Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

A closer look at snow-on-the-mountain

with 21 comments

Snow-on-the-Mountain Flowers 6055

Click for greater clarity.

A couple of days ago you saw a picture from September 5th showing a flowering colony of snow-on-the-mountain, Euphorbia marginata, in the town of Cedar Park. Now from the same colony here’s a closer look at some of those flowers, but where are they? That may sound like a silly question, so let me repeat what I wrote two years ago:

“You may think you see the flowers, but this species… isn’t quite what it appears. From a distance, and even from closer up, many people assume that the long, tapering, white-fringed structures with green running down the center are petals, but those are actually modified leaves called bracts. Most people who make it past that illusion assume that the “scallops” of the white collar at the center of each flower group are the petals, but that also turns out to be false. The five (if none have come off) would-be petals are actually gland appendages, together making up what is generally called an involucral cup, more specifically known in this family as a cyathium. No, the real flowers are the nondescript, pale yellowish-green little things at the center of each scalloped ruff, hardly what we normally think of as flowers. But in spite of our misconception the plant seems to have no trouble with its own conception and manages to get fertilized and produce seeds in abundance….”

Although this photograph is from five weeks ago, snow-on-the-mountain continues flowering on the west side of Austin, which is its habitat here.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

October 8, 2013 at 6:00 AM

21 Responses

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  1. Nice, crisp shot—love that blue Texas sky! Snow-on-the-mountain is one of my favorites to shoot at Green Spring Gardens—one summer I was photographing a huge mound of it and every insect in the garden had congregated on it—every kind of wasp, bee, butterfly and flower fly was on it. I must have shot 100 images just on that one shrub!


    October 8, 2013 at 6:03 AM

    • You’ll have to come back and cover yourself (and your photographs) in that blue Texas sky, though from what you say the plants in Arlington (VA) worked well enough for you and cost a lot less for you to get to. How well I know that feeling of taking picture after picture of a subject from various angles: two days ago I spent a couple of hours with the bright yellows of goldenrod and Maximilian sunflowers, both of which I found in abundance on the prairie in northeast Austin.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 8, 2013 at 6:14 AM

  2. Beautiful. I’ve never seen one of these.


    October 8, 2013 at 6:11 AM

  3. It just occurred to me that you do for flowers what every good portrait photographer does, capturing the essence of a subject in a unique way and showing it off to best advantage. This flower is one of my favorites (as is its cousin, snow-on-the-prairie) but I’ve never seen it look as lovely as it does here.


    October 8, 2013 at 6:41 AM

    • Thanks so much, Linda, for appreciating the portrait-ness of this photograph. In Wildflowers of Texas, Geyata Ajilvsgi (who’ll be doing a book signing in Houston on October 13: https://www.houstonarboretum.org/event/book-signing) describes snow-on-the-mountain as “a most attractive plant,” and as you pointed out, so is its cousin, snow-on-the-prairie. These are usually the only snow we get in the warm parts of Texas.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 8, 2013 at 7:18 AM

  4. Interesting flower tops. There is a lot of structure to them.

    Jim in IA

    October 8, 2013 at 7:03 AM

  5. We are none of us exactly what we seem at first glance. This extraordinarily lovely ‘weed’ is a perfect bouquet of bracts, glands and flowers would, if it were truly as large as it looms in the photo, make a gorgeous bridal nosegay; I wonder if it wouldn’t, in fact, still work that way if one simply grouped several such agglomerations as seen here. But what it has, simply standing thus in its pure natural state in a field, cannot be surpassed, whether we know its structures and details by name properly or not.

    As for seeing it up close and examining its beauties intimately like this, most of us will have to rely on our present company, the intrepid King of the Wildflowers. Whose photos and descriptions, of late, have convinced me that my pet Euphorb hereabouts is snow-on-the-prairie, not -on-the-mountain as I surmised; still, I find that there’s plenty of room in my heart for admiring both, that realization notwithstanding.


    October 8, 2013 at 12:03 PM

    • In Wildflowers of Texas, Geyata Ajilvsgi writes (in addition to what I quoted a few comments back) that “snow-on-the-mountain is widely cultivated and is occasionally gathered and used by the floral trade in the making of bouquets.” The one drawback is that any cut or break in the plant usually oozes a milky latex that is reported to irritate the skin of some people. I’ve gotten that latex on my fingers various times and it’s done no apparent harm to me, but it can be messy.

      If I can paraphrase the end of your first paragraph: that which we call a cyathium or bract by any other name would look as good.

      Both snow-ons are wonderful plants, not all that different, and I’ve read that where the two species are in proximity they sometimes interbreed. That way you can love both in one.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 8, 2013 at 1:54 PM

  6. Gorgeous. I’ve never seen one of these before


    October 8, 2013 at 8:51 PM

  7. Suis-je rendue au Paradis?? une euphorbe de toute beauté!


    October 10, 2013 at 11:37 AM

  8. I love the detail here of the full bloom.

    M. Firpi

    October 13, 2013 at 9:52 PM

  9. […] the two are in the same (and very large) genus. So are the Texas natives fire-on-the-mountain, snow-on-the-mountain, and […]

  10. […] bisons’ fur still fall into the wallows and sprout there. This bit of snow-on-the-mountain (Euphorbia marginata), visible at the bottom of the photo above, is flourishing at the edge of its wallow. It may not be […]

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