Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

A blue that isn’t blue, violet that isn’t a violet, and a sage that is wise only in the ways of nature

with 37 comments

Say hello to Salvia farinacea, called mealy blue sage, even though it’s not blue but violet. (If these flowers were blue, then what color would the sky behind them be? And of the many flowers that are this hue, how did the violet get to impose its name on the color of all of them?)

Add this to the native species you’ve seen here recently that have bloomed well before their customary time, which in the case of mealy blue sage is April and May. I photographed this one on February 19 at the Mueller Greenway in east-central Austin.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

February 22, 2012 at 5:31 AM

37 Responses

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  1. It seems that blue is an elusive colour in flowers, I see many called blue but as your photo points out are more often violet or purple.


    February 22, 2012 at 6:13 AM

    • The words red, yellow, blue, green, white, and black are all native English, and those colors are basic in people’s view of the world. The words purple, violet, and orange were borrowed from French, and the colors often aren’t felt to be as basic or “real” as the others. Coincidentally, orange and purple have no rhyming words in English, and violet, depending on your pronunciation, has only inviolate and islet.

      The most famous blue-that-isn’t-really-blue flower in Texas is the bluebonnet, which I haven’t yet shown in this blog. Another is the bluebell, which I have:


      Steve Schwartzman

      February 22, 2012 at 6:45 AM

      • Bluebells are particularly interesting as we have the native English ones, which are smaller and then there are the imported ones from Spain which are bigger and paler, and invasive!


        February 22, 2012 at 10:03 AM

      • Another problem is that a lot of unrelated flowers are called bluebells: even in Texas there are two, which is why the one in my post is sometimes called bluebell gentian to distinguish it from the other one in the state.

        Steve Schwartzman

        February 22, 2012 at 12:29 PM

  2. Love the colors!


    February 22, 2012 at 6:31 AM

    • Probably because of the rain we’ve been having, this specimen had saturated colors. I’ve often enough seen the flowers of this species looking more washed out.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 22, 2012 at 6:48 AM

  3. gorgeous!

    H2O by Joanna

    February 22, 2012 at 7:18 AM

  4. There is a children’s book called Purple Murple, I think? Just to make a point that there is no rhyme, I guess. One of my favorite colors is periwinkle blue… which is a little purple too:) This is a beautiful photo!

    Just A Smidgen

    February 22, 2012 at 7:21 AM

    • In the latest post from The Task at Hand, you can see variations on the old (and false) rhyme “Roses are red, violets are blue.” In one of the comments, the writer quotes this:

      “Roses are red, violets are purple,
      I love you as much as sweet maple surple!”

      So Purple Murple has at least one antecedent. And the mealy blue sage, by any other name, would have looked just as good to my camera.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 22, 2012 at 7:51 AM

      • Ah yes, that was Roger Miller, in “Dang Me”:

        Roses are red and violets are purple
        Sugar is sweet and so is maple syrple.
        I’m the seventh out of seven sons
        My pappy was a pistol
        I’m a son of a gun.


        February 22, 2012 at 8:09 AM

      • Thanks for your identification of those lines.

        Steve Schwartzman

        February 22, 2012 at 1:35 PM

  5. I like your title very much.


    February 22, 2012 at 7:30 AM

    • Thanks, Georgette. It’s another case of words meeting pictures. That way I get to play with two of my interests at the same time.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 22, 2012 at 7:52 AM

  6. it is in intriguing discussion, this business of what constitutes a ‘true blue’ in flowers. So many forums on perennials have gardeners decrying the Nursery’s description of a particular bloom as blue only to discover when it finally opens, it is not a true blue. However, as a painter, I can list off a host of hues of blue–Thalo Blue, Cerulean Blue, Cobalt Blue . . . and none of them can be touted as THE true blue–for there are many blues as there are many reds, yellows, etc. One of the most disputed of shades is the one we claim is in the rainbow–indigo. So where a shade edges from being blue into the territory of violet is in the eye of the beholder. This particular ‘Salvia’ has pride of place in my garden, beside Canterbury Bells (campanula), which also raise the ire of some when described in catalogues as being blue. Well, they may not be the Himalayan Poppy, but they’re blue enough.

    The other wrench to throw in these particular spokes is the finding/claim that nearly 10% of males are colour blind to one degree or another. So maybe they’re all purple.


    February 22, 2012 at 8:01 AM

    • You make a good point about the various shades of blue, and the disputed identification of indigo and the variable place where blue stops being blue when it shades in that direction. It’s a complicated and probably unresolvable problem. All I can say is that for me the flowers and buds in today’s picture are definitely not blue. If any viewer does see them as blue, please let us know.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 22, 2012 at 1:02 PM

  7. When I first saw this picture I thought, how can this be? I just saw the same thing in the Wildflower Magazine article “When In Drought” by Susan Wittig Albert, photography by Steven Schwartzman, yesterday. On closer inspection I discovered that it is not the same photo. Great article, great photos!!! Thanks for all you do.

    Agnes Plutino

    February 22, 2012 at 8:16 AM

    • The folks at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center would indeed have to work impressively fast for the latest issue of its magazine Wildflower to arrive in the mail today with a photograph in it taken on February 19. I just checked the similar picture of mealy blue sage in Wildflower and found that I took it on April 27, 2010. But then I looked up that date in my photo archives, and guess where the older picture was taken: the Mueller Greenway, just like today’s! Without your comment I wouldn’t have realized the coincidence.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 22, 2012 at 1:16 PM

  8. Hello, Salvia farinacea! Lovely photo and lovely prose. I especially like the title of this posting!

    Cindy Dyer

    February 22, 2012 at 8:48 AM

    • Thanks, Cindy. One of the good things about having this blog is that I get to play with words and photographs at the same time. (I’ve even thrown in some math from time to time, but I usually restrain myself.)

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 22, 2012 at 2:01 PM

  9. Enfin une fleur commune 🙂 Celle-ci, je la connais bien, nous l’appelons sauge des prés.


    February 22, 2012 at 10:54 AM

    • L’ancolie bleue (the blue columbine) says she’s happy to see a familiar flower. She adds that she knows it well, and that it’s called meadow sage.

      Mais il faut que je te déçoive: la sauge des prés que tu connais en Europe est Salvia pratensis, alors que la sauge ci-dessus est une cousine américaine, Salvia farinacea. Les deux se ressemblent.

      But I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you: the meadow sage that you know in Europe is Salvia pratensis, whereas the sage shown above is an American cousin, Salvia farinacea. The two look similar.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 22, 2012 at 1:31 PM

  10. It is a bit worrisome that so many things are blooming well before their usual time. But, having suppressed that worry, I am now exalting in your photograph, and love your blue-violet commentary, too. Yes, how come the violet gets to snag that name instead of share it?

    Susan Scheid

    February 22, 2012 at 1:33 PM

    • I worry about early blooming each year when there’s still a chance that a freeze will come along and kill off all those first flowers, but 2012 has been so warm for so long that it would take a miracle (an anti-miracle?) for a freeze to hit now. I photographed for a few hours this morning and when I got back to my car the temperature was 81°. So full speed ahead with spring wildflowers: if this be treason, make the most of it!

      What you asked about the violet applies to the orange as well, which similarly imposed its name on a color.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 22, 2012 at 2:10 PM

  11. Whatever the color, it’s beautiful.


    February 22, 2012 at 4:37 PM

  12. I won’t dispute color here, you’ve all covered that topic very well, but hey, why MEALY in the description?

    Gorgeous photograph. Your posts are getting me through this ugly brown winter and cold weather. So our flora is on the lam, but the birds and squirrels are frolicking like they know something we don’t. 😉
    Thanks! ~ Lynda


    February 22, 2012 at 5:13 PM

  13. Great shot Steven, as usual, filled with awesome colors.

    Love the detail.


    Pablo Buitrago

    February 22, 2012 at 9:23 PM

    • Happy colors and details to you, Pablo. So many native wildflowers and other things are out there now that it’s hard to know what to show next.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 22, 2012 at 9:27 PM

  14. very nice


    February 23, 2012 at 4:52 AM

    • Now that you said that, it suddenly occurred to me that in the human world we don’t often see blue and purple together.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 23, 2012 at 5:22 AM

  15. Goodness, with snow in the forecast, I can’t tell you how wonderfully your photos revive my spirit! I feel like I’ve been on a virtual vacation!

    Catherine O'Meara

    February 23, 2012 at 6:27 AM

    • Snow? What’s that? The afternoon high in Austin yesterday was 87°. For the first time this year I headed out early yesterday in order to avoid the predicted heat of the afternoon.

      There are some advantages to going on a virtual vacation: no advance reservation, no security check, no cramped seating. Here you get not a rental car but rental flowers, plenty of them, and at a cost of zero.

      Happy revived spirit, Catherine.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 23, 2012 at 6:48 AM

  16. Well, as you can imagine, I’ve enjoyed all this commentary – with Roger Miller thrown in for good measure!

    I was surprised by the “mealy” in the description, too, and happy to get your explanation. All I think of when I hear that word is “mealy bugs” – not so desirable in a garden!


    February 26, 2012 at 5:11 PM

    • This post got more than the usual amount of commentary for one of mine; the question of color was a big part of that. The flowers in this picture were less mealy and more colorful than many specimens, and that vividness appealed to me. As for your last point, maybe you can find a predator to make a meal of the mealy bugs in your garden.

      Steve Schwartzman

      February 26, 2012 at 6:53 PM

  17. […] a recent post in my other blog, I noted that the botanical name for the wildflower colloquially called mealy blue sage is Salvia […]

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