Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Estigmene acrea

with 32 comments

“What’s that white thing?” That’s what I wondered when I glimpsed a little white area on one of several distant narrowleaf sumpweed* plants (Iva angustifolia) that were flowering in my neighborhood on September 29th. After I walked closer I saw that it was a moth**, which I take to be Estigmene acrea, known as the saltmarsh moth. An even closer look revealed that on the sumpweed it had laid some tiny pearl-like eggs, several clusters of which you can discern in the photograph. The three larger round yellowish areas interspersed across the bottom of the picture were out-of-focus broomweed flowers (Amphiachyris dracunculoides).

* Sumpweeds (which you might be surprised to learn that botanists put in the sunflower family) are close relatives of ragweeds. Like those better-known plants, sumpweeds’ airborne pollen at this time of year causes hayfever in susceptible people, including this photographer who sometimes sneezes his way through the autumn landscape for the sake of pictures from nature.

** Modern English moth developed from Old English moððe, where the ð represented the sound we now spell th. People must have found it troublesome—as we would—to pronounce two th‘s in a row and therefore dropped one of them (along with the supporting vowel that followed, thereby reducing the word to a single syllable).

© 2020 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

October 8, 2020 at 4:43 AM

32 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I often see these caterpillars, but I can’t remember seeing the moth. It’s a pretty thing — I especially like the way its legs pick up the black and white patterns from its wings; they remind me of ermine.

    It makes sense that saltmarsh moths and sumpweed would be found together. The OED notes that in the mid-15th century, ‘sump’ meant ‘marsh’ or ‘morass,’ from Middle Dutch somp or Middle Low German sump.

    I suspect that double th would be as difficult to pronounce as the kp sound found in Liberian Kpelle. One trick for learning to pronounce that one was to practice the phrase ‘pink pig.’


    October 8, 2020 at 7:40 AM

    • Before I could mentally disentangle all of the details I was seeing, I thought the striped legs belonged to a spider that had grabbed the moth. Probably my photographs of a green lynx spider with a captured moth in Bastrop a few weeks earlier predisposed me to assume a spider was in there somewhere, especially as the moth never moved and could well have been dead. Gotta watch those assumptions.

      If you drop the m from moððe you get oððe, the Old English word that has ended up as or (with the r creeping in from the predecessor of either).

      Your mention of ermine ties in to something that’s been in the news lately, the fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Turns out our word ermine might be a reference to Armenia: https://www.ahdictionary.com/word/search.html?q=ermine.

      Your mention of the Kpelle sent my mind not to western Africa but to the southwestern United States: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kokopelli.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 8, 2020 at 8:28 AM

  2. I have always had a soft spot for beautiful white moths, and it is nice to see this one.


    October 8, 2020 at 8:07 AM

  3. I hadn’t known anyone ever used a double “Th” other than Porky Pig.
    Th-th-th-that’s all, folks!

    Robert Parker

    October 8, 2020 at 8:08 AM

  4. Enjoyed reading about the word-history…I vaguely remember hearing a lecturer reading out a passage of Old English and the sounds were extraordinary.

    Ann Mackay

    October 8, 2020 at 9:32 AM

    • English has changed so much in a thousand years—largely due to the Norman invasion in 1066—that a modern speaker can understand almost nothing in Old English.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 8, 2020 at 12:21 PM

      • That’s true – and Middle English is a mystery too. But the history of individual words and the development of the English language is fascinating. 🙂

        Ann Mackay

        October 9, 2020 at 6:16 AM

        • Etymology has been an interest of mine ever since college. I expect you won’t find any other nature photography blog that talks as much about words as this one.

          Steve Schwartzman

          October 9, 2020 at 6:25 AM

  5. The German word Motte is almost identical to the Old English word moððe, especially when one considers that many Germans have trouble pronouncing the th.

    Peter Klopp

    October 8, 2020 at 9:45 AM

    • I was thinking of mentioning the German cognate; now you’ve done it for us. Not many languages have the th sound that English does, so most foreigners, and not just Germans, have trouble pronouncing it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 8, 2020 at 12:23 PM

  6. I’ve never seen one of these but BugGuide says they are in my area so maybe I’ll get lucky sometime. The list of their food is a gastronomical delight which includes milkweed. Apparently they don’t only frequent salt marches as the Moth Photographers Group has at least one sighting here in WMass. It’s an attractive little moth.

    Steve Gingold

    October 8, 2020 at 2:16 PM

    • I also wondered about the term “salt marsh” because here in Austin there’s nary a salt marsh in sight, given that we’re 200 miles from the coast. I hope you’ll come across one of these photogenic moths.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 8, 2020 at 2:27 PM

  7. A fabulous shot– mama moth and her golden offspring. In this sort of photo, you must wait for any rogue puff of breeze to pass and for the subject(s) to stop moving. Or, do you not photograph when there is any wind?


    October 8, 2020 at 6:55 PM

    • An Austin nature photographer I know stops working if the wind goes above 5 mph or so. Not me. I set higher ISOs and higher shutter speeds so I can keep taking pictures. I’ve also developed the technique of steadying a plant with my left hand while operating the camera with my right hand (though I can’t remember if I did that with this moth). Especially on the prairie a breeze almost always blows, so there wouldn’t be many times I could work there if I had to rely on stillness.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 8, 2020 at 11:06 PM

  8. I can see why you thought there was a spider involved in this scene. What a pretty little one, and the broomweed is such a nice perch.


    October 9, 2020 at 1:59 AM

    • It was hard for me to break the illusion of a spider in there somewhere. Expectation colors perception. The quotation in the previous post applies here: “When a theory really has got your brain in its grip, contradictory evidence—even evidence you already know—sometimes becomes invisible.” — Jordan Ellenberg, How Not to Be Wrong.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 9, 2020 at 6:32 AM

  9. Very cool, Steve: the moth, its horizontal position, but especially your discovery and depiction of its little eggs. Thank you for suffering through your allergies in order to bring us such a wonderful photograph.


    October 9, 2020 at 10:35 PM

    • And thanks for appreciating this portrait, and the discomfort that often accompanies the work I do in nature. My own nature is such that I’m more at home in a library than outdoors, but that’s where I have to go to for the things I show in these pages.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 10, 2020 at 6:26 AM

      • It’s good to feel at home in more place than one. I, too, love my desk and books, but I need my time outdoors, otherwise it would feel as if I were missing out.


        October 12, 2020 at 12:12 PM

  10. That word lesson is fascinating – don’t you think the original might have been closer to identifying the special, quiet mothness of moths? But how on earth would you say that word?!?


    October 13, 2020 at 12:02 PM

    • The Anglo-Saxon moððe had cognates in other Germanic languages. For example, Old Norse had motti and modern German has moððe. Whether the word was based on the sound of a moth, I don’t know. As for the pronunciation of the ðð in moððe, it would be like the consecutive th‘s in a modern phrase like with them.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 13, 2020 at 5:25 PM

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: