Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Why is it called prairie smoke?

with 35 comments

Okay, you say, I get the prairie, but why the smoke? Here’s why:

Prairie Smoke Plumes 7183

After the flowers of Geum triflorum get fertilized, they produce tufts of wispy strands that from a distance and with some imagination look like puffs of smoke. Another vernacular name, old man’s whiskers, comes very close to the old man’s beard I’m so familiar with in Austin. Despite the striking resemblance in the two flowers’ latter stages, these plants aren’t even in the same botanical family. Yet another plant that ends up like this is the Apache plume I saw in New Mexico two years ago.

Today’s picture, like yesterday’s, is from the Volo Bog State Natural Area in Lake County, Illinois, on June 7th.

© 2016 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 18, 2016 at 5:00 AM

35 Responses

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  1. Delicate beauty…


    July 18, 2016 at 5:45 AM

    • Fortunately there’s also a familiar and enjoyable one in the Clematis drummondii that’s so common in Austin.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 18, 2016 at 6:00 AM

  2. Yes, I think I can see that.
    Have a wonderful week,


    July 18, 2016 at 9:00 AM

  3. Oh, I love this!


    July 18, 2016 at 9:25 AM

  4. Beautifully taken.

  5. Lovely photo, Steve!


    July 18, 2016 at 1:58 PM

    • I must be psychic, Cindy, because a few hours ago I wondered what you’ve been up to lately. Any plans to visit Austin again?

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 18, 2016 at 3:01 PM

  6. Aptly named Steve .. Super shot. So delicate


    July 18, 2016 at 2:12 PM

    • It is delicate. Although this species doesn’t grow anywhere near Austin, fortunately we have similar plumes on the often-encountered local vine that’s called old man’s beard.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 18, 2016 at 4:32 PM

  7. We have a smoke tree in the neighborhood. When mature the fuzzy inflorescence turns brown and resemble smoke.

    Steve Gingold

    July 18, 2016 at 4:41 PM

    • We have a species of smoke tree that’s native in south-central Texas, but it’s not common. I’ve seen a couple of planted specimens in Austin but have never caught any at the right time for the “smoke.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 18, 2016 at 5:47 PM

  8. Ah, Steve, it seems I can always trust you to answer my questions before I have asked them. And indeed the Apache Plume and the Prairie Smoke appear to be very alike.


    July 19, 2016 at 5:53 AM

    • Maybe it’s the veteran teacher in me that anticipates questions. Now you’ve got me wondering how many other species of flowers produce plumes like these.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 19, 2016 at 6:03 AM

  9. That’s one that we have here too. I love to see them!


    July 19, 2016 at 10:25 PM

  10. Beautiful. The fact that they remain at essentially the same height makes it easy to visualize how the name “prairie smoke” developed. Sea smoke, the misty fog that develops just above the water as the result of a sharp cold front, makes a nice companion phenomenon. And “old man’s whiskers” tickles me. I found that the name’s been used for Spanish moss, too.

    I was glad for the link to Apache plume, because of the link it contained to your article on convergent evolution. I’ve been thinking about that since seeing Pairodox’s post about ghost pipe and Indian pipe, and realized I still was confused. The article was helpful.


    July 20, 2016 at 6:22 AM

    • What allows Clematis drummondii to form mounds is the fact that the plant is a climbing vine. I haven’t heard anyone speak of sea smoke, but I know you’re on the level. Maybe someone up north can find a prairie smoke plant on the shore of a Great Lake and photograph it getting enveloped in sea smoke.

      What you say about “old man’s whiskers” for Spanish moss (which isn’t from Spain and isn’t a moss) reminds us about the frequent ambiguity of common names: the same one for different species, different ones for the same species. At least you’re tickled by the name.

      Perhaps the clearest example of convergent evolution is flight. butterflies, bats, and birds all fly, though they came to flight by different evolutionary paths.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 20, 2016 at 6:48 AM

      • I don’t think it would be possible to have prairie smoke and sea smoke at the same time, unless the prairie smoke was living indoors in a pot, but sea smoke on Lake Michigan? Oh, yes. Here’s a terrific view of the Chicago skyline with sea smoke (the photo enlarges). When I searched for “sea smoke Lake Michigan” some really fabulous photos of lighthouses surrounded by smoke came up, too.


        July 20, 2016 at 7:00 AM

        • Thanks for the link. With Chicago fresh on my mind, I recognized the skyline right away. I also recognized the sea smoke, although I don’t think I’d ever heard anyone refer to it by that name. Or maybe I had and forgot.

          As you know, Lake Michigan is generally much too large to see across, but the Indiana Dunes are close enough that we could faintly see the Chicago skyline across the water. Skyscrapers aren’t plants, but I may go ahead and show a picture here anyhow.

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 20, 2016 at 7:10 AM

  11. ‘Prairie smoke’ sounds like poetry

    jane tims

    July 20, 2016 at 7:21 AM

    • It is poetic. More poetic than the “old man’s beard” that describes the similar looking plumes we have in Texas.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 20, 2016 at 7:31 AM

  12. This is beautiful. I love the how wispy and delicate it is. After reading the comments I see we have Melissa to partly thank for it. I think I’d have to say it’s one of my favourite Steve shots. It also reminds me of soft bird feathers.


    July 21, 2016 at 10:13 PM

    • Yes, these are a lot like feathers. I don’t know when I’ll get to see prairie smoke again, but in Austin we’re fortunate to have a frequently encountered native vine colloquially called old man’s beard (how appropriate), which produces the same kinds of plumes.

      When Eve and I spent 10 days in the Chicago area last month, Melissa took us to several of her favorite places in nature and served as our “local informant.” After our return I kept sending her pictures I’d taken of plants so she could identify them.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 21, 2016 at 11:06 PM

  13. […] its late stage, Apache plume is quite similar to the prairie smoke (Geum triflorum, likewise in the rose family) that I observed in Illinois four years ago, and also to […]

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