Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Archive for December 2011

Color and curl

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Prairie flameleaf sumac; click for greater detail.

Not a beauty parlor, unless it’s nature’s own. My last outing of the season to photograph prairie flameleaf sumac took place on the beautifully clear afternoon of December 22 (after a morning at the Mueller Greenway with the wildflowers still blooming there), and it took me back to the thankfully undeveloped lot next to Seton Northwest Hospital from which I first brought you a picture of the changing of the colors back on November 12. The young tree you saw then followed the natural course of things and lost its leaves within a few days, but other flameleaf sumacs on the property, following their own calendars, took their turns at turning colors later in the season. Now, on December 22, the last of them were doing so, and I was lucky enough to see them on a day of blue sky illuminated by the warm light, both in hue and in 65° air temperature, of the late afternoon almost-winter sun.

If the color in the title of today’s post is obvious, the characteristic curl is less well known, but you see plenty of it in this photograph. Why the compound leaves of Rhus lanceolata curl and curve this way I don’t know, but I never get tired of seeing them do it. Notice here how the leaf arcs wrap around a little blue hollow near the center of the photograph.

Taking one thing with another, I think this is a good picture to wrap up 2011 with, and it’s my way of wishing all of you a colorful 2012.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 31, 2011 at 5:18 AM

Freshly golden

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If the gold on the rays of the Mexican hat that you saw two posts back was about to fade, the bright yellow of these nearby goldenrod flowers had just emerged, and the buds at the bottom of the photograph were soon to add more. The date was December 22, and the plant was so fresh that I thought it likely there would still be goldenrod flowers on the Mueller Greenway at the beginning of January. (Five days later I found several goldenrods blooming in other locations around Austin, so unless the current forecasts of warm weather for the rest of the week are drastically wrong and a sudden freeze hits us, we will indeed still have some goldenrod flowers to usher in the new year.)

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 30, 2011 at 5:10 AM

Day for night

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Each of the last two posts has featured a sunny and colorful wildflower in a bright blue sky, so let me put off another picture of that type till tomorrow; too much of a good thing may be too much of a good thing.

After taking today’s photograph on December 27, I was reminded of day for night, a term used in cinematography for any of several techniques that allow a scene filmed in daylight to simulate a night scene. That wasn’t my intention, but the sun behind this cattail was so bright compared to the plant in front of it that I set my camera to underexpose by 3 f/stops, and then to compensate for the underexposure I used my flash to keep the cattail from coming out black and devoid of detail. The result is as you see it here, with the background seeming to be almost a nighttime sky even though I took the picture at 1:43 on a bright and clear winter afternoon. I’ve long been intrigued by the way the seed heads of cattails, Typha domingensis, blow apart in the breeze, but this was a new way for me to photograph that unraveling.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 29, 2011 at 5:11 AM

Another enduring flower

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When I went to the prairie restoration at Austin’s former Mueller Airport on the morning of December 22, I found flowers of another native species that you’ve seen before: Ratibida columnifera, known as Mexican hat. Although this species reaches its flowering peak in Austin in the late spring, scattered plants bloom occasionally through the summer and well into the fall, so once again my late-December find, though certainly welcome, wasn’t unusual.

This picture shows a more advanced stage than the fresh one you saw in the middle of November. Now the “column” is drying out and the rays, quite variable in their distribution of colors from one plant to another, show more yellow than before, and a much redder red. Though these rays are still bright they are clearly starting to curl and shrivel, so if you want to intone Robert Frost’s line that “Nothing gold can stay,” I won’t object. As for the luscious blue sky, you’re free to savor it in any way you like.

For more information about this species, and to see a state-clickable map of the many places in the United States and Canada where it is found, you can visit the USDA website. Mexican hat also grows, appropriately, in northern Mexico.

For those of you interested in photography as a craft, points 1 and 3 in About My Techniques are relevant to today’s picture.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 28, 2011 at 5:04 AM

Camphorweed’s gummier cousin

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Another wildflower that I found on the Mueller Greenway on December 22 was gumweed, Grindelia nuda. That species appeared in this blog on October 22, in a looking-straight-down view that showed how gummy these flower heads can be. Today’s view from the side reveals more of the hook-like bracts that are another distinguishing feature of gumweeds, and you also get to see a few of this plant’s leaves.

It’s hard for you to tell in the picture above, but if you glance at the detail below you’ll see that an ant has gotten trapped in some of the goo on the green bracts just below this gumweed’s yellow disk flowers. Back in July we saw a similar fate for two ants trapped in a drop of sunflower resin. It’s a hazardous world out there.

For those interested in photography as a craft, points 1, 3 and 8 in About My Techniques are relevant to today’s picture.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 27, 2011 at 5:12 AM

Camphorweed continues

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Camphorweed bud and flower head; click for greater detail.

On the morning of December 22, the first fully clear day after at least two weeks of mostly gray skies, I wandered southeast across town to the prairie reconstruction at Austin’s former Mueller Airport to see if I could find any wildflowers, and find some I did. The first thing that caught my attention was dozens of flowers of a plant that appeared several times in the early days of this blog in July: camphorweed, Heterotheca subaxillaris. This species is known to bloom in Austin from the spring through the fall, so a late-December find wasn’t all that rare. Unusual or not, the bright yellow was a welcome sight: in the foreground you see an opening bud, with its characteristic red-tipped bracts, and behind it a fully open flower head.

You can visit the USDA website for more information about Heterotheca subaxillaris, including a state-clickable map showing the many places in the United States where the species grows.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 26, 2011 at 5:04 AM

Sycamore connection

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A feature on CBS Sunday Morning an hour ago dealt with the supposed real-life town that inspired the setting of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, which for years now has been shown on American television every Christmas season. The CBS story reminded me that the old house that played such a big role in the movie, the one that George and Mary Bailey renovate and move into, was located in the fictional town of Bedford Falls at 320 Sycamore St. Readers of this blog will recall that the post from two days ago featured not the white snow that also played a big part near the end of the movie but several white-barked sycamore trees. Now you can think about these stately native trees of ours every time you watch the classic film.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 25, 2011 at 10:25 AM

Christmas cactus

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Christmas cactus; click for greater detail.

Given that today is December 25, it’s only appropriate to present you with a picture of Cylindropuntia leptocaulis, or Christmas cactus, so called for its green joints and bright red fruits that compensate for their small size by appearing in large numbers and by lasting into the winter. The plant’s slender and roughly cylindrical joints have inspired the alternate name pencil cactus. Yet another name is tasajillo, a diminutive of the Spanish tasajo that means ‘jerky,’ though I confess I don’t know what part of the plant reminded people of preserved meat.

This multiply named cactus is native to northern Mexico and to the parts of the southwestern United States shown on the state-clickable map at the USDA website.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 25, 2011 at 5:05 AM

April in December

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Indian Paintbrush Flowering 2457

Who would’ve believed it? A wildflower that we expect to find blooming in Austin on April 22 was blooming on December 22; that’s when I found this Indian paintbrush, Castilleja indivisa, on the northern embankment of Loop 360 near the Arboretum. Overnight rain had quickly given way to the first dawn-to-dusk clear day we’d had here after two mostly overcast and wet weeks, so out I went in the morning and again a few hours later, when the red that you see here proved to be not only my last find of the afternoon but also the most surprising. If this Indian paintbrush and several others of its kind likewise flowering a few feet away were confused about the season, we’re the beneficiaries of their confusion.

For more information about Castilleja indivisa, including a state-clickable map showing where in the south-central United States this species grows, you can visit the USDA website.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 24, 2011 at 5:10 AM

Whose woods these are I just don’t know*

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Sycamores; click for greater detail.

When I went wandering through the woods in northwest Austin on December 20, I came upon the group of sycamores, Platanus occidentalis, shown above. Reputed to be the tallest of deciduous trees in America, the sycamore is known not only for its height but for its bark, which at a certain stage in the tree’s maturity peels off in pieces and leaves behind the near-white that you see here. That whiteness is present in all seasons, but only during the coldest months of the year, after the tree has shed its old leaves and before new ones grow out in the spring, does the bright inner bark become as conspicuous as it is when it shines through the otherwise mostly bleak winter woods.

As majestic as sycamores can be, veteran readers of this column have seen some saplings that are only a few feet tall. To learn more about sycamores, you can visit the website of The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center; to see the many places in the eastern United States where sycamores grow, you can consult the state-clickable map at the USDA website.


* The title is a reference to Robert Frost’s poem that begins “Whose woods these are I think I know.” In fact I don’t know who owns the unfenced land that includes these trees.

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 23, 2011 at 5:03 AM

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