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Prairie Notes are monthly photo/journal observations from Tandy Hills Natural Area by Founder/Director, Don Young. They include field reports, flora and fauna sightings, and more, mixed with a scoop of dry humor and a bit of philosophy. They are available free to all who get on the FOTHNA email list.

Message of the Milkweed

Prairie Notes #15
February 9, 2008

The dead of winter is upon us. Braving the cold wind on a recent hike at Tandy Hills Natural Area, I observed that last seasons tall grasses have begun their slow motion freefall to Mother Earth. The colorless, skeletal remains of Eryngo lanterns belie the deep purple of their recent youth. Lanky limbs of False Gaura bend easily in the chilly breeze. Bleached, leathery fans of Compassplant and dried husks of Prairie Primrose litter the cold ground. It’s winter, all right. Not a mosquito in sight.

Eryngo in decline without its distinctive purpleness.

Bleached, leathery fans of Compassplant scattered on the prairie.

The trees lining the steep slopes and drainages have shed their leaves, which have piled up along the trails and winding creek banks. Sightlines through the winter landscape are much longer. Wildlife burrows, carefully concealed a few months ago, are now plainly visible. The only interruptions to the eye in this drab, grey/brown landscape are the cherry-red fruits of the Possumhaw tree.

Sightlines through the landscape are much longer in winter.

The winnter prairie is mostly grey and brown but lovely, nonetheless.

Possumhaw berries in winter are one of the few bright colors.

Despite few visible signs of life, Tandy Hills is far from dead. In fact, an unfathomable source of energy is at work. Down along the sheltering creek banks, in the deep compost of last years leaves, lie the spawning grounds of the elusive, Trout Lily, one of springs early messengers. Plunge your hands into the fragrant soil and you can smell April.

Trout Lily Spawning Ground.

Higher up the slopes small, fragrant rosettes of Engelmann’s Sage, are silently forming (at least to human ears) into dense colonies that will soon blanket the ground in blue-purple flowers. All over this winter wonderland the energy that produces the season we call spring is almost overwhelming.

Hiking back up the hill, I spied the strange shape of a milkweed pod in the grass. (I learned later this particular specimen is actually Two-flower Milkvine (Matelea biflora): Not an actual milkweed but a close relative.) The gray-green, spike-studded marvel looks like something from a 50’s sci-fi flick. I took it home and placed it on a table. A few days later, just like in the movies, the pod began to transform before my eyes, splitting open lengthwise. Soon after, the “creatures” inside began to emerge. These feather-like vehicles for the milkweed seeds float lightly on the wind, not unlike the Monarch butterflies who will feed on the fruit of the mature plants come spring.

The "original seed-bomb" just days before detonation.

From a hard, spiky shell, soft, fethery seed fluff emerges to help carry the seeds. 

As I sat outside composing this essay on an unseasonably mild February afternoon, my concentration was interrupted by a loud thump. I looked up to see a disoriented Cedar Waxwing lying on the ground next to a nearby window. The window was smeared with damp feathers. Chasing the cat away, I carefully picked up the uncommonly beautiful creature for a closer look. There was a little blood but the bird seemed OK. The unblinking little Icarus sat perched on my tablet while I fetched my bird guidebook and camera.

My new friend became my totem bird.

Seems the little guy was drunk on fermented Juniper berries, the reason he was here in the first place. Tandy Hills is dotted with Junipers and the fruits are indeed ripe. Feeling like a police desk clerk confronting a DWI suspect, I couldn’t resist this rare photo op and took a snapshot of the unfortunate victim. Seconds later, he joined his mates in a Sugarberry tree, where he sat motionless, perhaps pondering his fate, for a good hour.

Cedar Waxwing, a bit disoriented, but still in the game.

About a week later, after an extended warm spell, I took to hills again. Hiking down to where I found the Milkweed pod, I was astounded to see innumerable milkweed seeds parachuting in the wind. As if obeying a silent command from an unseen force, it seemed every milkweed pod at Tandy Hills had split open at the same moment in time.

Thinking back on the magnificence of these events and the creatures great and small that occupy Tandy Hills, I feel acutely aware of how tenuous their existence is, especially in the Barnett Shale region of Texas. I'm reminded of the importance of our role in protecting urban natural areas from those who are interested only in what they can take from the land and put in the bank. Please continue supporting our efforts to save some of Texas.

Come to the meadow and feel the powerful energy that will slowly transform Tandy Hills into a color-drenched spectacle in less than 80 days.


Prairie Notes is the official newsletter of Friends of Tandy Hills Natural Area. All content by Don Young unless otherwise noted.