Sunday, March 25, 2012

Bad Woman, "Mala Mujer"

She’s the daughter of the devil himself and she’s an angel in white—if I may paraphrase a famous song.  It all depends, of course, on how you treat her and perhaps more importantly who you are.  If you are a butterfly or a bee then mala mujer’s brilliant white flowers offers enticing nectar.  If you are a morning dove or a Rio Grande turkey the seeds make for a tasty treat.  But woe to the careless human who might happen by and make contact with its spiny hairs for there will be instant pain that lasts for days.

Known scientifically as Cnidoscolus texanus, Mala Mujer (also called Bull Nettle or Texas Bull Nettle) is a member of the Euphorbiaceae family better known as the “spurges.”  It’s a large family consisting of 2,008 species worldwide occurring mostly in tropical and subtropical regions but also in temperate climates.  The well-known Tung Oil comes from a member of this family.  Most Euphorbias have large tubers.  Mala mujer’s tuber is about the size of a grapefruit and usually found from 10-12 inches subsurface and if all you do is clip the plant at ground level you can expect to have the plant reemerge within a few days.

A friend told me that his brother ventured into the ranch country for a visit.  More acclimated to the city he showed up wearing Bermuda style shorts.  Now this will be worthy of a forthcoming post on what to wear in this land of cactus, thorny shrubs and mala mujer, but anyway my friend’s brother brushed up against a mala mujer.  The old boy had an almost instant and violent reaction and ended up in the emergency room of a nearby hospital.  Yes, it can get that bad.  When I was a boy visiting my dad’s ranch (El Cuervo, The Crow) in southern Tamaulipas, Mexico I accidently touched a mala mujer.  It felt like I’d been bitten by dozens of red ants.  The pain was intense and there were small welts at every point that the hairs had pierced my skin.  It took about a month before the stinging finally subsided.

A healthy rain last February brought out the wildflowers and mala mujer has bloomed in abundance.  But it doesn’t seem to bother my dogs.  In fact the males, Dingo and Oy, have to mark every bush they pass.  I wince every time I see them lift their hind legs over a mala mujer. 

A recently published book on the native plants of South Texas claims that mala mujer occurs only in sandy regions.  That’s not entirely accurate.  El Cuervo, my dad’s ranch in Mexico, was a land of limestone hills and gravely ridges with no sand in sight.  And before the brush was cleared off most of Starr and Zapata Counties in deep South Texas mala mujer was found amidst the limestone sediments and gravely ridges and atop the small hills that dot parts of those two counties.

The trail we take has scores of mala mujer.  Note the large green shrubs with ultra-white flowers above.  I’d hate to walk that path at night.  But traveling this land on foot requires extra vigilance.  Aside from mala mujer there is another bad guy that has arrived in abundance this year.  Yesterday, one of my dogs almost got “stung” by this monster.  I refrain from taking action when I encounter these creepy crawlers but in this case my dog was within inches of getting bit.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Titmouse and the Dog Brush

Plants, birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians  and fish too: We all know people that can’t identify more than about a half-dozen birds, wouldn’t know the difference between a reptile and an amphibian if their life depended on it, are stopped cold when they have to extend their nomenclature beyond a deer, donkey, cow and elk, and when it comes to knowing plants….well, forget about it.  But for those of you with the artistic and scientific bent, those who see things in life and are filled with curiosity; those who revel at the sight of a hawk or stand in wonder when seeing a giant tree or perhaps “get all caught up” when walking the silent woods listening to the sounds of nature then here’s something for you.

Birds are building their nests this time of  year and around here we do everything we can to provide good nesting habitat.  We keep the surrounding foliage thick and green; we provide watering sources; we’ve built a few bird houses; and we set out little things to ensure that the birds have an easy time acquiring their nesting material.  Now my blue heelers are currently shedding.  They actually have two layers of fur that help keep them both warm in winter and cool in summer.  But during this time of the year their shedding is at full throttle.  So we’re constantly brushing the dogs in order to help them (they love it!) rid themselves of their winter coats.

As I’ve related in other posts, we live in a birder’s paradise.  Deep South Texas is probably the number one birding spot in the USA.  Three flyways converge on the area.  And Neotropical birds extend their northern range to this region while shore birds are in abundance and desert species abound.  So all we have to do is step onto either our front porch or back porch and sit with binoculars and in the course of a lazy afternoon we might see as many as fifty different species of birds.  So anyway, a few minutes ago we were brushing our six heelers and we set the brushes on a table on the front porch.  We happened to look out and there, not more than a few feet from the window were eight titmice (the black-crested titmouse) busy plucking dog hair from the brushes.  In a matter of minutes the brushes were cleaned thoroughly so we brushed the dogs again and left the brushes on the table.  As I write this the titmice are busy cleaning every bit of fur from those brushes.  They’ll use the ultra-soft dog fur to line their nests.  And in a few weeks we’ll see the young at the feeders and watering stations.  And just to think, an hour and ten minutes to the south and the traffic is horrific, the noise horrendous, the congestion stifling and not many titmice in sight.

Two of my blue heelers:
Pita in the background and Oy in front

Link to photo of Black-crested Titmouse.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Selection in Action

Photo was taken with an iPhone 4

Look carefully at the photo above.  Do you see the moth clinging to the petal of the Indian blanket flower?  When I noticed the moth the first thing that popped into my mind was, “selection in action.”  Perfectly camouflaged, the moth will remain unseen by most predators that might come close.  Imagine if the moth had been white or black or green.  It would be spotted and eaten.  But because this moth blends so precisely with the flower it will survive and thus, in the grand scheme of life, will be “selected for.”  In other words, this moth will live to reproduce.  This brings to mind the famous study of the moth species in England that came in two colors, white and black.  White had been the predominant moth color but a small number of black moths had remained in the general population.  Because soot from nearby coal burning turned the previously whitish tree bark in the surrounding forest a nearly black color, the white moths that had been prevalent (because they remained unseen on the bark) were easily spotted by predators.  They were therefore consumed.  But because the black moths were now hard to spot they began to proliferate in numbers.  And thus the black moths were now “selected for” over the white moths.  The same principal applies to the moth in the photo.  Yes, selection in action!  I see it every day—whether watching cows grazing a field and eating certain plants while leaving others to multiply (selecting for the plants not consumed) or as the photo of the moth and the Indian blanket flower so clearly denotes.

iPhone 4 photo

Monday, March 5, 2012

More Than A Thorn Forest

The South Texas Brushlands is sometimes called “the thorn forest” because, as the name implies, many of the plants have thorns.  But when I was a boy we referred to it simply as “the woods.”  And those woods were my home.  I roamed and hunted and camped and found no particular reason to do anything else.  I guess I was lucky in that I knew where my interests lay early on in life.  But there was another word I often heard used when referring to the Brushlands and that was El Monte.  For the people of the region el monte had historical roots leading back through generations of Native Americans who have dwelled on the land for perhaps 10,000 years.  Most of the people who live in South Texas are of Native American descent and I grew up among them and learned much about the woods from them.  Their “collective unconscious,” if I can borrow a Jungian term, embodies the memories of those for whom the brush was the source of all things.  From the brush the native people constructed their dwellings, found and hunted their food, obtained medicines, and within that forest they developed their world views and created their myths.

It’s strange how places acquire their names.  One man sees only thorns but another sees a sanctuary—a wonderland of both flora and fauna.  Years ago I attended a hearing to protest the drilling for natural gas in a Texas state park.  Whether politicians were paid off (would anyone be surprised?) or bureaucrats had neither the power or will to fight off the assault will remain a mystery, but the drilling occurred and the park was never quite the same.  During the hearings a man testified: “Why would anyone want to save the brush anyway?”  After all, he said it was nothing but a billion thorns.  And so I experienced firsthand the way different people see nature.  For him, as with many others, it is nothing but a thing to be exploited and even destroyed so that they can profit from its ruin.  For others, I included, it is a place to be revered and cherished and preserved.

Yes, there are thorns as the above photo clearly shows, but look again and note that within those boughs lies much more.  I prefer calling it The Brushlands, or El Monte.  I’m not too fond of the term “the thorn forest.”  Perhaps that’s because I see so much more than merely a collection of thorns.