Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Big things come in small packages: a holiday pearl

with 30 comments

Pearl Milkweed Flower 0799

I assume most of you won’t have been given a pearl as a holiday gift this year, but with today’s post you can honestly tell people that you have, because here for the first time since last winter is a picture showing a flower of the pearl milkweed vine, Matelea reticulata. Not many flowers are green, and fewer still have a little pearly structure at their center, but this wildflower not only fits both descriptions but also bears a reticulated design that covers all but the nacreous canopy at its center.

If the post’s title uses the word small, it’s because a pearl milkweed flower is only about a half to three-quarters of an inch across (12–19 mm). With that size in mind, you can understand that the pearly structure at the flower’s hub is tiny indeed.

Marshall Enquist gives the bloom period of the pearl milkweed vine as April–July, which is too short. Geyata Ajilvsgi extends it to October, but that’s still too short, because I’ve often enough found the species flowering near the end of the year, as today’s photograph from my productive December 3rd session along Great Northern Blvd. in north-central Austin confirms.

© 2014 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 25, 2014 at 5:19 AM

30 Responses

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  1. it’s a true pearl – most would pass by without knowing the beauty nearby, but you’ve raised it to eye level so we can appreciate it. thanks, and happy christmas! z

    Playamart - Zeebra Designs

    December 25, 2014 at 5:27 AM

    • I can’t remember if I raised it to eye level or lowered myself to its level, Lisa, but the result is the same.
      Te deseo una Feliz Navidad.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 25, 2014 at 6:45 AM

  2. Absolutely, sometimes the smallest packages provide the largest pleasures. I enjoy green flowers as much as any others and sometimes, as with this one, even more for the surprises hidden inside. As I mentioned on another post, you are very lucky and to be envied for your much longer flowering season.

    Steve Gingold

    December 25, 2014 at 6:23 AM

    • The longer flower season has another virtue for me: a shorter cold season. A big reason I moved away from the Northeast was to evade the harsh winters. On the other hand, in New England you have opportunities for pictures of frost, ice, and snow that go way beyond anything normally available to me in central Texas, and thankfully for us viewers you’re willing to endure frigid conditions to bring us pictures of those things.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 25, 2014 at 6:56 AM

  3. However small the gift maybe, it’s the thought that counts…. and what a lovely thought behind this beauty. Thank you Steve for the gorgeous photo and interesting details about the pearl. It’s always great to learn something new. It’s a gift that keeps on giving. Wishing you a very Merry Christmas…

    Emily Gooch

    December 25, 2014 at 6:27 AM

    • I wish more people in Austin knew about this little treasure. Each spring for the last few years I’ve been co-leader of a nature walk in Great Hills Park (which is in my neighborhood), and if I spot any pearl milkweed flowers I point them out to the participants, who are also from the neighborhood but hardly any of whom have noticed the plant.

      Happy Christmas to you, Emily.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 25, 2014 at 7:03 AM

  4. That’s a certainly an unexpected gift. A beauty. My unexpected gift was a small vase from Kitaichi Glass in Otaru Japan. I have the vase, you have the flower.


    December 25, 2014 at 9:05 AM

    • I was tempted to say you could put the flower in your vase, but this milkweed flower grows on a vine and would probably wilt quickly if you plucked it.

      I hadn’t heard of Kitaichi, but I looked it up online.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 25, 2014 at 10:31 AM

  5. That would make good design for a brooch with an actual pearl in the center.

    Thanks for showing us the many varied flowers you find. Nature has packaged beauty in many ways.

    Jim in IA

    December 25, 2014 at 9:18 AM

    • You’re in good company with that suggestion: in other years people have suggested earrings. As far as I know, no one has followed through on the jewelry idea, but eventually someone will.

      You’re welcome for the display of native wildflowers. There are a lot more of them than most people realize, and my job is to increase those species’ notoriety.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 25, 2014 at 10:34 AM

  6. Thank you for the beautiful gift. Merry Christmas!

    SueBee and Kat

    December 25, 2014 at 9:45 AM

  7. Steve, have a wonderful Holiday Season with your family and what a pearl you have brought me! As always, so envious of the diversity you have over there. Merry Christmas!

    Maria F.

    December 25, 2014 at 10:39 AM

    • Gracias, Maria, y Feliz Navidad también.

      Compared to Puerto Rico, Texas is enormous, so it’s not surprising that we have so many native species here. On the other hand, your tropical climate lets you see flowers all through the year, while the ones up here are mostly seasonal (even if the season is long one).

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 25, 2014 at 10:46 AM

  8. Reblogged this on tim's weed patch.


    December 25, 2014 at 12:38 PM

  9. Oh, this is a beauty! What a gem 😉


    December 25, 2014 at 2:13 PM

    • That’s how I think of it too, Jude. I’m fortunate to live in a place where I can find these for much of the year.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 25, 2014 at 11:15 PM

  10. How simply beautiful!


    December 25, 2014 at 4:09 PM

  11. Such intricate patterns and what a beautiful “pearl” centre piece. It is very unusual to see those colours in a flower. It reminds me of a jeweled brooch. But then again perhaps I should be saying it the other way around – that a brooch looks like this flower, as we often model our designs on the beauty we see in nature. It’s our inspiration for many artistic designs. 🙂


    December 26, 2014 at 3:37 AM

    • You’re certainly right that throughout human history a lot of artists have taken their inspiration from natural forms. A couple of examples that come to mind right away are the capitals on ancient Greek columns and the floral and arboreal curves of Art Nouveau (which is no longer nouveau).

      Another commenter suggested a brooch based on a pearl milkweed flowers, and on previous occasions when this species has appeared people (always female, if I recall correctly) have suggested earrings.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 26, 2014 at 9:42 AM

  12. The malacologist in me must expand on the use of the term ‘nacreous’ in descriptions of the molluscan shell. Did you know that it is a laminate of three, orthogonal, layers? The periostracum is outermost and is made of protein. The prismatic layer is next, most massive, and made of calcium (this prismatic layer is, itself a laminate). The final layer, the nacreous layer, is innermost and is in contact with the mantle which is the outermost tissue layer of the enclosed animal and which is responsible itself for shell secretion. The nacreous layer is, of course, a combination of protein and calcium. It is smooth, pearly. The mantle secretes nacre in response to irritating particles that may gain access to the space between the mantle and the shell. It’s kind of like getting sand in your bathing suit! Because the animal cannot remove itself from the shell … and rid itself of the offending particles, it must wall of the particles … and does so with a smooth layer of nacre. I could go on and on about natural versus cultured pearls, but I will spare you the details. Can I assume that the nacreous center of Matelea is some sort of lustrous covering of the flower parts beneath?

    Pairodox Farm

    December 26, 2014 at 7:28 AM

    • Those of us who know less biology than you—which is to say almost all of us—might misinterpret the word malacologist to mean ‘someone who studies evil or the way things go wrong’ rather than ‘someone who studies mollusks.’ I certainly never knew that a molluscan shell has three orthogonal layers, nor that the nacreous layer is the inner one and is composed of protein and calcium.

      I’m afraid I can’t tell you what the nacreous covering on the canopy at the center of a milkweed vine flower is made of, but I do know that the reproductive elements of the flower lie inside. Among those are saddlebags-like bundles called pollinia, which are designed to catch on the legs of insects.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 26, 2014 at 9:52 AM

      • I wonder what the significance of the lustrous nature of the covering is … I mean, what advantage is there to it being lustrous rather than dull. Perhaps the answer is … that’s simply the way it is.

        Pairodox Farm

        December 26, 2014 at 12:24 PM

        • And more generally I wonder how often a thing is the way it is just because that’s the way it is.

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 26, 2014 at 12:31 PM

  13. What a beauty–and, as you know, I always like the “series” posts. Isn’t it amazing how tidily and tightly those milkweed pods are packed?

    Susan Scheid

    January 3, 2015 at 11:49 AM

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