Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Whorls of horsemint flowers

with 39 comments

Horsemint Flower Tiers 5958

You may recall some horsemints recently shown from a distance as part of a wildflower mix, so now a closeup in isolation (thank you, break in the clouds) seemed in order. The flowers of Monarda citriodora grow in tiers of whorls, as you see in this photograph from June 27th along the property line of a funeral home on Interstate 35 in far north Austin.

The picture comes to you at quite a cost to me: although I purposely avoided getting into overgrown areas and stayed on the funeral home’s mowed property while photographing the native plants at the periphery, by the next morning I’d ended up with over a hundred chigger bites, the most I’ve ever had. Can you spell i-t-c-h-y?

If you’re interested in photography as a craft, you’ll find that points 1, 3, 6 and especially 8 in About My Techniques are relevant to this photograph.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 9, 2014 at 6:00 AM

39 Responses

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  1. Your capture depicts a delicately lovely flower.


    July 9, 2014 at 6:09 AM

    • Aren’t these great, Sally? A bonus is that horsemints are common here and can form large colonies.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 9, 2014 at 7:20 AM

  2. I feel guilty liking this post on account of all your suffering.


    July 9, 2014 at 6:13 AM

  3. ‘whorl.’ that’s such a unique word, and i enjoyed getting an upclose and personal view of the flowers.

    poor you – chiggers are not fun!

    • It turns out (or should I say whirls about?) that whorl arose in Middle English as a variant of whirl.

      As for chiggers, it sounds as if you know whereof you speak. I’ll conjecture from my childhood in New York that chiggers haven’t made it up there. I also don’t remember any from my two years in Honduras, so I expect you don’t have them in Costa Rica or Ecuador either.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 9, 2014 at 7:30 AM

      • ha!

        long ago in catahoula parish louisiana, those itchy chiggers upgraded from an old pecan tree to my young son’s torso. he didn’t want to climb trees for a very long time after that experience!

        i encountered my first ‘case’ of chiggers during the dry season when i was forty-something and living in guanacaste costa rica! if one doesn’t apply repellent before working /walking in/through vegetation in open areas — only a quick wash-down w/a chlorox water will help slough off those hitchhikers that love to hide wherever the clothing hugs the skin! pica pica pica!

        here in ecuador we have a similar problem, but with tiny all-but-invisible ticks! garrrrrrrrrrrrapatas! like the chiggers, they seem worse in the dry season.

        once when i trekked to the top of a loma with a friend/landowner, i returned and immediately washed my arms and legs with a chlorox bath (i was wearing shorts) and suggested that he do the same.. although he had grown up here, he declined from the baptism of chlorox water! (playing the tough guy?)..

        a few days later he dropped by and confessed that he was tormented with itchy areas from those ticks!

        • I like the way you put it: “those itchy chiggers upgraded from an old pecan tree to my young son’s torso.” Not the kind of upgrade I’d like, that’s for sure.

          Sounds like I was wrong about chiggers in Central America, or at least Costa Rica. And yes, they sure do like those places where clothing hugs the skin. The largest number of bites I got in this recent round were inside my socks; you could see where the red welts tapered way off on my skin above the sock line. I haven’t heard of using Clorox in water, but one preventive that some people in Texas use is to put some finely powdered sulfur on their clothing. Of course then they have to live with the smell of the sulfur, but that’s preferable to a lot of chigger bites.

          I remember hearing about garrapatas in Honduras, but I can’t say I remember having any problems with them. Ticks are apparently pretty bad in New England now, and people are afraid of getting Lyme disease. In Texas I’ve found an occasional tick on me, but only a few during the 15 years I’ve been doing nature photography.

          In summary, it seems that each region has its natural hazards. Así es la vida.

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 9, 2014 at 9:15 AM

          • sí… that’s life for sure! where there are cattle pastures, one usually dodges the little ticks! i’ve even seen ticks on iguanas! poor iguanas!

  4. You must have found a chigger convention.

    Jim in IA

    July 9, 2014 at 6:32 AM

    • My guess is that recent rains brought them out, and I must inadvertently have stood in a place where a lot of them had just hatched. They’re a little too small for us to see with the naked eye, so there’s no way to look and avoid them in the way that we can avoid a nest of fire ants.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 9, 2014 at 7:33 AM

  5. I just read a truly horrifying article about chiggers, one that left me ready to scream, “They’re everywhere! They’re everywhere!” It’s a shame so many happened to end up where you were.

    It was fun to compare this photo of horsemint with others you’ve taken. With sunflowers as a background, the effect is completely different.


    July 9, 2014 at 7:16 AM

    • I’ll say it’s a shame. I’ve been willing to write off a few chigger bites as an occupational hazard for a nature photographer in Texas, but that large number of bites was a different matter, a different order of magnitude.

      You know how I look for a background with a color that sets off my subject. Last year that great field of sunflowers came in handy to isolate the horsemint in the picture you linked to. This year I’d gone to the funeral home to check whether the adjacent piece of prairie had any bluebells. Some years the site has had many, and other years none. This turned out to be a none year, so I couldn’t use a bluebell colony as a background, which would have been nice. The sky was more cloudy than not, but I took advantage of a break in the clouds to use blue sky as my isolating color. You can still see a faint cloud between the lower two whorls of the horsemint.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 9, 2014 at 7:45 AM

  6. I once bought a Horsemint for my herb garden. Looking at your gorgeous photo I now believe my specimen was a mistagged variety Hyssop! 😉

    CHIGGERS: I have found it best to NEVER scratch them. If you break the blister the itching is far more intense! They take ages to heal and go away, so why prolong the agony by scratching?


    July 9, 2014 at 7:46 AM

    • Ah-HA! I just went looking and now realize that they are both Agastache! Yet, I still prefer the look of your whorled species.


      July 9, 2014 at 7:57 AM

      • I wasn’t familiar with the genus Agastache, but I looked it up and found it’s in the mint family, as is Monarda, so that explains why you saw a similarity. I’ll agree that those whorls provide an extra appeal.

        Steve Schwartzman

        July 9, 2014 at 8:03 AM

    • Yes, it’s better not to scratch chigger bites, and I don’t—at least not consciously. Sometimes, though, I catch myself scratching a bite that I hadn’t even been aware I was scratching. What I’ve found the single most helpful thing to relieve the itching is an internal antihistamine (I use fexofenadine, a.k.a. Allegra). I also get some additional relief from an external creme like hydrocortisone.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 9, 2014 at 8:08 AM

  7. Although I have, thankfully, never experienced Chiggers I routinely pay my ‘itch’ dues by walking through Poison Ivy … I am quite allergic. So, tell me where the logic is … I’m married to a botanist who has, for nearly 32 years, tried to show me what to look for to identify the plant … and after all of this time I have either not learned or refuse to take the time to look when I’m hot on the trail of a good photo! Finally … I have made a blanket policy to dislike ALL arachnids. D PS: Nice photo, as always.

    Pairodox Farm

    July 9, 2014 at 9:37 AM

    • Now that’s a strange story you tell of not learning to identify poison ivy even after almost a third of a century. When I’m in nature with people who I think might not know what poison ivy looks like, I always point it out. That was true on the last two geology/native plants trail walks I co-led in my local nature area, Great Hills Park. Although I’ve accidentally brushed lightly against poison ivy a few times, nothing ever came of it, so I may be one of those fortunate people who are immune to the irritant. That said, I don’t know that I’m immune, so I don’t press my luck and I always avoid poison ivy.

      In any case, I’m glad you like this high-cost (to me) photo.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 9, 2014 at 12:47 PM

  8. I am a big Monarda fan so I really like the photo, I am so sorry that the cost was so high.

    • Thanks for your commiseration, Charlie. If you’ve experienced chiggers you know how itchy their bites are, and if you haven’t experienced them I hope it stays that way.

      Yes, it’s easy to become a fan of Monarda. We have at least three species in central Texas, with the one in today’s photo being the most common.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 9, 2014 at 12:50 PM

  9. Thank you for braving the chiggers for us! Beautiful.

    Emily Heath

    July 9, 2014 at 4:22 PM

    • Can I take credit retroactively, Emily, for being brave? I thought that by prudently keeping to the mowed area I could avoid the chiggers I assumed were lurking in the taller vegetation. Prudence doesn’t always pay off, I found. In any case, I’m glad you find the horsemint beautiful.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 9, 2014 at 4:37 PM

  10. We’ve a few monarda species in our garden, but no whorls to be found. I am envious. As far as the little biters go, I’ve not experienced them, but recently I read a post by someone who said she got several chigger bites in a preserve just outside of Boston. I guess they are spreading.
    I don’t know if you read my post a while back where I mentioned the use of permethrin spray on clothing. Ever since I applied it to my boots, socks, jeans, shirt and hat I have had but one tick on me and it was a dead one. I am not sure if that would help with chiggers or not but well worth it if it does. I bought a pair of treated light weight pants from LLBean and have had the same success…….as I wrote that I decided to do a search and found this Texas A&M article that does say that treating helps. https://insects.tamu.edu/extension/publications/epubs/e-365.cfm

    Steve Gingold

    July 9, 2014 at 6:19 PM

    • Sorry to give you a case of whorl envy, Steve. From what you said the other day, maybe once you’re fully retired you’ll give Texas a whirl and get to see some horsemint whorls for yourself.

      I had read you post about permethrin spray. I haven’t tried that yet, but I may. I see the following in the article you linked to: “Apply products containing permethrin (such as Permanone® Tick Repellent) to clothing for long-lasting chigger protection. Do not apply permethrin sprays directly to skin; allow them to dry on clothing before wearing it. Permethrin treatments are long-lasting and will remain effective through several washings. Combine permethrin-treated clothing and DEET applied to the skin if you will be in areas heavily infested with chiggers.”

      Of course one problem is that because chiggers are microscopic we don’t know till after the fact where the heavily infested areas are.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 9, 2014 at 7:25 PM

      • You are correct, sir. Permethrin is only applied to the clothing. We still need the DEET for our skin…or a generous slather of garlic juice.

        Steve Gingold

        July 9, 2014 at 7:34 PM

        • I haven’t heard of garlic juice, but some people here dust themselves with finely powdered sulfur.

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 9, 2014 at 7:54 PM

  11. A gorgeous flower indeed. I had 2 chigger bites last week and thought I would go crazy itching them – but a 100???? Wow – hope you got some meds for that


    July 9, 2014 at 6:50 PM

    • A daily fexofenadine (the ingredient in Allegra) pill helped the most, and I got some help from repeated slatherings of hydrocortisone cream.

      I’ve been out in nature three times this week and haven’t gotten a single bite. There seems to be no way to anticipate what will happen.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 9, 2014 at 7:52 PM

  12. Amazing glow around the orbs. I can not imagine 100 chigger bites. I remember getting about 20 around the waistband area during one Texas trip and feeling as if I wouldn’t survive!

    Marcia Levy

    July 10, 2014 at 6:46 AM

    • The itching was intense enough to wake me up that first night. As you can see, though, I survived, and now I’ve gone back out into nature—although with hip-high boots on two of the three outings this week. The things I do for pictures….

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 10, 2014 at 6:56 AM

  13. Chiggers! Fortunately, I’ve never experienced them but the mosquitoes have been terrible here after all the heat and rain. Love the photo – the intense color of flower against sky seems to vibrate off the page.


    July 13, 2014 at 11:02 AM

    • I envy you because you’ve never experienced chiggers. We have them in addition to mosquitoes: lucky us.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 13, 2014 at 11:12 AM

  14. Absolutely beautiful Steve, this would look great blown up as an enlargement. I love the detail and that it’s so well lit.

    Maria F.

    July 21, 2014 at 7:47 PM

    • Thanks, Maria. This was one of those times when I used flash to keep my subject from coming out too dark against a bright sky.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 21, 2014 at 9:10 PM

  15. […] Monarda citriodora, flowers late in the spring and has faded by summer, but its remains can stay standing through fall and winter and on into the […]

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