Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Powdery alligator flag

with 47 comments

On August 10th I drove out to the boardwalk pond in River Place for the first time this year. With many people still not going to work, the nature trail that wraps around two sides of the pond before following a creek through the woods turned out to be too well traveled for me to take it, as I’d planned. Instead I kept to myself on a non-trail side of the pond and still found plenty to keep me photographically busy.

What I thought were giant bulrushes seem actually to have been powdery alligator flags (Thalia dealbata), a fact I’m grateful to Linda at Lagniappe for pointing out. Here are views of a looser and a denser inflorescence. Along with the purple, who would expect those touches of bright red on the sheath that once enclosed the would-be flowers?

Here’s an unrelated quotation for today: “Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point,” “The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing about.” — Blaise Pascal, Pensées (Thoughts), 1670.

© 2020 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

August 14, 2020 at 4:35 AM

47 Responses

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  1. I think this might be Thalia dealbata — powdery alligator flag — rather than a bulrush. I first found it at the pond at Armand Bayou, and it certainly is impressive: tall and very striking with that colorful inflorescence. I rarely see it — lucky you!


    August 14, 2020 at 4:50 AM

    • Thanks: you seem to be right about the identification; what I photographed looks like what you featured in your 2017 post. It would explain why I haven’t noticed flowers like this on a giant bulrush till now. Apparently the specimens I found at the River Walk Pond were planted there, because Bill Carr doesn’t list that species for Travis County, and the closest the BONAP and USDA maps show it is a few counties to the south of here. I wonder if it’s uncommon even in the parts of Texas where it is listed, given that you rarely seen it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 14, 2020 at 7:13 AM

      • I just checked iNaturalist to see if there had been more sightings around here, and grinned when I saw an entry by Shannon. She found it over at Brazos Bend, and there were several other reports from that area. She spotted it on August 8, so I just might gather myself together for a trip over there this weekend.


        August 14, 2020 at 7:20 AM

        • Given how attractive the plant is, that should be well worth the visit. I just finished renaming all the folders of pictures I took of these plants, including the flowers and stalks and leaves.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 14, 2020 at 7:30 AM

          • I called Shannon, and she said she’d found it on the Elm Lake trail at Brazos Bend. Halfway around the lake, there it was. There were only a few plants, on their last legs, and it didn’t help that it was high noon and I only had my 18-135mm, but I was pleased nonetheless.

            What I didn’t expect were hundreds of blooming lotus in that same area. I’ll be going back soon at a different time of day, and with a longer lens.


            August 17, 2020 at 8:56 AM

            • The lens you had did a good enough job—unless what you linked to is a crop of a much larger image. I needed to go to 400mm for the pictures in this post. I’m sorry the plants you found at Brazos Bend were few and on their last legs (stalks?). Still, I know that urge to go back and try to improve on an earlier round. Plus you can get even more lotus blossoms. Have fun.

              Steve Schwartzman

              August 17, 2020 at 10:41 AM

  2. Wow, “powdery alligator”–I can’t get Johnny Horton’s old classic song “The Battle of New Orleans” out of my mind’s ear, because of the line: “We grabbed an alligator and powdered his behind…”


    August 14, 2020 at 5:32 AM

    • Now that’s an interesting association, and one that only people of a certain age would have. Given the slow speed of communication two centuries ago, the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the War of 1812 had officially ended.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 14, 2020 at 7:23 AM

  3. It’s lovely and looks like it was dusted with powdered sugar. That quote is so true!


    August 14, 2020 at 6:40 AM

    • I can see the powdered sugar, though I doubt it tastes sweet. The quotation is one of my favorites ever. Pascal was a great writer and a great mathematician.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 14, 2020 at 7:24 AM

      • A poetic mathematician seems like a very rare breed. It’s a terrific quotation.

        Robert Parker

        August 14, 2020 at 7:37 AM

        • You might be surprised: for mathematicians, math is poetry. I suspect many mathematicians enjoy poetry in the conventional sense of the word, too. I’ve put another Pascal quotation into an upcoming post.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 14, 2020 at 8:04 AM

          • Yes, a wonderful thing, really, to be able to see something beautiful in mathematics. I just searched for “mathematician poet” and the first one to pop up is Omar Khayyam. I’ll look forward to more quotations from Pascal.

            Robert Parker

            August 14, 2020 at 8:38 AM

            • There’ll be at least the one Pascal quotation I’ve already planned. I may find others. As for Omar Khayyam, you may be familiar with his Rubaiyat, but the best known translation, the one by FitzGerald, is so heavily Victorian that it probably doesn’t do a great job of representing the original.

              Steve Schwartzman

              August 14, 2020 at 2:05 PM

  4. The powdery alligator flags look great against the dark background. I wonder how this flower got its name. Perhaps Steve, the etymologist, can answer this question.

    Peter Klopp

    August 14, 2020 at 8:50 AM

    • According to the American Heritage Dictionary, the kind of flag that designates certain plants comes from Middle English flagge, which meant a reed; the word was of Scandinavian origin. I’m assuming the alligator got attached to the name from the fact that this plant grows in coastal areas where alligators live.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 14, 2020 at 1:59 PM

  5. This is a strikingly beautiful plant. I really like both of these photos a lot. The red you mention is a wonderful accent against the saturated purple of the flowers~very nice. I’m relieved to learn of the correction~I was thinking I needed to rush out to take a closer look at the bullrushes around here!
    I love this quote, too. Always have.


    August 14, 2020 at 10:14 AM

    • The silver lining of my initial mistaken identity is that I haven’t been so unaware all these years as not to have noticed such a colorful inflorescence on a bulrush (assuming that a bulrush had them, which of course it doesn’t). You can rest easy as well and not have to rush to check out some bulrushes. And yes, the colors are wonderful together, and even more so with some deep blue from the pond.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 14, 2020 at 2:26 PM

  6. I very much enjoyed this curious flower, Steve, and the quote is lovely.

    Jet Eliot

    August 14, 2020 at 10:15 AM

    • I enjoyed these flowers all the more once Linda told me what they are. And yes, it’s one of the world’s great quotations. Pascal was a genius.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 14, 2020 at 2:15 PM

  7. Beautiful photos. I just love that deep pink/purple against the black background, really stunning!


    August 14, 2020 at 10:44 AM

    • It is. I was very happy with the first portrait, having made sure that some of the deep blue from the pond’s water shone through as a kind of aura around the flower stalk. In the second picture I also paid attention to the lighter blue beneath the flowers. In both cases I feel the results are better than having solid black in the background.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 14, 2020 at 2:19 PM

  8. I saw your title and the photo and was like, that’s not a bulrush! LOL—glad to know you’ve found the Thalia! It is a fave of mine!


    August 14, 2020 at 2:01 PM

    • I’m glad I quickly got corrected. I can see why the Thalia is a favorite of yours, as it now is of mine.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 14, 2020 at 2:20 PM

  9. That is some fascinating coloration on the sheath. These are beautifully created photos with the dark background. When it works it works really well.

    Todd Henson

    August 15, 2020 at 1:41 PM

    • Thanks. I was especially excited by the top picture, not only because of the red and purple on the subject but also because of the blue-indigo aura coming from the water in the pond beyond the plant.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 15, 2020 at 4:53 PM

  10. Is sounds like something from the ‘Battle Of New Orleans’ by Johnny Horton.


    August 15, 2020 at 4:19 PM

  11. I was surprised when I clicked the link that said Bulrush and saw Alligator Flag. I hate when I make a mistake and it is etched in email stone ever after even when it has been corrected in the post.
    Whatever the name (that rose thing), it is beautiful and a lovely portrait.

    Steve Gingold

    August 15, 2020 at 5:53 PM

    • As you say, once the e-mail version of a post has gone out, there’s no calling it back to fix mistakes. At least Linda quickly offered the right identification and I immediately changed the online version. I was quite happy with these portraits, which I took with the 100–400mm lens zoomed to its maximum.

      Steve Schwartzman

      August 15, 2020 at 7:01 PM

    • If attempts at identifying plants/birds/insects have taught me anything, it’s the truth of something Carl Jung once said: “Mistakes are, after all, the foundations of truth, and if a man does not know what a thing is, it is at least an increase in knowledge if he knows what it is not.”


      August 17, 2020 at 9:10 AM

      • Then according to Jung I must be a deep well of knowledge for all the mistaken IDs I’ve made.

        Steve Gingold

        August 17, 2020 at 9:55 AM

        • That makes us all members in good standing of the False ID Club.

          Steve Schwartzman

          August 17, 2020 at 10:53 AM


            Steve Gingold

            August 17, 2020 at 11:07 AM

            • I see that the capital letters come from the fact that the words were the text of a telegram Groucho sent to the Friar’s Club of Beverly Hills, to which he belonged.

              Steve Schwartzman

              August 17, 2020 at 11:27 AM

      • Similarly, Edison is supposed to have said (but did he really?) that all his failed experiments at finding a good light bulb filament were advances because at least he knew what wouldn’t work.

        Steve Schwartzman

        August 17, 2020 at 10:52 AM

  12. I hate not being a part of the conversation! Back before I became a TMN, there was some back and forth about anThalia


    August 17, 2020 at 9:56 PM

    • … good gracious. My thumbs know not what they do. A Thalia species that was thought to be native turned out to be introduced: T. geniculata. However the blooms are still beautiful and attract an abundance of wildlife, and the stalks provide shelter for wintering wood ducks. So we’re keeping it! I’d love to establish T. dealbata instead. Perhaps BBSP staff will allow me to collect a couple of seeds while I’m working there, for germinating. Crossing fingers.


      August 17, 2020 at 10:01 PM

      • You’re funny in saying that your thumbs know not what they do. Good luck in getting some Thalia dealbata seeds. The question of where something is native can be complicated. I looked up the other species, Thalia geniculata, about which Wikipedia says that it “is native to a large region in Africa, from Senegal in the west to Sudan in the east, south to Zimbabwe and Angola. It is also considered native to Mexico, Central America, the West Indies, most of South America, as well as the southeastern United States (Puerto Rico, Florida, Louisiana, Alabama and southern Georgia).”

        Steve Schwartzman

        August 18, 2020 at 6:13 AM

  13. […] I was avoiding hikers near the boardwalk pond in River Place on August 10th, I made some portraits of honey mesquite pods (Prosopis glandulosa). The […]

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