MOODY — About two dozen nature enthusiasts gathered on the prairie at Mother Neff State Park on Saturday to get a head start on Earth Day with a strolling lecture conducted by botanist Walter Holmes, a biology professor at Baylor University.
American environmentalists and conservationists have celebrated Earth Day every April 22 since 1970. In 1990, 192 other countries around the world joined the celebration.
The weekend seemed to be a good time to start the Earth Day activities, Park Superintendent Leah Huth said, and Holmes was happy to oblige.
Aided by a microphone and a waistband speaker, Holmes treated the group to a breezy and informative presentation about a wide assortment of prairie plant life that included more than just the familiar wildflowers that have become roadside tourist attractions.
Holmes pointed out such specimens as wooly whites, crow poison, corn salad (aka “stinky feet”), bitter weed, antelope horn, bladder pod, prairie verbena, blue-eyed grass, wild foxglove, pink gaura, wine cup, Texas star daisy, Indian paintbrush and, yes, one of several varieties of that Lone Star State celebrity — the bluebonnet.
The professor took a brief break from flower talk to discuss a couple of Texas trees — the honey mesquite and the prickly ash, which is also known as hercules club, toothache tree and tickle tongue.
The ubiquitous mesquite, considered a weed by many Texas cattlemen, is propagated by the cattle, Holmes explained.
“The cows eat the seed pods, scarify the seeds through digestion, then deposit the seed with a little bit of fertilizer,” he said.
Holmes hiked a short way off the trail and returned with leaves of the prickly ash. Indians and early settlers learned that chewing the leaves numbed the mouth, providing temporary relief of toothache.
He advised everyone to take great care in identifying plants before chewing them.
“If you get the wrong plant, you will end up in the hospital,” he said, “and they won’t know what to do with you.”
Holmes seemed right at home on the park’s prairie.
A botanist and curator of the Baylor Herbarium, Holmes is a regular volunteer at the park and conducted the preliminary survey of flora at Mother Neff State Park in 1996.
Huth joined the tour and shot video. Many wildlife enthusiasts from the area brought cameras and notebooks for the lecture.
Eight boys and two adult leaders from Boy Scout Troop 371 in Austin were part of the group.
Judith Hansteen of Oslo, Norway, said she was glad to get a close look at Texas prairie flora.
“I am originally from Pennsylvania, but I married a Norwegian,” she said. She is visiting her father in Temple and decided to join the early Earth Day event at Mother Neff.
For more information about Earth Day, go to www.earthday.org. For more information about Mother Neff State Park, call (254) 853-2389.