Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Death camas from the side and from above

with 41 comments

Behold Zigadenus nuttallii, alternatively Toxicoscordion nuttallii, whose genus name signals the plant’s toxicity. It’s also bluntly indicated in the common name death camas. I didn’t indulge, and so lived to show you these portraits from March 19th beneath the large power lines west of Morado Circle in my neighborhood.

© 2020 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

April 7, 2020 at 4:10 AM

41 Responses

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  1. Deadly poisonous plants are surprisingly common, as any thoughtful parent knows.


    April 7, 2020 at 4:41 AM

    • As young children are fond of putting things in their mouth, I can see why you’d have worried about that. In addition to death camas, Austin has several species of nightshade and a non-native hemlock.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 7, 2020 at 9:30 AM

  2. The second picture looks like coronavirus, which is another good reason to associate it with death.


    April 7, 2020 at 6:26 AM

    • That’s an imaginative association you’ve made—maybe not so surprising, given that it’s on all our minds.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 7, 2020 at 9:32 AM

      • Well . . . yes. I do not talk about it like everyone else does, but I see that creepy picture of it often enough.


        April 7, 2020 at 11:11 AM

        • Creepy has largely gotten divorced from creep, but the original sense of creepy was ‘having or producing a sensation like that caused by insects creeping on the skin.’

          Steve Schwartzman

          April 7, 2020 at 11:38 AM

          • Well, yes. That is what creepy creeping insects do; they creep . . . creepily.


            April 7, 2020 at 12:13 PM

            • What I meant is that the word has expanded to situations that have nothing directly to do with insects, for example things in horror movies and ghost stories.

              Steve Schwartzman

              April 7, 2020 at 1:24 PM

  3. Lovely, especially the close up view to show all the delicate florets. My next plant to draw is water hemlock, also deadly. There aren’t actually all that many deadly plants, but it sure pays to know which ones they are. Generally, I don’t nibble in the field.


    April 7, 2020 at 7:17 AM

    • In replying to the first comment I mentioned that a species of Eurasian hemlock grows wild in central Texas. It looks like Queen Anne’s lace and some other plants, so tasting anything like that is strongly disadvised (in spite of WP’s underlining, the word exists). I do nibble a few things that I’m certain enough about, like peppergrass, which has a mustard-like tang.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 7, 2020 at 9:38 AM

      • Grape vines have a tasty little y-shaped extension at their growing tips that are quite refreshing.


        April 8, 2020 at 8:02 AM

        • Just the other day I was looking at tendrils on a mustang grape vine. Next time maybe I’ll take a nibble.

          Steve Schwartzman

          April 8, 2020 at 8:47 AM

  4. I’m glad you didn’t indulge, except in photographic form. I don’t think I’ve seen these beauties around, so I should keep an eye out for them.


    April 7, 2020 at 8:04 AM

    • I don’t often come across death camas. This seems to have been a good spring for them. I say that because I found one on the West Pickle Campus when I stopped to photograph bluebonnets and other flowers on March 18. The next day I was surprised to find a cluster of death camas on the right-of-way under the power lines west of Morado Circle. Two of those are shown in this post.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 7, 2020 at 9:43 AM

  5. What a beautiful flower and a terrible name! I wonder how poisonous the plant really is to be giving such a terrifying name. I am glad to read that you were not tempted to indulge, Steve.

    Peter Klopp

    April 7, 2020 at 8:34 AM

    • Here’s a description from the American Druggist, 1887:

      “I find it to be a powerful narcotic poison. One of my patients, a girl 8 years old, claimed that she only broke the stem of the plant and rubbed the juice on her lips and lapped it off with her tongue. Severe convulsions followed, lasting one and one-half hours, the most violent that it has been my lot to witness in a practice of 35 years; 24 hours later she had one of an hour’s duration. I gave strong coffee from the start, used the bromides and gelsemium, stood over the patient three days and nights constantly. I write this that you may know there is a potency here not often met in the vegetable kingdom.

      “Symptoms. — Extreme thirst, constant vomiting, dilatation of the pupil and coma, and (sequel) inflammation of the stomach.

      “One young lady, not included in the above, says she tasted the plant and it made her very sick; she also states that the taste was fascinating and followed by a desire for more, and that it required all her will-power to resist.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 7, 2020 at 9:51 AM

      • Thank you for the info, Steve! My hope is that this plant is relatively rare in the plant kingdom in your area.

        Peter Klopp

        April 7, 2020 at 10:39 AM

        • I don’t often run into it. This seems to have been a good spring for it, as I found it on two consecutive days in different places. Though poisonous, it’s an attractive plant to photograph, and I look forward to my infrequent encounters with it.

          Steve Schwartzman

          April 7, 2020 at 10:43 AM

      • That is really frightening. Are there efforts to inform the general public of its presence and danger (warning signs where it’s likely to grow, etc.)?


        April 7, 2020 at 4:31 PM

        • Not that I’m aware of. The only thing like that that I’ve seen is an occasional warning sign near a poison ivy patch. Death camas isn’t all that common here, especially when compared to some of the practically ubiquitous nightshades.

          Steve Schwartzman

          April 7, 2020 at 4:42 PM

  6. The Morado Circle power lines have been productive territory for you. For some reason, I’ve always associated death camas with the mountain west, but I see that the species there are different. The name change for this one must be recent, as BONAP and Eason still have it listed in the genus Toxicoscordion. It’s so hard to keep up with those taxonomists!

    In any event, the plant’s beautiful. I especially like the second photo, with its dark background and crisp, white flowers.


    April 7, 2020 at 8:37 AM

    • I’ve searched to find out which genus is the current one; so far I haven’t turned up anything definite. I suspect I have things backwards and that Toxicoscordion is the latest. As you point out, other species of camas grow in the mountain west, while this one has been found in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Missouri, Louisiana, Mississippi, Kansas, and Texas.

      You’re right about the right-of-way beneath the power lines west of Morado Circle. For the 16 years I’ve lived in this neighborhood, that strip of land has proved a reliable place to find native plants. When I walked there on March 19, I didn’t encounter a single other person on the right-of-way itself, though I saw a few near it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 7, 2020 at 10:07 AM

  7. Love the information and that close up shot. It’s a beautiful flower.


    April 7, 2020 at 11:56 AM

  8. We have them up here in Oregon, too.

    Lavinia Ross

    April 7, 2020 at 12:37 PM

  9. That 1887 Druggist description sounds a bit over-the-top, but I don’t doubt there are kids who do not pay attention to the “please don’t eat the daisies, etc” signs.
    It’s such a pretty flower — in high school, I read a few James Bond novels, they were OK, and I think Fleming’s last one in the series was “You only live twice”. The villain was living in a Japanese castle, and had created a “garden of death,” full of poisonous plants. it was kind of a silly idea, but I thought this flower would be a nice addition.

    Robert Parker

    April 7, 2020 at 1:34 PM

    • Too bad you can’t resuscitate Ian Fleming and tell him to include death camas in his garden. After I became aware of several poisonous native plants, I imagined a mystery novel in which someone uses one of them to kill someone else. I figured it might be hard for investigators to trace a poison from a native plant, as opposed to something for sale in a store.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 7, 2020 at 4:17 PM

      • If you knew the target was taking digitalis heart medicine, you might use that – – one of my grandmothers always had foxglove in her garden, but fretted about us kids being around them – – I don’t remember ever thinking to munch on them. Fleming’s imaginary garden included poison ivy, which I thought was odd, but I guess it can actually be fatal in some cases,

        Robert Parker

        April 7, 2020 at 4:40 PM

        • I’ve read that inhaling smoke from burning poison ivy can cause severe irritation and inflammation in the respiratory tract, and in the worst case even death. That’s why people who want to remove poison ivy from their property are advised never to try burning it off.

          Steve Schwartzman

          April 7, 2020 at 4:50 PM

          • Yes I was told to never do that. but it’s another option for your Organic Murder, Inc plot

            Robert Parker

            April 7, 2020 at 5:01 PM

  10. I’m glad you made it through this encounter! I do love that top down view. Nicely done.

    Todd Henson

    April 8, 2020 at 6:42 AM

    • Thanks. That top-down view is geometrically abstract and has limited focus as well as color. And yes, I lived through the encounter.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 8, 2020 at 7:47 AM

  11. Both lovely shots. What do we win for coming the closest to the number of individual flowers on the stalk?

    Steve Gingold

    April 8, 2020 at 9:17 AM

  12. Not sure I’ll be looking to plant any of these any time soon!!


    April 8, 2020 at 3:33 PM

    • If no children or pets have access to your yard, it would be okay. The flowering plant is quite attractive, as you see here.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 8, 2020 at 3:58 PM

  13. I didn’t know this grows where you are, too. Ours are quite small. I would be very happy to make a portrait as nice as these are!


    April 26, 2020 at 6:17 PM

    • It’s a different species of Toxicoscordion in Austin, but just as poisonous. Unlike yours, ours are tall enough and erect enough to be quite conspicuous, and I was happy to see the stand of them that included this plant. Some springs I don’t see even one, so this appears to have been a good year for them.

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 26, 2020 at 9:10 PM

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