Romancing the land

By on April 2, 2012

Call it serendipity but there we were, six years into our retirement in East Texas walking with a biologist for TPWD while he identified plants in and around a pitcher plant bog on our land. How else, if not for serendipity, would my husband Bart and I have known a unique pitcher plant bog existed on our land? After all, we spent most of our lives living in or near northeastern U.S. cities. Along with Jason Singhurst, the TPWD biologist, a team of biologists, botanists, native plant experts and conservationists explored this small plot on our 90 acres.

The pond (photo by Liz Soutendijk)

Learning about the plant and animal communities that reside or are native to our land wasn’t something we had planned to do. Originally we sought to purchase wooded acreage in a quiet farming community where we could view wildlife and enjoy nature. Throughout the early years of owning the land, we visited on weekends, making all sorts of plans to improve it and make it more purposeful. For example, we thought of landscaping our long driveway so that it would have the appearance of an arboretum. We thought about adding chemicals to our pond to increase the number of largemouth bass and clear the edge of the pond. The list went on. Like many newly retired ex-city-dwellers (there ought to be an acronym for this) we didn’t know that most of our ideas for the land would destroy rare or sensitive plant communities and would send the wildlife scurrying away to find a better habitat.

I remember the exact moment our plans for the land changed. We were sitting by the pond absorbing the scene before us: the light on the water, the breeze and how it sent ripples across the pond, the songs and calls of birds, the different plants before us – each with a distinct green color, texture, size, and flower. I thought, “This is perfect as it is – the plants, the pond…all of it. Why change it?” I view the change in our attitude toward our land like most people who attend training lessons for their dog.

Don’t laugh; hear me out. During the training they find out it’s not the dog that needs the training. The dog is fine. He is reacting to the owner’s behavior. It is the owner who needs the training. And so it was with us – the land, the plants, the animals, and their habitats only needed us to learn how to exist as part of the community.

Jason identified 81 plant species that day. As he walked through the bog, he identified three species of carnivorous plants: Pink Sundew (Drosera capillaris), Yellow Pitcher Plants (Sarracenia alata), and Bladderwort (Utricularia spp.). At the base of the bog’s west facing slope, acidic water flowed out into the pond as it met the clay. On the upper part of the slope, large oak trees shaded the Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana), Farkleberry (Vaccinium arboreum) and Western Brackenfern (Pteridium aquilinum var. pseudocaudatum). Texas Azalea (Rhododendron oblongifolium), Red Maple (Acer rubrum var. trilobum), American Holly (Ilex opaca var. opaca), Wax Myrtle (Morella cerifera), and Cinnamon Fern (Osmunda cinnamomea), lined the lower areas. Plants within the bog, besides the carnivorous ones, included Yellow-eyed Grass (Xyris spp.), Sugarcane Plumegrass (Saccharum giganteum), Snakemouth Orchid (Pogonia ophioglossoides), Virginia Iris (Iris virginica), Waterspider Bog Orchid (Habenaria repens), Blueflower Eryngo (Eryngium integrifolium), Tenangle Pipewort (Eriocaulon decangulare), and Red Milkweed (Asclepias rubra). All these species and more still grow there.

Less than a mile away Glade Creek begins its journey toward the pond. The creek enters the pond through a large gap in what used to be an active beaver dam. Where the creek enters the land, another broken dam holds back a small wet area. In this soggy area Jason found a grouping of Rough-stem Aster (Symphyotrichum puniceum var. scabricaule), and Swamp Sunflower (Helianthus angustifolius). However, during severe droughts they seem to go dormant as the creek slows to a drizzle. The Rough-stem Aster used to be considered endemic to Wood County and can be found written up in Rare Plants of Texas: A Field Guide (Poole et al. p. 480).

After Jason’s visit, we worked with the Texas Land Conservancy (TLC) and placed the bog and contiguous wetlands in a conservation easement. Over the years many volunteers helped with support and discovery on our land. TLC volunteers cleared wax myrtle and other plants encroaching into the bog. East Texas Master Naturalist volunteers cleared trails to this and other areas on the land. Sonnia Hill, a member of the Tyler Chapter of the Native Plant Society, and other native plant experts explore the bog throughout the year sometimes discovering species that were missed earlier.

Cardinal flower. Click to see a slideshow with more of Bart's work.

Since we first visited this land, Bart photographed flowers to document and help us identify what was here. This was before we even knew what was native or how to identify plants using a key. As our interest in native plants grew, we worked to learn more from our own observations, attending programs, courses, symposiums, and field trips. We became members of the Texas Master Naturalist, Master Gardeners and Native Plant Society. Bart’s interest became more focused on recording the images of native plants and my interest lead to my giving presentations on native plants to Master Gardeners and Garden Clubs.

Bart now uses his skills as an artist taking digital photos for botanical drawings. He drew each of the botanicals shown in this article by combining a series of digital images to show specific features of the plant. This is all done using a computer.

Bart sees his botanical art as a way to preserve what was and what is growing here. Sometimes he misses a plant before it disappears, like the white water lily (we think the beavers ate their roots). The disappearance of plants is especially true for native plants that he finds growing by the roadside. Each year, more of them disappear from the location where he originally found them. Sometimes it’s because a new land owner cleared the fence line using herbicides or another plowed the land.

Wouldn’t it be serendipitous if someone saw one of Bart’s drawings and awakened to the beauty of native plants?