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Anita’s Blog – The Sacred Battleground of a Coastal Prairie

Updated: Oct 21, 2022

Re-enactors check their weapons after a firing demonstration at Archeology Day at Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

If it was too windy, too humid, too dusty, your weapon might not fire. Such was the plight of American and Mexican soldiers who stood on these very grounds with the then-top-of-the-line weaponry – the flintlock musket – facing life and death on a coastal prairie near Brownsville, Texas, during the first major battle of the Mexican-American War.

After 176 years, the landscape where those soldiers fought has altered; the land turned to cattle ranching, which led to the spread of mesquite trees onto the prairie, which in turn, threatened the natural and cultural habitat.

And then in 1960, the land on which that long ago battle was fought was designated a National Historic Landmark, later becoming Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park, where today it is being restored to that critically endangered habitat: the Coastal Prairie. The park’s staff have been establishing natural vegetation, like native Gulf cordgrass, and working on a mesquite management plan to restore the battlefield to its original habitat.

Just 14 miles from where I live outside of San Benito, that vegetation is dramatically different than what I find along our roadsides, resacas, pastures, crop fields and scrub forests. If I want to see vegetation like miniature screw-bean mesquite, tiny salmon-colored scarlet pea, seepweeds, saltwort and other salt marsh plants, I know where to go: Palo Alto Battlefield National Historical Park and walk along the well-maintained boardwalks and trails. Archeology Day at the Battlefield last week gave me that opportunity.

Park rangers and interpretive staff, regional Texas Parks and Wildlife rangers and interpreters and kindred groups staffed more than two dozen informational booths and demonstrations.

Estero Llano Grande State Park’s Park Superintendent, Javier de Leon, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department ranger and one of the South Texas Border Chapter Texas Master Naturalist advisors, persuaded curious kids and adults alike to stick their hand in a darkened jug to feel and guess what was there to find. There was nothing to hurt anyone, de Leon assured wary participants. The contents of the jugs were clean objects found in nature, like rabbit pelts or small animal skulls. Once the object was pulled out, de Leon talked about the animals and how they lived on the prairie.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Ranger, Javier de Leon. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Texas Parks and Wildlife Ranger, Javier de Leon explains how to recognize a critter skull. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

After visiting the booths, the plant life beckoned. Gulf cordgrass, Sporobolus spartinae, was bigger and more widespread than when I last visited the park. A stout, native, perennial grass, it grows in dense clumps, lines both sides of the boardwalk and stretches for seemingly acres. The leaves are long, sometimes to 40 inches, slender and end in a spine-like tip. It grows along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida and south into Eastern Mexico, providing nesting for birds and cover for wildlife.

Gulf cordgrass. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

My favorite flora at this park, dwarf screw bean, Prosopis reptans, also called tornillo, grows on saline sands or clay soils mostly on the Rio Grande Plains and South Coastal Texas and Mexico. It is a colony-forming shrublet with corkscrew-coiled multi-directional spirals in bright to dark orange hues, one to two inches long. They are the legume of this unique, two-foot-tall plant.

Dwarf screw bean plant. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Camphor daisy, Rayjacksonia phyllocephala, was blooming, adding color to the savannah of cordgrass. It is an unusual looking salt flat, sand dune and dry field native plant with succulent like leaves that have crazy-spiked edges. The yellow flowers might hold a bug or two, butterflies, ants or a spur-throated grasshopper. The thick leaves, when crushed, are said to have an odor similar to camphor – think cross between mothballs and eucalyptus oil. Camphor daisy’s native range is Colorado, Texas, Louisiana and Florida.

Camphor daisy showing the daggerlike edges of the leaves. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Camphor daisy. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Spur-throated grasshopper on camphor daisy. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

The real treasure was coming nose-to-nose with a thorny branch teeming with snake eyes, Phaulothamnus spinescensthe berries not the reptile.

Snake eyes shrub branches laden with fruit. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Snake eyes is a peculiar shrub. They are very nearly rare; several sources say they are very infrequent, scattered in the lower south Texas plains and adjacent Mexico in Tamaulipas, Nuevo Leon, Sonora and Baja California. Urbanization and farming have had an impact on the species.

The plant is dioicous, meaning individual plants have either male or female parts (staminate and pistillate flowers) but not both. The male shrubs do not produce fruit.

Snake eyes fruit is a translucent round berry about an eighth of an inch in diameter. Each berry contains one tiny black seed. The fruit is purported to be juicy. I’ve watched chachalacas eat the leaves and berries of a snake eyes plant at the edge of the parking lot at the entrance to Ebony Loop trail, in Harlingen’s Hugh Ramsey Nature Park. There is a male of the species off the Ebony Loop trail that is about 20 years old and possibly as tall as 15 feet.

The single black seed of the fruit gives the snake eyes shrub its common name. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

At Palo Alto Battlefield National Historic Park, there are nearly a half dozen snake eyes shrubs, eight feet tall or so, outside the entrance to the park’s boardwalk and trails. I was just set to take a photo of a juvenile chachalaca at the edge of the path, that was eyeing those berries, when it was startled by a family rounding the bend. The bird did an abrupt about face and scurried into the brush. Several of the shrubs on that mid-October day were absolutely laden with fruit. There are male shrubs intermingled with the fruit-bearing female shrubs.

Snake eyes are multi-branching, dense, spiny shrubs more at home within diverse plant communities, like thorn scrub and Tamaulipan brushland than as a stand-alone ornamental garden bush, although they are a good addition to a sunny butterfly or pollinator garden, especially to promote the continuation of the species – and of course, best to have at least one of each sex.

The shrubs make excellent cover for birds and cover for prey and predators alike. Deer browse the leaves. The shrubs bloom summer and fall and attract multiple insects and pollinators. White-tipped dove and long-billed thrasher are reported to eat the fruit as well as the chachalacas.

Snake eyes shrubs are found in Cameron, Hidalgo, Kenedy, Starr, Jim Wells, Willacy, Nueces and Cleberg Counties in Texas.

Snake eyes shrubs can be found at many of the nature parks in the Rio Grande Valley, including Estero Llano Grande State Park in Weslaco. This Saturday, October 22, might be a great time to check that out for yourself during their Spooky Science Fest, open to the public from 6 to 10 p.m. For more information call 956-565-3919 or check out the link:



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