Swamp Hibiscus In The Wetland Marshes of the Trinity River Bottom

Native Texas Woolly Rose Mallow Hibiscus (Hibiscus lasiocarpus) in the Great Trinity Forest, Dallas, Texas

Sixty years ago, low income families were drawn to the land down here if you can believe it. Inexpensive land and inexpensive homes built on a mole hill of an elevation rise dividing Oak and White Rock Creeks from the Trinity River. Many of the residents were African Americans originally from East Texas who had moved to Dallas in the post-war boom years to work in the service industry jobs of an ever expanding metropolis. The cosmopolitan tones of that city fade away to a deeply Southern accent faster than the pavement disappears. From concrete freeway, to blacktop road, to dirt road, to pig path all in the course of a half mile.

Deep in the swamp with a fast building early evening thunderstorm in the distance, Dallas, Texas July 2013

Those homes were bought out by the federal government and razed to the ground decades ago. The names of the platted abandoned streets stare back like ghosts on Google Earth. That brief experiment into building things in the bottoms faded away into the dust bin of local history. The undrainable labyrinths of swamps, the floating shaky islands of matted vegetation now stand as a a surprising Dallas County example of nature defeating man.

The Low Down On Getting Down, Here

The towering pecans and oaks along lowest White Rock Creek in Rochester Park
Rain swollen White Rock Creek crossing July 2013

This is one of the more remote and inaccessible places to reach in the Great Trinity Forest.

Best parking is at the Buckeye Trailhead at 6900 Bexar Dallas Texas. Walk east by southeast and around the shore of Simpson Lake. Then just keep on trucking. Head for the willows and don’t look back.

The walk-in from any direction will take a minimum of a half hour, one-way. That’s an hour eaten up round trip. In the heat of the summer the conditions here border on the oppressive, the cool winds don’t reach at ground level in the woods here.

A canopy of native willows arching over a portion of the Great Trinity Forest

No trails exist here. A few right-of-way utility corridors exist but are choked this time of year with ten foot stands of Giant Ragweed. It’s easier to just navigate cross country under the tree canopy where the walking is fairly unrestricted.

The trees away from the creeks are under 60 years old in most cases, very little deadfall and minimal underbrush. Makes for an easy walk….till you hit the water.

The more picturesque places on the Trinity do not give up their secrets readily. One must really push to get out into the special spots that make the river a remarkable visit.

The goal is a really far flung place that I’m sure very few people will ever visit. The push to reach the stands of hibiscus involves a journey through high stands of cattails. Cattails are one of the most common and easily identified of our water-loving plants in Texas. Most people are familiar with the long green leaves and hot-dog shaped brown flower spikes of our common native cattail, Typha latifolia. It is found growing in dense stands in areas with shallow water or seasonal flooding, or as a narrow band along the margins of deeper water. It is a widespread plant, found throughout most of North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

Cattails and flowering Texas native hibiscus, Great Trinity Forest July 2013

In spring the rootstocks and rhizomes of cattails were an important food source for native peoples when other food was scarce. These roots are quite nutritious, containing more starch than potatoes and more protein than rice. The young shoots are reported to be tasty as cooked vegetables, and the pollen can be used in baked goods. In addition to food, cattails have also provided people with building materials. The dried leaves were often woven into furniture and mats, and their pulp and fibers can be made into paper and string. Even the fluff from the seed heads has been used for padding, bedding and insulation. Cattails also have medicinal value. Many cultures have used the roots to treat intestinal maladies and burns.

The Native Hibiscus of the Great Trinity Forest

Depending where you find these plants they can go by a variety of common names — Delta Hibiscus, Hairy-fruited Hibiscus, Hairy-fruited Rose Mallow, Hairy Rose Mallow, Downy Rose Mallow, River Mallow, Woolly Rose Mallow. Scientifically called the Hibiscus lasiocarpos (sometimes also spelled Hibiscus lasiocarpus), this plant has a wide distribution ranging from California and parts of northern Mexico, to much of the southeastern U.S. In the wild, Hibiscus lasiocarpos occurs along stream banks and freshwater marshes.

Seasonal wetland created by semi-annual flooding of lower White Rock Creek near the mouth with the Trinity River

Traversing this kind of environment requires a very slow and methodical approach. Just like the inching movements of the water, anyone paying a place like this a visit needs to move at a pace of a snail. It’s a mental process down here, a geometry problem moving across water of unknown depth and unknown hazards below. I would imagine carrying a large hiking stick would probably be helpful in testing out the sediment depths. I did not use one, knowing where the deeper depths were and how to avoid them.

Woolly Rose Mallow growing in the wetland marsh near Big Spring in the Great Trinity Forest Dallas, Texas

The hibiscus here thrive in water. One would think that they would surely suffocate being inundated by so much water, they really enjoy it. Above is a Woolly Rose Mallow Hibiscus on Bryan’s Slough not far from Historic Big Spring. Bryan’s Slough also goes by the name Oak Creek, which meanders through the Grover Keeton Golf Course a mile or two to the north.

Grasshopper and bumblebee feasting on the flowering hibiscus

During most of the summer, they stand out from other plants due to their six inch wide flowers that have five petals ranging in color from white to pink. All are cup-shaped with a wine-colored center. Buds open in early morning, and the flowers fall off that evening. The Bryan’s Slough hibiscus seem to have a darker pinkish hue to them that the hibiscus a little further to the west on the elbowed margins of White Rock Creek

Grasshoppers become somewhat of a problem this time of year in the Great Trinity Forest. They devour large amounts of native grasses and plants. Kept in check to some extent by Cattle Egrets and other birds, the grasshopped infestations in previous years can reach alarming size.

The pollen grains of the hibiscus here are so large that it can hamper the ability of even the larger species of bumblebees from flying. Seems that after 3 visits to flowers that the average bumblebee is completely covered with this sugar grained sized material and must stop to reorganize the pollen covering it’s entire body.

Another insect that feeds on the hibiscus down here are Hibiscus Flea Beetles. There are many species of flea beetles which attack numerous plants, but vegetable and flower crops are most susceptible to these pests. Flea beetles are so named because of their ability to jump like fleas when bothered.
The beetles are small and shiny, with large rear legs. Eggs are laid at the base of plant stems in early summer after a feeding period, and larvae feed at the roots. Adult beetles, about 1/16 inch long, feed on foliage, producing “shotholes” in the leaves.

Halberd-leaved rose mallow

These plants also go by the name halberd-leaved rose mallow due to their distinctive shaped leaves that resemble a medieval battle axe sword called a halberd.

Many hundreds of hibiscus flowers in a dense Trinity River Bottom Wetland

Unlike domesticated hibiscus in home gardens, the native North Texas hibiscus grow in dense colonies forming a jumble of plants concentrated in the space of a few acres. Very hard to access these as the water holding the plants is 2-3 feet deep in most cases.

Bryan’s Slough also known as Oak Creek, just upstream from Big Spring, Dallas, Texas

Hard working beavers are responsible for much of how the water impounds the woods here. Numerous sets of beaver dams, lodges and embankments hold the water back to create a water back filled mass of trees and vegetation. Above is Bryan’s Slough as seen looking north while standing on a large beaver dam.

Summer Birds Of The Swamp

Wood Ducks among the beaver trimmed willows

This type of environment creates a great riparian habitat for ducks and wading birds. Wood Ducks, seen above in their molting colors after mating season are moving through an island of trimmed willow trees that have seen years of pruning by beavers in this small backwater area.

The Great Egret (Ardea alba)

It makes for prime fishing territory for all sorts of birds. Wading birds prefer this shallow water where their prey can easily be hunted in the still waters.

Here, a Great Egret catches a Mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis) which are very common in the water here. Known for living in shallow water and breeding very quickly, they are one of the most widespread of fishes in Texas. Hardy and able to withstand very warm water temperatures, these fish are top on the list of wading birds.

Only a solitary Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) on this visit. All the wading birds prefer knee deep water it seems. The water was a little too deep for this bird to get a good fishing motion going in the water. Their flat, spatulate beak requires that water be present for feeding. Unlike their cousins, the ibises, spoonbills cannot feed on land or in mud flats where their long beaks can probe the mud or soil.

Roseate Spoonbill (Platalea ajaja) on Bryan’s Slough

Spoonbills are primarily tactile feeders. They open their beaks slightly and begin to swing their heads back-and-forth in the water. This action creates small whirlpools of water that stirs the mud beneath the surface. Vibrations produced by escaping prey are detected by sensitive touch receptors located inside the horny bill and the beak snaps shut. Because the bird depends more on touch than sight, the spoonbill can feed in very cloudy water.

Common prey includes small fish, crustaceans (shrimp and crayfish), insects, and other aquatic animals. The intense red color of the spoonbill is derived from red algae ingested along with the crustaceans. As a result the red color is fleeting in the absence of those crustaceans.

Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias) in the Great Trinity Forest’s wetlands

The Great Blue Heron is the largest heron in North America. It stands three to four feet tall and has a wingspan of almost six feet. It has blue-gray feathers on most of its body and a plume of feathers on its chest and back. It has a long, pointed yellow bill and long legs. Adults have white on the top of their heads and long black plumes above their eyes. 

The northernmost distribution of Anhinga anhinga leucogaster is in the United States from North Carolina to Texas. It has however been spotted as far north as Wisconsin. Its range also includes Mexico, Central America, Panama, and Cuba. The individuals found in the more northern areas of the U.S. migrate there in March and April and stay until October, then return to Mexico and more southern parts of the U.S. Anhinga anhinga anhinga is found in South America from Colombia to Ecuador, east of the Andes to Argentina, and in Trinidad and Tobago. The range is limited by cool temperatures and low amounts of sunshine.
Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga)

Anhingas belong to Order Pelecaniformes, as do a number of other primarily aquatic birds (pelicans, cormorants, boobies, and frigate birds). The family Anhingidae includes several similar species referred to as “darters” which, as a group are distributed worldwide in tropical to warm-temperate climates. Anhingas are relatively large birds, attaining lengths of 32 to 36 inches and wingspans of up to 48 inches. Adult anhingas usually weigh around three pounds and have long necks most often carried in an “s-shaped” posture. Their heads are small with long pointed beaks. Anhingas’ tails are long and loosely jointed with feathers which can be spread wide like a fan.

Unlike most birds, especially aquatic species, anhingas do not produce oil to waterproof their feathers. As a result, their feathers quickly become saturated upon contact with water. This characteristic is believed to facilitate their deep diving feeding habits. On the other hand, this feature causes the anhinga to have little buoyancy. They often swim with only their heads above the water surface. Further, having feathers readily soaked to skin results in more rapid loss of body heat and hinders flight until the feathers dry. Anhingas are routinely seen with wings spread wide, allowing them to dry in the sun while their bodies warm. All of the anhingas’ flight feathers are molted as a group rendering the bird flightless for a period of time while the new feathers grow in.

The northernmost distribution of Anhinga anhinga is in the United States from North Carolina to Texas. Its range also includes Mexico, Central America, Panama, and Cuba. The individuals found in the more northern areas of the U.S. migrate there in March and April and stay until October, then return to Mexico and more southern parts of the U.S. Anhinga anhinga anhinga is found in South America from Colombia to Ecuador, east of the Andes to Argentina, and in Trinidad and Tobago. The range is limited by cool temperatures and low amounts of sunshine

Indigo Bunting along Bryan’s Slough

The Indigo Bunting, a member of the finch family, is a familiar summer visitor to Eastern portions of Texas. This loud little songster prefers brushy pastures and edge habitat where brushy fields meet the forest. Its winter range extends through Central America and the West Indies. Males vigorously defend their territory by singing and displaying from the open top branches of trees or other visible perch.

Indigo Buntings perform a valuable service as they consume grasshoppers, beetles, flies, mosquitoes, cicadas and aphids. Diet also consists of seeds of grasses, thistle, dandelions and other weed seeds. It is well worth the effort to provide suitable brushy habitat and shrubby forest edges to assure a healthy population of these attractive birds.

Painted Bunting in Rochester Park

It takes two years for a male Painted Bunting to become a brilliantly colored songbird without equal in North America. In contrast, the younger males and all females are difficult to see in their cryptic green plumage. Many people are unaware that this small colorful finch is a native songbird that migrates in late April from southern Florida, the Caribbean Islands, and Mexico to its nesting areas in the U.S. Painted Buntings nest along the large rivers in Southern states.

Male Painted Bunting in flight, Rochester Park, July 2013