The Western Horse Lubber Grasshopper

I met some new neighbors during my recent stay at our off-grid cabin in Big Bend — non-human neighbors to be more precise. Recent rains contributed to an active population of Western Horse Lubber Grasshoppers. These conspicuously large grasshoppers are hard to miss.

The Horse Lubber is one of the largest grasshopper species in North America. Females are generally larger than males and can grow as long as 3.5 inches. Their habitat ranges from the Chihuahuan Desert of Big Bend and Mexico all the way to New Mexico and southern Arizona.

Horse Lubbers come by their name honestly. From the side, their head resembles a horse’s head complete with a bridle. The red coloration on the underside of their hind wings earned them the popular name Mexican General because of the similar coloring to the Mexican military uniform of old.
Their black coloration with yellow racing stripes, yellow-veined wings, and yellow or orange ringed antennae make them distinctive. This aposematic coloration serves to warn predators that they are not good to eat. This coloration and a toxic chemical secretion they exude from their abdomens are their main forms of defense.

Although they are not good to eat, Horse Lubbers love to eat. They feed on the flowers, seeds, and foliage of low-growing summer desert annuals. They are also opportunistic and cannibalistic carnivores that will eat the cadavers of other insects, including their own species.

Horse Lubbers are too bulky to fly, although males can coast short distances with their slightly longer wings. Their oversized hind-legs do enable them to cover distances up to 20 times their own length in a single jump.

Because they can’t fly and move slowly, Horse Lubbers are especially vulnerable. To avoid being eaten by nocturnal ground predators, Horse Lubbers will roost at night near the tops of desert shrubs. The following morning they descend once again to the desert floor to look for food.

I don’t have a garden at Dos Arbolitos, our little place in Big Bend, so I am not worried about having so many Horse Lubbers hanging around. In fact, I rather like their presence. They remind me that I am actually the intruder in the place they have called home far longer than me. I aim to get along with all of my neighbors — Horse Lubbers included.

The Cheerful Black-Eyed Susan

I love wildflowers. On a recent bike ride down the bayou trails in Katy, my path was flanked by blankets of cheerful Black-Eyed Susan flowers. And even though this happy little plant was adopted as the state flower of Maryland in 1918, I am happy that it has found a home in the Lone Star State as well. Here are five quick facts about this sunny flower.

1. This flower has a very interesting name.
The scientific name of this flower is Rudbeckia, in honor of Olaus Rudbeck, a famous Swedish botanist who died in 1702. How cool to have a cheerful flower and not a weed named after you. As for its common name, no one really knows for certain where it came from. In some circles it is referred to as the Brown-Eyed Susan or Gloriosia Daisy.

2. This happy flower comes from a cheerful family.
The Black-Eyed Susan has the characteristics of a daisy. That’s because it is a member of the daisy family, hence the name Gloriosia Daisy. It most commonly appears dressed in various shades of yellow but also in golden and orange shades as well, each variety with its distinctive dark centers. Like a daisy, its brightly-colored petals just make me smile.

3. Native Americans found medicinal value in this plant.

Like so many other plants, the Black-Eyed Susan has medicinal value. American Indians used the root of the plant to make a tea to treat for worms. They also consumed this tea to treat cold and flu symptoms. Juice made from the root was also used to treat earaches. They processed other parts of the plant to wash sores and to treat snakebites and swelling, making this happy plant a helpful one as well.

4. This cheerful flower is attractive to pollinators.
Butterflies and bees love the Black-Eyed Susan and serve as the main pollinators of this plant. Birds, deer, rabbits, and other wildlife are drawn to this plant as a source of food. Birds especially enjoy the ripe seeds found in the eye or cone of the plant. Black-Eyed Susan also serves as a nursery. The Silvery Checkerspot butterfly lays its eggs on the plant. The petals then serve as a source of food for the caterpillars after hatching.

5. Variety is the spice of life.
The versatile and drought-resistant Black-Eyed Susan plants are at home in prairies and meadows as well as home gardens. There are an estimated 90 varieties of Black-Eyed Susan, many cultivated for use in bouquets of flowers. Varieties include Indian Summer, Goldstrum, and Denver Daisies to name a few. Cut flowers added to a bouquet of flowers will easily last a week or longer.

Spring in the Chihuahuan Desert

Evidence of spring is everywhere to be seen in the Lone Star State. This is absolutely my favorite time of the year as the state begins to yawn and stretch and to wake up after its long winter slumber, such as winter may be in Texas.

The dull of winter is starting to give away to the most amazing palettes of color. Trees are shedding their dull and shabby winter coats and putting on their finest greens. This is also the season when Texas rewards us with bouquets of bluebonnets and bunches of wildflowers.

The signature of spring is scrawled across Texas — from the Panhandle to the Rio Grande Valley and from Houston to El Paso. The vast Chihuahuan Desert in the Trans-pecos is no exception. Even there you can see the most amazing colors as wildflowers make their brief debut among chaparral and cactus.

Our Spring-break road trip to our little place in the Big Bend Valley did not disappoint. Of the five species of bluebonnets in Texas, Big Bend is home to lupinus havardii — the largest of the species. The Big Bend bluebonnet grows up to three feet tall and made a proud showing this year.

Highway 118 just north of Terlingua was flanked with the most amazing blankets of blue rising above swaying native grasses. For any true-blooded Texan, bluebonnets just do something inside of us — triggering a mixture of pride and awe and overall feeling of wow, just wow!

In addition to bluebonnets, the desert was ablaze with all sorts of color. Desert marigold added its beautiful golden hue to the desert floor. This desert beauty begins to flower in March and will continue to bloom off and on until November — a beautiful gift to an arid landscape.

Clusters of other desert beauties, including the purple mock vervain, each contribute their respective beauty to the landscape. Moisture, the desert’s alarm clock, is all it takes to wake them up and get them dressed to make their colorful appearance.

There is something soothing about wildflowers. They are good for the soul. Like old friends who happen along at just the right time, wildflowers can make us smile and just feel good about being alive. So, if you have not yet ventured out to enjoy your part of Texas, make sure that you do so as soon as possible. Enjoy the bluebonnets and the colors that make Texas even more amazing in the springtime.

The Hardy Creosote

Creosote, also known as Cresotebush and Greasewood, is one of the most common shrubs in the Trans-Pecos. This rugged survivor has earned its place in the Chihuahuan Desert landscape. Early Spanish explorers called it gobernadora (governess), likely a reference to the shrub’s dominance throughout the desert.
To say that creosote is a hardy shrub is understating its ruggedness and determination to live. Twenty of twenty-one creosote shrubs growing at the center of the 1962 thermonuclear explosion at the Yucca Flat test site in Nevada re-sprouted ten years after the blast. If the world ever gets into a nuclear free-for-all, creosote and roaches may be the only survivors.

The leaves of the shrub are covered with a sticky and smelly resin which early settlers likened to the smell of creosote, a derivative of wood tar. Hence, the name. This tar-like odor is especially strong after a rain or when the leaves are crushed. These foul-tasting resins also make the creosote of little use to man or beast in the way of foodstuffs.
Several species of insects — including beetles, praying mantises, and grasshoppers — depend on the creosote for their survival. Some of these insects, like the creosote bush katydid, are monophagous. That’s a scientific way of saying that they feed only on this plant.

Mexicans and Native Americans who have lived in regions where creosote is endemic discovered medicinal value in the creosote. They developed an antiseptic to treat everything from arthritis to saddle sores, minor cuts and bruises, and bites on both themselves and their animals.

According to Native American and Hispanic folk traditions, tea made from creosote leaves were widely used to treat colds, stomach problems, gas pains, and more. In 1962, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning against the internal use of creosote-based products.

Desert dwellers also found other uses for creosote. Hispanics of the Big Bend region used the roots of the shrub to dye blankets brown. The Apache applied the plant’s sticky gum to wounds to stop the bleeding. Southwestern tribes made a glue from the sticky substance that they used to mend pottery and to waterproof baskets. And, because the resinous leaves ignite easily, they are useful for starting cooking fires.
Desert survival is not easy for humans, animals, or plants. So, the next time you are in Far West Texas and see creosote shrubs carpeting the landscape all the way to the horizon, reflect for a minute on what it takes to make it in such a tough environment. Although not the prettiest bush on the landscape, creosote is worthy of a little respect.

Purple Prickly Pear

At first glance, the Chihuahuan Desert appears as little more than a vast ocean of undulating waves of creosote crashing against striking outcrops of silhouetted bluffs along the distant horizon. The desert is, however, much more than that. Those who take the time to look beyond the ubiquitous creosote will discover a botanically rich and colorful environment bursting with life.
Most folks are familiar with the prickly pear, one of the most easily identifiable plants in the Trans-Pecos. There is, however, a variety of prickly pear that is found only in the Big Bend region of the Lone Star Stare — the purple prickly pear. Its scientific name is opuntia azurea. Spanish speakers call this distinctive cactus coyotillo or nopal coyotillo.
Because the purple prickly pear is endemic to the Big Bend region, it is also referred to as the Big Bend prickly pear. Intensely beautiful yellow flowers grace this plant from March through May and then are followed by juicy and edible red/purple fruits. As the plant ages, its long spines turn from golden or reddish to almost black.
I recently found several purple prickly pear plants at Dos Arbolitos, our little place in the Big Bend Valley region of Terlingua Ranch. I am working to identify all of the plants, shrubs, and trees on our property and am committed to learning how to nurture and care for them. Having purple prickly pear on our acreage is an added bonus.

If you have an opportunity to visit the Big Bend region of Texas, take the time to walk slowly along hiking trails and look for the small things that make the Chihuahuan Desert a really beautiful place. I think you will agree that there is much more to the desert than you ever realized.

The Strawberry Cactus

I am struck by the singular beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert. I really can’t explain why. It’s just something I feel deeply inside — something that causes me to be silent and, for lack of a better word, reverent.

While some may look at a vast desert landscape and regard it as nothing more than a hard and mournful kingdom of sand and rock and shrubs, it is indeed much more than that. The desert is a canvas on which the beauty and resilience of life is on display.

Anything that can survive and even thrive in the desert has my deepest respect and admiration. It is these survivors that each lend their respective beauty to the desert, some in ways more obvious than others. Among my favorites is the strawberry cactus.
The strawberry cactus is one of the most beautiful of desert plants. Its name is derived from the strawberry-flavored fruit that it produces. Its appearance has also earned it numerous aliases, including strawberry hedgehog, hedgehog cactus, porcupine hedgehog, straw-colored hedgehog, and pitaya.
While the desert intimidates other plants, the strawberry cactus is at home in the harsh environment of the Chihuahuan Desert. This hardy specimen can be found in most areas of Big Bend, from the low desert to mountain slopes as high as 5,000 feet.
The strawberry cactus grows in clumps that can be several feet in diameter. Throughout spring and early summer, these clumps are adorned with large and colorful flowers. The distinctively beautiful magenta flowers make the strawberry cactus easy to identify.
The reddish-purple fruit of the strawberry cactus ripens in July. Before eating it’s important to remove the thorns. The fruit has a tart-flavored taste that is similar to that of strawberries, hence the name. The fruit of the strawberry cactus has been a favorite of desert-dwellers for generations.
The next time you drive across the Chihuahuan Desert make it a point to look more carefully at the plants that call this wide part of Texas home. They are there because they are tough — and they each make a special contribution to life in the desert. Look carefully and you too will see a distinctive and singular beauty in desert places.

5 Facts About Red Buckeye

If you enjoy hiking in East Texas, you have likely seen the red buckeye on your treks. This handsome shrub shows off its clusters of firecracker-shaped blooms from March through May and then drops its leaves by summer’s end. This red-flowered plant also has a yellow-flowered cousin that can be found along streams in the western part of Texas. Red buckeye is named for the color of the flowers and the similarity of the seed to a deer or buck’s eye.
1. Red buckeye is a shrub with an alias.

Like other Texas plants, the red buckeye is also known as scarlet buckeye and as the firecracker plant — for obvious reasons. When in bloom, the red buckeye produces a cluster of tubular-shaped flowers that resemble firecrackers. This makes it easy to identify this shrub when hiking through our state parks.
2. Red buckeye is a beast.

While beautiful to behold, this beauty is a beast that packs some powerful poison in its seeds. Indigenous peoples crushed the seeds and put them in water in order to stupefy fish to make it easier to catch them. The toxin-packed seeds of the red buckeye have also killed cattle who feasted on them.
3. Red buckeye is favorite of hummingbirds.

While the toxicity of this plant poses a threat to humans, cattle, horses, and sheep, it is a favorite of hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. Even squirrels like to feast on the nuts produced by this leafy plant.
4. Red buckeye can help you clean up your act.

Indigenous people were really genius people who discovered more than the harmful side of shrubs and plants. Native Americans produced a foaming soap from the roots of the red buckeye as well as a black dye from the wood. Pretty clever stuff.
5. Pioneers found medicinal value in the red buckeye.

Native Americans and early pioneers made home remedies from the bitter bark of the red buckeye. Poultices were used to treat infections and sores. Like other plants, the red buckeye helped meet needs of both native Americans and early settlers who lived in the days before the conveniences we enjoy today.

Prairie Heritage Festival

The Prairie Heritage Festival is an annual event hosted by the Coastal Prairie Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists. This free, fun, and family-oriented event is held each year on the first Saturday in November at Seabourne Creek Nature Park in Rosenberg.
If you have never visited Seabourne Creek Nature Park you should add it to your list of places to visit when you are in or near the greater Houston area. This park is maintained by the Coastal Prairie Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists and is fast becoming a great place to educate folks about what this part of Texas looked like before settlers arrived.
The Prairie Heritage Festival features a number of guests who man booths with hands-on activities, live animals, crafts for kids, informative displays about plants and critters of the Coastal Bend region, glimpses into pioneer life, info on our state parks, and much more. If you love the outdoors then you will love the Prairie Heritage Festival.
I enjoyed strolling from booth to booth to look at the various displays and ask questions. I learned some interesting stuff about cavity-nesting birds like bluejays, learned about butterflies, came face to face with a few snakes, an interesting little owl, and other wildlife. I especially enjoyed watching the kids interact with these critters.
I am grateful for the Texas Master Naturalists and all that they do to promote learning about our beautiful region of the Lone Star State. Seabourne is the perfect setting for this event. The master naturalists maintain an area in the park that shows what prairies along the coastal bend used to look like — a great place to learn about the native plants that give prairies their iconic look.
The master naturalists also teach about how we can all do our part to preserve, restore, and recreate native plants. You can even purchase prairie grasses and plants at the festival to plant in your own yard. My wife is determined to bring the prairie to our own backyard. I’m ok with that. And, be sure to visit the butterfly garden at Seabourne. All of the plants that attract butterflies are labeled so that you can know what to plant to start your own butterfly garden.
Be sure to save the date for next year’s Prairie Heritage Festival on your 2018 calendar. You can also learn about other fun and family-oriented events sponsored by the Coastal Prairie Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists by visiting their website.

Beach Morning-Glories

I am a big fan of hardy Texas plants — the kind that stubbornly display their beauty under the toughest of conditions. And when it comes to hardy plants in the Lone Star State, the beach morning-glory has definitely earned its place on the list. This is one tough yet essential plant that plays an important role on Texas beaches.
Beach morning-glories thrive in one on the most hostile environments in Texas — our beaches. This blossom-yielding vine is unaffected by the scorching heat, strong winds, and salt water along the 367 miles of Texas coastline. Regardless of what the Texas coast throws at this plant, it continues to thrive.
On a recent trip to Mustang Island State Park near Corpus Christi, beach morning-glories were on full display under overcast skies. The rain soaked dunes at the park were draped with beautiful morning-glory vines. These fast-growing vines can reach lengths of thirty feet. They play a key role in stabilizing sand dunes by sending their roots deep into the sand.
There are several species of morning-glories. The particular species I saw at Mustang Island was the Ipomoea pes-caprae also known as railroad vine, bayhops, and goat-foot because the two-part leaves resemble the footprint of a cloven hoof. This species produces a beautiful deep pink or fuchsia bloom.
Beach morning-glories bloom from April through December along Gulf Coast dunes and beaches. They add beauty to our Texas beaches while providing the essential service of stabilizing sand dunes and the barrier islands that protect the Gulf Coast. Look for this beautiful Texas wildflower the next time you take a stroll down one of our Texas beaches.

The Passion Flower

One of the things I enjoy most about traveling Texas backroads is the opportunity to see so many wildflowers on display. There are few things that will cause me to pull over to the side of the road quicker than the beckoning beauty of wildflowers. That’s why I keep my handbook of Texas wildflowers in my truck for easy access.
On a recent road trip that took us trough Marathon in far west Texas, my wife and I stopped to chat with the owner of a really cool bed and breakfast — styled in quintessential adobe accented with the vibrant colors of the southwest. A stroll through their courtyard garden brought us face to face with the beautiful passion flower.
The passion flower is one amazing flower, the product of a herbaceous vine that crawls and climbs with its auxiliary tendrils. This vine produces a showy flower and a fruit with edible pulp. When split open, the inside of the fruit resembles the inside of a pomegranate. Delicious! Reminds me of mangosteen which I first enjoyed in Cambodia.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the passion flower is how it got its name. According to legend, a Jesuit priest discovered the vine in Peru in 1620. He was so captivated by the beauty of the flower that he had a vision in which he associated the components of the blossom with the passion Christ.
The Jesuit suggested that the ten petal-like parts of the flower represented the ten disciples (excluding Peter and Judas). The five stamens represented the wounds Jesus sustained in the crucifixion. The stigmas represented the nails and the fringe of the flower represented the crown of thorns. Additionally, he suggested the leaves were reminiscent of the Roman spear and the tendrils of the Roman whip. Thus the name — passion flower.

The passion flower is also known as the Maypop, a name that comes from the hollow, yellow fruits that make a popping sound when crushed. Regardless of the name, however, one thing is certain — this is one magnificent flower. There are more than 500 species of passion flower, any of which would make a wonderful addition to any garden. I’m certainly glad that the passion flower made its way to Texas — just one more beautiful thing to behold in the Lone Star State.