Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

When five is four

with 42 comments

Five is the normal number of petals for the flowers of Solanum elaeagnifolium, known as silverleaf nightshade. Five is what every field guide I’ve looked at says. Five is how many petals I’ve always seen in the two decades I’ve known this common Texas wildflower.

Nevertheless, on September 2 at a property along Lost Horizon Dr. that’s getting houses built on portions of it, I found a silverleaf nightshade flower with just four petals. Because of the way adjacent petals in this kind of flower are fused at their edges, it doesn’t seem possible that the specimen started out with five petals and then lost one. Below is a slightly downward view from the other side of the flower that once again clearly shows four 90° angles rather than the expected five 72° angles.

For comparison, here’s the back of a regular silverleaf nightshade flower at the same location.

© 2018 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

September 5, 2018 at 4:28 AM

42 Responses

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  1. Solanum elaeagnifolium schwartzmanii!

    These things do occur. I had my own bit of oddity here back in 2016.

    Steve Gingold

    September 5, 2018 at 4:49 AM

    • Then we’re both odd. Once I looked at your post from 2016 I remembered seeing it and commenting on it. For your specimen, 3 was 4. For mine, 5 was 4. Some go up, others down.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 5, 2018 at 6:44 AM

  2. Perhaps it is expressing its sense of diminishment as its habitat is subsumed by building.


    September 5, 2018 at 8:19 AM

    • I don’t know that the flower can express a sense of diminishment, but you certainly can on its behalf. I’ve taken nature photographs on this site in my neighborhood a bunch of times. The property is adjacent to the tennis courts of the Great Hills Country Club, so I should’ve known the land was too valuable to stay vacant forever. The starting price of the houses being built is $700,000.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 5, 2018 at 8:49 AM

      • Oh brother. It doesn’t seem like this madness is sustainable.


        September 5, 2018 at 8:52 AM

        • For years now the Austin area has been one of the fastest-growing in the country. So many properties where I used to take nature pictures have been developed.

          Steve Schwartzman

          September 5, 2018 at 9:36 AM

          • Do you think it will ever be too much for you and Eve, all the development?


            September 7, 2018 at 9:01 AM

            • I’m afraid there’s not much we can do about it. At this stage, it’s unlikely we’d move somewhere more remote.

              Steve Schwartzman

              September 7, 2018 at 10:56 AM

              • Yes. I’ve been reviewing the options with my family, and they are few and a bit unsatisfactory.


                September 8, 2018 at 11:33 AM

                • At least there are some greenbelts, trails, and parks here that will remain undeveloped. Likewise for Grant Woods, Illinois Beach, and other places where you are.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  September 8, 2018 at 11:50 AM

                • Yes, and I intend to enjoy them while I can. I may have mentioned, my dearest friend and walking buddy is having trouble with her heart. Her cardiologist has not been able to figure out what is going on. I’m deeply concerned, and it is throwing everything into a different light for me.


                  September 8, 2018 at 11:54 AM

                • I’m sorry to hear about your walking buddy and her heart problems. I don’t recall your mentioning that. I understand how that puts things into a different light.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  September 8, 2018 at 12:01 PM

                • Yes. When I stop to do the math, I am astonished to realize she is probably into her 80’s.


                  September 8, 2018 at 12:02 PM

                • That explains it. There’s probably nothing to be done, then.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  September 8, 2018 at 12:05 PM

                • I’m afraid that is the case.


                  September 8, 2018 at 12:06 PM

  3. These plants grow rampant in our area of Oklahoma (south central, southwest). They are really beautiful in a large spread of them, but they are not a pretty plant in the fall when the fruits dry. I have never seen a four-leaf blossom. I wonder if it’s a good luck omen like a four-leaf clover?


    September 5, 2018 at 8:40 AM

    • Nothing prevents you from taking this unusual flower as a good-luck omen, so go for it (and go native, too). The Wikipedia article at


      says that a study found the occurrence of four-leaf clovers to be about 1 in 5,000. I’ve seen thousands of silverleaf nightshade flowers over the past two decades but of course I didn’t stop to look at each one to see how many petals it had. It never even occurred to me that there might not be five. I’ll probably never see another.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 5, 2018 at 8:56 AM

  4. In the first shot, I was expecting kite string, instead of a stalk. It’s a neat flower, got a nice tie-dye look to it.

    Robert Parker

    September 5, 2018 at 10:10 AM

    • I’ll have to go stalking for some kite string. The flying toy is named after the kite that’s a kind of bird.

      Silverleaf nightshade is quite a common wildflower here, one that’s found for much of the year.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 5, 2018 at 12:47 PM

  5. I thought of a kite immediately — just the kind we used to build with dowels for ribs and some sort of paper.

    It’s a wonderful find. Who knows what else is lurking out there among all the thousands and thousands of these plants? I laughed at Littlesundog’s comment about the fruit. I think they’re beautiful — especially when they’re just forming and look like green tomatoes. And after they’ve turned golden-yellow, they’ll hang around for quite some time, as you know. There still were some withered ones on their stems in late spring this year.


    September 5, 2018 at 9:06 PM

    • I find silverleaf nightshade fruits photogenic, and while at that property I took a bunch of pictures of them in various colors and stages, including drying out and getting puckered. As you noted, it’s not unusual for them to hang on through the winter and into the following spring.

      Unlike you and Robert, I never did think about a kite. Maybe I was too focused on the unusual fourness of that flower as a flower to liken it to something else.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 5, 2018 at 9:34 PM

      • I think the experience of finding something unusual in the field differs from looking at it later; at least, it does for me. I can’t remember ever thinking “That looks like [fill in the blank] while I’m still looking at the real thing. It’s only later that I might see a resemblance to something else, like a kite.


        September 5, 2018 at 9:38 PM

        • I’ve experienced it both ways. There have been times out in nature when something immediately looked to me like something else. At other times, only after looking at a picture on my computer later did I see a likeness to something else. There’s even a third possibility: sometimes only after someone pointed out that an object in a photograph of mine resembled something else was I suddenly able to see it like that.

          Steve Schwartzman

          September 5, 2018 at 9:43 PM

  6. An intriguing find. The 4 petal flower doesn’t look entirely comfortable. It looks like someone wearing a garment which is just a little too tight.


    September 6, 2018 at 5:50 AM

    • I felt that way just two days ago when trying on a bunch of old pants. People in the Philippines will be the beneficiaries of those outgrown clothes.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 6, 2018 at 8:42 AM

      • I am now wondering if I should refer to you and the flower as shapeshifters; it sounds more dignified.


        September 6, 2018 at 6:18 PM

        • There’s a millennia-long history of shapeshifting in various folk traditions. I guess those venerable traditions impart some dignity.

          Steve Schwartzman

          September 6, 2018 at 7:22 PM

  7. Were there other pentagon flowers on the same plant with the square flower, or did it bloom with other square flowers?


    September 6, 2018 at 9:56 PM

    • Good question. My recollection is that the plant also had flowers with regular five-part corollas. That’s important evidence in trying to understand the anomaly.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 7, 2018 at 8:12 AM

      • Yes, that sounds like a simple mistake, like a four leaf clover.


        September 7, 2018 at 11:09 PM

  8. Maybe you discovered a new subspecies, Steve. I like the suggestion above with regard to its name.


    September 6, 2018 at 10:37 PM

    • I just replied to Tony’s comment before yours that I believe the plant also had flowers with regular five-part corollas. That would imply this flower was a one-off. It still leaves open the possibility that seeds from the plant might have a predisposition to produce offspring with an occasional five-petal flower. I don’t know enough botany to say how likely that is.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 7, 2018 at 8:16 AM

      • It makes me wonder how often we miss variations because we don’t inspect plants too closely. How great that you noticed this one.


        September 7, 2018 at 4:25 PM

        • Yes, I’m glad I noticed it, the first ever of its kind for me after two decades. At the same time, I’ve often wondered how many things I’ve walked right past without noticing them. There must be many. I’ve also lamented the fact that I can’t be everywhere at once, especially in the spring when so much is happening; as a result, I must have missed worthy things in the places I didn’t manage to get to.

          Steve Schwartzman

          September 7, 2018 at 5:28 PM

          • I feel similarly when it comes to birds, Steve. One chooses to bird one location, but a rare bird shows up at another site.
            And the more I learn about plants and animals, especially insects, the more I realize what I have missed for many years. It is a good reminder to try to be more present and more alert.


            September 8, 2018 at 7:32 PM

            • You may be familiar with an admonition that entered popular culture half a century ago: Be here now.

              Also from that period is something I’m reminded of by your statement that “One chooses to bird one location….” There used to be a gallery in New York called A Bird Can Fly But a Fly Can’t Bird. While a fly still can’t bird, it seems that a person now can.

              Steve Schwartzman

              September 8, 2018 at 7:50 PM

              • A good admonition, Steve. And I am glad that I am not a fly. 😊


                September 8, 2018 at 7:54 PM

                • I’m also glad you’re not a fly. If you want to get a perplexed reaction from people you know, go up to them individually and ask: “Are you glad I’m not a fly?”

                  It just occurred to me that many people in the smartphone generation are now acting out the opposite admonition: Don’t be here now.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  September 8, 2018 at 7:59 PM

                • A very astute observation, Steve, which might be one of the reasons why I do not own a smartphone. Life without one IS possible.


                  September 8, 2018 at 9:11 PM

                • I find my iPhone useful for some things, like navigating around New Zealand in a rental car, but I’m not addicted to the phone. Some young people seem to check their phones every few minutes all day long.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  September 8, 2018 at 9:18 PM

                • I can relate to the usefulness, but maybe I am afraid to get carried away…


                  September 8, 2018 at 9:21 PM

  9. […] September 2nd, at the same property along Lost Horizon Dr. in my neighborhood where I discovered a silverleaf nightshade flower that spoke in four-part harmony rather than five-, I found several bunches of Verbesina encelioides flowers, known as cowpen […]

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