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Anita’s Blog – Questions for the Universe




Do things happen sometimes that sort of defy explanation? Do you let your imagination sort out what you can't explain? Has the Universe left you with a few questions this year? Following is a series of unrelated events -- some have been resolved, a couple were simply left to the whimsy of my imagination while others remain a mystery.


Shapeshifting could possibly explain a few happenings, if you let your imagination loose . . . . Our great horned owls had a baby. When it was about nine months old, I found its wings spread across the plants on the resaca bank, without a body. I was quite sad about it. Not long after that, a cat of indeterminate age and very similar coloration to the baby owl trotted up our driveway announcing it was coming to live with us. We accepted of course because to deny a cat that has chosen you is messing with the Universe.


Shapeshifting, according to Wikipedia, is the ability to physically transform oneself through unnatural means. Shapeshifting is found in essentially every religion and mythological tradition, according to fandom.com. The concept has been used in literature, storytelling, mythology, folklore and speculative fiction quite possibly since the beginning of time, although perhaps not in nature writing. However, something with such a rich and ancient history can't be all fiction and fantasy, right?


In the following photo sequence, what if it's not just a random and intriguing placement of photos in a to-be-filed photo file on my computer desktop? What if it's something more . . . . I'll let you be the judge. The scene is at the back end of our yard where we built a photo stand overlooking the resaca and its wild banks.



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A year prior to the owl-to-cat shift, the resaca breached its bank at the end of the yard and presented us with some interesting water plants. One plant was reputed to help with water clarity so I transplanted a few to the fish pond. Herb-of-Grace, also known as water hyssop, Bacopa monnieri, gracefully and prolifically has since been providing shade for the fish and helping the water. The plant also has brought a summer full of white peacock butterflies -- and a rare sighting of black white peacock caterpillars. Herb-of-Grace is long-reaching -- literally, it sends long tendrils over the water and needs to be kept in check, but it's proven useful. So have the butterflies. Orioles and mockingbirds frequented the pond this summer, possibly plucking the caterpillars from the plants.



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“What’s eating my Texas mountain laurel?” I was asked this year. I didn’t find the answer until I was researching host plants for the pretty genista broom moth for this article.



The moth came to my moth sheet in April. It uses native plants as hosts, such as acacia (huisache, black brush, Wright's catclaw, guajillo), baptisia (wild indigos), genistas (commonly called broom), brooms, Texas mountain laurel, also crape myrtle and honeysuckle and other pea family shrubs. Another common name of the moth is Sophora worm, in reference to the native host genus: Sophora, according to BugGuide.net. Texas mountain laurel, Sophora secundiflora is listed specifically as a host plant. Perhaps the moth might also use yellow sophora, Sophora tomentosa – I’ll have to keep a closer check on my shrub. Hopefully the gentleman who asked about his Texas mountain laurel is reading this.


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No matter how I shoot it, iNaturalist.org identifies this plant (that came as a volunteer in the pot of a plant someone shared with me) as prairie broomweed, Amphyachyris dracunculoides, a fall bloomer or Texas snakeweed, Gutierrezia texana, which blooms in all seasons, according to Richardson, A., King, K. 2011. Plants of Deep South Texas: A Field Guide to the Woody and Flowering Species. Texas A&M University press, College Station, pages 85 and 103 respectively. It could be either. And it may be something else entirely. It’s a lovely, small wispy plant happy to remain in its temporary pot, blooming away in the shade of tropical sage plants at the side of the barn. It may be one for a dichotomous key to find its true identity.



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No mystery here:



Obviously, a bordered patch caterpillar crawled up our mailbox post, let itself in, spun a chrysalis on the inside of the mailbox door during the night, emerged as a butterfly and made it to the middle of the empty box to dry its wings. I discovered it in the early morning and thought it might like a drink of nectar from the Mexican hat flowers blooming under the mailbox. Newly emerged butterflies are hungry, I've read. Bordered patch caterpillars have several host plants: sunflowers, frostweed, cow pen daisies, ragweed and other plants in the sunflower family. Those plants are in the vicinity of the roadside near our mailbox, especially sunflowers. Years ago, I read that a monarch caterpillar may crawl up to 50 yards before it selects a spot where it will form a chrysalis. I could not find similar information about the bordered patch caterpillars and did read that it's not uncommon to find them attaching to the underside of a sunflower leaf.


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This six inch tall, feathery, armed twig wasn't a mystery for long. iNaturalist identified it quickly as retama, Parkinsonia aculeata, one of the prettiest, if not sharpest -- pun intended -- with its three-pronged thorn groupings.


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In 2019, I planted a Jacaranda, Jacaranda mimosifolia; it's not native, but it's beautiful. Surprisingly, it bloomed the next spring and then the Great Freeze of 2021 happened and the tree has not produced blooms since. Jacaranda is winter hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 9b to 11. The Valley is zone 10. Jacaranda is native to Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia. They bloom in late winter/early spring and into early summer.

 

One of the mysteries is, will the tree ever bloom again? Interestingly, after the extensive heat and drought of this past harsh summer, on September 7, 2023, as I was working near the tree, I spied a bit of lavender where that color shouldn’t have been -- amongst a white flowering Alamo vine. The bloom was of a fresh jacaranda flower, as if it had just fallen from the tree. I searched the ground and the tree for other blooms but saw none.



Other questions came to mind, did it really bloom in the heat of summer and did it only produce one bloom? Usually, it can take two to three years before you will see its first flowers. If the tree is grown from seed, it could take seven to 14 years before it blooms. Since mine bloomed while it was barely one year old, did it exhaust itself, I wonder? Jacaranda trees planted in full sun produce the most flowers -- ours has a standing chance. Also, jacaranda is drought-tolerant and adapts well to tough conditions; ours certainly has survived some stress.


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Some bugs are just fun looking. iNaturalist identified a bug that I’d found on the moth sheet July 22, at 5:56 a.m. It was Symphylus caribbeanus, a species of shield-backed bugs in the Scutelleridae family, a member of jewel bugs.



A note on a bugGuide.net page about this specific species indicates nymphs and adults were observed in South Carolina on fruits of yaupon, Ilex vomitoria, and in Florida on fruits of Brazillian peppertree, Schinus terebinthifoilus, a rather dastardly invasive tree that's found its way into the Rio Grande Valley. Many of the Brazilian peppertrees were killed in that week-long freeze of 2021, however, I have chopped off or dug up a couple of new growth ones on our property this year.


Shield-backed bugs are relatives of stink bugs. Like stink bugs, shield-backed bugs feed on plants, particularly members of the Asteraceae family. The bugs have sucking mouth parts that they use to suck plant juices. And what good is that to the environment is a mystery to me. Amazing how things link up though, isn't it? As for Brazilian peppertree information, I wrote a near-dissertation-length blog post about it in 2017. It is at the following link, if you’ve got the time; the information is still pertinent:

  

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On the other hand, some bugs are truly artful, however much a mystery. I'm beginning to get help in iNaturalist. At first, I got no clues. I thought it might be an exotic orbweaver. Recently, someone disagreed about it being a spider and has suggested it it is a True Bug, suborder heteroptera. Perhaps that will get attention from a species identifier.



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In another year, iNaturalist identified a fuzzy blob, such as those depicted in the two photos below, as some sort of a spider. It was hard to believe so I didn't upload the photo. I've since seen similar balls of fluff but felt pursuing their identity would be fruitless.



More appeared on my moth sheet one August morning and I uploaded them, hoping finally to find out what they could be. iNat came up with suggestions such as common pirate spider, Mimetus puritanus, and a few other things like wool-bearing gall wasp, brown widow, a lace wing species, several moths and an evening bat. The size of these objects are about 1/4 to 1/2 inch. Their identity will remain a mystery for a while longer, I suspect.

 

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For all of you who have ever taken any of my photo workshops, you know that I’m really keen to talk about noticing the background for anything that will distract from your perfect photo. This fall, at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival at the Harlingen Convention Center, I failed to follow that dictum but managed to get a classic example of not watching out for distractions. I believe the popular word is photobombing.



The gentleman in the center of the photo was standing in perfect alignment with the facility's outdoor statue of a monarch butterfly.

 

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Just for fun, if you leave a beetroot plant in the ground for two years, you can continue to get beet greens to use in omelets, frittatas, quiches and salads. The vegetable root portion becomes rather phenomenal, escapes the bounds of earth and keeps on keeping on. The one below survived the 2021 Great Freeze when it was quite young. I'd protected the row with two layers of sheets and again during the three days of freeze earlier this year.

 



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Let me round out the year with this: As the sun rises over the last day of 2023, we look forward to the mysteries and answers of a new year and trust that the rich ancient native lands of our Deep South Texas will prosper and be healthy.



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