Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

When purple is white

with 54 comments

Several times over the years that these posts have been appearing I’ve pointed out that purple flowers seem more disposed than those of other colors to produce naturally occurring white variants. That was clearly the case with some spiderworts (Tradescantia spp.) that caught my attention at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center on March 14th. You can see residual traces of purple in those flowers.

Two years ago you saw a largely white variant of a bluebonnet. (Most bluebonnets strike me as purple rather than blue.)

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

March 25, 2018 at 4:38 AM

54 Responses

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  1. I’ve not yet added spiderwort to my little collection of white variants, but when I do, I hope I can achieve the kind of clarity you have here. It’s a beautiful photo, and the faintly purple hairs are a delightful complement.

    I’ll be interested to see what kind of images I have when I get home. It’s been three days of wind: first north, then south, and always at least 20 mph. Thank goodness there were some interesting rocks lying around.


    March 25, 2018 at 5:42 AM

    • This photo pleased me, too. I’ve found spiderwort flowers hard to photograph because they grow in clusters, not all parts of which can be easily brought into focus at the same time.

      Those winds visited Austin, too. The main (and almost only) thing I photographed last week were turtles, unaffected as they were by the wind. It sounds as if rocks provided the same immobility for you.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 25, 2018 at 9:57 AM

  2. Exceptional macro of this find. Are white spiderworts a rarity?


    March 25, 2018 at 6:00 AM

    • Thanks. I’ve haven’t tried to quantify the rarity of white spiderworts. Some years I’ve noticed none, but that may be a consequence of how often and where I went out. All I can say is that every so often I come across a few.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 25, 2018 at 10:00 AM

  3. I have purple spiderworts with an occasional white one popping up. But the color change I’ve seen most often is with flowers that start out white and then turn pink from their second blooming onwards.


    March 25, 2018 at 6:56 AM

  4. Beautiful blossoms! I also love to see the white variants and there are several here that do that.


    March 25, 2018 at 9:34 AM

  5. I enjoyed this study on purple and white, Steve, and your photos, both here and of the bluebonnet, are a joy.

    Jet Eliot

    March 25, 2018 at 9:57 AM

  6. Very nice! I did not realize there were white varieties!

    Reed Andariese

    March 25, 2018 at 10:04 AM

  7. Soon we’ll have trillium in the woods, often in big swaths, which are almost always white, but occasionally you see really nice purplish-pink ones.

    Robert Parker

    March 25, 2018 at 10:41 AM

    • That’s a good example in the opposite direction, where white is the norm and purplish-pink is the exception. I wonder whether the storms you’ve been having in the Northeast will delay your trilliums.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 25, 2018 at 11:05 AM

      • I think you’re right. Snowdrops are out in the parks, but there’s still snow on the ground in the woods at home.

        Robert Parker

        March 25, 2018 at 11:16 AM

  8. …and speaking of color variations, there are a few pink bluebonnets scattered amongst the blue at the Lockhart State Park this season.

    esther wilson

    March 25, 2018 at 10:46 AM

  9. Oh! PURPLE bluebonnets?! I like them because I think that they are so blue, like our native lupines.


    March 25, 2018 at 11:58 AM

    • Over the years of this blog I’ve carried on an intermittent discussion about how people identify a given color. One factor is that there are individual differences in the cones in people’s eyes. Another factor is that each language has only a small number of common words to identify an infinite number of colors. Different languages divide up the visible spectrum differently.

      A bluebonnet typically strikes me as more purple than blue, while other people call the same color blue.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 25, 2018 at 3:28 PM

      • I am told the same about agapanthus and jacaranda, in regard to the color.
        When I grew rhododendrons, there were so many corny names for colors that I refused to use. I knew red, pink, purple, white, yellow, orange and so on; just the basics. Garnet was brownish red. Coral . . . I still do not know what that is. I could deal with salmon, but not buff. There were just too many colors to keep track of. Then, I was constantly reminded that white (which happens to be my favorite color) is not a color. So what!? If buff is a color, then white can be too. Technically, pink is not a color either, but a hue of red. Why doesn’t a hue of blue or yellow have a name. Brown is a tint of orange, but it has a name too. I don’t get it.


        March 25, 2018 at 8:21 PM

        • Oh my! I sent that before correcting the punctuation. Anyway, color is a trip. I will still stick with the basics. I do not care what white is; an absence of color or all colors combined. It is still my favorite. I can see neither infrared nor ultraviolet, so they do not concern me except in regard to what pollinators can see in flowers. By the way, do you happen to know what colors dogs can see?


          March 25, 2018 at 8:26 PM

          • Sorry, I don’t know anything about canine vision.

            Color is indeed a trip. Physicists and linguists have studied it from their respective viewpoints. In English, blue is a more basic color word than purple, and that seems to account at least in part for the various wildflowers that ended up with blue in their names even though I see them as purple or violet.

            Physicists consider white a mixture of all colors, but in common parlance white will always be a color, as will black. Curiously, the English words black and blank are etymologically related.

            Steve Schwartzman

            March 25, 2018 at 11:04 PM

        • Some hues of blue do have names, for example sky blue, azure, and aquamarine. Russian has no single word for blue; instead it uses two unrelated words, one for what English would describe as light blue or sky blue, and the other for dark blue or navy blue.

          Steve Schwartzman

          March 25, 2018 at 11:08 PM

          • Oh, those blues would be weirder than red and pink. I mean, I can see how sky blue would be comparable to pink, but is Navy blue comparable to red? That just makes no sense. In English, we could eliminate pink if necessary.


            March 25, 2018 at 11:10 PM

  10. Beautiful !!!!


    March 25, 2018 at 12:08 PM

  11. That is a lovely image, so pure with that delicate fringe of soft purple, and such a dear and un-demanding flower! I still remember with clarity the iron swing set in my parent’s yard, the iron basketball-goal post tucked past that in a corner, and if a ‘shot’ went awol, we often foraged in the spiderworts to retrieve the ball!
    I can picture the sparkles of dew and can almost feel that organic softness of the plant, and oh, the purity of the colored ones, yet white would be equally lovely in the shade…. What a perfect image to start my journey backwards here to see what I’ve missed!
    I did see headlines, however, about the problems in Austin – so sorry… sometimes it’s nice to be blissfully disconnected from the world news, though it comes at a cost of being disconnected from my favorite wp bloggers!

    • Welcome back. I do hope your journey back through recent posts will be a pleasant one.

      You seem to be the only person in the world who ever described a flower (or anything else) as dear and un-demanding. When I did a search for that exact phrase, both with and without the hyphen, Google returned not a single hit. You’re probably also among the very few people who have searched for a basketball in a group of spiderworts.

      I’ve been surprised that people in faraway parts of the world have heard about the bombings in Austin. The latest reports say that in a 25-minute recording the bomber left on his cell phone, he described himself as a psychopath.

      All the political wrangling in the United States wears me out and depresses me. You have an advantage in being cut off from a lot of that.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 25, 2018 at 3:38 PM

      • it’s always a treat to have unhurried time while perusing your posts; your feedback is always of interest. you made me laugh about my search for the basketball, but for some reason those spiderworts left a strong imprint. i’m so glad that my choice of words sent you on a seek-and-find mission! thanks for sharing that info!

        i’ve been visiting w/my son via internet and got side tracked, and now it’s time to resume rolling paint on the walls of the apt.. tomorrow i’ll return the keys to the owner, and by tomorrow night will be back in poza honda, where world events might as well be happening on another planet… it’s nice to be surrounded by nature, however, and to sometimes see a carl-sagan sky overhead!

        • I’m often alert to unique expressions and try to give people credit for them, like you with “dear and un-demanding.”

          Those clear night skies you mentioned are another fringe benefit of spending time in relative isolation. You’ve reminded me that when I revisited Honduras in the 1970s I took a star guide with me so I could identify constellations too far south to be visible from the United States.

          Happy paint-rolling.

          Steve Schwartzman

          March 25, 2018 at 10:54 PM

  12. I wonder if phlox fits in that category of pink/white variants? The spiderwort genetics sound interesting.

    Lavinia Ross

    March 25, 2018 at 12:59 PM

    • You make a good point that phlox comes in many colors. In fact that variety is part of phlox’s appeal to appeal.

      Spiderwort strikes me as a different kind of variation: there’s a strongly dominant color or range of similar colors, in this case purple/violet, along with a relatively tiny number of white spiderworts. With phlox, none of the colors seems to dominate, and all are common.

      Steve Schwartzman

      March 25, 2018 at 3:43 PM

  13. Beautiful flower portrait!!


    March 25, 2018 at 8:11 PM

  14. Love the hint of purple … wonderful image Steve


    March 30, 2018 at 2:35 PM

  15. That’s a gorgeous photograph, and an interesting observation.


    April 10, 2018 at 1:25 PM

    • You understand why I’m so happy with this photograph. I keep one foot in the world of art photography, so to speak.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 10, 2018 at 8:34 PM

  16. […] a recent post you saw a pretty white variant of a spiderwort, a wildflower that is normally purple or magenta or violet. Another purplish wildflower that […]

  17. I imagine that is the case in some areas, as well. For example, one town I know of “specializes” in white, non-albino squirrels, while another town might frequently see black squirrels. I have never seen white spiderwort here. What a find! It is beautiful, and beautifully photographed.


    April 18, 2018 at 9:05 AM

  18. These are much whiter than the ones we have in our yard. Although they appear white the color is actually a very pale blue with dark blue lines.

    Steve Gingold

    May 12, 2019 at 6:42 AM

    • These may have been the whitest spiderworts I ever saw. I imagine the norm for “white” spiderworts is more like the way you describe yours.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 12, 2019 at 7:07 AM

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