Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography


with 38 comments

While driving along FM 2769 in far northwest Austin on September 15th I caught a glimpse of some telltale purple flowers spikes off to the side and quickly pulled over so I could walk back and take my first pictures for 2020 of Liatris punctata, known as gayfeather and blazing-star. (You recently saw L. elegans and L. aspera in Bastrop.) In this portrait I played up the linear leaves of another gayfeather plant close behind my subject.

As an accompanying quotation, here’s the ending of Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”:

   Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
   Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
   To me the meanest flower that blows* can give
   Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.

* English has two unrelated verbs to blow. The common one means ‘to move or cause to move in a current of air.’ The other blow, now at best archaic and unknown to most people, is the one Wordsworth intended; it means ‘to bloom’ (in fact bloom and blossom are related to this blow as well as to Latin-derived words like floral, florid, flourish, Florida, and flower). I could have used both kinds of blow for the first goldenrod in yesterday’s post.

UPDATE: I just found out that full-blown comes from the archaic blow, which makes sense: full-blown is ‘fully flowered.’ Isn’t it funny how we can use a phrase for our whole life and never realize what it’s actually saying? I guess I’d always assumed the expression referred to an object like a balloon that someone had blown up to its maximum size.

© 2020 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

September 29, 2020 at 4:00 AM

38 Responses

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  1. Well, blow me down with a (gay) feather! I did not know that.


    September 29, 2020 at 4:30 AM

    • I just found out that full-blown comes from the archaic blow, which makes sense: full-blown is ‘fully flowered’:


      Once again etymology blazes bright and is the star of the show. (Another name for gayfeather is blazing star.)

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 29, 2020 at 4:54 AM

      • That is good to know. My full-blown spring flowers have been almost fully blown away by the wild winds this week.


        September 29, 2020 at 5:58 AM

        • And I’m blown away by your alliterative “wild winds this week,” which thankfully didn’t blow you away with your blooms.

          Steve Schwartzman

          September 29, 2020 at 6:05 AM

  2. I think these things are currently all along one of the main hiking trails out a Balconese Canyonlands doeskin ranch area.

    Jason Frels

    September 29, 2020 at 8:29 AM

    • I’m not surprised, as I’ve seen them there in other years at around this time. I’ve been meaning to get out to Doeskin Ranch, and from what you’ve said, now would be a good time.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 29, 2020 at 10:49 AM

  3. Thanks for the intereting etymological information. That intrigued me, and I found out that “blow” is related to German “bluehen”.


    September 29, 2020 at 9:10 AM

    • Yes, it sure is. It’s the sort of thing we expect between English and German, given that both are Germanic languages. There would be a lot more cognates than there are between the two if Old French hadn’t driven out so many native English words.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 29, 2020 at 10:51 AM

  4. Thank you for presenting the blowing gayfeather with such an interesting background, Steve! Thank you also for explaining the root and meaning of the word ‘blow’!

    Peter Klopp

    September 29, 2020 at 9:13 AM

    • A visual background for the flowers, and an etymological background for the now-uncommon blow. Pit pointed out in the previous comment that it’s a cognate of German blühen.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 29, 2020 at 10:54 AM

  5. It looks so cheerful and like it’s dancing. I love the purple with the green background.


    September 29, 2020 at 9:54 AM

    • I was happy I could include a little purple from the flowers on the plant in the background, even as I used it primarily for the linear elements of its leaves.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 29, 2020 at 10:56 AM

  6. Very beautiful flower. I did not know that about blow or full-blown! Thanks for sharing, I’m going to remember this one. 😀 I appreciate that you see beautiful flowers and pull over to embrace them.


    September 29, 2020 at 10:02 AM

  7. Speaking of using words without grasping their actual meaning, when I looked at your photo, the resemblance of the bloom to touseled hair came to mind, as well as the word ‘blowzy.’ I’ve always spelled the word as ‘blowsy,’ and assumed it meant wind-blown, but it seems unrelated to either meaning of ‘blow’ that you mentioned. The OED says it means “disheveled, unkempt, 1778, from obsolete blouze “wench, beggar’s trull” (1570s, of uncertain origin; perhaps originally a cant term).”

    Merriam-Webster includes in the definition “being coarse and ruddy of complexion” — an appearance that might result from spending time out in a strong, cold blow.

    There’s nothing coarse about your image; it’s really quite elegant. Coincidentally, I found L. elegans everywhere in east Texas last weekend.


    September 30, 2020 at 7:27 AM

    • As wenches and beggar’s trulls aren’t as common as they apparently used to be, you can be forgiven for construing blowzy as blowsy and connecting it to the blow of a cold wind.

      You’ve heard that I have to go to Bastrop to find Liatris elegans, but it doesn’t grow there in the quantities you say you were lucky to see in the eastern part of the state.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 30, 2020 at 1:51 PM

  8. Lovely picture and another interesting digression. I would have thought he was referring to a flower that was blown (ie one that was going over, past its best), but I see I would have been wrong.


    October 1, 2020 at 4:06 PM

    • I wondered whether the blow that means ‘to flower’ might have remained in greater use in Britain than in America, but your reaction is evidence against that idea.

      As for the gayfeather, it is becoming full-blown now, and yesterday I took more pictures of those purple flower spikes.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 1, 2020 at 4:26 PM

      • We use the term full-blown too. I suppose that’s a relic.


        October 1, 2020 at 4:59 PM

        • Yes, it’s a relic, and one I never really understood till two days ago even though I’ve been familiar with it all my life.

          Steve Schwartzman

          October 1, 2020 at 6:36 PM

  9. Around here, we have Elderberry—Sambucus nigra—that produces fruit which is used in many ways. Blow has a couple of meanings related to that bush. The flowers are known to some as Elderberry Blow, and can be used in recipes. The flowers and fruit are only edible if cooked; otherwise, as with the rest of the plant, they are poisonous. To the Anglo-Saxons the hollow stems were used with a bellows to start a fire.

    Steve Gingold

    October 3, 2020 at 2:43 AM

    • I’m used to thinking of Sambucus nigra as an American species, so I wondered how the Anglo-Saxons could have used its stems. The article at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sambucus_nigra describes elderberry as a “species complex,” which is to say “a group of closely related organisms that are so similar in appearance that the boundaries between them are often unclear.” Another one I’m familiar with is yarrow, which also grows in America and Europe.

      An elderly friend used to talk about dipping elderberry flowers into pancake batter that was cooking in a frying pan. I see that described at https://www.lilvienna.com/elderflower-fritters/. I’d not heard of elder(berry) blow, but I’m glad you brought up another example of the unfamiliar blow.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 3, 2020 at 6:50 AM

  10. […] variants. When I stopped along FM 2769 in far northwest Austin on September 15th to photograph some purple flower spikes of Liatris punctata, known as gayfeather and blazing-star, I noticed that one plant had white flowers, probably the […]

  11. I really like the dynamism of this beautiful portrait. The background brings a lot of angular energy that contrasts so nicely with the curvy ray flowers, yet does not compete.


    October 31, 2020 at 10:00 AM

    • I like your analysis of the background bringing angular energy yet not distracting from the curviness of the flowers. Yesterday we went walking in a preserve and were surprised to find a few of these newly flowering even though most have long since gone to seed and turned fuzzy.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 31, 2020 at 10:17 AM

      • Yes there are always a few stragglers, aren’t there?
        Our flowers are pretty much done here. We’re having the kind of wind that makes you think about counting the shingles and maybe not letting out the small dog…


        November 1, 2020 at 9:33 AM

        • Breezy here too today, but not as much as you described. I was out again this morning and still saw plenty of wildflowers to photograph. And speaking of stragglers, I found a western ironweed flowering; my local field guide gives the last month of its bloom season as September, but here we are on November 1st.

          Steve Schwartzman

          November 1, 2020 at 12:49 PM

          • The winds finally died down here and we got back up into the 70’s ~ perfect for the burn crews to get out and burn some prairies. They are having a good season, evidently, but yesterday huge billows of black smoke soared way up. When I went to see what was going on I saw fire trucks there…uh-oh. Wonder what they found there in the middle of the prairie…


            November 6, 2020 at 7:54 AM

            • Let’s hope some invasive non-native trees caused the smoke.

              Steve Schwartzman

              November 6, 2020 at 8:03 AM

              • I don’t think so. I’m familiar with that patch, and there aren’t any. A few hundred yards to the west the smoke was pale white and odorless, as it is supposed to be. I suppose they could have hit a “grow” hiding there in the tall grass, but I don’t think that would create the great black billows either. It looked and smelled like building materials burning…toxic. I’ll make inquiries and let you know what I find out.


                November 6, 2020 at 8:17 AM

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