Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Cattails releasing seeds

with 18 comments

When I spent time at Round Rock’s Meadow Lake Park on August 24th I was happy to find that some of the cattails (Typha sp.) were shedding their numerous seeds. In the view above, the arcs of drying cattail leaves made the scene even more attractive to me. The slender green plants mixed in among the cattails are Symphyotrichum subulatum, known as baby’s breath aster, annual aster, eastern annual saltmarsh aster, Blackland aster, wireweed and hierba del marrano (which we might translate as pigweed).

The second picture shows something I don’t recall ever seeing before. My first thought was that this cattail stalk had split in an early stage of development and each piece went on to produce seeds. Now I’m wondering if the hanging piece might have broken off from the far side of the main seed head, though I think I looked at this from different positions and would have noticed such an obviously missing chunk. Mysteries.



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On August 24th Quillette published “The Energy of Nations” by John Constable and Debora Lieberman. The first two words in the article’s subtitle, “Energy blindness is leading to policy blunder,” refer to the fact that many people don’t understand what energy is:

Indeed, we hold surprisingly few scientifically accurate cognitive intuitions to guide decisions about the character of energy and its importance. Without science, we are more or less energy blind, in the same way, perhaps, that fish are blind to the idea of waterThis is to be expected, perhaps, since the concept of energy was a recent development in science, dating only from the early to mid-19th century. And part of the problem we have in understanding this concept is that it is extremely abstract. Energy isn’t a substance like coal or oil; rather, it is an abstract property of all substances, namely the capacity to cause change in the world—to do work, a potential measured in joules.

The next paragraphs make an important point:

Joules can be realised as a property of the chemical bonds in fossil fuels, the forces holding an atom together, moving objects such as flowing wind or water, electromagnetic solar radiation, and objects acting on each other through gravity. All have the capacity to cause change, but this capacity varies in both quantity, which is intuitively obvious, and much more importantly, its quality, its ability to do work, to change the world, and here the mind is particularly weak in grasping the essentials. Yes, there is a large quantity of energy in the sunshine and in the wind blowing around the globe. But that energy is of very low quality and not available to do much useful work. There is also a great deal of energy in the vibrating atoms in the objects around you in the room as you read this article, or in falling raindrops—lots of energy, yet all basically useless. Wind and sunlight are only a little better. There is a reason why no creatures make a living by extracting energy from the wind—the quality level is just too low—and there is a reason that the organisms that manage to build lives from solar energy, plants, are relatively simple and, generally speaking, stationary. There is only so much you can do with a low-quality form of energy like solar radiation at the surface of the Earth. Creatures that eat plants can be more complex; creatures that eat herbivores can be more complex still. 

The science of thermodynamics tells us that for a fuel to have high value to us, what matters is the quality, and that the fuel must have a very low degree of disorder (low entropy) if it is to support a complex society such as our own. But we have few intuitions of this, and our energy blindness requires us to rely on evidence and reason to tell us that fossil fuels are of high thermodynamic quality, as is fissile uranium. By comparison, the plentiful energy of renewables such as wind and solar is of low quality. In fact, both wind and solar radiation are so disordered that their entropy is close to that of low-temperature random heat, that is, the random movement of atoms and molecules. Their potential to do work—to cause change—is very limited.

Moreover, transforming sunlight and wind into grid electricity requires turbines and photovoltaic panels, themselves complex and expensive states of matter, as well as any number of ingenious and expensive grid kludges such as batteries to render it useable. That makes renewable energy intrinsically expensive. The sunshine and wind might be free, but not the extraction, conversion, and stable delivery to market.

You’re welcome to read the full article for more details. And you can find out a whole lot more in Alex Epstein’s book Fossil Future, which I finished reading a couple of weeks ago.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman





Written by Steve Schwartzman

September 2, 2022 at 4:27 AM

18 Responses

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  1. I love photographing cattails. Interesting mystery you have there…

    Alessandra Chaves

    September 2, 2022 at 7:02 AM

  2. The turbine fields here in ca are scary. I drove by one the other day and started feeling dizzy.

    Alessandra Chaves

    September 2, 2022 at 7:04 AM

    • Do you know what feature of the turbine fields made you feel dizzy?

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 2, 2022 at 7:21 AM

      • I think the rotating turbines…they look like blades ready to chop you in pieces.

        Alessandra Chaves

        September 2, 2022 at 7:23 AM

        • So I guess it was a visual rather than a magnetic thing.

          Steve Schwartzman

          September 2, 2022 at 7:31 AM

          • I don’t know if a magnetic field played into it. These clean energies are not without ecological impacts. I’m not pro or against them necessarily but using them does not make one morally superior.

            Alessandra Chaves

            September 2, 2022 at 7:33 AM

  3. The sheer quantity of seeds from a single cattail seed head is astounding. I can tell that you are equally fascinated by the beauty of plants at the end of their life cycle, Steve.

    Peter Klopp

    September 2, 2022 at 8:05 AM

  4. Your mysterious cattail reminded me of my own cattail mystery from 2019. I never did find an explanation for that phenomenon. Looking at your photo, it seems as though there’s a slight furrow along the upper half of the intact cattail. Perhaps, just as flowers sometimes will double, this cattail did the same, until its weight tore part of it loose and set it to dangling. It seems clear that it’s not from the other side of the cattail.


    September 2, 2022 at 7:54 PM

    • A podcast I listen to recently mentioned the issues with PG&E’s Biglow Canyon installation in Oregon. This is quite an interesting read.


      September 2, 2022 at 7:58 PM

      • Imagine that: “PGE has failed to report public safety incidents at Biglow Canyon….” Who’d ever believe such a lack of transparency? We’ve heard plenty about spills from oil tankers and leaks from oil pipelines, but it’s naive to think there wouldn’t be mishaps from other large-scale industrial systems like wind farms. Utopian advocates of “green” energy play up all the positives but are conveniently silent about the downsides.

        Steve Schwartzman

        September 2, 2022 at 9:05 PM

    • Now that you drawn attention to the line down the main cattail, I’ve noticed that the part to the left of it is slightly lower than the rest of the surface. It seems to me now that the dangling piece may originally have cloaked that lower part, both of which are about equally long. I’m glad you focused on that line.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 2, 2022 at 8:54 PM

  5. Fortunately, not all the seeds released by cattails, or the similarly wind distributed milkweeds, all germinate. What a jungle we would live in…which actually sounds better than the concrete one that is taking over our world. It certainly is a great way for the plants to be fruitful and multiply.

    Steve Gingold

    September 3, 2022 at 2:36 AM

    • Yes, nature sure is profligate with seeds, only a small portion of which germinate, and an even smaller portion of which ever grow into mature plants.

      As for concrete taking over, yesterday as we were driving along a road on the Blackland Prairie in northeast Austin I was sorry to see that the property where I first photographed a colony of backlit Liatris seed heads 20 years ago now has a building under construction it. I took my photographs back then on an early low-resolution digital camera, and I don’t think I ever posted any of those images from that day here. The colony was even denser than the one I showed a picture of in a similar state 13 years later:

      Remains of a Liatris colony

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 3, 2022 at 7:26 AM

  6. Our cattails are looking very healthy this year after all the rain. Every time I pass some I think about photographing them at a later date. I am always on a mission. They do make a nice photo subject as you show here.


    September 4, 2022 at 9:28 AM

    • You’ll have to “stop and smell the roses,” which in your case means stop and photograph the cattails.

      Steve Schwartzman

      September 4, 2022 at 9:39 AM

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