(And the Things-On-The-Snow-On-The-Prairie)
One of the best things about an August visit to a prairie may be getting to see snow-on-the-prairie. “What?” you may say, “It was 100 degrees today, and the heat index was 105. Good luck seeing snow.” But this is a special sort of snow, a plant in the spurge family whose simple white flowers are surrounded by floral leaves with white edges. At first glance you would think that those leaves are the flower, but as you look closer you see the little flowers with five petals at the center of these groups of leaves.
I first saw this beautiful plant at Parkhill Prairie, a prairie remnant east of McKinney that is part of the blackland prairie. I then learned that it is found in places throughout the eastern half of Texas and beyond. I figured that the prairie at Tandy Hills Natural Area in east Fort Worth would be another good place to see it, so I visited there today, despite the heat.
And it was hot! I walked the trails for a while, found shade under a juniper and sat for a while, and then walked some more. The little bluestem (maybe this region’s most noteworthy native grass) was healthy blue-green and all the plants appear to have benefitted by the unusual August rains this month.
Like most prairie within the cross timbers, there are patches of open grassland bounded by clusters of trees or wooded ravines; there are no huge expanses of grass. As I climbed a small incline between patches of trees, I nearly bumped into a common prairie resident that thrives in late summer – a golden argiope or garden spider. She had woven her web between two clumps of bluestem, and this had pulled them toward each other to form an arch. She sat in the middle of the orb-shaped web, waiting for some insect to wander into that sticky web. With my apologies for nearly ruining her web, I took a photo of her underside and then walked around to get a photo of her upper body.
Walking further, I found a couple of snails stuck to vegetation, and I wondered what it must be like to be stuck to something, waiting out the day in full sunlight in a Texas summer. I needed to take advantage of the dappled shade every few minutes, and I’m amazed that some of these creatures tolerate the heat so well.
I found my way into more patches of snow-on-the-prairie, and promptly saw a spider on one of them. It seemed amusing to consider “things-on-snow-on-the-prairie,” and I began to look for more. I saw a honeybee, a large wasp, and then came across a large fly with a green abdomen. When I sent him the photo, Clint said it was one of the species of soldier fly.
In short order I came upon a wasp on the snow-on-the-prairie, and approached it closely but only managed a rather fuzzy photo. I’ve learned that I can approach bees and wasps without much worry if I don’t make sudden close movements or get too close. This particular one was a pretty brown and yellow wasp that most people call a yellow jacket, but it is more properly called a paper wasp, after the paper nests that they build, suspended from branches, ledges, and the eaves of houses. Real yellow jackets live in burrows in the ground. Clint identified this particular one as Polistes exclamans, a name that always makes me smile as I picture someone “exclaiming” after being stung.
Another treat during this walk on the prairie was the eryngo, or Leavenworth’s eryngium. It forms beautiful purple spiny flower heads with a stiff row of spines below and a small “crown” of spines above. People often think of it as a thistle, but it is not a true thistle.
By this time I had nearly forgotten the oppressive heat. Standing in a field with eryngo, Maximillian’s sunflower, and snow-on-the-prairie, the heat seemed irrelevant. Soon however, it was time to leave, but I hope to return soon to this little gem of a preserve, managed by the folks from Fort Worth Nature Center & Refuge, and loved and looked after by the Friends of Tandy Hills Natural Area.