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Nature – intrigue, mystery, and a tremor of spooky

Published in the McAllen Monitor, October 21, 2023,


Guardians of the Garden. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Story and photos by Anita Westervelt, Texas Master Naturalist


There are many things unique about the habitat of the Rio Grande Valley. One happening is that some plants produce flowers at odd times of the year after a rain.


Another phenomenon that may always remain a mystery is that some plants may go years without blooming. That’s the case with one of my favorite plants in our yard: snake eyes, Phaulothamnus spinescens.


A woody shrub native to the mixed thorn scrub of Deep South Texas, snake eyes can grow 10 feet tall or taller. Spatulate shaped leaves one inch long hide short, thin, sharp, bark-colored grayish thorns.


A mature Snake Eyes shrub. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Why this is such an intriguing plant for a garden is because of the fruit – not for human consumption, but for wildlife. The berries are about 3/16 of an inch in diameter, referred to as drupes. They are a whitish, translucent pulp with a single tiny black seed inside, looking for all the world like a snake’s eye, which gives the plant its common moniker.


About eight years ago, when I first discovered the plant, I purchased one from a local native plant grower. It has survived all that the elements have thrown at it but has never produced its unique fruit.


The plants are dioicous, meaning there are both male and female plants. Both plants produce flowers, but only the female plant bear’s fruit. I’d soon learned that vital information and provided my shrub with three other plants, hedging my bets that the plants surely would be different sexes. Year after year, the healthy shrubs have not produced a single flower, nor fruit.


I periodically verify that my shrubs are indeed snake eye plants. I purchased two more snake eye plants last year – determined to someday see fruit. The two new plants were personally grown by a local native plant expert and sold at a Native Plant Project* meeting at Weslaco’s Valley Nature Center.


All six of my varying sized shrubs have survived winter freezes and stressful summer heat and drought as if all was well with their world. I have researched how to get snake eyes to bloom and talked to experts. Mostly I learned that snake eyes are peculiar. The latest information was that the plant’s secret to producing fruit is to get a specific (unknown) amount of rain in July. With that portentous prediction, any efforts I could undertake would be hopeless.


Amazingly, checking my yard recently for pollinators to photograph and upload for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Pollinator BioBlitz, I came eye to eye with a small section of the glorious, spectacular, weird looking drupes. I can’t be sure, but I suspect (impossibly) blooms did not precede this event.


Fresh fruit of the Snake Eyes shrub. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Snake Eyes fruits are called drupes. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

Snake eyes fruit is consumed by many species of birds, including plain chachalacas, white-tipped doves, long-billed thrashers and wintering warblers. The flowers attract an abundance of pollinators. The large, dense shrubs provide important shelter to prey and predator alike.


What might be a little spooky, on the other side of my fruiting shrub, several branches were loaded with shiny metallic blue and green flies, basking in the sun. I identified them with an iNaturalist phone app as hairy maggot blow fly, Chrysomya rufifacies. They also were prevalent on the adjacent foliage of a low growing whitemouth dayflower, Commelina erecta.


Hairy Maggot Blow Flies on Snake Eyes leaves. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)
Hairy Maggot Blow Flies on Whitemouth Dayflower foliage. (Photo by Anita Westervelt)

These flies have nothing to do with plants and pollination, preferring to feed on dead animals, animal refuge and decaying vegetation. They are one of the first species to arrive at a fresh carcass, possibly within 10 minutes if atmospheric conditions are favorable. Their life cycle includes four life stages: egg, larva, pupa and adult. The pupa stage resembles a rat dropping. Adults can live up to six weeks.


The significance of these flies is in the field of forensic entomology. The larvae have a shorter development time than other species and their predaceous nature can alter entomologically based postmortem interval estimations, according to information at Wikipedia.org and Encyclopedia of Life (eol.org). The species must have access to decomposing carrion or rotten meat in order to complete its life cycle. That fact helped alleviate my fear of thinking about those hundreds of flies possibly proliferating exponentially. Not so spooky after all – although the event may remain a coincidental conundrum.

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* The Native Plant Project meets monthly at 7:30 p.m., at the Valley Nature Center, 301 South Border, (Gibson Park), in Weslaco, 956-969-2475. The October 24 presentation, “Rio Grande Valley Pollinator Project, ” will be presented by Susan Upton, Texas Master Naturalist.


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