Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Mimosa Trees and Train Dodging - All in a Day's Work

Tuesday’s adventure took me back to the same canal north of Wildwood Park here in Shreveport. Originally, Donna was going to drop me and Hart off at the end of Pickwick Street, where the canal opens into a much larger canal, but the day’s rainfall had filled the canal and it didn’t appear safe. So we resorted to Plan B and Donna dropped us off at the same canal north of Wildwood Park.

Because it had rained all day, the canal was a mess. Everything was muddy, and all the grass was heavy with rain. It wasn’t long before Hart and I were both soaking wet. We traipsed along the south side of the canal with no particular agenda. What I like about rainy, cool days is that snakes tend to be less active. Because they are ectothermic, you’re not likely to find them just hanging out on a cool day. More than likely they’re holed up somewhere staying warm. Of course “cool” is a relative term. The temperature was in the mid-70s and it was very humid. After hiking a bit, I felt hot. But snakes derive all of their warmth from external sources, so if it has been raining all day with no sun a snake would probably be inclined to stay home. 

We came across an area of grass that looked like it had been trampled and that something had slept or rested there. I have never seen a deer anywhere in the city so I wasn’t sure what caused this. Either this was a fluke, or some large creature had definitely flattened this grass. I’m really not sure.

As we trekked west I noticed some Mimosa trees, otherwise known as Albizia julibrissin. Mimosas are curious little trees. They have a pink flower and if you pay attention they are everywhere in North Louisiana. They flourish especially along canals and waterways because the seeds travel by water. They also flourish along developed areas because they are hardy plants that re-sprout easily when chopped or cut. (Traveling along Loop 3132 here in Shreveport you will see dozens and dozens of these ornamental trees.) 

The scientific community considers Mimosa trees a nuisance – mainly because they spread like wildfire and steal nutrients from other more desirable trees. The Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants at The University of Florida shares this information about the much maligned Albizia julibrissin.

Originally from China, Mimosa or Silk tree was introduced to the United States in 1745 and cultivated since the 18th century primarily for use as an ornamental. Mimosa remains a popular ornamental because of its fragrant and showy flowers. Due to its ability to grow and reproduce along roadways and disturbed areas, and its tendency to readily establish after escaping from cultivation, mimosa is considered a Category II invasive by Florida’s Exotic Pest Plant Council. 

        Mimosa is a deciduous, small to medium-sized tree that can grow 20 to 40 feet tall. It is a member of the legume (Fabaceae) plant family and is capable of fixing nitrogen. The bark is light brown and smooth while young stems are lime green in color, turning light brown and covered with lenticels. Leaves are alternately arranged and bipinnately compound (6 to 20 inches long), having 20 to 60 leaflets per branch. The leaf arrangement gives mimosa a fern-like or feathery appearance. Mimosa flowering occurs from May through July. Pom-pomesque flowers are borne in terminal clusters at the base of the current year’s twigs. The flowers are fragrant and pink in color, about 1½ inches long. Fruits are flat and in pods, a characteristic of many legumes. Pods are straw-colored and 6 inches long containing 5 to 10 light brown oval-shaped seeds about ½ inch in length. Pods typically persist on the plant through the winter months.
Mimosa reproduces both vegetatively and by seed. Seeds require scarification in order to germinate. This characteristic allows the seed to remain dormant for many years. Normally seeds are dispersed in close proximity of the parent plant; however, seeds can also be dispersed by water. Wildlife may also contribute to the spread of mimosa through the ingestion and excretion of the seeds. Vegetative reproduction occurs when trees are cut back, causing quick resprouting and regrowth.

The reason Mimosa trees are so invasive is that whether you chop
them, cut them, burn them, bulldoze them, or otherwise destroy 
them, the seeds stay behind. Then the birds digest the seeds and 
deposit them elsewhere or the seeds regrow right where they fell. 
They are beautiful trees, but if you look around you start to realize 
just how invasive they are.

Moving on I decided it was time to bisect Wildwood Park. This area of North Louisiana is thick with vegetation. It makes you wonder how they ever settled this area in the first place. As you can see from the picture, Wildwood Park is no exception. For at least 300 yards, you couldn’t even see into the forest. 

Eventually I just picked a spot and nosed my way through. The forest was dark, wet, and foreboding and probably isn’t anywhere you would want to be stuck after dark. But it brings up an important topic. When I entered the park, it was already after 7 pm. There was no sunlight and no way to visually gauge how much daylight I had left. Luckily, I knew what time the sun set and I was wearing a watch. But as I observed the forest as the light faded I had this thought: were I an inexperienced outdoorsman and I was lost, I could easily see how you could be gripped with fear as you suddenly realized without warning that the gray light was dimming.

One of my favorite shows to watch is “I Shouldn’t Be Alive,” or as I like to call it, “How One Incredibly Stupid Decision Almost Cost Me My Life.” Almost always, in the first five minutes of the show, the main character makes some decision that is so incredibly stupid it makes me want to throw my shoe at the television. All that to say, knowing something as simple as what time the sun sets would allow you to find a suitable camp and make a fire before – in a panic – you have to frantically scramble to do all that before dark settles in. Sometimes one simple piece of knowledge makes all the difference in the world. I always carry with me some potable water, a knife, and usually small snack. If I’m going into more remote areas, I take a small pack with a handful of survival materials. Short of being dropped off in Antarctica, I’m pretty confident of my ability to camp on the fly – or at least successfully enough to survive until help arrives. It constantly amazes me how often people wander off into potentially dangerous environments with only a cell phone because they naively think “I will just call for help.” Then their phone dies.

Enough preaching! Where was I? 

Hart and I made our way through the thick vegetation and paused momentarily so Hart could cool off in this puddle of water. 

I splashed my face as well. As dirty as the water looks, it was more refreshing than the sweat I had pouring down my face. The vegetation was so thick that while I was crouched by the water I didn’t realize we were a mere twenty yards from the train track! A train rumbled by and I immediately had my bearings.

We made our way onto the track. Laughably I found this right handed railroad glove on the track that some worker had lost.

As it turns out, it was a near match to a left handed glove I found on the track last winter. (One is insulated and one isn't..but darn close!) After this little discovery, I called Donna and made plans with her to pick us up at Hyde Park, which was about a half mile east on the railroad track. 

I was walking along with Hart daydreaming about who knows what when I just happened to glance up and see the headlight of a train! There are no road crossings on this stretch of train track so I of course didn’t hear his horn blow! I looked around and realized in a very “Stand by Me” moment that Hart and I had nowhere to go! On the left was a drainage ditch full of mucky water and on the left was thick vines and vegetation. Realizing I had to make a choice I dove into the vegetation. Suprisingly, Hart stayed on the track and looked at me like I was crazy. I yelled for him to come. Of course he took his own sweet time so I scrambled back up to the track and pulled Hart down the embankment with me. I had just enough time to pull out my phone and film the train as it rumbled past us!

After that little episode we met up with Donna at Hyde Park. We were sweaty, muddy, and stinky – all signs of a successful nature adventure!

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