Arboreal rat snake

rattie_in_a_tree

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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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

dead_palm

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)

zephyranthes1

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
Stachytarpheta
Stachytarpheta mutabilis (coral porterweed)

6.  Anolis sagrei (brown anole)

Anolis_sagrei

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

gator

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 #30, June 9, 2018

This will be a quick Six on Saturday, as I’m running late.  Weather is typical for June:  currently 84 F (28.9 C), 70% humidity.  Expecting a high around 90 F (32 C).

1.  Monarda didyma ‘Jacob Cline’ with creeping cucumber

Mondarda_didyma

‘Jacob Cline’ is reputedly one of the best clones of our native scarlet beebalm.  As advertised, it seems to be very resistant to powdery mildew, but what I had not anticipated is how vigorously it spreads through moist soil.   From a single 8-inch pot, the plants have spread into a 10×20-foot clump constrained mainly by mowed paths surrounding the bed.  “Hummingbirdbalm” would be a better common name.

Even M. didyma can’t compete with the invasiveness of creeping cucumber (Melothria pendula), an annoying weed that crawls over everything and makes the flowerbed look even more overgrown and messy than it would otherwise.  The tiny cucumber-like fruits are edible when green, but they’re reported to be a powerful laxative when black and fully ripe.

2.  Gladiolus ‘Boone’

Gladiolus_Boone

Gladiolus ‘Boone’ is one of the old glads that have survived for many years around southern homesteads.  This clone was found at an abandoned site near Boone, North Carolina and is now well established in the horticultural trade.  I got mine from Niche Gardens in Chapel Hill.  It is roughly on the same scale as the yellow Gladiolus that I suspect is G. ‘Carolina Primrose,’ and is significantly smaller than my Gladiolus ‘Eno Orange.’

3. Zea mays (sweet corn)

Zea_mays

Youngest offspring brought home a single kernal of sweet corn from a “farm-to-table” field trip at school.  We didn’t have a good bed to grow it in, so I stuck it in a large pot along with some tomato seedlings.  So far, so good.

4.  Canna ‘Flaming Kabobs’

Flaming_Kabobs_again

Here’s one that I have featured before.  You get to see it again, because it is my favorite canna and is the first to bloom this year.  I was worried that it might not survive last winter, but it came through with flying colors when several other cannas succumbed to the cold and snow.

5. Verbascum chaixii (nettle-leaved mullein)

Verbascum_chaixii_yellow

Another repeat, but it isn’t easy coming up with six new plants for every Six on Saturday.   I wish my V. chaixii plants would seed around a bit, but so far I haven’t found any volunteer seedlings.

6.  Turtles!

Are we getting bored of box turtle pictures yet?  Never!  Here’s a juvenile that I almost stepped on.

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And last, but not least, turtle butt!

Turtle-butt

This lady (I assume) was trying unsuccessfully to hide under some Stokesia laevis (Stokes’ aster) in the garden area at my workplace when I went outside to eat lunch on Friday.  So, it’s in a garden, just not my garden.

I think she is a river cooter (Pseudemys concinna) looking for somewhere to dig a nest.

For more Six on Saturday, head over to The Propagator, the host of this weekly exercise.

More box turtle excitement

This evening, as I was wondering around the garden trying to decide where to plant a pot of Hippeastrum bulbs, I noticed Penelope the female box turtle in a flower bed at the edge of the woods.  She was digging a nest!

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Digging the hole.  Or, possibly, laying eggs.
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Filling it in

Almost three hours later, she has filled in the hole but is still tamping down the soil and pushing things around on the surface.  I plan to stay up until she moves on, and then I’ll cover the nest with a metal cage to protect it from raccoons/opossums/skunks.

When we saw her walking across the lawn yesterday, we didn’t realize she was an expectant mother—though that might explain why she ate her strawberry with such gusto.

Female with strawberry

Female with strawberry2

As further evidence that box turtles are successfully breeding in the garden, here’s a juvenile that my wife discovered while she was weeding yesterday.

juvenile
It isn’t an empty shell.  The owner is tucked away inside.

I am so pleased that our efforts to build an interesting and healthy landscape have created good habitat for the boxies.