Arboreal rat snake

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When it saw me in the garden, this rat snake decided to retreat to the trees.  Unfortunately it chose to scale a winterberry holly that is only about seven feet tall.

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Mole cricket

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While driving down our lane, I noticed a large, dark insect scuttling across the dusty gravel.  It proved to be a mole cricket.  As a child, I used to catch mole crickets in our garden in southwestern Iran, but I haven’t seen one in decades.  This was like meeting an old friend.

There are several mole cricket species in the southeastern U.S., including some introduced species that are agricultural pests.  I think this may be the native Neocurtilla hexadactyla (northern mole cricket), but I let it go instead of collecting it for definitive identification.

Houston: Mercer Botanical Gardens (Six on Saturday #32)

Mercer Botanical Gardens are located north of downtown Houston, very close to George Bush Intercontinental Airport.  I had visited the gardens once before, about seventeen years ago, but remembered very little, so during our recent trip to Houston, I took the opportunity to renew my acquaintance.

I had forgotten about Hurricane Harvey.  During the flooding last year, the gardens were submerged under eight feet of muddy, polluted water.  Clearly the floods did a lot of damage, and just as clearly the gardens employees and volunteers have been working very hard to repair the damage. This article from the Houston Chronicle describes the devastation, and a google image search will show you what the gardens once were.  These six pictures will give you a little taste of what the gardens are now, and a hint of what they will be again.

1.  Dead palm tree

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Some of the garden grounds were still closed off, and in the open areas damaged plants were still visible.  After the flooding, last winter included an unusually prolonged cold spell in the Houston area, which probably did not help the tender palms.  Virtually all of those that were still alive had damaged fronds, but that damage is temporary.  I’m not sure if this palm tree was left in the ground because the staff had been overwhelmed, or if they were waiting to see if it might resprout.

2.  Zephyranthes (rain lilies)

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Many of the plants that seemed to be in the best conditions were tropical bulbs and rhizomes, particularly those that tolerate wet soil (crinum, gingers, etc).  Presumably, these plants resisted being washed away by the flood, and any top damage was easily replaced.  I saw an enormous clump of Hymenocallis caribaea, unfortunately not blooming, that was in prime condition, but the best flowers were on these unlabeled Zephyranthes.  They were blooming all by themselves in a rock garden area that appeared to have been recently renovated but not yet replanted.

3-5. Tropical shrubs and trees

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Erythrina crista-galli, one of the parents of Erythrina x. bidwillii

Although many of the beds are thus far, still fairly barren, splashes of color from vigrous perennials and fast growing tropical trees and shrubs hint at how spectacular the gardens will be again in a few years.

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Huge, hot-pink flowers of Lagerstroemia speciosa
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Stachytarpheta mutabilis (coral porterweed)

6.  Anolis sagrei (brown anole)

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The gardens were swarming with little brown anoles.  A. sagrei is native to Cuba and the Bahamas, and it is an invasive species in the southeastern U.S.  where it often replaces the native Anolis carolinensis (green anole).  My parents’ garden south of Houston still has green anoles, but I didn’t see a single native lizard at Mercer.

So, that’s Six on Saturday and a very brief look at Mercer as it is now.  For more Six on Saturday, head over to the blog of The Propagator, who started this weekly exercise and collects links from other participants.

Houston: Brazos Bend State Park

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This week we traveled to see family in Houston.  While there, we visited two places that may be of interest to readers of this blog:  Brazos Bend State Park and Mercer Botanic Garden.

Brazos Bend State Park is a 4897-acre park on the banks of the Brazos River in rural Fort Bend County, about 45 miles from downtown Houston.  It contains prairie, bottomland forest, and various wetlands, and it is one of my favorite places to visit in the Houston area because of its varied wildlife.

The primary appeal of Brazos Bend–at least for our family–is the large population of American alligators (Alligator mississippiensis).  On a warm summer day, they are everywhere.

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Be careful if you decide to sit on a log.
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And pay attention if you go down to the water’s edge.
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Don’t dabble your fingers or toes in the duckweed.

In the winter, we sometimes don’t see any, but this week was hot (95 F) and very, very humid–perfect weather for gator viewing.  The kids stopped counting at thirty.

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The rangers recommend that visitors stay 30 feet away from alligators.  That can be difficult when they park themselves beside the trail.

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Discretion is the better part of valor, and it is usually best to turn down another trail. Nevertheless, some people get a bit too close:

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I prefer to trust in a good zoom lens.

In addition to the alligators, there is a lot of other wildlife in Brazos Bend.  On past visits, we have seen armadillos and feral pigs, but this year all of our sightings were in and around the water.  We saw three red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) laying eggs and a fourth lumbering across the path, probably on its way to build a nest or returning to the water after finishing.  We didn’t bother to count the turtles in the water.

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Red-eared slider on her nest.

There were also a wide variety of water birds, including:

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Black-bellied whistling duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis)
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Common gallinule (Gallinula galeata)
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A black-crowned night heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) who looks as though it is up to no good.
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Green heron (Butorides virescens).  There were also a number of little blue herons (Egretta caerulea), but none held still for a photograph..
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Great egret (Ardea alba)
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A bedraggled anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) drying itself after a swim.

Just about the only animals we saw that weren’t aquatic or semi-aquatic were the golden silk spiders (Nephila clavipes) that had spun their webs along (or across) the trail in wooded areas.

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We also saw some of the same animals a little closer to home.  One morning, I strolled down to the spillway near my parents’ house, where the neighborhood lake drains into Oyster Creek.  A handsome family of black-bellied whistling ducks was sheltering on top of the spillway.

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Mama duck was keeping all of the ducklings tucked under her wings, probably because several herons were skulking nearby, ostensibly fishing but probably keeping an eye open for stray ducklings.

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Great blue heron (Ardea herodias)
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Black-crowned night heron

The herons flew away, complaining loudly, when eldest offspring and I walked down to see what we could see in the creek, and as soon as they were gone, mama duck let the babies out.

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That’s probably enough photographs for one post.  I’ll save Mercer Botanic Garden for another day.

Six on Saturday #31, June 16, 2018

This week has been a mixed bag in the garden–some things were good, some not so good.  Let’s start with the not-so-good.

1. Fallen sourwood tree (Oxydendrum arboreum)

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A storm on Tuesday brought down a fairly large sourwood tree.  It skimmed a bluebird feeder but landed across our row of thornless blackberries.  The blackberries were supported by two strands of wire strung between to 4×4″ posts.  The wire held.  One of the posts snapped.  This afternoon, I’ll haul out the chain saw and cut up the trunk for firewood, but it’s going to be a pain in the neck digging out the snapped post to replace it.

Update:  the tree fell, because the center of its trunk was rotten and inhabited by an enormous nest of enormous carpenter ants who were not thrilled to have a chainsaw bisecting their home.  Run away!  Run Away!

2.  Japanese beetles (Popillia japonica) on pink banana (Musa velutina)

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The Japanese beetles have started their annual rampage through the soft-leaved plants in the garden.  Spraying with insecticides is contraindicated when the beetles are eating flowers that attract other insects or are on plants that we want to eat, so we wander around the garden knocking them off into a bucket of soapy water.  I’m not sure if it does much to control their population, but it satisfies the need for revenge.

3.  Tigridia pavonia

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Finally, I have a Tigridia pavonia that blooms red.  Tigridia corms are readily available in the spring, but only in packs of mixed colors.  For the last couple of years, my plants have all bloomed in shades of yellow, but this year, I got a batch that contained at least one red-flowering plant.  I had expected to treat Tigridias as annuals, but it turns out that they are fully hardy in my garden, despite cold, wet winter and heavy clay soil.

4. Fasciated Lilium formosanum

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Fasciation, or cresting, is a rare developmental abnormality resulting from overgrowth of meristem tissue.  In this Lilium formosanum, the normally cylindrical stem has turned into a flattened plate with many more (though smaller) leaves than usual.

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Most sources say that fasciation in lilies is usually a one-time event, with the bulb producing normal growth the next year.  This bulb was also fasciated last year, although the effect was less extreme.  It will be interesting to see if this is a permanent, stable condition.

Also, note the stems of the ubiquitous, weedy creeping cucumber (Melothria pendula).

5. Lilium ‘African Queen’

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First bloom for a bulb that I planted last autumn.  Flowers are nice, but the stem is floppy.  Hopefully the plant is still getting established and will improve in future years.

6.  African baobab (Adansonia digitata) seedlings

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I ran across some baobab seeds that I had forgotten about on a high shelf for the past fifteen years.  I guess they’re still viable.

I’m not sure what I’ll do with tropical trees that have the potential to grow to the diameter of a small house and live for thousands of years, but the internet suggests they are reasonable candidates for tropical bonsai.

That’s all for this Saturday.  For more Six on Saturday contributions from garden bloggers around the world, head on over to the Propagator.