Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

A wet roughstem rosinweed flower head

with 33 comments

From July 6th along Bull Creek, here’s a somewhat wet roughstem rosinweed, Silphium radula.

And from Aldo Leopold’s essay “Prairie Birthday,” in A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949, comes this passage about mowers cutting down a Silphium in Wisconsin.

Heretofore unreachable by scythe or mower, this yard-square relic of original Wisconsin gives birth, each July, to a man-high stalk of compass plant or Cut-leaf Silphium, spangled with saucer-sized yellow blooms resembling sunflowers. It is the sole remnant of this plant along this highway, and perhaps the sole remnant in the western half of our county. What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.

This year I found the Silphium in first bloom on 24 July, a week later than usual; during the last six years the average date was 15 July.

When I passed the graveyard again on 3 August, the fence had been removed by a road crew, and the Silphium cut. It is easy now to predic tthe future; for a few years my Silphium will try in vain to rise above the mowing machine, and then it will die. With it will die the prairie epoch.

The Highway Department says that 100,000 cars pass yearly over this route during the three summer months when the Silphium is in bloom. In them must ride at least 100,000 people who have taken what is called history, and perhaps 25,000 who have taken what is called botany. Yet I doubt whether a dozen have seen the Silphium, and of these hardly one will notice its demise. If I were to tell a preacher of the adjoining church that the road crew has been burning history books in his cemetery, under the guise of mowing weeds, he would be amazed and uncomprehending. How could a weed be a book?

This is one little episode in the funeral of the native flora, which in turn is one episode in the funeral of the floras of the world. Mechanized man, oblivious of floras, is proud of his progress in cleaning up the landscape on which, willy nilly, he must live out his days. It might be wise to prohibit at once all teaching of real botany and real history, lest some future citizen suffer qualms about the floristic price of his good life.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

July 17, 2021 at 4:22 AM

33 Responses

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  1. Very sad and well written commentary on the demise of the prairie flora.

    Martha Goudey

    July 17, 2021 at 8:09 AM

    • In central Texas, as in many other parts of middle America, the prairie is the most endangered type of habitat. It’s estimated that less than 1% of our original prairies remain in their original form or even close to it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 17, 2021 at 8:16 AM

  2. Great shot of a wildflower that appears to be past its prime!

    Peter Klopp

    July 17, 2021 at 9:31 AM

    • Some of the disc florets had come loose, yes, and yet the ray florets still looked pretty fresh.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 17, 2021 at 2:23 PM

  3. Probably not the same rosin a violinist would use.

    Steve Gingold

    July 17, 2021 at 2:38 PM

  4. Once a habitat is destroyed, it can never be put back together again in the same way. Even restorations can’t replace the myriad of plants and animals that were a part of that land. Truly a sad loss.

    Eliza Waters

    July 17, 2021 at 6:56 PM

    • A sad loss indeed. This morning I was out on the prairie in northeast Austin and discovered that a piece of land where I got accustomed to taking pictures on and off for the last 20 years has become a construction site.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 17, 2021 at 7:06 PM

      • Ugh, that hits me right in the heart. Austin has an exploding population from what I hear, many fleeing California. ‘Pave paradise, put up a parking lot.”

        Eliza Waters

        July 17, 2021 at 7:52 PM

        • Yes, plenty of people are fleeing California and coming to Texas. That includes Austin, which is the closest thing to Berkeley that Texas has. Austin’s city council jumped on the bandwagon last year and cut a lot of money from the police budget, and now police response times to emergency calls have increased, even as serious crimes here have gone up significantly in the last year.

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 17, 2021 at 8:38 PM

  5. When I lost my little parcel of flower-filled land on the Galveston/Brazoria county line, I thought the very small triangular field on the other side of the road would remain. Lying along FM 2004, it’s been filled with Silphiums, Maximilian sunflowers, and a whole assortment of other flowers.. A couple of weeks ago I stopped to see what might be blooming, and the answer was ‘nothing.’ The mowers have arrived there, too. The only things remaining were some S. radula. The milkweeds, the ladies tresses, the sneezeweed, and the sabatias all are gone. There are plans afoot to widen FM 2004, and I suspect that project has led to a lot of the mowing that’s taking place. I’m sure TxDOT has done studies.

    On a more cheerful note, one of my Canadian readers has S. laciniatum growing on his property now, and they are impressive: nearly eight feet tall. When I looked at the photos on the Wildflower Center site, I was surprised to see how much they resemble the Maximilians, at least in the arrangement of the flowers on the stem.

    I really like the way the disc florets seem to be ‘dripping’ down the rays.


    July 17, 2021 at 8:47 PM

    • I’m sorry for your loss on both sides of the road. Do you know how the Silphium radula survived when the others species you mentioned had disappeared? As for the “dripping” disc florets on the flower head shown here, wetness kept them clinging to spots from which they’d otherwise have fallen.

      Speaking of Maximilians, I’d read recent reports on Facebook of a few precocious ones already flowering in Austin, so I went out looking this morning in one area on the prairie where I’ve seen them growing in other years. I didn’t find a single one. I did, however, find plenty of “regular” sunflowers that are still going strong in various places, including at a construction site. Sunflowers have a mysterious knack for finding disturbed ground.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 17, 2021 at 9:43 PM

  6. A lovely image. I am now wondering what is the floristic price of my good life.


    July 18, 2021 at 4:27 AM

  7. The ‘funeral of the native flora’ is so sad – what a loss and how complacent man is about destroying such things!

    Ann Mackay

    July 18, 2021 at 5:12 AM

    • Highwayside mowers typically mow on a schedule rather than according to what the plants are actually doing. As a result, it’s not unusual to see wildflowers get cut down before they’ve gone to seed. In many cases the taxpayers have paid for the wildflowers to be sown in the first place. It’s crazy.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 18, 2021 at 6:23 AM

  8. How sad. And the situation has grown even more dire. I think Aldo Leopold would be aghast at the changes we have wrought.


    July 21, 2021 at 11:17 PM

    • You’ve read some of my complaints about mowers over the years. You’ve also heard me lament the number of properties where I’ve taken nature pictures that have been lost to development in recent years. The total must be more than three dozen now, with 2021 contributing its share at an undiminished pace. A few of my favorite properties have disappeared in the past year.

      Steve Schwartzman

      July 21, 2021 at 11:27 PM

      • That’s extremely disappointing, Steve. Yet there are groups of activists everywhere that achieve conservation or restoration of sensitive habitats. Maybe you can find some like-minded individuals or organizations and try to preserve some of the properties you consider special.


        July 22, 2021 at 2:39 PM

        • A few of us did try that once, about 15 years ago. We made a presentation to the city council of a neighboring suburb, hoping it would buy a certain property to keep it from development. Unfortunately that didn’t happen. The Austin area remains one of the fastest growing in the country, with new subdivisions springing up throughout the area. On the good side, we do have our share of parks, preserves, and greenbelts, though I always wish there were more of them.

          Steve Schwartzman

          July 22, 2021 at 2:50 PM

          • That’s a shame. Colorado Springs, too, is growing like crazy, but there are many organizations who work hard to set aside natural lands in between the housing developments (though likely not enough!).


            July 22, 2021 at 6:04 PM

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