Thursday, October 30, 2008

Selah Moments

If you are regular reader of this blog you have undoubtedly read of Selah Moments before now. However, I think I should define them again for those of you who are perhaps reading this journal for the first time, or who have forgotten what it means.

I think that it probably started when a really special thing happened and one of the kids called it a "National Geographic moment". Colleen, our executive director, and one of our wonderful teachers liked the idea of focusing on special moments, but wanted them to be anything, no matter how simple or seemingly insignificant, that moved the viewer and made them feel closer to nature. A Selah Moment can be something as simple as a breeze on your skin, or a bird chirping in a nearby tree, or as thrilling as looking into a tree and seeing thousands of monarch butterflies together during their fall migration to their winter grounds in the mountains of Mexico.

During the Grasses Workshop when the participants were looking at grasses in the open area to the west of the Madrone Lake patio, someone noticed movements in the bald cypress in front of them. When they focused on the masses of Monarch Butterflies on the slender branches, some of which were actually bending from the weight of the butterflies, they ran over to where I was sitting, yelling, "Bring your camera, we have a 'Selah Moment'"!

Usually the underside of their wings look flat, but when the sunlight is at a certain angle, you can see that the wing in not flat, but has shape to it, and you can see shadows on the surface. (Click to see the large version).

When we were first seeing the Monarchs, they seemed to be resting. It was still fairly cool in the morning.

Across the trail from the Monarchs on the bald cypress trees, the Queens were enjoying the Greg's Blue Mist flowers. The underside of the wings of Queen butterflies looks a lot like the underside of the Monarch's wings.

The dorsal or upper wings look very different from the underwing, and different too from the upperwings of the Monarchs which are shown in the photograph below.

Monarchs warmed up in the sun and became animated. Amanda Fulton took this photograph and the one below during the afternoon of the next day.

When sufficiently warmed up the Monarchs were very active, and each time a new butterfly would arrive on the branch, the others that were already there would exercise their wings, or fly away a short distance and return to settle down. Amanda caught them in the midst of a period of activity.

While watching the Monarchs, I noticed some activity on the Frost Weed blooms, (Verbesina virginica) and took some pictures, which was not easy because they were moving so fast. I managed to catch this very small native green bee which I believe is a Green Sweat Bee of the Family Halictidae, (Augochloropsis metallica). They are quite small, only 9 mm long (3/8 of an inch), and they are the  most brilliant metallic green imaginable.

This Honey Bee is enjoying a drink of nectar and perhaps some pollen from the Frost Weed flowers.

There is a lot of interesting activity around the flowers, trees and grasses at this time of the year. Take a child, spouse, friend or grandchild out to investigate, or go by yourself, -- and have fun! Before long we'll have cold weather, and the insects and spiders will be less active.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Grasses Workshop on Oct 11, 2008

A group of enthusiastic students, most of them landowners, met on Saturday morning, October 11, for a workshop on identifying the important native grasses of the Texas Hill Country. We want participants to understand their importance for land and water conservation as well as for ranching.

The lack of moisture in the last 12 months has impacted our grasses. Last year our grasses were tall and plentiful. This year's grasses are not as tall, thick or robust. The grasses are here, but it is a bit harder to find some of them.

I have taken the liberty of including pictures from the fall of 2007, and that information will be included in the caption if they weren't taken in the last week.

This was an 8 hour workshop, so participants arrived around 8 AM and signed in, put on name tags, got their handouts which included a packet of information and a notebook to tape specimens in as a reference collection. The morning session started with a Power Point by Steven Fulton, the ranch biologist, explaining the difference in the growth pattern of grasses compared to the broad leaf plants (wildflowers, shrubs and trees). Grasses grow from the green portion at the base of the grass plant near its roots. Grazers can eat the top of the plant which doesn't hurt it, and actually stimulates it to grow. Broad-leaf plants grow from the outer tips of its stems. With a model, Steven shows what a grass flower looks like, and compares it to an apple tree blossom. He also discusses the interdependence of grasses and grazing animals.

Steven Fulton starts the workshop with a Power Point presentation about grasses.

This is a model of a typical grass floret with its glumes (at the base of the floret), lemma (the lower bract enclosing the flower of a grass floret), palea , (the upper bract enclosing the flower in a grass floret), stamen (the male, pollen producing organ of the floret), pistil (the female seed-bearing structures of a floret), and stigma (which is the part of the pistil that catches the wind borne pollen. The stigma is often long and feathery which makes it efficient at catching the pollen grains) .

Steven points out characteristics of a grass that help to identify it.

Because many grasses are short, students must get close to the ground to find the small ones. A hard-backed notebook is used for collecting grasses, which are taped into the book, and labeled. No matter how good a photograph is, there is nothing like having a pressed plant. The plant has all of the hairs and other little clues that may distinguish one grass from a similar one. A picture usually does not show the small details.

The Rainfall Simulator, J. David refers to as "The Rain Machine" demonstrates the effect of ground cover on the quality and quantity of water available in soil from rainfall.
In the tray on the right there is a cedar (Ash Juniper) tree and virtually no ground cover. When the "rainfall" hits the bare soil it picks up particles and carries them to the jar marked Runoff and the water in it is brown. Because there are few roots to help the water enter the ground, there is almost no water in the Groundwater jar in the cedar side.
In the tray on the left side the container is full of grass plants
, and when the rain hits them the water is guided to the ground by the grass blades, where the water enters the ground and flows along the fibrous roots to become part of the Groundwater reserves and fills the Groundwater jar with clear water. Very little runoff occurs in grass tray, and so the Runoff jar is empty or has very little water in it.

In the morning we visited a range-site known as "Adobe" to look for specific grasses as well as examine the variety of grasses that grow at that site. It is one of the five range-sites on Selah. The Soil Conservation Service, which is now the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has gathered information about all the soil types, their rangesites, which includes a group of soils types, and the most common plants growing on them. For many counties this information along with aerial photographs of all of the land, is in book form. The information is also available on line. It is called a Web Soil Survey. There are instructions on how to use the site, and there is an encyclopedic amount of information available. I read about the site use, and I imagine you can find almost anything you need or want to know about your property.

A common, desirable,and beautiful grass, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) grows almost everywhere in Texas because it tolerates a wide range of conditions, temperatures, soil types, and moisture. It provides fairly nutritious grazing for cattle. It is one of the "big 4" grasses of the tallgrass prairie. (Photo taken in fall of 2007).

In this photo J. David is standing in a patch of yellow indiangrass (Sorghastrum nutans) which is taller than he is. It is a 6 to 8 foot perennial, warm season, native bunchgrass that is one of the "big 4" grasses of the tallgrass prairie. Its seeds provide food for wildlife. (Photo taken in fall of 2007).

This close up of the flowers on the seed head show why it is such a beautiful grass. (Photo taken in fall of 2007).

The last of the "big four" grasses of the tall grass prairie is big bluestem (Andropogon gerardii) a 3 to 6 foot tall grass with seed heads that are frequently referred to as turkey-foot because they often divide into three parts. Cattle prefer big bluestem to almost any other grass. Range managers sometime refer to it as a "candy grass", and if cattle are allowed to graze on it for too long it decreases in amount, and big blustem is referred to as an "decreaser" grass. Grasses that increase in an overgrazed pasture are referred to a "increasers". (Photo taken in fall of 2007).

Grass enthusiasts, like me, are thrilled to see healthy stands of big bluestem. (Photo taken in fall of 2007).

We have a large collection of the important grasses in pots for our students to look at and study. During the workshop they are on the rail of the front porch at the Center.

When out in the field it is sometimes hard to keep track of all the different grasses. John, one of our grass students parked his vasey grass (Paspalum urvillei) in his mouth while collecting some bushy bluestem (Amdropogon glomeratus).

Eastern Gamagrass (Tripsacum dactyloides) likes heavy moist clay soils, and their presence on the edge of the water aid in preventing erosion. The red tassells are the male flowers while the female flowers have a fuzzy filament and are located at the bottom of the flowerhead, near the main stem. The male portion falls off, leaving the seeds of the female portion that looks like corn kernels stacked in a column. Cattle love this grass, and will kill it through overgrazing. (Photo taken June 15, 2007).

Broadleaf woodoats, sometimes called creek oats or inland seaoats, (Chasmanthium latifolium) is a beautiful native grass that grows in shady places in sand, loam or clay. It is one my favorite grasses, and there are patches of it along the Nature trail between Madrone Lake and the Center that I look for each year to see how they are doing. (Photo taken in fall of 2007).

Tuesday evening, October 14th, a large group of Johnson City residents interested in grasses and grass art, gathered at the Johnson Settlement Area to see the new grass demonstration plots planted by the Johnson City Master Gardeners.

The individual grasses in the plots are indicated by plaques beautifully illustrated by Susan Evans, a Master Gardener, and artist, and a regular volunteer at the Bamberger Ranch. The original artwork was hung on the wall of the exhibit center.

Dr. Barron Rector, a Texas A & M University professor and rangeland ecologist talked about grasses, and their place in the history of our region.

He ended his talk by reading the following piece:

In Praise of Bluegrass by John James Ingalls (1833-1900)

John James Ingalls was Senator from Kansas from 1873 to 1891. This address of his was printed in the Kansas Magazine in 1872. (
The speech was written before Kentucky bluegrass was in Kansas. The “bluegrass’ referred to the bluestems of the tallgrass prairie).

Grass is the forgiveness of nature -- her constant benediction. Fields trampled with battle, saturated with blood, torn with the ruts of cannon, grow green again with grass, and carnage is forgotten. Streets abandoned by traffic become grass-grown like rural lanes, and are obliterated. Forests decay, harvests perish, flowers vanish, but grass is immortal. Beleaguered by the sullen hosts of winter, it withdraws into the impregnable fortress of its subterranean vitality, and emerges upon the first solicitation of spring. Sown by the winds, by wandering birds, propagated by the subtle horticulture of the elements which are its ministers and servants, it softens the rude outline of the world. Its tenacious fibres hold the earth in its place, and prevent its soluble components from washing into the wasting sea. It invades the solitude of deserts, climbs the inaccessible slopes and forbidding pinnacles of mountains, modifies climates, and determines the history, character, and destiny of nations. Unobtrusive and patient, it has immortal vigor and aggression. Banished from the thoroughfare and the field, it bides its time to return, and when vigilance is relaxed, or the dynasty has perished, it silently resumes the throne from which it has been expelled, but which it never abdicates. It bears no blazonry or bloom to charm the senses with fragrance or splendor, but its homely hue is more enchanting than the lily or the rose. It yields no fruit in earth or air, and yet should its harvest fail for a single year, famine would depopulate the world.

The primary form of food is grass. Grass feeds the ox: the ox nourishes man: man dies and goes to grass again; and so the tide of life, with everlasting repetition, in continuous circles, moves endlessly on and upward, and in more senses than one, all flesh is grass.

The full moon rose as the talk was finished. It was a beautiful evening followed by a rainy day in which the ranch got a bit over 2 inches. What a blessing!

A very fine Field Guide to the Grasses of the Texas Hill Country by Brian and Shirley Loflin is available and we highly reccommend it. It features the most important grasses in our region, and has beautiful photographs, some of which were taken here at Selah.

There is a website available for a list, pictures, glossary and keys for the Grasses of Texas.

Photographs were taken recently unless indicated otherwise. All were taken by me, except one that I'm in was taken by J David. The illustration of the "Rain Machine" was drawn by me for the book about the ranch, "Water From Stone" by Jeffrey Greene and published by Texas A&M University Press in 2007.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Ragweed, Part 2 (Plants That Make Us Sneeze)

On September 22nd I published a post from the table in our Rotary Hotel room in Houston. I didn't have my iPhoto Library there and so didn't have many of the photographs I had taken for the post, so here they are in PART 2. I also took a few this morning which are included.

The outstanding characteristic of the Ragweed group of plants is that their flowers don't look like flowers as we usually think of them. The flowers that stand out have colorful petals in many interesting shapes, and some yellow pollen on stalks in the center, along with the female part which is called the pistil, which is made up of a stigma, at the top, and a style, which is a slender stalk which connects to the ovary, where the seeds will develop. The male and female flowers of ragweed are seperate and different looking but on the same plant.

I'm including some pictures of the plants in the field.

Narrowleaf Sumpweed (Iva angustifolia) is often so thick that from a distance it looks like a grass. As a matter of fact I've had people point to it and say, "Wow, you still have green grass growing."

Here at the Chiroptorium there is little growing in this picture besides Sumpweed.

This photograph was taken on the seat of our truck when it was freshly picked. You can see the male flower parts hanging down in this one, but in the scan (see September 22nd post of this Blog about ragweeds) of sumpweed the flowers are not yet open.

This photo which is a close-up of the plant in the field, you can see the male flowers clearly.

Western Ragweed (Ambrosia psiiilostachya) is not a large plant (1 to 2.5 feet tall). In this photo you can see Frog Fruit in the foregound, close to the ground. Behind it are grasses. The male flower heads are on the spike at the top of the plant. The female flowers are below the stalk in the axils of leaves.

The male flowers of this Western Ragweed plant have green caps and the flowers hang below, thus allowing the pollen to fall down and pollinate the female flowers below, or be caught in the wind and blow to other plants.

Giant Ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) can be huge, and I have seen it in wet years reach more than 9 feet tall. In wet soils in creek beds, it can become a jungle. In a reference book I have, "Illustrated Flora of North Central Texas" it says that Giant Ragweed can be up to 5 meters tall (15+ feet). This year it was only 5.5 feet tall here at the ranch.

If you look at this leaf enlarged (just click on the photo) you can see yellow pollen on the surface of the leaf along the main vein in the center of each lobe. Giant Ragweed's specific name "trifida" comes from the 3 large lobes on most leaves. The Genus name "Ambrosia" is from ancient mythology and is known as a delicious tasting food of the Gods which gives them immortality. It is hard to imagine that Ragweed would be considered tasty enough to qualify as food of the gods. However, it probably refers to its tenacity as a kind of immortality for the plant. That would certainly make sense to anyone who has tried to get rid of it.

The male flowers can be so full of pollen that it falls off with the slightest breeze and the official pollen count on the evening news is up in the HIGH category.

The female flowers are greenish and look quite different than the male yellowish flowers full of pollen under their green cap. This scan has male flowers at the top half, and female flowers in the bottom half. This is a Western Ragweed plant.

Here are 5 seeds from a Western Ragweed plant. I haven't looked at enough of them to say if these are characteristic of members of the Ambrosia genus.

As the cool fronts from up north come to Texas during the fall, the amount of Ragweed pollen in the air drops and we suffer less from allergies to it. Enjoy the cool clean air while you can, because in a few months we'll have cedar pollen to sneeze to. Aaachooo!

Photos and scans are by Margaret Bamberger during September and early October.