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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

What beautiful photos and delightful text. Refreshing. Thank you