Another clueless, airhead model

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Going, going.....

I’m at the hills. A statement I made often during my childhood to notify the parents where I would be for the day. If they seemed concerned I didn’t take note.  If I returned for water it was available from a garden hose.  I may or may not have returned for food until the day ended.  These hills were the southern extent of the Texas hill country, that geographic region of calcareous-kartz, cavernous topography from San Antonio to north of Austin and on.  My brother (and occasionally sisters) explored those hills in the days of 4-channel TV, no cell phone, no cable and no video games.  My hills uplifted to 100 feet then sloped down to the Salado Creek watershed.  My only notice of the flora at that time was to avoid the eye-level dangers of Spanish dagger yucca  (Yucca treculeana).  Trails were worn down from foot traffic and biking, offering access to our secret sites of hidden campsites and vertical caves where fear of danger was overcome by the tug of curiosity.  Shimmying down into those caves we never thought they were perfect for denning rattlesnakes.  I recall hoping to find an additional tunnel down there at 20 feet. I never did and now they are covered forever by asphalt and concrete.  




The entrance to the hills was at the bottom of my neighborhood, now a line of houses extending another 300 feet.  I entered from a cul de sac, wondering when houses will surround it.  The trail is well worn with dense overstory of cedar elm (Ulmus crassifolia) and Texas persimmons (Diospryros texana). 

It’s a western aspect, favoring drought tolerant species.  Spanish dagger and Buckley's yuccas (Yucca constricta) are interspersed among shade tolerant vines and shrubs.  

Spanish Dagger Yucca
Branches are festooned with ball moss (Tilandsia recurvata). Not a true moss but a bromiliade related to pineapple.  A western and drier aspect make for less ground cover and relatively easy hike off trail to view yuccas a little closer.  I hear birds of unknown species, taking a moment to record their sounds on my phone.  Late, I was informed they were Northern Cardinals by my biologist colleague.

Ball Moss

I move north and down slope to undulating trails which still accommodate mountain bikes and motorcycles.  Trails I too once biked on.  Prickly pear (Opuntia engelmannii) is not uncommon on this side.  Slightly less common is bird pepper (Capsicum annuum), the only native pepper in Texas and it's official state pepper.  A  velvet ant catches my attention momentarily.  Actually a wingless bee, I give it plenty of space.  According to the Schmidt sting index it rates level 3.  The highest level is 4.  A fire ant sting is rated level 1.

Bird Pepper

Velvet Ant (genus Dasymutilla
The trails are not that different now but I do notice signs of attempts by trucks to drive on them along the creek.  I try to find solace in hoping rednecks will grow bored with this endeavor and move on to other self-destructive hobbies. 

I also take comfort in that housing development won’t extend this far due to watershed flooding.  I see signs of this flooding – strewed flotsam and jetsam around trees and in the creek where my brother and I would jump into without fear of bacterial phages or bone-breaking debris.  That 4-foot dam of unknown origin is still here, defaced by graffiti but showing little degradation.  

Salado Creek

We would fish behind the dam for perch or crawdads and one time catching an American eel (Anguilla rostrata).  I doubt it exist anymore in this region of the creek.  I walk south along the creek, noting plants adapted to periodic flooding – green ash (Fraxinus pennsylvanica) and cottonwood (Populus deltoides).  The eastern side of the creek flattens out with little understory vegetation other than trees, a consequence of high velocity sheeting action from floods.  

Cottonwood on east bank of Salado Creek with Green Ash in the background
The trail is on higher ground, just enough elevation difference to favor cedar elms, live oak (Quercus virginiana), indigo bush (Amorpha fruticosa), giant ragweed (Ambrosia trifida) and horse apple (Maclura pomifera).  Again, there are signs of graffiti.  This time on trees.  I pondered that disconnection a boy or young man would have with the magnificent of nature around him.  To venture this far into the woods only to deface it is a failure of our society.  Then I notice metal tags on the trees, dozens of them with numbers. Each inscribed with a measurement in inches, probably the circumference.  A study of some kind?  Most are on cedar elms with the occasional live oak.

Indigo Bush

Live Oak.  Circumference ~ 10 feet.
I veer westward, the slightly more moisture of an eastern slope aspect promotes denser understory.  Texas persimmons with unripened fruit, guajacum (Guajacum angustifolium) and wafer ash (Ptelea trifoliata) increase.  Although the latter is not a true ash (actually a member of the Citrus family) it so named for its wafer-like seeds and ash-like leaves. 

Texas Persimmons Fruit

Wafer Ash and seeds

The ground flora diversity is sparse, mostly vines again stretching to the sunlight.  Two milkweeds, Net-leaf milkvine (Matelea reticulata) and swallow-wort (Cynanchyum barbigerum) have fruit (technically called follicles) which split lengthwise to disperse seeds to the winds on hair-like pappus.  Another vine catches my interest; it’s twining and leaf structure resemble diminutive cross-vine (Bignonia capreolata) and for just a minute I believe it. Then reality kicks in as I realize it is the non-native, invasive cat claw vine (Macfadyena unguis-cati). So named for its claw-like tendrils.  They look like chicken feet to me. 


Netleaf Milkweed Vine and follicle
Cat Claw Vine
Slope and brush increase, making me regret wearing shorts.  I trudge on, ignoring the scratches which  increasingly appear on the legs as well as accumulation of velcro-like seeds from hedge parsley (Torilis arvensis).  The forest opens to honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) and day flower (Commelina erecta).  

Day Flower

I face a wooden fence and garbage at the the pinnacle of the slope, the extent of development thus far.  I walk along it, bushwhacking through Johnsongrass (Sorghum halespense) and late blooming orange zexmenia (Wedelia texana), hoping to find calcareous outcroppings where the only known population of Sedum diffusum in Texas is growing. If I overshot it I can’t tell from the overgrowth.  I continue on my course, resigned to finding an opening in the fence line to walk back to the vehicle.  No sedum and no birdwing passionflower (Passiflora tenuiloba) to put an exclamation on the day.  Only fields of hedge nettle attaching thousands of seeds to my legs and socks. 

Orange Zexmainia

Hedge Parsley Seeds

This is the point in the story where you know I’m leading up to something.  Here it is – 

                                   ASS VINE (Funastrum cynanchoides)!!! 

 After twelve years I find it!  And not just one plant but a multitude of vines for at least twenty feet.  It had to be that plant but without a flower I need to cut it and smell the sap to be sure. Yep, smells like ass! Another milkweed, it is exceptional for butterfly nectar and a host plant for Monarch larvae.  I take a root cutting, hoping to propagate it back home.  

Ass Vine!

Now 20 feet of ass vine blocked the quickest route out.  With the fence on one side and dense thorn shrub on the other I decided to push through and tolerate the caustic searing of ass vine sap on my network of leg cuts and scratches. I found that opening – another swath of clear cut making way for drainage or is someone foolish enough to build in the path of it?  Forty years ago I walked on foot trails through this forested hill.  Now that trail is asphalt lined by houses. I’ll return this year, hoping not but knowing my childhood and hills will continue to vanish one tree at a time.