Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

White where yellow belongs

with 19 comments

Firewheel with White-Tipped Rays 2069

Click for greater clarity.

How strange it was for me to find this white
In places yellow’s thought to hold by right.

When I photographed along FM 20 east of Lockhart on April 30th, I found dense colonies of Gaillardia pulchella, known as firewheels and Indian blankets, which have had an abundant season in central Texas. Among the hundreds of flower heads that lined one stretch of the road, I found a few that were different from any I’d seen before: the tips of their rays were white rather than the normal yellow that you can see peeking through from a conventional flower head below this unusual one (and that you’ve seen more clearly in plenty of other firewheel photographs on this blog).

I wondered about this unusual white-fringed firewheel, so I asked someone from the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, who sent my question farther afield. In short order we had a reply from botanist Thomas J. Watson: “G. pulchella is a highly variable taxon, especially in floret colors, and I have seen a broad variety of ligule coloration in the taxon. I have never seen the white tipped ligules before but I am not at all surprised. I doubt that it is more than an individual variant in a larger population of more typical color forms…. Turner and others have had students studying the genetics and morphological variation in pulchella over the years with very little learned about its sources. So the white variant is unusual, likely due to a mutation in the genome of a single individual and of relatively little importance to the taxonomy of the species. It would have to be correlated with other character differences and would have to have population integrity before such a variant might be considered for taxonomic recognition.”

So there you have it: a firewheel that’s probably of no botanical significance, but a rare and curious one you’re free to take delight in.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman


Written by Steve Schwartzman

May 22, 2013 at 6:17 AM

19 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Well, I for one am delighted by it.


    May 22, 2013 at 6:21 AM

  2. I really like the photo and thoroughly enjoyed reading the words of the response (and chuckled at how complicated the simple answer was–botanists speak a different language, it seems).

    Mike Powell

    May 22, 2013 at 6:53 AM

    • Like any science, and more than some others, botany has its specialized vocabulary, that’s for sure. Even after more than a decade of non-professional interest in the field, I’m still learning new terms. The three years of Latin I took in high school helps a lot, and through botany I’ve added to my Latin vocabulary, so there’s a symbiosis across the decades.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 22, 2013 at 9:14 AM

  3. This sport needs to be cultivated for the nursery trade! Who wouldn’t love to have this beauty in their garden!

    Bob Beyer

    May 22, 2013 at 10:03 AM

    • It’s not clear whether these specimens would breed true, but a horticulturist could certainly try to breed them. Even if that failed, the “regular” firewheels are spectacular enough.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 22, 2013 at 1:16 PM

  4. If you look closely, you’ll see a teeny bit of yellow on the tips of the rays. What fun to find an “albino” Gaillardia! If you collected seed from this plant, I wonder if the offspring would all revert back to yellow or if you’d get any more white ones.


    May 22, 2013 at 10:41 AM

    • Yes, I noticed the faint outlines of yellow, too, as if the tips of the rays knew what they were supposed to do but couldn’t pull it off. And like you, I’ve wondered what the offspring of the white-tipped specimens would look like. As if that weren’t enough of a mystery, a different firewheel anomaly is coming tomorrow.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 22, 2013 at 1:21 PM

  5. Wow! What a find indeed! As a lover of insects, every time I find an unusual one I secretly hope I’ve stumbled on something new. That is not to be for me but how lucky for you that you have! I’m not sure of the ethical guidelines on these sorts of things but are you able to take a sampling from it and grow some of the white tips yourself?

    Lisa Vankula-Donovan

    May 22, 2013 at 7:36 PM

    • Thanks for your enthusiasm, Lisa. I share your excitement in finding something unusual.

      In answer to your question, I’ve heard and read that collectors aren’t supposed to take more than one out of ten of anything in the wild, and I seem to remember that there were only a handful of these white-tipped firewheels. I suppose I could have marked the plants somehow, then returned weeks later to try to gather seed, though I didn’t think about that at the time. Now, three weeks later, the rays may already have fallen off, in which case I wouldn’t know which plants were the special ones (unless new flower heads with white tips had emerged since then).

      I’ll have another firewheel anomaly tomorrow, though it’s apparently less rare than today’s. Stay tuned.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 22, 2013 at 7:56 PM

  6. I found a very interesting little section about color in an article about Hawaiian hibiscus. Apparently white splotching is common in crimson-pink flowers. The author says “In the white blotchings which are common in many of the crimson-pink hibiscus, the coloring matter is absent in the epidermal cells underlying the white blotches. The blotching is thus merely an extension of a condition which is found in all pink or red flowers, namely, that not all the epidermal cells contain colored sap.”

    This is too regular to be called blotching, but I can’t help but wonder if the same process is involved as with the hibiscus.

    In any event – what a treasure for your archives!


    May 22, 2013 at 9:57 PM

    • When I read passages like the one you linked to, I’m impressed by how much botanists have figured out about plants. At the same time, many mysteries remain—the better for me to have something strange to come across and report every so often.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 23, 2013 at 2:54 AM

  7. I think it is such fun to find something different, especially as it is such a beautiful mutation. Although you haven’t marked the individual plants, I’m sure you’ll be back next year to check out the site.


    May 23, 2013 at 3:12 AM

    • I may give it a try. Let’s hope the mowers didn’t cut everything down before the plants had a chance to go to seed. Even so, I’ll still have my photographs.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 23, 2013 at 3:18 AM

  8. […] The last picture showed a firewheel, Gaillardia pulchella, that was unusual because it had ray flowers with white rather than yellow tips. Now here’s another uncommon specimen, this time with rays that are completely yellow and a central disk that has barely a blush of the usual red that people expect to see in this popular wildflower (and that shines through from a “regular” firewheel in the background). This is further confirmation of botanist Thomas J. Watson’s statement that “G. pulchella is a highly variable taxon, especially in floret colors, and I have seen a broad variety of ligule coloration in the taxon.” […]

  9. Hello, Steven. I would like to contribute to your discovery and say that we have several bunches of these Indian Blankets with white tips in our pasture. We have pictures too!
    I think it is much more than an individual variation, because we have seen several plants with these color flowers all throughout our pasture. Our property is outside of Caddo Mills, TX. I think this flower deserves its own taxonomic identity!

    Jordanna the Plant Nerd

    June 2, 2013 at 6:01 PM

    • Thanks for your contribution, Jordanna. It’s good to hear from someone who has seen the same white-tipped variation, especially because it’s in your pasture. If you can gather seeds and plant them in a marked place, we can see if they produce more plants of the same type. If they do, then you may be onto something. Let’s hope so.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 2, 2013 at 10:01 PM

      • Sounds like an idea. This is the first year we have seen those kind; we have a pretty established population of solid yellow Gallardias, and we spotted a few solid white ones, but we can’t tell if they are old and bleached, or if that is their genetics. If the white-tipped variation continue to come up, I think they should be given their own taxonomic place. We will continue our flower vigil!

        Jordanna the Plant Nerd

        June 4, 2013 at 5:07 PM

        • It’s good of you to keep up the vigil. If you find out anything significant, please let us know.

          Steve Schwartzman

          June 4, 2013 at 6:45 PM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: