–Mexican hat wildflower in Clymer Meadow
A little after 7 am on Saturday, June 4, 2016, I was on a bus with two friends and a group of prairie lovers (and birdwatchers) from all over Texas. We left the White Rock Lake Bath House Cultural Center, a fitting departure point for a bunch of prairie people as there are small plots of land around the lake that are undisturbed prairie land to a certain degree. This trip was sponsored by the Native Prairies Association of Texas (NPAT). As a new and not too involved member, I was looking forward to this day trip to some prairies around north Texas to see and especially learn more about the plight of the prairies.
What is a prairie? From the NPAT website:
The prairie is a diverse ecosystem of mainly native grasses and flowering plants (forbs) with prairie wildlife, soil, geology, and fire playing very important roles.
Today the tallgrass prairies of Texas are very rare. Less than 1% of the original 20 million acres of Texas’ beautiful tallgrass prairie remains and losses are still occurring to plowing, improper overgrazing, and development.
Texas was once 3/4 prairie and savanna. The Tallgrass Coastal Prairies reached many miles inland from the Gulf, and the Tallgrass Prairie extended from southern Canada through Fort Worth-Dallas south to San Antonio including Texas’ Blackland Prairies and Grand Prairie.
What are Blackland Prairies?
The Texas blackland prairies are a temperate grassland ecoregion located in Texas that runs roughly 300 miles (480 km) from the Red River in North Texas to San Antonio in the south. The prairie was named after its rich dark soil.
- –Area 32 is the Blackland Prairies region of Texas.
Yes, think about it–less than 1 percent of prairie land is left, down from 75 percent in Texas.
We first headed to the Clymer Meadow located just outside Celeste, Texas. Two gentleman from The Nature Conservancy were waiting for us and they were wonderful escorts and taught us much about this prairie and the work they have done to preserve this land. The meadow was very beautiful and we walked down a wide path and were able to see lots of wildflowers and grasses. Having just rained, our rubber boots came in very handy. One of our guides, Brandon, was a graduate student studying one of the invasive species that can harm a prairie. He also talked to us about the use of fire to control certain other invasive species. We also learned about gilgai here.
What is a gilgai?
A gilgai is a small, ephemeral lake formed from a depression in the soil surface in expanding clay soils. Additionally, the term “gilgai” is used to refer to the overall micro-relief in such areas, consisting of mounds and depressions, not just the lakes themselves. The name comes from an Australian Aboriginal word meaning small water hole. These pools are commonly a few metres across and less than 30 cm (12 in) deep, however in some instances they may be several metres deep and up to 100 m (330 ft) across. Gilgais are found worldwide wherever cracking clay soils and pronounced wet and dry seasons are present. Gilgais are also called melonholes, crabholes, hogwallows or puff and shelf formations.
Since our black land soil is very clayey, gilgai have formed here due to the cracking when the weather is very dry.
We were running slightly late so we did a quick drive by of the Tridens Prairie located east of Paris, Texas.
The next stop was the Gambill Goose refuge, also near Paris, Texas.
About the Gambill Goose refuge from the Texas Department of Wildlife:
Many years ago on the banks of Gibbons Lake a man named John Gambill started feeding migratory geese on his land. The practice eventually attracted several thousand geese annually. When John Gambill died in 1961, his 600 acres became a permanent refuge for waterfowl, and is today managed by the City of Paris. Although spectacular in winter, the lake hosts a variety of wildlife year round. Visitors driving along the western shore in summer could see Downy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, along with Lark Sparrows and Dickcissels. The lake also attracts a diversity of swallows, with Barn Swallows and Purple Martins being most numerous. The resident population of Canada Geese is occasionally joined by summering Snow, Blue or White-fronted Geese. The geese are commonly fed and the easy food source attracts dozens of sizable Western Chicken Turtles and Red-eared Sliders. The fields around the lake are often filled with wildflowers, attracting numerous butterflies and dragonflies.
- We then stopped by a local Subway and picked up sandwiches for lunch on the bus. The next stop was the Mary Talbot Prairie, a silveus’ dropseed prairie. This prairie was definitely thicker and more lush than the earlier ones to my amateur eye. There were no invasive species such as Queen Anne’s Lace in this prairie. It was a strikingly beautiful area and the clouds were breaking up and the sun was beginning to shine on our intrepid group.
These prairies are named for the grass that dominates there—Silveus’ or silver dropseed. They are found in the north and east edges of the Blackland Prairie, in areas with higher relative precipitation. A different type of soil helped create this kind of prairie. The sandier, low pH alfisol soils formed mainly on bedrocks higher in sand content and lower in calcium carbonate. These special prairies are an incredible scene to behold in spring and fall with beautiful prairie wildflowers, and make it well worth a visit to northeast Texas.
This prairie was an alfisol prairie as opposed to the vertisol ones we had visited earlier. The vertisol prairies have a higher clay content than the alfisol ones such as this one.
Our last stop was to the Daphne Prairie, located near Mount Vernon, Texas. Daphne Prairie is owned by Mr. B. F. Hicks and has been in his family since 1839. This prairie has never been plowed and only part of it was seeded for hay previously. We were greeted by Mr. Hicks and some of his friends and neighbors—wonderful people. They took us from the highway to the inner parts of the prairie via trailers with hay bales and benches. Thank goodness the weather was cooperated and the sky was beautiful with large, puffy clouds. We even had a beautiful thick rainbow in the sky as we were departing the prairie.
- –at Daphne Prairie with a rainbow in the distance. Mr. Hicks is in the dark shirt and hat. (From the NPAT Facebook page)
Daphne Prairie was spectacular. At one of the earlier prairies, I learned what a “mima mound” was—low, flattened, circular to oval, domelike, natural mounds that are composed of loose, unstratified, often gravelly sediment that is an overthickened A Horizon (Wikipedia). Daphne Prairie contained huge mima mounds—I walked up three of them and they all had different species of wildflowers that varied from one another. This prairie was even more lush and thicker with vegetation than all the others. Standing on a mima mound and just surveying the land in 360-degrees was beautiful. Mind-blowingly beautiful. Stunning. As one of the prairie people said, “I feel like this is what heaven looks like.”
Unfortunately, my camera battery was done.
After this prairie tour by Mr. Hicks and friends, we were treated to a barbecue dinner at his home. His home is not just any home—it’s an old Methodist church that he has restored and converted into his home (mainly the basement area). The pews and altar area still present, but Mr. Hicks showcases his collections of various kinds (art, antiques, and relics) throughout the building. And his backyard garden was awesome—filled with flowers, small bridges, sitting areas, container gardens, etc. This dinner was the perfect end to a perfect day in northeast Texas. Mr. Hicks is obviously a very generous man and I am thankful to him for his generosity. Franklin County is lucky to have him!
Thanks go to Pat Merkord and her husband, Glenn, and others in NPAT and in the Blackland chapter (Dallas) of NPAT who organized and led this prairie tour. Pat is the Executive Director of NPAT. Also thanks to the many Master Naturalists who were on this tour and were very knowledgeable and helpful in identifying flowers, grasses, and birds. I met some wonderful people and learned much and look forward to more tours in the future.
On this trip I learned how NPAT is also buying some prairie lands to aid in their preservation. This great organization has bought easements near and/or next to some of these prairies that we visited. If you want to support a good cause, think about giving to the Native Prairies Association of Texas, a 501(c)(3) organization, and your membership and contributions are fully tax-deductible to the amount allowed by law.