By Jake Landers
Published October 2012
Some of our native plants can be overlooked despite their importance or because they don’t impress us by their looks. Now that I have shifted my living location from a city standard home and lawn to a community retirement center with adjacent park, parking lot, ditch, and cracks in the sidewalks, I see a different mix of plants. None seem to be very important, but I still find them interesting, and I can get to local ranches to see some important ones when I have a gate opener. But my time on pasture ground is becoming more limited, and my time on the scooter going to and from bank, library, court house, drug store, only two blocks away, is exposing me to new plants.
Hairy tube-tongue is one of those with an unusual name, but a regular member of some of our well-managed range sites, park areas, and lawns. It grows no more than 8 inches high from a tough root crown that seems a little woody. If it’s in a lawn, it can recover from regular mowing, or from moderate grazing in the deep clay soils of shady pastures. It remains green all summer when there is adequate moisture with small blueish flowers. Black Swallowtail butterflies can often be seen close to the ground sipping nectar and spreading pollen. By nightfall, for some reason, the flowers are kicked out of their calyx cup to lay sideways on the foliage.
Hairy tube-tongue is an important plant in its more natural setting of Liveoak savanna on the uplands and on bottomlands dominated by Pecan and Bur oak trees. It is highly palatable and nutritious for grazing animals, unfortunately being grazed out of many pastures in the past by sheep and goats. It would be high on my list of plants for restoring as a component of high value habitat for deer.
The scientific name of Hairy tube-tongue is Siphonoglossa pilosella. In Greek it means “tube-tongue” and “soft-hairy.”
Mormon tea is another one. Its response to severe drought followed by abundant rain last spring was a brilliant display of red bushes. Ordinarily it blends in with the rest of our roadside brush, but this year it stood out. Bushes in the fence lines of roads in Menard County, where they have survived browsing by livestock and deer, were bright red with abundant “berries.” ( Mormon tea is related to Cedar which also has cone-like berries on the female plant and pollen bearing cones on the male.) The green stems provide a high protein forage for livestock and deer. It takes more browsing yet survives better than any other woody plant which often results in gnarled stubs instead of branches.
Mormon tea has small scale-like leaves at each joint of the stem, responsible for one of its common names, “Joint fir.” It’s also called Clapweed, Popote, and Ephedra, the last one from its scientific name, Ephedra antisyphalitica, suggesting some medicinal value. Probably it will not cure Syphilis as the name suggests nor control stomach worms in sheep as a rancher friend suggests. However, an extract from the plant, ephedrine, now synthesized in several forms, is useful in opening up stuffy noses and other health benefits, but it’s not without critics. Lawsuits are ongoing concerning severe negative reactions and death when used as supplements to dieting.
Like the display of wildflowers, the colorful display of Mormon tea will not be seen again for many years. The combination of environmental events which triggers such a response is locked in the DNA of the species. It’s the way they have survived and prospered when conditions are met or succumbed when adequate conditions did not occur often enough to keep them growing.
Reading The Landscape
Photo taken in late August on Highway 67 near Kickapoo Creek in Concho County. Lower areas cleared of Mesquite 25 years ago seeded to a mixture of range grasses and used for grazing by cattle, hilltops left alone. What is the brush species coming back in the low areas? What is on the hills? What is the plant species making the large light colored patches? Would you consider this a good grazing situation when the photo was taken? —JL
|See below for Jake's answer|
Jake’s summary: The few plants are mainly Lotebush, probably from root sprouts following the original clearing, Mesquite having been kept under control. Plants on the hills are Liveoaks. The plant of the light colored patches is Snow-on-the Mountain, Euphorbia marginata, of no grazing value, the milky sap of which is strong enough to take off warts, the seeds very attractive to doves and quail; grazing is poor because grasses have been overtaken by Broomweed. —JL