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Anita’s Blog – Revisiting Disturbances

Updated: Feb 3, 2022

I wrote a fun poem about disturbances just before graduating from Texas Master Naturalist classes in April 2013. At the urging of one of our sponsors, I read the amusing slam-esque-poetry work at subsequent class graduations for a couple of years and published it March 2015, during the first months of Anita’s Blog:

During volunteer work on a weekly Thursday in Harlingen’s Hugh Ramsey Nature Park, where I co-chaired a team of volunteers for five years, I picked up a lot of information from our native plant gurus: fellow Texas Master Naturalist and team co-chair, Frank Wiseman, and honorary TMN member, Christina Mild, as they freely shared their knowledge. Many times, something was mentioned about disturbances. I understood the concept thoroughly and witnessed it frequently at home at the strip of land between our property and a farm field that was routinely altered with heavy equipment by the farmer. After each disturbance, I’d eventually find new and exciting native plants.

I’m still often reminded of a conversation with Christina about seeds remaining in the ground a hundred years and then after a disturbance, germinating.

Never, though, has the concept of disturbances hit home quite like it did after what happened when a freak wind event uprooted two stately trees at our roadside last summer. A large, 30-year-old sugar Hackberry tree toppled, taking with it an even older honey mesquite. Once the debris was finally removed by a professional crew and the soil smoothed over (repeatedly) with a skid steer and bucket, our roadside was pristine brown soil, finally devoid of every trace of Guinea grass, shaggy shrubs, hanging dead branches and annoying aggressive possum grape, snail seed and old man’s beard vines that had filled and overtopped the tree canopies.

It was sad to lose the old trees, although aesthetically it seemed such an improvement – but not for long. Cooler weather came; a freak walking event ended with an air boot on my right foot due to a bone fracture, curtailing any aggressive outdoor work for a couple of months. Before I knew it – the Big Skid Steer Disturbance had amassed the area with plants never before seen at our roadside: Gargantuan pigweeds taller than I, gigantic sunflowers, Santa Maria feverfew as high as a baby elephant’s eye, thicker and taller Guinea grass than ever, hundreds of sugar hackberry upstarts, cannas (of all things) and a huge crop of London rockets.

Yes, London rockets. During the past four years, when the trees were there, I’d find a spindly plant during the April City Nature Challenge bioblitz. It was that identified the plant; I was pleased one always showed up for the count of species on our property; it never lingered, though, and was gone when I’d later go in search of it.

The yellow flowers of London Rocket. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Last month, while the seeds in the disturbed soil were apparently rallying, I found a healthy specimen of London rocket in a new place, closer to the entrance to our driveway and, seemingly, four months earlier than should be. I thought it a good candidate to write about in the blog and took preliminary photos. Another week went by and then there were two London rocket plants – and now, so many more!

Countless rosettes of London Rocket shoot up in disturbed ground. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

London Rocket (Sisymbrium irio) is not native – which shouldn’t have been a surprise with a name like London and rocket. Which brings up not only the question of how these things even get to Deep South Texas but also wonderment in how they get their common name. Yes, common names are sometimes self-explanatory, like old man’s beard. London rocket put me in mind of one of the architectural icons dotting that city’s skyline in England, like London Eye, or their newest skyscraper, called The Gherkin. I would be wrong.

After blooms of London Rocket. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

According to brief research, London rocket is a plant native to Eurasia that found its way to Arizona in 1909 and the rest of the American Southwest, Mexico, Australia and beyond, including the Carolinas, then up around the Great Lakes and the eastern portion of New York.

It is in the Brassicaceae or Mustard Family. Considered a winter annual, it begins to grow and bloom in January, here in the Valley, dying out with the hot temperatures around May.

When it was first identified, I imagined the spikey branching flower tips as multiple directional rocket launches – wasn’t any sort of a connotation to anything about London in my mind. The plant’s empty pedicels around the top of the stem might resemble a lighted Fourth of July sparkler, still the name mystified me.

I eventually learned that the common name is steeped deep in London’s history – the plant apparently responds well after a fire – specifically, it is said to have been in abundance with rapid growth following the Great Fire of London in 1666, thereby garnering its name.

There are two other pretty roadside plants that are worth traveling around country roads looking for because they seem to hang around so very briefly. These two plants specifically intrigued me, not only because they are so charming but because they are so incongruent with the drabness of the surroundings in which they grow. I’ve written about these in previous posts but never as early as the first of February.

Rio Grande Valley Selenia (Selenia grandis), like London rocket, is in the Brassicaceae (Cruciferae) Family. It’s found around the edges of fields and in disturbed areas. It begins with a basal rosette of leaves then produces sprawling stems. They are a winter bloomer and found in Cameron and Hidalgo counties.* I’m already seeing them in their usual place at the edge of a farm field on a road near our property in Cameron County.

*Source: 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, page 157.

Rio Grande Valley Selenia. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

South Texas sand scorpionweed (Phacelia patuliflora var. austrotexana). These happy-looking plants never fail to bring about a smile – primarily because they are rare. They are rare in that they can present themselves one day alongside the road and then completely disappear by the next.

South Texas Sand Scorpionweed. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Their distribution is Cameron, Hidalgo and Willacy counties. (PDST page 282). They are in the Hydrophyllaceae Family, the waterleaf family, which is now considered a subfamily of the borage family. Butterflies, moths and bees are attracted to South Texas scorpion weed.

South Texas Sand Scorpionweed. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Perhaps a cause and effect of disturbed soil: this tiny one appeared in late January for the first time on our property in the disturbed soil at the entrance.



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