Citadel Development FabTech WaterJet | FactSet | FastFrame & The Westlake Gallery Her Royal Hempress | ILIOS Lighting | KOMPAN Letterpress PLAY | Native American Seed Pilgram Building Company | Wella Organics | 39
In the Canopies Treehouses facilitate play, creativity and connection to nature by Jill Sell YOUNGSTERS GROWING UP ALONG RIVERS DISCOVER ALL KINDS of washed-up scrap wood and debris. You never know what might appear on a bank or become stuck in vegetation. Phillip Schulze, the Wildflower Center’s arboretum and natural areas manager, used what he found as a boy to build a treehouse in a box elder (Acer negundo), creating a platform and even including a fireplace. “The best part was that you could fish from right up in the treehouse,” he says.
Treehouses provide space for creativity and opportunities to cooperate with friends and siblings. PHOTO wundervisuals/iStock
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Most kids’ treehouses aren’t quite as elaborate, and Schulze readily admits the one he built for his son, in a 50-foot-tall pecan (Carya illinoinensis) in his current backyard, is simple but solid. That’s fine, according to Michelle Bertelsen, an ecologist for the Wildflower Center and mother of three, who sees treehouses as important facilitators of nature play.
“It’s nice to have a larger structure, like a treehouse, that acts as a jumping off point for imaginative play,” says Bertelsen, “the type that encourages children to have more unstructured time outside with materials that are not defined.” She describes herself and cousins as “free-range kids” while playing at their grandfather’s. “We found old wood,
climbed up a tree, and hammered it in all kinds of places. It never looked like more than attached pieces of wood, but we spent a lot of time planning it and playing there.” Bertelsen says children not only exercise large motor skills building and playing in a treehouse, but they also learn math and physics through measuring and understanding balance. Communication skills, cooperation, and creating rules and structure (e.g., “Who will be president of this secret treehouse club?”) are all tested and honed. But treehouses aren’t just for kids. Adults similarly enjoy backyard getaways, art studios, writing nooks and home offices among leafy limbs. With the privacy, safety and convenience of backyards taking on more importance during COVID-19 times, treehouses became even more appealing, their status elevated. Who can resist the peace and beauty of being among branches, leaves applauding you in a gentle wind, and a unique perspective on the world? Pete Nelson, internationally known custom treehouse designer/builder and star of “Treehouse Masters,” a TV series on Animal Planet, says adults use treehouses today as creative spaces to write or paint — or simply as places “to disconnect from the lives we all have to live.” Luxury treehouses such as Nelson’s can be found in private backyards or in hospitality situations, including rental getaways such as his current project, Treehouse Utopia, near the Hill Country town of the same name. At $475 per night, his Chapelle treehouse is on the extravagant side. But we’ve gathered advice from a variety of pros to help you bring nature play and creative space to your own canopies.
Pete Nelson’s treehouses fall into the fantasy category, proving high-end versions have appeal (and a market) too; the Chappelle is one of four rentable Hill Country getaways. PHOTO Treehouse Utopia
IDENTIFY BEST-SUITED TREES
“You have to make do with what you have,” says artist James Edward Talbot, creator of imaginative structures such as the treehouselike-but-earthbound Fairy Pavilion (also see page 34), which won the People’s Choice Award at the Wildflower Center’s 2019-20 Fortlandia exhibition. “Not everyone has the perfect tree in their backyard for a treehouse. But that shouldn’t stop anyone,” he says. >> | 41
Children were especially drawn to James Edward Talbot’s Fairy Pavilion during the Center’s 201920 Fortlandia exhibition. See page 34 for info on its current location. PHOTO Brian Birzer
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“Ashe junipers are a nuisance to many people in the Hill Country, but they are hardy and rot resistant. People try to get rid of the logs, so I have a gold mine of that wood to work with,” says Talbot. In fact, his Fairy Pavilion made great use of them. He stays away from live oaks (Quercus virginiana or Q. fusiformis) even though they are “very picturesque,” because they are susceptible to oak wilt. Schulze, however, says live oaks’ sheer numbers make them a popular treehouse species. He also gives a thumbs up to bur oak (Q. macrocarpa), chinquapin oak (Q. muehlenbergii) and Monterrey oak (Q. polymorpha): “All of those are very strong trees and have a branching structure that lends itself to making a treehouse, as opposed to something like a pine that is more vertical,” says Schulze. “Avoid weak wood trees like hackberry (Celtis spp.) and invasive Chinaberry (Melia azedarach).” Nelson also votes for oaks, including post oaks (Q. stellata), because of their sturdiness. But he says it’s important to “get into a majestic tree like an oak” without cutting off a large
limb if possible. He also recommends Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and Texas’ bald cypress (Taxodium distichum), which can be “beautiful and enormous with roots that go right down to rivers,” as other great native species for treehouses. But he agrees with Talbot about working with what you have: “I used to tell people that a willow would never do for a treehouse,” says Nelson, who lives in Seattle, where willows often occur in “idyllic settings” along waterways but aren’t the strongest option. “Most kids’ treehouses are going to last five or six years,” he says, “unlike the kind we build meant to last much longer. Kids will say the willow is great, and they are right if that’s what they have.”
DO NO HARM
Schulze admits he would never again build a treehouse the way he did as a child, for fear of harming a tree. “The less weight you put in a tree, the better,” he says. “And anytime you put hardware into a tree you are creating potential for some kind of wound. Even a nail or screw can lead to fungal decay.” Luckily, there
are ways to build freestanding structures that don’t rely on trees for support. Schulze built his son’s treehouse by placing posts in the ground to support a platform, not even touching the tree. He also recommends hand digging post holes to avoid harming tree roots, digging holes at least 6 feet from the trunk to avoid buttress roots (a tree’s large roots on all sides), and adjusting the space a few inches between posts if a large root is uncovered. Nelson uses special hardware and three different attachment systems to minimize tree damage. Which system he employs depends on a project’s needs, from backyard fort to commercial lodging, but all use steel attachment bolts. Trees grow around the bolts, resulting in an even stronger connection. He says he’s amazed at many species’ healing ability. To discourage tree disease or injury, Talbot suggests always using clean work tools (including saws), not wrapping tree trunks or branches, and leaving sufficient space around platforms for future trunk growth.
REMEMBER THE MAGIC
Nelson’s father built a small treehouse in the backyard where he grew up near New York City more than 50 years ago. Recently, Nelson went back to see his childhood home. The treehouse and maple tree were gone, but his memories of the treehouse were still vivid. That fondness was probably a factor in his choosing treehouse building instead of traditional residential construction and architecture. “No concrete, foundations, rebar,” says Nelson. “The trees do it all for you. They are special, and I like to think they are happy to be chosen.” Talbot believes the mere fact that something is a treehouse doesn’t make it a magical place, however. “You have to figure out the basic reasons why someone wants a treehouse, and then let them figure out how the treehouse can become theirs,” he says. He’s onto something. Whether a treehouse is a calm oasis beyond regular life, a creative studio, or a place to explore and pretend, it is as individual as each of us — and unique in the ways it connects us with nature.
Building a treehouse together can be a memorable experience for families — and parents get to enjoy the end result too. PHOTO yulkapopkova/iStock
When in Roam
On being in place and acknowledging what came before story and photos by Amy McCullough
Bluestem pricklypoppy (Argemone albiflora) and prairie verbena (Glandularia bipinnatifida) bloom along a concrete path leading to a wetland platform; both were designed for accessibility.
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DRIVING FROM A SMALL CABIN NEAR NAVASOTA, TEXAS, to the Katy Prairie Conservancy’s Indiangrass Preserve, I crossed three county lines (Grimes, Waller and Harris), passed sporadic gatherings of cows and horses behind well-maintained white wooden fences, and noted many roadside automotive sales displays and a preponderance of pink evening primroses (Oenothera speciosa) among other spring blooms. It was April, and I was on a trip — albeit a short road trip not far from my home in Austin — but, still, I was in motion. The morning was cool, and I let the air in through open windows. It felt good. But the inspiration for this trip sprung from from-home office types, you’ve spent a lot of a train of thought very much rooted in place. it in a chair at home. Maybe it’s a new chair Think about where you’ve spent much of because nothing in-house was comfortable your last year and a half. If you’re like me, and enough for 40 hours a week. many other fortunate-to-be-able-to-workWhether you work(ed) from home or not,
you have likely spent more of your recent history in one place than is typical — or than you’d like to. Sit in that place now, and try to visualize the long passage of time it’s existed through. Go way back. Imagine what was there before your house or apartment building, before the city was a city or the town was a town. Imagine what grew there, on that patch of earth. If you’re in eastern parts of Central Texas, there’s a good chance you’re on the site of a former tallgrass prairie. I went to the Indiangrass Preserve in search of what had been where my home office sits now. I wanted to stand within a natural area that represents what once covered 250 million acres of land from Texas north to Canada and Ohio west to Kansas. Tallgrass prairie is now one of our most threatened ecosystems. The Indiangrass Preserve is part
of the greater Katy Prairie Preserve, which encompasses nearly 15,500 acres, including wetlands, grasslands, grazing lands and small creeks. The Indiangrass Preserve is also home to the Katy Prairie Conservancy’s Field Office and Native Seed Nursery, but the whole affair is strikingly still, an unassuming plot of land that feels quite remote, even though it’s a mere 10 miles from behemoth Highway 290 coursing through tiny Waller, Texas. The preserve’s Ann Hamilton Trail (named for a local conservationist) is only 1.5 miles long, but it weaves through a 55acre prairie-wetland restoration representing the history of our land. I walk every loop, captivated by life: a cardinal greeting me at the entrance, evidence (scat) of critters enjoying the prevalent dewberries (Rubus
Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) fills much of the scene with its recognizable russet-colored tufts; introduced pines form a line along the eastern edge of the prairie.
trivialis), turtles resting quietly in shallow water, big fat bumblebees and painted lady butterflies, transparent-and-black Widow Skimmer dragonflies, and grasshoppers everywhere. I am struck by the beauty of a bluestem pricklypoppy (Argemone albiflora) in bloom and return to take its picture over and over before leaving. Before that last poppy visit, I skirt a series of prairie potholes and learn that they are circular wetlands created where wind has blown sand deposits out of old river channels, leaving clay bottoms that stay wet for weeks or months at a time. Farther along, the trail map I printed ahead of time acknowledges that a line of pine trees to the east is not native to the prairie. They were planted by humans many years ago and have since become roosting sites for native owls, hawks and bald eagles. “Although these trees were not a part of the original prairie of the Indiangrass Preserve,” the guide says, “we will retain [them] so they can continue to serve wildlife.” It leaves me feeling hopeful for the future. Like those introduced pine trees, my neighbors and I don’t necessarily “belong” in our landscape. But perhaps we can embrace our combined reality and work with it; perhaps
“There really isn’t one unique state of natural conditions for any given landscape.”
FROM TOP Rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium) cuts a striking silhouette against a vibrant blue sky; a perennial, it sprouts new growth from its roots each year. An insect at home in a winecup (Callirhoe involucrata) is just one of many signs of life on the prairie. Pink evening primroses (Oenothera speciosa) adorn a pothole, one of the features of the preserve elaborated on by interpretive signs.
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we can do more good than harm. As Emma Marris argues in “Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World,” “There really isn’t one unique state of natural conditions for any given landscape.” Even if what belongs where I’m sitting and working isn’t a rental house in a quickly growing city, even if what should be here is a thriving tallgrass prairie, I am comforted by the fact that there are Gulf Coast toads living in my backyard. They come out at sundown every evening and hop around the existing turfgrass and the pots of my native plant container garden. They — we, rather — represent a mix of what was and what is. The Katy Prairie Conservancy works to preserve diminishing prairie lands; learn more at katyprairie.org. For more on native grasses, see inside the front cover and pages 2 and 7.
WHY I GIVE
“Tall Paul” Reinartz • Member since 1997 • Volunteer since 1995, serving more than
8,000 hours (the most on record!) • Dedicated a tree in memory of his wife, Janice
“I started volunteering in 1995 before the Wildflower Center opened in its present location. I remember when they lifted trees into the Courtyard with a crane. I wanted to help perpetuate Mrs. Johnson’s dream and help however I could: putting up signs on buildings, growing more than 3,000 cacti for plant sales, designing the cactus Theme Garden. I’m just one of a loving group of great volunteers. If I can inspire someone with a garden, then I’ve served my purpose.”
WHY I GIVE
Chief Meteorologist, KXAN • Member since 2018 • Advisory Council member • Donated a weather station to the Center • Spoke about climate change at the Center’s
World Meteorology Day
PHOTOS (Paul) Wildflower Center, (David) KXAN
• Promoted the Center on air for UT’s 40 Hours
for the Forty Acres campaign
“In a city booming with urban development, it is more important than ever that we preserve the natural spaces that make Austin such a unique and serene place to live. I give so the Center can teach others the importance of sustainability through its programs and its presence.”
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Reflections and Reclamation Black Botanists Week recognizes a long legacy — and embraces a growing future by Beronda L. Montgomery I HAVE SPENT MUCH OF MY CAREER AS A plant biochemist in academia as a first and only. I was the only Black graduate student in my doctoral class, the first Black postdoctoral scientist in my department, and the first and only Black professor in my unit. Nearly two decades later, I’m still the only Black woman professor among the tenure-system rank in my college. My mom might have been the first professor in our family. She loved math and is still quick with numbers. Yet, she and my father grew up in the segregated South, a mere few generations removed from our ancestral family who had been enslaved. Though my parents were born post-emancipation, their freedom had severe limitations. Their already “separate and unequal” education was also routinely interrupted — they were unable to regularly go to school during cotton harvest season. During
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these times, they had to serve as farm labor alongside their parents. As a child, I watched my mom lovingly care for a home filled with plants of all kinds: flowering plants, vining greenery that climbed and spiraled around decorative columns and over doorposts, even the occasional fern or succulent. Perhaps because of her forced care for plants in her youth, she never pushed when my siblings and I showed little interest in emulating her exemplary plant caretaking skills. Yet, when my own path to a career as a biologist branched into a focus on plants, I realized that my mom was one of the first and only Black botanists I knew personally. Although I may be the first formally educated botanist in the family, I am certainly not a first-generation Black botanist. With her keen ability to “listen” to her plants, to identify and
respond to their needs, my mom was certainly a botanist before me. And given the many botanists who were certainly among my enslaved ancestors, I’m not likely a second-generation Black botanist either. Among them were those whose expertise in cultivating rice and other crops led to them being highly valued as property, even as their enslavement was an abhorrent moral devaluation. Reflection on this reality reminds me my success is a reclamation of sorts of our ancestral botanical legacy. This broad understanding of how Black botanical knowledge grew outside of formal educational spaces was one of the motivating factors for me and eleven other founding members of Black Botanists Week (including Dr. Tanisha M. Williams, top left) to define “botanist” broadly. The first Black Botanists Week — a social media movement tied by eponymous Instagram, Facebook and Twitter accounts as well as the #BlackBotanistsWeek hashtag — took place from July 6 to 12, 2020. It followed and was inspired by Black Birders Week, which was initiated to demonstrate the challenges Black individuals face in natural spaces due to ongoing and persistent racism. These weeks proceeded in solidarity with
Christian Cooper, a Black birder who encountered racism and hostility from a white woman in New York City’s Central Park. Both weeks were carried out to build community and support, as well as to highlight Black representation in scientific and natural spaces. Black Botanists Week served as a powerful platform to cultivate a community of critical mass for those of us often isolated in our spaces. It allowed all of us to see that though we may be alone in our local community, we are not alone. The importance of representation, and seeing the possibility that fully embodies one’s own identity and existence, is true across human demographics. Fortunately, digital spaces serve powerfully to counteract physical isolation and connect us across the globe. Certainly the messages that we received from Black people who love plants, describing the personal power and impact of seeing like others, reverberated across the digital threads connecting us. We experienced firsthand that plants and our engagement with them hold great power to stimulate our own growth — growth in our joy of caring for plants, but also in cultivating solidarity with others who share our background and interests.
Images from the first Black Botanists Week, tagged as such on Instagram. PHOTOS (from left) Dr. Tanisha M. Williams/ @t_marie_wms, U.S. Botanic Garden/ @usbotanicgarden, NC State University CALS/@ncstatecals, and Janae Dedrick/ @luvvyn_tilinfiniti
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