Night of the Living Dead

With the full moon rising high into the midnight sky I recently visited one of my favorite prairie wildflowers. I brought along two lights, a tripod and a camera, as well as my iPhone—which has a camera of course—in a quest to photograph Wide-leaf False Aloe (Manfreda virginica subspecies lata) by moonlight.

Wide-leaf False Aloe under a June full moon awaiting a pollinator that likely will never show up.

Midnight may seem an odd time to photograph prairie wildflowers but I wanted to experience the spicy sweet nighttime aroma (similar to a Gardenia or the Mexican Tuberose Polianthes tuberosa) it uses to attract nocturnal pollinators.

Without pollination the flowers of Wide-leaf False Aloe are unable to set fruit and make seeds which prevents prairie conservationists from restoring it to grasslands where it once occurred.

More importantly I wanted portray this beautiful prairie wildflower and the peril it faces. Over the past century and a half probably 99 percent of its habitat has been plowed up. Although the evocative fragrance still wafts across the grassy darkness in late May and June, it is probably in vain at the few sites where it still exists. Apparently the hawkmoth, or maybe even the bat, that once did this valuable service is no longer present. After they bloom the flowers just wither without setting fruit. I have visited a half dozen sites over the past twenty years and have never seen a fruit. I have heard rumors that they may still set fruit but it is curious that nearby populations of American False Aloe, which occurs from Florida north to Virginia and Ohio then west to Missouri and south to eastern Oklahoma and Texas, readily set fruit…

Although several of the twenty-five to thirty species in the genus Manfreda (most of which are found in Mexico and Central America) have showy flowers—the tepals of both American False Aloe and Wide-leaf False Aloe remain tightly closed around the protruding stamens and the white, sticky three-lobed stigma. The herbaceous leaves, and more importantly, the fact that the entire plant doesn’t die after flowering, led British botanist Richard Anthony Salisbury to name them Manfreda in 1866.

Wide-leaf False Aloe, however, was not even collected until 1948–in Oklahoma. Initially the specimens were assumed to be American False Aloe, until three years later when it was discovered in Texas in a Grayson County prairie south of Sherman. Lloyd H. Shinners—the iconoclastic botanist at SMU in Dallas—examined these Texas specimens and recognized at once the uniqueness of the short, wide leaves and named them Agave lata in the journal Field and Lab.

The title page of Shinners’ 1951 description of what we now call Wide-leaf False Aloe (Manfreda virginica subspecies lata). Shinners thought the flowers resembled Agave and named them accordingly—but later changed his mind, placing them in the genus Polianthes—the garden flower with a similar powerful spicy sweet fragrance.

In his formal description Shinners noted that he visited the Texas site near Sherman in July 1951 hoping to collect fruits to add to his description, but found only withered flowers. Sadly even then this rarity was probably becoming what some have called the living dead—meaning it can no longer reproduce from seed.

Today Wide-leaf False Aloe is one of north Texas prairie’s rarest wildflowers. It hangs on in only a handful of tiny memorials that preserve the memory of the vast wildflower-laden landscapes that once covered much of northern Texas and southern Oklahoma. But it is unable to spread.

It is an under-the-radar rare plant with no formal protection; perhaps this is because so few botanists have seen it; or maybe it is because it has been doomed to a kind of taxonomic no man’s land. In her 1975 doctoral dissertation at Cornell, Susan Verhoek-Williams couldn’t find justification for treating it as a species. However in 1999 Robert O’Kennon, George Diggs and Barney Lipscomb named Wide-leaf False Aloe as a variety of American Aloe in their Illustrated Flora of North Central Texas.

Providing formal protection to rare and threatened species is hard enough—but it’s an even harder proposition when the rarity in question is just a subspecies or maybe not even a species at all…

An increasingly rare sight! Wide-leaf False Aloe holding court on a north Texas prairie.

A couple days later I visited two more sites on a hot afternoon in early June. At the first site I went—where there had been dozens not so long ago I found not a single one. But, at the second site, swaying ever so easily on a thin stalk held aloft above the eastern gama grass was a single flowering panicle of Wide-leaf False Aloe. A generation ago there had been a few dozen there too. But I could only find one. Spreading the dense grass with my hands I found another roseate or two sheltering from the sun in the dense green grass. We have so much to learn. And so much to save.

Frosted Elfins: Prairie Butterfly

If there’s any joy in all of this current madness—at least for those of us inclined toward the natural world—it is in the knowledge that by staying put, and peering even deeper into the nature of our own backyards and our neighborhoods, we can walk over familiar spaces and still make new discoveries. Happily, discovering the natural world is not at odds with social isolation. In fact, being alone in nature, and safely distanced from others, is a great escape from the mad world raging all around. It can open a small window in the world of lost world of prairie time.

In prairie time, wherever thunderstorms and raging fires conspired to create expanses of tall grassy wildness, and where wild indigo‘s or lupines bloomed in April breezes, a dark, tiny dancer darted among them, flitting this way and then that, nervously, inauspiciously—but beautifully; pausing occasionally to rest or to perform butterfly ballets atop stalks of dead and long forgotten remnants of summertime blossoms.

And it was here that the nickel-sized frosted elfin staged performances in the earliest spring dewberry meadows—from Texas to New England—that opened in this fresh green breast of the New World, as F Scott Fitzgerald put it.

And it was here too—a short walk behind our house—that I watched a couple dozen or so swarming in an old pasture after not having been farmed in perhaps 75 years.

Swarthy, and from a distance—without a second glance—easily passed off as just another dusky wing the Frosted Elfin begs to be seen closely but must be chased to do so. The wings are dark brown, with black shadows, and copper, bronze and rufous pixels mixed with silver slashes—especially on the hind wing—and big dark eyes with white eyeliner and dark eyelashes that that combine to create an artful, if ancient Egyptian, facial expression. The antennas are black and white striped with red tips like match sticks—wow!

Over the next few days I watched them every afternoon, noting the way they danced among the dead grasses and the yellow bush pea (Baptisia sphaerocarpa) their larval food plant. The world outside seemed far away and for those moments I am thankful.

Pioneer Prairie Obituary

Pioneer Prairie in Mesquite is no more. The big machines are busy erasing every trace of the steep hillsides and the topography of that ancient prairie.

A month ago they shaved the grasses and the trees and the topsoil. Soon a giant warehouse will sit astride the site.

For at least half a century, prairie enthusiasts have visited this 100 acre tract at the corner of Interstates 30 and 635 in Mesquite hoping it be set aside as a legacy to our past.

When I was about ten years old I read an article published about her in the old Dallas Times Herald. This was probably my first introduction to the idea that land that had never been plowed provided a tangible link to another time.

It sparked my imagination. But since I never knew her exact location, I was never able to get to know her.

Years later I passed by and recognized the grasses and wildflowers as indications of an earlier time, so I introduced myself and spent twenty years roaming her steep slopes. I am thankful for those years. I have a wealth of memories (and photos) I hope to share eventually as memorials to a place that existed once where it was not wanted or appreciated; it’s deep black soil–its very soul–a loathsome wildness that needed taming.

The poet Hart Crane wrote about “a sail flung into April’s inmost day.” I think about those words when I recall the humid afternoon these photographs were taken on that grassy knoll–no not that one–a few years ago. It’s a lost landscape now. Gone forever.

Often growing on gullied and eroded prairies and outcrops of limestone, Pioneer Prairie hosted the beautiful Woolly Loco, Oxytropis lambertii, here at the very eastern edge of its range from the Rocky Mountains out into the Great Plains.

Closely related to the milkvetch family in the genus Astragalus, it is distinguished by minor floral details. I love the color and the way the clusters of bonnets swing in the breeze atop those little stalks.

This April they will not return like they have for centuries. It’s a shame.

Good bye to a prairie!

Dear Prairie Fans,

I’ve been trying to say this for a while now… 2019 was tough.

We lost a prairie that I was very close too. My wife Kristin grew up about a mile away…

For over twenty years we watched the seasons change there. My children grew up roaming it and together we pondered the grassy expanse and photographed the beautiful blossoms…

And then one day the machines showed up and did what our species does best–conquered nature. It’s funny, but in all the contests that make story-telling so gripping, the one that pits humanity against nature seems so unfair to me. In order to have a happy ending, every single generation must take on Mother Nature and win–over and over and over.

I’m still not sure it has sunk in. This March there will be no Astragalus crassicarpus on those eastern gama hills. No tiny trout lilies to exalt the senses. No milkweed for the monarch butterflies. This summer there will be no coneflowers, no penstemon, and no rattlesnake master either. This fall no sunflowers, no asters, and no switch grass will swish in the breeze. There will be no more chances for discovery.

Future generations lost another place to explore–wide-eyed with wonder–a tiny remnant of what this state once was. Another generation on the earth took on another remnant of this beautiful little planet and without much ado another little prairie disappeared–erased for all time.

I wish that were the end of it, but it is not. I watched another prairie poisoned so the hay will have only grasses and no flowers for the cows to chew. It is still hard for me to talk about.

But the news was not all sad in 2019.

Several of you worked tirelessly to secure another globally rare Silveanus Dropseed prairie and insure that it won’t be erased. Whew! From the bottom of my heart thank you Jason, David, Pat and Kirsti!

And I can’t forget Terri and Leigh Ann whose single-minded opposition to losing that one prairie forged them into a force to be reckoned with. I am glad they are on our side…

And in late July, at the request of my very dear friend Leigh Ann Ellis, I started blogging about prairies. I am so thankful that so many of you have read my writing and wish to see prairies outlive us. Prairies need you. They need cheerleaders and advocates to stand up for them. Let’s see what we can do for prairies together in 2020!

Thank you!

Matt White

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.

For more updates and other prairie stuff please follow me on Twitter:

Matt White


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…



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…