A Little Hike to a Big Tree

The Big Tree ~ Goose Island, Texas

For years after being designated Texas’s State Champion Coastal Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) in 1966, the tree affectionately known as The Big Tree reigned in leafy splendor at Goose Island State Park near Rockport.

Thirty-five feet in circumference and forty-four feet tall, the Goose Island Tree is more than a thousand years old. It would have been little more than a sprout when Dirk III, Count of Holland, defeated Holy Roman Emperor Henry II at the Battle of Vlaardingen; when England’s Buckfast Abbey was founded; or when Aeddan ap Blegywryd, King of Gwynedd, passed on.

More recently, the giant oak survived an 1864 Civil War battle that destroyed the nearby town of Lamar. After doing battle with Hurricane Harvey, although battered, somewhat broken, and stripped of leaves, it remained firmly rooted to its ground.

The Big Tree after Hurricane Harvey ~ September 5, 2017 (Texas Parks & Wildlife photo)

Today, the Goose Island tree continues to recover, but it’s no longer our champion live oak. That honor now belongs to a tree on private property in Colorado County. Certified in August of 2016, the Colorado County oak is 61 feet high, with a circumference of 338 inches and a crown spread of 114 feet.

The current champion live oak ~ Colorado County

Between the reign of the Goose Island oak and the designation of the Colorado County oak as Texas’s largest, a third, equally impressive tree served as state champion. Still the second largest live oak in Texas, and one of the largest in the United States, the so-called San Bernard Oak was discovered in 2000 and officially entered into the record books in 2003.

Estimated to be 200 to 300 years old, the San Bernard Oak is hidden away in Brazoria County, on the San Bernard National Wildlife Refuge. The area, sometimes called Austin’s Woods in tribute to Stephen F. Austin and the settlers he brought here in 1823, is more commonly known as the Columbia Bottomlands: another historical reference. Established in 1826 by Josiah Hughes Bell, Columbia (known today as West Columbia) served as capital of the Republic of Texas from September to December 1836.

The Columbia Bottomlands extend through four Texas counties — Brazoria, Matagorda, Fort Bend and Wharton — and share a forested floodplain network of rivers, creeks, ponds, and marshes.

Finding the San Bernard Oak isn’t difficult, but it does require a bit more effort than driving up and snapping a photo. This satellite image shows the upper half of the trail. At the bottom edge, toward the right, you can see the trail crossing a utility easement. Nearer the center of the image, another section of the trail is visible; the San Bernard Oak is to the north and west of the visible trail.

The Columbia Bottomlands, one of the few forested communities within the Gulf Coast Prairies and Marshes ecoregion, consist of interconnected floodplains of the Brazos, San Bernard, and Colorado Rivers. Historically a patchwork of forested bottoms and prairie uplands, they extend approximately 75 miles inland, and serve a variety of critical funtions: lessening the destructiveness of floods; reducing soil erosion; retaining river-borne sediments; and filtering out pollutants.

While some protected bottomland areas now are closed or only partially open to the public, the San Bernard Oak is accessible, and the trail leading to the oak is as interesting as the tree itself.

 

After a short drive from the main section of the San Bernard Refuge, a sign marks the beginning of an ecotone: a word used to designate transitional areas of vegetation between two different plant communities. Here, the transition is between wet prairie and bottomland forest; evidence of plants’ adaptations to increased shade, less sandy soil, and constant fluctuations in water levels is obvious even to casual observers.

At the trailhead, vines and a few palmettos suggest the changes to come.

As the trail narrows and shade becomes deeper, a wall of green thickens on either side. Still, at the woods’ edge, enough sunlight flickers through to encourage a variety of flowers:

Purple bindweed (Ipomoea cordatotriloba)
Blue mistflower (Conoclinium coelestinum)
Turk’s cap ~ Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii

On either side of the first boardwalk, no water is apparent, but soils are moist, and more flowers appear.

Heartleaf skullcap ~ Scutellaria ovata
Panicled ticktrefoil ~ Desmodium paniculatum
Texas pinkroot ~ Spigelia texana

Here and there, deer trails intersect the main path. Follow one, and the little dramas of woodland life appear everywhere. Impaled on a broken segment of vine, a moth  — perhaps a Virginia tiger moth — may become another creature’s midnight snack.

Close by, an Eastern Pondhawk struggles to contain a Pearl Crescent butterfly.

Sometimes, there are mysteries. I can’t identify either this plant or the spider who did the work, but the shape of the shadow suggests something else tucked away for safe keeping.

Scattered throughout the leaf litter, older bones bespeak earlier struggles. Snake, raccoon, and deer are easily enough identified. Other fragments require more knowledge, and a sharper eye.

Eventually, dry leaves give way to water, and the value of the boardwalk becomes obvious.

Some plants thrive in the wetter conditions, blooming and apparently thriving despite being anchored in standing water.

Brazos penstemon ~ Penstemon tenuis
White swamp milkweed ~ Asclepias perennis

As the trail approaches the utility easement, the canopy opens, and flowers more closely associated with prairies and full sunlight begin to appear.

Evening primrose (white form) ~ Oenothera speciosa
Mexican hat ~ Ratibida columnifera
Gulf vervain ~ Verbena xutha
Pyramid flower ~ Melochia pyramidata
Clasping Venus’ looking-glass ~ Triodanis perfoliata
Carolina elephant’s foot ~ Elephantopus carolinianus

Here, too, the practical skill and artistry of the spider is evident.

Black and yellow Argiope cocooning its prey ~ Argiope aurantia
Golden silk orbweaver ~Trichonephila clavipes

Eventually, the boardwalk turns and runs parallel to Little Slough, and a true ‘wet bottomland’ emerges.  In especially rainy years, the area may remain saturated for months. Thick groves of palmettos indicate poorly drained soils, while trees such as cedar elm, green ash, hackberry, and water oak thrive in the watery glade: well-adapted to prolonged flooding.

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Dwarf palmetto ~ Sabal minor

Hidden among the trees and vines, a variety of butterflies, moths, amphibians and snakes secret themselves, motionless and nearly invisible.

Ilia underwing ~ Catocala ilia

Rushes and sedges abound, while long-stemmed, woody vines called lianas root in the soil before making use of their tendrils to climb or twine around the trees.

Short-bristled Horned Beaksedge ~ Rhynchospora corniculata
Vines represent one structural difference between tropical and temperate forests; where lianas have formed a hanging network of vegetation, their presence provides a good indicator of older, more mature woodlands. In the Columbia Bottomlands, rattan, trumpet vine, Virginia creeper, and mustang grape twine toward the canopy, adding a certain ‘atmosphere’ to the woods.
Where oaks are more prevalent, the canopy opens, allowing a glimpse of blue sky and sunlight. If you look closely, you’ll notice that some of the limbs seem fuzzy, and in a sense they are.

The limbs are covered in resurrection fern, one of three fern species on the refuge. An epiphyte that uses the trees for support while gaining nutrients from sunlight, air, and rain, the fern grows on the upper side of the live oak branches.

Without rainfall, the fern shrivels and appears dead; it can lose as much as 75 percent of its water content during typical dry periods. After a good rain, it rebounds within a day, once again appearing green and healthy. This remarkable ‘resurrection’ gives the plant its name, even though it never actually dies during the process.

Resurrection fern on a live oak limb ~ Pleopeltis polypodioides
Dried fronds of resurrection fern, awaiting rain

Finally, the San Bernard Oak comes into view. Its bifurcated trunk is immense; only the bench provided for visitors at the end of the boardwalk offers some sense of scale.

Given the tree’s size and the tangle of surrounding growth, photographing it in the same way as the Goose island or Colorado County oaks is impossible. On the other hand, the San Bernard Oak’s isolation has kept it safe from humans, just as the forest has helped protect it from storms.

In time, I’ll return to the tree, eager to experience it in a different season. For now, I’m happy to have made its acquaintance. Those whose work established the refuge and allowed the land to return to its natural state deserve to be honored; like the San Bernard Oak, they’re providing a legacy for future generations.

The San Bernard Oak

 

Comments always are welcome.

184 thoughts on “A Little Hike to a Big Tree

    1. The trees are indeed wonderful. Still, as the old saying has it, the journey often is as pleasing as the destination. I must say, the journey to the San Bernard Oak beats the journey to the other trees, and besides: it’s great to see a tree in its natural environment, rather than being fenced off in splendid isolation.

  1. My grandparents had a ranch down on the Lavaca river just up from Port Lavaca and they had a massive live oak that we just called the big tree. I can’t say how big it is. I haven’t been back there in years, but I guess it is still there.

    1. I hope it is. People often are surprised by the prevalence of big oaks just inland from the coast, especially when they’re draped with Spanish moss and look like they belong on a Louisiana or Mississippi plantation. I still remember my first visit to Brazoria County and the huge oaks that lined Highway 35. The trees are still there, despite the passage of forty-seven years and several storms.

    1. My knowledge of Texas flora and fauna increased a good bit just in the writing of this post. I’ll tip a hat to a friend who helped me identify the Texas pink in a separate post. As it turns out, it’s a Texas endemic, and uncommon.

      Texas is more complex, and far more interesting, than the stereotypes suggest. So are Texans, for that matter: not the “I moved here last year to avoid taxes” Texans, but the born-and-bred, Anglo and otherwise, who’ve been roaming the land since their ancestors’ time.

      1. We passed through Texas on route 66 on our way from Western New York state to California in 1962. Signs on the side of the road said, “Drive Friendly.“ That always stuck with me.

        1. This is tangential, but it may amuse you. I grew up in Iowa during a time when the highway speed limit signs said “Speed Limit: Reasonable and Proper.” Think about the assumptions behind that, and how different the world!

    1. One of the things I love about Texas is the variety that can be found from one area of the state to another — and even from one county to the next. I’d been looking for an opportunity to visit this tree for some time, but for a while the flooding from Hurricane Harvey made it impossible. Finally, things dried out, and I made my way there. I’m glad to have had you along with me!

  2. I have never explored any place like that, but if I ever do, I want you for my trail guide. The pictures that jumped out at me were the spider with black-and-cream striped legs, and the milkweed. I’ve learned enough lately that I recognize milkweed when I see the flowers, and it always pleases. I love how that swamp milkweed is almost pure white, except for the palest pink parts that provide just the right contrast.

    Your coast live oak is not surprisingly a different species from our California coast live oak, which is Quercus agrifolia. Our kind don’t live nearly as long or grow so big. These Texas trees are really magnificent.

    1. I’d love to hike with you through any part of our state, but this surely would be a trip you’d enjoy. It’s only about a mile from the sign to the tree, which gives you an idea of how rich the flora and fauna are.

      I looked up your coastal oaks; they’re quite beautiful, too. I read a few descriptions of yours as ‘shrubby,’ but I saw some large ones, with long, tangled limbs. Some of our coastal oaks do remain quite small and bent because of the constant wind; they’re attractive in their own way.

      I enjoy all milkweeds, but this aquatic milkweed may be my favorite. It took me forever to get a decent image of it; photographing in the woods is quite different from on the prairie.

  3. Thank you for taking us on this marvelous walk to the San Bernard tree. Chances are I will never be there, so your tour is appreciated. The flower and wildlife photos are exquisite.

    1. I’ve enjoyed so many of your walks (through quite different landscapes) that it’s fun to repay the favor. It was a good bit of fun learning about some of these plants, too — there were a few that I’d never seen, and some research was required.

      1. You clarified in other comments what I had been thinking…even Linda couldn’t have gathered all those beautiful photos on one walk. I was also thinking about the work it took to identify, label and post all those photos.
        Thank you for saying you were returning the favor. That was nice.

        1. Where was I all Saturday and Sunday? Sitting right here at my desk, trying to identify plants and sort out terms like ‘ecotone.’ Getting the photos was the easy part! Condensing everything into an easy read was a little tougher.

  4. That white milkweed flower looks to me like a choir in full chord. Among the tribe of those who shoot only cameras, take only pictures, and leave only footprints, you are a mighty hunter!

  5. I feel like I’ve been on an adventure.. this was all fascinating Linda and I just love the ‘resurrection’ fern – what a wonderful name! Thank you very, very much for this amazing post.

    1. I’ve been trying to find decent examples of the dried fronds for some time. I’d love to find some that I can get in better focus. They’re just so cool.

  6. A beautifully described and photographed trip through the woods. Splendid trees which your historic parallels give a rooted perspective, and put us in our places. The macros, especially the spiders are amazing.

    1. One of the little details that tickled me was finding the reference to Aeddan ap Blegywryd, King of Gwynedd. One of my friends lives in Wales, and every time I mail something to her, the postal clerk looks at ‘Gwynedd’ and says, “That can’t be real.” The San Bernard woods aren’t quite so ancient as the Goose Island oak, but their complexity is equally pleasing.

    1. I was surprised by what seemed a relative scarcity of dragon and damselflies, but clouds of butterflies made up for that. There were a lot of sulphurs in the open areas, and there were Pearl Crescents galore. I saw my first Satyr, too, but I didn’t get a good enough photo for publication.

      1. It seems that the shortages of butterflies and/or damselflies are somewhat localized. I have seen lots of skippers and pearl crescents/silvery checkerspots (which look a lot alike to me at first glance), but fewer of the large butterflies. I did finally see a pretty good batch of Eastern Tiger Swallowtails last week, so maybe I am looking for them in all of the wrong places.

    1. Thanks, Gary. I wove together photos and details from three visits, and it was work. I kept bumping into concepts I had to study before I could include them, and that took time. I’m glad you enjoyed the result.

  7. Good morning, dear Linda,
    thank you for taking us on that walk. We especially like the picture of the leaf litter with the bones.
    We were amazed at how many plants we know from our surroundings in East Anglia as well.
    Wishing you a happy week
    The Fab Four of Cley
    :-) :-) :-) :-)

    1. Isn’t it delightful to find plants, birds, geological formations, and other such bits of nature that we share, despite the miles? I was quite fond of that bone photo myself; I’m glad you liked it. Like the various spiders, it’s not precisely ‘pretty,’ but it’s just the kind of memento mori that can make walks in such places bracing.

  8. The tree is magnificent and notable for its size of course, but the extensive coastal wetland is perhaps even more significant in the grand scheme of things. As you point out these ecosystems buffer the effects of intense storms and act as natural filters – yet we have sadly destroyed so many of them. It is good to see that the mighty oak withstood the best efforts of Hurricane Harvey to knock it down.

    1. That’s one reason I wanted to tuck the San Bernard oak into a more extensive post; the journey toward it was as rewarding as the eventual sight. A walk through those woods certainly affirms the truth of Muir’s words: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Of course that includes the mosquitoes and chiggers!

    1. It really is wonderful, GP. Apart from the natural beauty, it has the added advantage of being somewhat isolated and not as popular as other refuge areas. I’m anxious to go back in a couple of months, and see how things change as autumn arrives.

  9. Thank you for taking us on your journey. I wonder how long of a hike it is. Or did you saunter? It appears with all the photos you slowly made your way to the venerable tree. It is an amazing living tree.

    1. It’s about a mile from the sign to the tree: perhaps a little less. The post actually was constructed out of photos from three separate trips over a two-week period. I do go pretty slowly when I’m out and about; I spent about 15 hours roaming around. It took some time to check out all those deer trails, after all, and multiple trips gave me a chance to reshoot photos that didn’t work out so well the first time around.

  10. Better to reign in leafy splendor than to rein in leafy splendor, especially with a venerable tree that’s been there for more than a millennium. (As I wrote that, a fox squirrel on the Ashe juniper outside my window was staring me down; he said to say hello to you.)

    This may well be the most nature-picture-packed post you’ve ever done in “The Task at Hand.” As soon as I glimpsed the last picture, the curled frond at the right struck me as a wheel that was rolling along. What a contrast with the Ilia underwing, which is hardly visible; good of you to have spotted it.

    The dwarf palmetto is a species that Austin shares with this refuge, along with the ubiquitous Mexican hat and the not-so-common clasping Venus’ looking-glass.

    With all your excellent pictures recently, don’t forget to enter the NPSoT photography contest, which is already accepting submissions and will keep doing so till the end of the month.

    1. Give my regards to your fox squirrel. Your mention of it made me realize I didn’t see or hear a single squirrel on the San Bernard trail. They could have been there, but they’re usually not so quiet. When I checked the refuge species list, I found squirrels, but I found bobcats and minks as well. That’s certainly interesting.

      There were several things that pleased me about my discoveries on the trail, including the Ilia underwing. Another is the Texas pinkroot. It turns out it’s a Texas endemic, and uncommon. I’m going to do a separate post about that one. You may remember the time I was fussing about not getting a single decent photo of the aquatic milkweed, because of the difficulty of photographing the white flowers in the deep shade. That’s when I turned around and went back the next day to try again — I’m glad I put forth the extra effort.

      I was surprised to find the Venus’ looking-glass, too. I first found it at Sandylands; Tom Whelan has photographed it in Massachusetts.

      I’ll look through my files and see what I might have for the contest. I would have submitted that cool photo of the snake cotton, but the no-previous-publication rule knocks that one out. I am glad they’re allowing photos from other years, since travel has been a bit constrained recently.

      1. If you have other photographs of snake cotton similar to the ones you posted, you can submit one of those. Likewise for all the other wildflowers you’ve been showing recently.

        1. Little Miss Oblivious finally took a good look at the Ecoregions map and was astonished to discover that she’s passed through a discontinuous piece of Blackland Prairie multiple times: Yoakum, Schulenburg, Hallettsville. That means I can submit for four Ecoregions rather than three. I’ve already selected an image from each region; now I just have to find the best version of each.

    2. Mission accomplished. I just submitted four photos for this year’s contest. I’m so pleased with all four I hardly care if I win — I’m just eager to be able to publish them on Lagniappe.

  11. The oldest tree I ever saw was a pine, in Japan. I would love to see these oaks.

    Trees are so wonderful. They calm me, and soothe me, and create forests which are more pleasing to me than even mountains or seas.

    I am sure you know of Overstory, the novel by Powers which won the Pulitzer last year? I have been meaning to read his novel of trees.
    And also, I am sure you know of the Japanese concept of forest bathing (shinrin-yoku)? Surely we are restored amongst their beauty and peace and added oxygen.

    1. I have heard of ‘forest bathing,’ of course, but in my case, it usually just means I’ve been out on an exceptionally hot day and I’m dripping sweat!

      On the other hand, I’ve not heard of Powers or Overstory. I rarely read fiction, so that’s no surprise. These days, I’m more likely to have a botanist’s journal or an identification guide at hand. Still, fiction or non-, I agree with you about the wonder of trees. Discovering the pines of east Texas has been especially satisfying. Maybe one day I’ll see your Japanese pines, and you can see the Texas oaks.

  12. What a great place for a hike and a camera. Thanks for sharing your expert eye for capturing the feel of the place. I’ve never see a spider like the one with the white web. Hope I never see on in person like that but it sure makes a fascinating picture.

    1. That white web is called a ‘stabilimentum.’ No one seems to be quite sure what it is: web decoration, a means of attracting prey, or even a way of stabilizing a web. They’re really interesting, though. Some spiders make round ones as small as a dime, but these orb weavers specialize in zig-zaggy patterns. They’re always fun to find — and those spiders won’t hurt us at all.

  13. You have taken lots of wonderful photos to illustrate your journey beautifully. I really like old trees, the Veterans. They have seen so much, and endured so much over the centuries. If trees could only talk …

      1. It sure would. My Dad had the original Lee Marvin ‘Wandrin’ Star’ vinyl single, and I am sure this was on the B side. I might even have it up in the loft somewhere, Great film and songs.

  14. Thanks for the journey. Your photos are really good. It is important to look for those flowers and scenes, not just plod along. Did you say how far the trail took you into the woods?

    1. I’m not a plodder-alonger — at least, not when I have a camera in my hand. Even when driving a loop, I go slowly. It once took me ten hours to go around a nine-mile loop, and I only made it halfway before it was time to head for home.

      The trail’s actually quite short: less than a two-mile round trip. Two of my visits were about six hours each; they would have been longer had it not been for the heat.

    1. I think you’d really enjoy it. I was surprised by the variety of wildflowers blooming. I’m anxious to see it in spring, as I suspect even more species will appear. I’ve read that it’s a favored stopover for migrating birds, as well. In fall and winter, I suspect the birds will be easier to see.

    1. ‘Enchanting’ is a good word. One thing that struck me was the quality of the light. In some places, it seemed as green as it appears in a couple of these photos, because of of the dense growth and the solid canopy. It was quite a sight.

    1. Thanks, Peter. It was great fun finding the flowers. Because of the heavy shade, there weren’t the large colonies that appear in other places, but it only takes one flower for a photo.

    1. That sense of being in another world was strong while I was there. I’ve commented several times on Lagniappe about how amazed I was to visit the Piney Woods and find it so different from the coastal plain. This was unique in a different way, but it provided that same sense of having traveled much farther from home than a two-hour drive.

  15. Great tour-de-force Linda. I’ve loved the great oaks of the Texas coast my entire life, a love I acquired by osmosis from my maternal grandfather. He raised live oaks for most of my childhood in Orchard, Texas. On his upper arm was a large scar that bore the shape of a large old oak. I’ve spent my life in the shade of oaks, not all old. My front yard is shaded by a dozen that are approaching the century mark in age. And scattered through the young woods around here are remnants of home yards where nothing but the old yard oak remain. Those trees, one and all, are the cathedrals I’m drawn too for my quiet communion. I’ll need to visit this one now… thanks.

    1. What’s nice about this trail is that it’s so accessible. While it feels quite wild, they’ve done a good job of trail maintenance. The first time I visited, I was just past the utility easement when I met the only family I’ve come across there: a mother, father, and twins in a stroller. I asked the dad if the trail was stroller-friendly all the way to the tree, and he said it was — although a couple of times they had to lift it up to get it over an obstacle.

      Those kids have a chance to grow up with the same love of the oaks, and nature in general, that you absorbed. I loved hearing you use the phrase “yard oak.” I haven’t heard that since I lived in Victoria and roamed that area. Like the scattered stands of amaryllis that mark old homesteads, they’re reminders of a different time.

  16. Thanks for a wonderful walk through the woods. It brought me back to the weekend hikes I took with my father long ago, and those are fond memories, indeed. Thanks again.

    1. Those of us who were raised by parents or grandparents who were willing to spend time outdoors with us are blessed, indeed. My mother wasn’t at all the outdoors type, but my dad was, and he certainly encouraged my curiosity about the things that we found there. I’m glad this post evoked some of those memories for you. They’re sweet ones, for sure.

  17. These oaks are unbelievable, aren’t they? Thanks, Linda, for taking me around that trail with its fantastic blossoms.
    Have a great week, and stay healthy,
    Pit

    1. They’re wonderful trees. It’s too bad the developers who’ve moved into the creekside portion of the Willow City loop are taking out so many of the large, beautiful oaks there. I still haven’t gotten over seeing that: huge trees tipped over, with their roots in the air. It certainly cast a pall over the day. I’ve been told the developers aren’t local, but from Austin. Just thinking about it makes me grumpy, but I’ll give them a few months to see how things — uh — develop.

    1. I’m really lucky that so many great places — and such variety — is available close to home. Most require a one or two hour drive, but I enjoy driving, and the traffic’s never bad, so that’s not an issue. Best of all, there are wonderful things to see.

    1. I especially enjoyed finding a Texas endemic with an associated species that many gardeners — including Jason — favor. It took me forever to ID it, but now that the ID has been confirmed, I’ll be doing a separate post on it. There’s always a surprise!

    1. Once our current unpleasantness is over, it would be great fun to meet up and do some exploring together. Thanks for the help with that Texas pink, too. I posted the photo on iNaturalist, and was quite surprised to see it picked up and added to the Texas endemics project. It not only was fun to find it, it finally got me onto iNat. Maybe I’ll start using it more, now.

  18. Omigosh… That’s like walking in the woods right here in the Carolina Lowcountry. So many of the trees and plants are the same.

    Love Resurrection fern! There’s an oak here on campus that is just covered in it.

    We have our own Grand Oak here, Angel Oak. I have pictures of me as a child sitting on the lower branches. (That’s derinitely not allowed now.) Dad knew the farmer who owned the land. The City of Charleston owns it now and it is a public park.

    From Wiki:

    “Angel Oak is a Southern live oak (Quercus virginiana) located in Angel Oak Park on Johns Island near Charleston, South Carolina. The tree is estimated to be 400–500 years old. It stands 66.5 ft (20 m) tall, measures 28 ft (8.5 m) in circumference, and produces shade that covers 17,200 square feet (1,600 m2). Its longest branch distance is 187 ft in length. Angel Oak was the 210th tree to be registered with the Live Oak Society.”

    1. I thought about you when I was sorting through all the San Bernard photos with vines and palmettos and water. Some years ago, you either shared a photo or sent me a postcard from a place near Charleston that looked similar. I’ve not had time to look through my saved cards yet, but I do remember you said it looked like the places you and your dad went fishing in years past.

      It’s neat that you have resurrection fern, too. It makes sense that since we share the oaks, we would share the ferns. And I remember a great article about the Angel Oak in Garden & Gun. With such long limbs, I wondered if some were on the ground, and the photos I just looked at show exactly that — as well as some supports beneath others. The trees are such treasures. I love that you got to perch on the angel oak!

  19. This might be my favorite of many of your nature posts. I’d not heard the word ecotone. I loved the section in the woods with the remarkable collection of wildflowers. I’ve never seen any of these here, or noticed them at least, and some are so very different. Like the Turkish cap and Mexican hat. I must have a hat fetish today! But each and every photo is a step into another world.

    1. ‘Ecotone’ has been a new word for me, too. I learned it only a few months ago. What’s interesting is that such areas can be quite large, or very small. It seems to me that the Big Thicket as a whole might qualify, but researching that is nothing project for another day.

      We share a lot of flowers, but I think the only one of these found in your area is a species of the skullcap. I was surprised to find that the Turk’s cap isn’t native any farther north than Arkansas. It is a beauty; even in a dark woods, that color shines. I’m not surprised your artist’s eye enjoyed it!

  20. Thankyou for this magical guided tour of natural treasures. I enjoyed the journey and found myself breathlessly waiting for the next mystical pathway’s revelations.

    1. Get Big Foot healed up, come to Texas, and I’ll take you on a personally guided tour of the place; it really is magical. You might want to wait until things have cooled off a bit, though. As much as I enjoyed my visits there, I believe I’ll wait until September to return.

    1. We do love these oaks. One of my friends in Charleston, SC, had her photo taken sitting in their Angel Oak when she was a kid. Do you remember if the Friendship Oak had the resurrection fern growing on it, too? The Charleston oak does, but when I think of Mississippi trees, I always think of Spanish moss.

      I have a little oak in my place, but it’s not a tree. It’s a blanket chest my grandfather made from my grandmother’s first dining table, which was oak. They replaced that small table around 1920, so the wood probably goes back to the turn of the century. Oak is good wood!

      1. I don’t recall seeing any fern on the Friendship Oak. I believe at one time it had Spanish Moss, but a couple of hurricanes (Camille in ’69 and Katrina in ’05) swept much of that away. Love the story of your oak chest — what a great idea!!

  21. I had no idea trees could live that long! But all your photos are fabulous and now I wish I could go on a hike like that….maybe someday. Meanwhile, thanks for sharing this.

    1. Just think — the day will come when you can take that new granddaughter on hikes, and introduce her to wonders like this. Your grandson, too. I’m convinced that the first step toward ensuring the preservation of the natural world is developing people who love the natural world. In that sense, the children are its future.

  22. Wow, this is one heck of a walk you’ve taken us on!! What a wealth of plants and creatures, and some of them, like the Turk’s Cap, pretty exotic. You’ve done a whole travel brochure for this place, if I’m ever in that part of the world, I’m definitely headed there. Lots of excellent photos, but that shot of the dried resurrection fern is my favorite, pleasing to look at, and intriguing, like some kind of bronze artifacts.

    1. If you’re ever in this part of the world, we can start at this spot, and go from there. This is only one part of the San Bernard Refuge, which has prairie, ponds, and innumerable trails — and then, just down the road, is the Brazoria Refuge that I so often visit.

      When I first saw the dried resurrection ferns, I thought of chariot wheels. Before they completely transform from green and lush to brown and crackly, they seem to go through several colors, like these. I’d love to find a few where I can get a nice, sharp focus and the whole range of colors.

  23. That’s a very nice post and I am almost intoxicated with the beauty of it all. This come on top of what was on the news this morning of our own Tasmania having some of the largest and biggest trees in the world. The trees are measured in height, circumference and in cubic metres.

    What amazes me always is how strong those branches are of the mighty oak tree. Just imagine the strain on the main trunk bearing the weight of those large branches suspended horizontally and laden with its foliage?

    1. I wonder if your arborists use the same formula for calculating tree size as do ours. I’m sure they’re similar, if not identical. I couldn’t understand why the current champion was smaller in some respects than the San Bernard oak, but an arborist explained to me that their formula allows them to compare dissimilar trees. I didn’t ask, but now I wonder if they use drones these days. It seems as though measuring a crown would be easier with the help of airborne instruments.

      Some of our most famous trees have their longest and heaviest limbs actually laying on the ground, or supported in some way. Apart from preserving the aesthetic appeal of the trees, keeping the limbs from breaking probably helps to keep the tree healthy, too.

  24. What an amazing array of flowers and insects. Just goes to show how much you can see if you look closely up, down and all around.

    Thanks for taking us on this lovely nature walk – I thoroughly enjoyed it :)

    1. One of the best things about a place like this is that it’s never the same, even from week to week. Some of these flowers, like the Texas pink and the aquatic milkweed, were barely in bud the first time I visited. Of course I had to return, to catch them in bloom.

  25. It’s hard for me to imagine finding that ancient tree in a woods filled with so many beautiful, distracting things. And what an array of excellent images. Were they the work of one walk or many?

    A place I’d love to visit, with so much diversity, and so many flowers.

    1. The people in charge have done a splendid job of keeping the place both accessible and pleasingly wild. There’s a second path — a loop — that I haven’t yet taken. I suspect it’s even less developed, but I haven’t found any information about it online. It will make an interesting side trip the next time I’m there.

      I spent three days gathering photos. During my first visit, a few plants (like the aquatic milkweed) were only in bud, so of course I had to go back in a week to see if I could catch the plants blooming.On that second visit, I found a couple of plants new to me, so that was good. The third trip was solely to try again for milkweed photos. My original shots were terrible, so I did the only reasonable thing and went back to try again. The place is only two hours from home.

      1. What a place to have that close by! The return trips succeeded. Just the sort of natural adventure close to my heart. Hope you get back for that loop trail soon.

    1. The Karankawa and Tonkawa peoples were in the area long before Austin and his tribe showed up, but of course the tree would have been far less impressive in their time. It is interesting to ponder whether it served a function, such as a gathering place, even in those days. There are several ‘treaty oaks’ in Texas and elsewhere that received their name because of treaties signed beneath their limbs.

  26. Oh wow – I LOVE that type of walk! When I got to the first trailhead picture my whole body just relaxed. It reminds me of one of my favorite walks near our home in Ohio – the Siebenthaler Fen. I haven’t found anything like it here in NC. I need to work harder at it!

    1. I didn’t realize there are fens in this country. For some reason, I’ve always associated them with England and Scotland. Thanks to our Forest Service, I’m a little better educated now. The Siebenthaler Fen trail looks marvelous; no wonder you enjoyed it. I see that the Nature Conservancy was involved in its preservation; they do such good work.

  27. What a wonderful experience to see this oak in person. I like the details of what you saw on your walk to get there. It looks alternately foreboding and inspiring. I’ve never heard of a Clasping Venus’ looking-glass. It’s simplicity is beautiful as is the color. I do hope you get the chance to visit the tree in a different season.

    1. I didn’t experience it as foreboding, precisely, but it certainly is isolated: a bit of a virtue in these crazy days. I’d never seen the clasping Venus’ looking glass until last year, and I was surprised to find a blogger from Massachusetts posting images of it. That’s a flower that gets around; it might even be in your area!

    1. Wouldn’t you like to have an oak like this out behind your house? I’ll bet the grands would love climbing it as much as I enjoyed the hike out to see it.

  28. Linda, I enjoyed this post more than any that you have written thus far. I especially love trees and I have always been fascinated by the state champions and other impressive trees that I have happened upon. I have never seen any of these in person but that does not diminish my excitement for looking at the photos and reading about their history. I can not think of the name of the poet or the poem but I think there is one about the mighty oak or maybe some other impressive tree. Trees and other vegetation are filters of the world and it saddens me each time I read about deforestation to make way for agriculture. Thank goodness this area of forest and wetlands is protected.

    1. I remember your fondness for trees, Yvonne. Have you ever taken a look at the state of Texas’s Big Tree Registry? It lists champions for various species, and it’s really quite interesting. They have photos of each species, which is helpful, and you can even search the site by county. You might even have a champion close to you.

      This area has been a joint venture, with many groups involved in land purchase, preservation, and restoration. The sign mentions three: Dow Chemical, the Friends of Brazoria Wildlife Refuges, and the US Fish & Wildlife service. The Nature Conservancy has been involved, too: additional pieces of land are being purchased as funds allow. It’s a bit of a patchwork, but every little bit helps.

    1. It’s a wonderful place. It was especially interesting to have the utility easement cutting through the middle of it. Because of the mowing and full sunlight, it even had a few plants like snow-on-the-prairie growing there, and small clumps of coneflower. It was fun to see plants that sometimes are described as thriving at woodland edges actually growing at — the woodland edge.

      1. Interestingly enough, my next post was going to be on Quercus virginiana, because I’ve seen so many. However, on 2018 the Volusia Oak which was supposedly more than 400 years old had to be cut down because of a fungus. Volusia is around Daytona, but I didn’t see that one. There’s another supposedly 600-Year-Old Quercus virginiana tree in St. Augustine. All the ones I’ve seen are much younger. Quercus geminata, called ‘sand live oaks’ are smaller trees that forms thickets. They’re used a lot for landscaping

  29. Hello.

    Wow, what a hike, what nature, what flowers! Amazing post full with information and stunning photos! I am glad that I had possibility to see your pics. Thank you.

    Have a great day!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Matti. I’m glad I have such a place to share with you, just as you have the chance to show the beauty of your land — and your reindeer! — to your readers.

    1. A lifetime ago, when I lived and worked in Houston, nothing was nicer seeing those big, old oaks. I lived at Kirby and Westheimer, and worked at the edge of the Rice Village, so they were daily, pleasant companions. I was fascinated to read that a stethoscope was one of the tools they used to lift those limbs. Who knew?

      Waiting for a bit of coolth isn’t a bad idea. It was quite a shock to me to experience summer in the piney woods, or down at San Bernard. I’d always associated ‘woods’ or ‘forest’ with ‘crisp and cool,’ but it seems I was remembering Colorado or California forests: not Texas!

  30. Your hike reminded me so much of the types of hikes I love to take, and the oddities I photograph along the way. They’re treasures really. Sometimes I spend way too much time trying to investigate a death, or identify scat along trails. I was drawn to the Ilia, tiger moth, spiders, and leaf and bone images. This was a fascinating post, Linda. Great oaks are to be revered. Thank you for pointing out three, that truly have me hoping Forrest and I can visit one day!

    1. One of the things I’ve always envied about your life is your ability to go into the same land day after day — or at least, as often as you want. Things can change a good bit in even twenty-four hours. A day earlier or later, and the Ilia, the tiger moth, and the spiders might not have been there. The bones no doubt would have been, but even they eventually will be moved, or swept away by flooding, or covered by the earth.

      Looking at the tree, it’s easy to believe the world’s stable, but there are changes even there. This photo of the oak was taken on my first visit. By my second visit, someone — presumably the refuge staff — had cleared away a good bit of the undergrowth. I’ve got some before and after photos I’ll share on Lagniappe eventually; both are attractive, but they’re a reminder of the changes that can come while our backs are turned.

      I’ll be featuring the Texas pink on Lagniappe, too. It’s a Texas endemic, and one of those little gems that deserves its own post!

  31. Well this sure was a treat, I loved it all! Your observational skills are second to none! Oh, the drama of all that insect life….utterly brilliant. I loved hearing about the ancient oaks, what history they have seen. I loved that trail too, I would enjoy walking that. Such a wonderful post. Thank you.xxx

    1. It’s amazing how much I see when I turn my inner five-year-old loose, or when I go out intending to imitate the bear who went over the mountain. Remember the song? He went out “to see what he could see,” rather than setting out with a specific goal in mind. Of course the big oak was my goal here, but seeing what I could see was just as important, and I sure did see a lot!

  32. What a fine natural history of the park. So many nice flowering plants and a great tale of the oak. I doubt that we have many if any the age of your old tree. Much of New England was logged and our forests are the rebounds from that as farms failed and the land recovered. It must be strong as an oak to survive all the hurricanes through the years.

    1. I wondered if the bifurcated trunk might have been the result of a storm. I haven’t found an answer to that, yet, but it makes sense. It’s not as ‘pretty’ as some large oaks because the split trunk has led to a somewhat irregular crown, but age conveys a sense of other virtues: strength, flexibility, endurance.

      Many of the flowering plants obviously were at the end of their season; I saw only one or two examples of some. Others, like the snow-on-the-prairie, were just appearing. Those plants were hosting more green lynx spiders than I’ve ever seen in one place. I’m anxious to see what other treats await on my next visit — just as I’m hoping to avoid the snakes, feral hogs, and such that live there.

      As I understand it, portions of the Columbia bottomlands had been turned to farming, too. Now, some of that land’s being allowed to return to its natural state.

        1. No lynx spider photos this time. I found them on my way back down the trail, and the only thing on my mind was getting back to the car — and more water. I’m a woman who knows my limits, and six hours of hiking in the heat was pushing them on that particular day.

    1. Thanks so much! It’s been quite a blessing to have places like this close to home during the past months. Between our typical Texas summer heat and the relative isolation of the refuges (particularly those without an auto tour route), there have been plenty of opportunities for exploration and enjoyment.

    1. Think how many places — and what a variety of places — you can visit when you finally get here again. The spring wildflowers are probably our most famous natural attraction, but they’re far from the only one.

  33. “… and the trail leading to the oak is as interesting as the tree itself.”

    You weren’t kidding!

    What a terrific virtual walk. While sipping my morning coffee, no less. Thank you!

    Your eye for noticing Nature’s highlights is indeed keen. A truly glorious adventure!

    My wife and I visited our son and his family in Houston in April 2019 and made a quick trip to San Bernard NWR. Most of our time was spent in searching for spring bird migrants and we didn’t visit the oak tree trail. Now we have a very good reason (among many) to return!

    Thank you again for a delightful journey.

    1. How wonderful that you’ve been to the San Bernard refuge. The Brazoria refuge is great, but San Bernard has become a favorite of mine, too — and now I have another reason to love it. If you’re primarily birders, I’ve read that the Oak Tree Trail is quite a productive spot in springtime.

      If you haven’t been to the LaFitte’s Cove nature center and Artist Boat on Galveston’s west end, or across San Luis pass to the Hamby Nature trail, they’re other nice birding spots that are easily accessible from Houston. If you happen to make another trip, I think you’d enjoy them both.

    1. I’m glad you came along, Lavinia; I wish I could take you there for an afternoon. There’s so much that you’d enjoy. I confess to being anxious to see it again in a couple of months. When seasons change, so does the scenery; there’s always a new delight.

  34. I loved this and the photographs were simply incredible! My favorite is the first of the spider photographs. It has so much energy! I’ve been to Texas a few times, and on the first visit was relieved of the caricatures of the terrain, but your blog has simply taken its diversity to a new level.

    1. Once things have settled a bit and the temperatures have cooled, I’m hoping to get to some other parts of the state that I’ve yet to visit. People generally understand that Texas is large, but it’s much harder to grasp the diversity that’s present here. This map of our multiple ecoregions certainly makes the point. It’s hard to communicate just how diverse — and beautiful — the state is. That’s one reason I decided that a walk was in order!

  35. An absolutely fascinating post; what I wouldn’t give to be able to walk the path through the wilderness, stopping off at every flower, fern, tree and the majestic oak. I am a keen lover, and sometime observer, of nature and an area like the one you describe here would give me endless opportunity to learn and admire. Many of the flowers I recognise; although they do not grow in the wild in our climate they have been adapted to become cultivated and honour our gardens in their cultivated forms.

    1. You would love this place, Friko. It’s simply too hot for a revisit at this point — at least, I’m not going to make that trip! — but in time things will cool a bit, and it will be interesting to see the changes. And isn’t it fun to see how the plants have traveled back and forth over time? Some, of course, never should have been introduced into non-native environments; they become trouble-makers, and crowd out the native plants. But others provide such enjoyment. It’s been great fun to learn about some of the European botanists and naturalists who came here in the 1800s on collecting trips. They were an interesting crew, to say the least.

  36. I forgot to mention that I had never heard of the Battle of Vlaardingen although the medieval period of European history is my preferred era.Thank you for enlightening me.

    Blogging is, of course, wonderful, but, you know something? you meet people you would dearly love to meet in real life.

    1. There’s an amusing connection between Vlaardingen and my childhood that I never would have expected. The Wiki notes that the Cambrai Chronicle reported that “a thousand have put even twice ten thousand to flight,” suggesting 1,000 West Frisian versus 20,000 Imperial troops. In fact, this could be a purely literary estimate based on the Book of Deuteronomy (32:30): “How could one man chase a thousand, or two put ten thousand to flight…”

      That’s quite similar to the taunt heard in the Scandinavian midwest of my childhood: “Ten thousand Swedes ran into the weeds at the Battle of Copenhagen; ten thousand Swedes ran into the weeds, chased by one Norwegian.”

      I don’t know who you and I could chase, but I’ll bet we’d have some fun!

  37. Lovely deep woods and flower photos. Live oaks really capture my imagination… I love their majesty, and esp. when draped with Spanish moss, are an impressive sight.

    1. Live oaks draped with moss always were my midwestern-kid vision of the south, and when I finally saw them, they didn’t disappoint. After I moved to Texas, I was astonished to find them here; some were as majestic as anything I’d seen in Mississippi. The good news is that they’re generally beloved, and there are poperty owners who spend plenty of time and money keeping them in good health.

  38. Thank you for taking me with you along a beautiful hike. I really felt like I was on the trail with you. And you pointing out all the beautiful plants. What a lovely area.
    What an awesome post!!

    1. It’s certainly different from the prairie, isn’t it? That’s one of the things I love about my area. There are so many different ‘worlds’ to enjoy. I thought describing the whole trail might help people get a sense of its beauty and variety — I’m glad you caught some of that sense!

    1. Texas sure is more than Longhorns and ranches. A lot of people are surprised when they get here and discover we’ve got everything from pine forests to prairies to desert. There are parts of the state I’ve not visited yet, like the Big Bend, and I’m looking forward to getting the chance. Glad you enjoyed seeing this part of my area.

  39. Oh what a delight this was, Linda, learning about the venerable oak trees, and then hiking down the trail to see the San Bernard Oak. Great to see the different habitats too. And endlessly interesting to me, a Californian, to see your Texas flora (palmettos, moss and vines). Texas-style cobwebs, so huge, and great photos of the spiders. Terrific wildflowers, too, Linda. Thanks for taking us along on this wonderful adventure.

    1. When I lived in California, I was astonished by the diversity of your state, but it was an equal pleasure to get to Texas and discover its variety. In truth, I’ve only recently come to appreciate east Texas, with its piney woods, or the tangled bottomlands of my area. I still need to head north and west, to the Panhandle and the Big Bend, but this isn’t the season for any of that. Both are more pleasurable in spring or fall!

      I was so pleased to find the spiders with their prey. The webs are common enough, and any walk in any woods will provide a faceful of silk for inattentive walkers, but seeing the cocooning I’ve read about was special.

    1. It’s a spot you’d love, Shannon. Before my first visit, I assumed the tree was the primary attraction. After my first visit, the richness of the environment made it imperative to return.

      Speaking of returns: I did get to BB, and found the Thalia. The blooms almost were spent, but I found them. And I didn’t know about the lotus! I was absolutely astonished, and I’ll be heading back there before many more days have passed to try for some better photos. I missed a fantastic photo of a great blue heron because I’d decided not to take my long lens with me — talk about a mistake!

  40. I loved the oaks and to be able to have a guided walk through these beautiful woods. The variety of flowers is amazing and most of them were either new to me, or in new or unusual colours. I read ‘Panicled ticktrefoil’ as ‘Panicked ticklefoil’ at first glance and the ‘face’ on the flower seemed appropriate. It was a little disappointing to realise a split second later that wasn’t its name.

    1. Here’s a secret: when I first met the ticktrefoil, I read it as “panicked,” too. And that little face amuses me no end. The most interesting of the flowers turned out to be a Texas endemic: the Texas pinkroot. It’s in the same genus as the woodland pinkroot or Indian pink (Spigelia marilandica), which I’ve learned is common in southeastern gardens. I’ll be doing a separate post for that one, since our native is uncommon.

      I’m looking forward to making another trip when the weather cools and the plants begin to change. I have no idea what to expect, but that will be part of the fun.

  41. What a feast for the eye, Linda. I love all the flowers you discovered and can only imagine them to be small. That purple bindweed almost makes me feel kinder toward the weed. And those paths almost into a thicket reminds me of Mr Rochester’s Ferndean manor “in the heart of a wood”.

  42. I smiled at your reference to Ferndean Manor. Jane Eyre was a favorite book when I was growing up; it gave me an unusual fondness for moors! This really was a beautiful place. I’m eager to take the one trail I haven’t yet walked, and to see the place as the seasons finally begin to change. September’s not a cool month here, but it can be cooler, and I suspect different flowers will begin to appear. I’m glad you enjoyed the walk; today, I’m off to a new spot to seek out lotus!

  43. I’ve only every seen live oaks out in the open~I’m astonished to see this one tucked into such a wet, jungly habitat. Who knew? I loved this post so much. Your photographs are stunning. Even as I savored each flower, I couldn’t wait to see the next one. By the time I reached the tree, I felt I’d been on a journey! I’ve been in similar habitats, so I could feel the heat and hear the mosquitoes…

    1. Just don’t forget the chiggers! The first trip I made down the path, I didn’t take sufficient care, and suffered for a couple of weeks. Now, I prepare for every nasty biter in the world, and haven’t had any problems.

      I’m coming to learn that Texas is filled with areas where different ecoregions meet and mix, and this is one. Oddly enough, one of the most interesting areas of the place was the utillity easement. It was filled with flowers more often found on prairies or open fields, because of the mowing and the tree trimming at the edges.

      1. Oh yes, how could I forget the chiggers!!! I was just out in doing some field work in a grassland here and came home covered in bites. Erk. It is interesting to learn this about Texas. I’m so glad you are sharing it with us. Happy exploring!

  44. Those big trees are amazing. I have always been fascinated by the often huge deciduous trees you find in the temperate climate zone, maybe because it’s not so much what I am used to. And just thinking about them being a thousand years old, like the one at Goose Island State Park, makes you ponder about life and put things in perspective. What hasn’t this tree experienced of what we human now call history!

    1. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the old trees could tell us stories of what they’ve seen? It might not always be comfortable, but I’ll bet it would be fascinating. It saddens me to think of how much old forest still is being cut, even though we should know better. There are a variety of reasons, of course,including the need for wood for cooking and heating in some parts of the world. Still, there’s finally a move toward replacement tree farming here. I say, “Good!” Let the Ancient Ones live out their days in peace.

  45. I hate when a really old magnificent tree meets it’s end especially if it was from some human stupidity. I find myself staring and sometimes touching these giants while wondering what all they have witnessed in their time.

    1. Human stupidity will have its way, unfortunately. But you’ve reminded me of a feel-good story about an old tree right here in my town. I might even re-post it, just because it is a great story (with an even better end now), but in the meantime, you might enjoy it.

  46. Oops! Pushed send too soon. I wanted to add that I also love the huge Oak! Especially if it’s covered with spanish moss! I don’t know why but I’ve always loved Oaks with spanish moss dripping from them!

    1. Somehow the first part of your comment disappeared, but I’m glad you enjoyed the post, and the Big Tree. I’ve not yet been back to see how things have changed, partly because rain and flooding from hurricanes has created even more mosquitoes than I dealt with on these trips, but I’m really interested to see how things look this fall and winter.

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