Get Low and Behold

by | May 1, 2011 | Native Plants

IT’S OFTEN SAID THAT BIG THINGS COME IN SMALL PACKAGES, and that can be true of plants too. Because we tend not to notice the smallest of our native species, I urge you to go out into nature and take a close look at some unsung and under-sung native plants.

One of my favorites is the strangely named frog-fruit or fog-fruit, although no one has found a convincing connection to frogs or fog. Phyla nodiflora belongs to the verbena family and grows across much of the southernmost United States. This humble perennial typically rises not more than 3 to 5 inches above the earth, but it roots at its stem nodes and tends to form horizontal mats that extend for several feet. That prostrate growth has led to other quaint vernacular names: turkey-tangle, carpet-grass and mat-grass.

From spring through fall, frog-fruit produces tiny white flowers with yellow to orange throats that grow in a small ring around the edge of a lengthening purple seed core. By the time the first ring of flowers has faded and turned brown, the core has grown a bit longer and another white floral ring has formed around its tip. In mature flower heads the core may be an inch long and still bear a diminutive crown of white flowers around its tip. Phyla nodiflora’s low growth habit has led people to use the plant as a ground cover and an embankment stabilizer, especially on damp soil, where the plant is at home. While frogfruit doesn’t seem to attract frogs or toads – one Spanish name for the plant is hierba de sapo, or toad plant – it does attract bees, a fact long noted in books about honey production in the United States.

A second white-flowered native with an odd vernacular name is crow-poison. Nothoscordum bivalve resembles a more familiar member of the lily family, hence its alternate common name: false garlic. Its odor, though, while sometimes musky, lacks the pungency so typical of garlic. Some sources claim the plant really can poison a crow and warn against mistaking it for garlic and eating it, but this is not yet proven. Still, caution is advised regarding eating the plant.

What’s certain is that crow-poison springs up 4 to 12 inches tall in loose colonies, often on damp ground, producing creamy-white flowers with six tepals, each often bearing a prominent stripe on the outside. Appearing early in the year, those small flowers are a welcome harbinger of springtime warmth.

Naturalist John Tveten remarked that crow-poison “may well be the most abundant wildflower in Houston during the cooler months of the year.” Unlike wild garlic, crow-poison often announces the return of cooler weather, blooming for a second time in the fall (and sometimes even during the intervening summer). The plant is common and widespread, growing from Texas through Nebraska and eastward to the Atlantic coast.

For centuries, horticulturalists have cultivated certain daisies to make them large and showy, but some small and relatively overlooked native daisies possess a charm that becomes apparent up close. The genus Tetraneuris provides two good examples, T. scaposa and T. linearifolia, which grow from Kansas through Texas and New Mexico. These similar species produce buds with an outer surface that – like the stalk rising as much as 18 inches up to it – is covered with inviting silky down. Each bud eventually opens to reveal a cup of densely packed, richly yellow disk flowers ringed by the irregular silvery hairs of the bud’s outer covering.

Once the flower head opens fully and the ray flowers are deployed, the four-nerve daisy shows how it gets its name: Running the length of each bright yellow ray flower are four “nerves” that, being of a darker yellow, stand out from the crowd.

As the ray flowers age, they typically lose much of their yellow and take on a papery white appearance; they also don’t usually stay in an outright position but fold down and partially clasp the remaining cup of disk flowers (which tends to bulge outward in the center).

Another touch-worthy small plant is Heller’s plantain (Plantago helleri), which grows from southern New Mexico through Central Texas. After emerging 2 to 3 inches above the earth in the spring, the plant gives rise to a flower stem covered with long hairs that makes an upside-down U and terminates in a bud with an even denser growth of hair. The species colonizes flat patches of ground, and at this early stage an observer may see a soft miniature “forest” with dozens of drooping stalks. As each plant matures, the end of the stalk straightens up and produces a spike one-third of an inch thick covered in closely packed white flowers with a dark-brown spot at the center. By the coming of summer they’re gone.

Like Heller’s plantain, silverpuff (Chaptalia texana) has a drooping posture. It is found from southern New Mexico to south-central Texas. The dense hairs that cover this shade- and limestone-loving species make the undersides of its wavymargined leaves appear to be covered with whitish-green felt. The plant blooms in the spring and produces a downy flower stalk 6 to 12 inches tall. Woolly-white with clinging hairs, the stalk first rises then nods its way into a bud, which in this species is covered with narrow overlapping magentatipped bracts. Soon pink ray flowers poke their way out, and the still-constricted flower head rises. Often it doesn’t fully open, but when it does, the ray flowers, now white, flare outward to reveal the disk flowers at their center. The presence of these two types of flowers tells us that we are observing a plant from the large family that includes daisies, and another common family trait awaits the returning observer: After the flower head has gone to seed, it turns into the dandelion-like globe of whitish-tan that gives silverpuff its common name.

Although we normally think of plants having flowers and we readily admit that grasses are plants, many of us don’t recognize that grasses have flowers. One big reason is that grasses tend to have such tiny flowers that we don’t normally see them. Another reason is that grass flowers don’t have the shape of a rose or other familiar ornamentals, so even if we do see them we may not recognize them as flowers. Take hairy grama (Bouteloua hirsuta) for instance, a common native grass that reaches heights of 6 to 30 inches and ranges from Canada down through the Great Plains and into Mexico. Flowering from May through October, this grass produces inflorescences that look like little fuzzy reddish- brown combs, each with a pointy projection called a stinger (that fortunately doesn’t sting). Unlike any combs that a person would use, the teeth of these are spikelets; they produce elongated creamywhite tassels that hang down on short filaments and are in fact stamens, the pollenproducing male parts of flowers. Less visible as they protrude slightly from the teeth of each “comb” are even smaller structures, white and bristly, that are stigmas, the pollen-seeking female parts of flowers.

Finally, let’s look at the genus Cuscuta, with many species found throughout North America. Commonly known as dodder, these plants differ from the five already discussed, and from most others, because they don’t depend on photosynthesis. Instead, they prey on their neighbors. Dodder begins life as a seed in the ground, but it quickly puts out shoots that look for a victim. Once a shoot finds a suitable host – different species of dodder favor different ones – it curls around it and burrows into it repeatedly. Once the dodder has a source of food, it lets its roots wither away, and from then on it lives entirely above the ground in the “canopy” of the host plant. Because dodder doesn’t need chlorophyll to capture energy from the sun, it isn’t green; its many slender, twining strands are yellow or yelloworange, and they grow in dense masses that can measure several feet across and that remind some people of angel hair pasta. White, waxy and bell-like, its tiny flowers measure no more than onequarter inch across, but what they fail to achieve in size they make up for in numbers, as they form dense floral clusters in the spring.

In conclusion, I encourage you to get close and take a good look at our many small native plants.