Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Pyramidflower

with 24 comments

Making its debut here now is Melochia pyramidata, known as pyramidflower, a species I’d never photographed till yesterday. Mark Alexandre of the Texas Flora group on Facebook had showed a picture of it on October 6th, and the place he mentioned finding it is the Arbor Walk Pond, just a few miles from where I live. I asked him for the specific location, and armed with that information I found a few of these plants there yesterday morning. It took some careful looking because at 8:30 in the morning the flowers hadn’t fully opened, and even if they had they’d have measured only about half an inch across.

One curiosity is that although field guides say the flowers of this species have five petals—and almost all online photographs show five petals—my specimens had only four. I asked about that yesterday in the Texas Flora group, and Michelle Wong replied with a link to an iNaturalist photograph from this year showing a pyramidflower in Austin with four petals. What percent of the time that variant occurs, I don’t know. I do know that in 2018 I found four petals instead of the customary five in a silverleaf nightshade flower.

Making its debut here today simultaneously with Melochia pyramidata is the botanical family Sterculiaceae, of which Melochia pyramidata is the only native representative in my county (or the rest of Texas, from what I can tell). Probably the most familiar member of that family is cacao, from which we get chocolate. As tasty as most people find chocolate, the botanical family name betrays a different sensibility: the Latin word stercus meant ‘dung, the excrement of domestic animals,’ and the Romans had even created Sterculus (a.k.a. Sterculinus and Stercutus), as the deity who was supposed to have invented the valuable agricultural practice of manuring. Apparently the smell of one or more plants in Sterculiaceae reminded people of dung. (It was my familiarity with the Spanish word estiércol, which means ‘fertilizer, manure, dung,’ that put me on the scent of Sterculiaceae‘s Latin origins.)

And while we’re on the subject of names, let me add that pyramidflower is misleading: it’s not the plant’s flowers but its tiny fruits that fancifully look like little pyramids.

Also now misleading is my reference to the botanical family Sterculiaceae, which botanists recently tilled into the soil of the mallow family, Malvaceae.

© 2021 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

October 11, 2021 at 4:28 AM

24 Responses

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  1. what a lovely little flower, worth the effort to find it i bet –

    beth

    October 11, 2021 at 4:42 AM

    • Now it’s become a quest to find out what fraction of these flowers have four petals rather than five.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 11, 2021 at 4:44 AM

  2. This is a rare find, Steve. No wonder you were excited about it! Finding a pyramidflower with four petals is like finding a clover with four petals. What a lucky moment in your life!

    Peter Klopp

    October 11, 2021 at 9:13 AM

    • What I don’t yet know is how rare a four-petal pyramidflower is. At first the fact that there were only four petals had me wondering if I’d identified the species correctly.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 11, 2021 at 4:19 PM

  3. It’s a lovely little flower, but the seed pods are even cooler. So Sterculiaceae has been tossed onto the ash heap, sorry, I meant, dung heap of history? What a durn shame!

    Robert Parker

    October 11, 2021 at 9:14 AM

    • Well said. It’s no longer true that the botanical family that manures together endures together.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 11, 2021 at 6:20 PM

  4. It is a beautiful flower, and I love that cobalt blue background. The pyramids remind me of the Martian ray guns from The Martian Chronicles, though they were a bit longer than the seed pods here. 🙂

    Lavinia Ross

    October 11, 2021 at 11:03 AM

  5. That’s a cute little thing! Love both the flower and fruits shots.

    Tina

    October 11, 2021 at 3:00 PM

  6. Very nice find, Steve. I’m going to look for it.

    Tom Lebsack

    October 11, 2021 at 4:21 PM

    • Happy hunting. Here’s how the location was described to me:

      Just beside the sidewalk that runs along the MoPac service road, a few yards before the south end of the lake. Look for the concrete culvert that drains into the lake — it should be in the area just above that.
      • Here’s the precise lat/long:
      30.383944, -97.735225

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 11, 2021 at 6:29 PM

  7. A fine new introduction. The fruits in your last image reminded me immediately of one of my daughter Squidddy’s favorite denizens of the deep: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pI6A218YE-Q. What do you think?

    krikitarts

    October 11, 2021 at 10:30 PM

    • You’ve given me an introduction in return. I understand how you saw a resemblance between these two such different things.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 12, 2021 at 5:51 AM

  8. Very cute flower and seed pod!

    Alessandra Chaves

    October 12, 2021 at 6:57 AM

  9. The flower is pretty but the fruits are even better – what an amazing shape!

    Ann Mackay

    October 13, 2021 at 6:20 PM

    • In my (admittedly limited) experience, the fruits have a unique shape. Geometers wouldn’t exactly call it pyramidal, but that seems to have been a good enough approximation for the public and for botanists.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 13, 2021 at 6:30 PM

  10. The shape of the fruits led me to think of the square bud primrose, and when I did a quick image search, what should I find but your primrose photos from last year , which also happened to show a curl very much like the sotol curves in today’s post.

    I think it was my one of my readers from Montgomery County who mentioned finding pyramid flower north of Houston. I see it’s listed for Chambers County (the Anahuac refuge), Brazoria, and Colorado counties (Attwater). When I looked at the iNaturalist map, I found a sighting listed for the exact spot where I found the Canna glauca at San Bernard. I’m going to have to have another look before the plant’s season is over.

    shoreacres

    October 15, 2021 at 10:18 PM

    • It’s happened to me a bunch of times now that that when I’ve searched for information about some native species, one of my own posts is among the first hits.

      I hope you manage to find some pyramidflowers. The species is rather rare in Austin but I gather it’s relatively common over by you.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 16, 2021 at 5:21 AM


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