Sunday, December 23, 2007

Bare oak trees in winter

Bare trees on a hillside tend to look alike unless you look specifically at tree shape, bark color and pattern.

Every winter I play a little game with myself.  I like to see how many trees I can identify using tree shape, bark patterns and color. Sometimes I can identify them, but not always. Tree shapes are variable, and many trees have so many lichens growing on their bark that it is hard to see a bark pattern. Young bark looks different from old bark.

This week I'd like to share with you some of the characteristics that help. Trees assume many shapes that are determined by the conditions around them, such as availablity of water, whether they are alone in a sunny space, or shaded and/or crowded in thick woods. Trees in an open area are more apt to show a classic shape than those in crowded conditions.

Note: Most tree identification books use leaves as the primary identifying feature. Defining clues include whether leaves are simple (one blade per leaf) or compound (2 or more leaflets per leaf), its shape (round, triangular, heart shaped, etc.), leaf edges (smooth, sawtoothed, lobed, etc.) and the attachment of leaves on their twigs (opposite or alternate).

Oaks here will be the subject for this blog. The most abundant oak we see at Selah is Plateau Live oak, which is an evergreen meaning it keeps its leaves all winter. For this blog, I'll be writing about deciduous trees, which are those that lose their leaves in winter.

Deciduous oaks that are native to Selah:  Bur, Blackjack, Bigelow, Lacey, Post, Shin, Spanish (also known as Texas oak).  (the oaks I feature in this blog are in bold) 

Deciduous oaks that are introduced here: Chinkapin, Monterey, Vasey.

Oaks that have leaves with obvious points on them are in the Red Oak group and have tannins in their leaves and acorns. Also,they turn colors such as red in the fall. Those oaks with leaves without points are in the White Oak group and don't have tannins, and they have little fall color and usually turn brown before they fall.

Of the oaks on Selah, the Bur oak is typically a large oak (up to 150 feet) with huge leaves 6 to 12 inches long with multiple rounded lobes, and acorns up to 2 inches long. Their limbs are straight. They need deep soils and constant water. Bark is grey, thick, with deep fissures, and are broken into narrow plates. The bur oak below was planted along Madrone Lake by J. David in 1987. It is now around 25 feet tall and doing well. There is a huge Bur oak in Sun Valley Pasture that has a creek running through it, and as far as we know it is growing there naturally.

The most common of the deciduous oaks on Selah are Spanish oaks, which line the upper slopes and are found scattered across the landscape here. They can be handsome trees usually under 35 feet tall. Their limbs are sometimes bent, and the overall shape of the tree is frequently irregular.  They seem to have weak trunk and branch structure and break easily in wind storms and ice storms. The wood can be used for burning, but not for lumber. The bark is light grey, unless covered with lichens, and the depth of the furrows depends on their age. Their leaves have deep narrow lobes with long points at the ends. In blog #2 (December 9) I have a picture that shows scarlet color that some of them turn. Others turn orange-red or orange.

Spanish oak is the most susceptible oak to oak wilt, which is a fungal infection that spreads from tree to tree through their roots when in they are in contact underground. Also it is spread by sap beetles that carry the fungus from a wound in one tree to other trees and start new centers of infection.

Shin oaks are found in a number of different areas, and how they look depends on both the depth of soil and the amount of water available to them. In deep soil they may be handsome small trees up to 30 feet tall (called Bigelow oaks), and in rocky limestone soil a small slender tree. It sometimes is found in a thick growth of brush known as "shineries". The 2 trees pictured below are on the edge of a valley that leads to a spring. The bark is typical of Shin oaks, thin, light grey, and peeling in vertical sheets.

This tangle of oaks is referred to as a shinnery. They grow like this when the original trees are cut down or burned in a fire and new shoots arise from the roots. These thick oak tangles are the favored habitat of the endangered Black-capped vireo. When the shinneries get too tall, they look for other habitat. The one pictured is getting close to being too tall.

Post oaks and Blackjack oaks are mostly in an area of the ranch which is on the plateau tops where the soils are red, and contain a high content of silica (the stuff glass is made of). They like silica rich soils, and are very common in Bastrop County, and other locations with sandy soils. The Post oak is the more common of the two, but Blackjacks are almost always found in Post oak woodlands, and my guess would be that there is one Blackjack oak for every ten or so Post oaks.

Post oaks are members of the White Oak family, and their leaves turn brown in the fall. The edges of their lobed leaves are rounded and often have a shape that is similar to a cross. Their acorns are sweet, and free of tannins, which makes them desirable to eat. Their branches are stout, with lots of bends in them. The bark color is a much lighter grey than blackjacks. The bark is thick with deep vertical fissures and longitudinal fissures that divide the bark into rectangular plates. I find them very attractive in the winter.

Blackjack oaks have leaves that turn rusty-red in the fall.   The classic leaf is shaped sort of like a duck foot, narrow at the base and at the upper end 3 lobes with pointed tips. The shape of the tree without leaves is less regular than Post Oaks. The furrows on the bark are deep. The dark grey, almost black bark has a knobby look with blocky plates.

I hope that even if you don't become good at identifying winter trees, you will look at and appreciate the shapes of the bare branches against the sky, as well as the color and patterns of the bark of the bare trees around you. Noticing differences makes the season more interesting.  
"Selah Moments" are times when you are outdoors and notice and enjoy some aspect of nature that seems special to you. For some it might be a bird song, or seeing an insect, or the sound of wind in the trees, or wind blowing grasses in waves across a field, or simply the beauty of sunlight, or clouds. So don't forget to go outdoors and take out time to notice and record in your memory those special moments.              

My favorite Selah moment this week occurred when a group of us were walking in the woods on the Aldo Leopold trail late in the afternoon on the day of the Winter Solstice.  We were enjoying each other's company when we arrived at an area with large boulders scattered about and a friend said, "Let's all sit down here for a few minutes and enjoy a Selah Moment."  It takes a few seconds to move from walking and talking to quiet attention. There was a gentle wind blowing and I could hear it in the tree branches and when it blew through the leaves of the Live oak trees. The moon had just risen, and the sky was starting to show late afternoon pink in the west. It was a magical moment. 

Many thanks to Chris Johnson who has helped so much with this blog. I call him anytime I can't figure out how to accomplish something. He also fixes the arrangement of elements in the final version that are beyond my abilities at this time.  

Look for another post in a about week, which will be next year. Have a fun, safe New Year's Eve, and a adventurous, healthy, happy year in 2008.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Berries and Seeds in mid-December

Saturday (Dec. 15th) was chilly and very windy. Below are a couple of pictures of grasses blowing in the wind. The grass below is little bluestem, in spite of the fact that the typical rusty color isn't seen because of the angle of the sun.

Canyon muhly is a little taller than little bluestem and has an open seedhead that is very visible and is quite elegant when blowing in the wind. The rusty color of the little bluestem can be seen in this photograph.

As I was walking, I noticed that there are quite a few plants with fruit or berries. I've always loved seeing berries in winter when a bit of color, or the presence of something juicy, is notable.

Below is Mistletoe, which is difficult to see on a tree when it is covered with green leaves. When trees lose their leaves mistletoe is easy to see because it is the only green on the bare branches. There are 5 different kinds of mistletoes in Texas, and the one pictured below is the most common, Phoradendron tomentosum. All are parasitic and their roots are embedded in tree branches. They produce their own starches using photosynthesis, but rely on a host tree for water and minerals. All parts of the plant are poisonous to most species of animals. However, birds feed on the berries and leave seeds, fertilized with their droppings, on branches.

Juniper, or cedar as it is known locally, has an abundance of berries on the female plant. The male plant is the source of the gold-orange pollen that drives people with an allergy to it crazy with symptoms. There are eight different species in Texas. The juniper here in the eastern Hill Country is mountain juniper or Ash Juniper (Juniperus ashei). The "berries" look like berries, but in reality are woody cones that are covered with a fleshy coat. All parts of the plant contain an astringent resin that makes the berries taste terrible and can cause abdominal distress. The taste usually keeps people from ingesting a toxic amount (2 or more berries). They can be used in small amounts in cooking, and a European juniper berry is used in making gin.

I have seen Cedar Waxwings (a handsome bird seen in Texas in the winter) in winter flocks on cedars, but what they really love is Pyracantha berries, which are bright red. (a non-native that is abundant in areas where it was introduced). Pyracantha is found in this area, but here on the ranch we try to eradicate them.

One of our employees was talking to a group of women here on a tour. He told them that we removed small cedar in order to establish grasslands, but told them that we don't remove the big Ash Junipers, especially those near a creek. The ladies misunderstood the word "ash" and told him that they understood the need to remove cedar but they didn't like his language. In the end, when they understood their mistake, they all had a good laugh.

A very prickly vine that is the bane of gardeners and hikers is called Greenbriar or Catbriar, Smilax bona-nox. It has very sharp thorns which can be seen in the photograph below. I have been scratched many times when I've run into a vine, gotten blood on my clothes and cursed the perpetrator of my pain. In the spring there are tiny flowers on the females, and the berries are green at first, then turn dark blue-black in the fall. The berries are probably not toxic, though eating them is not recommended.

Flameleaf sumac
(Rhus lanceolata) berries persist after the leaves have fallen. Red when they first ripen, they turn black later in the winter. Malic acid makes the fruits tart, and you can make a drink called Sumac-ade. There is a recipe in Delena Tull's book "Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest". I've never made it, though it sounds good. See picture in my blog of Dec. 9 for the color of its leaves in fall. Note: this plant is related to Poison Ivy and some people are allergic to it, and get a skin rash. (I am very allergic to Poison Ivy but not to any of its relatives.)

A handsome bush in winter is Possumhaw, or Deciduous Holly (Ilex decidua). The red-orange berries appear on the female plants before the leaves fall off, and persist through the winter. The berries are eaten by birds and small mammals. To the side are two pictures taken on the same day. One of the plants is in a valley, and still is holding many of its leaves. The other is in a small canyon near the plateau hill-tops. I'm guessing that it was colder and perhaps more windy on the top, and warmer in the valley.

Many of the crab-apples on the ranch don't produce fruit every year. This year, one that we think is a Prairie Crab-apple, produced an amazing amount of fruit. It is a healthy small tree on one of our trails. I think this is the first year we've seen fruit on it.  J. David planted it probably in the 80's. (The picture below is of that tree).

We have a native crab-apple here on the ranch called a Blanco Crab-apple (Malus ioensis var texana). It has a slightly larger, green & bitter fruit. It is a small and very slow growing tree that deer love to eat when young and tender. Heavy deer populations in the Hill Country threaten this species.

Wafer ash (Ptelea trifoliata) blooms in the spring and produces a fruit that is wrapped in flat, paper-like wings that start out green, and in fall become tan as they dry out. The flowers are very fragrant and the leaves have a mild skunk-like smell, and some people refer to it as "skunk-bush". I happen to like the smell but when my dog comes home after being sprayed by a skunk, I don't like that smell at all.

The Chili-piquin plant produces a bright red fruit in the fall that are irresistible to song birds and lovers of very hot peppers. Apparently chickens and guineas also eat them. There are many wild and cultivated varieties of the Piquins. Capsicum annuium, the original piquin, lived in southern Brazil and Bolivia, and migrated north to Central America, Mexico, and the southern US. Gardeners plant them, but they also spread on their own without help.

I had a personal experience with the peppers when I was a little kid in New Orleans. I was pretending I was lost in the jungle and had to find my own food. I noted the delicious looking berries of a Chili-piquin and picked 4 or 5 of them and popped them into my mouth. I remember the searing heat, screaming, trying to get rid of them, and in the process got the juice on my arms which burned as badly as my mouth and the skin around my mouth. I'm still not a fan of very hot peppers ---- I wonder why!

These photographs were all taken on Saturday, December 15 by me with my Canon Digital Rebel XTi SLR. I love my camera, and figure it will take years for me to learn all the tricks that it can do.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Fall colors and beginning of winter

Texas oak turning red near purple martin house on foggy day. ©2007 M Bamberger
In November we had some cool days and nights, as well as some drizzle and fog. In the picture above there is rusty-red little bluestem grasses, a Texas oak turning red, and in the background, hills shrouded in fog.

It in now the second week of December, and we have had a couple of windy days so most of the leaves are down, and winter's colors dominate the wooded areas of the ranch. There are many areas in which Live oak is the dominant tree, and of course they are green all winter.  The grasses are still beautiful, but their colors are not as intense as they were in October and November.

Not remembering the exact reasons for the fall color changes in tree leaves, I pulled out my botany text book to refresh my memory. I found a web site that gave me even more information about fall colors: Why Leaves Change Color. The three main factors that influence the color changes are pigments, length of night and weather. The colors of a particular species of plant in fall is a combination of its heritage and weather conditions.

The pigments in leaves are chlorophyll, carotenoids, and anthocyanins.  Chlorophyll is the green pigment that is necessary for photosynthesis (making sugar from CO₂ and water using sunlight) and are found in chloroplasts of leaf cells.  Carotenoids produce yellow, orange and brown colors in fruits and vegetables as well as in leaves, and anthocyanins give color to fruits such as cranberries, red apples, blueberries, strawberrries, and plums. Chlorophyll and carotenoids are found in chloroplasts throughout the growing season.  When chlorophyll fades out as nights get long and temperatures go down, carotenoids get a chance to shine. Most anthocyanins, which are present in the watery liquid of plant cells are produced in fall in response to light and excess sugars that are trapped in leaves when the flow of fluids is cut off by the accumulation of  cells at the base of the stem holding leaves to twigs. They too can be seen when green chlorophyll is no longer produced. That layer of cells I mentioned at the base of the leaf stem eventually cuts off all flow of water and nutrients between leaves and the rest of the plant, and the leaf falls off. 

Enough of the science of color changes.  This year there were some beautiful yellow, orange and red Big-tooth maples.


Some plants turn an intense red, and have names that indicate its consistent  color, such as Flame-leaf sumac.

Many, but not all, of the Texas oaks turned orange or red.  Some just turned brown before dropping their leaves. This one was a beautiful scarlet.

Bald cypress turn a rusty brown before their needles fall down.  How long they hang onto their needles depends on weather and wind, and this year they fell down fast.  Needles float in the water, and sometimes one can see beautiful images when looking down into the water underneath a cypress.  In this picture we can see needles floating,  green water plants in clear water, and cypress branches outlines by intense blue sky.

I'll miss the beautiful colors of fall, but there is beauty in winter.  I love the shades of grey that are seen in the bare trees. Also, tree shapes are fascinating, and I've learned to recognize many different trees by their shape, and arrangement of limbs.

It is Sunday evening, and a cold front has just arrived. Rain is in the forecast, and we really need it.  Stay warm, but enjoy the outdoors.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Welcome to the Bamberger Ranch Journal

Corey, the dog, fishing in Madrone Lake. ©2007 Margaret Bamberger
Field and woods. ©2007 Margaret Bamberger
Grasses, including yellow indian-grass and little bluestem, with live oaks. ©2007 Margaret Bamberger

Hello friends (new and old) and Welcome to the Bamberger Ranch (Preserve) Journal (blog).

I plan to post frequent blogs (I'll try for once a week) with narratives and pictures of interesting things happening here, primarily in the natural world, but also about people and events.

A Little Background About Bamberger Ranch Preserve (BRP)

The BRP is a 5500 acre ranch that is in a 501-C-3, non-profit foundation with a board of directors, educational staff, and a ranch operations manager. A small portion of the ranch is not yet in the foundation, so that it's founders, J David Bamberger and his wife, (me) Margaret can live here for now. When we are both gone the house and its surroundings will be added to the Preserve.

At the ranch we have domestic animals (cows & goats), educational programs, and Stewardship workshops (see our website for more about these: We also have a herd of Scimitar Horned Oryx which are no longer found in the wild in its homeland of Africa and is being protected and managed as part of an SSP (Species Survival Program). We built a man made bat cave, called a Chiroptorium, which is home to 120,000 Mexican free-tailed bats from March to October. Several endangered birds live and nest here also, the Golden-cheeked Warbler, and the Black-capped Vireo. A total of 202 species of birds have been documented as being seen here.


The grasses are more beautiful then I have ever seen them before. During the abundant spring and early summer rains they grew to unusually large sizes, and the individual bunch grasses such as the bluestems and the muhlys increased in width. Then as fall arrived they turned fabulous colors. The bluestems turn shades of rusty red, yellow indiangrass a fine deep gold, and some others a straw yellow. The combination of height, thickness and color have made the last month stunning.

Today I noticed that in the last four days the colors of the trees have changed dramatically and the reds and oranges have developed and are bright and beautiful. 

This is the first time I've tried to write a blog.  I look forward to learning more about how to get pictures to go where I want them, and expect that after a while I'll find the process much easier than I do now.  So until next week, goodbye -and don't forget to take time to enjoy the natural world.

Photographs:  1-  Madrone Lake in late summer this year.  Note that Cory our dog is engaged in his favorite summer activity, fishing.  He watches the fish in the water, and jumps when he thinks he can catch one - so far he hasn't succeeded. 2- Looking down from a hill-top to a scene below to a field and the woods in the background. (Taken several weeks ago.) 3- Grasses, including yellow indian-grass and little bluestem, with live oaks. (Taken last Tuesday).