Nature Study: Cicadas

I love the sound of August in Texas.  I walk outside into still damp heat and hear the loud hum of cicadas all around me.  It marks the peak of the summer season for me.  It’s so hot and sticky and loud and it almost makes me agitated but there’s something magical about the song these cicadas are singing.  And it’s just as I get used to their raucous music that they disappear as quickly as they came.  Summer ends and so does the daily serenade.

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My first encounter with a cicada was years ago when I discovered its exoskeleton hanging on a tree in my front yard.  At the time I knew nothing about cicadas, mistakenly calling the thing a locust, the crop eating, Bible swarming insect that is native to Europe and not even found in America.

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Cicadas, on the other hand, are gentle creatures who don’t bite or sting.  They simply hatch, burrow underground to grow and then emerge only to mate and die.  Most cicadas have a life cycle of 2 to 5 years, but some have 13 or 17 year life cycles.  But that knowledge came much later for me.

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My interest in cicadas was peaked when I read David Rosenberg’s book Bug Music.  The idea of periodical cicadas and their growth underground captured my imagination. Rosenberg’s poetic description only sparked my interest more, “It’s the slowest sonic beat in the animal world. It’s a sound that can be used to mark the phases of a human life. It’s a mathematical conundrum, an unearthly wonder of animal sound. The cloud of insect music you can barely recall. When you last heard it, you were just settling down. The time before that, you were a teenager. Before that it was the year you were born. The next time you hear it you might be a grandfather. This time the song arrives, you are smack in the middle of your journey through life.”

I can only imagine the surprise of early colonists when the cicadas appeared, seemingly out of nowhere.  Governor William Bradford said, “… all the month of May, there was such a quantity of a great sort of flyes like for bigness to wasps or bumblebees, which came out of holes in the ground and replenished all the woods, and ate green things, and made such a constant yelling noise as made all the woods ring of them, and ready to deaf the hearers …”

Last year we visited the Oso Preserve on a Tuesday morning and joined in on a guided nature walk.  The cicadas were loudly humming and the nature guide that morning was full of cicada trivia.  He taught us which cicadas were making which sounds.  Here in South Texas we have annual cicadas (as opposed to the 13 or 17 year periodical cicadas).  Annual cicadas have a life span that typically spans 2 to 5 years but because they appear every summer, they’re considered annual.  The kids and I were fascinated.  We began trying to identify the summer backdrop noise everywhere we went.

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We recently attended a porch talk out at the Oso Preserve and had the opportunity to learn about some common cicadas here in South Texas and how to tell the difference between males and females.  It was a fascinating talk complete with resin casted cicadas and sound recordings to train our ears.

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The males are the noisemakers.  Most insects that make noise do it by stridulation which is the act of producing sound by rubbing together certain body parts.  Crickets and grasshoppers use stridulation.  Not cicadas.  They have membranes in their abdomen, called tymbals, that allows them to make noise.  ThoughtCo explains it as follows:

The adult male cicada possesses two ribbed membranes called tymbals, one on each side of its first abdominal segment. By contracting the tymbal muscle, the cicada buckles the membrane inward, producing a loud click. As the membrane snaps back, it clicks again. The two tymbals click alternately. Air sacs in the hollow abdominal cavity amplify the clicking sounds. The vibration travels through the body to the internal tympanic structure, which amplifies the sound further.

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Cicadas are true bugs.  True bugs are an order of insects that have a probiscus, a long tube-like mouth.  Cicada is a latin word meaning tree cricket.  Cicadas are notoriously bad fliers, often bumping into things.  They remind me of the armadillos that we saw at South Llano but unlike armadillos who have bad eyesight, the cicadas faulty flying appears to be linked to the design of their wings.

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The life cycle of the cicada is truly fascinating.  The female cicada makes a groove on the tree branch where she lays her eggs.  The eggs hatch and the cicadas look like tiny white ants.  Once the young cicadas are ready, they crawl out of the groove and fall out of the tree and burrow themselves underground where they feed on tree root sap and stay for a period of time…anywhere from 1 year to 17 years.  When they’re ready, they crawl out as nymphs and finish their metamorphosis.  The nymphs crawl to a nearby tree where they shed their exoskeleton.  Now adults, the males begin to sing to attract females.  They mate, lay eggs and the cycle begins again.

 

There are over 100 species in the United States, with at least 50 of those here in Texas.  Some of the common ones seen down here in the south include the Scrub cicada (Diceroprocta azteca), the Little Mesquite cicada (Pacarina puella), and the Superb Dog Day cicada (Neotibicen superbus).  Texas does have periodical cicadas but they’re seen mostly in north east Texas.

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For more information regarding cicadas and to hear the different species, be sure to check out Cicada Mania!

*I am fortunate to have amazing naturalists here in my area and some of them were consulted in writing this post, including Texas Master Naturalist, Justin Quintanilla, and Caleb Harris, education coordinator at Oso Preserve.  Caleb led both the guided nature walk and the porch talk…guided walks are an ongoing event that take place on Tuesday and Saturday mornings; porch talks are a summer thing that happen on Wednesday mornings…there are still a few left this summer so be sure to pop out there and soak up the knowledge!  Websites I used to research cicadas have already been notated throughout the post.

{Being intentional is so much easier done when we slow down and really look around us.  Personally, we spend a lot of time in nature, partly because we follow a Charlotte Mason education, but mostly because it keeps us intentional in our thoughts and actions.  I invite you, in these Nature Study posts, to join us in our intentional journey…to train your eye to be observant, to relish the intricacies of the amazing world we live in and to spend more time with the people you love stopping to smell the roses, so to speak.  If you are in the South Texas area (Corpus Christi and the surrounding cities), then you’ll find these nature lessons tailored perfectly to you and your family…see if you can find what we’re finding!  If you live somewhere beyond our beautiful little corner of the world then use these lessons as a springboard…see what we’re observing, allow yourself to be inspired and then just get out there and be intentional, observant, and grateful for all the little surprises right outside your back door.}

 

Nature Study: Old Man’s Beard

It’s hot these days in South Texas.  Really, really hot.  But waiting for perfect nature study weather is nothing more than a perfect excuse to stay indoors.  And I can’t stand being stuck indoors.  So we load ourselves up with tons of water, our favorite nature journaling supplies and off we go.

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We were out at Hilltop recently and I noticed the seeds on the Old Man’s Beard were maturing and leaving behind long feathery plumes.  With some flowers still in bloom and some with feathery plumes, it seemed like an ideal time for an object lesson so off we went (with friends in tow) to study Clematis Drummondii up close and personal.

{An object lesson, part of Charlotte Mason’s nature study philosophy, is a perfect opportunity to allow our children to become more observant.  We call upon them to carefully observe and examine an object using their five senses.  Object lessons should appear to be by-the-way, somewhat spontaneous discoveries where we are out and about and come across something fascinating.  Considering the fact that I am not well-versed in nature study and I am learning alongside my children, I tend to keep an eye out when we’re on a nature walk for items that I can use in our next lesson and then I prepare my object lesson before we head out.  I aim for one object lesson a week so my kids have time to absorb what they learned and to notice it in future nature walks.  I do require them to make a drawing and write down a few notable facts in their nature journals to help cement the object in their minds.  You can read more about object lessons here and here.}

Clematis Drummondii, also known as Old Man’s Beard or Texas Virgin’s Bower, is a vine in the Ranunculaceae (Buttercup) family.  To identify a flower as being a part of the Buttercup family, look for multiple simple pistils at the center of the flower.  You’ll also find that the pistils have hooked tips.  Clematis is a word from ancient Greek meaning “climbing plant.”  It can grow as a shrub but is most often seen as a climbing vine.

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The variation of Clematis that we have growing around here, in abundance, carries the name Clematis Drummondii in honor of the Scottish botanist Thomas Drummond who was an early plant explorer in Texas.

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Old Man’s Beard is a dioecious plant meaning the male and female parts grow on separate plants.  The flowers have four petal-like sepals that sport a light greenish-yellow, almost white, color.  The stamens on the male flowers are clearly visible whereas the female flowers grow more upright like pineapples.  Also, upon comparison, the male flowers appear larger than the female flowers.  The flowers bloom sometime between April and October and when the seeds on the female plants mature, the vine will appear to be covered with great masses of silky, feathery plumes.  The plumes are actually referred to achenes (covered seeds).  The achenes will last until December.

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While Clematis Drummondii is a climbing vine, there are no tendrils.  The leaves serve as hooks for climbing.  The leaves are opposite, pinnately compound and deciduous, with the blade divided into 3 to 7 stalked leaflets.  The plant itself is a perennial that thrives in full sun (just in case you want a fence climber in your backyard).

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The sap of the plant is caustic so while the foliage, stems and roots can be used for dye, they should be used with extreme caution.

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Clematis drummondii is host to the fatal metalmark butterfly.  The fatal metalmark butterfly is a common, tiny little butterfly.  It uses the vine as a larval host and as a nectar source.

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{Being intentional is so much easier done when we slow down and really look around us.  Personally, we spend a lot of time in nature, partly because we follow a Charlotte Mason education, but mostly because it keeps us intentional in our thoughts and actions.  I invite you, in these Nature Study posts, to join us in our intentional journey…to train your eye to be observant, to relish the intricacies of the amazing world we live in and to spend more time with the people you love stopping to smell the roses, so to speak.  If you are in the South Texas area (Corpus Christi and the surrounding cities), then you’ll find these nature lessons tailored perfectly to you and your family…see if you can find what we’re finding!  If you live somewhere beyond our beautiful little corner of the world then use these lessons as a springboard…see what we’re observing, allow yourself to be inspired and then just get out there and be intentional, observant, and grateful for all the little surprises right outside your back door.}

Nature’s Bounty

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We take our food for granted.

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Not just the food itself.  But the whole idea of food.  Growing it.  Harvesting it.  Sometimes even preparing it.

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I love gardening (please note I did not claim to be good at gardening).  Ever since my kids were little, we’ve always had a patch of the yard dedicated to growing food (or at least attempting to grow food).

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I have always wanted my kids to feel the dirt beneath their fingers.  To understand that food comes from somewhere much more complex than the grocery store.  To see that some foods we eat grow underground, others above.  To watch a tiny seed sprout into a gigantic plant.  To see how much water it takes to keep plants thriving.  To see how long and how patient we must be to reap the harvest (in a world of instant gratification where we can have anything we want at any given moment, this lesson is crucial…some things really are worth waiting for).  To see that nature has a balance and sometimes destruction is beyond our control (like the year all of our pomegranates molded from too much rain).

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Life’s lessons are often just waiting behind the garden gate.

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But sometimes life is messy.  It’s not in organized rows like our garden.  It’s helter skelter with wild grapevines twisting around the trunks of willow trees.  It’s hemlock growing alongside black raspberries.  It’s poison ivy slowly creeping up a mulberry tree.  It’s a tiny patch of lamb’s quarter mixed in a field of wildflowers.

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Sometimes we have to step out of the garden and into the wild to teach our children valuable lessons.

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Today was one of those wild days.

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A life lesson hidden amidst mosquitoes and humidity.  A lesson that sometimes the sweaty work is worth the sweet jelly waiting at the end of the day.  A lesson that nature provides if we just know where to look.  A lesson that sometimes the sweetest things are a little out of our reach and we just have to get creative in our attempt to capture them.

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If you’d like to learn more about these incredible wild Mustang Grapes, please see my previous Nature Study: Wild Grapes post.  If you happen to be in the South Texas area, these grapes were found out at Pollywog Pond. 

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If you do decide to brave the mosquitoes and forage for your own delicious grapes, I recommend Jennifer’s recipe (I did use the butter but left out the lemon juice)…it really turned out delicious.

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Nature Study: Burr Clover

If Burr Clover (Medicago polymorpha) had feelings, it would feel incredibly flattered to know that it is being featured here today.  It is so common and so, well, all over the place that people tend to just look right past it (or walk right on it).  It’s an unimpressive, massive carpeting on lawns and fields, creeping over onto sidewalks and spreading bright green wherever it can.  BUT Burr Clover definitely deserves a mention all of its own because it’s that plant that loves to stick to your socks as you walk through the field (although they’re not the painful burrs that you might be thinking of that end up getting stuck in your finger and cause you to let out a “ewouch!”…those are most likely sandburs…still…stay focused on our oft forgotten burr clover).

The first time I stopped my kids to do an object lesson on Burr Clover and I pointed it out, I laughed because my kids didn’t even notice what I was pointing at.  This was a plant that they were literally used to running over, playing tag on and, generally, skipping right past.

{An object lesson, part of Charlotte Mason’s nature study philosophy, is a perfect opportunity to allow our children to become more observant.  We call upon them to carefully observe and examine an object using their five senses.  Object lessons should appear to be by-the-way, somewhat spontaneous discoveries where we are out and about and come across something fascinating.  Considering the fact that I am not well-versed in nature study and I am learning alongside my children, I tend to keep an eye out when we’re on a nature walk for items that I can use in our next lesson and then I prepare my object lesson before we head out.  I aim for one object lesson a week so my kids have time to absorb what they learned and to notice it in future nature walks.  I do require them to make a drawing and write down a few notable facts in their nature journals to help cement the object in their minds.  You can read more about object lessons here and here.}

I gave them some time to observe the plant and the first thing they noticed was that it had three leaves.  They observed that its leaves were not heart shaped so they ruled out wood sorrel.  William guessed that it was some type of clover.

I asked them to reach way down and pull some out of the ground.  Ooh!  They discovered that while it looked like it was a bunch of little individual plants, there were actually a bunch of stems running along the ground coming from the same taproot (hence the name of those little stems: runners).

But the most exciting part of observing the burr clover was to find the burrs beginning to form.  It was so fun to see the light go off in their heads.  First there was a puzzled reaction…what is this?  Then there was the thought process.  And then the aha! moment when they realized that it was the seed envelope they were looking at in the form of a burr…the infamous, stick to your sock, get stuck in your clothes burr.  Those little burrs start out green and soft but will eventually turn brown and harden.  (We actually loves burrs over here because of the whole idea that we are helping spread plant love just by letting those little buggers stick to our socks!)

Burr Clover has a lovely family tree.  It is part of the same family as traditional flowering clover (like red clover that we use medicinally), the legume or pea family (fabaceae) but not part of the same genus.  As for the genus, medicago, it shares that with one of my favorite plants, alfalfa.  Both alfalfa and burr clover hail from the Mediterranean Basin, and their genus name comes from the Greek word Medike, abbreviated for Medike poa, which literally translated means Median grass and since the plants were imported from Media to Greece way (way, way) back, the name makes sense.

Sadly Burr Clover does not boast of great medicinal value or shine as a foraging plant, but it does have some use.  According to Plants for the Future, the flowers, leaves and seeds are edible. Mark “Merriwether” Vorderbruggen at Foraging Texas explains how to toast and get to the seeds inside those little burrs.

So there you have the most exciting blog post I could possibly write about one of the most mundane, unexciting plants…now get out there and show that Burr Clover a little extra love.

{Being intentional is so much easier done when we slow down and really look around us.  Personally, we spend a lot of time in nature, partly because we follow a Charlotte Mason education, but mostly because it keeps us intentional in our thoughts and actions.  I invite you, in these Nature Study posts, to join us in our intentional journey…to train your eye to be observant, to relish the intricacies of the amazing world we live in and to spend more time with the people you love stopping to smell the roses, so to speak.  If you are in the South Texas area (Corpus Christi and the surrounding cities), then you’ll find these nature lessons tailored perfectly to you and your family…see if you can find what we’re finding!  If you live somewhere beyond our beautiful little corner of the world then use these lessons as a springboard…see what we’re observing, allow yourself to be inspired and then just get out there and be intentional, observant, and grateful for all the little surprises right outside your back door.}

Nature Study: Henbit

This little plant is one of my favorites.  Last year it, alone, managed to pull me out of a dark winter funk.  It’s peppery and spinachy and purple and pretty and all of those things make me happy (well with the exception of spinachy…I have a loathing attitude toward all dark greens).

Henbit (Lamium ampelxicaule) is in the mint family.  Plants in the mint family are easy to recognize with their square, hollow stems, opposite leaves and usually aromatic leaves (think of plants like {obviously} the mints, but also basil, lavender, sage, and thyme).  Just roll that little stem between your fingers and you’ll feel how it doesn’t roll…because being square it has no round edges.  There are some plants with square stems that don’t fall in the mint family, but smelling the leaf will give you another clue.  Crush a leaf between your fingers and chances are, if it’s in the mint family, you’ll be rewarded with a delightful smell.

Henbit in its entirety

The best thing about henbit is that it is literally growing all over our city, most likely right outside your front door (and if it’s not in your yard, check your neighbors’ yards).  This makes it a no-excuse nature study plant since you don’t have far to go to see it.  It begins growing in the fall, goes dormant under the snow (or in cities like ours with beautiful, sunny winters, it just keeps growing) and then finishes up right around the time when spring begins.  Seeing henbit last year after a long, cold and gloomy winter let me breathe a sigh of deep relief knowing spring was on its way.

Henbit, just as the flowers are beginning to appear

My kids LOVE finding henbit.  Aside from its square stems (green when young, reddish-purple as it ages), it is easy to identify with its scalloped round leaves that grow in a rosette and its pretty little tubular flowers (the flowers, when open, remind me of a miniature orchid).  We all especially love finding it when it’s in our untreated yard…the entire plant is edible.  We nibble on it raw, but it can be cooked or used in a tea. You can toss it in smoothies or even make a pesto with it.

While it could be confused with purple deadnettle (Lamium purpureum), both have edible leaves (although you should wait to harvest deadnettle until it flowers so you can be sure you’ve properly identified it as it looks very similar to many plants early on, some of which are poisonous, and deadnettle should not be used when pregnant!).  Personally, I think the deadnettle leaves look very different from henbit, but at a glance, there are definite similarities between the two.  (Deadnettle is really only found in East Texas…I’ve never seen any growing in this area.)

Beware of creeping buttercup (Ranunculus repens) as you first learn to identify henbit.  When it is young, it has leaves that are similar in shape to henbit.  Creeping buttercup will produce yellow flowers and will look quite different from henbit as it matures, but it’s still one to learn and be mindful of.

Henbit with budding flowers

Pop out in your neighborhood and see if you can find any henbit growing around you.  Come back and share with me what you’ve found!

{Being intentional is so much easier done when we slow down and really look around us.  Personally, we spend a lot of time in nature, partly because we follow a Charlotte Mason education, but mostly because it keeps us intentional in our thoughts and actions.  I invite you, in these Nature Study posts, to join us in our intentional journey…to train your eye to be observant, to relish the intricacies of the amazing world we live in and to spend more time with the people you love stopping to smell the roses, so to speak.  If you are in the South Texas area (Corpus Christi and the surrounding cities), then you’ll find these nature lessons tailored perfectly to you and your family…see if you can find what we’re finding!  If you live somewhere beyond our beautiful little corner of the world then use these lessons as a springboard…see what we’re observing, allow yourself to be inspired and then just get out there and be intentional, observant, and grateful for all the little surprises right outside your back door.}

Nature Study: Brazilian Pepper Tree

Do you remember that part in The Lion King when all of the hyenas are gathered together and one of them says that Mufasa’s name makes them shudder?  And then one of the hyenas says “Mufasa” and they all shudder and so one says, “Ooh say it again.”  “Mufasa.”  And the hyenas shudder again.  That scene replays in my head every time I’m out in nature and somebody calls out Posion Ivy.  Every mom in the area visibly shudders.  I feel myself shudder and shiver and frantically look around to find the offending plant.

Imagine the horror I felt when I realized that we did a spontaneous object lesson on a plant IN THE SAME FAMILY as Posion Ivy, the Anacardiaceae family?  Obviously I shuddered.  And then I researched.  Turns out there are A LOT of plants in the same family as Poison Ivy.  Turns out the Anacardiaceae family, also known as the sumac family, has lots of our favorites in it like mangoes and cashews.  So what about this invasive Brazilian Pepper Tree that grows so beautifully around here that is also in the Anacardiaceae family?  Edible?  Poisonous?   And are those little pink peppers (the drupes) the same ones in my peppercorn mix that I adore?

Well…

The Brazilian Pepper Tree (schinus terebinthifolia) is sadly not the Peruvian Pink Pepper Tree (schinus molle) that produces the delicious pink peppercorn that is all the culinary rage these days.  Peruvian pink peppercorns are not related to the well-known tropical vine that produces black peppercorns {piper nigrum}; they fall in the same Anacardiaceae family as the Brazilian Pepper Tree.  They hail from Peru but grow well here in places like California, Texas and Florida and are safe to eat and are not known to contain any urushiol-type allergens, whereas the invasive Brazilian Pepper Tree is a tragically different story (tragic only because I shudder at urushiol-type allergens, apparently, and because I adore plants that I can eat and this is one of the former and not one of the latter).

The Brazilian Pepper Tree is a large ornamental shrub or tree that is native to Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay and was first brought to Florida in the mid 1800s.  Observing it showed us that it has alternate leaves that are pinnately compound.  Its leaves look very different from the Peruvian Pepper Tree, so it would be hard to confuse the two.  People who are sensitive to poison ivy, oak or sumac may also be allergic to the Brazilian Pepper Tree with reactions ranging from dermatitis to respiratory issues (respiratory issues seem to be an issue only during the blooming season).  The leaves, when crushed, have a peppery, resinous smell almost like black pepper mixed with turpentine.

While it is a pretty plant (sometimes it’s called the Christmasberry tree), it is incredibly invasive and not one to be encouraged.  Just like poison ivy, you can’t burn it to get rid of it or you’ll end up releasing its irritating chemicals into the air.  I actually had a really hard time finding reliable information about it…it did not show up in any of my plant or tree books.  If I’m reading it correctly, the FDA lists the triterpenes (a chemistry term that my brain just cannot process) of Schinus terebenthefolius as poisonous.  That being said, admire it, paint it, but consider keeping your distance.

{Being intentional is so much easier done when we slow down and really look around us.  Personally, we spend a lot of time in nature, partly because we follow a Charlotte Mason education, but mostly because it keeps us intentional in our thoughts and actions.  I invite you, in these Nature Study posts, to join us in our intentional journey…to train your eye to be observant, to relish the intricacies of the amazing world we live in and to spend more time with the people you love stopping to smell the roses, so to speak.  If you are in the South Texas area (Corpus Christi and the surrounding cities), then you’ll find these nature lessons tailored perfectly to you and your family…see if you can find what we’re finding!  If you live somewhere beyond our beautiful little corner of the world then use these lessons as a springboard…see what we’re observing, allow yourself to be inspired and then just get out there and be intentional, observant, and grateful for all the little surprises right outside your back door.}

Nature Study: Ashe Juniper

If you live in Texas, chances are, you’ve heard of Cedar Fever, a common ailment of those who live in the Hill Country.  It is, ironically, not actually a fever, nor is it caused by cedar.  It is an allergic response to the pollen from the ashe juniper tree (juniperus ashei), commonly known as the mountain juniper (or mountain cedar), which is found all over the Edwards Plateau.  Curious as to why these Junipers got stuck with the name of cedar?  Pop over here for those details.

For those that suffer from the infamous cedar fever, symptoms range from runny nose and itchy eyes to fatigue and congestion.  While the pollen counts are typically highest during the winter, Cedar season can stretch well into March.  Not a fun time for those that are affected (as this author so well articulates).

William was happy to demonstrate the release of the pollen although we saw plenty of clouds of pollen being released by the wind without William’s help.

For the rest of us, though, Ashe Junipers are an interesting study.  Ashe Junipers are in the Cypress family.  They are dioecious, meaning there are male and female trees.  The female variety has delightful blue fruit that closely resembles a berry, but is in actuality a modified cone; the males produce cones that hold the pollen that leads to the dreaded cedar fever.

Last year we visited Balcones Canyonlands and hiked through dense ashe juniper growth, not really stopping to appreciate the complexity of the junipers.  So recently when we did some camping at Lost Maples, we seized the opportunity to learn more.

At Balcones Canyonlands there were Ashe Junipers as far as we could see.

Ashe Junipers literally cover the landscape along the Edwards Plateau.  I went back through our old pictures from campgrounds in the Hill Country and sure enough, there was the Ashe Juniper dotting the background of the vast majority of our photos.

Entering the East Trail at Lost Maples brought us up close and personal to an Ashe Juniper grove.

Upon close examination by the children, we made quite a few little interesting notes.

On the St. Edward’s Trail in Austin, Katie discovered the joy of the cedar smell on the Ashe Junipers.

First of all, the leaves, which are scale-like, give off a delightful cedar smell when rubbed between little fingers.  (I seriously wash about as much in juniper leaves as I do in socks…pretty sure my kids fill their pockets with the cedar-smelling leaves of every tree they pass because who doesn’t love the smell of cedar?)  The foliage of the Ashe Juniper stays a lovely dark green throughout the winter, whereas the foliage of the Eastern Red Juniper changes to something of an olive green to a yellowish green, often turning bronze during the winter season.

The fruit, a berry-look-alike, are blue and apparently make an easy addition to a nature journal as a few of the kids chose to make that tiny fruit the star of their journaling page.  The “berry” produced is not the juniper berry used medicinally nor is it the berry used to make gin, but it is a favorite amongst birds and wildlife critters like deer, raccoons, and coyotes.

Ashe Junipers are multi-trunked (making it easy to differentiate between the Ashe Juniper and the single-trunked Eastern Red Juniper, both of which have blue fruit; the other Junipers in Texas have red fruit). The bark of the Ashe Juniper is seriously so fun!  It flakes off in long strips which makes it an enticing find for the rare Golden Cheeked Warblers who use it to make their nests.  The bark also has white rings on it (again, unlike the Eastern Red Juniper), which is why it is commonly referred to as white cedar.

We could easily spot the female trees with their fruit and soon found ourselves quickly spotting the male trees with their cones which are essentially their pollen sacs.  The flower is produced in the winter, with fruit maturing in the summer and fall and then seeds being dispersed during the winter.

Here I am holding a small twig taken off of a male tree beside the branch of a female tree.

I’m not entirely sure, but this looks remarkably like a juniper gall.

Another gall on the male variety?

Here are the infamous pollen sacs on the male trees.

Here are the modified cones of the female trees, the blue “fruit” of the Ashe Juniper.

So tell me what you see when you look at this photo…(you should be able to identify the Ashe Junipers and tell me which are male and which are female!)

{Being intentional is so much easier done when we slow down and really look around us.  Personally, we spend a lot of time in nature, partly because we follow a Charlotte Mason education, but mostly because it keeps us intentional in our thoughts and actions.  I invite you, in these Nature Study posts, to join us in our intentional journey…to train your eye to be observant, to relish the intricacies of the amazing world we live in and to spend more time with the people you love stopping to smell the roses, so to speak.  If you are in the South Texas area (Corpus Christi and the surrounding cities), then you’ll find these nature lessons tailored perfectly to you and your family…see if you can find what we’re finding!  If you live somewhere beyond our beautiful little corner of the world then use these lessons as a springboard…see what we’re observing, allow yourself to be inspired and then just get out there and be intentional, observant, and grateful for all the little surprises right outside your back door.}

Nature Study: Brasil

A few weeks ago, Jessica and I had taken the kids to the trails out at Hilltop for a nature walk (no journals or object lessons, just a stroll through field and trees to see what was in bloom) and, as always, we found ourselves stumped by plant after plant (this whole botany thing is a long journey!).  Jessica and I tend to spend a whole lot of time saying, “Ooh, I wonder what this is!”

But slowly we’re learning and gaining confidence in our identification skills.  It’s a slow going journey, but by going slow, there’s time to absorb what we’re learning and look for it everywhere we go.  Our newest find (which Jessica already knew and pointed out to me!) is the Brasil, a deciduous tree or shrub that grows well down here.  We found it in abundance out on the local trails so we took the kids this past week for an object lesson.

The Brasil (Condalia hookeri) is also known as the Bluewood Condalia or the Brazilian Bluewood  and is a member of the Buckthorn family.  

The kids observed the leaves and found them to be simple, alternate, glossy, small and bright.  After describing the shape of the leaves (they described them as some being oval and some being spoon shaped), I taught them that in botany, those are called obovate (oval) and spatulate (like a spatula) blades.  The margins of the leaves are smooth to weakly toothed toward the tip.  A fun little fact is that the leaves are host to the Snout Butterfly.  

I also introduced the kids to the botanical term pinnate vein which is present on the leaves of the Brasil.  A pinnate vein is one main vein extending from base to tip with smaller veins branching off.  

The kids quickly noticed the sharp thorns at the tip of each branch.  I had to do a little research of my own to find out exactly what qualifies as a thorn…it’s not as simple as I thought.  Turns out there are basically three botany terms for sharp points on plants: thorns, spikes and prickles.   While each of them is a defense mechanism and each is incredibly sharp and pointed, they are formed in different ways.  Thorns are modified branches; spikes are modified leaves; prickles are an outgrowth from the epidermis.  Those sharp tips on a rose plant are actually prickles while the sharp tips on a cactus are spines.  The sharp tips at the end of the Bluewood Condalia’s branches are thorns.  You can read more about the difference here or here.  

The wood on the Bluewood Condalia appears red but yields a blue dye.  Pioneers used the bark chips to make red ink.  

Of course, our favorite fact about the Brasil is that the berry-like drupes are edible.  They begin as a red fruit but ripen to a blue-black fruit.  They’re sweet and juicy and loved by squirrels, raccoons, opposums and birds (and clearly by Gavin, whose mouth turned a bit blue temporarily from all the fruit he ate!).  We just like to nibble on them, but I’m sure if we were a bit more industrious and could brave all those thorns and collect enough, they’d make a delightful jelly.

The flowers, when present, are small and inconspicuous and almost a light green.

Ironically, after the object lesson (and the fruit tasting), Jessica read Rapunzel to us…it sure made us wonder if, when the prince fell out of the tower, he landed on a Brasil shrub…it’s certainly a possibility.  Please learn from him…be careful around thorny plants!  

I used the books Trees of Texas and Wildflowers and Other Plants of Texas Beaches and Islands in my research.  Both of these top my list of favorites for local plant identification guides.  Even though the pictures in Trees of Texas are black and white, they are so well done that they make identification easy.

**Even though I have researched these plants thoroughly and feel confident in my identification skills of the plants discussed here, you should still always do your own research before teaching your kids and definitely before eating any plant…there are a lot of look-alikes out there and not everything that looks good IS good!  I strongly urge you to find a Master Naturalist or a foraging guide in your area to help you properly identify plants before you do any foraging and please be sure to obey all laws and follow foraging ethics.**

Nature Study: Spiny Hackberry

The Spiny Hackberry (Celtis ehrenbergiana), also known as the Desert Hackberry or the Granjeno, is a fun plant to observe this time of year, with its bright, pea-sized fruit and its zigzag branch growth.  It is not to be confused with the Hackberry tree, although both are a part of the Celtis genus and both, ironically, do not grow berries, but rather drupes.  (Drupes are a fancy word for fleshy fruit that has thin skin and a central stone (pit) containing the seed like olives or plums or…hackberries.)

I took the kids out to Oso Preserve early one morning to see if we could find some Spiny Hackberry plants (typically shrubs, although sometimes they can be small trees).  There was a bit of complaining, as it was early, but once they discovered the shrub, they delighted in what they found.  This time I told them absolutely nothing about the plant beforehand, allowing them to discover what they could on their own (in true Charlotte Mason object lesson style) and then following up with some of my own thoughts (both researched and observed).

They began by inspecting the bark of the branch (it was smooth and grayish brown with sharp thorns along them).  One of the kids noted that the branches were growing in a diagonal fashion (that’s one of its distinctive marks).

The conversation soon moved on to the feel and description of the leaves (rough, oval leaves with three primary veins, some toothed and some sparsely toothed).  Butterflies such as the American Snout, the Tawny Emperor, and the Red-bordered Metalmark love the Spiny Hackberry, some using the leaves as hosts for their caterpillars and others (the adult males) using it as a spot to attract females. The American Snout Butterfly is one you often see in huge migration groups up near the San Antonio area as they move from San Marcos down south to the Rio Grande Valley.  Molly Keck, an entomologist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service in Bexar County, calls them “an I-35 corridor kind of butterfly”.  They have such a huge population because the spiny hackberry grows in such abundance and that’s what they depend on.

Finally, the kids took note of the drupes (small, pea-sized fruit that can be yellow, orange or red but is most commonly orange).  The drupes attract all kinds of wildlife (especially birds because the thorns give them a safe place to hangout and eat) including green jays, doves and thrashers.  Coyotes, white-tailed deer and dogs are known to enjoy nibbling the leaves.

Now came the fun part…the drupes of the Spiny Hackberry are edible so the kids were able to include their sense of taste in describing the plant.  They described the drupes as sweet, almost similar in taste to cantaloupe, with a hard seed in the middle that can either be eaten or spit out.

The only thing not on the shrub this time of year is, obviously, the flower.  The flowers, when present, are greenish-white and very small, fairly inconspicuous.  They are rich in nectar making them a favorite of bees and a help to the honey industry.

*Websites I used in my research are noted in the post.  The book I used for Spiny Hackberry was Brush and Weeds of Texas Rangelands.

{Being intentional is so much easier done when we slow down and really look around us.  Personally, we spend a lot of time in nature, partly because we follow a Charlotte Mason education, but mostly because it keeps us intentional in our thoughts and actions.  I invite you, in these Nature Study posts, to join us in our intentional journey…to train your eye to be observant, to relish the intricacies of the amazing world we live in and to spend more time with the people you love stopping to smell the roses, so to speak.  If you are in the South Texas area (Corpus Christi and the surrounding cities), then you’ll find these nature lessons tailored perfectly to you and your family…see if you can find what we’re finding!  If you live somewhere beyond our beautiful little corner of the world then use these lessons as a springboard…see what we’re observing, allow yourself to be inspired and then just get out there and be intentional, observant, and grateful for all the little surprises right outside your back door.}

Nature Study: Wild Grapes

{Being intentional is so much easier done when we slow down and really look around us.  Personally, we spend a lot of time in nature, partly because we follow a Charlotte Mason education, but mostly because it keeps us intentional in our thoughts and actions.  I invite you, in these Nature Study posts, to join us in our intentional journey…to train your eye to be observant, to relish the intricacies of the amazing world we live in and to spend more time with the people you love stopping to smell the roses, so to speak.  If you are in the South Texas area (Corpus Christi and the surrounding cities), then you’ll find these nature lessons tailored perfectly to you and your family…see if you can find what we’re finding!  If you live somewhere beyond our beautiful little corner of the world then use these lessons as a springboard…see what we’re observing, allow yourself to be inspired and then just get out there and be intentional, observant, and grateful for all the little surprises right outside your back door.}

“Nature seems to have intended Texas for a vineyard.”  Stephen F. Austin

Last week we went out for a nature hike to see what is blossoming around here and we stumbled on, what I was sure, were Muscadine Grapes.  Tons of ripe, plump purple grapes.  I snapped a couple of photos so I could come home and use my book to confirm it, but I was sure I couldn’t be mistaken.  I came home and promptly forgot about the grapes (as so often happens).

A few days later, I was reading Helen Keller’s autobiography, The Story of my Life and she referred to the Scuppernong vines around her.  That was one I’d never heard, so I looked it up.  How wild!  They’re a green variety of Muscadine grapes…I had no idea there were different varieties.  I decided it was time to learn a little more about those ripe purple grapes we had just seen.

I planned to take the kids out again this week and brave the mosquitoes in search of the grapes.  We’d take our nature journals and sketch them while they were ripe.  I thought it would be handy to prepare a bit so we could have an object lesson once we got to the grapes.

{An object lesson, part of Charlotte Mason’s nature study philosophy, is a perfect opportunity to allow our children to become more observant.  We call upon them to carefully observe and examine an object using their five senses.  Object lessons should appear to be by-the-way, somewhat spontaneous discoveries where we are out and about and come across something fascinating.  Considering the fact that I am not well-versed in nature study and I am learning alongside my children, I tend to keep an eye out when we’re on a nature walk for items that I can use in our next lesson and then I prepare my object lesson before we head out.  I aim for one object lesson a week so my kids have time to absorb what they learned and to notice it in future nature walks.  I do require them to make a drawing and write down a few notable facts in their nature journals to help cement the object in their minds.  You can read more about object lessons here and here.}

Good thing I decided to be prepared!  As I began to look at photos of Muscadine grapes, I thought the leaves looked very jagged compared to the leaves we had seen.  I pulled back up the pictures that I had taken and sure enough, the leaves we had seen were not so clearly jagged.  I got distracted and walked away from the open book.

When I came back, I looked at the picture again (not realizing the page had turned while I was away) and thought, no, those look like what we saw…I could have sworn the picture had jagged leaves.  Then I looked at the top of the page and realized now I was looking at Mustang Grapes.  Wait, what?  More wild grapes in South Texas?

So it turns out there are two types of wild grapes that are seen often in this area: Muscadine (Vitus rotundifolia) and Mustang (Vitus mustangensis).  Good to know.  While both are used for making jams, the Mustang grapes are known as “cut throat grapes” because of their high acidic levels…they shouldn’t be eaten raw as they can cause burns on the lips and in the throats.  Really good to know.  (And glad I waited to confirm I had properly identified it before trying it!)

Luckily, there’s an easy way to tell the two apart.  The leaves of the Mustang grape are very fuzzy with a white underbelly whereas Muscadine grape leaves are smooth and shiny.

Grapes are an interesting study in and of themselves: viticulture is the word used for the science, production and study of grapes, whereas viniculture is the word used for the cultivation of grapes in winemaking; both of those are branches of horticulture, aka the art and practice of garden cultivation.  As for the history of grapes, they made an important contribution to Roman, Greek and early Christian civilizations.  North American grapes made an impression when the Europeans began to explore the area, so much so that they called it Vinland literally because of the crazy amount of grapes growing everywhere.  In Texas, grapes are present in archaeological findings way back to 7000 BC where evidence exists that canyon grapes were consumed at that time by Native Americans in the Devils River area.  It’s all quite fascinating stuff, but that’s a rabbit trail for another day.

For the object lesson, I decided to focus mostly on Mustang grapes (which is a bit less fascinating than the Muscadine grapes but as they were Mustang grapes we had seen, I wanted to focus on what we could actually observe).  Their leaves begin with five lobes and as they mature, the leaves become unlobed cordate shaped (heart-shaped) with a deep cleft in the base.   Again, the leaves are fuzzy on top and bottom and they have a white underside.  The leaf edges are toothed but not nearly so sharp toothed as the Muscadine.  The leaves grow along the vine in an alternate pattern  with opposing tendrils (the tendrils and teeth of the leaf are important in identification as the moonseed vine lacks both and the Virginia creeper adheres rather than entwines…this helps you avoid the poisonous look-alikes!)

Mustang grapes are dark purple with thick, tough skin.  They are very acidic: eating them raw is a bad idea as they can cause acid burns to the lips, mouth and throat (which is how they became known as “cut throat grapes”.  To harvest them, simply cut the clusters and use gloves to process them (with plenty of sugar) into jelly, preserves, pies or tarts.

Muscadine grapes are a bit more fascinating as their fruit may be eaten raw and it is very sweet.  The seeds may be crushed and boiled to be made into grapeseed oil.  Also, the leaves, when young, may be eaten raw; the large leaves may be boiled or pickled and then stuffed.  The vines of the Muscadine grapes can also be used as an emergency water supply.

Now, we’re off to re-read The Fox and the Grapes, only because now we’re wondering if maybe it was better the fox didn’t get those grapes…who knows, maybe they were Mustang grapes ; )

*Books I used to research wild grapes included Idiot’s Guide to Foraging and Remarkable Plants of Texas; websites have already been notated throughout the post.