Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Camphorweed bud and flower

with 19 comments

Bud and flower head of camphorweed, Heterotheca subaxillaris.

The Texas thistles are mostly faded now, but in spite of the drought other flowers have come into their own. Yesterday I went back to Austin’s old Mueller Airport, which ceased functioning as such in 1999 and began to get redeveloped in around 2004. Since the last plane landed there twelve years ago, multiple times that number of native plant species have returned. One that was prominent on yesterday’s visit was Heterotheca subaxillaris, commonly called camphorweed.

To give you a sense of scale, the bud at the top of the picture that’s beginning to open is perhaps a third of an inch (roughly one centimeter) across. If you take a close look at that bud, you’ll see one characteristic that sets camphorweed apart from many of its relatives in the DYC clan (that’s the exasperated acronym for “darn yellow composites,” a reference to all those yellow daisy-type flowers that can be hard to distinguish): each of the pointy bracts that surround the base of the bud is outlined in dark red.

And now I have a deep metaphysical question for you: when does a bud cease to be a bud and begin to be a flower? I can’t answer that, but I can tell you that the object in the lower portion of the photograph is no longer a bud; it’s still a flower (in the conventional sense of the word), but it’s fading. Its rays are conspicuously curled up, and its disk is beginning to dry out.

Regardless of the stage of flowerness of the plant, another distinctive characteristic of this species, and the one for which it was named, is the pleasant camphor scent imparted to the fingers of anyone touching the plant. I wish I could send that to you over the Internet, but this time technology fails me.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

(You can visit the USDA website for more information about Heterotheca subaxillaris, including a clickable map showing the many states where the species grows.)

Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 9, 2011 at 10:18 AM

19 Responses

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  1. I really enjoy thistles. One of my favorite flowering plants. Nice site. I will be checking back.


    July 9, 2011 at 10:44 AM

    • Glad you’re enjoying the site; do check back. I was tempted to post one or two more thistle pictures, but after seven of them I felt it was time to move on to a different wildflower, and one of a different color.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 9, 2011 at 11:00 AM

  2. I’m also a big fan of asking questions like that, and paying attention to the in-between stages. Like the halfway stage of the seeds forming in this buttercup – http://bit.ly/njaZrR . Those thistles seemed to go pretty fast! Is that typical down there? Up here, I’ll have the same type of flower blooming for weeks, one after the other…


    July 9, 2011 at 11:21 AM

    • I’m glad to hear that someone else wonders about things like that, and about the interim stages in the development of species like the buttercup that you showed.

      As for the pictures of the Texas thistle, I haven’t been presenting them in real time, as computer people say. The seven thistle pictures I showed were from different times, some from this year and some from years past. I’ve never taken notes, but I expect each fully open thistle flower head lasts a week or two before beginning to fade. It’s common to see a group of thistles—and sometimes even the same plant—with various stages simultaneously: closed buds, opening buds, fresh flower heads, fading flower heads, puffballs, puffballs in disarray, and finally bare remains. Even though we’ve passed the peak season for Texas thistles, which began a few months ago, and most of the plants are finished for this year, I’m still finding an individual plant here and there flowering away with no regard for any human calendar.

      In short, then, it sounds as if your thistles behave like the Texas thistle.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 9, 2011 at 11:41 AM

      • AHA! So yes, Texas flowers behave as flowers do up here! I love that aspect of everything-happening-at-once, because it enables me to decipher a process without necessarily having to follow one individual plant over time. I did a four-part series on dandelions showing the development of their puffballs, and most interesting to me, what happens when the tips of the sepals/petals DON’T dry up and fall off the way they’re supposed to, resulting in botched, assymmetrical situations. I called that “failure to launch”.

        anyway, I love your pictures – you really make the colors pop!


        July 9, 2011 at 1:37 PM

      • I’ve also seen stunted development in flowers, sometimes at the going-to-seed stage and sometimes earlier, as when a bud dries out and fails to open. Could be disease, lack of water, parasitism, or who knows why.

        In any case, I’m happy that you’re happy with colors that pop.

        Steve Schwartzman

        July 9, 2011 at 5:30 PM

  3. Nice DOF and detail


    July 9, 2011 at 4:59 PM

  4. I think that it is extraordinary when you have the opportunity to capture the life cycle, or partial life cycle, of a flower. Sometimes it’s easy (at least, it is for me) to anthropomorphize scenes such as this, but I digress. Stunning DoF and perspective Steve. Oh, and thank you for the shout-out and link to my blog in your earlier response; much appreciated.

    Barbara Youngleson

    July 9, 2011 at 5:08 PM

    • One of the things I aim to do is depict different stages in the life of a plant. It can take a long time out in nature, year after year, to fill in all the pieces; with the less common species I take what I can get.

      There’s nothing wrong with a little friendly anthropomorphizing; I plead guilty on multiple counts.

      I’m pleased that you like the perspective and shallow depth of field in this picture.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 9, 2011 at 5:34 PM

  5. I am constantly amazed at how clever others in the blogosphere are. I have only been to Texas a couple of times and so don’t know your native plants. But through your blog I can learn.Thank you so much. This path that I am on is taking me to all sorts of wondrous places and now Texas (through you) will be one of them.

    Again, thank you for sharing. Judith:)


    July 9, 2011 at 5:41 PM

    • I’m glad to offer a glimpse of nature in Texas to you in New Zealand, who have your own wondrous native flora that I hope someday to see in person.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 9, 2011 at 7:37 PM

  6. Ah, those bracts are so important! I have had fits trying to decipher related species in this family based on the key descriptions of bracts, and there’s always some comedian-botanist that has to note “….hybrids have been noted.”


    July 9, 2011 at 9:22 PM

  7. Very nice combination 🙂
    Just wanted to share mine here:




    December 20, 2012 at 4:25 PM

    • Thanks for sharing your photo of a bud and a flower head. We have a couple of daisy-type wildflowers here that are called fleabane; they’re both in the genus Erigeron.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 20, 2012 at 4:46 PM

      • You are very most welcome. 🙂

        I would like to ask you a favour if you don’t mind. 🙂
        I have posted some photos of wildflowers but I don’t know the name for some of them. Maybe you could help me to recognize them. 🙂

        Here’s the link:


        Thank you very much in advance. 🙂


        December 20, 2012 at 6:20 PM

        • I appreciate your asking, but I’m afraid that almost the only flowers I’ve become familiar with are the ones that are native to my part of Texas. Perhaps you can ask a knowledgeable gardener, because many of the flowers on your site seem to be cultivated ones.

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 20, 2012 at 6:41 PM

          • I see…thanks anyway for your time. Really appreciated. 🙂


            December 20, 2012 at 6:52 PM

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