Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

The Blackland Prairie does its spring thing

with 27 comments

The east side of Austin lies in the ecoregion known as the Blackland Prairie, named for its rich soil. When land there is left alone, as a plot on the west side of Heatherwilde Blvd. north of Wells Branch Parkway has been for some years now, spring brings colonies of wildflowers like those shown here on May 9th.

The white flowers that draw your eyes are prairie bishop’s weed, Bifora americana. The mostly red ones are Gaillardia pulchella, called firewheel and Indian blanket, which proliferate in May. The mostly yellow-orange wildflowers are greenthread, Thelesperma filifolium, also abundant in the spring. The tall plants with yellow-green flowers are prairie parsley, Polytaenia nuttallii. Below is a view in which the parsley predominates. I believe the dark little thingies are seed head remains of the greenthread.

© 2019 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

May 13, 2019 at 4:41 AM

27 Responses

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  1. Beautiful tapestry. If prairie is left alone here it quickly becomes a woodland. I imagine that doesn’t happen there because it is drier? Do you see a change in the dominant species over time?


    May 13, 2019 at 7:54 AM

    • I think you’re right in general, based on our drier climate. On the other hand, we have trees like the mesquite and the huisache that can quickly dominate a piece of prairie. I think I’ve read that wildfires used to keep the trees from taking over.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 13, 2019 at 3:36 PM

      • I wondered about that. It seems to me fires kept almost all of America’s habitats healthy until we got the fire-suppression bug. Boy, there’s hell to pay now for that!


        May 15, 2019 at 9:11 AM

        • It’s generally accepted that the Ashe junipers that dominate so much land in central Texas now were once found primarily in places that fire didn’t normally reach.

          Steve Schwartzman

          May 15, 2019 at 9:18 AM

          • That stands to reason. I’ve read that in some areas at least, we actually have more trees than in pre-settlement times. That is hard to believe given all the clearcutting that still goes on. I’ve seen it here and in other places where forests were once clear cut and are now regenerating. It is as though people can not bear to thin them, and fires are prevented, so far too many young trees are growing at once, vying for the light. In fact, I fear for the forests of the UP and North Carolina.


            May 16, 2019 at 7:05 AM

            • I’ve also heard that we have more trees now than before European settlement. I imagine that’s at least in part because timber companies do so much replanting after they cut down trees. After all, it’s in their long-term interest to do so. I don’t know how much thinning takes place in those replanted forests.

              Steve Schwartzman

              May 16, 2019 at 7:21 AM

              • They do replant, but in many cases they have done so much harm to the soil on those steep slopes that no trees grow. I have seen clear cuts that are decades old that are still barren.


                May 16, 2019 at 10:29 AM

                • Ah, too bad.

                  Steve Schwartzman

                  May 16, 2019 at 10:54 AM

                • It sure is, and probably not even necessary. I’m reading a fascinating book called “Sprout Lands” about how people harvested trees for thousands of years by pollarding them, rather than clearcutting them as we do here.


                  May 17, 2019 at 8:58 AM

  2. With any luck those fields of flowers will be there for generations.

    Steve Gingold

    May 13, 2019 at 1:03 PM

    • Alas, I’m afraid not this one. It’s slightly north of a much larger tract where 20 years ago I wandered freely across the prairie but which for the past decade has gotten increasingly covered with apartments, houses, roads, stores, and industrial buildings. For a few years this property hosted a sign saying it was the future home of a private high school. When I visited last week the sign had gotten moved across the street and was by a currently unoccupied commercial building. With Austin’s steady expansion out into the suburbs, eventually the land becomes valuable enough that the owners sell out to developers.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 13, 2019 at 3:43 PM

  3. Ooooh lovely!

    M.B. Henry

    May 13, 2019 at 4:40 PM

  4. Beautiful displays of flowers!


    May 13, 2019 at 6:43 PM

  5. Even here on the coast, there are places where the fields of flowers are glorious. I made a trip to the Brazoria refuge on Sunday, and the prairie areas are awash in yellow and red — and green. I’ve never seen so much prairie parsley, mixed in with the last of the obedient plant, as well as thistles and greenthread. The prairie gentian are getting tall, too. Many of those plants are four to six inches tall now, so it won’t be long until another change takes place.

    The propensity of white flowers to form isolated colonies in the middle of fields is interesting. I’ve seen it especially with daisies. I’ve wondered whether they might be popping up in swales, or other areas where the soil is just enough different to allow them to thrive. Whatever the cause, it certainly is eye-catching, as your photo shows.


    May 13, 2019 at 10:21 PM

    • I’m happy for you that you’ve gotten to see (and presumably photograph) a superbloom over by the coast. Spread the wealth, right? Yours is the first report I’ve heard of prairie gentian for 2019; based on past years, I’d say it’s still too early in Austin. Whenever I drive up to Pflugerville along the I-35 access road I’m sadly reminded of a great colony of bluebells that used to grow on a piece of the Blackland Prairie there; in their place an apartment complex sprang up a few years ago.

      You who dote on white flowers would be thrilled to see what the prairie bishop is doing here now. The surrounded little group in the first photograph gives you a foretaste of the larger and denser colonies growing on that tract that I’ll feature next time. And yesterday I chanced on a similarly good expanse in Leander, which I think is too far west to be part of the Blackland Prairie. Again, spread the wealth, right?

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 14, 2019 at 5:22 AM

  6. Akin to a pointillistic painting, Steve – beautiful!


    May 14, 2019 at 6:22 AM

  7. […] Blackland Prairie on the west side of Heatherwilde Blvd. north of Wells Branch Parkway looked so good on May 9th that I went back three days later and once again took a slew of pictures. The star in many of them […]

  8. Indian blanket looks like such a traditional American wildflower. It is sort of what I expect to see there, even more than bluebonnets.


    May 19, 2019 at 2:11 AM

    • I don’t believe I’d heard of Indian blanket till I moved to Texas. It’s iconic here, and one of the best known native wildflowers.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 19, 2019 at 4:18 AM

      • I heard of it in the 1980s, when garden varieties of it were becoming popular for home gardening. I still don’t know much about it because I have never worked with it directly. Yet, it looks like small sunflowers at ground level, and sunflowers look so distinctly American.


        May 19, 2019 at 2:02 PM

  9. […] jaunts to northeast Austin on May 9th and May 12th were making me tie the profusion of Bifora americana to the Blackland Prairie, and the […]

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