White ibis

White ibis
Ibis

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Gift of Trees - Part I: A gift of Buttonbushes

 I've been putting out feelers about obtaining cuttings of buttonbush because the refuge will require hundreds of them to rehabilitate the artificial rookery where they were just starting to grow when Ike wiped out all their plantings. I love to grow plants, so figured I could get lots of cuttings started.  But I've only found four buttonbushes, in sad condition, in the butterfly garden, and the ones we planted this spring didn't grow enough to be useful for cuttings.


Buttonbush blooms are extremely attractive to butterflies and are planted in the Visitor Center pond to attract them.

Why are buttonbushes so important, you ask?  They provide nectar to many kinds of pollinators, including bees  butterflies, and moths.  And the butterflies get so intent on getting the nectar, that they are easy to photograph. For this reason, I planted button bushes on the east and west sides of  each of two boardwalk extensions over small ponds. The will eventually be really easy places to see and photograph butterflies. The seeds are used by many species of ducks and wading birds. And many songbirds build nests in buttonbushes. Waders will also use them for nests in rookeries. Hummers are attracted to them as well, as much as for the tiny insects that are attracted to the blooms as for the nectar.

While I was researching buttonbush, I found this link to the national grand champion tree. But most shrubs are under twelve feet tall. They can be trained into small trees. (My choice for shrubs in a small yard.) But buttonbush blooms are both extremely beautiful and have a lovely honey scent. They can grow in water or on dry land. They start very easily from cuttings and can also be grown from seed, although the seed has low germination rates. Naturally, they are associated with water in ditches, near lake sides, in marshes, and swamps, but I've also seen them growing in dry creek beds. A fellow naturalist reported that she had dug a buttonbush up from the San Marcos River and planted it in her yard where it was growing well without water in a Texas Hill Country drought.  I've grown them in my back yard in Houston, Texas.  However, since I knew they liked water, I planted my tree below grade in a shallow depression so I could flood it during our normal late summer drought.


A juvenile little blue heron catches a minnow in the ever diminishing pond at Trinity NWR. 
Earlier, I'd visited Trinity National Wildlife Refuge and was reminded that they have lots of buttonbush growing at lake's edge. However, they are all now on dry land, since the 800 acre lake only has 12 - 20 acres of water in it. So I wrote Stuart Marcus, the refuge manager, and asked him if I could come take  cuttings. He agreed I could have them since they would be going to another national wildlife refuge.  Then his biologist, Laurie , wrote me that she and her intern, Eric, would like to meet me and help me gather the cuttings. So a week and a half ago, I met them at 7:00 A.M. and explained what the stems would look like that would most probably root. Stems need to be starting to turn woody but not completely.  If they are not woody enough, they rot before they root, and if they are too woody, they never make roots. We ended up gathering four five-gallon buckets of cuttings, some of which I later cut into two pieces, trying to make sure one of them would grow.


Eric and Lora gathering cuttings from me

Walking under the fishing pier, which, ,when the Trinity River floods, gets water over the railings

My loot - the left bucket has the cuttings already prepared

 A reporter was on the way to get information from Stuart on the effects of the drought.  I was invited to go along in the Kowasaki mule to visit the lake.  It was amazing to see the dry bed of the 800 acre lake.  We found a cypress knee that was over six feet tall. Eric was six feet.  I could barely stretch to reach the top so I think it was about 7 feet tall. So usually the water would be over the mule if were to try to take it into the lake at normal levels.


A lotus pond within the mostly dry lake


Our view of the lake bed as we drove through it in the mule
But the mule had to cross the last little bit of water and we got stuck just as we arrived back at the near shore. We could get out without getting our feet wet and  Eric and Laurie got Stuart back out.


Laurie isn't hauling Stuart out herself - just pulling out the tow rope to tie it to the pickup


Rescue complete
I drove back with my buttonbush loot and spent a couple more hours making cuttings and putting them in bins. I forgot to take a picture of the cuttings before they lost all their leaves. Right now, they are an ugly brown and look pretty bad.  But most of them are beginning to grow roots - they resist a gentle tug - and will soon be ready to go into gallon pots.


But wait.... that's not all.   In our conversation, I was telling them how grateful I was for the cuttings because this meant that the Friends of Anahuac NWR would have more money to buy cypress trees. Laurie said that, because the lake had been dry for two years, cypress seeds were sprouting and I could also have them. Laurie took Eric and I out to the swamp to see the seedlings. We found this huge cypress knee then.


Me with the biggest cypress knee I've seen - about seven feet tall. The water should be over my head here. 

Gift of Trees, Part II  is coming in a future post.