Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Hierba de zizotes milkweed

with 9 comments


Austin is home to various milkweed species, including the Asclepias oenotheroides shown here from the northeast quadrant of Mopac and US 183 on August 22nd. As I explained in a 2015 post, vernacular names for this plant are side-cluster milkweed and (even in English) hierba de zizotes. Hierba in Spanish means ‘plant,’ and as best I can make out, zizote is one of various forms of a Mexican Spanish word—others being sicotecizotesisote—that refers to a type of skin lesion. When milkweeds are bent or bruised, they release drops of a white liquid that can indeed irritate some people’s skin, so perhaps this species of milkweed was known to cause those lesions. Or maybe the opposite was true, namely that this plant could be used to treat that skin condition.


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Yesterday I provided data showing the dismal lack of academic knowledge and skills among black and Hispanic schoolchildren in the United States. Ideologues blame that on “systemic racism,” and I’m willing to grant that our educational establishment is probably the last main institution to systemically hinder black and Hispanic kids by ensuring that they don’t learn much. (White kids on average don’t learn a lot in public schools either, but the disparity is still large.)

So what to do? For the past four decades I’ve advocated setting objective standards for each grade in school and then sticking to those standards no matter what. That means putting an end once and for all to the pernicious practice euphemistically called “social promotion,” where kids are passed along from one grade to the next to the next based on age, regardless of how much—or in most cases how little—the students have learned. The coddling excuse for social promotion has been that kids need to stay with their peers, so it would be emotionally damaging to hold back kids who hadn’t learned the required material. And I say, let the peer groups be determined primarily by knowledge rather than by the happenstance of chronological age.

My proposal in the 1980s was for standards to be reintroduced (re- because we amazingly once did have standards in our schools) one grade at a time, progressing over a dozen years from 1st grade to 12th grade. After the first year, students who fail to learn the required 1st-grade material would repeat the year, with as much extra help given to them as possible. Because the current level of knowledge as documented by NAEP is so abominably low, after standards are reintroduced many kids will fail the first grade. Separate classes of repeat first-graders can be made up entirely of kids who will be a year older than average, and therefore the desire to keep kids of the same age together will be fulfilled as well.

The initial failure of large numbers of minority kids will bring out the usual chorus of ideologues screaming “racism!” But they’re already screaming that about everything under the sun anyhow, so let’s follow the advice of John McWhorter, who is black, and simply ignore those accusations of racism. My contention is that getting things back on track will take some time, but it will be worth it in the end. Once kids master first-grade material, even if it takes them an extra year, they’ll be in a good position to be able to keep up from then on—provided that they do the required work and spend enough time studying. Telling black and Latino kids that doing homework and studying are “acting white” is counterproductive. It’s also racist.

Let me give you an analogy from personal experience. During my first three years of college I saved money by commuting an hour and a half each way from home. That meant a half-mile walk, one bus ride, and three subway rides, but by living at home I didn’t have to pay for room and board. The downside was that commuting three hours a day in New York rush-hour crowds while carrying a heavy academic load was wearing me out. With my senior year approaching, I finally got together with a fellow student and we rented an apartment a mile from school.

To pay for the apartment and all the meals I couldn’t get at home anymore, I applied for a part-time job through my college. The college got me a position shelving books in the law school library. When I showed up for my first day of work at the beginning of the semester in September, I discovered that apparently no one had been shelving for a long time, and huge piles of law books lay all over the place. Being new and not knowing where anything was or how the system worked, I decided not even to try putting any books away for awhile. Instead, I began to familiarize myself with the library. In the large holding area where all the returned books had been accumulating, I slowly started moving books around into general groups according to their call numbers. Later I began putting subgroups of those books onto carts so I could take them to the appropriate shelves and put them away. If someone had checked on me after a couple of days, it might well have looked like I’d been doing nothing, as I’d not yet shelved a single book. The truth is that I’d spent my time well by creating an efficient system. Finally I started putting books away and eventually I got the floor that I was responsible for cleaned up.

Once I’d cleared up the summer backlog, keeping my floor under control from then on as new books got returned was relatively easy. In fact it was too easy, and there wasn’t enough work to fill my allotted 20 hours a week. I went to the supervisor and asked what he wanted me to do with the extra time. He added another floor to my responsibilities. I used my system again and gradually got the additional floor under control. At that point I found that even with two floors I still had time left over, so I went back to the supervisor, who added a third floor to my responsibilities. Same story there. Putting away books on three floors kept me busy for about the right amount of time, and that’s how things stayed until I graduated the next spring. (One interesting aside: After I got things under control on my three floors in the law library, I went back to the supervisor, pointed out that I was now doing the work of three people, and asked if he could increase my hourly pay rate. He said the system wouldn’t allow for that, but he agreed to let me add extra hours to my time sheet that I hadn’t actually worked, and he signed off on them as if I really had worked them. Imagine that.)

I believe that getting our educational system under control is similar to what I did in the law library, though on a longer time scale. In the beginning and for some time it may seem like we’re not making progress, but we will be.

A second objection I expect will come my way is that it’s not the fault of black and Hispanic kids that they’re so far behind, so why should they have to pay the price of being initially held back in disproportionate numbers? Here again I’ll propose an analogy.

Suppose that you were riding in a car when a driver ran a red light at high speed and crashed into you. After you regained consciousness in the hospital a couple of days later doctors explained to you that you were seriously injured in the crash. They say your chances for recovery are good but it will take quite a while for your body to heal, and even then you’ll need a long period of rehabilitation to get back to normal.

Now imagine one reaction you could have: “No, no, no! It’s not my fault that somebody ran a red light and crashed into me. I didn’t do anything to deserve this. I don’t want to stay in the hospital for weeks with tubes in me while my body heals, and then have to drag through months of rehabilitation. I want to be normal now!”

I think you’ll agree that that reaction gets you nowhere. A better reaction is to acknowledge the unfairness of your situation but to understand that even though it’s not your fault, your body has undergone serious damage and will need time to heal. Rehabilitation will be arduous but it’s the only way to get back to normal strength and ability. 


P.S. A few days after I came up with my traffic accident analogy, I read a 2018 article by Coleman Hughes that mentioned ‘The Parable of the Pedestrian.’ Created by legal scholar Amy Wax, that parable is very similar to the analogy I independently devised last week when I put this post together. You’re welcome to listen to a minute-and-a-half video of Amy Wax telling her parable to Glenn Loury.


© 2021 Steven Schwartzman





Written by Steve Schwartzman

September 15, 2021 at 4:31 AM

9 Responses

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  1. I love the fine details of this milkweed variety. The perspective you have chosen for this picture creates a three-dimensional effect.

    Peter Klopp

    September 15, 2021 at 9:05 AM

    • As I come across hierba de zizotes only occasionally, I was happy to find a little cluster of these milkweed plants during my August 22nd outing. I also got close and made portraits starring some of the individual flowers.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 15, 2021 at 9:19 AM

  2. I’ve employed a lot of library shelvers in my day. I’d give you a job any time!

  3. Having spent a few years as a ‘junior librarian,’ I appreciated your story. Not everyone in the world misses card catalogues and the smell of dusty stacks, but I do.

    I still haven’t come across this milkweed, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t confuse it with frostweed now. Those elongated horns are so interesting. They’d make quite a pattern for some wrought iron lanterns.


    September 15, 2021 at 3:56 PM

    • I’ve found a ton of interesting things in old books pulled from library shelves. The biggest trove came from the main library at the University of Texas in the 1990s. From what you say, you could spend some happy days there.

      As for this milkweed, it’s distinctive all right. We once found one on the front lawn of our previous house on the east side of Austin. I can see making lanterns based on this milkweed’s structure but I’d be careful not to get overwrought about it.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 15, 2021 at 4:03 PM

  4. Interestingly different from the milkweeds we have here. Our Common does not appear there and this one doesn’t come within 2,000 or so miles of us.

    Steve Gingold

    September 16, 2021 at 3:19 AM

    • When we visited Massachusetts in 2012 (and Illinois in 2015) I was finally able to photograph the common milkweed, misleadingly named as being from Syria. As you pointed out, that species doesn’t make it down here, nor the hierba de zizotes up there. The long flowers do seem distinctive.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 16, 2021 at 8:36 AM

  5. […] schools receive plenty of tax money but fail to educate their children. You can go online (as I reported last year) to see how abysmal many of the scores on standardized tests have been, even as funding has kept […]

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