Thursday, July 24, 2008

Cosmos: A defense

Our neighbor Mary sent this information to me about cosmos:

Cosmos is regarded as an excellent nectar plant for butterflies (see Geyata Ajilvsgi's book Butterfly Gardening for the South, 1990; and Scott Shalaway's Butterflies in the Backyard, 2004.) The commonly cultivated species (Cosmos sulphureus) is widespread in the American tropics; it is thought to have originated in Mexico (see Manual of the Vascular Plants of Texas, D.S. Correll and M.C. Johnston, 1970). According to C & J, it occasionally escapes but probably doesn't persist anywhere in Texas; however, a later compilation (see Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Texas by S. Hatch et al., 1990) indicates that it occurs out of cultivation ("in the wild") in southern Texas. We have a native Cosmos (C. parviflora) in the Trans-Pecos of Texas, with a range extending north to Colorado and far into Mexico. All members of this small genus are annuals.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Willowbrook Reach Update: July 2008


It was a banner year for wildflowers, like horsemint, bluebonnets, and Indian blanket, at the Reach. The City mowers left several large areas of flowers and grass unmown, which has allowed for the plants to reach maturity and set seed for next year. You can see several of these unmown patches now, with brown stems and seed heads waving in the hot summer wind.

As we all know too well, when it rains it pours and when it doesn't, it's as dry as a bone. This year, most everything is brown and crackly at the Reach, but look close and you'll still see many adapted perennials and annuals making a go of it. Mexican petunia is blooming heavily right now, as is silverleaf nightshade. The dry weather has served as a bit of a control for our bad infestation of Johnson grass, but you can still see it sending up flowers and seeding even in our harshest of times. Proof that this plant is a survivor.

The 34 trees we planted this spring are having various levels of success. Some, especially those that generous people have adopted and are watering regularly, are doing great. In particular, check out Yin and Yang--two yaupons on the south side that are happy enough to be producing berries for the winter birds. The Mexican plums on that side of the Reach are also doing great. Trees on the north side aren't faring as well. (If you have the gumption, please help us water these trees!)

Plants in the new butterfly garden are doing fabulously. Blooming now are: purple coneflowers, blackfoot daisy, mistflower, tropical milkweed, woolly ironweed, lantana and nightshade. We had planned this garden to be "native plants only," but someone snuck in some cosmos. Perhaps we should thank them! The cosmos are providing a great amount of color to the garden and probably nectar too (see below).


Speaking of the butterfly garden, you may have noticed that there are very few butterflies this year, especially compared to last year's bumper crop. Last year you couldn't spit without hitting a swallowtail. I hate to speculate too much, but I imagine this has something to do with the hot, dry temperatures. It's possible that there aren't as many host and nectar plants available for them. Still, there are some butterflies to be seen, so keep an eye out. Recent sitings include long-tailed skippers.

On Monday morning, I watched two enormous snapping turtles mating about mid-Reach. I've seen baby turtles for two springs in a row, and this fully confirms that we have at least one breeding pair of snappers on the Reach, if not more. It would be interesting to know where the females are laying their eggs.

On a sadder note, I saw one snapping turtle in the Bathtub that has gone on to the Great Creek in the Sky.

Adult and juvenile yellow-crowned night herons continue to feed at the Reach. Be careful when driving at night! A heron was recently spotted ambling slowly across Cherrywood Rd. Other birds around include grackles, starlings, cardinals, blue jays, swallows, mockingbirds and more.

A neighbor up the creek recently spotted a large beautiful, perfectly harmless Texas rat snake crossing Wilshire at the bridge over the creek.


The City of Austin Watershed Department is in recon phase for their rather large project to "re-design" the creek bed at the Reach. They recently identified a design and engineering firm to draw up plans, and you may have seen them wandering the creek, marking trees and painting stripes. They've assured me that they will include the neighborhood as part of the design process, and I'll let everyone know what I know as soon as I know.

Trash continues to be a problem at the Reach, particularly along 38.5 street. Please offer your hand to nature and the neighborhood by picking up stray garbage and not littering.

The Reach is a wonderful place for dogs, but not for dog poop! Remember that this poop holds billions of E. coli bacteria (among other things) and that those bacteria get washed into our creek and into our drinking water. Gross, right? It's interesting to consider what our neighborhood might be like if we weren't here. Surely, there would be a healthy population of coyotes and foxes scatting about with no one to pick up after them (aside from dung beetles, which can do an amazing job of clearing away animal scat). In fact, the poop could be good fertilizer. So, if poop's natural, why pick it up and stick in an unnatural plastic bag? The answer is one of scale and abundance. Natural populations of coyotes and foxes would not be anywhere near as dense as our dog (and feral cat) populations. Their numbers would be lower and their range would be much larger. In an urban ecosystem, we squeeze a lot into a little.

The Reach provides a great "air conditioning" service in a hot City with its urban heat island. Take a walk down by the creek in the early evening and you can feel the cool air seeping out from the creek, especially those places with a high density of trees and underground springs. A reminder of the power of small amounts of water and nature in a city.

Remember, nature happens everywhere!