Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

A new source of fall color for me

with 34 comments

Driving about on the Blackland Prairie on November 11th, we came upon a pond that was new to us. Located along Kingston Lacy Blvd. in Pflugerville, a plaque identified it as Mirror Lake. Some of the usual water-loving species were growing around the edge of the pond, including Iva annua, known as annual sumpweed or annual marsh elder. On one of those plants I noticed a leaf that caught my attention for two reasons: it was bright yellow, and it stayed pressed to the stem from which it grew. As I’d never seen a sumpweed leaf like that, it was a welcome new source of fall color.

The Romans had a saying, Nihil sub sole novum, which Wiktionary says was borrowed from the Hebrew אֵין כָּל חָדָשׁ תַּחַת הַשָּׁמֶשׁ‎ (en kol chadásh táchat hashámesh), “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Sorry, proverb, but this sunny leaf was new to me.

And speaking of old and new, the Illinois Wildflowers page for this species tells us that “Sumpweed has an interesting archaeological history because its seeds were used by early Amerindians as a source of food prior to the arrival of the squash-bean-corn complex from Mexico. The primary region of use was the lower to middle Mississippi region and the lower Midwest along the Ohio River. A cultivated variety of Sumpweed, Iva annua macrocarpa, was used for this purpose, as its seeds were about twice as long and wide in size (about 7 mm. in length and 4.5 mm. across) as the seeds of the wild varieties of Iva annua. Unfortunately, this cultivated variety of Sumpweed is now extinct with non-viable seeds existing only at archaeological sites or inside caves….”

© 2020 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 3, 2020 at 4:37 AM

34 Responses

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  1. Wasn’t there a George Strait song, “Sumpthin’ Special”? Reading just now about the seeds, it sounds like the Native Americans would have been happy to abandon cultivating them, but I’m glad it provides a nice bit of fall color.

    Robert Parker

    December 3, 2020 at 5:26 AM

    • “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” It will be something special if you find out whether there was a song entitled “Sumpthin’ Special.” Speaking of which, the kind of constraining device used in mental institutions is properly called a straitjacket, but because strait is an archaic word and many people no longer know it, the spelling straightjacket is becoming more and more common.

      Yeah, the fact that sumpweed, a close relative or ragweed, is similarly allergenic, would have been a good reason to switch to cultivating other kinds of crops.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 3, 2020 at 6:42 AM

  2. I love everything about the bright yellow, clean simplicity of the leaf, and the layers of blue and brown in the background on this image. I am always interested in how the Native Americans used plants for food, healing qualities, dyes, and for home use (thatch roofs, rugs, bedding).

    Something Special is actually the cover title of a George Strait album, and one of the songs on that album is, “You’re Something Special to Me”.


    December 3, 2020 at 7:14 AM

    • We give you special thanks for answering Robert’s question. Any title whose initials match mine is something special for me.

      I felt fortunate in having the blue of the pond’s water to serve as a background for this bright yellow leaf, and the subtle strata of brown to harmonize with the sumpweed’s stalk.

      Given your interest in Native American uses of plants, you might want to follow up on some the hits you’ll get if you do a search for “Oklahoma ethnobotany.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 3, 2020 at 7:30 AM

  3. Sometimes being a little off-kilter can be a good thing. If the leaf’s midrib and tip had been perfectly aligned behind the stem, I don’t think it would have been as appealing. The color would have been a treat in either instance, though, as well as the obvious texture of both leaf and stem.

    I once knew a fellow who’d fill in information missing from a sentence by saying, “sumpin’, sumpin…” It could be a little dismissive, but somehow he always made his point.


    December 3, 2020 at 7:42 AM

    • There must be many who hold that I’m a little off-kilter myself, so this leaf was right up my alley as well as rightly positioned. I took pictures from the other side, too; those show the leaf unobstructed but lack most of the stalk and its pleasant visual texture. Each way has its pros and cons.

      Kilter, like frowzy, goes back to the early 1600s yet remains of unknown origin. While the fellow you know may have done some verbal sumpin’, I’ve done my share of actual sumping and have sumptimes paid the price of sneezes and a dripping nose.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 3, 2020 at 8:22 AM

      • What fun, that both ‘kilter’ and ‘frowzy’ have unknown origins. Another one that came up recently is ‘spatchcock.’ I was surprised not to find it in the Online Etymology Dictionary, and to find only hypotheses about its origin; ‘dispatched cock’ certainly feels right.


        December 3, 2020 at 8:28 PM

  4. This is such an elegant photo…Do you speak Hebrew? The information about the seeds is interesting to me because my understanding is that growing the 3 Sisters was a relatively recent thing up this way, and I’ve wondered what the people ate before that.


    December 3, 2020 at 8:01 AM

    • I’ll take elegance, thanks. No, I don’t speak Hebrew. I took an intensive introductory summer course at the university here in 1984 but have forgotten much (probably most) of what I learned because I didn’t keep it up. By the way, the following summer I spent six weeks in Barcelona, and one day coming out of the subway there I turned to my side and found a fellow student from that class standing next to me, someone I’d had no contact with in the intervening year.

      Sumpweed is one answer to what came before the “Three Sisters.” I suspect ethnobotanists know more, and an Internet search might turn up more information for you.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 3, 2020 at 8:42 AM

      • Probably. More fun to learn it this way.
        I wondered about the Hebrew because it is one of the languages my son always wanted to learn but we could not find it offered anywhere. We were told he’d have to join a Synagog to learn it!
        Coincidences like that fascinate me.


        December 5, 2020 at 8:43 AM

        • Yeah, that ranks as one of the great coincidences of my life.

          In the summer of 1984 the University of Texas offered beginning courses in various languages. I narrowed the choice down to three, the other two being Japanese and Greek, before I settled on Hebrew.

          If your son is still interested in Hebrew, look at the Personal Enrichment Language Courses section on this page from Grayslake:


          Steve Schwartzman

          December 5, 2020 at 9:31 AM

          • Well for heaven’s sake~I’m really glad to know they are finally offering some interesting language choices. I believe there is a new president and things have definitely changed for the better over there. However, these were definitely not on offer back when he attended there, years ago. We looked.


            December 6, 2020 at 9:35 AM

  5. What a wealth of information you often provide along with your fascinating photos. Steve! The leaf of the sumpweed turned out to be a perfect example for the claim that there is beauty in the simple things in life. Of course, one needs to have the eyes of a Steve Schwartzman to see it.

    Peter Klopp

    December 3, 2020 at 8:15 AM

    • Beauty in the simple things, yes. This leaf was so bright and cheerful there was no way I wasn’t going to document it. You’d probably have noticed it, too.

      The once-a-teacher-always-a-teacher in me is happy to pass along interesting information that comes my way.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 3, 2020 at 8:47 AM

  6. Interesting this is the second time in less than a day I’ve heard of Pflugerville, TX! I hadn’t heard of it before yesterday evening when my friend who recently moved to TX sent me her address and it’s in Pflugerville! The name makes me smile, and you finding a new source of fall color does too!


    December 3, 2020 at 9:04 AM

    • Happy coincidence to go along with the happy autumn yellow. When I moved to Austin in 1976 Pflugerville had less than a thousand people. The population now is at least 66,000, including your recently arrived friend. The suburbs around Austin have been among the fastest-growing in the country. A big downside for me as a nature photographer is that many of the properties where I used to take pictures have gotten developed. Even throughout the pandemic construction has continued unabated.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 3, 2020 at 9:10 AM

      • Sadly, here too in my new home town construction of more houses is busy! I moved here because there’s no industry other than cows and feed for cows and services for those living here, and thought it would stay small…it’s not looking like it will.


        December 3, 2020 at 9:22 AM

        • The problem is that other people had the same idea you did when you chose to move there.

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 3, 2020 at 9:31 AM

          • Unfortunately!


            December 3, 2020 at 9:56 AM

            • Pflugerville – between a (Round) Rock and a weird place!
              Thanks for this picture, Steve. Mirror Lake is in my neighborhood. I’ll have to wander over there when it’s warmer today and look for this plant. Don’t think I’ve ever noticed it before.

              Judy Baumann

              December 4, 2020 at 7:33 AM

              • 🤣


                December 4, 2020 at 7:34 AM

              • What a catchy first sentence; I hadn’t heard it, but I see now that Pflugerville has been promoting it. I also didn’t know you live near Mirror Lake, which, as you’ve read, I hadn’t even heard of. We’re finding plenty of new places as we drive around greater (and less weird) Austin. My photograph is from three weeks ago, so I’m not sure what state the sumpweed will be in. The plants you find will likely be dried-out versions of what you see in the pictures at https://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/weeds/plants/sumpweed.html. The one I photographed was on the side of the pond opposite the street.

                Steve Schwartzman

                December 4, 2020 at 7:49 AM

              • Coincidentally, in my post tomorrow I’ll be mentioning (but not showing) the round rock in Round Rock because I took pictures within sight of it on Wednesday.

                Steve Schwartzman

                December 4, 2020 at 8:09 AM

  7. There’s something about the word “sump” and the name of the town “Pflugerville” that conjures images of plumbing to me. Nice that you found a new species to photograph.

    Steve Gingold

    December 5, 2020 at 10:06 AM

    • I can see how melding Pfluger with sump might lead to plumber. Pfluger is actually the German word for a different occupation, that of ‘plower,’ which is to say ‘a person who plows.’

      The species itself wasn’t new to me, only the fact that it produced such a colorful leaf to add to the set of fall foliage here.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 5, 2020 at 10:59 AM

  8. I love this image, and I enjoyed the story. It’s too bad that the variety of sumpweed is extinct. That goes to show how important seed banks are. And I’ve never heard of sumpweed, btw.


    December 21, 2020 at 2:44 PM

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