If you enjoy spring wildflowers, Midlothian’s Mockingbird Nature Park is an ideal spot for sharpening your identification skills. Fellow Master Naturalist Carolyn Ross and I met there last week to photographically document the wildflowers in bloom.
Although a few Texas bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush were flowering, their seed pods were more numerous. We carefully inspected the flowering bluebonnet petals; some showed the red spot that indicates they had been pollinated.
Low-lying sensitive briers were frequently observed with their pinkish-purple clusters of stamens forming puff balls at the end of leafless stems. They are also called Shame- Boy, a reference to the frond-like foliage that closes when touched. Beware – miniscule recurved prickles cover these semi-woody trailing vines.
Two subspecies of antelope horn milkweeds were identified. Their common name is derived from the shape of their seedpods. Both sported showy creamy-green flower clusters that resemble popcorn balls on stems. Their distinguishing characteristics required close observation – one had long, thin leaves and primarily white stamens while the other’s leaves were wide ovals and the stamens were a dark purple color. Monarch caterpillars find these plants to be a particularly delectable source of food.
Fleabane also dotted the grassy meadows. They resemble miniature daisies with yellow disk flowers in the center surrounded by 150-400 white thread-like ray flowers. Their name was derived from the early belief that they discouraged fleas. That is a legend – not factual.
Our gait was slow as we weaved on and off the path, not wanting to miss one flowering specimen. Each unique blooming plant received careful inspection. Petals were counted, their shapes and colorations were noted. Leaves examined – the lengths, contours and placements observed. Typically, agreement regarding specie identification was readily achieved. After each confirmation, we put our cameras in action. Rarely were the winds still that day. They whipped the plants in all directions and turned us into circus contortionists. Click…click, adjust the setting, bend, click, crouch and click some more until a crisp image is obtained.
Our plant list grew with the addition of white gaura, stiff-stem yellow flax, blue flax, four-nerve daisy, mealy blue sage, greenthread, coreopsis, common dandelion, blue-eyed grass, prairie larkspur, silver-leaf nightshade, venus’s looking-glass, Texas star, prairie bishop’s-weed, prickly pear cactus, crameria, wine cups, showy primrose, Missouri primrose, Indian blanket and rose vervain. The floral diversity in the park was impressive.
We continued our work in a calm, professional manner until we found two plants we personally had not identified previously. Our heart rates accelerated. “What’s this? Have you seen it before?” we asked each other with rapid-fire speed. My fingers flipped page after page in the color-coded guidebook while my colleague excitedly offered detailed descriptions.
One variety formed a small colony of 2 foot-high, upright plants. The short-stalked flowers were in clusters of 2 – 6 blooms. New flower petals were an egg-yolk yellow; with age, they faded, became wrinkled and covered with brown veins. The leaves were 1 – 2.5 inches long and uniquely divided into two leaflets. The celebrating began as we read the description of the two-leaved senna (Senna roemeriana) in Geyata Ajilvsgi’s field guide, Wildflowers of Texas. The book’s photo and our specimen were a perfect match! Woo-hoo! We learned that the two-leaved senna is a good perennial for the garden and the nodding flower buds and young foliage are a larval food for the cloudless sulphur butterfly (Phoebis sennae).
Our second mystery plant was found in multiple locations with widely separated specimens. The plant is no more than 6-10 inches tall and has a shaggy look from the tiny hairs covering it. The leaves – 1-8 inches long and ¼ inches wide – bend slightly outward. One or more small, round pencil-like flower spikes or spathes rise from a cluster of leaves. The diminutive flowers are not showy from a distance; but, when examined closely, their delicate beauty appears. The spathe is covered with tiny greenish-white translucent flowers accented with rust-brown centers. How could we have overlooked this beauty earlier? It was our first identified Plantago helleri, commonly called Heller’s plantain, Indian wheat (the seeds resemble wheat) or white man’s foot. Plantain species were allegedly introduced by the colonists from the Old World and the name “white man’s foot” come from the Native American’s recognition that these plants, in contrast to the native species, grew wherever the white colonists had been. What a discovery for two Indian Trail Master Naturalists! This annual specie has been documented in only Texas and New Mexico. It serves as a host plant for the common buckeye butterfly (Junonia coenia).
We plan to return to Midlothian’s Mockingbird Nature Park for another wildflower identification adventure on Saturday, May 21. Please join us for the two-hour nature walk with Dallas Master Naturalist James Varnum, a regionally known guide, leading the expedition. The hike is sponsored by the Indian Trail Master Naturalists and is free and open to the public. For additional information, call the AgriLife Extension Office at 972-825-5175. Don’t forget to put on your closed-toe shoes, hat and insect repellent, and bring drinking water. We’ll see you at Mockingbird Nature Park, on the corner of Midlothian’s Mockingbird and Onward Roads.