Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Archive for November 2011

Straggler daisy

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When I was busy photographing frostweed doing its trick the other morning, I noticed that close to the base of one of those ice formations a straggler daisy had managed to flower, even if it looked a bit worse for wear from the cold. Known scientifically as Calyptocarpus vialis, this ground-hugging little plant produces a flower head no more than three-eighths of an inch across. Some people look down on the straggler daisy when they call it lawnflower, an alternate name based on its frequent appearance in lawns (in lieu of which, ironically, it forms an excellent native ground cover that requires little water and care).

For more information about Calyptocarpus vialis, including a map showing the states that this little species has managed to straggle its way through, you can consult the USDA website.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 30, 2011 at 5:19 AM

Frostweed explains its name

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Frostweed ice; click for greater detail.

In the last two posts I gave plausible reasons for the name frostweed and then I batted each one down. Today’s picture provides an answer to a question that may have occurred to you but that remained unasked: So tell us already, why is Verbesina virginica called frostweed? The name comes from one of the strangest phenomena in botany. By the time the first good frost settles overnight on the lands where this species grows, almost all of these plants have gone to seed. Although each stalk stands there unappealingly as it dries out, that first touch of hard frost can cause it to draw underground water up into its base. Now for the bizarre part: the lower part of the stalk splits as it extrudes freezing water laterally, and that process produces thin sheets of ice that curl and fold around the broken stalk and sometimes even unscroll away from it. That’s what you see in today’s picture, which I took just yesterday morning in Great Hills Park; if you’re willing to take your eyes off the pretty ice formations, you can make out a dark section of stalk in the upper left. I’ve read accounts that say some frostweed plants go through a second round of this icy phenomenon when there’s another freeze, but I’ve never tried to verify that. What I can say from experience is that the extruded sheets of ice are so light and delicate and prone to break when handled that they remind me of phyllo pastry.

And now let me answer another question that may have entered your mind. The last two posts dangled the question of frostweed’s name, but today’s picture, which explains the common name, was taken only yesterday morning. How did I know, when I began this series two days ago, that the temperature would drop enough to trigger frostweed’s ice trick and allow me to take pictures? I didn’t. I was planning to wait until the first or second week of December, which is when Austin usually gets its first hard freeze, and then take a frostweed ice picture that I’d use in an explanatory post at that time. Or if I didn’t manage to get any photographs of the phenomenon this year, I was going to show a photograph from another year. It was just serendipity that the temperature yesterday morning in Austin had dropped close enough to freezing to make some frostweed plants put on their display.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 29, 2011 at 5:12 AM

Frostweed gets a visitor

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Click for greater detail.

The last post provided a bud-opening view of Verbesina virginica, commonly called frostweed. Today’s picture of a slightly more advanced stage reveals a few of the fused stamen columns that are a hallmark of flowers in the sunflower family. In this species the dark-sided columns are tipped with pure white, though that’s not why the plant is known as frostweed.

But you may not be paying attention to the flowers or their name when you have such an appealing visitor. This tiny fly was only about a quarter of an inch long, and even with a 100mm macro lens I struggled to keep the main parts of it in focus. If you’d like to see more detail in the fly’s eye, which is curiously both convex and concave, the thumbnail below is an invitation. No RSVP is necessary, but the little fly and the larger I will welcome any comments that come our way.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 28, 2011 at 5:16 AM


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Frostweed; click to enlarge.

One fall-blooming species whose flowers I’m still occasionally coming across in late November is Verbesina virginica, although today’s picture goes back to October 6, when I wandered along the shaded banks of Bull Creek in my northwest part of Austin. In the stage shown here, most buds were still closed, while some had just begun to open. You may think, quite reasonably, that the common name frostweed is a reference to the white ray flowers—other species of Verbesina have yellow rays—but that isn’t why people call this plant frostweed.

To see the many places in the southeastern third of the United States where Verbesina virginica grows, you can consult the state-clickable map at the USDA website.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 27, 2011 at 5:15 AM

Renaissance in yellow

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In mid-September I showed a couple of early photographs of the Maximilian sunflower, Helianthus maximiliani, a species that begins blooming in late summer and continues well into the fall. In mid-October you saw a stately row of them. By last week I thought these sunflowers had pretty much played themselves out for the year, but apparently Austin’s little bit of recent rain was enough to cause a resurgence, because as Eve and I drove through far north Austin on the way to the home of some friends on Thanksgiving day, we were surprised—and happy—to see lots of new Maximilian sunflower plants springing up and flowering by the side of the road. Yesterday I went back with my camera and took pictures of those rising suns, a couple of which you now get to see as well.

When I got close to the sunflowers, I noticed that quite a few of them (though not yet those shown here) had little holes eaten out of their yellow rays, and eventually I found the likely culprits, of which you again get to see one. It’s a spotted cucumber beetle, Diabrotica undecimpunctata, whose species name tells us that this insect has one (un) plus ten (decim), which is to say eleven, spots on it.

As for Helianthus maximiliani, whose legions are numberless, it has been found growing in at least some parts of most American states and Canadian provinces. For more information, you can consult the USDA website.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 26, 2011 at 5:15 AM


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What’s in a name? In this case, ambiguity. Mentzelia oligosperma is called stickleaf not because its leaves look like sticks, but because they stick to your clothing, flattening themselves and clinging to fabric so readily that it’s hard to get them off. The clinging nature of the leaves aside, the plant’s yellow-orange flowers are pretty, don’t you think? I photographed this one on the Brushy Creek Regional Trail in Williamson County—which was coincidentally the setting for the last two posts—on November 1.

For more information about Mentzelia oligosperma, including a state-clickable map showing the many places where the species grows, you can visit the USDA website.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 25, 2011 at 5:15 AM

Lichening strikes again

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Click for greater detail.

I like lichen. I was going to say that I liken lichen to nothing else, but in looking at this picture taken on the Brushy Creek Regional Trail on November 19, I have to admit that these lichen formations, especially the tan-tinted ones, look to me like fallen autumn leaves. And the tree on which this lichen was growing had fallen as well, so there’s a double connection to the season.

The punning title of today’s post is a reminder that a picture of quite a different sort of lichen appeared in these pages on October 11.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 24, 2011 at 5:06 AM

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