Sailing a Sea of Flowers

Rockport, Texas

As winter’s strong northerlies subside and seas become more predictable, boats along the upper Texas coast begin to move. After passing through Galveston’s jetties and leaving behind the freighters and tankers of the fairway anchorage, some turn left, toward Mobile Bay, the Florida Keys, or the tropical waters of the Bahamas. Others turn right, taking a south-westerly course along two hundred and fifty miles of Texas coastline: a course punctuated by a series of sea-focused and island-moored ports as different from Houston, Austin, and Dallas as you could imagine. Each port has its own personality, and each evokes memories from my own years of working and cruising along the coast.

My first offshore trip began in Freeport, an industrial town anchored by the largest Dow Chemical complex in the world. Only a few hours from Galveston via the Intracoastal Waterway, it provided an easy first leg for our cruise, and easy entrance into the Gulf.

As we left Freeport’s jetties at sunset, our intended destination was Port O’Connor, home to the Poco Bueno fishing tournament. Affectionately known as the Poco Loco, the tournament’s a yearly highlight in an area known for extraordinary fishing.  Port O’Connor’s also the gateway to a favorite anchorage at the Matagorda Island Army Hole, where a bold raccoon once boarded our boat and made off with every Pepperidge Farm cookie on board.

After weather forced us past Port O’Connor, we set a course for Port Aransas, the sole established town on Mustang Island. Accessible only by ferry, boat, or bridge, Port Aransas was significantly damaged during Hurricane Harvey, but rebuilding continues, and there’s no question the town’s growing popularity as a destination for foodies, crafters, birders, and cruisers will continue.

Thirty years ago, the town’s reputation was somewhat funkier and more laid-back. Populated by island lifestyle enthusiasts who weren’t always sure how to maintain their lifestyle, it became known as Hippie Hollow South: a tribute to a well-established Austin attraction. As the saying went, “Port A’s the Key West of Texas. Everyone wants to live here, but not everyone wants to work here.”

Lydia Ann Lighthouse ~ Port Aransas, Texas

In truth, the next port down the coast, Mansfield, probably bests Port Aransas when it comes to a laid-back approach to life. For decades its reputation has been summed up in its nickname: Port Mañana. A census-designated place with a population hovering around 226, it’s favored by fishermen more than sailors, although anyone cruising the length of the Intracoastal Waterway can stop there for enough fuel, ice, and beer to get them to Port Isabel, the last of the Texas ports along the coast.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve always thought of Port Isabel as the edgiest Texas port. Hearing her name, I remember the anxiety of being shadowed by another vessel on a long offshore run between Isabel and Galveston, not to mention a few minutes of panic after being stopped by the DEA just before entering West Galveston Bay.

In the end, the explanation was simple enough. Shipments of illegal weapons had been moving through Port Isabel, and as we tacked into strong north winds during our sail up the coast, our erratic course attracted the attention of the Coast Guard. After tracking us through the night, they  handed us off to the DEA agents who stopped and boarded our vessel.

Professional, and entirely pleasant once they figured out we weren’t gun-runners, they let us go on our way with a grin and a wave. Still, the thought that we’d been under surveillance for smuggling makes me laugh, and the memory of those undercover agents, Miami-Vice perfect as they lounged on their speed boat in muscle shirts and sunglasses, is delightful. Every time I hear Smuggler’s Blues, I think of them.

But of all the ports along the Texas coast, my favorite always has been Rockport. Named for a rocky ledge that underlies its shoreline and known for shoal water, it’s still a lovely cruising destination, with first-class marinas and a cluster of good repair yards nearby.

When an unfortunate encounter with Rockport’s skinny water led to the loss of a rudder, my appreciation for their repair yards grew exponentially. At the same time, being grounded in the Rockport-Fulton area — both literally and figuratively — allowed me to explore local attractions like the Fulton mansion, home to George and Harriet Fulton.

After George Ware Fulton married Harriet Gillette Smith, eldest daughter of Henry Smith, the first provisional governor of Texas, the Fultons and their children moved back to Ohio, then Maryland. In 1867 they returned to Texas, where Fulton founded the Coleman-Fulton Pasture Company, a cattle operation, as well as helping to develop the towns of Sinton, Gregory, and Rockport. Their mansion, built between 1874 and 1877, was a bit of a marvel, with central heating and air conditioning, gas lighting, and indoor plumbing.

The Fulton family was large, and as civic-minded and generous as they were wealthy. Most are buried in the Rockport cemetery, but their simple and dignified markers aren’t immediately obvious.

Two of George and Harriet’s grand-daughters, Ina and Emma, died in childhood; Emma’s is the oldest marked grave in the cemetery.

Emma Fulton (1874-1876)
Ina Fulton (1880-1881)

In truth, the Fulton graves were a serendipitous find. When I heard from a friend that spring wildflowers were blooming in the Rockport City Cemetery, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to re-visit the Fulton mansion, to see how post-Hurricane Harvey repairs were progressing in the area generally, and to see more of our flower-rich Texas spring.

Given the four-hour drive to Rockport, I wanted to be sure the flowers hadn’t faded away, so I called the Chamber of Commerce. The woman who answered the phone barely could contain her enthusiasm. “Flowers at the cemetery?” she said. “Oh, my gracious. You must come! They’re past their prime, but they’re still lovely, and you won’t be disappointed. They’ve been so thick this year — like a sea of flowers.”

By the time our conversation ended, my decision was made. It was time to return to Rockport: not by sea, this time, but by land, in order to experience the Chamber of Commerce endorsed ‘sea of flowers’ for myself.

I wasn’t disappointed. The cemetery combined Rockport’s iconic, wind-bent oaks with a variety of flowers, including our beloved bluebonnets.

Everywhere I looked, bluebonnets lapped at benches and covered gravestones with great waves of color.

In other areas, bluebonnets gave way to phlox, wine cups, coreopsis and blue curls, as well as a few firewheels (Gaillardia pulchella) and lazy daisies (Aphanostephus skirrhobasis).

The blue curls were well past their prime and most were putting on seed, but I’d seen them only once in the wild, and was happy to encounter their lavender accents around the graves.

Winecups, coreopsis, blue curls, phlox ~ and that one white daisy
Blue curls (Phacelia congesta)
A bee curled over a blue curl

In an area of military graves, coreopsis and several species of plantain predominated. People will attack plantains with an enthusiasm usually reserved for dandelions, but allowed to grow and mature, they’re actually quite attractive.  I thought it interesting that so many Confederate graves also were marked with our nation’s flag.

A damaged, but not destroyed, marker surrounded by plantain, phlox, and coreopsis
Hooker’s plantain (Plantago hookeriana)
Thanks to Steve Schwartzman for encouraging a second look at what I’d previously identified as Heller’s plantain (Plantago helleri)

Everywhere I looked, a limited number of species combined in different ways, under different light, to create a kaleidoscope of colored patterns.

Phlox, bluebonnets, coreopsis, plantains, and prairie larkspur
White prickly poppy, coreopsis, and phlox

In the midst of so many familiar flowers, there were plants I’d never seen, like this prairie larkspur (Delphinium carolinianum).

There were oddities, including a plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) paired with a natural variant I wish were a species. There’s already a propeller plant, so I decided to name this one the pinwheel coreopsis.

Was nature having fun?

One of the most striking plants I found was a large shrub or small tree with extraordinarily red flowers. Even though it’s not yet identified, it’s too pretty not to include.

Spicy Jatropha, or Peregrina (Jatropha integerrima)

As I wandered through the cemetery, one plant was noticeably absent: the Indian paintbrush. Once I realized they were missing, I searched more intently, but found no evidence of them. What I did find were yuccas, cacti, and agaves; combined with Mexican olive and desert willow trees, they gave the cemetery a piquant, south Texas flavor.

Charlie K. Skidmore’s family no doubt established the town of Skidmore, northwest of Rockport
The Skidmore plot was surrounded by beautiful yuccas
Mexican olive flowers drew pollinators of every sort

Looking again at the map of Rockport that sits atop this page, I hardly can believe that, for years, I passed within two blocks of the City Cemetery on my way to and from Key Allegro without realizing the cemetery was there.

Times and interests change, of course, and I’m certainly glad to have learned of its existence. I’m already looking forward to next year’s visit.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Searching For Texas Treasure

Cutleaf grape fern sporangia

During a late autumn trip through Arkansas’s Ouachita mountains, I stopped at a scenic overlook to enjoy the sunset. As I stepped out of the car, I nearly demolished a plant unlike any I’d ever seen. No more than a few inches tall and without any apparent foliage, its slender stalks bore what I assumed to be seeds. Round and green, they looked like English peas, or thin strings of grapes.

Once back in Texas, I began searching for information about my Arkansas oddity. Thanks to Sid Vogelpohl’s article for the Arkansas Native Plant Society, I learned that I’d stumbled across a cutleaf grape fern (Sceptridium dissectum). The fern appears in late summer to early fall, produces a solitary frond, and is named for its round, clustered sporangia, which do resemble a bunch of grapes. Intrigued, I posted about the fern on Lagniappe, and continued searching for information.

Eventually, I learned that grape ferns also are native to Texas, although they’re confined to the eastern part of the state. Nacogdoches County, one of ten listed as a location by the USDA, was close enough to warrant exploration. Narrowing my search, I discovered the fern included in a 1999 checklist of vascular plants inventoried at Nacogdoches’ Tucker Estate, now part of the Pineywoods Native Plant Center.

Although I’ve evacuated to Nacogdoches during hurricanes and pass through the town occasionally on my way to visit relatives, the existence of the  Native Plant Center surprised me, as did the existence of a wildflower demonstration garden there. Promoted by Lady Bird Johnson and named in her honor, the garden grows more than a hundred plant species native to east Texas.

As I read about the Plant Center’s history and about the work taking place at Stephen F. Austin University’s Mast Arboretum, I was equally surprised to find that both institutions have been deeply involved with three rare Texas plants: the Neches River rose mallow (Hibiscus dasycalyx), Texas trailing phlox (Phlox nivalis spp. texensis), and a beautiful white flower commonly known as Winkler’s Gaillardia, Texas white firewheel, or Winkler’s blanket flower (Gaillardia aestivalis var. winklerii).

Despite my affection for Gaillardia generally, and my familiarity with the unusual colors it can produce, the thought of a rare white blanket flower astonished me. Clearly, it was time for a trip to Nacogdoches.

Arriving at the Native Plant Center, I first asked a pair of young men if they knew where I might find the cutleaf grape fern. They pondered, then pointed to a booted woman pulling a red wagon filled with plants and plastic pots. “You need to talk to Dawn,” one said. Eventually, I learned the woman was Dawn Stover, the person responsible for herbaceous plant collections at both the Mast Arboretum and the Plant Center, as well as for their horticultural greenhouse facilities.

When I asked Dawn if she knew where, or even if, the cutleaf grape fern still grew on the grounds, she wasn’t certain. She thought it might be growing somewhere in their forty acres, but she couldn’t take me to a particular site.

“Well,” I said, “do you happen to know if there are any of the Winkler’s Gaillardia still blooming?” Her eyes lit up, and she grinned. “I can show you some,” she said. “They’re over here.” In less than a minute, we were standing in front of several beds filled with beautiful flowers.

Winkler’s gaillardia flower and seed head

As I began photographing the flowers, Dawn explained the history of the Native Plant Center’s work with them, and her own development of a color form with purple rays and dark centers. A few of the purple flowers still were blooming, but given my love of white flowers, the native seemed far more attractive.

Endemic to Texas, Winkler’s Gaillardia grows only in Hardin county, with some occurrences reported in Tyler and Newton counties. Seeing them at the Native Plant center had been delightful, but the experience left me determined to see them in their native habitat: the sandy soils and pine-oak woodlands of East Texas’s Big Thicket. I soon learned that the Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary — a 5,654 acre Nature Conservancy site located between Kountze and Silsbee — provides habitat for Winkler’s Gaillardia, as well as for the endangered Texas trailing phlox and a beautiful scarlet catchfly (Silene subciliata).

The Sanctuary, a combination of swamp, open-floor forest, and southern pinelands, is rich in plant and animal species, and serves as part of a comprehensive effort to protect and restore the longleaf pine ecosystem on the west Gulf coastal plain.

A bit of luck allowed me to make contact with Shawn Benedict, superintendent at the Sanctuary, and he graciously offered to spend some time with me when I arrived. I thought I detected a bit of amusement in his voice when he said he was certain he could help me find some white firewheels. He had reason to be amused; he already knew what I discovered only after I arrived. Scattered throughout the pine and oak woodlands that stretched into the sanctuary, the gaillardia were plentiful and obvious: some still in bud, some in seed, and others in full bloom.

Winkler’s gaillardia bud

After we admired the flowers, Shawn provided a brief tour of other Sanctuary highlights, and then went off to other things. For two more hours I wandered the trails, amazed by the variety of plant life. In that world, so different from the coastal prairies I’m most accustomed to, I wasn’t able to identify many of the plants fading away in the late October sunlight. But finding the Winkler’s Gaillardia had been my goal, and I’d succeeded beyond my wildest imaginings.

At the grand opening and dedication of the Pineywoods Native Plant Center and Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Demonstration Garden on April 8, 2000, Lady Bird herself was able to attend. After the festivities, she wrote a letter of thanks to David Creech, co-founder and for several years co-director of the Plant Center, including these comments about the luncheon decorations and the gifts she received:

I especially loved the wildflower table arrangements and little pots of Winkler’s white firewheel. Tomorrow, the men will plant my white firewheel, and I can’t wait to see the beautiful rare blossoms grow in in my very own yard! Thank you so much for your generosity in allowing me to take enough for the ranch, my house in Austin, and the Wildflower Center!

Lady Bird is gone now, of course, but the rare flower she loved continues to bloom in her gardens, at the Pineywoods Native Plant Center, and in the sandy soil of an east Texas preserve. When early summer arrives, I’ll be searching for it again. This time, I know where begin.

 

Comments always are welcome. This piece originally appeared on the Native Plant Society of Texas website, and has been slightly edited.

On Not Being Late To The Party

Late winter wetlands

As lingering autumn wildflowers succumb to January frost; as grasses shrivel and shred; as trees offer up their branches to importunate winds from the north and are rendered bare, a certain impatience begins to stir.

Winter is winter, after all, and bland, monochromatic landscapes can oppress the spirit as surely as long months of ice and snow. When fog insists on shrouding those same landscapes and gray, glowering skies refuse to lighten, questions inevitably arise: how long will it be until we see the change we long for? How long must we wait until this gray, dismal time gives way to spring?
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First Grade, Forever

Five-year-old me, on my way to my first day of first grade

As Hurricane Harvey curved east and north, away from its landfall near Rockport, its rampage through Houston, and its nearly total immersion of the Texas Golden Triangle, families and businesses focused their attention on immediate needs: shelter, drywall removal, mold remediation, and the complications of living without electicity or water.

More than homes and businesses had been damaged, of course. Hospitals and medical centers, recreational facilities, and schools also faced substantial challenges. Entire school districts, poised to begin a new year of classes, were forced to delay their openings for as much as two weeks. Continue reading

Sailing A Different Sea

Kansas: an ocean of grass

To undertake a westward journey on any early American trail — to begin life on the Oregon or Santa Fe, the Mormon or Gila — necessarily demanded the acceptance of difficulties.

From accounts in pioneer diaries, scientific notebooks, and letters written to family and friends, it seems that Indian raids, horse rustling, gunfights, and buffalo stampedes were the least of it. More often, quotidian challenges became the undoing of even the strongest traveler. Mired wagons; swarming insects; meal after meal of crackers and tea; the combination of overpowering thirst and stagnant, disease-ridden water; all these demanded remarkable levels of commitment and persistence.
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Burned Into Memory

To pass through a fire-ravaged world — eyes stinging in the smoky haze; feet sinking and twisting in the soft and shifting ash; lips tight against bitter, blowing grit  — is to risk being consumed by irrational certainties: convinced, perhaps, that such desolation, such destruction, will last forever.  Even when burns scheduled for prairie management have been carefully planned and implemented with precision, the sight of the bleak and apparently lifeless land sears the mind as surely as the earth itself has been seared.
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