Oklahoma Grass Pink: A Texas Prairie Orchid too…

North America’s once wild Tallgrass prairie hosts an especially beautiful orchid known as the Oklahoma grass pink (Calopogon oklahomensis). The pale pink flowers are unusual among orchids because the buds do not resupinate, or rotate 180 degrees, before the flowers bloom. As a result the lip, which sports yellow ball-tipped hairs, points upward. This “fake pollen” plays a role in the ruse the species uses to fool bees into pollinating it. When lusty bees try to land on the lip they, and it, fall onto the column so that the pollen wads known as pollinia will (hopefully) stick to the bee. For this complicated deceit to work the bee has to fall for it again, depositing pollen onto the stigma, which is hidden in the fake pollen, of another flower in the process. Whew.

Botanists recognize five species in the genus Calopogon–all of them in eastern North America. The Oklahoma grass pink, which is no more than a foot tall, is (or was), found from eastern Texas and Oklahoma northward (sparingly) through the Midwest to the Great Lakes and formerly (probably very rarely) locally in the southeast.

It is, without question, my favorite prairie orchid. The blooms are exciting and exquisite floral decorations in the few dew-covered April prairies where they continue to bloom in defiance of modernity’s attempt the wipe them out.

This past April I made an unplanned stop on a seldom-traveled highway right of way in a forgotten corner of Texas and there, along the fence, in a narrow sliver of unplowed sod, I spotted the tiny pink gem ablaze in the April grass.

For over an hour I photographed it from every angle. But mostly I just sat there shocked to be looking at such a rare Texas orchid in a county where it had never been recorded. I looked for companions but I didn’t see any. Not a single car drove by to break the spell. I was alone in the April breeze with a lone orchid whose presence speaks to me of Prairie Time.

Prairie Bird Profile: LeConte’s Sparrow

Feathered in the finest prairie-inspired fashions, LeConte’s Sparrow embraces winter on the Southern Great Plains.

They often appear on the heels of the first stiff cold fronts that scream “winter is here!”–arriving from wet prairies and marshes across Canada and the northern United States where they breed. They’ll reside here ’til spring, skulking in prairies and old fields that are returning to the tall orange, red, or even silver and gold grasses that–once upon a time–grew under immense skies in a land likened by early pioneers to the ocean.

I’ve been partial to LeConte’s Sparrow for years; but I say this in whispered tones so that a few of my other favorite prairie birds don’t hear me… More on them later…

Ammodramus leconteii is one beautiful bird. The face is a rich ochre that rings with the golden glint of sunshine through its wings but displays the gray twiggy bark of stray locusts or hackberries where it seeks shelter. The dark and gray head stripes, and black eye-line, mimic the furtive shadows where it hides. The striped back and the bib are the same blonde, buff, rusty browns as the bluestem grasses. The nape is gray with thin purple streaks. It’s designed to disappear into the continent.

If you haven’t seen it–you should.

But it’s not easy to see well–a fact that only adds to its appeal. The typical view is usually of a fleeting flyaway, fluttering just above the grasses where, after a few seconds of weak flight, it succeeds in its search for freedom and anonymity.

A few fast paced chases can sometimes coax it onto a branch on the outer edge of a small tree to satisfy its curiosity about a creature so interested in it.

But don’t expect as long, or as studious, a look as you’d like. It isn’t up for that. But that’s why we bird I suppose. Maybe next time we will see it better.

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Matt White

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A Prairie Creek Fern

There’s a little wooded creek through the prairie that only runs when it rains. You can almost jump over it and there are ferns on its bank. Woodsia, Asplenium and Ophioglossum too—and a really ancient one that makes me pause for an hour or two. I can’t resist a chance to sit down beside it and stare at the two stalks that arise side-by-side; one holds a dissected leathery “leaf” that botanists call a blade; it is green now but soon it will turn bronze in the wintery gloom; the other a single stalk they call a sporophore loaded with clusters of tiny grape-like sporangia on top. This is origin of the common name: Cut-leaf Grape Fern. It’s scientific name is a mouthful—Sceptridium dissectum (or depending who you ask, Botrychium dissectum).

But the fern doesn’t care what we call it—it’s goal is to send spores sailing through the December air. I give the tiny grape-look-allies a flick with my thumb and finger and watch as yellow dusty spores are released. I wonder if the fern feels spent, like a runner after the relay?

Then I roll over and lie on my back to watch leaves fall from a giant water oak above me.

They don’t fall with resignation, or even hesitation; they fall with glee—performing—as if they’ve rehearsed for this all summer.

Better than ballet dancers; suddenly released from the clutches of the tree, they go spinning, sailing, twisting, fighting gravity in narrow—now broad—arcs during their three (or four) second return to the earth where they will lie fallow and then decompose and wait, eons I suppose, to nourish another acorn or a nut and coax it into a sapling; then—in another green day—become a leaf again to spend a summer aloft in the canopy grabbing energy from the sun and forcing it into the trunk empowering it to thrust it’s roots into the earth before it gets to fly again–a routine that happens over and over until the tree dies and collapses, spent, in a rotten heap on the bed of leaves that litter the forest, slowly releasing the sunshine from several hundred summers into the dark organic soil that rings with the same life from which we spring. And instead of a tree maybe this time it’ll become a fern from prehistoric ages that has been waiting patiently for its turn to take the stage.

Prairie Alpenglow

It’s December now. And the days have grown surprisingly short. And at dusk yesterday–the high wispy clouds in the otherwise clear western sky turned fabulously–deeply–stunningly, red by degrees, then slipped into pale shades of electric pink as the sun sank beneath the black horizon and disappeared…into the flames and the darkness below.

Prairie (or what remains of it here) is punctuated with post oaks. Ecologists call this the post oak savannah. I call it home and the trees bring shade and shelter and in winter the starkly naked branches pose black against the flaming sky and forebode and gnarl outward into ancient shapes that recall long-forgotten landscapes and howling winds or silent nights and maybe even the shadows of mythical werwolves.

Then in the deepening darkness a chill descends.

My eyes water in the cold air and Venus becomes a dash instead of a dot. I blink several times hoping to see more clearly as our planetary neighbor sinks lower into the flames beyond the dark post oak skeletons that surround the prairie.

Now the sun has vanished.

Soon Orion the Hunter will climb into the eastern sky.

“The show is over…” I think–almost aloud.

But wait…

Wait…

Wait…

It’s coming back!

Turning away from the setting sun–toward the eastern landscape–the oak branches, then the grasses, are transformed into a glowing flow of orchestral light that may come from the universe, or maybe even the land of unicorns–bringing the cosmic aura of a supernova onto the grassy hill below.

In a brief display of prairie alpenglow–perhaps the best show the prairies have to offer at this season–the day slips off gently into the long night.

Even the Sedge Wrens seem to be in awe and grow silent and cease their dry chit-chits from beneath dark grassy waves. Nighttime is almost here.

The prairie grows quiet and cold. But alive with the memory of prairie alpenglow that warms me as I trudge back home.

Prairie Grass Profile: Split-beard Bluestem

Split-beard Bluestem (Andropogon ternarius) recalls confetti-strewn ticker-tape parades or prairie snowstorms. The feathery tufts dance-dance-dance in autumn breezes–suspended in sideways sways–on clear blue days. Even more memorable is to catch these grassy cotton balls backlit by beams of late afternoon light.

Better yet submerge yourself in them and let the grassy reality surround you. Experience prairie and grassy pastures as an ant or a bird. Plunge into their depths and you’ll emerge with a new perspective; maybe even a strong belief in prairie worth sharing with others…

Occasionally mistaken for Little Bluestem, Split-beard Bluestem is named for the silvery white “split” beard, as in the photo above. An older common name was Silvery Beard Grass. I think I like it better.

It shares the genus Andropogon with Big Bluestem, one of the big four grasses, (see my previous blog on that one; Prairie Grass Profile: Big Bluestem) but is very distinctive. With its snowy beard I’ve always thought it must be the wiser one. After all the genus Andropogon means man-beard–a fitting moniker for sure!

It may not actually be wiser, but it is more adaptable.

It thrives in old pastures where broken prairies and broken dreams live together and cedars and elms have moved in with them. It’s hard not see a field full as a replacement for the once unplowed prairie, but nature abhors a vacuum and so the land needs a species that increases with disturbance. This one does it with elan; I’m sure it’s festive spirit remains unaware of its role in the ecosystem.

Prairie Responsible

It may sound strange but we have taken the prairie for granted for too long. It continues to give Texas so much. And we have given it so little in return.

Since Prairie Time: A Blackland Portrait was published in 2006 I’ve spoken probably to a hundred or more groups explaining that the rich backland prairie soil was Texas’ first black gold. It is why people came here in the first place.

It has enriched us beyond belief.

This is especially true inside the triangle formed by the I-35 corridor from San Antonio to DFW, then south along 1-45 to Houston and west along I-10 back to San Antonio which frames much of this now rare ecosystem and continues to generate considerable wealth.

Three of the United States’ top ten cities are here including Houston, San Antonio, and Dallas. But also important are Austin, Waco, Fort Worth and College Station as well as dozens of smaller towns that were built on it. Think of the esteemed institutions of higher learning that thrive here on what used to be prairie…

Prairie soil that became the rich farmland supporting cotton, wheat, corn and so much more. These in turn brought merchants and professionals and schools for all ages.

Today even the farmland and the open spaces, in addition to the few examples of original grassland that once dominated this landscape, are being replaced by concrete.

If we don’t act now there will be very little of this earlier Texas.

In fact on the outskirts of Dallas even now the machines are getting ready to destroy one of the best examples of an urban prairie in this entire region. Soon the bulldozers will push the ancient sod into piles and what has spent an eternity forming will be gone in what will be, for the crew, “just another day on the job.”

It’s been said of rare art or other precious materials that we don’t really own them–we just save them for our children or future generations. But we do not save things unless we value them.

On a happy note, thankfully there are still a few places where we can experience prairie. But without constant vigilance, and being prairie responsible, even these will disappear.

Here are some suggestions on how we can be prairie responsible and give a little back:

1. Join and support conservation groups such as the Native Prairies Association of Texas. NPAT is doing a fantastic job of preserving a few handfuls of what for Texans is our heritage. They would be happy to have your support.

2. Learn how to spot a prairie. There are still remnants waiting to be rediscovered! See my blog on the topic from earlier this year:

How to spot a prairie

3. Visit a prairie near you. Then do it again and again until you begin to hear it speak to you. Share what you learn with others on social media or at work or wherever.

4. Take a friend to the prairie. This is important because your enthusiasm and interest will be contagious. The prairie needs allies and it needs us to be prairie responsible!

To be continued…

A Prairie Gray Day

The moon rose full last night into my soul and in the darkness I felt the tide rise in my heart. The day had been warm and the air seductive.

I’ve been meaning to write this. Everyone says about the weather here in Texas: “If you don’t like it, wait a little bit–and it will change.”

But nobody ever says–and they should–“If you love the weather, don’t get used to it, it’ll soon change.”

That is has been my experience especially as we pass into the lean days when the sun sets low in the sky and air masses from the north and the south compete for dominance above us.

Gone today are the blue skies and so too are the puffy white clouds. It is November now. Anything can happen.

The mercury has fallen in the thermometer and a cold, wet cloudy sky casts its grayness upon us. A north wind howls and growls, freezing what little memories we have of summer; the all-too-brief autumn whose humid breezes recalled remnants of July sky and green leaves is gone too.

Winter is in the forecast.

The lush prairie that was only a few weeks ago blooming with yellows and blues and pinks has become as dun-colored as the desert. The tall grasses shudder in their chilly wake as we begin this long arc through space and the northern hemisphere turns away from the sun.

The grassy stems that yesterday were skyscrapers are now bent into into the same arcs as the full thrust of the polar vortex–what we once called blue northers–bears down upon them.

Already I’m looking forward to Anemone, and to Astragalus, and to the succession of whites and purples that will finally announce our trip through the months that rhyme with ember will be ones we hardly remember. The petals emerge in February, or even January if you know where to look.

I’m going to be looking…