A Walk in Fern Bluff Park
March 4, 2001

Note: Earlier Walks in the Park may be accessed by clicking on an archive date below:

Archives of previous walks in the park: 12 May 2007 05 May 2007; 28 April 2007, 21 April 2007, 14 April 2007,  1 April 2007 Easter Egg Hunt; 24 March 2007,  17 March 2007; Nov. 03, 2001; April 04, 2001; March 25, 15, 10-11, 04, 2001; February 2418, 10, 2001

The bed of green at the right, studded with tiny blue flowers,  was found near the basketball court in the recreational field in the southern portion of the park. These are almost certainly of the Bedstraw Family (Rubiaceae), and resemble the Needleleaf Bluet (Hedyotis acerosa) in most respects.

 Today was a good day for basketball, as Velincia Veljasevic, 16,  and Doshon Coney, 17, shown in the photo below, will readily testify.

If this specimen survives long enough in this high-traffic area (a more serene area would have been a better choice, but this plant favors bright, open fields with plenty of sunlight) it may bloom in April- either this year or the next. Woolly Mullein is a biennial, and does not bloom in the first year of growth. By the way, this plant was no longer present two weeks after these photos were taken, which came as no surprise.

The plant on the right, which was found in several places in the park today (this specimen was found next to the path, near the spot where the path around the recreation area joins the path through the park) is a member of the Bedstraw, or Madder, Family (Rubiaceae). These plants are covered with tiny branched hairs that make them feel sticky. This particular plant is sometimes called chickweed, because small chicks often get their feathers caught in its hairs and are unable to extricate themselves from its clutches. When dry, the stems and leaves form a loose, spongy, dry mat. In days of old, this made them a good mattress filling, hence the common name.

 Not far from the Sonchus were found two grand specimens of Pathus measurimentus, of the Doofus Family. Hopefully, Gary Spoonts (General Manager of Fern Bluff M.U.D, on the right, and Jerry Griffin (General Contractor for the current Fern Bluff Park improvements, on the left) have a good sense of humor. If not, I may find myself banned from the park permanently :-)... Seriously, these two gentlemen were taking a Sunday stroll through the park measuring the path, taking copious notes, and preparing a list of future improvements. Kudos to Gary for carrying out an excellent program of improvements within the Fern Bluff Municipal Utility District. It is my understanding that plans are underway to make major improvements to two additional parks in the district, as well as to make Fern Bluff Park even more attractive. This area is home to a variety of natural plants and geological formations, including several extensive underground caves. Jean Cochran, Fern Bluff M.U.D. president, has all the information about that, if you are interested in learning more. Jean is a Realtor, and has been associated with this Municipal Utility District as a member of the board since May, 1988. Her telephone number is 244-2744. Gary Spoonts can be reached at 219-2268.

to tag along with Peter "Sweet-Pea" Kohler (an engineer of some repute, once an inhabitant of Hog Town, Florida- better known by some as Gain(e)spatch- and, of course, an ardent Gator, though now residing in the fair metropolis of Indiatlantic with his wife, Myra), on a serious assault on the Appalachian Trail. By the way, the book "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson (which I read at the urging of PK) was the seminal inspiration behind this "Walk in the Park" series. Bryson wrote about hiking the AT, as the Appalachian Trail is  nicknamed by its admirers.

Grapevines are found throughout the Fern Bluff park, and the photo at upper right shows one of these vines with its tiny infantile leaves (they sprouted in the last few days) and juvenile flower clusters. If we are careful and attentive to the changes that occur with these and the other grape vines found here, we can identify their species with some precision as the flower clusters and leaves continue to develop.

The leaves in the photo shown at the right (with a close-up photo below) are from a small tree found in the northwest sector of the park. The larger leaves are opposite and paired, with another set of what appear to be secondary leaves emanating from the same origin but diminutive and lobed. The bark of this tree is reminiscent of that of the flowering dogwood and of certain species of persimmon (however, in the latter, the leaves are alternate, not opposite).  

Remember the mystery Oak twig from last week? Here it is again, after a week of rain. Not much change, although the buds have swollen a bit more. Perhaps next week they will have opened. 

Nearby, though, we could find other twigs on the same plant that had unfurled to show the shape of each leaf.

While on this walk, three bicyclists came by and allowed me to take this photo. From left to right are Jordan Whitehead, 11, Ben Helfrich, 7, and his brother Peter Helfrich, 9. This was definitely a good day to be out on a bike. 

Under a Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) found in the park were several leaves with evidence of insect activity. The leaf directly below has a clutch of eggs attached to its midrib. These will hatch to produce small caterpillars who will feed on the leaf and perhaps climb into the tree to feed on other leaves. 

Although the weather was balmy this afternoon, the soil temperature remains fairly low (about 55 degrees Fahrenheit, for soil exposed to direct sunlight). That means most of the soil-dwelling insects will not be very active yet and, no surprise, we saw very few insects today (one grasshopper, who got away, was about it).

The rains of the past week have been a boon for wildflowers, including the Dandelion (in the photo at left, the species Taraxacum officinale), a member of the Sunflower Family (Compositae). The genus Taraxacum derives its name from both  Arabic and Persian sources, and refers to the pharmaceutical properties of the plants in this group. Dandelion greens and roots have been used as medicinal herbs, as well as for food, for centuries. Recipes for preparing the plant for the dinner table are even available on the web.

The insect on the dandelion is the common honeybee (Apis mellifera). The genus Apis is also the name of a figure in Egyptian religion; while the species mellifera derives its name from the Latin, and means "honey-bearer".

Little has changed at the new soccer field at Fern Bluff Elementary, so no new photos have been added today, except for close-up photos of a deeply dissected limestone rock fragment, and an old piece of wood that has been delicately carved by the wind, sun and rain.

Along the cable separating the schoolyard from the park was found the Woolly Mullein (Verbascum thapsus) shown below.

Not far away from the Mullein was this light blue flower (at left). It was all alone, and this was the only specimen of its kind found in the park today. Monique Reed informs me that this is Blue Toadflax (Linaria canadensis), a member of the Figwort Family (Scrophulariaceae). It is present in only two places in Fern Bluff Park: in the southeast corner of the unimproved portion, in a small clearing where it is scattered among the prickly pears; and in another small clearing near the eastern boundary, some 100 yards further into the park, again in the midst of a stand of Prickly Pear Cactus. .

Not far down the East Path of the park a low, bristly plant with a bright yellow flower resembling a dandelion was found just off the pathway. This, Monique tells me, is a species of Sonchus, and not Cirsium

It is probably not possible to precisely identify this thistle from these photographs, because the attachment of the leaves to the stem is not visible.

And speaking of wildflowers, you should see the beautiful blue eyes of Erin Hurley (22 months old). She is being held by her grandmother, Mary Lou Ginandt, in the photo at left, but the sun hurt her eyes and so... she closed them. Erin was taking her grandparents, Mary Lou and Jim, for a walk through the park when we met by happenstance. Jim is an enthusiastic hiker, who has spent some time on the Appalachian Trail, a continuous marked footpath extending from Maine to Georgia (2,160 miles). He dreams of "through-hiking" that trail some day, as do I. We swapped a few hiking stories before parting company. I never tire of talking about my hikes up Long's Peak (the one and only, in the Rocky Mountain National Park), or of my plans 

Briars are also found here in abundance. Several different species are found, some with few or no spines, others with numerous, conspicuous, needle-like thorns capable of inflicting injury to the unwary. The distribution of thorns on the vine varies, often with the most copious thorns found at the base of the plant, thereafter diminishing in frequency until, in some cases, the upper reaches of the vine have no spines at all. The photo at lower left is either the Bristly Greenbriar (Smilax hispida Muhl.) or the Common Greenbriar (S. rotundifolia L.). It sported poorly developed, scattered spines on the portion of its stem shown in the photo (about 7 feet off the ground), and bluish-black, globular fruit berries, left over from last year's fruiting season.

My references do not show this unique leaf pattern in any of their plates, so its identity remained a mystery for a while. Later, when the "secondary leaves" grew out to the same size and shape of the other leaves, and other features of this tree were properly examined, it was identified as the Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum).

On the other hand, the mystery twig with the corky wings has changed quite a bit, as the photo below shows. Still, the leaves have not quite developed enough to tell their actual shapes.

These are definitely from the elm family, and although the Winged Elm (Ulmus alata) is named for its corky wings, this is probably the Cedar Elm (U. crassifolia), due to the shape of its leaf (U. alata has narrower leaves, i.e., they are much longer than they are wide, while U. crassifolia has leaves that are oval, and only slightly longer than wide). Cedar Elm is the only other elm found in Texas with wings on its twigs and branches.

In the photo below, an insect has caused 18 small galls to form around the margin of the leaf. The galls on this leaf are known as oak-apple galls, because they look like tiny apples on the underside of the leaf. They re caused by the larvae of  tiny, inquiline wasps, and though they are unsightly, they do not injure the leaf or the tree.

Since spiders make their living by capturing insects and turning them into their next meal, the paucity of insects would naturally limit the number of spiders in the park as well. However, we did see one spider today. The tiny little orb-weaver shown in the photo at left had woven a large web between two bushes, and was patiently awaiting a volunteer lunch, having stationed itself in the center of the web. When the camera ventured near to take a closer look, the spider scampered off the web and onto this juniper twig (the silk escape strand can be seen attached to the twig at its extreme right).

Archives of previous walks in the park: 12 May 2007 05 May 2007; 28 April 2007, 21 April 2007, 14 April 2007,  1 April 2007 Easter Egg Hunt; 24 March 2007,  17 March 2007; Nov. 03, 2001; April 04, 2001; March 25, 15, 10-11, 04, 2001; February 2418, 10, 2001