Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Gaura by any other name

with 24 comments

The bottom portion of this portrait may let you imagine you’re in the mountains. For good or ill, I was only in the hills of northwest Austin on April 26th.

Botanists have done away with the genus Gaura, transferring all its members to Oenothera. This photograph may show the former Gaura coccinea, now Oenthera suffrutescens. The common name would still be scarlet gaura. Time for Shakespeare again: that which we call gaura, by any other name would look as strange.

Written by Steve Schwartzman

May 9, 2020 at 4:29 AM

24 Responses

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  1. This is another friend I’ve missed seeing so far this year. Soon, I hope.

    I’m quite taken with your ‘mountain.’ When I photographed my very tall ladies tresses orchid, I had some images that used both prairie and sky as background, but they just weren’t acceptable; they weren’t visually pleasing at all. Now, I think I see why. I’d divided the background in half, and that strong line dividing sky from land distracted from the flower. Here, your inclusion of the land complements the flower, rather than competing with it. I really like it.


    May 9, 2020 at 6:53 AM

    • In a few other takes the hilly outline appeared a little lower relative to the vertical flower stalk, so that I could have cropped off the bottom and left the gaura isolated against blue sky. That would have been good, too. I decided to show this frame because of its asymmetry. From what you say about your ladies’ tresses photos, I think you’re right that a 50-50 split distracted from the flowers. Let’s hope you find some gaura soon so you can have another go at a tall flower stalk.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 9, 2020 at 7:43 AM

      • Tangentially, have you noticed the variety of punctuations used for ‘ladies’ tresses’? I’ve always used the form you did here, but in my reading I’ve found ‘ladies tresses,’ ‘lady tresses,’ and even ‘lady tress’ for a single plant. It’s a rare plant that can cause confusion over punctuation as well as identification.


        May 9, 2020 at 7:48 AM

        • Yes, I’ve noticed variations in the name. It’s a doubly confusing wildflower, as you say. I don’t think I’ve come across “lady tress” as a singular.

          Steve Schwartzman

          May 9, 2020 at 8:36 AM

  2. Beautiful colours and details.


    May 9, 2020 at 8:07 AM

  3. I would have been tempted to cut off the part with the green, but now I realize its importance for making the gaura flower stand out more impressively.

    Peter Klopp

    May 9, 2020 at 8:26 AM

    • I think you saw my reply to Linda: in a few other takes the hilly outline appeared a little lower relative to the vertical flower stalk, so that I could have cropped off the bottom and left the gaura isolated against blue sky, which I also like. In the frame that I showed I decided to leave the bottom part for context, for a bit of asymmetry, and, as you said, to contrast with the flower.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 9, 2020 at 8:40 AM

  4. Such an unusual flower! The central portion reminds me, just a little, of fireweed.


    May 9, 2020 at 6:24 PM

    • Your intuition is good: gaura and fireweed are both in the botanical family Onagraceae. I, too, have always found gaura flowers unusual. Years ago the discombobulation of their parts” reminded me of a comment that art critic Julian Street made about Marcel Duchamp’s 1912 Cubist painting “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2”; he said it resembled “an explosion in a shingle factory.” Gaura strikes me as the floral equivalent.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 9, 2020 at 6:58 PM

  5. You’ve captured all the airiness of the plant. I have never seen gaura of quite this colour – there is a warmth to the pink, although that could be the beautiful lighting. I’m always sorry when a plant name is changed. It’s not easy to unlearn a name and it drives us towards the folk names, which have never needed certification. I have no idea what bleeding heart is called now, for example.


    May 10, 2020 at 5:11 AM

    • This portrait shows the red and pink realistically. Gaura (of several species) is a common spring wildflower in central Texas. I often first notice it along the edges of highways that I’m driving on.

      I see a gaura cultivar in your post at https://susanrushton.net/2018/06/09/six-on-saturday-from-the-rhs-chatsworth-flower-show/. Perhaps you’ve seen an unmodified one in Mississippi.

      Yes, the irony is that the common name for a plant is now sometimes more stable than the scientific name. I also see from your post that you’re doing your best to ignore the changes. Out of curiosity, I checked bleeding heart and found the new name is Lamprocapnos spectabilis.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 10, 2020 at 7:03 AM

  6. Thanks for the update on the Genus. I’m still calling them Gaura, so I guess I’ll have to recheck my sources before I misremember a Genus-species binomial nomenclature on anything. I know some folks who still call Tetraneuris sp. Hymenoxys, but they got trained as Master Naturalists long before I did.


    May 10, 2020 at 7:58 AM

    • Some of our most prominent plants have changed recently. For example, Texas mountain laurel is now Dermatophyllum secundiflorum, huisache has become Vachellia farnesiana, and mountain pink is now Zeltnera beyrichii. Two decades ago from Marshall Enquist’s book I learned four-nerve daisies as being in the genus Hymenoxys , but I long ago switched to Tetraneuris.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 10, 2020 at 8:47 AM

      • Just out of curiosity, what do you use as your authority? (Folks in my chapter of NPSOT follow the names on the LBJ WC plant database, which may lag behind some of the other authorities).


        May 10, 2020 at 11:45 AM

        • You’re right that the Wildflower Center database lags behind the latest botanical determinations. That’s because the Wildflower Center has a policy of following the USDA, which can be slow to update its designations. I go with the latest scientific names—if I can find out what they are.

          Steve Schwartzman

          May 10, 2020 at 11:52 AM

  7. Oh dear, I can’t keep up with the changes in plant names! I’m going to end up totally confused…

    Ann Mackay

    May 11, 2020 at 5:57 AM

    • It does get confusing. Now that Gaura is Oenothera, there’s no easy way to glance down a list of Oenothera species in a region and pick out the ones whose flowers look like Gaura.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 11, 2020 at 7:03 AM

      • It’s going to get difficult on my blog – I’ll have to look plants up to see if their names have changed, otherwise readers won’t know what I’m talking about!

        Ann Mackay

        May 11, 2020 at 9:36 AM

        • Fortunately, many websites list older scientific names. In addition, on average it takes other people as long to find out about new scientific names as it takes you, so everyone’s in the same botanical boat.

          Steve Schwartzman

          May 11, 2020 at 3:29 PM

  8. Those botanists and their constant reclassifications. Still an interesting flower by any other name.

    Steve Gingold

    May 11, 2020 at 4:28 PM

    • Gauras are hard to photograph because the parts go in so many directions. Keeping some distance, as I did here, makes life easier.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 11, 2020 at 4:39 PM

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