In the celebration of things botanical, leaves often get short shrift. As far as I know, there’s no Native “Wildleaf” Center anywhere in the world alongside all the places trumpeting the glories of wildflowers and also those showy “tame” flowers. Yet, there would be few flowers without all that foliage giving them life.
And leaves have stories to tell before, and after, the blooms make their appearance. Sometimes they try to fool us. Many have already heard the story, perhaps apocryphal, about the professor of botany whose students brought him several differently shaped and hued oak leaves to identify. Only after the distinguished academic had confidently named several different species did his students reveal that all their specimens had come from one tree! Nevertheless, our botanical neighbors usually give people straightforward information. Yes, wildly variable species, as well as two with subtle similarities, can sometimes thwart correct identification. In other cases, the shapes and colors of some leaves, flowers and fruits are so distinctive as to be unmistakable. In most instances, though, considering two or three characteristics together offers the best path for proof of species.
An Unexpected Discovery
The Spring of 2012 brought a blessed short season of rainy relief to our drought-parched Hill Country. Predictably, the native flora responded with an exuberant celebration of new greenery and wildflowers of all colors. In fact, in a benignly neglected open space near our new abode in northern San Antonio, I found and photographed a wider variety of blooming species (over 50) than I had ever encountered in a state park or natural area.
But in our two small, mostly non-native yards (their transformation to look more like Texas will take a while), wife Sandy and I didn’t expect to find anything remarkable beyond our huge century-old escarpment live oak (Quercus fusiformis) out by the alley. Still, in my care for our personal living space, I allow new “weeds” to grow up high enough to announce their species before I make a life-or-death decision about their fate.
For example, I thought a couple little volunteer vines, with three-lobed leaves, that popped up out back might belong to the common cowitch ilk, of which I would allow one example to survive. But the foliage didn’t quite match anything I found in a couple of my well-thumbed guidebooks. So, in the spirit of an article I had written earlier in this magazine about plant identification (“Plant Identification for Dummies … Errr, Non-Botanists,” February-April 2007), I reserved judgment.
Now, it’s common knowledge that guidebooks employ flowers as their default pathway to plant identification. That fact is reinforced by the tight linguistic connection between “flora,” signifying all plant life, and “flowers.”
But we native plant enthusiasts should never ignore leaves—or fruits or bark, for that matter—in our quest for precise identification. Take the morning glory family, which exhibits lots of floral similarities. But when you behold the distinctive, almost dissected leaves of an Alamo vine (Merremia dissecta), they leave no doubt as to its identity. Similarly, for certain “little yellow flowers,” like parrelena (Thymophylla pentachaeta) and fineleaf fournerved daisy (Tetraneuris linearifolia), one needs to examine whole plants before determining their proper names. Hence many of us amateur naturalists get frustrated when we find guidebook illustrations showing flowers only. In my own growing compendium of native plant photos, I diligently avoid the tendency to abbreviate a plant’s foliage.
A few days after the leaves of that possible cowitch caused doubt about its taxonomy, I was in our front yard preparing to cut down a hedge of decidedly non-native variegated Chinese privet. (Yeah, it’s pretty but doesn’t fit into the Hill Country landscape we have been dreaming about creating). In the process, I started to pull off the long thin stems of another alleged “cowitch” entangled with the hedge.
Luckily, I hadn’t done much damage before I spied the delicate vine’s beautiful but inconspicuous little green-and-white flowers. Humbled again by my tendency to make hasty botanical assumptions, I knew immediately that this was a mature version of the little upstarts in the back yard. The unmistakable configuration of the blooms also told me that I was observing passionflowers. But what kind? Come to find out from a newly published book in my collection (2010, Trees, Shrubs, and Vines of the Texas Hill Country) that they’re bracted passionflowers (Passiflora affinis). In fact, they are uncommon enough for the book’s author to term it a “top priority” species, either “scarce for a long time or … decreasing at an alarming rate,” and deserving of planting and protection to ensure their survival.
Thus excited about such a rare find in such an ordinary place, and chastised for my initial ignorance of remarkable and unexpected possibilities in our very own front yard, I transitioned into preservation mode. Winding our new find around a post on our front porch, I gave it a soaking for its continued health.
Don’t Overlook the Leaves
In retrospect, I was reminded once again to believe the leaves. The foliage of this special but rather obscure plant was trying to get my attention through its differences with another much more common vine, the cowitch. When it finally revealed its whole self to me, I paid silent tribute to the unfolding of passion(flowers) in our front yard.