Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography


with 27 comments

Bitterweed Flower Head 1347

From December 29th of last year near one of the ponds close to the Costco in Cedar Park, here’s the first close look this blog has ever given you of Helenium amarum var. amarum, known as [yellow] bitterweed (amarum means ‘bitter’ in Latin). I’d gone to that location thinking I might find some sunflowers there, and I did find some Maximilians, but because they were looking worn I decided not to photograph them. Shortly after that, a loose colony of several dozen bitterweed plants, most of them fresh and brightly flowering, came as a welcome substitute, especially as the sky was heavily overcast and the temperature cool. The dull light and the breeze dictated a wide aperture of f/4, which is why you’re getting this selective-focus portrait.

In Wildflowers of the Texas Hill Country, Marshall Enquist gives the bloom period for this species as April–November, but botanists like to point out that wildflowers don’t read field guides. In contrast to today’s closeup of a late-blooming flower head, a post from October of 2012 showed a large and densely flowering colony of bitterweeds.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 11, 2016 at 4:57 AM

27 Responses

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  1. Beautiful photo. The name doesn’t match how pretty it is


    January 11, 2016 at 7:39 AM

  2. It is lovely. I especially like the focus on the opening disk flowers. Just out of curiosity, is “disc” or “disk” preferred? Or are both acceptable? I see both, even at the Lady Bird Johnson site. You seem to use “disk,” but “disc” pops up quite often in the comments.

    Speaking of plants not paying attention to field guides, I just had the best experience. The ray flowers on this bitterweed reminded me of the rays on a flower I found outside Goliad on Thanksgiving. I’ve been trying to ID it, without success. It looks rather like a bitterweed or sneezeweed, but it’s not in Enquist’s book, and I couldn’t find it on any of my usual photo ID sites for Texas flowers.

    Finally, I snapped to, and did a search for “red disks yellow rays.” What I’d found, way outside its reported range, was Gaillardia pinnatifida or red-domed blanketflower: a flower the USDA shows in the Panhandle and Big Bend. Isn’t it pretty? I’ve never considered submitting photos to wildflower.org or reporting a find, but I’m wondering if it would be worthwhile in this case.


    January 11, 2016 at 9:00 AM

    • The field guides (like Enquist) that I’ve consulted over the years use disk, so that’s the spelling I’ve gone with. The computer world makes the distinction between a floppy disk and compact disc. You may be surprised to hear that English desk and dish also come from Latin discus (which English uses as well), so we have five forms of what is etymologically the same word. The Dionne Quintuplets had nothing on us.

      I’m not familiar with Gaillardia pinnatifida, which your mystery flower certainly looks like when it’s compared to pictures online. On the other hand, as you point out, G. pinnatifida isn’t marked on the distribution map for the Goliad area, while the similar-looking G. aestivalis is, so that may well be what you found. Check out in particular the var. aestivalis of that species:


      Steve Schwartzman

      January 11, 2016 at 10:48 AM

      • I’m always too quick to accept a first find as “the” find, and I’ve not yet become as much of a fact-checker as I should be: at least, botanically speaking. So, last night I spent a little time trying to figure out how I could have found the G. aestivalis on my own.

        The first “mistake” I found was my way of searching Gary Regner’s index. I had looked at the yellow flowers. Later, I found that he has G. aestivalis tucked in with the red.

        In the end, it was the BONAP site that provided the answer. I went to the state-level species maps, listed by genus, clicked on “G,” then on gaillardia, and found this. With only five species to check, it was easy to figure out that, yes, indeed, it probably was G. aestivalis that I found. One of the distinguishing characteristics of the G. pinnatifida is the presence of purple veins on the underside of the rays. Did I turn them over and look? No, I did not. Next time.


        January 12, 2016 at 10:28 AM

        • I meant to suggest BONAP as a good way to compare distributions (and even to find the existence) of species in a genus, so I’m glad you thought of it.

          Searching by color can be helpful, but with multicolored flowers you run the risk of looking in the wrong category. That’s where cross-referencing could help. One reason I like the Tveten wildflower book is that the index lists a plant under various names that a person might think of searching for. I think it’s a sign of a poor indexer when a reader has to spend time trying to figure out what term to look for.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 12, 2016 at 4:05 PM

  3. I agree, and I like the wistfulness of this portrait. It is nice to see a cousin of the Helenium autumnale I enjoy here.


    January 11, 2016 at 9:19 AM

    • Wistful: now that’s a nice word to describe a wildflower portrait.

      We have Helenium autumnale here too, but I’ve seldom seen it:


      Steve Schwartzman

      January 11, 2016 at 9:43 AM

      • There it is, smiling against a famous Schwartzman sky. I’d be in poison ivy if I got down low enough to see it from that vantage, here.


        January 11, 2016 at 11:15 PM

        • The vantage you describe would be a disadvantage indeed. Fortunately no poison ivy got in my way when I first found and photographed this species over four years ago. In looking back at that old post I was reminded of something I’d forgotten, namely that fall sneezeweed grows in almost all of the 48 contiguous states (among them Illinois, of course).

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 11, 2016 at 11:25 PM

          • Namers haven’t been kind to the lovely Heleniums, have they?


            January 12, 2016 at 8:36 AM

            • No, I’m afraid the namers were usually practical folks trying to make a living from the land and denigrating anything that got in the way, no matter how pretty in its own right.

              Steve Schwartzman

              January 12, 2016 at 8:43 AM

              • Or how misinformed. I’m pretty sure sneezeweed isn’t wind pollinated, and is therefore innocent.


                January 12, 2016 at 8:45 AM

                • I checked the 1929 Texas Wild Flowers to see what Ellen D. Schulz had to say. In her entry for Helenium microcephalum she writes: “The plant is called sneezeweed because the ripe seeds thrown in the air produce violent sneezing. Sneezeweed seeds, ripe cat-tails, and milkweed seeds thrown in the air are probably the most disturbing factors in the average country school regime.”

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  January 12, 2016 at 9:27 AM

  4. A wonderful way to start the week, a little bit of stunning beauty to touch the heart.

    Charlie@Seattle Trekker

    January 11, 2016 at 12:31 PM

    • I’m glad to hear this provided a good beginning to your week. These flowers certainly brightened up my day when I saw them two weeks ago.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 11, 2016 at 2:22 PM

  5. Yet another lovely reminder of warmer times (we did actually experience a chill this morning) and the beauty of Compositae.

    Steve Gingold

    January 11, 2016 at 4:40 PM

    • The composite family is the one with by far the largest representation in central Texas. There are so many yellow daisy-type flowers here that plant people refer to them as DYCs, or darn yellow composites.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 11, 2016 at 6:08 PM

      • Similar to LBMs…little brown mushrooms…or LBBs…little brown birds.

        Steve Gingold

        January 11, 2016 at 6:27 PM

        • And I guess LOL stands for little old ladies.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 11, 2016 at 6:29 PM

          • LOL from a LOL — at least in the eyes of the kids at the grocery store who keep trying to carry out my groceries for me.


            January 12, 2016 at 10:10 AM

            • The few times a supermarket checker has asked if I need help with one puny bag of groceries made me wonder if I really look all that decrepit.

              Steve Schwartzman

              January 12, 2016 at 3:56 PM

              • I started graying at an early age. By the time I hit 50 I was entirely gray and once, when dining at a museum restaurant in D.C. I was given the senior discount. I may not be the brightest candle on the birthday cake, but I know a good thing when I see it. Mum was the word. Several years ago, maybe 5 or so, I was going through the checkout at the local farm stand/country market and the cashier gave me the senior discount. I did correct him that time, but now I am a senior and make sure I get my props. Eventually, LOM will apply as in Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety when Dr. Throndyke is reunited with his college mentor…Professor LittleOldMan..

                Steve Gingold

                January 12, 2016 at 5:40 PM

                • It seems to be hereditary in my family: my father had completely gray hair by 50, too, and I followed suit. We ought to start a club.

                  I’ve never liked the term senior (except when I was one in high school and college). If I come up to a cashier at a museum or other place that offers a discount, I always ask for the old person’s price. Remember when a place for the elderly was called the old folks home?

                  I’ve not seen High Anxiety, so I’m glad you explained what you were referring to.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  January 12, 2016 at 9:04 PM

  6. Very beautiful and so tender – perfect depth of field for this capture.


    January 12, 2016 at 8:03 PM

  7. […] like a reminder of what an individual flower head in this species looks like, you can turn back to a post from this past winter. The few pink flowers in today’s photograph are prairie agalinis, Agalinis […]

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