Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Red admiral on basket-flower

with 43 comments

From May 7th on the Blackland Prairie in southern Round Rock, here’s a red admiral butterfly (Vanessa atalanta) on a basket-flower (Plectocephalus americanus). According to a Wikipedia article, Johan Christian Fabricius gave the name Vanessa to this genus of butterflies in 1807. The name itself has an interesting origin: “It was invented by the Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift for Esther Vanhomrigh, whom Swift had met in 1708 and whom he tutored. The name was created by taking ‘Van’ from Vanhomrigh’s last name and adding ‘Essa’, a pet form of Esther.” Speaking of the author best known for writing Gulliver’s Travels, I’ll add that the English adjective swift meant ‘moving quickly’ before it got applied to and became the name of a bird that moves quickly. And because I moved so quickly from nature to words, let me come back to our basket-flower and point out that the genus name Plectocephalus (which recently got changed from Centaurea) is made up of Greek elements meaning ‘plait’ and ‘head,’ because the flower heads of this species remind people of little woven baskets.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

June 10, 2021 at 4:34 AM

43 Responses

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  1. Hail to the chief!

    Lynn Somerstein

    June 10, 2021 at 7:28 AM

  2. It’s nice to see more basket flowers. I have not noticed any on our place yet, but I haven’t had time to explore much either. We have spotted many red admirals this year. When I was a young girl, one of my summer activities was to wander the fields of our little farm with my butterfly net and capture various species to observe only (they were freed as soon as I knew what I had found). I had a little book that I kept track of all that I had discovered. It was delightful fun, and educational. I’ve tried to pass this hobby on to great nieces and nephews that visit, but sadly, most prefer not to be outdoors.


    June 10, 2021 at 7:32 AM

    • This picture’s from a month ago but I still found some fresh basket-flowers last week. That said, on the whole they’re on their way out now.

      Do you still have the little book in which you recorded your girlhood nature discoveries?

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 10, 2021 at 8:47 AM

      • Unfortunately, my mom is the type of person to trash and purge most everything. And with five kids to keep up with in a very small house, I understand. The important thing is, I remember what a fun hobby it was and to this day I mark in my Audubon’s “Field Guide to North American Butterflies” when I find a butterfly I don’t recognize.


        June 10, 2021 at 10:03 AM

        • Ah, another instance of “this, too, shall pass away.” At least you’re continuing the tradition in your copy of the Audubon field guide.

          Steve Schwartzman

          June 10, 2021 at 1:05 PM

  3. The basket-flower looks similar to an invasive plant that is troubling ranchers quite a bit in our region. Its common name is knapweed. Perhaps I will take some photos of its flower for my Wednesday post. But would it fit within the natural splendour of the Arrow Lakes?

    Peter Klopp

    June 10, 2021 at 8:44 AM

    • Knapweed is a general name for some of the plants in the genus Centaurea, which until recently was the classification of the basket-flower; that’s why you see a resemblance. I don’t know which knapweed you have up there, but given what you say about its invasive nature, my choice would not be to promote it as a splendor of the Arrow Lakes—unless you want to show people what they should pull out wherever they find it. The main invasive member of that group in Austin is Centaurea melitensis, Malta star thistle, which unfortunately has made inroads in my neighborhood.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 10, 2021 at 8:53 AM

  4. Great detail on the Vanessa atalanta and the basketflower (won’t try to spell it correctly or copy and paste). First saw a basketflower at Berry Springs. Had a Basketflower behind the fence once a few years back, apparently it didn’t reproduce there. But have had Monarchs (Danaus plexippus) and now the Queen butterflies (Danaus gilippus) have shown up in the backyard. Makes me wonder if these Monarchs are going to stay in Central Texas or will they eventually journey North? They seem to be on their second (at least) generation in this natural preserve area.


    June 10, 2021 at 8:44 AM

    • I think a lot of native plant people remember the places where they first found various species. The recently destroyed site on Meister Place may have been where I first saw a basket-flower; even if not, it’s where I made my first memorable basket-flower portrait, the one I included in my first post. You’re fortunate to have a natural area right outside your gate (most of us have to trek somewhere) and of course to have native plants in your yard as well. Your Danaus royalty knows where to find a welcoming kingdom.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 10, 2021 at 9:01 AM

  5. Nice portrait of a butterfly. Nice portrait of a basket-flower.

    Steve Gingold

    June 10, 2021 at 9:01 AM

    • The basket-flower’s not as sharp everywhere as I’d like, but for obvious reasons the butterfly’s head took focal precedence.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 10, 2021 at 9:04 AM

  6. Outstanding photo, Steve, and fun narrative too.

    Jet Eliot

    June 10, 2021 at 10:02 AM

  7. What a neat sighting! I’ve never seen a Red Admiral. They’re pretty!


    June 10, 2021 at 1:39 PM

  8. I enjoyed your musings brought on by this lovely photo, Steve. I had never noticed the beautiful, lacy details on the bulbous part of the flower (do you remember what that is called?).


    June 10, 2021 at 2:51 PM

    • Etymology’s my muse so I’m glad you found my musing amusing. I just checked a few field guides and found the “basket” in this species described as a set of bracts in one book and a set of phyllaries in another; that amounts to the same thing because a dictionary definition of phyllary is ‘one of the involucral bracts subtending the flower head of a composite plant.’

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 10, 2021 at 3:36 PM

  9. Wonderful shot! 🙂


    June 10, 2021 at 6:19 PM

    • Thanks. Do you remember ever seeing a red admiral butterfly in Germany, where it’s similarly called der Admiral?

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 10, 2021 at 6:32 PM

  10. A really fine image, Steve. The detail on the basket flower is excellent and the Red Admiral butterfly is so pretty.

    Jane Lurie

    June 10, 2021 at 9:49 PM

    • For all the basket-flowers I’ve photographed over the past two decades, I don’t remember previously photographing a butterfly on one. I lucked out that day.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 10, 2021 at 10:22 PM

      • There’s always a little bit of luck in making a good image.😉

        Jane Lurie

        June 10, 2021 at 10:24 PM

        • They say that fortune favors the prepared. In this case of butterflies and basket-flowers, fortune took its own sweet time. On the other hand, in San Antonio a long time ago I photographed a hummingbird moth hovering over a basket-flower.

          Steve Schwartzman

          June 10, 2021 at 10:28 PM

  11. Beautiful photo. I passed on the name derivation to my sister, Vanessa.

    Alessandra Chaves

    June 10, 2021 at 10:04 PM

    • What a happy coincidence having a sister named Vanessa. I wonder if she’d ever looked up the origin of her name.

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 10, 2021 at 10:24 PM

  12. I swear — by the end of this day I’m going to be as happy as that Red Admiral with its BFF (basket-flower friend). Your photos are delightful, but I want one of my own: so I’m off to explore a few more or less local spots I’ve never visited, where sightings of this beauty have been posted on iNaturalist. At minimum, I might find some new places that are close enough for morning wanderings before the heat becomes oppressive.

    One place I consistently see Red Admirals is on Galveston Island: particularly, at the Artist Boat. They’re beautiful little butterflies. I’ve never before noticed those almost-turquoise small spots along the edge of their wings, but they certainly are clear in your photo.


    June 12, 2021 at 6:07 AM

    • Your first two words made me want to ask: Didn’t your mother teach you that nice girls don’t swear? I’m sure you’re happy as a clever clam with the interpretation you’ve come up with for the initialism BFF. It could also stand for beauty first and foremost.

      Exploring new places is fun. Good luck finding a member of the lepidopteran admiralty, which may sing to you: “I am the very model of a photogenic butterfly.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      June 12, 2021 at 6:45 AM

  13. Interesting color combination here!


    June 15, 2021 at 10:52 AM

  14. They are both beauties .. great shot Steve


    June 15, 2021 at 2:32 PM

  15. A magical capture.


    June 29, 2021 at 7:39 AM

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