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Belly Flowers

photo courtesy of: wildflowerconservancy.org

Season 5, episode 6.

From the Northern reaches of the Llano Estacado in Eastern New Mexico to the Big Bend Borderlands of Texas, this is Nature Notes
In wet years the usually bare ground of the desert is green with promise in the winter. Do you know some of the most common early wildflowers? Do you know the belly flowers?

From Marfa Public Radio, in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas, this is Nature Notes. Hello, I’m Dallas Baxter.

After good fall rains and heavy winter snows, a great variety of wildflower winter rosettes will grow everywhere. The first blooms open in mid February. Old timers know the earliest plants as "fairy bouquets”. They are tiny plants less than three inches tall, with flowers 1/8” to 1/2 “across. They are sometimes called “belly flowers” because it’s necessary to lie on that portion of the anatomy to photograph the dainty beauties.

One of the first to bloom is whitlow-wort ( Draba cuneiflora). It’s a member of the mustard family, and so has four petals arranged in the form of a cross. The blossoms are followed by flat, oval seedpods about 1/4 inch across. The white blossoms are each about 1/4” wide but grow in a cluster about an inch across and an inch tall.

The next fairy bouquet to bloom is filaree ( Erodium cicutarium). Also called cranesbill because of its long, pointed seedpods, filaree has star-shaped, pink, five-petaled flowers and finely dissected leaves. It’s a member of the geranium family. Filaree loses its petals about mid-morning.

A close relative of the dreaded “loco weed”, but itself is not poisonous, Nuttall’s milk vetch ( Astragalus Nuttallianus)has blue, bonnet-shaped flowers with the compound leaves characteristic of the pea family. It is also called “turkey pea”, but it is too small for turkeys, and should be called “quail pea”.

Dwarf verbena ( Verbena pumila) is a plant that any flower grower will instantly recognize although its whole circle of blossoms is no larger than a quarter. It has lavender-pink blooms. A prostrate plant, it hugs the ground so that its leaves help hold the moisture in the soil.

Lawn-proud people consider henbit ( Lamium amplexicaule) a weedy nuisance. Its pink, two lipped flowers are about half an inch long. Its leaves are oval or kidney shaped, and, being a member of the mint family, it has square stems. Henbit begins blooming when only a few inches tall, but may grow to ten inches. There is no reason to spend time and money trying to kill it out – it soon dies and disappears, having lived its brief life cycle.

Naturalists can perhaps be forgiven for not expecting any activity in the plant world in late winter and for failing to notice a blooming plant right at the back door. One thick shrub has no thorns. It is about four feet tall and is composed of hundreds of thin, leafless, yellowish-green stems growing in a compact mass. It is a plant of many common names: Mormon Tea, Canatilla, Popotillo, Joint-Fir, Clapweed. There are four species in the region.

Ephedra is a member of the "joint-fir" family and is more closely related to fir trees than it is to any plant usually known as a "wildflower". In the midst of February cold it is covered with minute reddish cones which grow in clusters of six at each joint in the stems. Male and female cones grow on separate plants. A male will have protruding yellowish stamens that appear all over the cones. The green stems of Ephedra are much browsed by deer, antelope, bison and cattle. Few if any birds eat the cones or seeds but one author states that quail are known to eat them.
Nature Notes is sponsored by the Dixon Water Foundation and is produced by KRTS Marfa Public Radio in cooperation with the Sibley Nature Center in Midland, Texas. This episode was written by Burr Williams.  Visit sibleynaturecenter.org and join Williams' Facebook page where photos are posted daily.